Early November in the United States is all about elections, particularly every four years when voters head to the booths to decide a new president. But it wasn’t always a late-fall event, and in fact, this recipe highlights how important food traditions are to our history as a nation. And it’s the perfect conversation piece to share with family in friends while you watch the results come in from across the country.
The tradition of the Election Cake dates back to the 17th century. In 1660, both the Rhode Island and Connecticut colonies were granted permission from the crown to choose their own governors – the Governor normally being selected by the King. By 1700, both states had turned the election of the Governor into a major holiday.
The Puritans disdained the religious holidays that they felt were more Pagan or Roman than truly Christian. Election Day, which coincided with the Catholic celebration of Pentecost and the Pagan May Day, became the perfect substitution. Gradually, this and other Puritan holidays spread to other colonies. While others had their Governors appointed, by the 18th century, the colonies all had representative legal bodies that were composed of elected officials.
Election Day was a day-off from work and most chores. The morning began with a fiery sermon in the meetinghouse on the importance of civic responsibility. Wealthier families would have a lavish lunch, which was the primary meal of the day. The evenings were set-aside for “drinkings,” public festivals in all the towns in the area that would be sponsored by the town leaders and business owners.
The centerpiece of these festivals was a very large “cake,” which would traditionally be made of roughly 15 pounds of flour, two pounds of butter, 10 pounds of dried fruit, a dozen eggs, milk, yeast, spices, and a bit of sugar. Too big to fit any pan, it was a kind-of free-form bread baked directly on the floor of a wood-fired oven. The size of the cake depended largely on the size of the town and the available resources – both financial as well as a large enough oven. One cake, for example, was measured at over a yard in diameter and over a foot thick. The purpose of the cake, of course, was to have something hearty that would sop up the large amounts of ale and cider consumed that evening.
A recipe for Election Cake appears in the second edition of the first American cookbook published in this country – Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796):
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 seed, 3 ounces ground alspice; wet 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.
I’m quite fortunate to have a rather large oven at my disposal for an apartment my size. Still, though, not big enough for such a giant. And who would eat it all?
Instead, I opted for a more manageable-sized loaf from Fannie Merrit Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (1896). That the very forward-thinking Farmer included a recipe for Election Cake is somewhat surprising, considering it had fallen out of popularity by the late 19th century. When the United States formed with the achievement of independence, federal elections were held in the fall. For many years, Election Day continued on at the state and local levels in the spring, but by the end of the Civil War, the elections had largely shifted to the November date for consistency. No more Election Day parties.
As a result, one rarely encounters this lovely little recipe, which is really quite a shame. As you can probably tell from the ingredients, it’s really more a bread than a cake. Think of it as a sweet, spicy breakfast loaf. The hearty-ness of the flour and spices coupled with the tang of the dried fruit is remarkably satisfying, particularly for a fall-weather fête. By all means, I’d love to see someone make the large loaf and please do invite me to try the results. Otherwise, these smaller loaves will adequately feed four or five each.
Farmer’s use of a bread dough starter reflects the period where houses generally had a starter dough tucked away to use for daily bread-making. If you’re short on time, thawed frozen bread dough will serve as an adequate starter for this treat. Traditionally, raisins and/or currants would have been the dried fruit, though Farmer uses raisins and chopped figs here. I used dried cranberries which was quite nice – make it your own with what you have. You may also require a bit more flour to bring the dough together – just keep mixing it in by spoonfuls till it does.
For heating, I would recommend 300F-325F for about an hour, though check on it and remove when it’s formed a nice light brown crust. You’ll know the inside is cooked when you carefully hold the loaf in a towel with one hand, and thump the underside of the loaf with your thumb or knuckle. If you hear a hollow sound, it’s done.
Otherwise, Farmer’s recipe needs little other adaptation for today – such was her skill and attention to measurement. Enjoy, and happy election season! Don’t forget to vote.
Fannie Merrit Farmer, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896)
1/2 cup butter
1 cup bread dough
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sour milk
2/3 cup raisins seeded and cut in pieces
8 finely chopped figs
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
Work butter into dough using the hand. Add egg well beaten, sugar, milk, fruit dredged with two tablespoons flour, and flour mixed and sifted with remaining ingredients. Put into a well-buttered bread pan, cover, and let rise one and one-fourth hours. Bake one hour in a slow oven.