The American or Hartford election cake is American in name only. The cake itself is a classic English “rich cake,” “loaf cake,” or “fruitcake,” which went by many names and varied many ingredients. Martha Washington supplies the essentials in her many kinds of “great cake,” listed in
The name “election” did not get attached to the cake until the 1830s, when Eliza Leslie calls a pound cake by this name—in the proportion of sixteen eggs to five pounds flour and two pounds each butter and sugar. Brandy and wine were the usual liquids, as in the Sally White cakes of the South, but Fannie Farmer substitutes sour milk in her Election Cake of 1896. Fannie was going against the grain of this rich cake, named for the Election Day feasts in New England towns like Hartford, Connecticut. According to a number of contemporaries, these week-long January election feasts displaced the Anglican feast of the Epiphany, which smacked too much of popery for Connecticut Yanks. “Families exchange visits, and treat their guests with slices of election-cake,” an English traveler wrote in 1807–8, “and thus preserve some portion of the luxuries of the forgotten feast of the Epiphany.” Madame Sarah Knight was more openly scornful, “Their Chief Red Letterday is St. Election.” The popularity of St. Election is evident in Mrs. Chadwick’s
To honor St. Election I’ve here made the fruitcake in the traditional way with a sponge of yeast and flour, which gives a riper fermented taste and a slightly lighter texture. If you don’t want to bother with a sponge, you can simply mix all the ingredients at once and let the dough rise in the pan until doubled. No frosting is needed, but I’ve found that a frosting of maple cream or maple syrup complements the color, texture, and taste of the cake and ameliorates its dryness.
To make the sponge, stir yeast into the warmed milk. Mix with flour and molasses to make a stiff paste. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until sponge becomes bubbly, 2 to 3 hours.
Meanwhile, plump the raisins in the brandy. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy and then beat in the eggs. Mix flour with the seasonings and nuts.
Add the sponge to the egg mixture, then beat in the flour and raisins. Pour batter into a well-buttered large tube pan or 2 loaf pans. Cover lightly with plastic and let dough rise until nearly doubled. Bake at 350° for 50 to 60 minutes. Invert onto a cake rack to cool.
Make the frosting by creaming the butter with the maple cream or syrup and beating in sugar until you have the stiffness desired. Spread on cooled cake and refrigerate.
© 1986 Betty Fussell. All rights reserved.