Food History

3 Historic Cakes from America’s First Ladies You’ll Still Want to Bake Today

October 19, 2016

George Washington was fond of his wife's fruitcake; Thomas Jefferson was partial to a light, orange-flavored sponge cake; Andrew Jackson preferred jam cake; and more recently, Jimmy Carter loved Lane Cake and Bill Clinton chose carrot cake.

As we wind up to Election Day, these recipes—linked to former presidents and their first ladies and which I researched for my cookbook American Cake—have suddenly become relevant again.

It's not clear who baked those favorite cakes for the presidents themselves—whether a bakery, the White House chef, or the first lady. But what we do know is that after America won its independence, you didn’t have to be baking a cake for the president for it to be patriotic. If you had the means to bake a cake, you baked a patriotic one: It might have been a fruitcake to feed the crowds that came into town to vote on election day. It might have been a pound cake to honor George Washington after he left office. It might have been the flambéed Baked Alaska to celebrate the admittance of a new state to the union.

It was a time when cakes were patriotic, meant to celebrate and commemorate our nation and its heroes.

Or, it might have been a war cake baked with meager ingredients, perhaps no sugar or eggs, to show patriotism when America entered World War II. With rationed flour, a “victory cake” demonstrated national pride and saluted the troops stationed overseas. It might have been unfrosted cupcakes to share with factory co-workers during the war, or possibly a white fruitcake wrapped and shipped to your son serving in the Army.

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It was a time when cakes were patriotic, meant to celebrate and commemorate our nation and its heroes. And even the First Ladies participated.

The most famous of the First Ladies who baked was Dolley Madison, the entertaining wife of president James Madison who, during the War of 1812, snatched the portrait of George Washington from the wall of the White House to safeguard it from the impending British occupation. Dolley's pound cake was flavored with caraway seeds.

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Top Comment:
“Thank you, Anne! I love this kind of history and this was a genius story idea.”
— Phyllis A.

Three recipes from other American first ladies still serve as legacies during this current election season. One, Mary Lincoln's White Almond Cake, is a simple pound cake with finely chopped almonds that originated in Lexington, Kentucky, where Mary (née Todd) was raised before she married Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that Mary baked and served this cake to Lincoln while they courted. It was said to be Lincoln's favorite cake, and after his assassination this cake, it was baked and served at inaugural and military banquets as a memorial to him.

Lesser known, but typical of practical cakes of its day, was the Sarah Polk Hickory Nut Cake, first baked in the 1800s when hickory trees populated America. Sarah was deeply involved in her husband James K. Polk's political career, even writing speeches for him. Unlike Mary Lincoln's White Almond Cake, which was served at patriotic banquets, Sarah Polk's Hickory Nut Cake was baked and served in the setting of a home, and is a reminder of a time when cooks foraged for hickory, black walnut, and pecans to add to baked goods.

As is the case with hickory nuts, particular ingredients often tell the story of an old and historic recipe. And in the case of a third first lady cake, the cake's ingredients were the secret to unlocking the real story behind the popular recipe.

To backtrack briefly, in 1908 the Congressional Club in Washington, D.C., opened as a social club for wives of the U.S. Senate and House. A self-supporting organization, the members collaborated on a fund-raising cookbook in 1927 and have continued to do so. The second edition of that book was published in 1948. It was introduced by Bess Truman, who shared her recipe for Ozark Pudding. A cross between a pecan pie and a macaroon, with chopped apples thrown in, it would become a favorite apple cake of the time.

And it was so delicious that a Charleston, South Carolina cook who sampled this Ozark Pudding while on vacation, took it home, and adapted it to her kitchen. She renamed the recipe the Huguenot Torte and shared it with the writers of the Junior League cookbook Charleston Receipts.

And from that day in 1950, the Huguenot Torte became a slightly hijacked homage to Charleston's old history. It would have continued had the food writer and historian John Martin Taylor not found out the real story about the apple cake and given former First Lady Bess Truman and her Ozark Pudding recipe the credit they deserved.

Which proves that first lady cakes are anything but boring, just like this election season. As other grand American cakes, the cakes baked by the women in the White House memorialize a specific time in our country's history, back when baking cakes was a patriotic thing to do.

Get the first ladies' recipes:

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  • Phyllis Alesia Perry
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Anne Byrn is the author of American Cake (Rodale, 2016), the history of cake in America, with recipes. She lives and bakes Nashville, TN.


Phyllis A. October 20, 2016
Anne, there's a way in which recipes become part of culture. A good cake recipe can become legendary.
Anne B. October 20, 2016
Phyllis, very true. And the celebratory nature of cake, the way it is baked for important occasions and holidays probably adds to the staying power. A quote I love that I ran across in my research (and I will paraphrase), "the holidays preserve what the everyday loses."
Margaret L. October 19, 2016
A few years ago I visited Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington's home in Virginia. As part of one exhibition there were recipe cards for the taking, including one for Great Cake, a sort of fruit cake with meringue icing, that Martha Washington had dictated to a family member. It begins, "Take 40 eggs & divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream..." Fortunately, the thoughtful people at Mount Vernon also included a modernized version of the recipe that uses just three eggs and three-quarters of a cup of butter. The modern recipe is available on the Mount Vernon website at Recipe cards: best. souvenir. ever!
Anne B. October 19, 2016
Margaret, My recipe in American Cake for Martha Washington Great Cake is a version of that Mt. Vernon recipe! Baked in a loaf pan. Uses 1 pound currants soaked in white wine but you could use half wine and half brandy.
Margaret L. October 19, 2016
I'm looking forward to trying these other presidential cakes!
Phyllis A. October 19, 2016
Thank you, Anne! I love this kind of history and this was a genius story idea.
Anne B. October 19, 2016
Phyllis, thank you! Food history is the best. And what is it about cake in history that allows us to learn so much?
Karaona April 11, 2021
Anne, Do you have any idea of the recipe for John and Jackie Kennedy’s Wedding cake? It was also inauguration for them Ronald Reagan and I believe George W Bush. It’s a white cake with raspberry filling. I cannot find the recipe anywhere, only the bakery that sold it in Boston. It was the best cake I have ever had and would love to duplicate.
Anne B. April 11, 2021
Karaona, wish I could share that recipe but don’t know it. The cake looks fabulous! Dense white bakery layers filled with raspberry jam and raspberry buttercream. I’d have to taste the cake to guess its ingredients. Sorry!