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The Great Cake Debate

Martha Washington and the Great Cake

Katharine Pittman (Martha Washington):

While portraying Martha Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation there have been several constants. One is that inevitably guests all come with a base knowledge of who the Washingtons are (wooden teeth included) and another is that Christmas is always our busiest season of the year. Christmas, however,has sometimes proven to be problematic for the Washingtons. The Washingtons didn’t celebrate Christmas in any particular bombastic way. In looking through Washington’s diaries kept during his life, most Christmas Days were spent “at home all day” or crossing frozen rivers. Other than celebrating their wedding anniversary on Twelfth Night, January 6th, there isn’t a ton of Christmas-y things to talk about. However, Martha had a secret weapon that I have been able to call upon every Christmas season…. her famous Great Cake.

I had heard quite a lot about Martha Washington’s Great Cake from almost the moment I began portraying her. Family history tells us that Mrs. Washington would make this cake every Twelfth Night to not only celebrate the 12th day of Christmas but also her wedding anniversary with General Washington on January 6th, 1759. The earliest version of a Great Cake recipe that we know Mrs. Washington owned came from a book of recipes passed down to her from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis’, family. The book has gone on to be published as Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery however its origins are in the Parke and Custis families with some recipes dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the small book of recipes, there are four different versions of a Great Cake. In comparing these recipes to other cookbooks and versions of Mrs. Washington’s Great Cakes that would come later, it seems that this book was most likely a family heirloom by the time Mrs. Washington inherited it and most of the recipes would have been out of date and obsolete by the time she got it in around 1749. The other recipe that we know of for Martha Washington’s Great Cake was written down by her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis, at her grandmother’s request much later in her life. This recipe called for 40 eggs, 4 pounds of sugar, 4 pounds of butter, 5.5 pounds of flour, 5.5 pounds of currants, nutmeg and mace. I had to try one of these out…

Instead of trying to make this gigantic cake in my own kitchen at home, I wanted to make it the way Mrs. Washington would have, so I reached out to my colleagues in Historic Foodways here at Colonial Williamsburg to see if they had any interest. Thankfully, they said yes! I’ll let Tiffany Fisk of Historic Foodways take over from here….

Tiffany Fisk (Historic Foodways):

When Katharine contacted Historic Foodways about recreating a Great Cake for the 260th Wedding Anniversary of George and Martha Washington, we jumped at the chance.

Twelfth Night cakes are, essentially, Great Cakes, or Rich Cakes that are made a few months in advance, doused with Brandy, and elaborately decorated with marzipan and royal icing. After studying the recipes in Martha’s family cookbook and looking at the recipe her granddaughter transcribed for her, we chose the popular “40 egg” recipe for two reasons:

  1. Other versions call for barm, or ale yeast, which can be unpredictable. The use of barm is one of two ways commonly used to give a cake “lift” in the period. The other is to use eggs that have been separated; the yolks are beaten until pale and creamy in texture, and the whites beaten into a meringue. The later version using eggs to provide lift gave us the better chance for perfection.
  2. This version was easier to cut in half and required less baking time. Cakes this size can take up to 5 hours to bake and since we were going to make this during a work day, we needed something that start to finish would take roughly eight hours.

Our only issue in prepping the cake was that we don’t know if or how the Washingtons preferred to have their cake decorated. As we needed to bake the cake in a large copper Turk’s Cap mold, rather than a large hoop, and we know that Martha wasn’t a big fan of sweets, we opted for a simple meringue icing, per a recipe in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which is listed following a recipe for a Rich Cake.

The day we baked the cake we lit the oven promptly at 8:30 a.m. and pre-heated for about three hours. When the fire burned down, we raked out the coals and let the oven come down to cake heat. We gauge that by putting our hand in the oven to feel the temperature of the air. Cooks in this time period are not using thermometers, so we have to do everything by feel and experience.

While the oven was heating, we got the cake started. As noted, we had to cut the recipe in half for logistical reasons. By hand, we creamed 2 lbs. of butter and 2 lbs. of sugar. Thankfully, the weather was mild that day, so this process only took about an hour. Then we separated 20 eggs and separately whisked the yolks and the whites, each taking about 30 minutes of hand whisking (no electric mixers!). We then folded the meringue into the flour and then the yolks into the sugar and butter and then combined the two separate mixtures into one large bowl. To the large mixture, we added 2.5 whole nutmegs grated and about 1.5 tablespoons of ground mace.

Finally, we tossed the brandy-soaked currants in a bit of flour to ensure they wouldn’t sink and then folded them into the mixture by hand. After thoroughly buttering and flouring the mold we poured the mixture in, covered the mold with parchment and put it in the oven. Half the recipe filled one large cake mold and a standard size mold we regularly use in the kitchen, so we had a baby bonus cake at the end of the day! Baking time was about three hours in total. When the knife came out clean, we took it out of the oven. Since that day, we have been dousing it in brandy every three to five days to keep it moist until the big day. The day before we were set to eat it, we iced the cake.

Below is a transcript of the original recipe and a modern adaptation for bakers who would like to try it at home. Upon cutting it down again, I realized that the base is essentially a pound cake with brandy-soaked currants and spices; pretty straightforward. Enjoy

Instructions for baking a Great Cake