The Puritans were not a fun-loving bunch. Case in point — this declaration posted in Boston in 1659: “Public Notice: the observation of Christmas having been deemed a sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar Satanical practices are hereby forbidden.”
Even these dour New Englanders needed an outlet, however, and that’s where Election Day came in. Before the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving came to be widely celebrated, Election Day was the American holiday, complete with public feasting, parades, speeches, and free-flowing libations (George Washington provided 158 gallons of alcohol during one Virginia election). There was even a signature dish — Election Day Cake.
I wish election days were still holidays. I love the buzz and anticipation of the day, the meeting of neighbors, the dedicated election workers, kids selling cupcakes, the “I voted” stickers. On this day, I feel most American, holding onto the promise of what this country should be.
When our son was about 10, the poll workers let me bring him into the voting booth. He put his small hand on mine as we pulled the stiff red lever and heard the clunky thud that affirmed our vote. He was thrilled and stoked for his future as a grown-up voter.
I have been obsessed with this cake since I came across a recipe during the Reagan-Carter campaign. Interpreting old recipes can be problematic, and my first attempt was a bust that broke my mixer. This year, between my worries and rants about the election deniers and the foundation of our democracy, I baked, determined to revive this tradition.
Making it, you’ll hear echoes of our history. I felt for our foremothers who baked and celebrated even though they were excluded from voting. The cake is rustic and not too sweet. I was reminded that sugar was a tainted luxury, made from sugar cane grown by enslaved people. The flour would have been unrefined; that is why I use some white whole wheat flour in the mix.
Unlike modern cakes that rely on baking powder and soda for the rise, this old-fashioned cake uses yeast. It’s somewhere between a cake and a bread, with a blend of warming spices, boozy dried fruit, and nuts. The yeast means it’s alive and needs to be nourished and encouraged — just like a thriving democracy with fair elections.
Election Day Cake
Makes a 10-inch Bundt cake
Applejack in the early days was fermented cider that was frozen and its alcohol content “jacked” when the ice was removed. Now it’s a more reliably distilled brandy. You can also use bourbon, dark rum, brandy, or sherry. Vary the dried-fruit mixture as you please; mine includes cranberries, sultanas, raisins, and currants.
½ cup applejack
¼ cup water
2 cups mixed dried fruit
1 cup whole milk
1 package instant yeast
1½ cups white whole wheat flour
6 oz. (1½ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 packed cup light brown sugar
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp. fine salt
3 large eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans, finely chopped
For the glaze:
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar
2 to 3 Tbsp. milk
Heat the applejack or other liquor with ¼ cup water in the microwave or on the stove in a small saucepan. Add the dried fruit, cover, and set the fruit aside to plump — ideally overnight but at least for a couple of hours.
- Make the sponge: Warm the milk in a saucepan (or microwave) to around 110 degrees F and pour into a large bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and a pinch of the light brown sugar over the surface. Whisk in the white whole wheat flour until smooth. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and set aside to ferment until bubbly and dimpled, about 1 hour.
- Drain the dried fruit, reserving the liquid. Whisk ¼ cup of the reserved liquid into the fermented sponge. Meanwhile, spray a 10-inch Bundt or tube pan with baking spray or lightly brush with soft butter and then a light dusting of flour. Tap out any excess flour in the pan. Sift the white flour with the pumpkin pie spices and salt.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the light brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. Add the vanilla and beat until smooth.
- With the mixer on low, alternate mixing the flour mixture and sponge into the batter, adding the flour in 3 additions and the sponge in 2, starting and ending with the flour. Beat batter on high until smooth and slightly elastic, about 30 seconds. Add the fruit and nuts and mix to combine evenly. Pour and evenly spread the batter into the prepared pan.
- Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside to rise until the batter comes about ¾ inch from the top edge of the pan, about 2 hours.
- Heat the oven to 375° F. Bake cake for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 350° F and continue baking until a tester comes out clean or a thermometer registers 190° F, about 25 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan before turning out on a rack to cool completely.
- To make the glaze: Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a bowl. Gradually whisk in the milk to make a thick, pourable glaze. Drizzle over the cake and let set until firm, about 15 minutes.