“For the last two weeks, we have had a continual round of strawberry parties….. This last week we gave a strawberry company of about seventy.” – From a letter written on June 26, 1859, by Mary Todd Lincoln to a friend.
In the mid-1800s, late spring and early summer was strawberry party time in Springfield. Actually, it was strawberry party time pretty much everywhere during the luscious berries’ short season. The concept started in Europe but it didn’t take long for strawberry parties to “cross the pond” and become wildly popular in small towns and large cities. Mary Lincoln brought the custom to the nation’s capital. The New York Historical Society has continued the tradition to the present. Their first strawberry party dates back to 1856. Today called The Strawberry Festival, it’s evolved into an annual luncheon benefit “recognizing dynamic women in public life.” The speaker for this year’s benefit, held earlier this month, was Cokie Roberts, author of the recently published Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868. It’s a great read.
Mary Lincoln didn’t limit her passion for strawberries to edible fruits. For her first picture as First Lady, taken by Matthew Brady in his New York studio, she wore the now legendary strawberry dress, made of black silk imprinted with tiny strawberries and larger clusters of berries and leaves. The dress was kept by family members until 1963; today its home is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Sadly, the dress is too fragile to be constantly displayed. Its most recent showing was in May 2011 at the museum; 26 years had passed since was publicly displayed in 1985. Whether or not she wore the dress to a strawberry party is a matter of conjecture, but the timing certainly would have been right.
According to Dr. James Cornelius, curator at the museum, the strawberry dress is one of only two of Mary Lincoln’s dresses “from a happy period of her life” still extant. There is a third dress, but as the gown she was wearing when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it’s not “presentable.”
Cornelius says the first months of 1861 were the happiest period of the Lincoln’s White House years. The Confederates had attacked Fort Sumter in April but there hadn’t yet been a real battle. Most Washington folks “thought the war would only last a few months, if that.” The new president believed it was important to keep up a good face and continue life in the capitol as if the South hadn’t seceded. He would have encouraged Mary Lincoln to host a light-hearted strawberry party, although he was less sanguine about the bills she ran up to redecorate the White House.
What exactly was a strawberry party? I first thought it would have featured a variety of strawberry desserts. But from what I’ve been able to discover, the strawberries were served simply, sweetened lightly with sugar and served with cream.
Cookies and cakes were served as accompaniments. And it’s highly likely that at some of Mary Lincoln’s strawberry parties she would have served her famous cake. It’s known by different names: Mary Todd Lincoln’s white cake, white almond cake or vanilla almond cake, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite cake or birthday cake. It’s even been called Mary Todd’s courting cake; legend has it that she baked it for her future husband before they married. It’s possible that the recipe came with her to Springfield from Lexington, Ky., and that it was given to her by a renowned Lexington confectioner, Monsieur Mathurin Giron.
There are as many variations of the recipe as there are names. But the ones probably closest to the original are similar: a white cake (aka using only egg whites, not yolks) made with finely chopped or ground almonds and flavored with vanilla, rather than almond extract. It’s meant to be eaten without frosting, except perhaps a dusting of powdered sugar.
I have recipes for the cake in cookbooks, and there are dozens more on the Internet. The outstanding version below comes from Leslie Macchiarella’s website, http://bakethiscake.com. It’s moist and keeps particularly well. Macchiarella researches heritage cakes, sometimes adapting them as appropriate for modern kitchens. If you like to bake, it’s a fascinating site to explore.
Macchiarella uses almond flour as well as medium-fine ground almonds and extra vanilla in the batter. I’ve made some minor changes: I prefer the extra flavor that comes from lightly toasting the almond and I’ve changed the methodology slightly in my eternal quest to create as few dirty dishes as possible. Bob’s Red Mill almond flour is locally available at some groceries and at Food Fantasies.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s white almond cake
- 1/2 c. blanched slivered almonds, lightly toasted if desired
- 1 1/2 c. almond flour
- 1 1/2 c. cake flour, preferably King Arthur’s unbleached
- 1 T. baking powder, preferably without aluminum salts, such as Rumford
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 T. white vinegar or fresh lemon juice
- 6 egg whites (at least 3/4 c.) at room temperature or slightly warm
- 1 c. (2 sticks, 1/2 lb.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 c. superfine sugar (sometimes sold as “baker’s sugar”
- 1 c. whole or 2 percent milk, at room temperature
- 1 T. pure vanilla extract
- Confectioner’s sugar for dusting, optional
It’s important that all ingredients be at room temperature, especially the egg whites to achieve maximum volume.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Position the rack in the center of the oven.
Grease a 10-inch tube pan (aka angel food cake pan) or Bundt pan lightly. Cooking spray works well. Add a couple tablespoons of flour, then rotate the pan so that the interior, including the tube, is completely dusted. Turn the pan upside down and rap it sharply to remove excess flour. I do it over a garbage can.
In a mini food processor or by hand with a chef’s knife, chop the slivered almonds into medium-fine crumbs. Set aside.
On a paper towel or in a bowl, stir together the almond and cake flours, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Have ready the softened butter, sugar and vanilla.
Pour the vinegar into the mixing bowl. Using a paper towel, wipe the vinegar around the inside of the bowl, then wipe the excess out. The surface should be just slightly damp.
Pour the egg whites into the bowl and beat on high until they form soft peaks. Do not overbeat. With a rubber spatula, gently scrape the whites onto a plate and set aside.
Put the softened butter into the mixing bowl and beat on high a few minutes until fluffy. Add the butter and continue beating until the mixture lightens and is even fluffier.
With the mixer on low, add about a fourth of the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, then drizzle in about a third of the milk. Add another fourth of the flour. Add the vanilla to the milk, mix in half of that, then alternate the wet and dry ingredients, ending with the last of the flour mixture. The wet and dry ingredients should be thoroughly mixed.
Using a rubber spatula, add a spoonful of egg whites to the batter and mix gently. Add the rest of the whites and very gently mix them into the batter with an up and over motion. The egg whites should just be completely incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 70–80 minutes, or until a cake tester or skewer inserted into several places comes out clean.
When the cake is done, let it rest on a rack for 10–15 minutes, then turn upside down and remove the pan. Cool completely before lightly dusting with confectioner’s sugar
Makes one 10-inch cake.
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