Mary Todd Lincoln's White Cake

As promised in yesterday's blog space, I’ve got the goods on Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake, the one she baked while courting Abe and in the Lincoln White House.

A slice of Mrs. Lincoln's cake. (Kim O'Donnel)

Upon first look at the recipe, which calls for six beaten egg whites, I’m thinking the results will be similar to that of Angel food cake. But Janis Cooke Newman, author of the historical novel “Mary” and all-knowing MTL White Cake expert, says I’m not even close; rather, Mary’s cake has a classic layer cake texture, with plenty of vanilla and almond notes. She also let know that despite two cups of sugar in the batter, the results are not super sweet as I had imagined.

As I got to work, I wondered if I should invite Mary to join me in the kitchen, as Newman had done for three years while writing her book. Admittedly, I know little about Mary’s life (but now am intrigued), so it was difficult to imagine her grinding almonds or whipping egg whites by hand (which I did, because I’m a geek that way), what kind of pan she used or whether she placed the cake over an open fire. In that first hour, while I assembled the batter, there was nary a peep out of the First Lady. I put the cake in the oven and began cleaning up. The bottle of vanilla then slipped out my hands and smashed to the floor. An annoyance, I thought, but I doubt this is Mary checking in.

An hour later, the cake was golden on top, ready to come out of the heat. I let it cool in the pan for a good 15, 20 minutes, loosened the edges with a butter knife, then inverted it onto a cake plate. It wouldn’t budge. Okay, interesting. I try a second time without success, and then on the third attempt, I smash the bottom of the cake plate. Wha?

When I finally do pry the poor cake from its Bundt confines, I notice that a small portion is stuck to the bottom of the pan, which is lukewarm at best. Mary? I know you're in here. Do you have something you wanna tell me?

Anyway, I digress.

Just like Newman said, the results are layer cake-y with plenty of vanilla and almond notes, and I found it sweet enough to eat without the powdered sugar fairy dust recommended in the recipe. The UPS guy seemed to like it, too.

So as you work on those inauguration day menus, consider making Mary’s cake and take a bite out of history. And don't worry; after our little run-in today, I asked her nicely to please leave all AMA readers in peace over the next few days while all those white cakes were in the oven.

Speaking of inaugural vittles, what are you planning? Care to share your menus or lend a hand to someone who’s just getting started? I’m game if you are; the comments area awaits.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake
Adapted from “Lincoln's Table” by Donna D. McCreary


1 cup blanched almonds
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
6 eggs, separated (best when eggs are cold)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar


Using a food processor or a spice grinder, pulverize almonds until they resemble coarse flour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan.

With an electric beater or stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light yellow in color and fluffy.

Sift flour and baking powder three times. (I don’t make a rule of this practice, but with three cups of flour, it seemed like a good idea to incorporate some air and help make this cake as light as possible. For an interesting explainer on sifting flour, go here.) Fold flour mix into creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk, until well blended. Stir in almonds and beat well.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until they have stiff, firm peaks. (Use egg yolks for another use – French toast, possibly?) Beaters must be washed and dried thoroughly before whipping egg whites or they will not stiffen properly. Fold egg whites gently into batter with a rubber spatula. Add vanilla extract.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for one hour, or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.

Cool for at least 20 minutes before inverting, then allow to completely cool before serving. Sift confectioners’ sugar on top.

Makes about 12 slices.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 16, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Baking , Culinary History
Previous: How Mary Won Abe Lincoln Over With Cake | Next: Meatless Monday: Gio’s Mama’s Pasta e Fagioli


Please email us to report offensive comments.

If I halve this recipe, would it fit in a 9" square pan?

Posted by: fran426 | January 16, 2009 3:11 PM

Fran, I have found this site helpful for "converting" baking pan sizes ( Don't know about a Bundt-to-flat conversion, though, as the design of the Bundt allows for baking in the center. I have seen baking pins or tubes that are used for larger sheet cakes, to ensure that the center bakes. Perhaps that would help?

Posted by: Agathist | January 16, 2009 4:03 PM

I would substitute buttermilk.

Posted by: davemarks | January 16, 2009 4:14 PM

My friends are hosting a watch party so I'm going to offer to bring brunch food such as frittatas and muffins along with appropriate beverages.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | January 16, 2009 5:08 PM

It'll be three moms and associated children here. We're doing our part to help the local economy by taking part in our neighborhood pizza shop's 2-for-Tuesday special. Also on hand will be a quick cannellini bean dip, blue corn chips, and a roasted red pepper dip (complete with crudite and crackers). Someone is bringing dessert, someone else is bringing tissues, and we'll be tuned to CNN or MSNBC, teary eyed with joy and explaining the events to our kids.

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | January 19, 2009 10:10 AM

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