On the occasions when voting booths have been hauled out across this great land, a seasoned political entity has risen to the occasion -- one with a proven track record and a quirky, quintessentially American support base.
A heavyweight! Dense, though.
Of course we refer to Election Day Cake, sometimes called Hartford Election Cake, which bears some resemblance to fruitcake, calls for yeast in the making and shows up in records as far back as the 18th century. Its history suggests that it could be the reason why baked goods may be on hand yet again at your polling place next Tuesday.
The cake -- more of a bread, really -- obviously garners attention in election years. In its published recipes you can follow the arc of variations and add-ons: cinnamon and mace in some, brandy or sherry in others, fresh yeast or active-dry yeast in the most modern. Raisins have remained a constant ingredient, paired with candied fruit and chopped nuts. It was sometimes baked in loaves, but most often a large tube pan was used and a finished cake would weigh from five to 10 pounds.
Connecticut can lay claim to its origin. The Hartford cake was baked for elections held in May, when hundreds of folks put down their work and came from around the colony to vote for governor and other official seats. Back then, Election Day was more of a two- or three-day affair, and it came with parades, church sermons and singing that lasted into the night.
All involved had to keep up their strength, and Election Day Cake filled the bill. After three dough risings, "cider and delectable cake was served at Connecticut's expense." We know this because the Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford has found references to the state's 1771 General Assembly reimbursing one Ezekial Williams for the ingredients of an Election Day Cake (which certainly had to include nutmeg, since Connecticut's known as the Nutmeg State. But that's another story). A "huge election cake" was made for the members of the First Company Governor's Foot Guard in 1775.
The practice of baking a stand-up cake for Election Day soon spread north and west, and its making was taken over by women who prepared dinners for the event. The first recipe for Election Day Cake was published in the second edition of Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery" (an American cookbook pioneer) in an 1800 edition, but variations were already making their way around via family recipe collections. The cake of a great-grandmother in Suffield, Conn., was noted to have been a favorite with men, perhaps because it was so hearty, as reported by Clementine Paddleford in "How America Eats"(Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960). The recipe in 1890's "Pomfret Cookery" created a cake built to hang around a while, with 2½ pounds of butter, four pounds of flour, a quart of milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, soda and yeast.
If you try a version of Election Day Cake at home (see recipe below), you may understand why the women regarded it as a stress-filled part of the voting festivities according to a 1991 issue of Early American Life magazine: " . . . the ladies slept fitfully the night before, tossed with nightmares of cakes that would not rise. Dependence on emptins, their homemade yeast, or pearl ash, made the rising a chancy procedure."
"A tumblerful of brandy or sherry" was sometimes added to the cake recipe, depending perhaps on whether access to spirits was shut down for the voting holiday. Some directions suggested that Election Day Cake bakers start the process at noon the day before. Extract of rose, mace and even a boiled potato appear in recipes heading into the 1930s.
Ye olde reminscences about Connecticut Loaf Cake (in "America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking," by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, University of North Carolina Press, 2004) praise its rich, sweet and spicy substance. But several runs at different recipes produced fairly bland, better-with-a-slather-of-butter-on-it cake.
And we're reinventing Election Day Cake to this day, peaceably and patriotically. About a month ago, St. Michael's Lakeside School in Duluth, Minn., treated its fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to a hands-on curriculum about the American voting process, with a week of research, debates and voting to elect their Most Valued President of all time (Ronald Reagan survived a party run-off primary against Abe Lincoln, but George Washington won the day). The media, town officials -- Duluth's own mayor -- were on hand. With all that activity, it seems only fitting that the students learned how to make Election Day Cake as well. Teacher Karen Newstrom and eight of her students used a recipe provided by Kids Voting USA, a nonprofit group that teaches children about democracy and citizenship.
They produced four cakes with a messy flourish, which were gobbled up with enthusiastic reviews after the final vote tallies were taken. For the record, they used frozen bread dough, butter, eggs, brown sugar, sweet cream raisins, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace and salt, and waited through two risings of the dough.
Newstrom, who was a bit relieved that "the cake was not as heavy as I thought it would be," polled her students on Election Day Cake results, and this one from a fourth-grader sums it up: "I didn't care for the cake because it had raisins. It would be nice if [you could] replace it with double chocolate chips with extra cookies and ice cream."
We're still tinkering with the recipe, America! Is this a great country, or what?