A Vote for Election Cake

With mid-term elections four days away, the heat is on not only in the House and the Senate, but right where it needs to be -- the kitchen.

Step back into voting history, with a piece of Election cake. (Kim O'Donnel)

If we rewind the tape a few hundred years, Election Day was a time for cake. Back when Connecticut was still a colony, Election Day was an important holiday. Voters would take the day off from work and travel to Hartford, cast votes and then party into the night with booze -- and cake.

The cake in question appears to have been adapted from English yeast breads or fruit cakes. Although some historic documents point to its appearance in the early 1700s, the first published evidence of an "Election Cake" recipe surfaced in 1796, when Amelia Simmons wrote "American Cookery, " the first known cookbook by an American.

Simmons's recipe called for, among other things, "thirty quarts flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy..." I wonder how many women were needed to carry this monster into a brick oven for baking? Talk about hefty!

Historical documents indicate that women would allow the cake to rise overnight. In the recipe below, which likely comes from an early 20th century source, the cake gets a double rise, totalling about 2 ½ hours.

The result -- after a total of about 4 hours work -- is a classic, old-time coffee cake. Imagine a homemade version of one of those Entenmann's glazed coffee rings. It's chockfull of raisins, nuts and spices and has a decidedly bready, rather than cakey mouthfeel.

Not particularly sweet, Election Cake is an ideal partner for morning coffee (Are you listening, local election volunteers?), but the confectioners' glaze will elicit a slight sugar high. After poring through different versions of the recipe, I felt certain the cake would be too dense for me. But I was wrong, this cake is a delightful surprise and a reminder that old-fashioned can sometimes be a good thing.

Some historians assert that the cake served as sustenance for weary out-of-town travelers; others say that the cake was baked to celebrate the right to vote. I like the idea of baking for the right to vote. Maybe we should forego the late-night campaign pizzas and pull out the Bundt pans instead!

What I want to know if this cake is fit for a loser or a winner. Care to weigh in? And should I give political wunderboy Chris Cillizza a piece? Tell him he can find me at the Washington Post Radio (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) studio this afternoon at 2:20, when I share the fruits of my labor with on-air pal Sam Litzinger.

Hartford Election Cake
From "Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes"
by Patricia Bunning Stevens

2 packages active dry yeast
½ warm water (105-115 degrees)
½ cup lukewarm milk (scalded, then cooled)
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour (divided in two parts: 1 ½ cups, then 1 ¾ cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup raisins
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
3 eggs
1 cup confectioners' sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons milk

Dissolve yeast in water. Stir in milk. Add 1 ½ cups flour gradually, until mixture is smooth. Cover and let rise in warm place until very light and bubbly, 30-45 minutes.

Mix together 1 ¾ cups flour, salt and spices and set aside. Chop raisins, mix with nuts and set aside. Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Blend in yeast mixture. Gradually add dry ingredients, beating until smooth after each addition Add raisin-pecan mixture and mix well.

Grease and flour a 9-inch tube pan or large Bundt pan. Pour mixture into prepared pan.

Cover and let rise in a warm place until dough almost reaches the top, 1 ½-2 hours. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake cake until golden brown, 40-50 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in pan, then loosen cake from edges with a knife. Turn out onto a cake rack and cool completely.

For glaze: in a mixing bowl, whisk confectioners' sugar, vanilla and milk, until desired spreading consistency. Glaze should cover top of cake and drizzle down the sides.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 3, 2006; 11:11 AM ET Culinary History , Desserts
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Kim, this cake looks very good, but I'm more concerned with the fact that you seem to be missing again. I hope everything is okay - please know that you have a lot of love out here for you and also for Tim.

Posted by: Pat | November 9, 2006 6:56 AM

Yes, Kim -- hope all is well. You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers.

Posted by: BB | November 9, 2006 9:09 AM

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