Monday, March 23, 2009

Mary Todd’s Courting Cake


Mary Todd moved to Springfield, Illinois in October 1839 from Lexington, Kentucky. Two months shy of her twenty-first birthday, Mary was starting a new life in the home of her married sister, and, just maybe, looking for a husband among the politicians, lawyers and strivers in the newly designated state capital. Abraham Lincoln settled in Springfield two and a half years earlier. He arrived in the town of 1,500 in April 1837 riding a horse borrowed from a New Salem friend. He was 28 years old, a lawyer in practice with John Todd Stuart, Mary Todd’s cousin, and a member of the Illinois State Legislature. By the time Mary Todd arrived in town the population had increased to nearly 2,500. The Stuart & Lincoln law practice was busy and he spent his free time in a variety of activities. Lincoln presented serious lectures to the Young Men’s Lyceum. He went fishing in the streams surrounding Springfield with friends and their sons and he escorting their daughters and sisters to concerts, plays and other social events about town. Lincoln encountered Mary Todd at a cotillion in December 1839. “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way,” he said asking for a dance. After the evening Mary remarked to a family member. “And he certainly did.”

Todd family tradition suggests Mary made an almond cake similar to this one during their courtship and after they were married. Lincoln is said to have called it “the best cake I ever ate.” There are several versions of this white almond cake. I based my adaptation on an 1828 recipe that said to allow two days to make the cake as the almonds need to be blanched, peeled and pounded into a powder the day before baking. With modern kitchen equipment and ingredients, this cake is ready in an hour or so. The original recipe called for both sweet and bitter almonds. The former are the kind we buy today. Poisonous bitter almonds are no longer sold. However, almond extract is made from those nuts, treated to be safe.

French Almond Cake
4 grade A large eggs, separated
1/2 cup granulated sugar, pulverized
3/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
3 ounces blanched slivered almonds, very finely crushed or chopped
to pieces about 1/16th of an inch
1/4 cup flour, sifted three times

Important Tips: There are a few tricks to making this cake successfully. Nineteenth century white sugar came in a compressed cone. Cooks snipped off what they needed with sugar shears and then pulverized it into fine crystals. I put the half cup of granulated sugar in a plastic bag and pulverize it by pressing my rolling pin over it a few times. The resulting finer sugar blends more easily with the egg yolks. The stiffly beaten egg whites provide this cake’s structure. It is lightest when baked until light brown in an ungreased angel food tube cake pan, then turned upside down until it is completely cool. I have baked it in an antique tube pan with fluted sides. To get it out successfully, I greased just the bottom of the pan (top of cake), turned it upside down to cool completely and then gently pressed against the cake, pulling it away from the sides. You can grease and flour the sides of the baking pan and cool the cake right-side up. But the resulting cake, while delicious, will not be nearly as light.

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large (3 quart) bowl whip the egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks. In a medium (2 quart) mixing bowl beat the egg yolks until they are thick and have turned into a light yellow color. This could take as long as five minutes. With the mixer running, begin adding the sugar about a tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until the sugar is fully incorporated and the batter is thick. Stir in the extracts and then the almonds. Stir in the flour. With a flexible rubber spatula, fold about one third of the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk batter to lighten it up. Then gently fold this lightened batter into the remaining egg whites. Bake until the cake is firm and lightly browned on top, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

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