Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"Election Cake," from Lydia Maria Child's American Frugal Housewife (1833)

May 7, 2014

Tags: Lydia Maria Child, cake, icing, frosting

Democracy, 1829 Style

Let Them Vote and Eat Cake
Believe it or not in our time of bitterly partisan politics, but Election Day used to be a holiday. In Massachusetts, for instance, in the colonial and early national periods, it took place in May, and, used as an occasion for the standing order to assert social dominance, it was planned to coincide with the Harvard Commencement and the annual meeting of the ministers of the Commonwealth's established churches. Grand processions, formal ceremonies such as the Election Sermon, an official counting of the vote, sumptuous dinners, and elegant afternoon and evening balls were highlights of the occasion.

In Connecticut, according to one account from the late nineteenth century, "the country people poured into" Hartford the day before Election Day, "bringing their dinners with them or relying on the corner stands, where root and ginger beer, molasses candy, and gingerbread were sold. The houses were already full of visitors; and in the parlor . . . or the living room, pine boughs or branches of lilacs filled the fireplaces and a table was set with cake and wine. Hospitality was so free that the doors of some wealthy people were open to any stranger who chose to walk in and refresh himself." These customs persisted from the early years of settlement until the time of the Civil War, and became the nostalgic memories that, at the end of the nineteenth century, undergirded a fad called the Colonial Revival. The cake offered "freely" on that day came to be known, not surprisingly, as Election Cake. According to this same account, "the cake-making began a week beforehand," and "mothers sat up all night to watch the batch of twelve or twenty loaves."

In hindsight, we must question the true nature of that "free" hospitality so lovingly remembered. After all, the strangers welcomed in 1829, the date of Child's recipe, would not have included African Americans, indentured servants, non-Protestant immigrants, and many others living on society's then well-defined racial, class, and religious margins. And of course the women who made their Election Cakes would not themselves have been permitted to vote in the elections they celebrated. Child herself, when not baking Election Cake or writing about it, struggled mightily to expand the embrace of her republic's welcome to include many of those who were still enslaved or ostracized. So in the spirit of her magnanimous efforts for social change, rather than in the rather narrow definition of "free" elections celebrated at the time, we offer the following recipe.

Election Cake was a version of the English "Great Cake," traditionally made with flour, yeast, sugar, spices, butter, cream, wine, and raisins and/or currants. The "twelve or twenty loaves" made by Hartford women in the early 1800s were adapted from the huge single cakes made in England in earlier days. Anywhere from a peck (fourteen pounds) to half a bushel (twenty-eight pounds) of flour had been mixed into those. "Great" cakes indeed! While the women of Hartford's mansion houses divided these massive productions into multiple loaves, Lydia Maria Child, in what she calls her "old fashioned" Election Cake recipe, reduces the flour to a mere four pounds, enough for a couple of loaves with which her readers of modest means could regale their own families and perhaps a few friendly neighbors.

The Ingredients—Cake
(makes 1 cake)


2 cups whole milk
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
3 5/16 oz. packages active dry yeast
7¼ cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
1¼ cups raisins

The Ingredients—Frosting
Child's recipe doesn't call for frosting, but we know that the Election Cakes of her day were often frosted. A Connecticut man, John Howard Renfield, lovingly recalled the "delicate frostings of white of egg and sugar" that coated the Election Cakes of his early nineteenth-century childhood. The cake we were making was going to be displayed as well as eaten, and we thought frosting would make it look, as well as taste, even better.

1 cup sugar
1⅓ cup water
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar (or ½ teaspoon light corn syrup)
dash of salt
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla

How We Made It
We scalded the milk, poured it into a mixing bowl, and added to it the salt and ¼ cup of the sugar. After this mixture had cooled to lukewarm, we stirred in the yeast.


As soon as the yeast activated, we mixed in 6 cups of the flour,


then kneaded this preliminary dough for 2 minutes in our stand mixer.



We creamed the remaining sugar with the butter, then added the eggs.


After mixing the raisins with the remaining flour,


we resorted once again to our nifty stand mixer to merge the three components we now had—dough, sugar/butter/egg, and flour/raisins—into one.


We returned our fully-assembled Election Cake dough to the original mixing bowl and left it to rise for 2 – 2¼ hours, or until doubled in bulk.



We now preheated the oven to 375º F. We put the dough into a baking pan and let it rise for another 20 minutes.


It was ready for the oven, where it baked for 10 minutes at 375ºF, then for 80 minutes at 350ºF. When it was done to a lovely golden brown, we cooled it on a rack for 10 minutes,


then removed it from the pan and cooled it completely, about 30 minutes longer.


While it was cooling we made the frosting. First, we whisked the egg whites in our stand mixer (you can use a hand-held mixer just as well) until soft peaks formed. Then we put the sugar, water, cream of tartar, and salt in a non-aluminum (non-reactive) saucepan and stirred until the sugar was melted. We allowed the syrup to boil for 2 minutes, until it reached 240°F on our candy thermometer. Be careful, this is a very, very hot liquid. We then poured the hot syrup in a slow, steady stream while beating the egg whites on high speed. Be very careful with the hot syrup. (This procedure brought the mixture to 160°F, the temperature at which the salmonella bacteria are killed. Check your frosting with a thermometer to be sure. If very young children, older or immune-compromised people will be eating the frosting, it is even safer either to make a 7-minute frosting that reaches 160°F or to use pasteurized egg whites.)


We added the vanilla and continued beating until soft peaks formed. As the cake was now sufficiently cooled, we applied to it a generous, swirly layer of our "delicate frosting of white of egg and sugar."



Lydia Maria Child's and John Howard Renfield's iced Election Cake, gloriously old fashioned, certainly gets our vote!



Child's original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 385.