Because this year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, I’m immersing myself this month in recipes from the 1860s. Most women of that time started married life knowing how to make a few dishes. Mary Todd Lincoln, First Lady from 1861 to 1865, made this recipe for white almond cake throughout her marriage to Abraham Lincoln.
It was one of the President’s favorite desserts, according to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Illinois. Each serving probably brought him a bit of relief from his increasingly fraught and ultimately tragic public life.
Back then, cooking required more guesswork. Mrs. Lincoln (or her servants) used balky, wood-burning stoves; they tested the temperature by waving their hand into the oven. A bucket, not a sink, provided water. The almonds in this recipe had to be shelled, blanched and chopped, not purchased in a bag from Trader Joe’s, as I did.
I made the cake for a party, and felt a bit embarrassed by its rather plain appearance on the buffet table next to chocolate razzle-dazzle. Yet the cake’s subtle almond flavor held its own and tasted even better the next day with a cup of coffee. Below is my adaptation of the white cake recipe from Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary, posted on the Lincoln Home web site. I made my own glaze to dress it up.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Almond Cake
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped until they resemble a coarse flour
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan.
- In a bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder.
- In a separate, large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the flour mixture, alternating with the milk. Stir in the ground almonds and beat well.
- In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the batter. [The batter will be extremely stiff and loosen as the egg whites mix in]. Stir in the vanilla extract.
- Pour into the Bundt pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Turn out on a wire rack and cool. Sprinkle with sifted confectioner’s sugar or drizzle with glaze (see below).
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or rum
2 tablespoons water
Place all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, immediately lower the heat, and simmer for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Spoon evenly over the top of the cake and let it drip down the sides. Sprinkle the top of the cake with slivered almonds.