Election Day used to be a lot more fun. In late 18th and early 19th century America, it was a festive holiday, featuring parades, dancing, and lots of food and drink. The culinary highlight was a sweetened, fruit-filled yeast bread called election cake.
This cake seems to have originated in Hartford, Connecticut, although it is really a descendant of the English “great cakes” made for grand occasions. It was a bread-like cake made from a dough sponge, which was usually left to rise overnight and mixed with butter, molasses or sugar, eggs, raisins, spices, and brandy.
The first reference to election cake is in the Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut. In a May 1771 entry, Ezekiel Williams, Esq. of Hartford billed the Connecticut General Assembly for the cost of making “cake for the election.” Election Day was a big deal in colonial Connecticut because this state’s residents (well, the white men) were allowed to elect their own governor, not have one appointed for them by the British king. Town representatives traveled by horseback to Hartford for this springtime election, and stayed several nights. The women of Hartford baked cakes to celebrate the occasion and sustain their out-of-town visitors.
Food historian Stephen Schmidt has written that Election Day became a major holiday in Puritan New England because the “Romish” religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, were discouraged in these colonies. Even the non-Puritans tended not to celebrate them. They were replaced by secular celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Election Day, and Muster or Training Days, when New England farmers traveled to towns to practice military drills. Some of the Muster Day traditions (including yeast cake) carried over to the election, which was often held on the same day.
The early Election Day holidays typically began with a sermon at the local meeting house, followed by dinners and then public “drinkings,” courtesy of prominent families or the governor. Huge election cakes were served at these festivities — Schmidt has calculated that they typically measured a yard across and a foot high! They were so big they had to be baked on the oven floor, not in pans.
The first known published recipe for Election Cake is in Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796 second edition), and it sounds large enough to feed everyone in Hartford:
Thirty quarts of flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine colander [coriander] seed, 3 ounces ground alspice; wet the flour with milk to the consistence of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.
Election cakes became common throughout New England and farther west, although by the early 1800s relatively smaller cakes, made in large pans, were the norm. Eventually loaf pans were used as well. The cakes were served to friends or sold at polling places. They were made for town meetings as well. Some of the cakes contained candied citron and nuts, and many were glazed or frosted. The batter itself became richer and sweeter over time, too — less like bread.
In the 1830s, the election cake tradition took a nefarious turn in Hartford, where it was allegedly given as a reward for voting a straight party ticket. Talk about a rigged election! By this time, Election Day celebrations were in decline. The temperance movement was on the rise, and private parties were replacing the “drinkings.” Also, with most national elections taking place in November, the springtime elections lost some of their importance. After the Civil War, virtually all elections were held in November, and the spring election holiday disappeared. Election cake survived, particularly in New England, but largely as a nostalgic treat. (Fannie Merritt Farmer still included a recipe for it in the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.)
I think Election Day festivities should be resurrected. Perhaps they would improve moods and mend fences in this contentious election year. Public drinkings might not be a good idea, but cake always is. The following is an adaptation of an election cake by Richard Sax, from Classic Home Desserts. Sax’s recipe is closely based on the traditional Hartford cake. This cake tastes good spread with butter and accompanied by coffee or tea — the perfect fortification before heading out to vote.
Adapted from a recipe by Richard Sax in Classic Home Desserts.
1 package (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1½ cups lukewarm whole milk
3¼–3½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground mace
1 cup raisins
2–3 tablespoons brandy or dark rum (optional)
1. To make the sponge (see sponge ingredients): Combine the yeast and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar with 1/4 cup of the milk. Let stand about 10 minutes, until bubbly, then stir in the remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar and the rest of the milk. (Rewarm the milk if necessary.) Gradually add the flour until it forms a soft dough. Knead in a food processor for 1 minute, in a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook for about 5 minutes, or by hand for 10 minutes. Place dough in a buttered bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in volume.
2. To make the cake (see cake ingredients): In a large bowl, cream the butter with the brown sugar using an electric mixer, until light. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Punch down the sponge and add it to the butter mixture. Beat with a spoon until partially combined (the dough is too thick at this stage for an electric mixer).
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and the spices, then add the raisins and toss together. Add the flour mixture to the dough, along with the brandy or rum, if using. Beat well.
4. Butter two 8-x-4-inch loaf pans. Pour half of the dough into each pan. Cover and let rise until the dough has doubled, about one hour. Preheat the oven to 350°F near the end of the rising period.
5. Bake loaves until they are golden brown and slightly hollow when tapped, 45–55 minutes. Cool loaves in the pans for 15 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack, and turn right side up to cool completely. Serve sliced, with butter if desired. Can be stored wrapped in plastic for several days.