Sunday, November 2, 2008
In days of old, when men were men (and women, slaves, American Indians, immigrants, military personnel, paupers and the criminally insane were disenfranchised), voting was an arduous process, often involving a day’s journey or more to the closest polling place. Since there were no electioneering laws around to prevent it, a candidate or his representatives frequently assisted the undecided citizen with a little refreshment; hard cider (or corn whiskey in the South, and that’s the subject of a whole ‘nother post) and in New England at least, a slice of a sturdy, yeast-raised, fruit-filled confection called Election Cake.
The first printed appearance of Election Cake is in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, modestly subtitled The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, vegetables and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to the plain cake: Adapted to this country and all grades of life. By an American orphan.
Mistress Simmons’ book is notable in that it is considered to be the first truly American cookbook, written by and for the cooks and comestibles of this country, and not a reprint of a British work. Her Election Cake must have been intended for an entire precinct. Here is the receipt from the 1796 edition:
Thirty quarts 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.
Now this is the kind of sustenance fit for pioneers and revolutionaries! Between the thirty-six eggs, fourteen pounds of sugar and the quart and a half of booze, it must have been one hell of a cake.
Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book offered a modernized version one hundred years later:
½ cup butter
1 cup bread dough
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon soda
1 cup sour milk
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
8 finely chopped figs
1 cup raisins, seeded
and cut in pieces
1 teaspoon salt
Work butter into dough, using the hand. Add egg well-beaten, sugar, milk, fruit dredged with two tablespoons flour, and flour mixed and sifted with remaining ingredients. Put into a well-buttered bread pan, cover and let rise one and one-fourth hours. Bake one hour in a slow oven. Cover with Boiled Milk Frosting.
A paltry, puny, nimminy-pimminy milk- and-water counterfeit of its ancestor with not even a whiff of wine or brandy. Faugh.
(For a visit with some of our foremothers’ other recipes, visit the Michigan State University Library’s website, Feeding America).