Monday, February 20, 2012

Happy Washington's Birthday (Almost)

 "Army! Stand fast! My birthday cake is on its way!"

George Washington's Birthday is still a couple of days away--February 22 (NS) though by the calendar he was actually born on February 11 (OS).  What those initials mean are New Style and Old Style.  Many of you know about the change in the calendar during GW's lifetime, but it is interesting so I'll run through it quickly here.

And I'll throw in an excellent (though somewhat large) recipe for a George Washington Birthday Cake.  It must be good, as it is from the kitchen of Martha Washington's.

"Yes, yes, I cut it down.  But the fruit was for my birthday cake!"

First about the calendar.  When Washington was born, the British colonies, of which America was a part, were using the Julian calendar, established during the reign of Julius Caesar, 46 years before the birth of Christ.  For about 15 centuries, that calendar was used all over the Western world.

The year established therein was about 11 minutes, 14 seconds too short. So by the 16th century, spring was celebrated about 10 days behind the actual vernal equinox.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII consulted with his scientists and devised a calendar so accurate that it is still in use today and in his honor is called the Gregorian calendar. It created leap years every four years, when one day is added to the calendar, except on centennial years--unless the year is divisible by four.

In 1582, Europe shifted the calendar to catch up with the earth's calendar and October 4, 1582, was followed by October 15, 1582.  The English, however, did not recognize the pope as head of their church, so they resisted this change, and for several centuries, non-Catholic countries continued to observe the Julian calendar (called Old Style or OS).

George Washington was caught in the middle.  He was born on February 11 (OS) and during his lifetime in the 18th century the English finally made the change to the Gregorian calendar (NS). Thus, September 2, 1752, was followed by September 14, 1752. GW was 21 at this point, and knowing the change was imminent had been giving the days in his diary, which he began keeping since he was a teenager, two dates.

When he became the Father of his Country some people celebrated his birthday on February 11.  Sometimes, people celebrated it on February 22.  So he often got two celebrations.

Which may explain why his wife, Martha, devised such a large cake in his honor.  I picked this recipe up once at Mount Vernon when I was there on a story.    You might want to cut it down for your party.

Martha Washington's Great Cake (transcribed from the Mount Vernon records)

Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth.  Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work'd.  Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and five pounds of flour and five pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it.  Add to it a half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy.

The volunteers at Mount Vernon, in the 20th century, baked this in two pans (though Mrs. Washington used just one) for 90 minutes at 350° F. And frosted it with egg white frosting.

Hope you have a nice and fruitful holiday (or fruit-filled, if you make this cake.)

"I'll have another slice please."

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Don Meuler said...

Exactly how big was Martha's pan, anyway? Not to mention the bowl...

Robin Chapman said...

You know, they just don't make pans like they used to, do they? Not to mention bowls ...

Don Meuler said...

And just try licking the beaters!

Robin Chapman said...

Ben Franklin must have helped to generate the electricity for the Mixmaster.