Happy July 4th with Martha Washington’s Great Cake

Originally Posted on July 4, 2011 by Lis’Anne Harris on Chicklets in the Kitchen

Happy 4th of July! This is the perfect day to celebrate the woman behind the man who served as our very first president. Martha Washington’s kitchen was a beehive of activity day and night due to the first couple’s love for hosting large dinner parties. Preparing the culinary delights of the times was a laborious undertaking, but by all accounts the food was always divine. Here’s a bit of history and Martha Washington’s Great Cake Recipe!

Cake image credit to Carol on Allrecipes

“A glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of them are always welcome.” ~ George Washington in a letter to a friend.

The Mount Vernon cooking chamber produced at least three bountiful meals every day. At promptly 7:00 a.m., breakfast was served in the dining room; dinner at 3:00 pm; and an early evening tea at 6:00 pm. Occasionally, at 9:00 p.m., a light supper was served. Thankfully, Martha had Nathan and Lucy to do the cooking, along with assistants or scullions, who washed cooking utensils and dishes, helped with food preparation, and hauled water and wood. Small piles of hot coals on the hearth and hooks suspended over open flames in the fireplace accommodated many pots and pans for stewing, frying, roasting, broiling, and baking in the colonial kitchen.

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Martha’s Kitchen at Mount Vernon

Martha Washington’s Great Cake

Served during the holidays and other great celebrations was Martha’s special dessert, The Great Cake. Over five hundred of her Elizabethan and Jacobean era recipes are gathered in her family cookbook. The manuscript had been handed down for generations until it was finally annotated by Karen Hess, a renowned culinary historian and cook. You can buy Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats on Amazon. Here’s the original and modern versions of Martha Washington’s Great Cake:

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Martha’s orginal Great Cake Recipe image credit: Mount Vernon

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.

Modern Adaptation of the Great Cake Recipe

In making Martha Washington’s famed cake, Mount Vernon’s curatorial staff followed Mrs. Washington’s recipe almost exactly. Two pounds of raisins, 1 pound of currants, and 2 pounds of apples were used where the recipe called for 5 pounds of fruit without specifying which ones. The wine used was cream sherry.

Culinary historican, Nancy Carter Crump, further updated the recipe below.

Great Cake by Martha Washington

This cake was made by our very first, First Lady, Martha Washington. This recipe is a modern adaptation of the 18th-century original. It was created by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump for the book Dining with the Washingtons. I've added some directions gleaned from Carol from Allrecipes. https://www.mountvernon.org/inn/recipes/article/great-cake/

  • 1 1/2 cups currants
  • 1/3 cup dried candied orange peel
  • 1/3 cup dried candied lemon peel
  • 1/3 cup dried candied citron
  • 3/4 cup Madeira, divided
  • 1/4 cup French brandy
  • 3 cups sifted unbleached flour
  • 1/2 slivered almonds
  • 1/2 tsp ground mace
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 cups unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  1. Chop orange, lemon, and citron.

  2. Combine the currants, orange and lemon peels, and citron in a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup of the Madeira, and 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.

  3. When ready to bake the cake, preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

  4. Drain the fruits in a large strainer set over a bowl, stirring occasionally to extract as much of the Madeira as possible. Add the strained Madeira to the set-aside Madeira and brandy.

  5. Combine 1/4 cup of the flour with the fruit, and mix well. Add the almonds, and set aside.

  6. Sift the remaining flour with the nutmeg and mace.

  7. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until it is light. Add the sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, beating for several minutes after adding each ingredient. Whisk the egg yolks until they are light and smooth, and add them to the butter and sugar. Continue to beat for several minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy.

  8. Alternately add the spiced flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the Madeira and brandy, beating until smooth.

  9. In another bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. By hand, gently fold them into the batter, combining lightly until well blended.

  10. By hand, fold in the fruit in thirds, mixing until well combined.

  11. Pour batter into a well greased and floured 10 inch mold or tube pan. This cake can also be made in 2 large loaf pans.

  12. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

  13. If serving the cake plain, turn it out of the pan to cool completely. Wrap cake(s) in cheesecloth soaked in Madeira, and store in airtight container for a month or more. If the cheesecloth dries out in the mellowing period, soak it again with the same spirits, and re-wrap the cake.

  14. If finishing it with icing, turn the warm cake out of the pan onto a baking sheet, and proceed with the icing.

  15. To ice the cake, spread Sugar Icing generously onto the surface, piling it high and swirling it around the top and sides. Set in the turned-off warm oven and let sit for at least 3 hours, or until the cake is cool and the icing has hardened. The icing will crumble when the cake is sliced.

Sugar Icing

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, start beating the egg whites on low speed, gradually adding 2 tablespoons of the sugar. After about 3 minutes, or when they just begin to form soft peaks, increase the speed to high and continue adding the sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until all the sugar is incorporated and the egg whites form soft peaks.
  2. Add the rose water, and continue beating to form stiff peaks. Use immediately to ice the cake.

Makes one 10-inch tube cake

Furthermore, The Shiksa in the Kitchen has another great recipe from the very first First Lady for her Preserved Cherries.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

While doing a bit of research for this post I came across a couple of recipes I think I’d like to try. The Apple Tansy and Hasty Pudding recipes sound easy enough. Wouldn’t they be yummy served warm topped with a big dollop of vanilla ice cream? Mmmm…😋

To make an Apple Tansey

Recipe from: Two Fat Ladies Obsessions
Cookbook Heaven  at  Recipelink.com

Take three pippins, slice them round in thin slices, and fry them with butter; then beat four eggs, with six spoonfuls of cream, a little rosewater, nutmeg, and sugar; stir them together, and pour it over the apples; let it fry a little, and turn it with a pye-plate. Garnish with lemon and sugar strew’d over it. ( I believe I’ll make mine on my good old electric stove!)

Indian Pudding Picture: www.roadfood.com

Hasty Pudding was an English tradition for centuries. Printed references to hasty pudding in England date to 1599, while Indian pudding recipes start appearing in American cookbooks in 1796.
The love of pudding came with the first colonists in Virginia and was a favorite of the New England settlers. In the colonies, this dish was also known as Indian Pudding, Indian Mush, and Indian Meal. During the colonial days, Indian pudding was a simple cornmeal mush sweetened with molasses. In later years, it was dressed up with everything from sugar and eggs to raisins and spices.

Hasty aka Indian Pudding

See the source image
Image credit: Nutfield Genealogy

Original recipe: Put two quarts of water into a clean dinner pot or saucepan, cover it and let it become boiling hot over the fire; then add a tablespoonful of salt, take off the light scum from the top, have secured to use some sweet fresh yellow or white corn meal.

Take a handful of the meal with the left hand, and a pudding stick in the right, then with the stick stir the water around and by degrees let fall the meal; when one handful is exhausted, refill it; continue to stir and add meal until it is as thick as you can stir easily, or until the stick: will stand in it; stir it awhile longer; let the fire be gentle; when it is sufficiently cooked, which will be in half on hour, it will bubble or puff. up; turn it into a deep basin.

This is good eaten cold or hot, with milk or with butter and syrup or sugar, or with meat and gravy, the same as potatoes or rice. Hasty Pudding was often served for Sunday night suppers with stripped salt codfish on the side.

In addition, Fried Hasty Pudding is made the same way and then chilled in bread tins until of slicing consistency, dipped by slice in flour and fried in lard or butter until well browned on both sides. Serve hot, topped with butter and syrup, honey, or fresh fruit jam.

Modern Version of Indian Pudding:

Sure sounds like what I call grits.

  • 1 cup yellow corn meal + 1 cup of water
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Butter
  • Maple syrup, brown sugar, molasses, or light cream

In a bowl combine corn meal and 1 cup cold water. In heavy saucepan bring 3 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to boiling. Carefully stir in the corn meal mixture making sure it does not lump. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve pudding with pat of butter and maple syrup, brown sugar, molasses or light cream. Makes 6 or 7 servings.

Or just buy a can of Bar Harbor Indian Pudding by clicking on the picture. 😁

We hope you all have a wonderfully blessed holiday full of family, fun, fireworks and great food! Be safe and enjoy your freedom. Although it’s too late today to buy all the ingredients to get started on Martha Washington’s Great Cake, I hope you’ll give it a try for your next big celebration. Let us know how it turns out for you!

Love, Lis

About Melissa

Melissa is a wife, mother, family cook, and romance novelist. The very first thing she learned in the kitchen was how to scramble eggs in an old cast iron skillet at the age of five. Her great-grandmother put her on a step-stool at the stove and thus began her passion for whipping up great tasting foods.

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