Election Cake

Election CakeElection 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.  Continue reading

Monticello English Muffins

Monticello English muffinsMuch is made of Thomas Jefferson’s love for haute cuisine, but when he moved to Washington as president in 1801, he missed the simple muffins made by his cook Peter Hemings back home at Monticello. Well, not that simple — Jefferson’s French chef in Washington could not master them. The president wrote to his daughter Martha, “Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

Peter Hemings was a slave who became head cook at Monticello in 1796, after Jefferson freed his brother James, the previous chef. (They and their sister Sally were probably the children of Jefferson’s late wife’s father.) James had trained in Paris and taught his brother French cooking techniques, but there was a strong tradition of Anglo-American food at Monticello as well. The muffins that Jefferson loved so much were yeast raised and cooked on the griddle — what we now call English muffins. Continue reading

Potato Rolls

potato rolls

This post was originally going to be called “Martha Washington’s Potato Rolls.” I had found recipes by that name in several cookbooks, and thought this would be a straightforward historical re-creation. Well food history is rarely straightforward — haven’t I learned that by now? The recipes turned out to be completely different, and I couldn’t tell which was really Martha’s.

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Graham Bread

graham breadI don’t have a lot of experience with yeast breads, but I couldn’t resist making graham bread after reading about Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister who devoted himself to dietary reform and developed the flour that bears his name. Some of his beliefs were pretty eccentric, but in his enthusiasm for whole grain bread, he was a visionary.

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Sally Lunn bread

I don’t make yeast breads often, so was very pleased with myself when my Sally Lunn bread turned out well. This wonderfully light, brioche-like bread, made either as buns or as a cake, is really not difficult at all, just time-consuming. Legend has it that it was named for a young French Huguenot girl, Solange Luyon, who sold the buns on the streets of Bath, England, in the 1600s, and whose name was Anglicized to Sally Lunn. Another theory is that the name comes from the French soleil et lune, meaning “sun and moon,” from the shape and color of the buns. Continue reading