Thursday, September 25, 2014

Martha Washington's Great Cake

Finished cake decorated with crystallized ginger.

The recipe below for a "Great Cake" was written down by Martha Washington's granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis. Great Cakes were quite large and tended to include an array of expensive ingredients such as candied fruits, rosewater, sherry, brandy, and spices. They were also quite large so the quantities of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour would have indeed been "great." When covered in marzipan and royal icing, this cake can weigh well above 12 pounds!

Usually, great cakes were more bread-like as they included yeast in the form of ale-barm. As a matter of fact, most of Martha Washington's recipes for Great Cakes do include the barm[1]. However, this recipe does not have any leavening agent other than eggs. The texture of this cake is therefore more cake-like than traditional Great Cakes but still very rich and filling--a small piece goes a long way.

Great Cakes were often made for the Christmas holidays which could last well into Twelfth Night in January, being served at a ball for the occasion. I have made several of these cakes over the years for events at Riversdale House Museum, including their Christmas open houses and Twelfth Night balls. The c. 1801 Riversdale House Museum is located in Riverdale Park, Maryland and was the home of George Calvert and his wife, Rosalie Stier Calvert. It is particularly fitting that this cake be served at Riversdale House Museum because George Calvert's sister, Eleanor, was married to John Parke Custis and was the mother to Martha Parke Custis!

Here is the recipes as it was written down by Martha Parke Custis:

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.[2]

Martha Washington’s Great Cake Modern Recipe Adaptation
(This adaptation is one quarter the size of the original recipe.  It serves 12-15 people.)


  • 4 Cups All-Purpose Flour 
  • 2½ Teaspoons Ground Mace 
  • 2½ Teaspoons Ground Nutmeg 
  • 1 1/4 Pound Dried Fruit (Zante currants, golden raisins, lemon and orange peel are good choices)
  • 10 Large Eggs
  • 1 Pound Salted Butter (Softened)
  • 2 Pounds Confectioner's Sugar 
  • ¼ Cup White Sweet Wine 
  • 1/4 Cup French Brandy (or Madeira, or Sherry)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line a 10" round cake pan with removable bottom or two 9" round cake pans. Place cake pan(s) on a parchment-lined baking tin.

2.  In a medium bowl, measure out all but 1/2 cups of the flour. 

3.  Add the spices to the 3 1/2 cups flour and whisk until well incorporated and fluffy.

4. Add the remaining 1/2 cup flour to the dried fruit. (This is important--the fruit will all sink to the bottom if you do not do this!)

5. Separate egg whites from yolks & set yolks aside in a small bowl. In another bowl, beat the egg whites to the foamy or  “soft peak” stage. 

6. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer.

7. Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar. Beat just until blended. 

8. Add the egg yolks and beat to incorporate.

9.  Measure out the wine & brandy and add them to the wet ingredients.

10.  Add the flour and spice mixture to the wet ingredients.  Beat until well mixed, but do not overbeat.  

11.  Then, add the flour-coated fruit to the batter.      

12.  Put batter into pan & place in oven. Bake for about 75 minutes if using one springform pan or 50-60 minutes if using two 9" cake rounds.  Make sure a toothpick inserted is clean before removing from oven.  Since oven temperatures can vary, you must monitor cooking time carefully. 

Optional:  You can wrap sherry-soaked cheesecloth around the cake and store it for several weeks in an air-tight container.
Optional:  Cover the entire cake with rolled-out marzipan, using warm apple jelly as an adhesive.  Then, coat the cake with Royal icing and allow to dry 10-12 hours.

1.  Karen Hess, ed. Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

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