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One old-fashioned tradition that I think should make a comeback in our modern day is the tradition of making a big fancy cake on Election Day. It seems a bit strange today to think of celebrating Election Day by baking a huge Election cake, but that exactly what many people did in previous centuries.
When looking through my old cookbooks and recipe pamphlets, I used to pass right by the recipes for Election Cake. Even though the cake sounded delicious, I had no idea how I could try a recipe that calls for several gills of yeast. (A gill is about a half a cup.) That would be about a million of those little packets of store bought yeast!
It was only in the past couple of weeks, though, that I realized that I could use a homemade sourdough starter as the yeast in historic recipes like this. Now that I finally have a source of homemade yeast, I just had to try making Election Cake, and it worked out perfectly that I made this yeast discovery just in time to make a cake for Election Day in November!
(And if you’ve never tried making homemade yeast before and would like to give it a try, this is the method I used to make my homemade sourdough yeast.)
A Brief History of Election Day Cakes
Election Day might seem like an odd day to celebrate with a special cake, but back in Colonial Times, Election day was a much bigger deal, especially for those in the New England colonies who were heavily influenced by Puritanism. Many holidays that are often celebrated today, like Christmas, weren’t considered by the Puritans to be appropriate to celebrate, but Election Day was a chance for colonists to enjoy the festivities of a holiday.
Hartford Connecticut is often called the birthplace of the Election Cake. Connecticut was a colony that had the right to elect its own Governor, and Election Day had become a big holiday there by the early 18th century. A central focus of this celebration was the Election Cake.
The Election Cake, like the cakes served at weddings and other special occasions, called for ingredients like sugar, spices, and dried or candied fruits that were often more expensive or took more work to prepare. (There were no seedless raisins back then, so if you wanted raisins in your cake someone had to remove all of the seeds by hand!)
The Election Cake is related to the Muster Cakes or Training Cakes the colonists made on days when men in the militia would gather together for military practice. The ingredients in Election Cake are also very similar to those used in many traditional Christmas fruitcake recipes, so the Puritan colonists got to enjoy their “Christmas” cake after all by having it on a different holiday.
To keep this post from getting any longer, I’ll stop there and post links to some of the history I found online for those who are interested in learning more:
- This article by the Culinary Historians of New York
- This article by The Old Foodie
- This historical note by the Bolton, CT Historical Society
- This article by the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles
Old Hartford Election Cake Recipe
The Election Cake recipe I decided to try comes from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, a cookbook published in 1850. Though I’ve found Election Cake recipes in some of my own old, antique cookbooks, the recipe in this cookbook from the database of the Historical American Cookbook Project includes some spice with it. The recipes in my books are for a plainer cake, so I liked the idea of adding some spice. (And, if I haven’t already mentioned it before, this database is an amazing free resource for anyone interested in historic recipes!)
According to Miss Beecher’s book, this recipe was supposed to be 100 years old as of the writing of the cookbook in 1850 which would date it to around 1750 – if Miss Beecher’s sources were correct, that is. The recipe could have been passed down by word-of-mouth or altered a bit, though, by the time it was printed in 1850.
Historic Version of the Recipe:
This is the version of the recipe printed on page 146 of the book in the section labeled “Rich Cakes.”
- Five pounds of dried and sifted flour
- Two pounds of butter
- Two pounds of sugar
- Three gills of distillery yeast, or twice the quantity of home-brewed.
- Four eggs.
- A gill of wine and a gill of brandy.
- Half an ounce of nutmegs, and two pounds of fruit.
- A quart of milk.
“Rub the butter very fine into the flour, add half the sugar, then the yeast, then half the milk, hot in winter, and blood warm in summer, then the eggs well beaten, the wine, and the remainder of the milk. Beat it well, and let it stand to rise all night. Beat it well in the morning, adding the brandy, the sugar, and the spice. Let it rise three or fours hours, till very light. When you put the wood into the oven, put the cake in buttered pans, and put in the fruit as directed previously. If you wish it richer, add a pound of citron.”
Modern Adaptation of the Recipe:
Since I didn’t need enough cake to feed an entire town, I shortened the recipe to make a more reasonable amount. I also replaced the wine and brandy in the recipe with lemon juice. I’ve seen that substitution in other 19th century cookbooks, and it gives a nice flavor to the cake without disrupting the texture or flavor. You could certainly use wine and brandy, though, if you like. I also omitted the citron this time since I don’t have any in the house at the moment. I’m sure it would be delicious with it, though!
I used a sourdough starter for the yeast in this recipe, following the method I described in my last post. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, though, or it your starter has died, you can still make this cake with modern-day baker’s yeast. You would need to shorten the rising time, and you would lose some of the health benefits of the sourdough, but a packet or two of active dry yeast would work in a pinch. Some of the links I posted above in the history section above include recipes with modern baker’s yeast.
This is my version of the old recipe:
Modern Adaptation of Old Hartford Election Cake
Note: This recipe calls for adding milk and raw eggs to the dough and then letting it rise overnight. I followed the original historic recipe in this regard to keep it as authentic as possible, but current food safety practices warn against leaving foods such as milk and eggs out at room temperature for a longer period like that. The cake is being baked at high heat afterwards, but just to be on the safe side I would recommend using your own discretion when deciding whether or not you want to follow this method. Alternatively, you could mix up the dough and let it rise in the fridge, but it will probably need to rise for longer because the cold temperatures of the fridge slow down the yeast activity.
- 4 cups flour (baker’s choice*)
- 2 sticks butter
- 1 1/4 cups Whole Cane Sugar
- 3/4 cup homemade yeast (sourdough starter)
- 1 egg
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3/4 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup currants (or another 1/2 cup raisins)
- 1 1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (for more spice flavor, you can use 2 tsp)
- The juice of one lemon plus enough water to equal 1/2 cup
* I used whole wheat flour for this recipe since I knew that the whole grains would be properly prepared with the sourdough process. For a fluffier texture, though, you could add in a bit of unbleached, unenriched all-purpose flour to make it a bit lighter (although the texture turned out pretty good with the whole wheat flour too!)
The Night Before:
- Measure the flour out into a bowl.
- Cut in the butter with a pastry blender the same way you would for a pie pastry.
- Warm the milk in a pan on the stove (but don’t let it get so hot that you can’t comfortably put your finger in it,) and then add it to the flour along with the sourdough starter and half the amount of sugar (about a half cup.)
- Beat the egg with a whisk for a couple of minutes and then add it to the bowl.
- Stir everything together and “beat” it. The dough is a bit sticky and wetter than what you would normally think of as a bread dough, so beating is kind of like a sloppy kneading. Basically, I just kneaded the bread for a minute or two and then punched at it with my fist for about another minute.
- Cover the bowl with a towel that has been slightly dampened and let it sit overnight to rise. The length of time it needs to rise really depends on the time of year, the temperature of your house, and the type of sourdough starter you have. Since it’s getting colder here in New England, I let mine rise for about 12 hours. (Note: my bread didn’t actually rise very much visibly. It didn’t double in size like some yeasted breads do. It just got lighter and fluffier. I’m guessing that the sugar kept it from rising as much as some other bread recipes.)
The Next Morning:
- Once the dough has risen (it should feel fluffy, and poking it with your finger should leave a dent in it,) add in the rest of the sugar, the nutmeg, the raisins and currants, and the lemon juice and water.
- “Beat” it again by kneading and pounding it.
- Transfer the dough to a greased 13×9 pan and let it rise again. The rising time will be shorter this time, again depending on factors like warmth of your kitchen. Mine took about six hours. If you want to speed up the rising time a bit, you could preheat your oven to 350 degrees and set the pan of dough on top so the heat can help it rise faster.
- When the dough is light enough, (again, it won’t visibly look like it’s risen much, but it should feel fluffy when you poke it – it will rise more when it bakes,) put it in a 350 degree oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
I used powdered whole cane sugar to make a bit of icing to drizzle over my cake. Many old-fashioned recipes call for icings with “pounded loaf sugar” so I made my own version of this by putting the whole cane sugar in the blender (a food processor would work too, I’m sure) and just blending it for a minute or two. It turned it into a surprisingly fine powder. For a more convenient modern adaptation, you could certainly use store bought powdered confectioner’s sugar too.
- 1 cup whole cane sugar (powdered in a blender or food processor) or 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1/4 tsp lemon extract
- 5 tsp water
A Taste of History
This Election cake reminds me of a cross between traditional Christmas fruitcake and raisin bread. The texture is denser than a modern cake, but lighter than a loaf of regular sourdough bread. It is only mildly sweet, unlike most sugar-laden cakes today, but the fruit and the icing provide just the right balance of sweetness.
Eating a slice of this cake feels like a true taste of history. Since this was my first time making an Election cake and my first experiment with using sourdough for anything but a loaf of bread, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, but I now have a fun and historic tradition to celebrate Election Day.
This post is linked to Sunday School at Butter Believer, Natural Living Monday at Natural Living Mamma, Clever Chicks Blog Hop at The Chicken Chick, Eat Make Grow Thursday at Foy Update, and Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.