Election Cake was a highlight of 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 Easter or saints’ days, which they viewed as Papist abominations, and they even banned Christmas.
Election Day, however, was a big deal. It usually took place in May, though it could happen anywhere from mid-January to June. In some places, enslaved black servants came along and held their own shadow election.
In Massachusetts, Election Day started with cannon firing followed by a military exercise. Then came a procession of government officials to a local church, where they sat and listened to a long sermon.
Connecticut, unlike most other colonies, elected its own governor. The ballot counting at the end of the day featured a banquet and, of course, the cake, followed by a ball.
The cake recipe 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, the cakes shrunk in size. By 1820, people considered the large election cake old-fashioned.
Hartford Election Cake
The cakes got linked with Hartford, Conn., and are sometimes called Hartford election cakes or Hartford cakes.
Partly because the Connecticut Colony paid roughly £3 for the first documented election cake in Hartford in 1771.
The Connecticut Historical Society explained that town officials once gathered in Hartford to elect the state’s leaders–and then ate cake.
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.
Another reason may be that prominent Hartford native Catharine Beecher, big sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, published a cookbook that included a much-copied recipe for election cake.
Fannie Farmer Recipe
Cookbook author Fannie Farmer also published recipes for the cake in her cookbooks. Here’s her Recipe for Election Cake, from the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1911, orig. 1896).
1/2 cup butter
1 cup bread dough
8 finely chopped figs
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 each of clove, mace and 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. Then bake one hour in a slow oven. Cover with Boiled Milk Frosting.
The Cooking Channel offers a modern version for today’s 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. Fannie Farmer By Unknown author – http://ourgrandmotherskitchens.com/?tag=fannie-farmer, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86403164. This story was updated in 2022.