One of the blessings of this festive time of year is sharing good food with family and friends. During the holidays, mothers and grandmothers everywhere retreat to the kitchen and don’t emerge until they’ve baked a pile of goodies imbued with generation upon generation of family tradition.
In that way, holiday life in contemporary America hasn’t changed much from holiday life in the 1800s…including life in the White House during the turbulent years of the American Civil War. Surrounded by carnage, then-President Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and their sons probably took comfort in family traditions.
One of the traditions Mrs. Lincoln took to the White House with her was a cake she called simply “white cake.” According to Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary, the confection was created in 1825 by a Monsieur Giron to celebrate the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Lexington, Kentucky—the First Lady’s hometown. The dessert proved such a hit that the prominent Todd family somehow convinced Giron to share the recipe, and the cake promptly became a Todd tradition. Mary Todd made the cake for Abraham while they were courting and continued the tradition after their marriage. Reportedly, Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake was her husband’s favorite sweet treat.
The recipe survives to this day. Here it is. (Instructions in parentheses are modernizations.)
Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake
- Six egg whites
- 3 cups flour
- 3 tsp. baking powder
- 1 cup butter at room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup blanched almonds, chopped (in a food processor or blender) to resemble coarse flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
(Preheat oven to 350 degrees.)
Grease and flour a (10- to 12-cup Bundt) pan.
In a medium bowl, beat egg whites (with a mixer on medium-high speed) until stiff (about 4 minutes). Set aside.
In a separate medium bowl, sift together flour and baking powder three times. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar (with mixer on medium speed) until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Add flour mixture alternately with the milk, beating well after each addition. Stir in the almonds.
Stir in the vanilla, then fold beaten egg whites into the batter until just combined.
Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake about 1 hour (until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean).
Let cake cool in pan about 15 minutes, then remove (to wire rack) and let cool another hour before dusting with confectioners’ sugar.
Allow me to be frank: This cake is a lot of trouble to make, but the result is worth every bit of effort. It’s now part of my family’s tradition, as well.
May your family’s traditions bring you peace and joy that follows you through the coming year.