Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot about the colonial American tradition of the Election Cake – Have you heard about this? I pride myself on learning obscure, historical reasons to celebrate just about anything, but until I spotted articles on the topic a few weeks ago I had no idea this was a thing. There’s a been a lot of negativity this election season, and with November 8th so close (and with my love of history piqued), I immediately had to know more – and I knew I had to make my own cake to bring back a little positivity to this whole affair.
As a note, I am not a scholar of early American history by any means, and this is not meant to be a scholarly-researched article – but I hope you find its contents as interesting as I do nonetheless!
The Election Cake
The term ‘election cake’ refers to a tradition in the earliest days of American democracy, when the privilege of participating in the voting process was elevated to the height of celebration, second only to Thanksgiving (according to some sources). During this time, women baked giant cakes and brought them to voting sites as a means to help muster votes, along with copious amounts of booze. While references to election cake can be found as early as 1771 in Connecticut (prior to the American Revolution of 1775), the earliest known written recipe can be found in Amelia Simmons 1796 edition of her cookbook, American Cookery – it must have be gigantic:
“Election cake – Thirty quarts of flour, ten pounds butter, fourteen pounds sugar, twelve pounds raisins, three dozen eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, four ounces cinnamon, four ounces fine colander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; 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 risen light, work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”
According to the techniques of the time, the dough was allowed to rise overnight. This is because these early baked goods would have been naturally leavened, as artificial leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda (staples in modern cake-baking techniques) where not available until the mid-to-late 1800’s.
The tradition was first brought to my attention through an article written by Keia Mastrianni for Bon Appetit – “’Election Cake’ Makes a Modern Day Resurgence”. After providing a brief summary of its history, the article describes a modern viral campaign among bakers across the country looking to resurrect this idea for this year’s election. The clever hashtag they invented – #makeamericacakeagain – is just fantastic. Through this cooperation, a portion of all election day cake sales from their bakeries will go to the League of Women Voters “in honor of the women who didn’t have access to formal channels of voting in the early days of American democracy”, writes Mastrianni. I encourage you to follow the link above to learn more about the campaign and its orchestrators.
Fascinated as I was by the idea, I started looking up more articles on this little piece of history. Rather than try to recount a historical topic I am not sufficiently versed in, below are some great articles I found that give a full history, book references, and recipes should you also be interested in learning more:
- What’s Cooking America features an in-depth chronology of the history of the election cake, as well as a modern recipe: https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/ElectionCake.htm
- The Nourished Kitchen provides a short history and a solid traditional recipe with a sourdough starter: http://nourishedkitchen.com/election-cake-a-touch-of-american-culinary-history/
- The American Historical Association tried their hand at their own version of election cake: http://blog.historians.org/2016/11/election-cake/
- The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles features an article by Alice Ross on the history, with reproduced original recipes: http://www.journalofantiques.com/Oct03/hearthoct03.htm
This is just what I found in an afternoon of internet searching. If you find any interesting sources or articles, please share them in the comments!
Apple Cider Bundt with Sweet Brandy Glaze
Recipe adapted from the Chowning’s Tavern Apple Cider Cake from The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook (2001)
As noted in the above articles, a traditional election cake would have been a naturally leavened dense cake similar to a fruit or coffee cake in consistency. For this reason many modern takes on the election cake involve the use of a sourdough starter. While I think playing with a historic recipe would be a fun endeavor at some point, at the moment and in the current political climate, I decided my cake would be something less experimental and guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser, complete with the modern addition of baking soda rather than yeast.
Wanting to at least make something of a period-piece, I turned to my collection of Colonial Williamsburg cookbooks for ideas. I found what I was looking for in The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, which contains recipes for many of the meals served in the historical location’s restaurants. The Apple Cider Cake is perfect for the fall, and like the traditional election cake contains fruits and spices while still bearing the simple process of a cake you (and I) are likely used to making in a Bundt pan. To make it a little more like our model, I added some raisins and some liquor in the form a Sweet Brandy Glaze.
I have to tell you it came out beautifully, and would be a wonderful addition not only for your Election Day, but for your Thanksgiving Day table. Even my husband, who is not a huge fan of fruit-based desserts, thought it was pretty good, and that’s high praise!
Apple Cider Bundt Cake with Sweet Brandy Glaze
Recipe adapted from The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook (2001)
- 4 medium apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup salted butter, melted and cooled
- 3 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 cup hazelnuts, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1 cup apple cider
- 2 tablespoons Cognac or other brandy
- 1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a non-stick Bundt pan with enough butter to fill in all the nooks and crannies. I find it easiest to get in there with my fingers to make sure each area is fully coated, and so far it seems to make for easy removal later.
Mix the chopped apples with the sugar in a medium-sized bowl and set aside for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. This allows the fruit to macerate, which is a technical way of saying release its delicious juices and get wonderfully gooey.
In your largest bowl, combine the dry ingredients – flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Add the raisins and nuts.
Once the butter is fully cooled, whisk it together with the eggs in a separate bowl. Fold the egg-butter mixture and then the apples into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon. The batter may be very thick – I usually end up using my hands to make sure everything is fully combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan. Bake for about 45 minutes, until an inserted fork or toothpick comes out clean (I find my oven always takes longer than most recipes suggest – just keep adding time in small increments until you’ve reached doneness, but be careful not to over-bake!). Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes in the pan before inverting it onto a wire rack. Allow to cool completely before applying the glaze.
To make the Sweet Brandy Glaze, start by bringing the apple cider to a rolling boil in a small sauce pan. Boil until reduced by half, and then let cool slightly to room temperature. Add the confectioners’ sugar and brandy and whisk until incorporated. The glaze will be very thin. Drizzle (or pour) all over your delicious cake while still somewhat warm. I added a small dusting of confectioners sugar - feel free to do the same. Store in the fridge, or serve immediately – your choice!
Avoiding Mess When Applying Glazes: Perhaps it’s just my particular Bundt cakes, but the shape of my mold creates perfect little channels for the glaze to stream out and down onto my counter if I’m not careful. This resulted in fabulous messes the first few times I tried drizzling glazes on, often at the worst possible times. Since then, I’ve learned a few tricks: First, don’t wait to apply the glaze until it’s on the stand or dish you want to serve it on – You will get glaze all over your pretty serving ware before a guest even gets to see it! For a thin glaze, like in this recipe, I make sure my counter is clear of clutter (in case of spillage) and set the cake on a large piece of parchment paper before applying. Once it’s soaked into the cake and hardened bit, I can then transfer the cake to a serving stand or plate. For a thicker glaze that will harden more quickly, I perform the same set-up, but place a wire rack on the parchment paper, and then the cake on top of that. Using a spoon, I drizzle the thick glaze onto the cake in small amounts so that it makes stripes and dots all over, rather than just pour off the sides.
Alternate Ingredients: I used hazelnuts because that's what I had in my cabinets - I'm sure pecans or walnuts would work great too!
No matter your politics or point of view, get out to vote this Tuesday – and even better, remember a bit of history by also making (or picking up) a cake for the occasion. Whether your candidate wins or losses, you’ll be set for the evening. Let’s all join the movement and #makeamericacakeagain.