Thursday, May 12, 2016

Felicity's Election Cake

A bready cake, or a cakey bread designed to get you out to the polls!

So, for the record, I'm really, really sick of all this election talk.

This recipe has nothing to do with feeling the Bern or he who must not be graced with a name, but it is an interesting piece of American history I'd been totally unaware of until I watched an episode of Food Fact or Fiction? on the Cooking Channel. I'm not sure if it's been picked up for another season or not, but the show would present a piece of food lore and then discuss whether or not it was factually true, and it was interesting enough to watch in reruns if you're ever lucky enough to catch it.

So, what segment inspired this post? Well, did you know people used to use cake to bribe people into coming into town to vote?

It's absolutely true! Well before the days of "I Voted Today" stickers, equal suffrage for all adult Americans and even the United States itself, people in New England needed to find reasons to celebrate. Why? Because the Puritans didn't celebrate things like Christmas, or Easter, or basically any fun Christian holidays. But as they weren't totally fun hating bores, they still liked to get together, hang out with family, and come up with excuses to eat delicious cake. Why not celebrate election days? It might seem weird to us, but if we didn't celebrate major holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, I see where you'd need something to fill the void, no matter how strange it might seem to future generations.

These cakes are often called Hartford Election Cakes, as the first recipe can be traced back to Hartford in 1771. Connecticut's elections were traditionally held in May, and were a long affair, often taking three or so days to wrap up! There were parades, sermons, and all sorts of festivities to make it more of a big deal. People baked cakes as treats for people as appetizers for the main event, or as a restorative snack for afterward. Voting takes a lot out of you! It wasn't quite a bribe to vote for one candidate over another, but I definitely see how this would get people making the effort to come into town to vote. Maybe it's something we should look into for increased voter turn outs!

The tradition continued after the Revolutionary War, as did the recipe for this cake, but has mostly faded in the public memory. I've lived in New England my whole life and had never heard of one before this past year! It's interesting to see how the recipe changes over the years. Some of them add rum, some change up the spices, and one even adds a potato.

These cakes are descended from English fruit cakes, and have a lot in common flavor wise with the Twelfth Night cake I made earlier this year. There's one fundamental difference: this cake uses yeast! This makes an enriched dough which gives it a really unique flavor. Or it should, anyway, assuming you make it right. It also caused colonial and post colonial cooks a lot of anxiety, because yeast is so temperamental, and you don't want to ruin a cake for such a big event!

The recipe I used was included in an article in the Washington Post about the tradition of election cakes, and can be accessed online.

You put 1 3/4 cups of flour, 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves, 1/4 teaspoon of ground mace, and 2 packages active dry yeast into a stand mixer. I added 1 1/2 sticks of room temperature butter and blended everything together until it was nice and combined. It gets kind of grainy, but smells lovely!

So, the wet ingredients. You need 1 1/2 cups of "very hot water", and as you know, this often spells disaster for me and my yeast. Or my cold house does. I don't know, I hate working with yeast.

Anyway, I poured it in gently as instructed while the mixer was on low speed and hoped for the best. Once it was combined, I added two eggs and another 3/4 cups of flour, and beat everything together on high for two minutes. I was hopeful my yeast wasn't dead because I could still smell it, but still worried because, well... things have gone wrong before!

The next step is to add in your nuts and fruit. This is really the point where you get to decide the flavor of your cake, because you can put in just about any combination of ingredients you like. Citrus, apricots, pecans, walnuts... anything! I added about 1 1/2 cups of raisins and 1/4 of a cup of dried applies, along with three ounces of pecans.

Give it a good mix, and you've got your dough!

Now for the tricky part: letting it rise.

I moved the batter into a buttered bundt pan, and was pleased to see it actually really did have more of a bread texture than a cake batter or cookie dough. I covered it, and left it to rise for an hour and a half.

And it didn't budge at all. So that was annoying.

But we've been in this boat before, so I just decided to stick it in the oven and hope for the best.

On the plus side, it did come out perfect after being in the oven for 45 minutes at 375 degrees!

I thought the texture on the outside was really interesting, too. You could make out the folds where the dough had flopped into the pan!

The article included a recipe for a white glaze for the cake. You take 1 cup of confectioner's sugar, 2 tablespoons of milk, and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract and mix it together until it's thick, but easy to work with. I drizzled mine over the sides in an attempt at being artistic.

The cake had a pretty thick crust, which made me think it might be more like a bread on the inside. I was slightly surprised to see something that looked more cake-like waiting for me when I cut my first slice. I still wasn't sure if this baked correctly, but it looks like the pictures I've seen online of other cakes, so either I did it right, or we're all doing it horribly wrong. Guess that's reassuring!

Taste wise, this wasn't my favorite historical cake I've ever made. It wasn't bad, and the flavor was good - nice spice and fruit! - but it was definitely dry and dense. Nothing at all like my moist, soft Twelfth Night cake, even if the ingredients and flavor profile were a little similar. I felt like I wanted a cup of tea or milk to go along with it. It also wasn't very sweet. Without the frosting, this definitely would have tasted more like a bread than a cake, and might have been a little bit bland.

But that's just my opinion. Other people weren't a fan of the frosting at all! My sister described it as feeling like Silly Putty, which is not exactly the texture you're going for with this sort of thing. But she and most of my other taste testers really liked the cake itself! A lot of people said this reminded them of a breakfast pastry, and specifically the stale coffee cakes my great grandfather would buy in bulk at a great discount. This would be a family size coffee cake that he'd polish off on his own, and apparently, my mom and her brother didn't even realize that the stale texture wasn't what the coffee cakes were supposed to be like until years after first being exposed to them through him. Pretty funny!

I also polled people about whether they'd say this is more cake than bread or vice versa. Most people seemed pretty confident that this was more of a bread like cake than anything else, but said they could definitely see how it's got traits in common with both in both texture and flavor. If you're ever interested in making a simpler version, the article also gives information about making this with a premade bread dough. You'll probably get a different resulting cake, but it'll take a lot less time and prep!

So, that was an election cake. I'm still a little on the fence about if I'd call this a cakey bread or a bready cake, but either way, it was a fun taste of history that I'd never heard of before. Hopefully you've learned something new today too!

Whichever it is, it's definitely an interesting way to get people to vote!


  1. This is so fascinating! I feel like I should make this for my students or dorm girls in November...just as a taste of history! I will need to get a bundt pan before then, though (I have been saying this for years). Your glaze looks so beautiful!

    1. That would be cool! I'd love to see pictures if you do make it, I'm still not sure my yeast worked the way it was supposed to, haha. And thank you for the compliment! It made a bit of a mess in some spots, but I was pretty pleased it didn't just toally run off the sides.