Mary Todd Lincoln’s Vanilla Almond Cake
There are reports attributable to President Lincoln that this cake of his wife’s was the best he ever ate. This delicious cake was the invention of Monsieur Giron, a Lexington, Kentucky caterer, who created it in honor of the visit to that city in 1825 of his fellow Frenchman, Lafayette. The Todd family acquired the recipe and cherished it ever after. The baking powder must have been added at a later date.
Vanilla (or almond extract)
Cream together 2 cups sugar with 1 cup butter. Sift 3 cups flour and 3 teaspoons baking powder three times and add to the butter-sugar mixture alternately with 1 cup milk. Chop 1 cup blanched almonds until very fine and add them to the mixture. Beat vigorously, then fold in 6 stiffly beaten egg whites carefully. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, then fold in 6 stiffly beaten egg whites carefully. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla (almond extract if you prefer) and pour the mixture into a greased and floured angel-cake pan. Bake in a a preheated moderate (350 degree F.) oven for approximately 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the cake’s center. Turn the cake out on a wire rack and allow to cool before frosting it. This makes a very large cake. If you prefer, you can bake it in 2 9-inch layer-cake pans. The cake may be made without the almonds and is a splendid plain white cake, very light and good.
This Vanilla-Almond cake could be made in one piece, as you see above, or as a layer cake, which would then need double the amount of frosting – for the top and between the two layers
“Family meals at the Lincolns’ were routine. Early in the morning the President liked a “good hot cup of coffee.” But often he would forget about breakfast until 9 or 10A.M. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, occasionally ate with the President. He noted that the frugal repast might consist of “an egg, a piece of toast, coffee, etc.” On occasion breakfast was a single egg. For lunch, Hay reported, Lincoln “took a little lunch–a biscuit, a glass of milk in winter, some fruit or grapes in summer…He ate less than anyone I know.” Lunch was usually eaten irregularly.” Source “A Treasury of White House Cooking,” Francois Rysavy [G. P. Putnam:New York] 1972 (p. 250)
Mary Todd Lincoln was born to a wealthy family in Lexington Kentucky. As such, she was well schooled in the fine aspects of social etiquette rather than the practical arts of domestic life. Her biographers note Mary’s early frugality and preference for simplicity. Her entertainments were well attended and, as one might expect, grew lavish in the White House period. She was especially fond of strawberries, and enjoyed giving strawberry sociables, where these fine fruits were combined with cake and ice cream.
“By the 1840s improved methods of salting and icing allowed Mary Lincoln to keep food longer than her mother could. Imported oysters, a delicacy on local menus, could be preserved for weeks by bountiful washing in salted water and some help from the weather. A few heretics (Mary Lincoln was not usually one of them) no longer baked bread, depending, instead, on a wagon that delivered bread, crackers, and cakes three times a week. The Springfield stores were beginning to sell prepared butter, and in season local farmers brought vegetables and fruits down Jackson Street for the unfixed prices that proper ladies were not supposed to contest. Penny-pinching Mary Lincoln was among those who violated the prescription that ladies don’t beat down prices, and she had several public battles with the fruit peddler over the prices of his less than perfect strawberries. Lincoln was never a fussy eater, and was satisfied most mornings with an apple for his breakfast. Still, he would be home for dinner in the middle of the day, and only delinquent housekeepers kept men waiting. But in Mary Lincoln’s home it was the husband whose casual sense of time and lack of appetite made regular hours an impossibility. Sometimes Abraham helped out by shopping…Even with improved technology and help with marketing, cooking took up the largest part of Mary Lincoln’s day.
Mary Lincoln learned to do what the kitchen slaves did: roast coffee, make calf’s-foot jelly, preserve fruit, and prepare cheese. In the summer the kitchen ran her, and it was both the repetitiveness and the lack of control that led disaffected matrons to compare themselves to slaves. Because she had not learned the vices of sugar and, like everyone in Springfield, innocently believed it the “most nourishing substance in nature,” she spent hours making puddings, cakes, candies, and cookies. By modern standards, the Lincoln household consumed a vast amount of sugar…Some of these sweets were eaten by others, for if Mary Lincoln was a novice cook, she was a practiced hostess with an easy charm that obscured any shortcomings in her menus. Her contemporary Julia Jayne Trumbull acknowledged her as the “prettiest talker in Springfield,”.”Mary Lincoln often entertained small numbers of friends at dinner and somewhat larger numbers at evening parties. Her table was famed for the excellence of its rare Kentucky dishes and in season was loaded with venison, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and quail and other game” – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Jean H. Baker [W.W. Norton:New York] 1987 (p. 109-113)
The Lincoln Family (ca. 1865). Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1830-1900, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
Short History of Cake
The history of cake dates back to ancient times. The first cakes were very different from what we eat today. They were more bread-like and sweetened with honey. Nuts and dried fruits were often added. According to the food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first culture to show evidence of advanced baking skills. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the English word cake back to the 13th century. It is a derivation of ‘kaka’, an Old Norse word. Medieval European bakers often made fruitcakes and gingerbread. These foods could last for many months.
According to the food historians, the precursors of modern cakes (round ones with icing) were first baked in Europe sometime in the mid-17th century. This is due to primarily to advances in technology (more reliable ovens, manufacture/availability of food molds) and ingredient availability (refined sugar). At that time cake hoops–round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays–were popular. They could be made of metal, wood or paper. Some were adjustable. Cake pans were sometimes used. The first icing were usually a boiled composition of the finest available sugar, egg whites and [sometimes] flavorings. This icing was poured on the cake. The cake was then returned to the oven for a while. When removed the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy [ice-like] covering. Many cakes made at this time still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons).
It was not until the middle of the 19th century that cake as we know it today (made with extra refined white flour and baking powder instead of yeast) arrived on the scene. A brief history of baking powder. The Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book [London, 1894] contains a recipe for layer cake, American. Butter-cream frostings (using butter, cream, confectioners [powdered] sugar and flavorings) began replacing traditional boiled icings in the first few decades of the 20th century. In France, Antonin Careme [1784-1833] is considered THE premier historic chef of the modern pastry/cake world. You will find references to him in French culinary history books.