Election Cake: Recipe, History and American Tradition
Election cake, mostly forgotten in modern politics and home kitchens, has deep roots in American history, dating all the way back to the original 13 colonies.
Originally believed to have been baked as a loaf in communal ovens, the confection was used to encourage civic participation. This modern take keeps the spiced fruit and brandy, which help to preserve flavor and moisture in the cake even after it sits out for a few days–but with sweet prunes and warm spice notes throughout, who can wait that long?
About Election Cake:
Marion Burros wrote about Election Cake for the New York Times, where she shared that many elected officials had never tried it and it was also known as Hartford Election Cake. The one thing history seems to agree on is that the proper recipe is a yeasted sweet cake dough (like panettone) with dried fruit included. The New England Historical Society shared more history of the cake, and says the first printed version of American election cake appears in 1796 in the first U.S. cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery.
All in all, Election Cake is hearty treat that can be stored at room temperature, can last a few days, and was meant to fortify hunger voters before or after they performed their important civic duty: voting.
Making Election Cake:
Election cake is really a cross between a yeasted sweet bread and a cake. The great news is that a stand mixer makes quick work of the historic recipe – it will handle the kneading for you. While that’s happening, the dried fruit gets a quick, boozy soak. The original loaf pan is swapped for a Bundt pan, which makes for a prettier presentation and more surface for the flavorful glaze.
- Cooking spray or melted butter for the pan
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 ¼-oz. packets active dry yeast
- 1 lemon
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
- ¼ tsp grated nutmeg
- 2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt, or 1 tsp coarse sea salt
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 8 TBSP unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup chopped California prunes
- ½ cup packed golden raisins
- 2 TBSP tsp brandy, plus ½ TBSP
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- ¼ tsp ground clove
- 2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Reserve 1 TBSP of the flour and 2 TBSP of the brown sugar in a small bowl. Spray or generously butter a 10-inch bundt pan.
Make the Election Cake dough:
Gently warm the milk in a small pot over medium heat, until just warm to the touch (about 110°F). Pour the warmed milk into the bowl of a stand mixer, and sprinkle in the yeast. Let sit until foamy, 5-10 minutes, then zest the lemon over the mixture and add the eggs, grated nutmeg, salt, flour, and brown sugar. Fold with a spatula to mix, forming a rough, shaggy dough.
Place the bowl on the stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and knead on a low speed until a smooth dough forms–about 3 minutes. Scape down the side of the bowl and hook, then add the 8 TBSP butter all at once and continue kneading until the dough is smooth, a little shiny, and elastic–another 6-7 minutes. Remove the bowl from the stand and cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let rise for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, toss the chopped prunes and raisins in 2 TBSP brandy, then cover and let the fruit soak until plump and rehydrated. Add the reserved 1 TBSP of flour and 2 TBSP brown sugar along with the vanilla extract and the remaining spices and stir until evenly combined.
Lightly press into the risen dough to form a bowl. Add in the dried fruit mixture, then gently fold the dough over, and continue folding until the fruit is evenly mixed throughout. Scrape the mixed dough into the prepared bundt pan, smoothing the surface to make sure the pan is filled evenly. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rise for another 90 minutes, or until the dough springs back when pressed.
Bake the Cake:
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place the bundt pan on a sheet tray and bake on a center rack for 40 minutes, or until golden brown and hollow-sounding when the surface is tapped. A toothpick or cake tester should come out clean when inserted. Cool in the pan while you prepare the glaze.
Make the Glaze:
Into a small bowl, juice the zested lemon, then add the remaining ½ TBSP brandy and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the confectioner’s sugar to create a smooth glaze–it should be runny but slightly opaque.
Glazing + Serving the Election Cake:
Place a wire rack over the Bundt pan, and invert to remove the cake. Place the rack inside of a sheet pan to catch excess glaze. Brush a thin layer of the glaze over the surface of the warm cake, then let it cool further, almost to room temperature–otherwise, the rest of the glaze won’t set before running down the sides.
Pour the remaining glaze over the top, allowing it to stream generously down all sides of the cake.
Let the glaze set then slice and serve at room temperature!
Want more historic recipes? Try this Old Fashioned Prune Cake and this Traditional Sugar Plums Candy next!