09 November 2011

A Great Cake

A few weeks ago I attended the Hive's Preserving the Harvest event and I contributed a "great cake" to the groaning board. I'm a mega novice when it comes to foodways but wanted to share my experience.

The "receipt" was one that I obtained when visiting Mount Vernon several years ago. This Martha Washington recipe is supposedly the kind of cake that was traditionally served for Twelfth Night.

Being a bit overly ambitious I had thought I would work from the original and avoid the modern adaptation, but when I look at the receipt more closely I realized that wasn't going to happen...

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 the eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work'd then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered [sic] to it in the same manners then put it in the Youlks [sic] of eggs & 5 pounds of flower [sic] & 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace & nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh [sic] brandy.

I don't have a bowl large enough for that kind of quantity. Nor do I have the baking experience to pull it off. So I opted for the modern adaptation (which is in italics):

Some of the ingredients.
10 eggs
1lb sugar
1.25 pounds (20 ounces) assorted fruit & nuts
2.5 tsp. ground nutmeg
2oz. French brandy
1 lb. butter
1.25 pounds (20 ounces) flour
2.5 tsp. ground mace
2 oz. wine

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

Yolks separated from the egg whites. I learned that the Williams-Sonoma egg separator is not as effective as the Gordon Ramsey method (which is probably the same as the 18th century method) of using your hands. 
Beat egg whites to a "soft peak." Cream the butter. Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the butter. 

Mixing the batter. I don't think my poor little mixer has ever worked so hard.
Slowly add the sugar, one spoonful at a time, to the egg whites and butter. Add egg yolks. Add flour, slowly. 

Add fruit (suggested items based on what would have been available, either fresh or dried, nuts would have been considered fruit)...
The batter mixed with the assorted fruit.
I couldn't find almonds at the store, so I substituted
with a little extra apple and pear.

5 ounces of pear (peeled, cored and diced)
3.5 ounces of raisins
9.5 ounces of apple (peeled, cored and diced)
2 ounces of sliced almonds

Add ground mace and nutmeg, wine...

A little Alsatian wine.

...and brandy. 
A little standard brandy.
Lightly grease and flour a 10'' spring-form cake pan. Pour batter into pan...

I had to buy a spring form baking pan and couldn't find the ten inch size,
but I think the 9.5 inch size worked just as well. 
...and bake about 75 minutes. 

All set in the oven!
Allow cake to cool after baking. 

This made the house smell fabulous!

The cooling cake.

I then attempted to make the modern adaptation of 18th century icing...

Beat 3 egg whites and 2 tbsp. powdered sugar. Repeat additions of sugar until you have used 1.5 cups of powdered sugar. Add 1 tsp. lemon peel grated and 2 tbsp. orange-flower water. Beat until the icing is stiff enough to stay parted when a knife cuts through it. Smooth it onto the cake. 

The iced cake ready for another round in the oven. After checking four stores I couldn't find orange-flower water
so I omitted it. (I  used  my pizza pan for this step, it seemed to be the best shaped pan in my collection).
Let it dry and harden in a 200 degree oven for one hour. (Note: icing will be brittle when cut with a knife.) 

The iced cake ready to be baked. 
The icing after an hour in the oven.
The completed cake on a semi appropriate platter, ready for the event! 
I'm not sure how "great" my great cake turned out. While people said it was good, it wasn't gobbled up very quickly. I learned that, because it's such a dense receipt (the middle was a bit too moist), I should have kept in the oven a little longer than suggested.

I brought the leftovers to work, where my fellow history fanatics (who have much more 18th century baking experience than I do) suggested using 6 eggs (instead of 10) along with less nutmeg and mace.

Have you made a Great Cake?


  1. I don't think it's because it was bad (I thought it was yummy!), but because we were all too full to eat dessert!

  2. Looks delicious! Every year I make many Pound Cakes for the Jane Austen Festival Australia using 6 eggs per cake and it just works - any more and it would be too moist in the middle. I started out using high tins and now use a baking tray so that it cooks more evenly, though doesn't look so romantic. However the rectangular shape makes it much easier to cut for many hungry people.

  3. It sounds a lot like a traditional fruit cake, Natalie, only I've not heard of the nifty trick of cooking the icing. And having such light fruits in it gives it a goldier colour than usual. I'd be willing to bet, putting my technical cook hat on, that the rather odd method of combining the ingredients and the egg heavy proportions have more to do with the limitations of hand mixing a dense cake, and the more modern proportions and methods are a vast improvement. But I know this isn't about improvement ,it's about rediscovery! :)


Your feedback is appreciated. :)