Robert E. Lee Cake | Recipes from American History

Robert E. Lee Cake | Recipes from American History

Week 22 of Dave Raymond’s American History course, covers “The Second War For Independence: The War Between the States 1” We often think about what the leaders involved did, but we don’t always remember what they ate like Robert E. Lee Cake.

One of the greatest leaders on either side of the War Between the States was Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Lee was known for his loyalty, kindness, and nobility as well as his southern heritage. Lee’s wife was Mary Custis, a beautiful southern belle, and their courtship likely followed the southern societal requirements of the time. It is rumored that Lee proposed to Mary over a slice of cake she made; that cake is now known as Robert E. Lee cake. Robert E. Lee cake was unique because it called for baking powder, which was not a common ingredient in the 1850s. Before then women usually used stiffly beaten egg whites to give their cakes an airy texture and help them rise. 

Robert E. Lee Cake
Robert E. Lee Cake

Robert E. Lee Cake 

*This recipe is adapted from the cookbook American Cake

Lemon Filling

  • 1 stick butter, melted 
  • 1 Tbsp. Lemon zest + 1/2 c. Lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 c. Sugar


  • 2 c. Flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. Salt
  • 8 eggs, separated
  • 1 c. Sugar
  • 1 tsp. Lemon zest + 1/4 c. Lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
  • 1/2 tsp. Cream of Tartar


  • 4 Tbsp. Butter, room temp.
  • 4 c. Powdered sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. Lemon juice + 1 tsp. Lemon zest (from 1 lemon) 
  • 4 Tbsp. Orange juice +1 Tbsp. Orange zest (from 1 large orange)
  1. For the Filling: In medium bowl combine melted butter (slightly cooled), sugar, egg yolks, and lemon zest. Whisk until smooth. Pour into a double-boiler and set over pan of simmering water. Stirring every few minutes, cook 30-45 minutes, until mixture thickens and is smooth. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, and pour into heat-resistant bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in fridge 2 hours minimum.
  2. For the Cake: While the curd is cooking, butter and flour 2 9” cake pans and set aside. Preheat the oven to 325 F. In medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In large bowl beat egg yolk using an electric hand-mixer until frothy, about 2 minutes. Add in sugar in three stages, beating until eggs become pale and smooth. Stir in lemon juice and zest. 
  3. In a separate large bowl beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on high until egg whites are stiff. (You can tell egg whites are stiff if, when you pull the beater out of the bowl, the egg whites stand up in stiff peaks without sagging.) 
  4. Pour half of the flour mixture into the egg yolk mixture and fold, then pour in half the egg white mixture and fold again very gently. You don’t want to deflate the egg whites. Repeat with remaining flour-egg white mixtures until all ingredients are combined. Pour batter evenly into prepared cake pans and bake 22-30 minutes, until toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from oven and let sit five minutes to cool, then release cakes from pans and set on wire rack to cool completely. 
  5. For the Icing: In large bowl beat the butter 2-3 minutes using an electric mixer. Pour in juice, zest, and 2 c. Sugar and beat on medium-high until combined. Continue adding sugar until the icing is thick and spreadable. For decoration slice the cakes in half horizontally, creating 4 layers. Spread the filling thickly over the middle two layers and cover cake with thin coat of frosting (this is called the crumb coat). Place the cake in freezer for an hour until crumb coat is set, then remove and finish icing cake. You can cut some thin slices of lemons and oranges for decorating the top. 
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