Happy Election (Cake) Day!
It seems fitting today to bring back an old, but no less tasty, tradition for Election Day!
This New England tradition goes back to when Muster Days were mandatory. Muster Day was when the town militia would gather for the day and practice their drill (and eat and drink as well!). After the Revolutionary War, Muster Day was no longer necessary but was replaced in festivity with Election Day. This was a time to not only perform your Civic duty (if you were white, male landowner over the age of 25) but also to visit with your neighbors and eat, drink and be merry! And the center piece of this festivity would be the aptly named Election Cake!
There are several receipts for Election Cake to pick from. From Amelia Simmons to Mrs. Child to Fannie Farmer. And the majority of these are done in huge quantities, mainly proving that you'd expect to feed a lot of friends and neighbors that day. Even the local officials would commission a LARGE Election Cake to give pieces out to the voters and their families that day. But the one I chose to celebrate our election day today is from Mrs. Child's book American Frugal Housewife. This particular one came from the 12th edition printed in 1833.
"Old-fashion election cake is made of four pounds of flour; three quarters of a pound of butter; four eggs; one pound of sugar; one pound of currants, or raisins if you choose; half pint of good yeast; wet it with milk as soft as it can be and be moulded on a board. Set it to rise overnight in winter; in warm weather, three hours is usually enough for it to rise. A loaf, the size of common flour bread, should bake three quarters of an hour."
Now this doesn't come close to the 30 quarts of flour, 14 pounds of sugar and 10 pounds of butter in Amelia Simmon's receipt. But it's still pretty hefty. Four pounds of AP flour comes to 13 and 1/3rd cups, so that's still a pretty big cake. So, because of this, I ended up making a fourth of the amount of the ingredients listed above. So the amounts I ended up using are...
3 1/3 cups of AP Flour
3/4 stick of Butter
1/2 cup of Sugar (granulated)
1/4 cup of Starter
1 cup of Currants
Milk as needed
Like most receipts, the order of how to integrate things isn't there. It's assumed you already know it. So I decided that this is a cake recipe, and most cake recipes start with creaming the butter and sugar together, and then adding the eggs to that. So I did, using my wonderfully modern hand mixer! Mainly because I whipped egg whites by hand on Sunday and my arm hasn't really recovered fully yet. But more on that later...
The interesting thing about this cake is that it's a yeast risen cake. Before baking powder became the norm for cake making, most cakes were risen by yeast from either barm or a sour dough starter. And so I decided to use my go-to recipe for sour dough starter, which you can find in Kent Rollin's cookbook "A Taste of Cowboy". I did a Dutch Oven cooking school event with him in March and learned it from him. The secret is the use of a russet potato!
The starter, shown above, was only sitting 6 hours and it nearly tripled in size already. It should have sat for around 12 hours but I didn't have that amount of time (not really wanting to bake the cake at midnight).
So I added the starter to the egg/butter/sugar mixture.
At this point I deviated a bit from the receipt. Because it's, well, a bit bland for a festive cake. Which is funny because you see so many other versions adding spices, brandy, and wine. I know you are trying to be frugal Mrs. Child, but a celebratory cake like this needs some flavor! So I added some cinnamon, nutmeg and mace for some nice flavor that would compliment the currants.
Now I decided to add the flour first, and then kneed the currants into the dough once it's come together. But in hind sight I think I would do it the opposite way, then the dough wouldn't be worked as much. Because it came out much more bread like than cake like I feel like I treated it more like a loaf of bread than a cake.
So then I put it on the baking sheet and let it sit for four hours to rise (the first hour it didn't do very much so I put the oven on low to help the process along).
Once risen, I put the oven to 350 degrees F (since there is no description of how hot the oven should be) and ended up baking it for a hour and 15 minutes. Maybe it was bigger than the bread loaf Mrs. Child was thinking of.
Once the cake was baked it had plumped up nicely! But it definitely was more like a loaf of bread than a cake. At least on the outside.
Now Mrs. Child doesn't cite a frosting to go on this cake (remind me never to go to her house on Election day!) so I did a bit of digging and found this wonderful quote from John Howard Redfield, who was writing about his Connecticut childhood in the 19th century.
"The delicate frostings of white of egg and sugar, the rich, sweet, and spicy substance of the cake itself and the raisins which were embedded in the toothsome compound were joys which no Connecticut boy could ever forgo or forget."
So, with this information, I researched and thought it was Royal Frosting, which is made by beating egg whites and powdered sugar together. But, after making the frosting and putting it on the cake, I also stumbled across an old fashioned recipe for frosting made from egg whites and boiled sugar mixed together until soft and shiny. So maybe he was talking about that frosting. I'll have to try that soon!
But I will say, especially with the Royal Icing, this cake was REALLY good! I can see why they looked forward to it every year!
It certainly isn't as light or fluffy as cakes are today. This is part of the reason that it fell out of favor at the end of the 19th century when baking powder was readily accessible and a much lighter cake could be baked in a shorter amount of time. But while the outside was a bit tough and crusty, the inside was moist and tender. And the spices and plump currants really make this cake. And it was so well received that my husband has requested I make it again for the next Election Day!
And I certainly will! Maybe with the boiled sugar frosting!