This year while touring the Mount Vernon plantation during the holiday month of December, I spotted something I had never seen before. It was ceremoniously displayed upon the grand dining room table of the Washingtons. To me it looked like a porcupine all covered with snow. Although it was most certainly something edible, I had no idea what. It had a tiny rodent-like face, nose and ears, behind which were blazing white long and slender sticks of something inserted all around its oval body. Later I was told that those long sticks were slivers of almonds, however I have never seen any almonds that long.
When I asked the docent what was that creature, she responded “haven’t you ever seen a Hedgehog Cake?” No, I’ve never seen one nor ever even heard of one. I am very accustomed to seeing Martha Washington’s great cake on that table. That is her recipe that begins with “take 40 eggs … and 4 pounds of butter.”
As photography of the dining room was not permitted, I have only my “vanishing memories” to remind me of what I saw that day. Therefore, I tried to find a picture of Mrs. Washington’s Hedgehog Cake on the Internet. I could not find one recipe nor one picture of her most interesting cake. What I did discover though, is that I am the only person in the whole wide world who is not familiar with the supposedly wonderful concoction known as a Hedgehog Cake. At Flickr I found enough pictures to made a “Slide Show of Hedgehog Cakes.”
Knowing that the Mount Vernon staff is consciencious to being historically accurate, such as no Christmas trees in General Washington’s home at Christmas, I tried researching Hedgehog Cakes to discover why an 18th century Virginia family would have such a cake. We have never had such little creatures scurrying about our hedges and pathways; hedgehogs are unknown in all of the United States, as far as I know.
I discovered that English cookbook authoress Hannah Glasse had a recipe for Hedgehog Cake by about 1747. It may have been an ancestor somehow to the late 18th century’s popular British dessert of Tipsy Cake, a sponge cake soaked with some sweet liquor and decorated with cream. Well, I remember from my Virginia cookbooks that there was something here named “Tipsy Squire,” that was like a British Trifle.
Then I discovered this bit of history, “That Charming Confusion: Trifle” written by Helen Stringer, which seems to explain it all:
The trifle continued to develop through the 18th century, and was soon joined with a selection of related dishes, Tipsy Cake and Tipsy Hedgehog among others. What these had in common with trifle was that they were all made with dried cake, rather than fresh (a detail too often forgotten these days). In the case of Tipsy Cake, a hollow was made in the center of the cake and filled with alcohol, which would soak into the cake. The cake was then surrounded with crème anglaise or syllabub and slivers of almonds were stuck all over it. Tipsy Hedgehog was a natural progression from this. The cake was roughly shaped to look hedgehog-like, and was soaked in sherry. The crème anglaise/syllabub surround was accented by a spot of jam (this is what the hedgehog is eating) and the cake itself festooned with almonds.