Weary Willie cake is named after a type of hobo who used to wander the American countryside. Weary Willies would more accurately be called tramps, because unlike hoboes, who prided themselves on their work ethic, the Willies were known for slacking off and looking for handouts.
The term was originally used for worn-out Civil War veterans, some of them deserters, who became drifters. (I learned this from a 1970 episode of “Bonanza,” of all things, starring Richard Thomas as one of a group of Willies who turn up at the Ponderosa Ranch!) The name Weary Willie was later used for a comic-strip tramp in the early 1900s, and decades after that by circus performer Emmett Kelly for his sad-clown character.
Weary Willie cake may have that name because it was served to hoboes or tramps in exchange for work or out of charity, but I couldn’t find any proof of this. It was a very simple creation made with eggs, butter, and milk combined in a cup and then added to a mixture of flour, sugar, and baking powder. Some recipes also call for chocolate in the batter, but it’s unclear whether the original cake was yellow or chocolate. The earliest recipe I found, dated 1890, contains chocolate, but three other old recipes, published from 1908 to 1919, do not.
Some have wondered if this cake was originally a hobo’s recipe, but that seems unlikely to me. Hoboes most often cooked dishes like stew over a fire, although they did make bread in tin cans. (For more about the hobo life, I recommend Lisa Hix’s “Don’t Call Them Bums: The Unsung History of America’s Hard-Working Hoboes,” published in Collector’s Weekly.)
I decided to try several Weary Willie recipes, starting with a yellow cake from the Stevenson Memorial Cookbook, a community cookbook published in Chicago in 1919:
Whites of two eggs broken in a cup; enough soft butter to make the cup half full; fill the cup with milk. Sift one and one-half cups pastry flour; one cup sugar; two teaspoonfuls baking powder and pinch of salt. Turn the cup of liquid into the dry ingredients, flavor and beat ten minutes. Bake in rather slow oven in layers or loaf. If well beaten this is a delicious, fine grained cake. —Mrs. C. A. Carscadin.
Since no frosting was specified, I used a chocolate frosting from another Weary Willie recipe. My family was a bit divided about this cake, with reviews ranging from “pretty good” (my husband) to “good!” (my daughter). I agree with my daughter — this cake is tasty and extremely easy.
I also made a chocolate Weary Willie cake from Eleanor Early’s New England Cookbook (1954). This recipe is from a now vanished Vermont inn (or possibly tea room) called the Weathervane. According to Early, the recipe was still made in the ’50s by old ladies who had eaten the cake when they were little girls. It had a white frosting, but Early did not give the recipe for that. This cake turned out okay but a little dry, as did the 1890 recipe mentioned earlier, which I found in Walnut Pickles and Watermelon Cake: A Century of Michigan Cooking (1990).
I liked Mrs. Carscadin’s recipe the most, so here it is with updated instructions and the frosting instructions from the 1890 recipe. You may want to double the frosting recipe if you make a two-layered cake.
Weary Willie Cake
Adapted from recipe in Stevenson Memorial Cookbook (1919)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft, plus extra for greasing pan(s)
2 egg whites, from large eggs
½ cup whole milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups white pastry flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and sides of an eight-inch 8″ X 8″ square pan and line the bottom with parchment paper, then butter the parchment. (Alternatively, butter and line two 8″ round cake pans.)
2. Break egg whites into a small measuring cup. Add the butter to the cup. (The mixture should reach the 1/2 cup mark — if not, add more butter.) Then add the milk and vanilla.
3. Sift the pastry flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl, and whisk well to combine.
4. Add the liquid ingredients to the flour-sugar mixture all at once. Beat well with an electric mixer for five minutes (or by hand for ten minutes). Pour batter into prepared pan(s).
5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. (If you use two pans, 25 minutes should be long enough.) Let sit in pan(s) for ten minutes, then turn onto racks, remove parchment, and cool completely before icing.
Adapted from 1890 recipe in Walnut Pickles and Watermelon Cake: A Century of Michigan Cooking
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon whole milk
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa
1-2 tablespoons boiling water or coffee
Beat together the sugar, butter, milk, and cocoa until well blended. Add one tablespoon water or coffee and beat well. Add remaining liquid if necessary to reach desired consistency.