Happy Birthday, Martha Washington! Let’s all have some of your cake. Seriously.

Today, Martha Washington would be 280 years young. Though she has not defied science and is therefore no longer with us, one of her cake recipes still is, thanks to a forthcoming book, Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon . Edited by Stephen A. McLeod and distributed by UNC Press for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, this book compiles the research and contributions of many Mount Vernon staff members to paint a picture of what it was like to eat like a Washington—or one of their many guests.  It includes many images and other fruits of archival labor—sometimes literally, because it features over 90 historic recipes that have been preserved and adapted for today’s kitchens. You can see a sample selection of the luscious photos at the Dining with the Washingtons Facebook page. And because today is Lady Washington’s birthday, how could we not share the recipe for Martha Washington’s Great Cake? Read on for an excerpt, but preheat your oven now. -Alex

Martha Washington’s Great Cake

Martha Washington’s Great Cake is one of the few surviv­ing recipes directly associated with her, so well liked that she had Martha Parke Custis, one of her granddaughters, copy it for members of the family. That original recipe is now part of the Mount Vernon collections. It is a cake that more than likely would have been served during the Christmas season as part of a grand Christmas dinner or Twelfth-Night party. It might also have been served at tea.

As with so many period recipes, Mrs. Washington’s Great Cake is vague as to some of the ingredients called for as well as the method of preparation. Because of this, related period recipes were used, along with Mrs. Washington’s, to develop a modern cake that resembles one that the Washingtons knew. Great cake recipes from the Custis family manuscript, Hannah Glasse’s Rich Cake, and Elizabeth Raffald’s Bride Cake proved to be informative resources. The result is a rich fruit cake laced with brandy and Madeira, similar to the cakes with which we are familiar today. While it takes some time to prepare, the cake keeps well, wrapped in foil and stored in a covered cake tin.

Cakes of the 18th century were very different from those we know today. Without baking soda or baking powder, cooks relied on leavening agents, such as liquid yeast or eggs. This often resulted in cakes that were heavier and more dense than the light, soft cakes we enjoy today. If left plain, this cake is delicious but can become dry fairly quickly. For this reason, it is even better iced, as the sugary coating helps keep it moist. We have no way of knowing if Mrs. Washington iced her great cake, but we have provided a recipe for a sugar icing below based on Elizabeth Raffald’s version, a classic royal icing still used today.

Makes one 10-inch tube cake.


1½ cups currants

⅓ cup chopped candied orange peel

⅓ cup chopped candied lemon peel

⅓ cup chopped candied citron

¾ cup Madeira, divided

¼ cup French brandy

3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

½ cup slivered almonds

½ teaspoons ground nutmeg

½ teaspoons ground mace

¾ cup unsalted butter, softened

1½ cups sugar

3 large eggs, separated

Sugar Icing (recipe follows) (optional)



1. Combine the currants, orange and lemon peels, and cit¬ron in a large bowl. Add ½ 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 together the remainder of the Madeira with the brandy, cover, and set aside.

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

3. Drain the fruits in a large strainer set over a bowl, stir¬ring occasionally to extract as much of the Madeira as pos¬sible. Add the strained Madeira to the reserved Madeira and brandy.

4. Combine ¼ cup of the flour with the fruit and mix well. Add the almonds and set aside. Sift the remaining flour with the nutmeg and mace.

5. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until light. Add the sugar, ½ cup at a time, beating for several minutes after each addition. Whisk the egg yolks until light and smooth and add to the butter and sugar. Con¬tinue to beat for several minutes until light and fluffy.

6. Alternately add the spiced flour, ½ cup at a time, and
the Madeira and brandy, beating until smooth.

7. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. By hand, gently fold into the batter, combining lightly until well blended. By hand, fold in the fruit in thirds, mixing until well combined.

8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Bake for about 1½ hours, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the cake on a wire rack to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. If serving the cake plain, turn it out to cool completely. If finishing it with icing, turn the warm cake out onto a baking sheet and proceed with the icing.

9. To ice the cake, spread the 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

3 large egg whites at room temperature

1½ cups sugar

2 tablespoons rose water or orange-flower water

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 to add the sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until all of the sugar is incorporated and the egg whites reach soft peaks.

2. Add the rose water and continue beating to stiff peaks. Use immediately to ice the cake.


Dining with the Washingtons will be available in October, but you can pre-order your copy now, and become a fan of the book on Facebook here. Happy Birthday Lady Washington!

Recipe from Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon edited by Stephen A. McLeod. Copyright © 2011 by the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association. Used by permission.