When I read about Martha Washington’s Great Cake, I wondered whether it was called that because it was really good or really large. I think the name was meant to describe its size — to give you an idea of just how big it was, here is Martha’s recipe:
Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and 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 Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour 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 fresh brandy.
This cake was prepared at Mount Vernon, the Washingtons’ Virginia home, during the Christmas season and for other special occasions. I’ve seen references to Martha baking it herself, but according to the book Dining with the Washingtons, cooking was ordinarily done by servants. Martha did supervise meal planning and the kitchen closely, however, and Washington family lore had it that she made some dishes herself. I like to think she baked George a cake once in a while.
Much as I would like to try a cake with 40 eggs, I don’t think my GE oven is quite up to the task (and what on earth would I bake it in?). So I followed a smaller, quarter-size version with 10 eggs, which I found thanks to Melissa Gray, NPR’s “Cake Lady,” who got it from docents at Mount Vernon.
The modernized Mount Vernon recipe, which contains 20 ounces of fruits and nuts, suggests the following, based on what would have been available to Mrs. Washington, either fresh or dried: 5 ounces of pear (peeled, cored, and diced), 3 1/2 ounces of raisins, 9 1/2 ounces of apples (peeled, cored and diced), and 2 ounces of sliced almonds. But you can easily alter these amounts or make replacements — I used dried cherries in place of the raisins.
It’s not known whether Martha Washington’s Great Cake was iced, but cakes like this were sometimes glazed with egg white, sugar, and rose water. Besides adding some extra sweetness, glazing helped keep the cake fresh — so if you want to justify why you just have to have icing, say it’s for freshness.
Martha Washington’s Great Cake
Slightly adapted from a Mount Vernon recipe
10 eggs, separated
1 pound butter
1 pound sugar
20 ounces all-purpose flour
20 ounces assorted fruits and nuts (see above)
1 tablespoon ground mace
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
2 ounces wine (cream or regular sherry works well)
2 ounces brandy, preferably French
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour a 10-inch springform pan.
2. Beat the egg whites to a soft peak. Cream the butter, then slowly mix in the beaten egg whites, one large spoonful at a time. Gradually add the sugar, one spoonful at a time, to the batter. Add the egg yolks and blend, then gradually add the flour and blend well. Add the fruits and nuts, mace, nutmeg, wine, and brandy. (My mother-in-law, a superb chef, will not like this picture since it shows that I am not chopping my fruit up uniformly. Guilty as charged.)
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 75-85 minutes. Using a toothpick, check carefully for doneness in the center of the pan — this is a big cake and the center won’t cook as fast as the rest. After baking, allow cake to cool on a rack. If you plan to ice the cake, wait until it’s almost cooled.
3 egg whites
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon orange-flower water or rose water
1. Preheat oven to 200°F.
2. Using a mixer, beat egg whites to a froth, then add 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and continue mixing. Gradually add the remaining sugar, about 2 tablespoons at a time.
3. Add grated lemon peel and orange-flower or rose water. Beat for several minutes, until the icing is very stiff. Smooth onto entire cake or, if you’re feeling less ambitious, just the top. (But the cake will stay fresh longer if completely iced.) Let it dry and harden in the oven for 1 hour.