Lady Cake is a rich pound cake flavored with bitter almonds and rosewater, made snowy white by using only egg whites. In order not to waste the leftover egg yolks, “Gold or Golden” Cake was often made at the same time. This rich yellow cake with a sunny hue was a similar cake made with egg yolks. Slices of these two cakes were often alternately placed in a silver cake basket for the tea table, the contrasting colors creating a pretty striped or checkerboard pattern.
According to nineteenth century cookbook writer Eliza Leslie, Lady Cake “must be flavored highly with bitter almonds; without them, sweet almonds have little or no taste, and are useless in lady cake." Bitter almonds (which are actually poisonous in large amounts) needed to be properly prepared prior to baking – the use of heat would safely extract their strong, bitter taste. This rather tedious process was done by blanching shelled bitter almonds in scalding water, and then placing them in a bowl of very cold water. They were then wiped dry and pounded (one at a time,) to a smooth paste in a clean marble mortar, along with a bit of rose water to improve the flavor and prevent them from becoming oily, heavy and dark. Miss Leslie suggests blanching and pounding the almonds the day before to achieve better flavor and a lighter color, thus enhancing both the taste and whiteness of the cake.
The white color and delicate texture of Lady Cake was considered so exquisite and elegant that it was often used as a wedding cake in the nineteenth century, frosted with pure white icing and decorated with white flowers. As Leslie raved, "this cake is beautifully white, and (if the receipt is strictly followed) will be found delicious. If well made, and quite fresh, there is no cake better liked." Leslie's recipe is apparently for a large wedding-type cake since she stipulates using "the whites only of sixteen eggs, three quarters of a pound of sifted flour, half a pound of fresh butter and a pound of powdered white sugar."
But many of the versions featured in cookbooks from the era were smaller-scale, calling for ingredients equal to half that amount. To make my modern-day version, I used historic recipes from Mrs. Crowen's American Lady's Cookery Book (1866) and an 1888 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine for reference, along with Greg Patent's wonderful Baking In America. I felt the most important thing regarding this cake was imparting the almond flavor. I wasn't sure how or if I could get bitter almonds, so I decided to blanch some almonds and crush them in the food processor along with some rose water as per a Patent's recipe. I also added some almond extract for extra almond flavor. This seemed to work fine. Another modern update I took advantage of was the use of cake flour instead of regular all-purpose flour. The lower protein content produced a finer-grained cake, and one that was whiter in color too, sticking with the pure white theme.
Instead of icing it, I gave it a liberal sprinkling of confectioners sugar and paired it with a mix of fresh, local raspberries and strawberries for a pretty pop of color and some whipped cream for extra elegance. An authentic icing could be made using egg white, powdered sugar, and lemon or rose water for flavoring, as per Miss Leslie’s recipe.
1866 recipe from Mrs. Crowen's American Lady's Cookery Book:
WHITE LADY-CAKE..—Beat the whites of eight eggs to a high froth, add gradually a pound of white sugar finely ground, beat quarter of a pound of butter to a cream, add a teacup of sweet milk with a small teaspoonful of powdered volatile salts or saleratus dissolved in it; put the eggs to butter and milk, add as much sifted wheat flour as will make it as thick as pound-cake mixture, and a teaspoonful of orange-flower water or lemon extract then add quarter of a pound of shelled almonds, blanched and beaten to a paste with a little white of egg; beat the whole together until light and white; line a square tin pan with buttered paper,
Put in the mixture an inch deep, and bake half an in a quick oven. When done take it from the pan, when cold take the paper off, turn it upside down on the bottom of the pan and ice the side which was down; when the icing is nearly hard mark it in slices the width of a finger, and two inches and a half long.
Recipe from Good Housekeeping (courtesy of Catherine Owen)
Whites of six eggs, three cupfuls of flour, a cupful of butter (or half a cupful if a less rich cake is required), two cupfuls of sugar, about a cupful and a half of milk, two full teaspoonfuls of baking powder sifted into the flour. Beat butter and sugar to a cream, measure the milk but use only enough of it to make a stiff batter, sift in flour and add milk alternately; when quite smooth flavor with almond, vanilla, orange flower water, or the peel of a grated lemon, and a few drops of extract of rose, whichever may be preferred. Now slip in the whites of eggs beaten till they will not slip from the dish. If when the eggs are in, the cake is too stiff, as it most likely will be, add the rest of the milk. Bake in two pans in a good oven for forty-five minutes. If a large cake is desired bake in one pan an hour and a half.
- 2 sticks butter
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 3 cups cake flour (or 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ cup unblanched almonds
- 2 tbsp rose water
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1 cup milk
- Butter a 10-inch Bundt pan, dust the inside with flour and set aside.
- Place the almonds in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, slip off the almond skins a few at a time and then pat dry.
- Put the almonds in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to coarsely chop. Add the rose water and pulse 4 or 5 more times. Scrape the bowl and continue pulsing until the mixture is a pasty texture. Add the almond extract and pulse to blend. (Alternatively, the almonds can be crushed with a mortar and pestle – pound 3 to 4 at a time along with a bit of the rose water to form a paste and then mix in the almond extract).
- Place the almonds in the cup of milk to steep.
- Adjust the oven rack to the lower position and preheat to 350F.
- Cream the butter until very fluffy. Slowly add the sugar, about ¼ cup at a time until the mixture is the texture of whipped cream.
- Beat the egg whites until stiff.
- Sift the flour with the dry ingredients. Add a little to the butter mixture, and then add a little milk, making sure you hold a sieve over the mixing bowl to catch the almond paste. Continuing alternating in the way, ending with the flour (if using a mixer, make sure it is set to lowest speed). Scrape the batter down and then gently fold in the egg whites (best done by hand).
- Spoon mixture into Bundt pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes and then run a sharp knife around the edges to loosen and invert on a plate to cool completely.
- Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and serve with fresh fruit and/or whipped cream. Or to frost with an egg-white icing as Eliza Leslie used, take 3 oz fresh or pasteurized egg whites at room temperature, 1 pound of sifted confectioners sugar and ½ tsp lemon juice or 1 tablespoon rose water. Lightly whip the egg whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Lower the speed and gradually add the sugar a cup at a time. Add flavoring and beat on medium speed for 5 to 8 minutes or until the icing forms medium to stiff peaks.
Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; American Cookery by James Beard; Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes and sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie; Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book by Eliza Leslie; The Well-Decorated Cake by Toba Garrett; Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams