Tidbit Wednesday?: Election Cake

You may have noticed that it’s not Tuesday.

Doesn’t have the same ring.

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My bad.

I was pretty busy yesterday, running here and there and doing things like voting. Oh, right, there was that election thing yesterday. Woo!

WE ARE BOTH SO INTENSE TAKE US SRSLY.

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So lemme ask ya this:

Ever heard of Election cake? Now ya have.

Errrm….not….exactly….

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Election cake is a bit of a mystery. Food historians tend to agree that the cake, which wasn’t really a cake at all but a sweetened yeast bread made with dried fruit and spices, first appeared in America in 18th century New England. More specifically, it originated in Hartford, Connecticut, which is supposedly the reason it’s also called a Hartford cake. The first printed recipe is often credited to Amelia Simmons in her 1796 cookbook, American Cookery, but some people claim the first recipe appeared in 1771. Still others believe it first appeared in the 1830s. It’s connected to politics, although no one is really sure exactly why, and it has also been called a “Commencement cake,” “great cake,” and “training cake” (Election day was also called Training Day in the 1800s).

The only thing more dangerous than the line being crossed, is the cake who will cross it.

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Then there are those that say Election cake wasn’t invented by American colonists at all. It was simply another version of popular English “rich cakes,” “loaf cakes,” or “fruitcakes.” Basically, it was a borrowed version of English yeast breads. Those particular cakes were started with barm, the froth created by fermenting ale.

“Amelia Simmons calls these ‘emptins,’ a contraction of ‘emptyings,’ which meant the yeasty dregs in the bottom of a cask of ale. On baking day, a thrifty housewife would use some of this yeast to make a richer dough than bread and she might use some of her raw bread dough as a starter or sponge for cake…” (I Hear America Cooking, Betty Fussell p. 324)

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So…politics?

You might assume that Election cake was meant for November. According to sources, not so much. There are historic references to the cake that place it all over the calendar, from mid-January to June, but it crops up most often in May. If we’re to assume that it gained popularity in Connecticut then we must ask ourselves, “How? And why Connecticut?”

Yeesh. Take it easy, guys.

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Story time.

The Colonial Records of Connecticut from May 1771 shows that a bill was submitted to the Connecticut General Assembly for the cost of making a cake (about £3). Why on earth would the government pay for that cake? Well, in early spring, elections for Governor of the colony (later, the state) were held all over in Connecticut towns. In May, representatives from the towns would get together in Hartford (the capitol) to formally count the votes for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and other officials. The counting could go on for hours, sometimes late into the night, so representatives from out of town arrived in Hartford the day before and stayed overnight. Election cakes were made to feed the out-of-towners and housewives would plan and make the cakes ahead of time.

Icing the Cakes, from The White House Cook book.

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The New England Puritans began celebrating Election Day as a secular holiday (their opportunities for fun were few and far between, after all) and Election cakes became a kind of festival food. “Election Day Drinkings” (a sort of public festival) were held at the homes of influential families. Even the Governor hosted one. The big cakes were a perfect way to feed the hungry townsfolk. Election Day as a festival declined in popularity by the mid-1800s and in 1875 the date of the election was switched to January (which would explain the cake appearing in records from mid-January). During Colonial times, the cakes were made as a way to feed the hungry soldier-farmers brought in by the British for military practice. Another reason why they were called “Training Cakes” or “Muster Cakes.”

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The practice of serving Election cakes spread throughout the Midwest and the West in the 19th century, but by the 1820s the large Election cakes were considered “old fashioned.” Still, the cake remained a staple in American cookbooks until the early 20th century. The last printed recipe for Election cake was in a 1939 edition of Fannie Farmers The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.

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Election cake recipes and history are occasionally reprinted/written about/published somewhere in the week leading up our current election date. Because we’re predictable like that.

Amelia Simmon’s Election Cake from 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 coriander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; wet flour with milk to the consistency 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.”

*In the 18th century, the words “plumb” and “raisin” were used interchangeably.

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Keep eating and asking, my friends.

Esther

Bibliography:

-Clarkson, Janet. “The Old Foodie: Election Cake.” The Old Foodie. Janet Clarkson, 8 June 2007. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2007/06/election-cake.html>.

-”Let Them Eat Cake, Election Cake – Looking Backward.” Looking Backward. Looking Backward, 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://bostonlookingbackward.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/let-them-eat-cake-election-cake/>.

-Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline: cake history notes.” Food Timeline: food history research service. Lynne Olver, n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html#election>.

-Reber, Pat. “Researching Food History  -  Cooking and Dining: Election Cake.” Researching Food History  -  Cooking and Dining. Pat Reber, 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://researchingfoodhistory.blogspot.com/2012/11/election-cake_6.html>.

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