Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

An Election Baking Selection

October 24, 2016

Tags: cake, election

Elect to Celebrate Elections

With this bitter election campaign dragging along to its conclusion, we thought we would try to sweeten the experience of the final couple of weeks before November 8th by reminding our readers of an earlier post of ours: Election Cake. We're moved to do this partly because of a recent post about Election Cake on the NPR website, brought to our attention by Tony Stavely: A History of Election Cake.

This NPR "history" of the famous cake is unfortunately less than historically accurate. The discussion makes it sound as though Election Cake originated in North America and as though it developed as something uniquely suitable for colonial elections and other communal occasions of that era such as militia muster or training days. But Election Cake is, like so many early New England recipes, English in origin; the colonial North Americans who made it were baking their cakes according to old English recipes. This cake is one of many variations on the traditional English "great cake." It came to be associated with the festivities surrounding spring elections and town meetings that took place throughout colonial New England. Because of that association, it was also known as "March Meeting Cake" and even "Connecticut Loaf Cake."

Election cakes were often enormous affairs, involving many pounds of flour and butter. In the NPR story, Amelia Simmons's 1796 "Election Cake" recipe, from the second edition of her book, American Cookery, is given (sadly, without attribution). It calls for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of raisins, 3 dozen eggs, and so on. But the modern recipe reader should understand that many early modern cake recipes were huge by our standards, sometimes because they were made for celebrations but often simply because the households they fed were far larger than the average modern household.


Since getting a brick bake oven properly fired was an arduous and time-consuming process, baking usually occurred only once or twice a week. Many early colonial households had no bake oven. So for a small fee housewives brought their prepared doughs to taverns to be baked, or to a neighbor's better-equipped house. Under these circumstances, household bakers made sure they baked enough cakes, breads, and puddings to last quite awhile.

Despite the magnificence of many early cakes, the great cake that evolved into Election Cake was particularly fondly remembered by many nineteenth-century New Englanders, not only for the captivating aroma it gave off when baking or the delectability of its raisin-studded interior, but also because it symbolized one of their most cherished principles--self-government on the local and colonial level.

Perhaps you'd like to try making Lydia Maria Child's "Election Cake," given in our earlier post on the subject.


It's both authentic and delicious--and not quite as large as Simmons's. Enjoying a warm slice of old-fashioned Election Cake might put you and your family and friends in a celebratory mood on election night this November. At the very least, it will remind you of the deep traditions, held through many generations, that undergird our American democracy, principles that no flash-in-the-pan (to use a culinary metaphor!) demagogue can easily displace.

"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. (more…)

"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

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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.