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, patriotism, politics, and history.
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Election Cake's 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, there was no need to muster, 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, and 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's area a traditional sourdough cake
A charming old-world recipe, preparing an election cake is a slow process, one that fell from favor by the late 19th century when cakes leavened by baking powder became all the rage.
Cakes of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were typically produced through soaking or sour leavening - like sourdough bread, while those cakes that weren’t prepared in this manner, such as Portugal Cake, excluded wheat flour in favor of blanched almond meal.
Not only were election cakes prepared through a long soak in fresh or sour milk coupled with sour leavening, but they were filled with butter and eggs, spiked with brandy and wine, and then flavored with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and coriander. Cooks studded the spiced cakes with dried fruit – mostly prunes, raisins, and currants, but whatever was readily available.
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. The sugar available in this period would have been unrefined and naturally rich in molasses, similar to Mexican piloncillo or Indian jaggery.
Election Cake Recipe
- 4 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
- 1 ½ cups buttermilk
- ¼ cup sourdough starter
- ½ pound butter
- 1 cup unrefined cane sugar
- ¼ cup blackstrap molasses
- 1 tablespoon white wine
- 2 tablespoons brandy
- 2 eggs (beaten)
- 1 teaspoon finely ground real salt
- 1 tablespoon ground ceylon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 cups dried currants
- In the basin of a stand mixer, beat the flour together with the milk and sourdough starter until it forms a ball. Then oil a large glass bowl, plop the dough into the bowl, and cover it securely. Allow the dough to rest at least 8 and up to 12 hours.
- Beat the butter, sugar and molasses together with the brandy and wine until fluffy, then beat in the eggs.
- Remove the ball of dough from the bowl, and tear it into ½ inch pieces. Drop them into the bowl with the butter and spoon in the salt and spices. Beat them all together, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until they form a uniform batter. Fold in the currants.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and then grease and flour two 9-inch tube pans.
- Spoon the batter evenly into the two pans, filling them about ¾ up their sides. Bake the cakes about 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cakes' center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack, and allow them to cool completely before unmolding.
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