"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!," Election Cake edition

Marie Antoinette


That’s of course the original French for what Marie Antoinette allegedly said when reliably informed by her courtiers that the people had no bread to eat.  “Let them eat cake!,” she said in a loose translation, although most of Historiann’s readers are righteously skeptical of these little historical fables that blame selfish, frivolous women for the falls of kingdoms and empires.  (As if the end of the Ancien Régime was a bad thing?)

Well–tomorrow is Election Day in the United States, and I want to share with you a recipe for an old-fashioned New England Election Cake.  Election Days in colonial New England were festive affairs–Anglo-Americans knocked off work to muster on the town green for militia duty (every free man between 16 and 60, that is), and to listen to inspirational election sermons.  (Wev.)  But much of the day was given over to feasting and drinking (preferably, but not always, after the militia had completed their drills with live rounds.)  All of these activities sound incredibly manly, don’t they?  So, let’s “Remember the Ladies,” who were working much of the day in their primitive kitchens brewing that beer, preparing those enormous feasts, and perhaps towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, baking up a decadent little treat like this Election Cake.  It is supposedly based on a recipe in Catharine Beecher’s Domestic Receipts published in 1857, and she alleged that her Election Cake recipe was then 100 years old.

Hartford Election Cake

1/2 cup each yellow and dark raisins

4 t dried coriander seeds

¼ C brandy

2 packages active dry yeast (2 T)

2 ½ C warm water

½ C nonfat dry milk

7 C all-purpose flour

¾ C sugar

½ lb. butter (2 sticks)

¾ C brown sugar

4 eggs

1 t salt

1 t cinnamon

½ t freshly grated nutmeg

½ C sliced citron


Soak the raisins and coriander in the brandy for 3-4 hours. 

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in ½ C of the warm water and let stand a minute.  Add the remaining water, the dry milk, 4 C of the flour, and ¼ C of the sugar and beat well, about 100 strokes by hand or 3 minutes on the electric beater.  Cover with plastic wrap and let this sponge rise for about 3 hours.

Cream the butter with the remaining sugar and the brown sugar, then beat in the eggs, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Turn this mixture into the sponge, stir in the remaining flour, cup by cup, using enough to form a soft dough.  Add the citron and the raisins and coriander, along with their juices, and a little more flour, if necessary to make a cohesive dough.  Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise again until double in volume. 

Beat down the dough, adding a little more flour again if it is too sticky.  Divide in half and placed in two greased 9-inch cake pans, cover lightly with a towel, and let rise again for 30 minutes.  Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 55 minutes.  Turn out of the pans onto a baking sheet.  Drizzel molasses over the tops and slip the cakes under the broiler until the glaze bubbles.  Let cool on racks.


Source:  Judith and Evan Jones, The L.L. Bean Book of New New England Cookery (New York:  Random House, 1987), 587.

Catherine Beecher

Catharine Beecher

You’ll note that it’s a yeast dough, which is why I’m posting the recipe today.  If you want to serve it tomorrow, you’ll need to pick up some yeast on your way home from work this afternoon and get going on the cake tonight.  You can let the second rise happen in the refrigerator overnight so that all you have to do is the final rise and baking, which you can get done before work if you like.  (Good luck finding citron in the supermarket now–in some places I’ve lived, Election Day wasn’t close enough to Thanksgiving Day and therefore not close enough to the “holiday baking season” for the supermarkets to stock things like citron and other fruitcake ingredients.)  This Election Cake is basically a yeasty fruitcake, kind of like a Panettone, but not as good.  (But then, I’m not much of a baker, and I haven’t made it since Election Day 1998, so I’m perfectly willing to believe the fault is mine!)  Personally, I would skip the broiled molasses topping and just serve it up with a generous slather of butter.  (Or, make a Hot Cross Bun-like icing, and draw outlines of donkeys and elephants, since this dough is very similar.)  And, maybe wash it down with slug of rye whiskey.

Happy Election Day, one and all.  I hope you get what and who you voted for (although I realize that all of us will be disappointed by at least one local, state, or national result.)  I’ll have an Election Day open thread tomorrow, and hope that you’ll all report on what you’re seeing and hearing where you live, work, and vote.  Onward, Americans!

UPDATE, ELECTION DAY, 11/4/08:  Erica at the good old days has actually tried the recipe!  (Did the overnight rise in the fridge work?  I was just suggesting it–I don’t know if that’s how I did it.)  Check out some of her photos:

Here’s a photo of combining the sponge (light colored batter) with the creamed butter and sugar mixture).  This is when the batter crept up the beaters and actually into Erica’s mixer.  What a mess.

The next photo is of the batter all mixed together, and the last photo is of the finished products, complete with the molasses glaze.  Enjoy!  (And be sure to check out Erica’s complete photo gallery of the cake-baking process.) 


0 thoughts on “"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!," Election Cake edition

  1. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot just ended, and citrons (they’re called esrogim) are used for ritual purposes. Most people keep their citron after the festival ends and make jam out of it, but many Orthodox Synagogues sell sets with the citron and other plants needed for the holiday as a fundraiser. If you’re dying for citron, call up your local Orthodox rabbi and ask if they have any “arba minim” (that’s the set of plats+citron) or “esrogim” lying around. It’s after the holiday, so you should be able to get one for cheap.


  2. Just a little nitpick — Catharine Beecher spelled her name with an “a” in the middle …
    They even had her name spelled Catherine in an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery this summer, and I did in fact write to them to suggest they correct it (and received a very nice reply saying it would be fixed)! Copy editors can’t help themselves …


  3. I have that cookbook! (The L.L. Bean, not the 1857 Domestic Receipts.)

    Our local grocery store has the fruitcake ingredients stacked even higher than the pumpkin pie ingredients, the day after Halloween. I’m hoping this is due to Election Cake mania in South Carolina rather than Christmas Creep.


  4. Kathie–thanks so much for the nit-picking! I should have double-checked that spelling, but forgot. Catharine it is.

    And Meg and Erica–thanks for the tips on candied fruit! I think that fruitcakes and other homemade sweet breads are more popular in the Southeast than in the North, or anywhere else. (Aside from the banana and zucchini breads everyone makes from their rotting/surplus fruits and veggies, that is.)


  5. Hi Historiann: Could you or one of your readers explain something to me? I don’t know much about cooking, but I looked up Beecher’s _Domestic Receipt-Book_ at Google Books, and the recipe for the Election Cake (at the beginning of chapter XV, “Rich Cakes”) looks to be much simpler–including fewer ingredients–than the updated 1987 version. Also, the original calls for less flour and more (check my lbs. to cups conversion) sugar than the updated version. I’m not really interested in the question of historical accuracy as much as in sensory history. Do the differences have anything to do with changes in how we taste food?



  6. Brian–great research! I’m not so sure that Beecher’s recipe is simpler so much as less detailed and for a much larger cake (or batch of cakes.) For example, the recipe above calls for 1/4 cup of brandy, whereas the Beecher recipe calls for a gill each of brandy and wine (or 2-4 times the previous amount, ) Beecher’s recipe also calls for 4 times the butter–2 lbs. instead of half a pound. The fruit proportions are similar too: 2-3 pounds in Beecher, and 1-1/2 cups in the 1987 recipe. The contemporary recipe looks a bit less sweet than the older recipe, you are correct, but it’s not wildly out of proportion. I’m sure the authors of the 1987 book tinkered with Beecher’s recipe and decided to update it to please contemporary palates. (I also wonder if that has to do with the powerful sweetness of the ultra-refined white sugar we have today, versus the not so refined sugar of 150 years ago? This is just a guess.)

    Oh, and don’t you love Beecher’s instruction, “When you put the wood into the oven…” ? What a feat it was to produce any edible baked good in a wood stove!


  7. OK, I’m making this, and it’s an EXTREMELY MESSY recipe. I got batter up inside my mixer, that can’t be good…

    The different proportion of sugar may also have something to do with the yeast, which eats some of the sugar as it inflates the dough.


  8. November 1998 was a good election. I was stopping up in Happy Valley for a history talk, and later at my fleabag motel had the pleasure of watching American sensibility beat back on the impeachment hyenas. My first thought on seeing the name “Hartford” election cake was that it had something to do with the Federalists crashing and burning in that town in what was it, 1815? Another good sign. Maybe what Marie Antoinette meant was they should take a Brioschi, which was a mid-late 20th century fizzy remedy for indigestion, kind of like an Alka Seltzer, only different?

    It will be good to follow the election thread tomorrow, hopefully to a big celebration at night’s end. What a year it’s been. Pennsylvania is ready for battle, I know that.


  9. On my campus, there is a dormitory named after Catharine Beecher, but her first name is misspelled with the “e” in the middle. I have tried for the past 16 years without any success to get facilities to change it. Their excuses range from, it’s too expensive to make a new sign, to the ur post-modern “how do we know for sure that she spelled it that way.” ’cause she wrote it in her letters and books, you jerks!

    Regarding Marie Antoinette — I think the real story was that someone told her about the bread riots, and her reply was a clueless, “why don’t they just eat brioche”? (which is really more of a sweet type of bread than a cake)


  10. Pingback: the good old days » Blog Archive » Retro Recipe Special: Election Day Cake

  11. Yes, KC, that’s the long version of the story. (And you’re right, brioche is a buttery yeast bread, kind of like Hartford Election Cake plus raisins and citron!)

    Everyone should go click on the good old days and see Erica’s Hartford Election Cake–I’ll update this post and include some of her photos!


  12. I didn’t let it rise overnight. I started yesterday morning around 11, tried to ruin my mixer around 4 when I mixed it together, and stuck it in the oven around 6:30. While much of the time was spent waiting for things to rise, it was a very long project. My kitchen was a lot messier than it usually is after cooking.

    I’m sure an overnight rise would work just fine. Make sure it’s the final rise, though, I wouldn’t recommend trying that final mixing when you’ve just woken up and are still a bit groggy.

    At around 8pm, just after “sizzling” the molasses topping, my brother called and asked for a recipe suggestion — something to take to an election party the next day. Then he asked why I was laughing so hard. I managed to discourage him from doing this, though, because it would have taken too much time.

    The cakes are huge. 9″ in diameter, obviously, but about 6″ tall at least. (Oh, and a bundt pan works just fine!) A double recipe would be an incredible amount of food… just right for a village festival on Election Day, though.


  13. Pingback: Election Day open thread : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. Pingback: the good old days » Blog Archive » Picnic Day: Election Day Cake!

  15. Pingback: Election Day Cake « Retro Recipe Attempts

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