Among the detailed records kept on the 1777-1778 winter encampment at Valley Forge were details on the arrival of Lady Washington, who made the arduous trip from her home in Virginia to the cold hills of Pennsylvania. Her trek bolstered the spirits of the Continental Army, which, owing to the harsh weather, were definitely sagging. But she also arrived onsite at Valley Forge to celebrate the February 22 birthday of her husband, General George Washington, who turned 46.
Marking Washington’s birthday became, of course, a national holiday that evolved into Presidents’ Day. Valley Forge, as the site of the first incarnation, maintains the tradition to this day, throwing an all-day party (this year on February 14-15) for the visiting public.
Free programming over both days includes demonstrations of cannon fire, Colonial singing and for kids, activities like crafts, games, dress up in Colonial garb and a program to “join” the Continental army.
The centerpiece of the party is a ceremonial birthday cake, which General Washington impressively cuts with his sword.
The cake tradition echoes that original party for the General, thrown by his wife. As was common during those times, Martha had a go-to recipe for a dessert called a “Great Cake,” which was often made for large celebrations such as those associated with Christmas. Reportedly, her husband loved it.
In an interesting twist of history, Martha’s recipe survives to this day; however, its list of ingredients and instructions proved difficult to replicate in 21st century kitchens (a peck of flour? Barm yeast? The liquid byproduct of posset?).
In response, a more traditional cake has been served at the modern-day parties at Valley Forge; however, an artistic twist has been introduced.
The park united with students at the Culinary Arts Institute (CAI) of Montgomery County Community College to produce a cake worthy of a General. Pastry students and faculty collaborate on color schemes and decorative elements, arriving at a large-scale confection whose photo has become a staple on the front page of local newspapers. For convenience sake, the same cake batter is turned into dozens of cupcakes that are eagerly snapped up by party attendees.
In addition, the CAI has also taken a crack at modernizing Martha’s Great Cake. The recipe was updated, and some of the more unpalatable elements – a liberal soaking in a wine and rum mixture – have been omitted. The result is a moist, fruit-based cake with a subtle spread of white glaze on top. It, too, is sliced and served for all.
Many art forms creatively comprise the Presidents’ Day celebration at Valley Forge National Historical Park, including drama, song, dance, artillery skills, drawing, needlework and even oratory. But the most delicious – and highly anticipated – may be the art of baking.