I found a recipe for something called “Election Cake” in the Newberry back in August when I paged a few of the library’s cookbooks to the Special Collections Reading Room, looking for early American dessert recipes. This recipe appeared (alongside donuts, macaroons, wine cake, drop cake, ginger nuts, and jumbles) in a booklet published in Chicago in 1857 called simply The Cake Baker.
Immediately, mysteries arose: What is Election Cake? Why does it call for 15 pounds of ingredients? And, reading the recipe as a cook from the twenty-first century, What is a gill? What is saleratus? What is soft dough? What does it mean to bake at a level of “heat, 4”?
Naturally, I set out to make this cake, in part to celebrate the end of this too-lengthy election season, and in part to explore U.S. political history. In 1857, the year this booklet was published, President James Buchanan was inaugurated after campaigning against the first Republican candidate to run for that office.
The political landscape had been shifting. As future Vice President Hannibal Hamlin put it in a speech to the Senate in 1850, “cries of disunion” permeated the country. The Democratic Party would become increasingly splintered, eventually forming two separate conventions—nominating two separate presidential tickets—in 1860. Schisms formed as debates over the future of the nation raged in national and local politics.
Amid such a divisive political climate, this booklet modestly recorded a cake symbolic of political cooperation and civic spirit. This election cycle, too, has witnessed battles over national identity, unceremonious vitriol and infighting, and rhetoric many decry as unfit for public consumption. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, more bakers are turning back to Election Cake as a way to renew the spirit of the civic process, this time using social media along with recipe sharing: #MakeAmericaCakeAgain.
“Election Cake” has a history dating back to before the Revolutionary War, though the first recorded recipe entitled “Election Cake” didn’t appear until 1796. The cake was often referred to as “Muster Cake” thanks to its use in fueling militia training exercises in pre-Revolutionary New England.
In the fledgling nation after the Revolution, the cake was used on election days, when men would converge upon cities to vote and wait for news of the results. The cake sustained them through an all-day process that included holiday-like festivities. Women where voting took place would prepare cakes and supply them to lodgers who came to vote, participating in the electoral process the only way they could—a far cry from actual enfranchisement.
Fortunately, today, voting is open to all American citizens over the age of 18: making Election Cake for the Newberry community of voters would include me and my colleagues of all races and genders. So this year I made an election cake to celebrate our abilities to cast our votes—but first I would have to decode the recipe.
I had never heard of a gill (unaffiliated with a fish) before reading this recipe, but the Newberry collection had my back! On the day I found Election Cake, I had also paged another cookbook to the reading room: “Lemon Pies or Wash Tubs Number 9”, one of a set of promotional cookbooks from 1934-1938. This, as it happened, had a most helpful conversion guide on page 18, which included “2 gills …… 1 cup.” Mystery #1: solved!
Gills may have been common well into the twentieth century, but saleratus was not. Saleratus, made from pearlash, was a precursor to baking soda. It first appeared as a leavening agent in the early 19th century, but was most widely used (with some health controversy) between 1840 and the 1860s, when baking soda became more prevalent and more reliable. The Cake Baker, published in 1857, probably aged quite quickly, appearing as it did when baking soda was first coming into favor. Because I could not locate any real saleratus, I simply used baking soda (resulting in a cake that tastes a little less of ash).
As for the final mystery ingredient: being a baker myself, I assumed that soft dough was sour dough, but I couldn’t find any information on its specific composition in this recipe book or any of the others I was perusing. The author of this recipe assumed the reader’s familiarity with soft dough. With some experimentation and comparisons to other Election Cake recipes, I confirmed my suspicions, and developed the formula you’ll see below. Some early recipes call for soaking flour overnight with milk, some recipes call for adding yeast, some call for baking soda and a starter (similar to this one), some simply say “bread dough.” The most essential thing for an authentic 1857 flavor is to use sour milk throughout the process. Soft dough in the nineteenth century always involved sour milk rather than simply water—for both leavening purposes (baking soda won’t rise without the presence of an acid) and nutritional value.
When it came to the actual baking, there was a disconnect between the recipe’s heat setting (“heat, 4”) and my 2016 frame of reference wherein heat is simply a matter of setting the oven temperature. Of course, in 1857 thermometers were uncommon, ovens were heated by fire, and timers were few and far between. Consequently, this little book has a three-page section devoted to “The Oven.” The author warns of the complexity of measurement:
There can be no definite time given, nor can any use of the thermometer to ascertain the degree of heat recommended by some, unless some person will take it upon himself to make a series of experiments with all kinds of cake in all their various shapes and sizes in an oven whose heat shall be graduated by a thermometer, and furnish us the data; which instead of being advantageous, would be so very complicated that no one would attempt to use it.
To frighten potential bakers even more, the author proceeds to tell us the importance of the precise temperature and steady heat, otherwise “there will be but little chance of saving your cake.” With all this admonishment, I was left to bake by instinct with the specter of a failed cake hanging over my head!
As I scrutinized the text, a simple guide began to point the way. At the beginning, the author tells us, when your oven is the hottest, put in the smallest and most rich cakes; and at the end, when it is coolest, the larger and more delicate. In this way the baker can cook many kinds of cake with the same fire. The reference scale in The Cake Baker suggested “Jumbles, 1; Ginger Nuts, 2; Drop Cake, 3; Election cake, 4; Sponge cake, 5; Pound Cake, 6; and Macaroons, 7.” Election Cake, figuring rather prominently in the middle of this list, was well-known enough to serve as a reference—and, conveniently, at a level of middling heat and duration. I baked the cake at 375° F (or 190° C) for 45 minutes, a very middling time and temperature.
As for the 15 pounds of ingredients: we do not have to feed the voting masses converging upon Chicago—just a small group of colleagues!—so I have decreased the size of the recipe to create about three pounds of cake. Here is my 1857 recipe for the modern voter, with commentary (1/6 of original).
After this roller coaster of an election season, perhaps we can all try to #MakeAmericaCakeAgain.
By Jamie Waters, Communications Coordinator at the Newberry