In May 1771, when white men traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, to cast their votes for governor, there was cake waiting for them. A lawyer and election event organizer by the name of Ezekiel Williams submitted an expense report to the colony’s General Assembly, a list that included ingredients such as raisins, cloves, sugar and flour as well as the services of a woman who baked the giant communal cake, likely on an open hearth.
The first recipe for this giant cake was published in 1796 in a nascent United States of America. It was printed in the second edition of “American Cookery,” a recipe collection penned by Amelia Simmons, considered the first American cookbook author. Simmons dubbed it Election Cake, which was more of a yeasted sweet bread studded with fruit and soaked in booze, a nod to England’s Great Cake tradition. Her recipe called for an unimaginable 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter and three dozen eggs.
In the introductory notes to a 1996 reprint, the late culinary historian Karen Hess wrote that: “Certainly in 1796, Election Day would have been a major festival, a cause for celebration.”
And many of those cake-fueled votes would presumably elect John Adams to be the second president of the United States.
In these final weeks leading up to the election of our 46th president, the vibe is neither particularly celebratory nor sweet. Instead, the air is heavy with anxiety and confusion about mail-in voting, a first-time experience for millions of Americans, and the relentless and deadly pandemic that brought us to this pivotal moment. Even with an email confirmation of ballot received or an “I Voted” sticker from the polling station, we may not know the outcome for days, perhaps weeks.
Perhaps we could use some Election Cake to lighten the mood.
Two years ago during a contentious midterm election season, I put a multi-pronged theory to the test: That a) everyone loves free cake; b) election cake is a nonpartisan token of our preciously sweet right to vote; and c) we should be celebrating that right not only by participating in the process but with a piece of cake in hand. I baked enough election cake to share with 150 passersby at two Seattle farmers markets. Then I baked more to share with my hair stylist, yoga studio, neighbors, friends and the local YMCA where I was the chef-in-residence. I happily forwarded the recipe in hopes of others carrying the torch and spreading more good cake-crumbed cheer.
Two years hence and on the centennial of women’s suffrage, I remain covered in flour, committed to baking as many Election Cakes as it takes to sweeten the deal and encourage you and you and you to participate. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, your vote matters. The more of us, the merrier, in fact – and that’s a cause for celebration.
Adapted from “Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes” by Patricia Bunning Stevens.
Yeast alone is not enough to leaven this dense batter, so the first order of business is to create a sponge: a mixture of yeast, warm liquid and flour that gets bubbly and activated. Feel free to get creative with dried fruit, and if you’re into candied fruit, I highly recommend a small addition. Nuts are completely optional, but I do appreciate the added structure. If you plan to freeze, wait to drizzle icing after the cake is completely thawed.
- 2 1/4-ounce packets active dry yeast (About 4 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup warm water (about 105 F)
- 1/2 cup lukewarm milk (Plan B: Substitute warm water)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon for dusting the pan
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 cup raisins, currants or dried cranberries, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
- Optional: 1/4 cup candied fruit, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into 8 pieces, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the pan
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs at room temperature
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons milk of choice
Make the sponge: In a medium bowl, fork whisk the yeast and water until well blended, then add the milk. Gradually add 1 1/2 cups of the flour, stirring with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until somewhat bubbly, about 30 minutes.
With one tablespoon butter and flour, grease and flour a 9- or 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan. If using a Bundt, make sure all the crevices are coated.
Stir together the remaining 1 1/2 cups of flour, salt and spices in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, stir together the dried fruit and nuts.
Using a stand mixer or hand-held electric beater, cream the butter and sugar until light yellow and malleable. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition; the mixture should be thick and somewhat viscous. Add the sponge and beat just until it’s incorporated. (If you are not using a paddle attachment, stir in the sponge by hand with a large wooden spoon.)
On low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients, mixing until smooth after each addition. Add the fruit-nut mixture until evenly distributed, and the candied fruit, if using. Resist the urge to overmix.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until the batter is puffy and doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Do not let the batter rise to the tippy top.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake until the cake is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes.
Cool on a rack for 20 minutes, then loosen from the edges of the pan with a flat-edged knife. Invert and cool completely, 30 to 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: In a small bowl fork-whisk the powdered sugar, vanilla and milk until the sugar is absorbed. You’re looking for a slightly thick but pourable consistency. Drizzle on top and along the sides of the cake.