As part of the Yuletide celebrations, First Lady, Martha Washington arranged for a type of fruited cake known as a “Great Cake” to be baked and served as a dessert on the last of the twelve days of Christmas, known as Epiphany or Twelfth Night.
Great Cakes were a common dessert in the Colonial Era and tended to be very large, as reflected by the list of ingredients that varied according to the version of the recipe used.
The recipe below for a “Great Cake” was written down by Martha Washington’s granddaughter, 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.
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)
- 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.
- In a medium bowl, measure out all but 1/2 cups of the flour.
- Add the spices to the 3 1/2 cups flour and whisk until well incorporated and fluffy.
- 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!)
- 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.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer.
- Slowly add the beaten egg whites, one spoonful at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar. Beat just until blended.
- Add the egg yolks and beat to incorporate
- 9. Measure out the wine & brandy and add them to the wet ingredients.
- Add the flour and spice mixture to the wet ingredients. Beat until well mixed, but do not overbeat.
- Then, add the flour-coated fruit to the batter.
- 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.
Credit: A Taste of History