If you're stressed about the election, an all-day baking project that results in a cake with a rich flavor and an even richer backstory, might be just what you need right now.
Election cake, a variation of a Colonial-era cake called "muster cake," was created by women in the New England area in the 1700s to encourage voter turnout and sway men to vote for the candidates and issues they supported, since women didn't have the right to vote at the time.
According to the New England Historical Society, the first recipe for American election cake appeared in 1796 in the first U.S. cookbook, Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery." Back then, the cakes could weigh as much as 12 pounds. By 1820, people considered the massive dessert old-fashioned — but in 2020, it's back in vogue.
So, when Redditor u/princessleiaround shared an election cake recipe from a vintage cookbook with fellow lovers of old recipes, I decided to give it a try. Something sweet to take out my election stress on.
This specific recipe, traced back by food blog In the Vintage Kitchen to the 1965 "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," requires letting a yeast mixture rise for at least six hours, preferably overnight. The remaining ingredients — which include a cup of whiskey and a lot of raisins — are then added, and the cakes rise again in loaf pans for an hour. Then, after an hour of baking, your cakes are ready to eat.
Susannah Gebhart, the founder of Old World Levain Bakery in Ashville, North Carolina, went viral during the 2016 election for sharing photos of her own election cakes with the hashtag #MakeAmericaCakeAgain. Gebhart's election cake enthusiasm led others to create versions of the cake and share them with the same hashtag.
For the 2020 election, Gebhart's bakery has dropped the hashtag, but continues making the historical cakes for a good cause.
"What seemed light in 2016 is much more somber and no longer appropriate in a divisive 2020 election," Gebhart explained. "This year, rather than selling Election Cake, we've opted to make it, but it is entirely donation based ... all donations are going to our local chapter of the League of Women Voters."
It's an appropriate charity, given the cake's rich history in American politics — something Gebhart has become an expert on as she's baked the cakes.
"I first became aware of election cake from its predecessor, a colonial-era cake called 'muster cake' which was made in large community ovens when New England towns had militia training for revolutionary forces," said Gebhart. "People would come out to watch these as entertainment, and muster cake would attract or 'muster up' participation."
"This tradition then evolved into 'election' cakes during the new republic, when largely women (who did not have the right to vote) would bake election cakes to take to the polling sites to both encourage citizens to vote, and also often to campaign for certain candidates," Gebhart continued. "It's a cake in the British tradition, not unlike a pudding, with lots of dried fruit soaked in brandy. Since chemical leavening agents were not available, bakers would employ sourdough cultures, and later yeast, to help leaven the cakes."
For my Fannie Farmer version of election cake, I spent the day moving through the various steps which were simple, though time-consuming: Mix it up, let it rise, add more ingredients, let it rise some more.
Finally, after a lot of love and even more leavening, my batter was ready, and it was time to bake.
While the three loaf pans filled with batter baked in my oven, the house smelled like clove, nutmeg and whiskey. And, when the cakes (which resemble a holiday fruitcake) were ready, I was surprised by the complex flavor and strength of the booze that came through. (Needless to say, it's perfect for election night.)
The cakes were more like a slightly sweet, dense bread, similar to zucchini or banana bread. I wanted my slice warm with some salted butter, while my husband said he thought it would be best for breakfast alongside a cup of coffee.
Overall, it was a lot of work for a cake that wasn't my favorite thing I've baked, paling in comparison to the rich, Reddit-famous "Nana's Devil's Food" cake.
However, like baking Irish soda bread on St. Patrick's Day or any other holiday-specific dish, I can see the appeal of making it both for the history behind it and the sense of comfort it brings, especially on a day fraught with tension and worry.
In a 2016 Instagram post about election cake, Gebhart's bakery wrote, "For us, it represents a connection to our baking predecessors and the power of food to bring people of all ilks together to participate in social and political life."