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Election Cake: An American tradition

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Kitchen Report

(Read caption) Election Cake tastes like a fruit bread, similar to an English fruit cake, but not as dense. Here it is topped with a milk frosting glaze.

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The first known recipe for Election Cake, one of the first foods to be identified with American politics, was published as early as 1796 in Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” cookbook. In the 1800s, the cake was served at election time and by the 1830s it had became popularly known as Hartford Election Cake. 

Election Cake actually tastes more like a fruit bread, similar to an English fruit cake, but not as dense. Its purpose is to fortify, not serve as a sweet finish to a meal. In fact, these cakes were originally known as “muster cakes,” prepared and packed for farmers when they left the fields to travel into towns for military training or “mustering.”

Do you know why Election Day is held on a Tuesday in November?

Washington staff writer Peter Grier for explains, “For a society in which most people lived on farms, November was a good month to vote. The harvest was in, and snow hadn’t yet closed the roads. Why Tuesday? Records of lawmaker debate show that officials thought Sunday wouldn’t work, because many people were in church. Monday wouldn’t work, because most polling places were in county seats, and folks from outlying areas could not always get there in time.

“Tuesday was the earliest day everybody could make it into town. So Tuesday it was. Congress similarly standardized congressional elections in 1872.”

So, like militia training, farmers would head into town for a few days for electioneering, to vote, hang out at the tavern, and wait for the results. The women, who wouldn’t win the right to vote until Aug. 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment, stayed on the farm.

Sometimes Election Cake was sold at church suppers proceeding the election, or it was sold at polling stations. In 1830 in Hartford, Conn., Election Cake was given to every man who voted a straight party ticket. And the name “Hartford Election Cake” stuck when every household in Hartford would prepare a cake to serve to out-of-town guests. You can read more about that here.

I bought a bundt pan to make the Election Cake recipe from “The American Heritage Cookbook.” As you can see, I didn’t quite master the dripping of the Milk Frosting. I ran into trouble when I tried to pour multiple layers as the frosting was hardening. Oops! I’m not sure I will ever master attractive frosting.

I’m relieved to report that the frosting still tastes delicious and so does this Election Cake. It is thick and doughy, with a hint of raisins, and it makes a delicious spiced aroma as you bake it in the oven. I think it would make a lovely afternoon tea cake, even when the polls are closed.

Election Cake could be just want you need to survive a long night of election returns. Just think, on Wednesday the political ads will be finished!

(See next page for recipe)


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