Sitting and thinking about Memorial Day and what it means to us and in particular – central Virginians, I am humble when I say thank you to our Veterans and those who fell in the line of duty. I have been looking deeper into Virginia foods and have found many recipes for a Robert E. Lee cake. Which seems to be done well – a personal twist almost always had to be put into the making of this cake. It is not for the faint of heart to tackle such a wonderful cake.
General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), one of the South’s most venerated heroes, was affectionately known to Southerners as Marse Robert. He was respected by leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, and many historians believe that had he accepted Lincoln’s offer of command over the Union Army, the Civil War would have been over much more quickly. Others, however, have called into question his skill as a strategist. We will never know because ultimately Lee decided to resign from the Union army.
Lee surprised almost everyone by his resignation in 1861. In a letter earlier that year he had denounced secession as a betrayal of the Founding Fathers and thought a peaceful compromise was the best solution. Torn between competing allegiances, Lee asked commanding Union general Winfield Scott if he could stay home and not participate in the war. The general replied “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” Shortly thereafter, Lee made the difficult decision to take up arms in defense of his home state of Virginia.
Like General Lee, this cake prevaricates – it straddles the flavors of orange and lemon, trying not to choose one side over the other. Traditionally, the cake itself has lemon zest and juice and the filling is luscious “lemon jelly,” aka lemon curd. Finally, orange, with a touch of lemon, perfumes the icing. Many tasters had difficulty pinpointing the flavors
This sponge cake has the unusual additions of baking powder and cream of tartar. I’m not sure if the cream of tartar was added because the baking powder was supposed to be single-acting, or if the recipe writer intended to use both double-acting baking powder and cream of tartar. I erred on the side of the latter, although I expect the recipe would turn out fine without the cream of tartar.
Sponge cake purists might scoff at the idea of chemical leavening, since highly whipped egg yolks and whites usually suffice as the leavening for this type of cake. However, I appreciate the help because I have baker’s block regarding sponge cakes – they often turn out really flat for me. I haven’t decided if I over-beat or under-beat the eggs to cause that problem. But add baking powder, and problem solved!
As for the icing, I feel this recipe, like most American buttercreams, has far too much sugar. It’s a simple recipe: butter, powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a bit of liquid, and a flavoring agent (the liquid can double as the flavoring agent, as in this case). I used three times as much butter as the recipe directs to tame the sweetness, but even then I didn’t approach the ratio in my traditional easy buttercream: 1 ounce of butter to each ounce of powdered sugar. Use more butter to suit your taste – this is an extremely flexible recipe. For this cake, lemon and orange juice add a bright citrus flavor in addition to making a spreadable consistency.
Back to General Lee3: cake plays a role in Lee’s history. Allegedly Lee proposed to Mary Custis (granddaughter of Martha Washington) as she knelt to serve him a piece of cake. It is unlikely that Lee ever tasted his namesake cake, as no recipes for it were published until years after his death. However, legend has it that his wife passed down a favorite “receipt” (recipe) for a lemon cake to their daughter, so it can be deduced that Marse Robert would have enjoyed this cake.
1879 – In the cookbook, Housekeeping In Old Virginia; Contributions from Two Hundred and fifty of Virginia’s Noted Housewives, Distinguished For Their Skill In The Culinary Art And Other Branches of Domestic Economy, Edited by Marion Cabell Tyree:
“Robert E. Lee” Cake
Twelve eggs, their full weight in sugar, a half-weight in flour. Bake it in pans the thickness of jelly cakes. Take two pounds of nice “A” sugar, squeeze into it the juice of five oranges and three lemons together with the pulp; stir it in the sugar until perfectly smooth; then spread it on the cakes, as you would do jelly, putting one above another till the whole of the sugar is used up. spread a layer of it on top and on sides. – Mrs. G.
“Gen. Robert Lee” Cake
1 pound sugar.
1/2 pound flour.
Rind of 1 lemon, and juice of 1/2 lemon.
Make exactly like sponge cake, and bake in jelly-cake tins. Then take the whites of two eggs beat to a froth, and add one pound sugar, the grated rind and juice of one orange, or juice of half a lemon. Spread it on the cakes before they are perfectly cold, and place one layer on another. This quantity makes two cakes.
– Mrs. I. H.