Election Cake also called Hartford Election Cake
by Mary E. Gage © March 1, 2013
The history of Election Cake was traced through its name and the make-up of the recipe. This provided an in-depth and accurate way of researching the cake with many names and favored for many centuries.
History of Election Cake Associated with Elections
The earliest reference to a cake associated with elections traced back to 1771 in Hartford, Connecticut. “Ezekiel Williams, Esqr, exhibited his account of sundries for preparing cake, cyder and cheese &c. for Election, tending the Assembly &c., amounting to L23 1 0, lawful money, which was allowed in Council.” (The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut From May, 1768, to May, 1772, Inclusive 1885, p.507) Here is a portion of Williams’ itemized bill:
Ezekiel Williams, Esq. was hired as the event organizer for the Assembly and handled the celebration that accompanied the election. He purchased the ingredients needed for the cake, items such as pipes and liquor, and hired several individuals. An odd abbreviation “&c.” is found throughout the bill. What does it stand for? It was attached to the list of food items and people. It appears to indicate “plus” or “etc.”. With the food, etc. would indicate there were other food items purchased but not listed. The cake needed eggs, butter, and yeast in addition to the items listed. With the man hired to serve the cyder (cider) it would indicate he was also in charge of serving the Porterage, the other beverage listed. With Mrs. Ledlie who was hired to make the cake, it may have been to hire an assistant. The food list has only items associated with the cake. There is nothing to indicate Mrs. Ledlie baked any other item.
In the book Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808 by Edward A. Kendell, the author refers to election day and Election Cake specifically with Hartford, Connecticut. “On the evening following that of the election day, there is an annual ball at Hartford, called the Election Ball; and on the succeeding Monday a second, which is more select. The election-day is a holiday throughout the state ; and even the whole remainder of the week is regarded in a similar light. Servants and others are now in some measure indemnified for the loss of the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which the principles of their church deny them. Families exchange visits, and treat their guests with slices of election-cake ; and thus preserve some portion of the luxuries of the forgotten feast of the Epiphany.” (pp.6-7) This statement shows election was a major event / holiday celebrated with “Balls” (dances) and a cake specifically associated with election day in Hartford.
According to Stephen Schmidt author of “From Great Cake to Curiosity On the Trail of the Hartford Election Cake” the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island in the year 1660, were granted the right to elect their governors. This is in contrast to the other colonies who had their governors appointed by the crown (Britain). (Culinary Historians of New York, Vol. 18 No. 1, 2004) When the election day celebrations that Kendell experienced started is not known. By the early 1800’s Election Cake and Balls had become an established custom.
In 1796 Amelia Simmons had the first edition of her American Cookery published in Hartford, Connecticut. “the Connecticut District Court issued a copyright to Amelia Simmons on April 28, 1796.” (Wilson’s introduction to the 1958 reprint of American Cookery) The original cookbook had 48 pages. Later that year Simmons published a second edition in Albany, New York. It had 64 pages. (Wikipedia entry “American Cookery” viewed 2/26/2013) The second addition had 16 additional pages. That represents a substantial addition of recipes. The number of recipes per page ranges from 3 to 7. Where did those recipes come from? How did Simmons acquire such a large quantity of additional recipes in such a short time? They include the first published recipe for Election Cake.
All that is known about Amelia Simmons is what she revealed in her cookbooks. She was an orphan. Some researchers have speculated Simmons may have been in domestic service where many orphans ended up. Domestic service implies a mansion house estate. Was she a cook or cook’s assistant? To get the training needed to become a cook suggests she started out working as a cook’s assistant in a mansion house. Eventually she became a cook. That would have made her privy to a wide range of recipes. She may have worked for more than one wealthy family as she amassed a large number of recipes. At times she would have been between jobs and could have taken temporary work with a local cook such as Mrs. Ledlie for special occasions. Since her first edition was published in Hartford, it suggests Simmons was staying in the area. That would place her there around election time. To obtain such a large quantity of new recipes in such a short time suggests she traded her skills and labor for the new recipes. Why were these recipes so important to her? They included the newest up-to-date recipes that were popular and fashionable. Three examples were “Election Cake,” “Independence Cake” and “Federal Cake”. They represented a new concept and trend in naming cake recipes associated with America’s new status as an independent nation. The Election Cake and Independence Cake had larger quantities of ingredients than most of her cakes. The Election Cake recipe listed: 30 quarts flour, 10 pounds butter, 14 pounds sugar, etc. 30 quarts of flour is equal to 3¾ pecks or nearly a bushel of flour. The Independence Cake recipe listed: 20 pounds flour, 15 pounds sugar, 10 pounds butter, 4 dozen (48) eggs, etc. (2nd edition American Cookery, 1796). It suggests these recipes had been developed for semi-commercial use. Semi-commercial refers to people like Mrs. Ledlie who were hired to make large batches of cake for election. Mrs. Ledlie had an “&c.” with her name indicating she in turned hired an assistant to help her with such a large project. To get these new recipes, Amelia Simmons had to have worked for the woman who was baking the Election Cake in 1796. That unknown woman would have been the only one with such large recipes.
Earlier versions of these cakes were baked in large loaves too big for home brick ovens. Later versions were baked in small loaves suited for home brick ovens. Though the Election Cake recipe called for nearly a bushel of flour the actual cake was probably made into a large batch of small loaves.
“The second edition of American Cookery was widely reprinted, with only slight omissions: first at some undesignated place; then at Walpole, New Hampshire; twice at Brattleboro, Vermont; and in New York at Poughkeepsie. Some of these were possibly unauthorized, for Amelia Simmons’s name did not appear on the title page. Finally, two different augmented versions were published in New York City and Woodstock, Vermont, the latter in 1831.” (Wilson 1958, xvii) The numerous printings show the ideas Simmons put forth in her cookbook spread throughout New England and New York. Her cookbook was not the only one to spread the election cake idea. An American physician re-published a British cookbook dated 1831. Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts in all the Useful and Domestic Arts states it is the “New Edition from the Latest London Edition.” The cook book was published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It lists recipe “#35. Election Cake” on page 414. This shows the idea of Election Cake traveled from New England across the ocean to England and back to America.
The idea of serving cake at elections showed up with Connecticut’s General Assembly in 1771. How far back in history does this concept go? Mrs. Lydia M. Childs author of The American Frugal Housewife published in Boston in 1834 noted “Old-fashioned election cake is made of four pounds of flour, …” (p.71) Childs refers to election cake as old-fashion. Her cook book was published 34 years after the first named Election Cake recipe was published in Simmons cookbook in 1796. Edward Lambert’s 1838 History of the Colony of New Haven Before and After the Union with Connecticut made this statement: “Election, in old times, was a great day, when it was customary to make a large quantity of cake, which was called election cake. (p.191) This makes two sources that refer to election cake as an old fashion idea. Thirty-five to thirty-eight years does not seem like a long enough time to refer to it as old-fashion. It indicates the idea of a cake associated with and served on election day was popular and in vogue long before America’s Revolutionary War for Independence. The Williams’ bill for 1771 and Kendall’s travels in 1807-1808 attest to the fact election day (week) in Connecticut was a time of celebration and the celebration had been well entrenched for many years. Dating the idea of a cake associated with elections back sixty years could make it an old fashion custom by the 1830’s.
Where did the cake recipe come from? Was it invented / created in Hartford? To find out more about the recipe a search was done going back in time and forward in time looking for comparable recipes. Here are three:
1664 – Banbury Cake 1796– Loaf Cake 1796– Election Cake
1 peck (8 quarts) flour 6 pounds (6 quarts) flour 30 quarts flour (3¾ pecks/1 bushel)
“The most sought for receipt for cake in the days of the Restoration [in England], when the gay Charles II held court with his Queen Catherine Braganza of Portugal, was the ‘the Countess of Rutland’s receipt of making a rare Banbury Cake, which was so much praised at her daughter’s (the Right Honorable Lady Chaworth’s) wedding.’ Here it stands as published in The Compleat Cook–London 1664:” (Murphy 1923, 9) (see recipe ingredients above)
The Banbury Cake seems to be the earliest known version of the recipe. The dough was raised by the ale yeast and therefore it falls into the category of bread-cake. The cake was flavored with spices but lacks wine and brandy.
Loaf Cake has a high ratio of sugar and butter to the flour, a large quantity of raisins and eggs. It incorporates milk, wine and brandy, calls for emptins, an early form of yeast and is flavored by three spices. This cake although its’ ingredients has less quantity, is very similar to Election Cake. Election Cake utilizes every ingredient in Loaf Cake in similar ratios though the sugar is only one-third the quantity of flour. In this recipe the butter has a higher ratio than the sugar.
Loaf Cake and Election Cake used milk. This was a new emerging trend in cake making. The purpose may have been because milk keeps bread moister longer than water. At the same time Simmons published her cookbook another lady was compiling her own private list of recipes. The Compleat New England Huswife compiled by Elizabeth Stuart Gibson included two Election Cake recipes handwritten by Mrs. Dalrymple and dated 1795. (p.48)
There were no instructions with the recipes. The larger quantity of eggs and lack of yeast in II suggests this recipe may have used beaten egg whites to lighten the cake. Election Cake I is a sweetened bread cake. Election Cake II is a true cake.
“The choicest cake, as well as the only cake made without bread dough in the early days, was that called the Nun’s Cake. The receipt for this highly prized cake appears in all the early [British] cookery books, with little variation of content or ingredients.” (Murphy 1923, 10)
This cake relied on beaten egg whites to make it light. It did not use yeast. The recipe in A Collation of Cakes came from Art of Cookery – London 1747. Throughout time the goal with cakes was how to make a lighter cake. Around the turn of the 19th century cake recipes are divided between using beaten egg whites and yeast.
Simmons’ Loaf Cake and Election Cake incorporated milk, wine and brandy. Mrs. Dalrymple’s two Election Cakes were devoid of liquor, they only used milk. They are both called Election Cake did one become favored over the other?
Cookbooks from the 1830’s through the 1880’s and an old recipe reprinted would lead one to think the milk only version of the cake became popular.
Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts in all the Useful and Domestic Arts (Philadelphia, 1831)
The American Frugal Housewife (Mrs. Lydia Child, Boston, 1833)
1896 – 1950 The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer
1959 Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cook Book
1920 American Cookery Vol. 25 No. 3 (Oct. 1920)
New England Election Cake
1 quart milk1 grated lemon peel
When cool, cover with confectioner’s frosting or leave plain, as preferred.
In Secrets of New England Cooking (1947) there is a recipe for “Hartford Election Cake” which is very close to MHB’s recipe. It too, calls for sliced citron, an ingredient not found in earlier recipes. This appears to be a Connecticut trait. Both recipes called for a frosting or glaze. In the Hartford Election Cake the finishing touch was molasses brushed on after cooking and the cake placed back in oven to set the glaze. Adding a glaze is also a Connecticut trait not found in other recipes.
Aunt Mary’s New England Cook Book (Boston, 1881) sums up what this cake is.
Old Fashioned Election Cake
It was a sweetened bread like cake. By 1881 when Aunt Mary wrote her cookbook another change was taking place, baking soda. Her recipe incorporates all the known methods of making a light cake or bread. She included yeast, baking soda and beaten egg whites. She was not alone in her thinking. Mrs. Stephen Gilman a lady in Lynnfield, Massachusetts sent in an Election Cake recipe with similar usage of rising ingredients to the Royal Baking Powder Company cookbook.
1886 My Favorite Recipes by the Royal Baking Powder Company
From these sources it would seem milk based Election Cake was the most popular version. All of these recipes are from cookbooks outside the Hartford area. All of the recipes are called “Election Cake” with the exception of one called “Hartford Election Cake”. Does the milk version differ with how the ladies of Hartford made their Election Cakes?
1889 Hartford Election Cake and Other Receipts
The cookbook contains 30 cake and cookie recipes. Of these, eleven are Election Cake recipes, nine are other cake recipes and ten are cookie recipes. All the Election Cake recipes came from different sources or women. What is interesting is the consistency among these recipes. Every recipe called for flour, sugar, butter, eggs, raisins, spice, milk, wine and brandy, and homemade yeast. A comparison of the recipes showed that there were well defined ratios: equal quantities of sugar and butter, each being half the amount of flour used. Example: 8 pounds flour, 4 pounds sugar, 4 pounds butter. Eggs vary but generally were equal to about half the weight of the flour. All the recipes used milk. All used liquor. The liquor consisted of wine and brandy with the exception of one that called for rum. Without exception all the recipes called for homemade yeast and in some cases, had a recipe for it. The women all considered homemade yeast to be superior to Fleichman’s cake yeast specifically for making Election Cake. None called it Hartford Election Cake. Homemade yeast takes longer to rise so this bread-cake was made over two days.
The consistency of the recipes and the number of Election Cake recipes indicates it was a popular cake in the Hartford area and remained so well after it was considered “old-fashioned” by outsiders. Child’s cookbook published in Boston in 1833 called the recipe “Old-fashioned election cake” as did Aunt Mary’s New England Cook Book (Boston, 1881) “Old Fashioned Election Cake”. The New England Cook Book (1912) by Helen Wright has “Old Hartford Election Cake (150 Years Old)” with the correct ingredients and amounts (ratios) to those in the Hartford Election Cake cook book. This suggests there was an election cake specific to the Hartford area. If the date is correct then it dates the cake back to the 1760’s.
5 lb. flour
Election Cake had two versions. Both were popular. The milk version conformed to temperance agenda. The wine and brandy version conformed to the gaiety and drinking associated with partying on election day. As time went on and election day was no longer the grand event of the year, Election Day Cake did not disappear. Housewives adapted and served “this cake every fall and winter” as the Connecticut lady from Maine explained.
Various versions of Election Cake were called “Loaf Cake” (Simmons 1796), “Bread Cake” (1905), “Raised Bread Cake, or Loaf Cake” (Lincoln 1884), “Bridget’s Bread Cake” (Wright 1912), “Training Day Cake” (Bowles & Towle, 1947). Bread Cake and Training Day Cake used a small portion of bread dough already made to which were added the rest of the ingredients. Election Cake was made from scratch. One of the major differences was Bread Cake had one rising making it a quick version and Election Cake had two risings (with the homemade yeast this was done over two days) the long version. Both types were sweetened bread cakes. Over time cooks experimented with sweetened bread dough. In the 1905 The New England Cook Book compiled by the leading cooks in New England there are three recipes together: Loaf Dutch Cake, Bread Cake, and Cinnamon Bun. Loaf Dutch Cake and Bread Cake both called for small portions of bread dough as starters. The loaf cake had only one spice and no liquor. The bread cake had several spices and brandy. Each was a different version of the election cake. The bun recipe was rich with butter and lightly sweetened. It was rolled flat, spread with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, spread with chopped raisins and rolled up and cut into slices. These are often called “Coffee Rolls” or “Cinnamon Rolls” which have a sugar icing on top.
Election Cake disappeared from most cookbooks but not all as Fannie Farmer and her successors kept this recipe going up to at least the 1960’s (the latest of Farmer’s cookbooks this author owns). In other ways Election Cake morphed into delicious rich rolls keeping the spices and raisins. They have names like Swedish Tea Rolls, German Coffee Bread, Brioche (French Coffee Cakes) and Cinnamon Buns each with its own distinction.
Two recipes were chosen Swedish Tea Rolls and Cinnamon Buns. They are almost duplicates of each other. The difference is in the method used to prepare them.
I made a batch of the Swedish Tea Rolls and brought it to a family gathering. A guest commented they were just like bakery rolls. It was the highest compliment that could be paid. They are worth the effort and long preparation time. The instructions for the tea rolls are similar to Election Cake. This recipe starts with a sponge, a loose flour based batter that is allowed to rise before the full amount of flour is mixed in. When it is fully raised it looks like a sponge. To the risen sponge is added the sugar and beaten egg whites, the rest of the flour and then kneaded. After the second rising the dough is punched down and allowed to rise a third time. At that point, it is made into rolls and allowed a rise for the fourth and final time. The sponge and second mixing of ingredients were used with the Election Cake. The 3rd and 4th dough risings are specific to the Swedish Tea Rolls.
The instructions for buns are similar to Bread Cake. This recipe starts with the full amount of flour mixed in which is then allowed to rise. The first rising thus produces a bread dough, hence the old name Bread Cake. To the risen bread dough the eggs and sugar are added, the dough is rolled out and made into buns. The completed buns are allowed to rise about an hour and then baked. The advantage of this recipe is there is no kneading. I have not tested this recipe.
Swedish Tea Rolls Cinnamon Buns
Swedish Tea Rolls
Recommend: 1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon to sprinkle on rolled dough.
I made one change instead of sweetened milk for a glaze, I topped it with a confectioner’s glaze.
The recipe and instructions come from a small pamphlet produced by Hood’s Sarsaparilla for advertising purposes. Its name is Good Bread. Like most promotional pamphlets it does not have a date. Americana Archives Publishing who reprinted it states: “This cookbook is an authentic reproduction from the original first published in the 1870’s.”