Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald

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University of Massachusetts Press, 2011

Ready for some wine-soaked bass served with oysters and cranberries? Or how about some elegant Boston cream cakes (that's right, we said "cakes," not "pie")? In our blog, we'll show you how we cooked (in a modern but pretty basic kitchen) a goodly number of the vintage recipes to be found in our recent book, Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England. We think it's well worth the effort to try to cook historic foods. It gives a unique look at history, a glimpse at what cooks from times gone by had to do to get a meal on the table. But more to the point, these dishes make good eating. They might be considered lost culinary treasures--now found!

Cooking 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.

"Gingerbread Cakes"—another offering from Amelia Simmons’s “first American cookbook” (1796)

May 5, 2012

Tags: Amelia Simmons, gingerbread, cake, cookies, ginger, dessert

Amelia’s “veddy English” Gingerbread Cakes, enjoyed with a “nice cuppa”

Gingerbread: The History
Simmons’s recipe is closely based on one in an English cookbook, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (see our blog post on her chowder recipe). Indeed gingerbread had a long history in England before it crossed the Atlantic. The earliest gingerbreads were made with grated crumbs from the finest type of wheat bread, the manchet (see our blog post thereon), were sweetened with honey rather than sugar or molasses, and were often dyed red, violet, or yellow. In the course of the seventeenth century, flour began to replace the manchet crumbs and sugar or treacle (molasses to us Yanks) the honey, while the garish coloring gradually faded away.

Gingerbread was enjoyed on all levels of society. King Charles II was said to particularly favor treacle gingerbread. Here in New England, Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials (he later publicly repented of his participation in the guilty verdicts), and a man who moved throughout his life on the highest levels of Boston society, was served “Ginger-Bread” by the governor of Massachusetts one day in 1720. Just as people frequently do nowadays when they have dinner in a restaurant, Sewall took some of the governor’s gingerbread home with him. The next day he bestowed it as a token of his esteem, “wrapped in a clean sheet of Paper,” upon a widow woman he was courting. A highly prized piece of gingerbread indeed!

Farther down the social scale, gingerbread was popular among militia soldiers (and children) on colonial muster days. On his famous youthful walk from Boston to Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin nibbled on gingerbread.

Like many other foods, gingerbread didn’t take the form in which we’re familiar with it—a soft cake sweetened always with molasses—until the time of the colonial revival, in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. A hundred years before that, Simmons offers five recipes for gingerbread. Four are relatively soft, though not as cakey as modern gingerbread; the one made with molasses is dense, almost hard. The one we’re telling you about in this post is a cookie-like “little cake” made with sugar. By the way, it was Simmons who first used the Dutch word “cookey” as the American name for English little cakes. But for some reason she didn’t apply the term to these small, circular gingerbreads, which in our eyes are clearly cookies.

If you’d like to know more about the culinary and cultural history of gingerbread in New England, you'll find several pages devoted to the subject in our earlier book, America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking.

The Ingredients
We cut Simmons's recipe in half and converted her weight measurements to volume. Makes about 4 dozen small-to-medium cookies.

6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 cup sugar
2 sticks butter
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons baking powder dissolved in
¼ cup heavy cream


How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 350º. We mixed together the flour, nutmeg, and ginger (we like to use a strong variety such as Frontier), and set aside.

Then we creamed the butter and sugar and mixed in the eggs.

In a measuring cup, we dissolved the baking powder in the cream.

We added the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, then added in the cream/ baking powder and ran the standing mixer just until the dough came together.

You can also mix the dough by hand; do not overmix.

Using a small scoop, we formed the dough into little round cakes (i.e., cookies) and placed them about 2 inches apart on greased or Silpat-lined baking sheets. Then we popped them into the preheated oven

for fifteen minutes.

After fifteen minutes, when the cakes were slightly browned on the edges, we removed them from the oven and allowed them to cool for about 10 minutes. Then we served our rich, spicy gingerbread cakes together with one of the other little cakes that Simmons neglects to call “cookeys,” her caraway-flavored “Tumbles.” (We'll be blogging Tumbles soon.)

Ours wasn’t a high tea, certainly, but it certainly was high time for tea and “cookeys” at our house!

Amelia Simmons’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 369.

“Plumb Cake," from Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796)

February 16, 2012

Tags: Amelia Simmons, cake, yeast, eggs, plum, dessert

A yeasted "Plumb Cake" from the first American cookbook

We’ve been bringing this cake to our speaking engagements this year, and it’s been a hit every time. It comes from the same cookbook as the “Marlborough Pudding (Pie)” we featured a couple of posts ago. American Cookery by Amelia Simmons was the first cookbook written by an American and published in the United States. Simmons is an interesting—partly because she’s a mysterious—character. For example, she identifies herself on the title page of her book as “an American Orphan.” There are also several quirky aspects to the publication of American Cookery, as there are as well to this cake recipe. Such as, that it’s made with both eggs and yeast, and also with neither butter nor sugar (except a bit in the candied fruit and the sweet wine). If you’d like to know more about Simmons and her cookbook,

and also how we made “plumb cake,”

click over to our column about it on All Things New England.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 384.

Selected Works

"[A] gem in the ocean of works on food."
--Library Journal
We contributed two entries, "Boardwalks" and "Fudge." You can order a copy of what Adam Gopnik calls "a delicious encyclopedia" here.
"Bold, skillful, and original."
--William & Mary Quarterly

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