Made with yeast and flavored with currants and spices, these Hartford Election Cakes (you might also call them rolls) get our vote for sweet, old-fashioned flavor.
By Aimee Tucker
Nov 06 2018
Hartford Election CakePhoto Credit : Aimee Seavey
Have you ever heard of Election Cake? I hadn’t until I started collecting vintage New England cookbooks around ten years ago, but since then (and especially since I’ve been here at Yankee) the number of times I’ve come across the recipe, most often referred to as Hartford Election Day Cake, has increased to the point where I really wanted to know 1) what the heck it is, and 2) why Hartford?
Fortunately, the Yankee archives came to my rescue. In 2002, we asked food historian Stephen Schmidt to dive into the dish’s history, and first thing he discovered was that, like another famous New England treat (I’m looking at you, Boston Cream Pie), the name wasn’t entirely accurate. Made with yeast, traditional Election Cake is actually more like Election Bread, but the good, fruity kind.
It also turns outs out that we’ve been eating it for centuries. When our Colonial ancestors arrived here from Europe, they brought with them a fondness for open-air celebrating, whether it was for a successful harvest, barn raising, or wedding. Often included in the fiddling and feasting were enormous fruited, spiced breads or “great cakes.” Election Day, which was a springtime tradition back then, was celebrated in kind, not only because it was one of the few times a year when everyone was gathered together, but also because the act of voting was a treasured expression of freedom. And the cake? As Schmidt succinctly summarized: “Election cake is simply a version of the great cake they baked on election day.” The recipe was so popular that there’s even a recipe for it in the second edition of Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, the country’s first cookbook.
So, if Election Day cakes were being baked and served throughout America, why Hartford? Schmidt tracked down the first mention of Hartford Election Cake to an 1857 recipe published by Connecticut-born Catherine Beecher, and estimates that the recipe was picked up by the right person (likely a newspaper food writer) at the right time (the end of the 19th century), and it spread from there like warm, spiced wildfire.
While the original Election Cake recipes were massive enough to feed an entire town, today’s recipes are more appropriately sized for the average household, and some shortcut chefs have even taken the yeast away and made the cakes more, well…cake-like. Bundt cake-like, to be more specific. You can try one of those recipes if you like, but we prefer a slight monkey bread-style adaptation of the old-fashioned original. Made with yeast, flavored with currants and spices, nestled into a baking dish, and baked until golden and smelling like heaven, these petite Election Cakes are a shoo-in.
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.