Last Bite: Martha’s Washington’s “Excellent Cake”

Straight out of Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, LastBite_ND15_5680…the recipe for her Excellent Cake is a yeasted, beer laden, and scone-like cake that would have traditionally been served with tea.  However, after painstakingly translating the recipe from the 18th century lingo (ie- quatern of clove, pecks of flour, etc.), Diana Woklow transformed it into a more moist, dessert-like, layered cake by using a spiced rum and black tea soaking syrup, orange buttercream made with a lot of orange zest, and candied orange wheels.

“After testing my various translations of this recipe, I really wanted it to be a centerpiece cake to match it’s name, and to honor it’s original creator,” Diana explained. “Martha Washington was one hell of a maven in the kitchen, and she has been an inspiration of mine during my years as Executive Pastry Chef at City Tavern.  Both the original recipe and my interpretation are below:

Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery ‘To Make an Excellent Cake’
Take a peck of flowre, 10 eggs beaten, 2 nutmegg, A quartern of cloves & mace, 2 pound & halfe of fresh butter, one pound of sugar, 6 pound of currans. wash, dry, & pick them very well. then take halfe a pownd of candyed orring, leamon, & citron pill, & mince it small. & make a possit with good cream, halfe A pinte of sac, & as much Ale. & put halfe of yr butter into ye posset & ye other halfe with some good ale barme. Put in ye flowre & break it in, into small bits, & strow in some rose w mond, & sack as you mingle & knead up. A little ambergreece in ye Jack.

For the Cake:
1 cup ale, divided
1 ounce active yeast
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup sherry
8 cups all-purpose Flour
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon clove
½ teaspoon mace
1 cup granulated sugar
12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cold
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 ½ pounds currants
2 ounces candied orange peel, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 340ºF.
2. Spray two 10-inch cake pans with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper.
3. Make the barm: warm half cup of ale and dissolve yeast in it. Let sit about 5 minutes or until yeast begins to froth in the beer.
4. Mix heavy cream, sherry and half cup ale in a large bowl.
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix flour, spices and sugar at a low speed.  Then cut in the butter until pea sized bits remain and the mixture resembles wet sand.
6. Slowly add the barm, the cream-cherry-ale mixture, eggs, yolk, rose water, and lemon juice while electric mixer is running on low speed. Beat until combined.
7. Using a wooden spoon, stir in currants and orange peel by hand.
8. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in volume, in a warm place.
9. Divide dough in half and press each half into a 10-inch round cake pan. Cover with plastic wrap and allow dough to rise until the pan is three-quarters full, in a warm place.
10. Gently remove plastic and bake cakes for about 45-60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Spiced Rum and Tea Syrup:
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1 black tea bag
1 ounce spiced rum
1 teaspoon rose water

1. In a small sauce pot, bring the sugar and water to a boil.  Remove from heat.
2. Add the tea bag and steep for 5 minutes
3. Remove the tea bag and stir in the rum and rose water.  Let stand at room temperature until ready to use; can be made up to 3 days in advance.

Orange Buttercream:
2 ½ pounds confectioners’ sugar
2 cups egg whites
2 pounds (8 sticks) room temperature unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 pieces
Zest of 2 oranges

1. Place sugar and egg whites in the heat-proof bowl of an electric mixer. Set bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, and whisk until sugar has dissolved and egg whites are hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The mixture should be completely smooth.
2. Transfer bowl to mixer stand. Using the whisk attachment, beat on high speed until mixture has cooled completely and formed stiff and glossy peaks, about 10 minutes.
3. Add the butter, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated after each addition. Add the zest and slowly whisk to combine.

1. Using a serrated knife, splice the rounded top off of each cake, making it level.
2. Slice each cake in half horizontally, making two layers from each pan, being careful to keep the layers as even as possible.
3. Brush each layer with the tea syrup, generously coating each one so that it absorbs the moisture and flavor.
4. Place one layer on a cake stand or plate.  Top with orange buttercream, spreading the icing to the edge.  Repeat with the other layers, building a four layer cake.
5. Finish the cake by icing the top and sides with orange buttercream.
6. Garnish with candied orange peel or dehydrated orange slices, if desired.

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