Although Illinois now claims Mary Todd Lincoln as a daughter with a flair for cooking delicious desserts, Mary’s cooking skills hail back to her origins in Appalachia — Lexington, Kentucky to be precise. Mary actually brought her knowledge of Southern home-cooking and gracious hospitality with her to the Illinois governor’s mansion and finally to Washington, where she served as first lady.
Mary was raised in a wealthy Appalachian home, one of 16 children. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was a politician and businessman who gave Mary her privilege and social standing, characteristics that Mary brought to her future husband, who grew up poor and uneducated in the Kentucky hills. And she loved a good party.
When they first married, Mary had to live on a working lawyer’s salary and often tapped into her baking and cooking skills to brighten up her husband’s long workdays. What has become known as Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous Kentucky White Cake was one of President Lincoln’s favorites. The slight almond flavors enhanced what was originally a dull substitute.
The Belle of Springfield
As Abraham Lincoln’s popularity grew in Springfield, Mary became quite well known for her lavish parties, which she later transferred to the White House. Mary’s Southern charm made her a hit with the local Illinois gentry who flocked to her parties for feasts with tables groaning under the buffet spread.
Mary especially loved to bake sweets and used her delicious cakes to try to beef up her husband’s slim physique. Mary used her almond-flavored white cake during their courtship, relying on a recipe she procured from a local Lexington baker. The cookbooks she purchased when she was First Lady are now part of the Presidential Library in Springfield.
Grand Sugar Use
While living in the governor’s mansion, Mary found much of her ingredients right in her backyard —copious numbers of apple trees and currant bushes. The nearby market provided her with the rest of her cooking and baking ingredients. Another favorite dessert of the Lincolns was called a Macaroon Pyramid, which consisted of a tower of macaroons drizzled with caramelized sugar. One historic reference purports that Mary bought 13 pounds of sugar in one week alone in 1849.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s extravagances earned her disfavor among critics who thought her over-the-top parties, elaborate dishes and expensive furnishings were unbefitting a sitting president in a time of war. But she never wavered in her desire to maintain her Southern Appalachian social graces, even through the deaths of hr two sons. Following the assassination of her husband, Mary lost touch with her roots, however, and never recovered. She lived for 17 years following Lincoln’s death, much of it in utter despair.
Mary’s sweet Southern Appalachian upbringing continues to delight new generations of bakers, however, with the popularity of her renowned cakes. For a treat inspired by the 16th First Lady of the United States, an inspired hostess who braved harsh critics to continue with her sweet servings, try your hand at:
Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped in a food processor until they resemble a coarse flour
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan.
- Cream the butter and sugar. Sift the flour and baking powder 3 times. Add to the creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk. Stir in the almonds and beat well.
- Beat the egg whites until they are stiff; then fold them into the batter. Stir in the vanilla extract.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Turn the cake out on a wire rack and cool. When cool, sift confectionary sugar over the top.
Historians note that Mary often served the cake plain, with no frosting, but a basic white frosting sprinkled with almonds was also popular.
(The recipe from Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary was adapted by Janice Cooke Newman.)
Picture credit: movemewhere.gotohill.com