Monday, November 29, 2010

Martha Washington's Great Cake

Hello, there!  I'm Amanda, Erin's old ADX roomie.  I would like to share with you a lovely recipe for Martha Washington's Great Cake.

I currently live in Arlington, Virginia, which is only 10 miles away from Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.  I recently went on a candlelit tour of Mount Vernon, and received a copy of Martha Washington's recipe for her Great Cake, which she traditionally served on Twelfth Night (January 6th, the last day of Christmas, or Epiphany).  Twelfth Night was also the Washingtons' wedding anniversary; they were married on January 6, 1759.  I was excited to try out an authentic 18th-century recipe, and I hope you will, too!

Martha's original recipe is a bit daunting, as copied down by Martha Parke Custis, the second of Mrs. Washington's four grandchildren:
Take 40 eggs divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work'd then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Youlks [sic] of eggs & 5 pounds of flower [sic] and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some frensh [sic] brandy.
Needless to say, I possess neither pan nor oven (nor social callers) sufficient to bake a cake that calls for 40 eggs.  Thankfully, Mount Vernon provided a recipe adapted for the 21st century.

Martha Washington's Great Cake
adapted from Mount Vernon


  • 10 eggs
  • 1 lb butter
  • 1 lb sugar
  • 1 1/4 lbs flour (20 ounces)
  • 1 1/4 lbs assorted fruit & nuts
  • 2 1/2 tsp ground mace
  • 2 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 2 oz wine (I used cooking sherry)
  • 2 oz French brandy (I used E&J VSOP)

The recipe recommends certain fruits and nuts based on what would have been available to Mrs. Washington.  I largely followed the recommendations, with the exception that I substituted dried cranberries for the suggested raisins, because I loathe raisins.

Fruit and nuts:

  • 5 oz of pear (peeled, cored, and diced) (I used two Cortland apples)
  • 9 1/2 oz of apple (peeled, cored, and diced) (I used one Bosc pear)
  • 3 1/2 oz of dried cranberries
  • 2 oz of sliced almonds


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Separate egg whites from yolks and set yolks aside.

2. Beat the egg whites to a "soft peak."

3. Cream the butter.

4. Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the butter.  (Note: Pretty much every step of this recipe should be done "slowly," as suggested.  I disobeyed the "spoonful at a time" instruction, and it was very difficult to coax the egg whites and the butter to interact.)

5. Slowly add the sugar, one spoonful at a time, to the egg whites and butter.

6. Add egg yolks.

7. Add flour, slowly.  (Note: I added a 1/4 cup at a time.)

8. Add fruit.

9. Add ground mace and nutmeg, wine, and brandy.

10. Lightly grease and flour a 10-inch spring-form cake pan.  (Note: I only had a 9-inch spring-form cake pan, so I set aside enough batter for six cupcakes, which worked out nicely.)

11. Pour batter into pan and bake about 75 minutes.

I had a bit of a complication at this point: my new spring-form pan leaked!  Imagine my dismay when I smelled burning, only three minutes into baking.  To remedy the leak, I wrapped the bottom of the pan in tin foil, and placed it on a baking sheet, which solved the problem.

12. Allow cake to cool after baking.  (Note: the cake was golden brown after 75 minutes, but seemed rather moist.  Don't worry--it will solidify as it cools.)

I baked the "Great Cupcakes" for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.  To get them out of the pan, I ran a sharp knife around the edge, and then used a fork to pry them out.  Don't forget to grease and flour this pan, too!

18th-Century Icing
adapted from Mount Vernon


  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon peel, grated
  • 2 tbsp orange-flower water (I used 1 tbsp orange extract)

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees.  Beat three egg whites and 2 tbsp powdered sugar.  Repeat additions of sugar until you have used 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar.

2. Add 1 tsp grated lemon peel and 1 tbsp orange extract.

3. Beat until the icing is stiff enough to stay parted when a knife cuts through it.  (Note: I don't think I ever reached this point, even after switching to the electric hand mixer.  Don't despair--it'll still work out if it's a bit soupy!)

4. Smooth it onto the cake.  (Note: my method for icing the side of the cake was to put a dollop of icing on the top edge, and then allow gravity to help me along as it slid down the side.)

5. Let it dry and harden in 200-degree oven for one hour.  (Note: icing will be brittle when cut with a knife.)

All told, this cake required a very lengthy process.  It is a good recipe for a Saturday afternoon at home.  I was intrigued by how the cake came out; my taste testers and I agreed that it was more like a delicious fruit cake than anything else.

My favorite part of this recipe was the frosting, which functions much like a meringue.  I want to try it on other baked goods!


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