Something Sweet for the Bitter Election?

11/04/16

Did you know that Election Day has a special cake associated with it, Election Day Cake? Maybe you know it by its other names: Oak Cake, Hartford Election Cake, Muster Cake or Training Cake. Hartford, Connecticut is credited as the birthplace of this cake that dates all the way back to at least 1771; 4 years before the American Revolution2. You might be asking yourself, why would they make a special cake for Election Day? In Colonial times, Election Day was very important for two reasons. First of all, in 1660 Connecticut and Rhode Island colonists were allowed to elect their own governors for the first time. Previously the crown appointed them and the people had no say in their leaders1. Second, New England colonies were heavily influenced by Puritanism. Many religious holidays like Christmas, Easter and Pentecost were not to be celebrated. Election Day quickly became the holiday to fill that void. Election Day allowed colonists an opportunity to celebrate a holiday with food, friends and family. Women also did not have the right to vote, so by baking they were able to feel they were still part of the election process1.

Typical Election Day festivities included parades, religious ceremonies, dancing and lots of food2. Colonists got to take a break from their normal work to attend a morning sermon, lunch and lavish dinner. After dinner, the governor’s house as well as other leading family’s homes were opened to host “drinkings”. This is where the very large cake was served, the Election Day Cake! When we say large we mean large. The original recipe called for 14.5 pounds of flour, 10 pounds of fruit, a dozen eggs, etc. This cake was so large that it was baked free-form, without any sort of pan1. It had to be baked directly on the oven floor as it was a yard wide and a foot high. Cakes this big were only served at important occasions like weddings. This was mainly due to the size of the cake, cost, scarcity of ingredients and preparation time. The yeast cake included molasses, spices, raisins and currents and cost ₤5, which was very expensive for a cake in 1771. The closest comparison of this cake today is fruitcake or raisin bread, but before you go “eww” there are major differences. Commercial baking powder did not exist in 1771, so the Election Day Cake was yeast-leavened which left it more bread-like2. It was also only mildly sweet as none of the fruit had any chemical preservatives or lots of added sugar3. This cake would take a significant amount of time to make by today’s standards. Can you imagine having to pound sugar into fine crystals, grind spices by hand and cleanse 14.5 pounds of flour? Below is the first recorded recipe for Election Cake by Amelia Simmons in 1796. Notice one of the directions says, “work the butter and sugar together for half an hour”4. How long does that take us today with our stand mixer? Maybe 5 minutes? The large quantities required long rising periods and slow baking3. This very long process is guaranteed to be why the recipe was changed over time.

election_cake_recipe_amelia_simmons

By the 1800s cakes began to become sweeter and richer and were baked in pans. Yeast baked cakes were also becoming a thing of the past. By the 1820’s drinkings were no longer held and governors and wealthy families did not open their home to Election Day festivities. Election Day as a holiday began to become increasingly less popular.  The elections for president and congress were seen as more important elections and took place in the fall as opposed to state and local elections in spring. After the Civil War, most state and local elections were held on the same day as national elections. Christmas and other church holidays were also openly celebrated. Election Day thus ceased to exist, but was not entirely forgotten. The real question is why don’t we celebrate Election Day with a feast like we do at Thanksgiving? Have we taken the right to vote for granted or are we simply too busy to celebrate another holiday?

Want to bake your own election cake? Click here for a modern version.


  1. Schmidt, Stephen. “From Great Cake to Curiosity – Culinary Historians of NY.” Culinary Historians NY. N.p., 2004. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.
  2. Https://whatscookingamerica.net/author/brenda/. “Election Day Cake History and Recipe, What’s Cooking America.” What’s Cooking America Election Day Cake History and Recipe. N.p., 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.
  3. Ross, Alice. “Election Cake, Hearth to Hearth Article, JOA&C October 2003 Issue.” Election Cake, Hearth to Hearth Article, JOA&C October 2003 Issue. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.
  4. Mastrianni, Keia. “‘Election Cake’ Makes a Modern Day Resurgence.” Bon Appetit. N.p., 2016. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.