Election Cake (adapted for the Web from China Bayles' Book of Days for November 4)
Here in Pecan Springs, as everywhere across the country, we'll be voting tomorrow. And since it's bound to be a big day (and a long evening), we'll want a little something for snacks.
The tradition of celebrating an electoral victory (or consoling yourself for an electoral loss) with food seems to be a long one. I was browsing through an early nineteenth-century cookbook the other day when I came across a recipe for something called Election Cake. “Old-fashioned election cake,” I read, “is made of four pounds of flour . . . .”
Election cake? I’d never heard of it!
But some online research pulled up an answer, in an article written by the well-known food historian Alice Ross. Election cake, Miss Ross says, was a tradition that began back in England, with the “Great Cake,” rich, spicy fruit-filled cakes baked to celebrate important family or community occasions, such as weddings, births, funerals, and holidays.
One such occasion arose during the Revolutionary War, when men flocked to the colonial towns to report for duty in the Revolutionary Army. According to Ross, the inns and taverns served cake: “Mustering Cake.” After the War, men came to town again—this time to vote in elections for which they had fought and died. It was time to celebrate again, this time, with “Election Cake.”
The recipe for Election Cake appears in the second edition of Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1800, online at Project Gutenberg)—a truly American cookbook, with recipes for such colonial novelties as Johnny Cake, Indian Slapjacks, “Pompkin pudding” (the first pumpkin pie), cooked squash with whortleberries, even the quintessentially American Spruce Beer. What’s more, Mrs. Simmons was the first cookbook author to use the word "cooky," from the Dutch “koekje,” the treats offered in colonial New York to holiday callers.
So it seems altogether appropriate that American Cookery should include recipes for three American cakes: Independence Cake, Federal Pan Cake, and Election Cake. Here is Amelia Simmons’s recipe for a cake that was obviously intended to be served to a large crowd of enthusiastic (and hungry) voters.
30 quarts 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 seed*
3 ounces ground allspice
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.
*Colander seed is coriander seed, which was brought to Britain by the Romans. It was once used extensively in confectionery. “The seeds are quite round, like tiny balls,” Mrs. Grieve tells us, “about the size of a Sweet Pea Seed . . . The longer they are kept the more fragrant they become, with a warm pungent taste.” Coriander seed was kept whole and roasted and ground before use. You might want to include more coriander in your diet. The Chinese thought it conferred immortality!
** “Plumbs” are dried raisins. A Washington Post article reports that one teacher and her students baked an Election Cake as part of their study of the voting process. Queried about what they liked and didn't like about the cake, one boy, who wasn't too keen on raisins, voted for replacing the raisins with double chocolate chips.
For a more manageable recipe (but still rich in the traditional spices that made this cake special) try this adaptation from Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking School Cookbook:
1/2 cup butter
8 finely chopped figs
1 cup bread dough
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sour milk
1/4 teaspoon clove
2/3 cup raisins seeded, and cut in pieces
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1. Work butter into dough, using the hand.
2. Add egg well beaten, sugar, milk, fruit dredged with two tablespoons flour, and flour mixed and sifted with remaining ingredients.
3. Put into a well-buttered bread pan, cover, and let rise one and one-fourth hours.
4. Bake one hour in a slow oven.
5. Cover with Boiled Milk Frosting.
Boiled Milk Frosting
1 teaspoon butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Put the butter into a saucepan and, when it is melted, add the sugar and milk. Stir until the boiling-point is reached and then boil for 10 minutes without stirring (235 degrees). Remove from the heat, add vanilla and beat until of spreading consistency.
And be sure to vote!