In the final hours of 2015, I gave myself one final baking challenge: Martha Washington’s Great Cake.
I got the recipe from a 2008 Christmastime visit to Mt. Vernon. With the original recipe calling for 40 eggs–separated–it’s no wonder it took me seven years to attempt it.
Thankfully the recipe has been adapted for the 21st century with only a quarter of the eggs. But when my egg whites didn’t turn out the first time–and a yolk broke during round two of egg-cracking fun–I used more eggs than I’d like to admit.
Not only was the third time a charm, it made the tedious steps of adding those fluffed-to-perfection egg whites and a pound of sugar ONE SPOONFUL AT A TIME seem like a piece of cake. I felt like a rebel adding fresh fruit–take that packaged dry goods!–and the addition of a quarter cup of both wine and brandy only made a good thing better.
I enlisted my largest cake pan to bake the behemoth of a cake for–get this–75 minutes. That’s about three or four times more than a standard cake. But with nearly a carton of eggs and a pound or more EACH of butter, sugar, flour and assorted fruits and nuts, this is one heavy cake.
As the minutes ticked by–both on my kitchen timer and the countdown to midnight–my anticipation grew. What was this thing going to taste like anyway? Was my final bake of 2015 going to be a success or flop? And what about next year? What was 2016 going to dish up–both in and out of the kitchen? I love how NYE offers a sense of finality, a figurative bow wrapped neatly around a year, but also endless possibilities for the year ahead–with it’s own challenges, victories and occasional fails.
I’m happy to report that 2015 ended on a high note–with a weighty cake worthy of a crowd. It turned out to be part fruit cake, part pound cake, and part 2016 confidence booster.
Let’s do this.
Martha Washington’s Great Cake
Makes sooooo many servings; you won’t run out
1 pound butter
1 pound (2 cups) of sugar
1 1/4 pounds (4 1/8 cup) flour
1 1/4 pounds assorted fruits and nuts (we did roughly 5 oz. pear, 9 1/2 oz. apple, 3 1/2 oz. raisins and 2 oz. crushed pecans)
2 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
2 1/2 teaspoons ground mace (the outer shell of nutmeg)
2 ounces wine (we used Chardonnay)
2 ounces French brandy (or whatever your go-to is)
Separate the egg whites from yolks and let them come to temperature for about 30 minutes. Save the yolks!
Beat egg whites to a “soft peak” using a hand mixer with the whisk attachment. Meanwhile, in a stand mixer, cream the butter then slowly add the egg whites, one spoonful at a time.
Slowly add the sugar, one spoonful at a time, to the egg whites and butter. Add egg yolks. Add flour–you guessed it–slowly.
With a large mixing spoon, stir in fruit, mace, nutmeg, wine and brandy. Lightly grease and flour your largest cake pan (I used an angel-food cake pan) and bake at 350 degress for 75 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.*
As the cake cools, make the icing:
The original 18th-century recipe calls for an egg white-based icing that hardens in a 200-degree oven for an hour, but since I was out of eggs–and time–I reimagined the recipe which called for grated lemon peel and orange-flower water. I’d make this citrus-y icing again! Not only is citrus in season here, but readily available in my backyard. Win-win.
Mix 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar with the zest and juice of one small orange and lemon until the icing is smooth, spreadable and not too thick. Add additional juice as necessary. Spread on top of cake, encouraging it to drip down the sides like a Bundt cake.
*If you use fresh fruit, the sliced cake might have a series of wet-looking spots. Don’t worry, it’s cooked! There is probably a way to mitigate this, although it didn’t really take away from the taste or texture of the cake.
Recipe adapted from Mt. Vernon
Psst! Because it’s the final season of Downton–and I’m back to being a Lady’s Maid this week–this post from a year ago.