Presidential elections in America have always been a big deal – the day for voting was merely the culmination of a “national crisis’. In 1831 Alexis de Toqueville traveled across America; upon his return to France he wrote: “A presidential election in the United States may be looked upon as a time of national crisis…” “Long before the date arrives, the election becomes everyone’s major, not to say sole, preoccupation. The ardor of the various factions intensifies, and whatever artificial passions the imagination can create in a happy and tranquil country make their presence felt. . . . As the election draws near, intrigues intensify, and agitation increases and spreads. The citizens divide into several camps, each behind its candidate. A fever grips the entire nation. The election becomes the daily grist of the public papers, the subject of private conversations, the aim of all activity.”
And when voting day arrived, it was time of celebration. Voting is a strenuous business and requires feasting and drinking. Time for cake! Election Cake!
An 1886 book says that, “Election cake was served in private homes and sold outside polling places, so it was frequently made in large batches” . “Mothers sat up all night to watch the batch of twelve or twenty loaves, or called their daughters long before cock-crowing to make investigations; nay, some were known to faint from fatigue while mixing the materials.”
The first recipe for Election Cake fittingly appears in the first uniquely American cookbook published in this country – “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons in 1796 in Hartford, CT. The cookbook was a huge success. A follow-up edition was published the same year since “the call has been so great, and the sales [of American Cookery] so rapid that [the author] finds herself not only encouraged but under a necessity of publishing a second edition.”
This second edition, larger than the first with many additional recipes, was published by the Webster Brothers, George and Charles, of Albany. Their printing shop was on the northwest corner of State and Pearl – the “old Elm tree” corner. (A Citizen’s Bank is located there today.) It was the largest printing establishment in Albany.
The Albany edition appears to be the definitive edition because contains a statement that the person Amelia employed to prepare the first edition omitted essential recipes and included others without her consent. One of recipes omitted was Election Cake, featured prominently in the 2nd edition.
For years it was assumed that Amelia was from Connecticut (the cake recipe is often referred to as the “Hartford Election Cake”) and its genesis was the “muster cakes” prepared for the annual colonial militia musters in Connecticut. But some historians have concluded Amelia was probably from the Hudson Valley, very possibly Albany. Amelia uses the leavening agent pearl ash (a precursor to baking soda) in many of her recipes, which is derived from leaching large amounts of wood. In the late 1700s, the Albany area was a center for the production of potash, i.e., the unrefined source of the pearl ash. Additionally Amelia includes, for the first time in America, recipes for cookies. The word cookie is derived from the Dutch “koekje” – a staple in the Dutch baking. She also included the frst recipe for “slaw” koolsla – Dutch for cabbage salad. Albany Election Cake? Maybe. .
In the 1850’s ads for Election Cake can be found at Mrs. LaGrange’s Tea Cake Bakery on Steuben St. In a nod to Prohibition, the recipe for Election Cake in a 1920 Albany Evening Journal says to substitute lemon juice for booze.
Election Cake was an annual staple in this country until it fell out of fashion in the 1960s, but this year it has been re-discovered and is all the rage.Since we can make a good case for it as another Albany cake, we thought we would jump on the election year cake wagon.
ORIGINAL RECIPE FOR ELECTION CAKE – Amelia Simmons
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 allspice
Wet flour with milk to the consistence of bread overnight, 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.
Updated recipe for Election Day Cake from the Cooking Channel (We selected this one because others exclude the booze.. we like tradition.)
Two .25-ounce envelopes dry active yeast
1 cup warm, but not hot, water (about 105 degrees F)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 cup mixed dried fruit, such as golden raisins, cranberries and pitted prunes, chopped if large
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup American whiskey, bourbon or rye
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons milk
Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a medium bowl. Stir a few times and let stand to allow the yeast to dissolve and begin bubbling, 1 to 2 minutes. Sift 1 1/2 cups of the flour into the bowl and stir until mostly smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place for about 30 minutes. The mixture will expand, loosen in texture and will have large bubbles on the surface.
While that sits, generously butter a 12-cup Bundt pan and set aside. Place the dried fruit, 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar and all of the whiskey in a microwave-safe bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Heat in the microwave until hot and bubbling, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir and set aside to cool. In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour with the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and salt.
Beat the butter with the remaining 1/2 cup brown and the granulated sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until combined (the mixture may look slightly curdled at this stage), and then add 1 teaspoon of the vanilla. Beat in the yeast mixture and then reduce the speed to medium-low and gradually beat in the flour mixture. Add the plumped dried fruit with any remaining liquid and beat on medium speed until the fruit is well blended. The dough should be soft and elastic at this point.
Transfer the dough to the prepared Bundt pan and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until the dough fills the pan about three-quarters of the way, about 2 hours. When is the cake is almost done rising, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the cake until golden brown and a skewer inserted comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes in the pan on a wire rack. Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and turn onto the wire rack to cool completely.
Before serving, stir the confectioners’ sugar with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk. Gradually add as much as needed of the second tablespoon of milk to make a thick glaze that will just gently run. Spoon over the top of the cake, allowing the glaze to slowly run down the outside and inside of the cake.
Note: Some of this material came from online article in the Hartford Courant by Leeanne Griffin (2016) and a blog post “Biography of America’s Earliest Cookbook Author – Amelia Simmons” by Barbara Wells Sarudy.(September 2014)
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor