The story of Election Cake actually begins somewhat earlier, in the British countryside. Indeed, the cake itself was not a dessert, as sweet confections were not commonly used to end meals. Most people had no ovens, not enough fuel, and very limited access (if any) to the required but expensive sugar and spices. Most 17th- and 18th-century meals were concluded with fruit in season, nuts, and cheese, if there was any finishing course at all. However, depending on economic status and the occasion, people did indulge in a sweet treat, particularly at important holidays or community celebrations. At such times the presence of an imposing Great Cake (one of a family of similar festive cakes) underscored the importance of the event. Dramatically expensive ingredients, lengthy preparation time, and sweet, rich deliciousness said it all.
Great Cakes were brought out at a variety of occasions, among them important weddings, family gatherings, or state occasions. They were often large yeast cakes, enriched with sugar, eggs, and butter. Spices, wine, and dried fruits were incorporated to heighten sweetness. In fact, they were very like the traditional fruit cakes we knew before chemically-preserved fruits overshadowed their lovely flavors. It must have required a few days just to get the ingredients ready – to pound the sugar into fine crystalline form, grind spices, stone raisins, cut imported candied citron fine, to cleanse the flour with several siftings, and to dry it at the hearth it to remove excess moisture. The immense quantities prepared required lengthy rising periods and long slow baking. Something that a modest family could easily take on, this was often the province of substantial kitchens, taverns, or professional caterers and bakeries. The dense cake had the particular advantages of aging well (enabling the bakers to work ahead) and of slicing easily into small, firm pieces, convenient for feeding a crowd.
And crowds came. Under the English colonial American farmers were called to military practice. They traveled (sometimes for days) and descended on the nearest designated towns for days of training sessions (“mustering”) and nights of socializing, carousing, and partaking of what became known as “Muster Cake.” Townsfolk, of necessity, had prepared for the onslaught by baking and cooking for the numbers that would fill every bed in homes, taverns, and inns. The business of the day was one thing to the trainees, but another to townsfolk who capitalized on the opportunity to sell vittles and rent out sleeping space. After the War of Independence, the social institution remained, largely unchanged, but overlaid onto the new Election Day. Travel time to the polling places had not changed, and the logistics of a week of spirited fun away from home was as attractive as the voting. The dates were scheduled to accommodate passable roads and lulls in farm work, just as Muster Days had been (when the roads were dry but the fields too wet to plow, or after harvest but before the snows) and the same convivial gatherings carried over. Again men made their way to town in droves and stayed for several days, arriving early enough to take in the electioneering, to vote, to drink, and then to hang around for the results. The cake continued to be a special feature of the event, its name was transposed to “Election Cake.”
One of the interesting stories of this cake is that it was often called “Hartford Election Cake.” Eighteenth-century Hartford (Connecticut) was the capital of an important New England colony, powerful, wealthy, and one of the seats of fashion, and it was undoubtedly famous for a cake of high standards. Even before independence, records of the Colonial Connecticut General Assembly (1771) show that the baker Ezekiel Williams. Esq., submitted a bill for the cost of making cake “for the election.” He may have been fortifying those working on the lengthy – sometimes overnight – tabulation of countryside results and the consequent choices of officials who would serve under the English. Or he may have provisioned the Hartford Election Ball, an annual social highlight.
In any case, the city was famous for its baking – housewives established their reputations as socialites and hostesses on the quality of their cakes. Connecticut historian J. Hammond Trumbell (1886) wrote about it this way:
...Election Day (the first Thursday in May), the reddest letter in our calendar, brightened the whole year. Good housekeepers were expected to have finished their spring cleaning long before... ‘lection cake was rising to make ready for the oven: and few homes were too poor to offer these refreshments to visitors.
The recipes were themselves most entertaining. “Election Cake” was among the cakes offered in Amelia Simmons’ second edition of American Cookery (1796), the first truly American cookbook of the New World. [Note: her first edition was printed in Hartford, strengthening the connection between the cake and its American sources.] She surely had a crowd in mind when she asked for thirty quarts flour, ten pounds butter, fourteen pounds of sugar, twelve pounds raisins, three dozen eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, four ounces cinnamon, four ounces fine colander seed, three ounces ground allspice...
The recipe further required milk, yeast, and plumbs (dried fruits, raisins). Cakes in such quantities were baked in brick ovens. Their pans were simple rings or hoops, perhaps 3 inches high and sized with different diameters, set onto baking sheets, and sometimes lined with parchment for a good seal. Presumably the large ones took several hours in a cooling, low to moderate oven. Simmons’ basic version continued to appear in cookbooks throughout the 19th century, and was prepared wherever the English culinary heritage survived–in the Anglican South, the Congregational North, and the new western territories as they were settled.
Although Election Cake was associated with riotous escapades and high society, it may have had another side. Edward Kendall, traveling in the North (1807-8) believed the ritual had roots in religious practice. He postulated that rituals of Election Day (and cake) had compensated Americans for the loss of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which the principles of their church deny them. Families exchange visits, and treat their guests with slices of election-cake; and thus preserve some portion of the luxuries of the forgotten feast of the Epiphany. Secularization was not a new story, and preservation of old religious-based customs by grafting them onto secular ones is a common theme in ethnology.
The extraordinary importance of Election Day as a political and social symbol waned by the end of the 19th century. For one thing, roads had improved, and the time it took to get to polling places had decreased considerably. In fact, as cities grew, larger numbers of Americans who voted locally had no need for the extended hospitality and entertainment important to travelers. The cake gradually disappeared. The few surviving references to the recipe often referred to its honorable tradition, and labeled it “an old recipe.” But for the most part it succumbed to the new rage in cakes – the use of chemical leaveners to make light, filled and iced layer cakes, as high and delicate as possible. There were occasional attempts to convert the standard election cake to a chemically-leavened one, but it was clearly no match.
A brief sampling of late 19th-century suggests that it simply disappeared. At the turn of the 20th century, tradition-bound communities – Small Town, USA – may have kept it in the repertoire as a patriotic tribute to the past. Although it was not to be found in trendy modern cookbooks, Ella Smith’s large recipe collection (Smithtown, NY, 1904) contained traditional Election Cakes, each donated by someone who felt that this cake was an important representation of their time and place and an important addition to Ella’s intended cookbook. Election Cake, heavy and dense with dried and candied fruits, was surviving as its cousin Fruit Cake, an important constituent of wedding and holiday menus.
After 1900, Election Day in the cities lost a good deal of this tradition. Large influxes of non-English immigrants kept different holiday customs, and the restitution and commercialization of Christmas and Easter probably weakened its appeal. We were no longer the only democracy, and such things as popular elections may not have seemed as uniquely American. My mother, born in 1904 in New York City, had no memory of special Election Day festivities or cakes. Indeed our most vivid memories of the pre-World War II holiday had little to do with cake and more to do with large bonfires in vacant lots and the raucous spirits of those dancing around them.
You can choose any of these versions of Election Cake. My own preference is for the earliest, made with yeast. As it is easily done in advance and stores very well, so the long preparation may we worth the effort. And, in keeping with culinary tradition, you can make more than one at a time and store them (now in the freezer, perhaps). In either case, they are lovely toasted and buttered, and a perfect addition to Election Day Brunch.
The following recipe (Eliza Leslie, 1848) is still quite true to its origins.
It seems like a good deal of work, but is such an excellent cake that I think it is well worth the effort. Note: many Election Cake recipes do not go into the same detail as Leslie; some direct the cook to use bread dough that has risen overnight and then enrich it in the morning. In any case, Leslie’s consistent attention to such detail makes her an important resource. The gill mentioned in these recipes equals 1 cup.
These 1904 versions from Ella Smith’s collection are somewhat different from some of the earlier ones. Not only do they produce smaller batches, but they also use fewer spices and much more sugar and milk, yielding a texture and a flavor much closer to popular layer cakes of the day. Note that the first recipe has indeed come from a friend in Hartford, Conn., whose recipes may be more authentic and where the honored local tradition may have lasted longer.
Note: The sponge method does an early rising of some of the flour, the liquid, and the yeast. Later the rest of the ingredients are incorporated for a second rise.
The purpose of the sponge is to activate the fermentation more quickly in a thin batter and without the presence of ingredients that might slow the yeast.
Ella copied this recipe from a local fund-raising cookbook she bought while on vacation. This kind of “borrowing” was common and considered legitimate if proper credit was given. This Election Cake recipe is most important as it shows an attempt to convert from yeast to baking soda, thereby shortening preparation time considerably. It is probably enough for one loaf. and going one step beyond the above recipe in its ingredients, has moved further away from the character of yeast baking to the light tea-cakes that would have suited period fashion.