Updated July 2, 2017
In December, 1780 Alexander Hamilton was granted a short leave from his duties as senior aide-de-camp to Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington, and along with his good friend James McHenry, Alexander swiftly traveled to Albany for his wedding to Elizabeth Schuyler. Schuyler family tradition says that the recipe, above, for a very large wedding cake was the one baked for their wedding. This typewritten version dates from 1941.
Alas, while there may be a kernel or two of truth to the recipe, it's probably much more "family tradition" than truth. Yes, 18thc cakes for weddings and other celebrations weren't the lofty white cakes we prefer today, but dense, rich cakes with large quantities of dried fruit and liquor that are more cousins to modern holiday fruitcakes.
And yes, the sheer quantity of ingredients in 18thc recipes can be daunting. The first known cookbook written by an American is American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796. Mrs. Simmons' recipe for a "Plumb Cake" included (among other things) a pound each of currants, citron, orange peel candied, and almonds, six pounds of flour, a half-pint of wine, and twenty-one eggs. From the same cookbook, the ingredients for a "Rich Cake" also included two pounds of butter, fifteen eggs, two and a half-pounds of raisins, a pint of wine, and a gill of brandy. Rich, indeed, - and the expense of such a quantity of ingredients would have made this a cake reserved for special occasions.
While the number of guests was likely small at the Schuyler-Hamilton wedding in 1780, a large wedding cake would still have been required. According to local Dutch New York tradition at the time, portions of the cake would have have been shared with neighbors and relatives who hadn't attended the actual wedding.
But the gargantuan amounts listed in the "Schuyler Wedding Cake" recipe are more likely 19th or 20thc exaggerations, lavishness increased with each telling over the years. With the country's Centennial celebration in 1876, there was a renewed interest in the American colonial past - albeit a highly romanticized and often un-researched past that had a hefty share of quaintness at its core.
The introductory paragraph is in the style of "ye olde tyme" reverence of this Colonial Revival. The descriptions of the Schuylers as "purveyors of gracious colonial hospitality", the reverence for "this very cake", and the 20thc descendant called "the mistress of the ancestral home" are all hints that this recipe might not be all that it claims. I won't go so far as to say that it's a hoax, but it probably is wishful thinking. Most likely there was at one time a family story about the size of the wedding cake, and as Alexander's fame increased over the centuries, both the story and the cake grew with it.
One final note about the cake: just as an 18thc wedding cake would have been much different from a 21stc one, I like to think, too, that there would have been no modern free-for-all cake-smashing between Eliza and Alexander. Instead I picture them decorously feeding a bite or two to one another, especially sweet little morsels filled with rum-soaked sweet raisins....
Many thanks to Julie O'Connor for bringing the recipe to my attention, and to the wonderful AlbanyGroup Archive on Flickr.
I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott will be published September 26, 2017, by Kensington Books. Pre-order now.