Election Cake: A Touch of American Culinary History

Election Cake, like a bite from American history, makes its rounds every November. I make it every year, but only once a year – just before the election. Preparing Election Cake is a celebration of love, of patriotism, of politics and of history. And for those of you who’ve read Nourished Kitchen for some time, you know that I keep my politics to myself (and think you should too), but share my love of vintage and historic recipes like staititai, buttermilk biscuits or cream of chicken soup. We’ve even hosted whole dinner parties based on historic cuisine. Among all the historic cookery I’ve sampled in my kitchen, this Election Cake recipe is one of our favorites.

Election Cake: A History

In early America, the electoral process brought communities together in festivity and revelry. Families traveled from the far reaches of their region to town centers where they enjoyed a holiday – visiting neighbors homes, dancing at balls, drinking, carousing and mustering for the local militia. Indeed, for a time before America revolted and became a nation in her own right, these celebratory spiced cakes that we know (or used to know) as election cakes were called muster cakes.

After the revolution, mustering for the occupying forces no longer proved a necessity, but festivities still surrounded the electoral process and these spiced and fruit-studded cakes were renamed for the annual elections. Election cakes commissioned by local government could often command several hundred dollars by today’s standards, as they were massive – intended to feed an entire community of voters. By the middle of the 19th century, states and municipalities no longer commissioned the cakes and what was first a symbol of conviviality and festivity began to take on an ulterior motive: slices of election cake were provided as an incentive to vote a straight ticket or for a particular candidate.

Election Cake: A Traditional Sourdough Cake

A charming old-world recipe, preparing an election cake is a slow process – a process that fell from favor once by the late 19th century when cakes leavened by baking powder became all the rage. Now, it’s all but forgotten.

Cakes of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were typically produced through soaking or sour leavening – like sourdough breads, while those cakes that weren’t prepared in this manner, such as Portugal cake, excluded wheat flour in favor of blanched almond meal. Interestingly, it’s these traditional methods – soaking flour in sour milk, leavening dough with sourdough starter or blanching nutmeats and removing their papery skins – that optimized nourishment received from these foods.

The simple, traditional acts of soaking and souring grains and flours degrades antinutrients such as food phytate which would otherwise bind up minerals, particularly iron and zinc, preventing your body from best absorbing these vital micronutrients2. Despite what ill-informed detractors have stated, the processes of soaking and souring cereal grains is so effective that researchers in human nutrition suggest that a return to traditional methods of grain preparation such as soaking, fermenting or sprouting result in improved nutrient status, increased lean-body mass and increase in resistance to infection – particularly among those populations who adhere to a largely plant-based diet either from necessity or from choice. (Learn more about the value of soaking grains). Traditional foods nourish.

Not only were election cakes prepared through a long soak in fresh or sour milk coupled with sour leavening, but they were filled with wholesome fats – raw butter, farm eggs, and served with a heavy seasoning of wine and brandy or molasses, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander. Cooks studded the spiced cakes with dried fruit – mostly prunes, raisins and currants.

Traditional Election Cakes could feed an entire community.

A special occasion food, cakes were prepared in magnificent quantities – enough to make a modern cook blush. In one of the first recorded recipes for election cake, Amelia Simmons calls for more than three dozen eggs, a quart of brandy and fourteen pounds of sugar. Incidentally, both sugar and flour available in early America would have remained whole and unrefined – refined foods were a luxury few colonialists could afford.

Election Cake: 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 colander seed, 3 ounces ground alspice; 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 rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven. - Simmons, American Cookery, 1796.

Now that elections are upon us again, go vote and while you’re add it, soak some flour in milk, stir it with spice and brandy and take a bite of American culinary history.

Where to Find Sourdough Starter for Your Cake

Modern versions of Election Cake typically veer away from the traditional method of sour leavening – after all, sourdough baking is a bit of a lost art and most modern cooks who have even the faintest interest in sourdough usually relegate it to the realm of breads alone.

To prepare a traditional election cake, you will need sourdough starter.  The election cake recipe below uses my method for making a sourdough starter which involves water, bread flour or high extraction einkorn flour (find it here) and a bit of an established starter to kickstart the fermentation process (you can find sourdough starters online here).

 

election cake: a taste of american culinary heritage

Election Cake

election cake: a taste of american culinary heritage

By Jenny Published: November 2, 2012

  • Yield: 1 cake (8 Servings)
  • Prep: 10 mins
  • Cook: 45 mins
  • Ready In: 8 hrs 55 mins

Election Cake is a traditional cake historically served at the time of mustering or elections in early America. It is a sour-leavened caked sweetened with unrefined cane sugar, molasses, dried fruit, brandy, white wine and spices. This recipe calls for sourdough starter which you can find online or make yourself.

Ingredients

  • 4 1/2 cups sifted spelt or soft white wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk or sour milk
  • 1/4 cup proofed and bubbly sourdough starter
  • 1/2 pound butter
  • 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
  • 1 tablespoon white wine
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 2 eggs (beaten)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup chopped prunes
  • 1 cup dried currants

Instructions

  1. Combine four and one-half cups spelt or soft white wheat flour together with one and one-quarter cups sour milk and one-quarter cup bubbly sourdough starter until a thick dough resembling the texture and consistency of bread dough is formed. Form the dough into a round ball, place it in a bowl and allow it to rest, covered, at room temperature for eight to twelve hours.
  2. After the dough has rested for eight to twelve hours, beat one-half pound butter, one and one-quarters cup unrefined cane sugar, one-quarter cup blackstrap molasses together with one tablespoons white wine and two tablespoons brandy. Once the mixture of butter, sugar, molasses and liquor is thoroughly combined and fluffy, stir in two beaten eggs.
  3. Beat butter, sugar and egg mixture with dough, adding one tablespoon ground cinnamon, one tablespoon ground coriander, one-half teaspoon ground allspice, one-half teaspoon ground nutmeg and one-half teaspoon unrefined sea salt to the mixture, until the batter resembles a that of a thick cake then fold in dried fruit.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the dough to rise until doubled in bulk while the oven preheats.
  5. Bake the cake in an oven preheated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about forty-five minutes to one hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake’s center comes out clean. Serve with plenty of butter and a pint of hard cider.

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What people are saying

  1. Christy says

    I know it’s not the healthiest starter ever, but what do you think about using Amish Friendship Bread starter for this cake? I’ve been on an AFB kick lately and have plenty of starter.

  2. Jolee Burger says

    Thank you for the recipe – and the research and knowledge behind it!
    It looks as if you are baking it in a springform pan? I assume a Dutch Oven would also be ok? I am looking forward to this – what an amazing tradition!!

    • Jenny says

      Hi Jolee –

      Yes, I bake it in a springform pan. A Dutch oven might work – I think many people also bake this in a Bundt pan.

    • Brianne says

      I made mine in a dutch oven. I cooked it at a lower temp for a bit longer b/c it started to brown before the inside was finished. It turned out great! Our election party loved the cake and I love that it’s not very sweet. Thanks for the recipe!

    • says

      Both, I think. I noticed that sugar wasn’t in the ingredients list above too, but if you taste your blackstrap molasses (it’s good, but almost bitter, because it’s not really sweet), I think you’d want to add sugar. ♥ I’m making mine right now!

  3. Heather says

    Thanks for sharing this! I think I have all on hand and hope to try it this week!
    Your post brought back good memory of visiting Mount Vernon over 10 years ago when I lived in VA, and a recipe sheet I got there for Martha Washington’s Great Cake. (similar in scale to what you quoted above – 40 eggs! ).

  4. Lindsay says

    Also wondering if sugar is supposed to be in there somewhere as the instructions mentions it, but the ingredient list does not.

  5. Saeriu says

    Wowsers–think of the size of the bowl to mix the original. Especially since it would need to be big enough for the yeast to double.

  6. Jessica says

    I just mixed up the dough and noticed that I couldn’t incorporate all of the flour, so I added more milk (maybe my starter was not hydrated enough?). Also wondering about the sugar. Not in the ingredient list, but in the directions?

    • says

      I am having the same problem. Wondering if it’s meant to be a dough that you knead a bit? It is so thick. Or maybe I’ll add a bit more liquid, so it’s more like a cake! ♥

    • Kat says

      That happened to me too, Jessica. I just added a teeny bit more sourdough starter. It’s still a pretty stiff dough though.

    • Jessica says

      This cake turned out beautifully! I added the 1 1/2 cup of sucanat as the body of the directions indicated. It was a little tricky to mix the stiff bread-like dough into the butter-sugar-egg mix, but after working it for a while, I was able to incorporate it. The directions said to let it rise again while the oven preheated, but I never saw it rise. After waiting half an hour, I ran out of time ( I needed to vote, after all!) and just stuck it in the oven. It baked up beautifully – a dense, moist, chewy cake, perfectly sweet to my taste. My children and husband also adore it. Eating a thick slice with butter and a cup of warm milk was the perfect way to pass the election night, watching the votes come in. Thank you for this wonderful recipe! This will be our new tradition!

  7. Sarah says

    Made this cake for Election Day with a rye sourdough starter, used slightly over half soft whole wheat and most of the remainder was millet flour. Whether it was the low gluten content or the strength of my starter, I had no rise at all, but a very lovely cake nonetheless. I also subbed 3/4 c honey for the cane sugar and omitted the white wine. Cake took a little longer to bake and cracked a little but still tastes wonderful! I would say it easily serves 10-12. Great with coffee … Definitely having a bit at breakfast!

  8. D Chandler says

    Whilst I applaud your stance on keeping politics to yourself you did not practice what you preach.Before the revolution it wasn’t an occupying force,it was your force and protected your ancestors.Unless your ancestors were not British and you still hold a grudge.
    Sadly I will not be following you any more.
    D Chandler

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