How to Make: Garfield Cake

Garfield Cake recipe

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Welcome back to Tenacious Genealogy! It’s Friday and that means another historical recipe. Today I’m going to show off my attempt at making a Garfield Cake.

No – not that Garfield…

This Garfield…

James A. Garfield (1831-1881) President (1881)


Tenacity in the face of Trials (and failed cookery)

Originally I was going to make an old rendition of Floating Islands (a French meringue and custard dessert) for today, but it didn’t quite work out… So instead I figured I’d try a simple(r) dessert named after the 20th President of the United States. James Abram Garfield.

Some context: in the late 19th century, it was super popular to name desserts after famous people – including presidents. So you have Garfield cake, Grant cake (after Ulysses S Grant), a variety of Lincoln cakes, so on and so forth. These usually weren’t terribly fancy desserts. The ingredients for your typical cake (eggs, butter, milk, flour, etc) and then something exotic or festive to make it fancy. They were also usually denser, drier cakes. A perfect pairing for someone’s morning coffee or afternoon tea.

The interesting thing about this specific cake is how it was basic the recipe was. And by basic, I mean, there were no instructions. Only ingredients.

Look, ma! No instructions!


But as with most old-fashioned recipes, I’m betting that whoever wrote this cookbook expected the homemakers and home bakers to know exactly how to make this recipe. And they probably did. Or they just winged it like me…

As for where this recipe came from, I couldn’t tell you the exact cookbook off the top of my head. There are many old cookbooks from the 1880s and 1890s that had similar recipes to this one. However, there are a couple of websites that you will want to check out if you like historical recipes like I do. Vintage Cookbooks is a great site that has links to dozens of cookbooks ranging from pre-1800s to 1939. Michigan State University also has an amazing digitized cookbook archive called Feeding America that I highly recommend checking out.

Original Recipe:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons Cleveland’s superior baking powder
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup walnut meets

My Version of the Recipe:

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter (melted)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup shelled & chopped walnuts


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  2. Mix all of the dry goods (sugar, flour, & baking powder) together.
  3. Add in eggs, melted butter, & milk.
  4. Mix until dough is formed.
  5. Add in raisins and walnuts, then mix everything together.
  6. Heavily grease square pan (I recommend the 8×8 Pyrex glass pan)
  7. Put in oven for 60 minutes, checking every 20 minutes.

Garfield Cake in the Modern Day

Eggs, Sugar, Flour, Walnuts, Raisins, Baking Powder, Milk, and Melted Butter (in a cup) + Laptop with ‘recipe’ on it.


As you can tell – this is a pretty basic cake recipe. The raisins and walnuts would have been the exotic addition, but otherwise, pretty standard baking fare.

Cake ‘dough’ in 8×8 Pyrex pan


You can mix the dough by hand (like I did) or put it in an electric mixer. If you do mix it by hand, you will probably develop Popeye-like muscles because this is a thick dough – especially once you add the raisins and walnuts. I recommend you also smooth out the batter/dough so that it fills the whole pan and cooks more evenly.

Garfield Cake!


Sliced Garfield Cake


After 60 minutes in the oven, this is what you get. Interestingly enough, despite mixing the ingredients thoroughly, the cake ended up have a sweet sugary shell that hardened on top of it. The edges were also crispy, but not burnt. So while this would not be a great birthday cake substitution, as mentioned above, it would make a great addition to coffee or tea.

Fun Facts about James A Garfield

Any blog post about Garfield cake would be remiss without a few facts about one of the lesser known US presidents.

  1. James Abram Garfield was born on November 19th, 1831 and died September 19th, 1881. (Exactly two months short of his 50th birthday.)
  2. He was married to Lucretia Rudolph in 1858 and they had 7 children before his death. (I highly recommend checking out the Wikipedia article on her. Apparently, she was a mover and a shaker and in many ways, a forerunner to other First Ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt.)
  3. Had the second shortest Presidential term in US history (only President for 6 months and 15 days).
  4. Is often overlooked by Presidential historians because of his short term in office, despite doing a lot to promote civil rights for African Americans, increase educational opportunities, and fight corruption in the Federal government.
  5. Is more known for being a purported victim of the Curse of Tippecanoe.
  6. Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was his Secretary of War.
  7. There are 6 counties in the United States named after James A. Garfield.  (In Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, and Washington)

Comments? Questions?

Comments or questions about the recipe? Have you been able to try it before? Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!

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