Adapted from I Hear America Cooking by Betty Fussell and American Cookery by Amelia Simmons.
The very first cookbook authored by an American was published in 1796 in Hartford, Connecticut. Little is known about the book’s author, Amelia Simmons, who called herself an “American Orphan” on the book’s title page, but the work she created went on to be re-printed—and plagiarized—for decades.
The second edition of Amelia’s book, published in 1800, contained a recipe not found in the original: Election Cake. Like all cakes of the time, it was meant to feed dozens of people and called for, among other things, 14 pounds of sugar, 3 dozen eggs, 10 pounds of butter, and 30 quarts of flour. This type of cake went by many names back then, including Great Cake, Loaf Cake, and Pretty Cake, and was typically leavened with the liquid substance that remains after beer-brewing (called ale barm or emptins). Flavors such as rosewater and brandy, as well as spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace, were common, as were additions like nuts and dried fruits.
As for the name of this confection, some claim that the recipe originated in Hartford, Connecticut, a center for political action in early American; another popular theory is that it was simply an update of Muster Cake, slices of which were served to soldiers who ventured to large towns for military training days. What all historians agree on is that the cake was baked and served to the men who traveled into town center in order to participate in an election. Because of that, it holds the distinction of being the first American food to be associated with politics.
Election Cake fell out of popular favor in the early-mid-nineteenth century, which is a shame, as it’s rather lovely, keeps well, and is splendid toasted and smeared with salty butter.
two 8- by 3-inch loaves
For the sponge:
warm milk (100° to 115° F)
2 1/4 teaspoons
active dry yeast
For the cake:
1 1/2 cups
raisins (Sultana or golden raisins preferred)
Madeira wine or sweet sherry
2 1/2 cups
unsalted butter, at room temperature
large eggs, at room temperature
In This Recipe
For the sponge:
To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the warm milk, then pour it over the flour. Add in the molasses and stir everything together with a wooden spoon or Silicone spatula until you have a nice, smooth dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until the dough has doubled and the top is dotted with bubbles, about 2 to 3 hours.
In the meantime, soak the raisins (below, in the "cake" recipe) in the wine and brandy.
For the cake:
When the sponge is ready, preheat your oven to 350° F. Generously butter two 8- by 3-inch loaf pans and line with parchment paper slings. Butter the paper. [Editors' note: We made one standard 9- by 5-inch loaf pan and filled it three-quarters-full of batter. Then we made 6 muffins with the leftover batter.]
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, salt, and chopped pecans. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and the sugar on medium until fluffy and lighter in color, about 3 minutes. Keeping the mixer on medium, add the eggs, one a time, beating for 30 seconds before adding in the next egg. Stop the mixer often to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Once all of the eggs are in, scrape the sponge into the batter and mix on medium speed for a few minutes to completely incorporate everything.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and add in the flour, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, salt, and pecans. Mix briefly, then pour in the raisins and the soaking liquid. Mix on low for a few seconds, then remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a silicone spatula, fold the doughy batter a few times to ensure everything is even distribution.
Divide the dough between the two prepared loaf pans and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the sides start to pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let the cakes cool in the pans set on a rack for 5 minutes, then lift them out using the parchment sling and let cool completely.