David Hammond Photo
Updated: March 7, 2014 1:23PM
Our 16th president was fond of his wife’s almond cake, according to Rae Katherine Eighmey in Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen (Smithsonian, 2014).
“Best cake I ever ate,” he reportedly proclaimed, likely within earshot of wife Mary Todd Lincoln if he was a savvy husband. Many recipes for Lincoln’s almond cake have been published over the years. Eighmey rejects many of these recipes because, as she says, “The ingredients were wrong, the method suspect, and the history tenuous.”
For instance, she rejected recipes that contain baking powder, saying “it wasn’t commonly called for in cookbook ingredients until the 1870s,” some years after Lincoln’s death.
Some of these older recipes also require bitter almonds, which poses a challenge. Bitter almonds have stronger flavor than that of sweet almonds, but they contain lethal prussic acid and can no longer be sold in the United States. You can get this more powerful almond taste with a good almond extract (Mariano’s has pure almond extract; it’s $4.19 for a 1-ounce bottle). Almond extract does contain bitter almond oil, but manufacturers use heat to detoxify bitter almonds while leaving flavor relatively unchanged.
Here’s a simplified version of Eighmey’s recipe:
1. Beat 4 egg whites to stiff peaks; separately beat 4 egg yolks until thick and pale yellow; slowly add ½ cup sugar (crushed, using rolling pin) into yolks.
2. Mix in ¾ teaspoon almond extract, ¼ teaspoon lemon extract, 1 cup ground almonds and ¼ cup flour.
3. Mix in 1/3 of egg whites to loosen batter; then fold in remaining whites and bake in an ungreased tube pan at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes; cool upside down before removing from pan.
Some writers refer to this as “courting cake,” so it’s a fitting choice for Valentine’s Day. — David Hammond