Before the patriotic act of rebellion known as the Boston Tea Party ( which was followed a few short years later by the American Revolutionary War against England ) colonial farmers could look forward to being called up once a year to participate in military practices known as ‘mustering.’ Men arrived at designated towns in droves for the mustering practice, and the locals were required to provide shelter and copious amounts food for the men. Capitalistic-minded townsfolk cooked and baked for the new arrivals, using this opportunity to do good while earning a little extra cash.
One such treat baked for these gatherings was a generously-sized, fruited cake that became known as a Muster Cake. It is most likely that the idea of baking a large, celebratory cake that could feed a crowd came from England and the practice of baking Great Cakes in the 17th and 18th centuries.
At that time, it was uncommon for families in England to indulge in baked desserts. Many households did not have ovens, and fuel was expensive. Ingredients for baking were luxury items and not something the average family could readily afford. On the occasion that an after dinner treat was in order, fuits, nuts and cheeses were taken at the end of a meal. Great Cakes were made from expensive ingredients such as sugar, eggs, butter, spices, wine and dried fuits, and appeared only at large family and village gatherings that celebrated important events such as weddings or births.
After the war of independence with England granted freedom to the new Colony, Muster Days turned into ‘Election Days. ‘ Men continued to make the journey once a year to the same old gathering towns but now it was to participate in the new ‘electioneering’ process of deciding on candidates and voting. The Muster Cake became known as Election Cake, and it became a symbol of polical change and new power, and it was served up in small slices whenever voting was to take place.
The first American cookbook was written by Amelia Simmons ( cover pictured above ) and published in 1796. The second edition of this book featured the first printed recipe for Election Cake, and it called for ( among other ingredients ) ” 30 quarts of flour, 14 pounds of sugar, and 3 dozen eggs. ”
During the early days of our fledgling nation, Hartford, CT was a wealthy, politically important town. As early as the 1660’s, several of the English colonies, Connecticut among them, were allowed to elect their own governors. There appears to be a history of a cake known as Election Cake associated with that election process that dates even earlier than the national Election Cake.
But as time went on and our country developed new towns and cities, polling places multiplied and the need to travel long distances to vote disappeared. The large, patriotic gatherings of the past faded away, as did the taste and need for heavy Election Cakes.
The advent of chemical leaveners made smaller, lighter cakes feasible and fashionable, and by the early 1900’s, election day festivities were reinvented into celebrations and trips that only required a trip to the local voting polls.
Nevertheless, in this election year of new hope, opportunity and historic firsts, it is perhaps time to revive the idea of an Election Cake for Inauguration Day. I love the idea of every citizen raising a fork-full of cake toward a bright future for our country.
Hartford Election Cake with Sugar Crackle Topping
from American Home Cooking
by Bill & Cheryl Jamison
Bakes 2 cakes/ Servings: 12
1 cup raisins, preferably half light and half dark
3 tablespoons dark rum
1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
31/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon orange-flower water (see Ingredient Tip)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced orange or lemon zest
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
SUGAR CRACKLE TOPPING:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
6 tablespoons sugar
Butter and flour two 8-inch x 4-inch loaf pans. Combine the raisins and rum in a small bowl.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk in a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, beat in the brown sugar, 13/4 cup of the flour, and then the butter, eggs, and orange-flower water. When combined, mix in the remaining 13/4 cup of flour and beat for 3 minutes. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and set it in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in size, about 11/2 hours. The batter will be sticky, with the consistency of a soft, moist dough.
When doubled in size, stir down the batter. Mix into it the spices and salt, followed by the zest, walnuts, and raisins with any remaining rum. Divide the batter between the two pans, smoothing it so that it is mounded on the top. Cover the pans and let the batter rest again in a warm, draft-free spot until risen to the top of the pans, about 1 additional hour. Near the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Top the cakes with the sugar crackle. Pour the butter evenly over the dough and sprinkle it thickly with sugar.
Bake the cakes in the center of the oven. Cook for 50 to 55 minutes, until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center of each comes out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool for at least 15 additional minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Leftovers can be toasted and slathered with sweet butter.
Our common use of vanilla extract to flavor baked goods is largely a twentieth-century development. Before then, cooks scented their dishes with lemon and perfumy distillations of orange and rose blossoms. Look for fragrant rose water and orange-flower water in our our store, Cooks Shop Here or large grocery stores and Middle Eastern or Asian markets. In election cake, orange-flower water gives a lighter, more flowery complexity than vanilla.