Martha Washington made a “great cake” for every Twelfth Night (celebrated on the last of the 12 days of Christmas) which was also her wedding anniversary date (Jan. 6, 1759). When George Washington returned home to Mt. Vernon in 1797 after refusing to serve a 3rd term as president, he was just in time for Christmas. Martha arranged to have a “great cake” baked as dessert in his honor and to celebrate the Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was common for wealthy colonists to bake “great cakes” in the Colonial Era.
A “great cake” is a large, rich, dense fruitcake that held a large quantity of dried fruits & spices and would have been baked in a round mold. Many great cakes of the period included yeast from barm – the foam that rises to the top of fermented liquor – as an ingredient. This cake needs no yeast. A “great cake” was usually made a few weeks in advance and periodically doused with brandy.
Originally, the “great cake” was commonly served at weddings, according to British traditions, and became known as “bride cake”. English cookery books in the colonial era often had “bride cake” recipes. Rich layered wedding cakes, as we know them today, did not exist in the 18th century. This delicious, rich, dense, colonial wedding fruitcake made further frequent appearances on holiday tables in Colonial America along with other rich desserts as they had for centuries in Europe.
The earliest version of a “great cake” recipe was handwritten in a family manuscript passed down for generations, and finally to Martha from her first husband’s family at the time of her marriage to Daniel Custis. It was in her keeping from 1749-1799. She later gave it to her granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis upon her marriage to Lawrence Lewis. This manuscript was later published as Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and a Booke of Sweetmeats. Its handwritten receipts (or recipes) are from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Martha requested her granddaughter to write down this “great cake” recipe. The original receipt called for 40 eggs, 4 lbs. sugar, 4 lbs. of butter, 5.5 lbs. flour, 5.5 lbs. currants, nutmeg, mace, brandy and wine. In colonial times eggs were much smaller. The cake was baked for 5 ½ hours. However, this recipe was for 40 people accommodating the many visitors that the Washington’s entertained.
In this family manuscript, Martha Washington had several recipe versions of the “great cake”. Her “great cake” recipes, like many others of the time, are vague to us today, regarding certain ingredients & methods of preparation. The following 2 recipes are modern adaptations of the 18th century originals – one with a variety of dried fruit and the other just with currants. Try them if you like!
- Martha Washington’s Great Cake
1½ C. currants
⅓ C. chopped candied orange peel
⅓ C. chopped candied lemon peel
⅓ C. chopped candied citron
¾ C. Madeira, divided
¼ C. French brandy
3 C. all-purpose flour, sifted
½ C. slivered almonds
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
½ tsp. ground mace
¾ C. unsalted butter, softened
1½ C. sugar
3 large eggs, separated
3 large egg whites at room temperature
- Combine currants, orange peel, lemon peel and citron in a large bowl. Add ½ C. of Madeira, stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for at least 3 hours, or as long as overnight.
- Stir the remainder of the Madeira together with the brandy, cover and set aside.
- Preheat oven – 325° F. Grease and flour a 10 inch tube pan.
- Drain fruits in a large strainer set over a bowl, stirring occasionally to extract as much Madeira as possible. Add the strained Madeira to the set-aside Madeira and brandy.
- Combine ¼ C. of flour with fruit, mix well. Add almonds, set aside. Sift remaining flour with the nutmeg and mace.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter until light. Add sugar, ¼ C. at a time, beating for several minutes after adding each ingredient. Wisk the egg yolks until light and smooth and add them to the butter and sugar. Continue to beat for several minutes until light & fluffy.
- Alternately add the spiced flour, ½ C. at a time, and the Madeira and brandy, beating until smooth.
- In a separate bowl beat the egg whites to form stiff peaks. By hand, gently fold them into the batter, combining lightly until well blended. By hand, fold in the fruits in thirds, mixing until well combined.
- Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula or back of a spoon.
- Bake for about 1 ½ hours, or until a wooden skewer inserted in center, comes out clean.
- Set the cake on a wire rack to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Then turn cake out to cool completely.
Ref. Mt. Vernon recipe adaptation created by Nancy Carter Crump, Dining with the Washingtons, edited
by Stephen A. McLeod, 2011
- Martha Washington’s Holiday Fruitcake
1 lb. butter
2 ½ C. sugar
2 eggs – beaten
4 C. flour
3 lbs. currants
2 lbs. raisins
1 ¼ lb. citron
1 lb. hickory nuts
1 C. water and
½ C. brandy
1 Tbs. cloves
2 Tbs. ground cinnamon
3 tsp. ground mace
3 tsp. ground nutmeg
- Blend butter and sugar. Add beaten eggs and flour. Set Aside.
- Make another mixture of fruits and nuts. Add water mixed with brandy. Sprinkle spices over the mixture, then combine thoroughly with the first mixture.
- Bake in well-greased loaf pan (or tube pan) in a slow 325° F. oven for 2 hours.
Ref. The Old Farmer’s Almanac Colonial Cookbook. Clarissa M. Silitch, Editor, 1st edition, 1976. (Contains adapted recipes for the modern kitchen from authentic colonial recipes from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792.)
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