Election Cake featured in the Puritan celebration of Election Day, one of the important colonial holidays along with Commencement Day and Training Day. (The Puritans had no use for saints days, which they viewed as Papist abominations, and they even banned Christmas.)
Election Day usually took place in May, though it could happen anywhere from mid-January to June.
The election cake came from England with the early colonists, who called them ‘great cakes’ and served them at large gatherings. Similar to fruit cakes, they could weigh as much as 12 pounds.
The first recipe for American election cake appears in 1796 in the first U.S. cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery.
Simmons notably substituted ingredients like maize for English oats. Her recipe called for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter, 14 pounds of sugar, 12 pounds of raisins, three dozen eggs, a pint of wine and a quart of brandy -- plus spices.
Over time, election cakes shrunk in size. By 1820, the large election cake was considered old-fashioned.
Hartford Election Cake
Election cakes became associated with Hartford, Conn., and are sometimes called Hartford election cakes or Hartford cakes.
The Connecticut Colony paid roughly £3 for the first documented election cake in Hartford in 1771.
The Connecticut Historical Society explained the reason for the association of election cake with Hartford.
Towns held elections in early spring, and the town representatives gathered in Hartford in May for the formal counting of the votes. First they counted the votes for governor, then lieutenant governor, then other officials. The counting often went long into the night, and the town representatives stayed overnight in Hartford homes. Women made election cake to serve the out-of-towners.
Fanny Farmer also published recipes for election cakes in her cookbooks. Here's one:
Recipe for Election Cake, from the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1911, orig. 1896).
1/2 cup butter
8 finely chopped figs
1 cup bread dough
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sour milk
2/3 cup raisins seeded, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon clove
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
Work butter into dough, using the hand. Add egg well beaten, sugar, milk, fruit dredged with two tablespoons flour, and flour mixed and sifted with remaining ingredients. Put into a well-buttered bread pan, cover, and let rise one and one-fourth hours. Bake one hour in a slow oven. Cover with Boiled Milk Frosting.
The Cooking Channel offers a modern version for 2018 bakers. Click here for the recipe.
Plum cake image by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3485743. This story was updated in 2018.