I love old recipes. They show us what foods people liked, what ingredients were available, and–sometimes–what traditions and events they celebrated. I was browsing through a late eighteenth-century cookbook not long ago when I came across a recipe for something called Election Cake. “Old-fashioned election cake,” I read, “is made of 30 quarts of flour . . . .”
Election cake? I’d never heard of it! But some online research pulled up an answer from an article written by food historian Alice Ross. Election cake, Ross says, was a tradition that began back in England, with the “Great Cake,” rich, spicy fruit-filled cakes baked to celebrate important family or community occasions. In America, one such occasion arose during the Revolutionary War, when men flocked to the colonial towns to join the Revolutionary Army. The inns and taverns served cake: “Mustering Cake.” After the War, men came to town again—to vote in elections for which they had fought and died. It was time to celebrate, this time, with “Election Cake.”
The first recipe for Election Cake appears in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796)—a truly American cookbook, with recipes for such colonial novelties as Johnny Cake, Indian Slapjacks, “Pompkin pudding” (the first pumpkin pie), cooked squash with whortleberries, even the quintessentially American Spruce Beer. Mrs. Simmons was also the first cookbook author to use the word cooky, from the Dutch “koekje,” the treats offered in colonial New York to holiday callers. So it seems altogether appropriate that American Cookery should include recipes for three American cakes: Independence Cake, Federal Pan Cake, and Election Cake. Here is Simmons’s recipe for a cake that was obviously intended to be served to a large crowd of enthusiastic voters–men, obviously. Back in the day, men voted; women baked.
30 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 allspice; wet the 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 [dried plums, chopped], which work in when going into the oven..
I’m a little daunted by this crowd-size recipe. Here’s an updated, family-sized recipe that’s a little more manageable. For the fascinating story of what happened to the first edition of Amelia Simmons’ cookbook, read The Mysterious Corruption of America’s First Cookbook.
And then go vote, if you haven’t done that already.
*Colander seed is coriander seed, once used extensively in confectionery. “The seeds are quite round, like tiny balls,” according to A Modern Herbal (1929), “about the size of a Sweet Pea Seed . . . The longer they are kept the more fragrant they become, with a warm pungent taste.” Coriander seed was stored whole and roasted and ground before use.