Thursday, April 9, 2015

Addy's White Almond Cake

Featuring a favorite president's favorite cake!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Can you believe that? I sure can't, which I know sounds pretty silly, but considering how much time I spend researching and reading about different periods in American history, it's pretty startling to think just how far away some of those times actually are, even if the issues then are still present now, albeit in different ways. Overall, I've been pretty disappointed in how little attention this anniversary - and the anniversaries of all the major points in the war - have gotten from the press and seemingly anyone but the institutions that already celebrate the history, like the National Parks Service or the Smithsonian, so I've been planning on doing something in honor of today for a long, long time. Pretty much since I came up with the idea for this blog!

Today also marks Addy Walker's 160th birthday! In Addy's stories, Addy and her family aren't certain of what day she was actually born. Slaves weren't allowed to celebrate birthdays the same way a free person would, so while they knew she was an early spring baby, the actual date was unknown. In Happy Birthday, Addy! Addy is encouraged to pick a day to be her birthday, and when news comes of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Addy chooses that day: April 9th, making her birthday April 9th, 1855.

So, I got to thinking. What would be a good enough recipe to highlight both Addy's birthday and the end of the most costly conflict in American history?

The answer could only be Abraham Lincoln's favorite cake.

For Christmas, my parents surprised me with a couple really cool books: A Man Most Driven by Peter Firstbrook about one of my favorite historical figures, Captain John Smith, a signed copy of Islands of the Damned by R.V. Burgin, one of the marines featured as a character in The Pacific and, most excitingly for the blog, The American Plate by Libby O'Connell. O'Connell breaks the history of American cuisine down into one hundred "bites", meaning each of the ten chapters - which are divided by time period - features ten items of iconic American food from that time in our nation's history. Not all of them have recipes you can make yourself, but a few do, and one of them happens to be Abraham Lincoln's favorite cake.

Now, Lincoln didn't make this himself, obviously, but there is apparently a historical record of him enjoying this treat his wife Mary probably brought with her from Kentucky. Mary Todd Lincoln is known by historians of all shapes and sizes as kind of a difficult woman. While parts of this are likely true - she had a difficult personality and severe depression, which would have made people especially intolerant of her in a period before 1. women's rights and 2. a better understanding of mental illness like depression - I've always felt like she probably was getting a bit of a raw deal from the history books. Maybe she's not, I don't know for sure, but I tend to like underdogs who are portrayed unfairly by historians for reasons that are basically nonsense (see: my interest in John Smith), and after reading this "bite" in O'Connell's book, I'm all the more sympathetic. Mary Todd grew up privileged and wasn't used to managing a household, even if she could make a mean cake. Abe's hours as a lawyer early in their marriage meant Mary was often a single mom to their young sons, and going from a pampered southern belle to a mom roughing it in Illinois was definitely tough. Despite her flaws, this cake was delicious and would have been something Mary could bake herself, or direct the White House staff to whip up for visitors, and it is super, super tasty. While it's probably a little fancy for the average Civil War era household, I figured that might actually make it all the better to make today.

Unlike cakes Felicity, Caroline, Josefina and even Marie-Grace and C├ęcile would have eaten, this recipe makes use of baking powder, which makes the actual process of baking a cake a lot easier than it would be without it. Before the invention and commercialization of baking powder in the 1850's, bakers relied on eggs to make the cake rise, and it was very easy to ruin a cake by not doing it exactly right. This isn't to say that this cake is as simple as making a box mix, but it's still easier than making Martha Washington's granddaughter's Great Cake, which apparently used forty eggs and about four pounds of butter. Admittedly, it was a pretty big cake, but using baking powder is all together easier!

The first thing to start off with is a cup of blanched almonds. You can buy blanched almonds at the store, but it's cheaper to take the skin off yourself, which is really not difficult. Toss the almonds in a pot of boiling water and let them boil for a minute - only a minute, so they don't start to soften. Dump out the water, towel off the almonds, and squeeze the skins off. It's that simple!

Once they're all skinless, stick them in a food processor and chop them until they're like coarse flour. You could do this by hand if you really wanted, but I'm not so stuck on being historically accurate that I'll insist on doing it this way, even though I hate my food processor.

Next, cream two sticks of butter and two cups of sugar together. Add a mixture of three cups of flour and three teaspoons of baking powder to the mixture, alternating with one cup of milk. The recipe says to use whole milk or half and half - I used half and half.

You'll have a very, very thick batter at this point, even with the milk. At least, I sure did! To make it lighter, you need to beat six egg whites in a separate bowl with clean beaters until stiff peaks form. These then get gently folded into the batter. I'm always terrified I'm going to ruin cakes like this by crushing the egg whites or over mixing everything, but it worked out okay! I do tend to be braver when it comes to baking than cooking.

Next, a teaspoon each of almond extract and vanilla extract get added and mixed in to the batter, and then you're ready to pour the batter into two floured and greased nine inch cake pans.

The cakes bake in the oven for about twenty five minutes at three hundred and fifty degrees. Mine took a little bit longer to solidify, but they rose pretty nicely and smelled wonderful coming out of the oven!

The recipe recommends either eating these plain, or whipping up a fast hard, white icing, sprinkling it with sliced almonds and serving it with cherry ice cream. Why cherry ice cream? I'm not sure, but I can promise you one thing:

The combination is delicious.

This is a fluffy-but-dense, delicious cake with a lot of flavor. I don't consider myself to be a huge fan of almonds - I'll eat them, but I don't crave them or go out of my way to eat them, usually - but this has quickly become a cake I fantasize about when I'm craving something sweet. Something about pairing it with the cherry ice cream worked really well, too. The flavors are extremely complimentary, something I'd never really considered before even though apparently this is a combo other people have been aware of for a long time. The chocolate war cake still stands out as my favorite cake I've ever made for this blog, but I've got to say - Mrs. Lincoln's cake is a solid contender as one of the tastiest things I've ever baked. It wasn't too difficult either, especially with the help of modern kitchen equipment, so it's a good way to throw together an impressive looking and tasting historic recipe without killing yourself in the kitchen. It's an absolute must have for anyone's Civil War themed events.

It's important to remember, celebrate and deconstruct our history to understand how and why we got here. You really can't talk about modern political issues without knowing a fair amount about the past, and I'm very glad to have been able to take the time to share the history of this cake and this day in history with all of you. In a lot of ways, the United States is still struggling with the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but we've come a long way since then, too. I wish more people were going out of their way to honor, celebrate and learn about this important chapter in American history, and I'm glad my family was willing to indulge me in taking this peek into the past, and baking Addy a tasty birthday cake.

Fair warning: this year also marks the 70th anniversary of some significant moments in World War II, and you will definitely be seeing posts discussing those. Stay tuned!

Until then, I'm going to be helping Addy polish off the rest of her birthday cake!


  1. This looks awesome! I don't like almonds, but I think it's the texture more than the flavor and I might have to try this one!

    1. I don't really like nut texture in my baked goods either, but you really can't tell they're in there once they're ground up, even with my crummy food processor!

  2. oh MAN I am so gonna make that.

    1. Let me know how it goes!! Hope you and Addy had fun on her birthday. :)

  3. Replies
    1. It really was! I definitely want to make it again sometime soon. c:

  4. What are your thoughts on using premade almond flour as a shortcut?

    1. Personally, I'd hesitate to try that for a couple reasons. First, I've actually never baked with almond flour before, but secondly and most importantly to me, I really took to heart something Ina Garten said on The Barefoot Contessa about baking being a science and not messing around with ingredients or measurements unless you're looking to create something different or don't mind having a failed chemistry product coming out of your oven. Because the texture would be so different (fine powder versus chopped nuts), I'm not sure what the final product would end up turning out like. It also really didn't take too long to blanch and peel my own almonds - maybe five or ten minutes at the most, and I have occasional wrist problems.

      But that being said, I don't know for a fact that it would be a disaster, so it might be worth trying if you think you want to go for it! If you do, let me know how it turns out. :)

  5. Mmmm! I just made this and WOW this cake is amazing! No wonder Abe liked it. I'm hoping to get Addy soon. :)

    1. I'm glad you liked it! I've been hankering for one lately, I might need to make another soon. Addy is a great doll! You'll definitely love her when you've got her, she's one of my favorites. :)