Recipe for Martha Washington’s Great Cake

by Seasonal Wisdom on November 12, 2012

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Today’s famous foodies and stylish hostesses could learn a lot from Martha Washington. In the early days of the United States, George Washington’s wife was renowned for her hospitality and cooking. As the first First Lady, she entertained thousands of guests at Mount Vernon and helped establish the young nation’s culinary tastes.

Travel back to 18th-century Virginia as Seasonal Wisdom brings you an authentic recipe for Martha Washington’s Great Cake — as well as a modernized version — just in time for the holidays… Photo copyright Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

As historians have discovered, George and Martha Washington were among the nation’s first foodies and featured sophisticated meals concocted from foods grown in their kitchen garden, as well as exotic commodities that originated in Asia, the West Indies and the Mediterranean.

Martha Washington at Mount Vernon

Photo copyright Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Martha Washington’s Great Cake Recipe

This is the original recipe written by Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter Martha Parke Custis Peter (Patsy), so other family members could serve her cake at holiday parties, Christmas dinners or Twelfth Night parties.

“Take 40 eggs & divide the whites from the yolks & beat

them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream &

put the whites of eggs to it a spoon full at a time till it is

well work’d then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powder’d to

it in the same manner than put in the Youlks of eggs and

5 pounds of flower and 5 pounds of fruit, 2 hours will bake

it add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint

of wine & some fresh brandy.”

Mount Vernon

Keep in mind that this elegant cake was created in Washington’s humble kitchen at Mount Vernon, which lacked the modern conveniences we take for granted today.

Below is a modernized version of Martha Washington’s Great Cake, created by the author of Dining with the Washingtons (Nancy Carter Crump): 


1 1/2 cups currants

1/3 cup chopped candied orange peel

1/3 cup chopped candied lemon peel

1/3 cup chopped candied citron

3/4 cup Madiera, divided

1/4 cup French brandy

3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs, separated


    1. Combine currants, orange and lemon peels, and citron in a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup of Madeira and stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for at least 3 hours, or overnight. Stir the reminder of the Madeira with the brandy; cover and set aside.
    2. When ready to bake the cake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
    3. Drain fruits in a large strainer set over a bowl, stirring occasionally to extract as much Madeira as possible. Add the strained Madeira to the set-aside Madeira and brandy.
    4. Combine 1/4 cup of the flour with the fruit, and mix well. Add the almonds, and set aside. Sift the remaining flour with the nutmeg and mace.
    5. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until it is light. Add the sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, beating for several minutes after adding each ingredient. Whisk the egg yolks until they are light and smooth, and add them to the butter and sugar. Continue to beat for several minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy.
    6. Alternatively add the spiced flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the Madiera and brandy, beating until smooth.
    7. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to form stiff peaks. By hand, gently fold them into the batter, combining lightly until well blended. By hand, fold in the fruit in thirds, mixing until well combined.
    8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with an offset spatula, or the back of a spoon. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the cake on a wire rack to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. If serving the cake plain, turn it out of the pan to cool completely. If finishing it with icing, turn the warm cake out of the pan onto a baking sheet, and proceed with the icing.
    9. To ice the cake, spread Sugar Icing generously onto the surface, piling it high and swirling it around the top and sides. Set in the turned-off warm oven, and let sit for at least 3 hours, or until the cake is cool and the icing has hardened. The icing will crumble when the cake is sliced.

Sugar Icing Recipe for Great Cake


3 large egg whites at room temperature

1 1/2 cups of sugar

2 tablespoons rose water or orange-flower water


      1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, start beating the egg whites on low speed, gradually adding 2 tablespoons of the sugar. After about 3 minutes, or when they just begin to form soft peaks, increase the speed to high and continue adding the sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until all the sugar is incorporated and the egg whites form soft peaks.
      2. Add the rose water, and continue beating to form stiff peaks. Use immediately to ice the cake.

Learn More:

Get more information on Mount Vernon.

Take a tour of Mount Vernon’s famous Colonial Revival gardens.

Learn how George and Martha Washington were among the nation’s first foodies, and get another recipe.

See how Thomas Jefferson created Monticello’s garden with a tour from historian Peter Hatch.


Kerry November 12, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I really like this blog post. I’m fascinated by the history of cooking and gardening in this country. I recently read an article on Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden. It was amazing. I love that cooking and gardening was such an intrinsic part of the lives of our founding fathers! This cake recipe looks amazing…and the original recipe….man, talk about cooking for a crowd, 40 eggs!!

Seasonal Wisdom November 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Thanks so much for sharing your comments. It means a lot. We know our Founding Fathers were farmers, but who knew they were also foodies? In case you missed it, you can learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s garden by taking a tour with Peter Hatch, who restored Monticello’s kitchen garden. – Hope to see you again! Teresa

Chris December 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe.

Seasonal Wisdom December 12, 2012 at 7:14 am

My pleasure, Chris. I had such a wonderful time touring Mount Vernon and Monticello last May. It fascinates me how well those Founding Fathers from Virginia ate in the early days of the United States. Thanks for stopping by, and happy holidays! Teresa

Renata Jelito January 27, 2013 at 10:21 am

Look at this even Martha Washington, her family and guests loved a good fruit cake.
Unfortunately the families of today associate fruit cake with something that comes out of a tin can, has been shipped from god only knows where, created by someone who that you don’t even know and never will. What is missing in these tins is the love that a local baker or family member adds that makes all food special.

Seasonal Wisdom January 27, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Renate, that’s absolutely true! Thanks for reminding us why homemade items are often more valuable. Hope to see you again. Teresa

Patti August 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I love the original Martha Washington cake and the modern version. Sure makes a boxed cake mix look bland! Do you mind if I put the original and the modern versions in a book I am writing about my great grandma? (1873-1961) She baked many of these old recipes and I remember her Martha Washington cake she baked in her wood cook stove. She cooked the frosting in her cast iron pans. She died in 1961 and refused to have an electric stove in the house. She said water and electricity don’t mix and she wasn’t getting electrocuted cooking for her family!
My cousin has her handwritten cookbook and I am sure the Martha Washington cake is in but by the time I was born, Great Grandma Daisy had it memorized so never used the recipe book.

Seasonal Wisdom August 24, 2014 at 9:30 am

Hi Patti: Thanks for your message. I also sent you a private reply. As long as you give proper credit for the recipes, you may include them in your book. Good luck with your fun project!

Victoria Cross September 30, 2014 at 4:53 pm

I used to make this when I was in junior high and high school for family Christmas gifts, but the recipe I had (and has since been lost; I graduated high school in 1978) used brandy and rum, was baked in small loaf pans and was wrapped in cheese cloth and sprinkled with brandy and/or rum every couple of weeks for six to eight weeks. Would this have been a case of someone altering the recipe (probably my Scottish relatives, lol).

Seasonal Wisdom September 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Your version sounds delicious, Victoria. Cheers!

Renata Jelito September 30, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Victoria, I also made a fruitcake that was infused with sherry in the same way, yum!. Propably in the same time frame, I do love a good fruitcake.

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