Lately I’ve been thinking about how to write a post about political food without, well, getting into politics. Since food is so much a part of our lives, it’s hardly surprising that it would play a part in our political lives, too. For you dairy fans, there are two strange examples of food gifts to politicians: the 1,400 lb “Jackson Cheese,” gifted to the President Jackson in 1837 (with additional 700 lb cheeses given to Van Buren and four others for politicians/political organizations of the time) and the 1,234 lb “Cheshire Mammoth Cheese,” gifted to then-president Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Both are interesting stories (after all, what does one do with a half ton or more of cheese??) and worth reading about. But I was looking for something a bit more accessible–we have no recipe for giant cheese that I’m aware of in the collection. What we do have, though, are recipes for “Election Cake.” (I know, I know, it’s not November yet–but I’m sharing this in advance, in case anyone want to make it for Election Day!)
I’ve got four variations of “Election Cake” to share today, though there are some definite similarities between the three versions from the 18th and 19th centuries. (The origin of American “Election Cake” is actually in the 17th century, so it’s been around a while!) The latest of the bunch is from 1914 and is also the most distinct, reflecting not a change in politics or views, but a change in kitchen and baking technologies (we’ll come back to that in a moment).
Amelia Simmons’ “Election Cake,” c. 1796, in American Cookery
Amelia Simmons’ “Election Cake,” c. 1796, in American Cookery. She also has other “political” recipes like “Independence Cake” and “Federal Pan Cake.”
The amount of ingredients in Simmons’ recipe, as you may notice, are quite large. This gets the origins of “Election Cake,” which was often commissioned by local officials in celebration of elections (and may have also been a way to entice voters to the polls). So, rather than a cake for a family or a small party, 18th century “Election Cakes” were designed to feed large crowds. Through the 19th century, such cakes were also time consuming. One had to make a mixture that would sit for hours (and even overnight) before it could be finished and baked.
Lydia Maria Child’s recipe for “Election Cake,” 1844, in The American Frugal Housewife
Lydia Maria Child’s recipe is of a more manageable size, designed for the small/home baker. Her recipe first appeared in print in an earlier edition of The American Frugal Housewife from 1833. Like Simmons, though, her recipe relies on time and effort. This “single-loaf” version, as we might call it, occurs commonly in the time period. The first American version of Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, published in Philadelphia in 1831, includes an “Election Cake” with the following directions:
Take 5 lbs flour, 2 lbs sugar, 3/4 lbs butter, 5 eggs, yeast, 1 pint of milk, and spice as you please.
Hopefully, a good baker would know what to do from there? At any rate, the recipe’s history in America goes back to at least, the late 18th century, and cakes of the same or similar ingredients or techniques can be found in the British tradition as early as the mid-17th century (though with different monikers). Two other American variations sometimes appear in books as “Hartford Election Cake” or “Old Hartford Election Cake.” There is a story behind that, too. Alternatively, because in some places in New England Election Day was also “Muster Day” or “Training Day,” you might also find recipes for “Muster Cake” or “Training Cake” that seem remarkably familiar.
Handwritten “Election Cake” recipe from the Elvira Jane Hanna Receipt Book (Ms2013-052)
Elvira Jane Hanna’s receipt book of recipes also features “Election Cake.” The instructions she recorded are less detailed than Child’s and more so than Mackenzie’s, but it’s easy to see that the published version was making the household rounds. Although we don’t have exact dates for Hanna’s manuscript cookbook, we believe it dates to about the mid-19th century, certainly during the time that Child, Mackenzie, and others were sharing the cake. Skipping ahead a bit, one can still find “Election Cake” published in the 20th century.
“Election Cake” from Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1914
The first edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was published in 1896 and “Election Cake” was among the recipes. However, our earliest edition of this title is from 1914. “Election Cake” was a staple in the Fannie Farmer classic cookbook in all its later editions, too. But, it has slightly different approach: it includes bread dough as an ingredient (which, one would have have to make or have on hand), adds more fruit and spices, incorporates baking soda as a leavening agent, and it even gets frosting! Most notable, perhaps, though, is the middle item on that list. We begin to see a modernization of this recipe that relies on new ingredients that can speed up the once-overnight process. Farmer’s book tells us one need only let the mixture rise for 1 1/4 hours, not overnight, or even the 3 hours suggested by Child in warm weather.
Of course, I’ve cherry picked some variations, but there are plenty more out there–and on our shelves, too! So, whether you’re looking to celebrate the election or drown your sorrows in delicious, cake-y goodness, you might want to think about an “Election Cake.” Regardless of the politics, cake will most certainly make you a winner among your constituency.