Alcott · Little Women

Tidbit of History: Federal Cake/Election Cake

Happy almost-election day! If you’re anything like me, you’re looking for ways to ease that horrible knot of dread in your stomach, and what better way than with cake?

Difficulty rating: Little Women
Deliciousness rating: Exceeds Expectations

This is not specifically from a literary source, although we did include it in the Little Women Cookbook as a possibility for the cake that Mr. Laurence sends over for the girls after they give up their Christmas breakfast.

Election cakes were a “thing” in 18th and 19th century America, when Election Day was a big celebration day! They would make huge (like 50 eggs huge) fruit cakes and serve them to people who had gathered for the election, especially out-of-town visitors and representatives. (More information on election cakes from the New England Historical Society here, and from the American Historical Association here.) As time went on, the cakes got smaller and were eaten at other times besides just elections.

The recipe we used for our book comes from Mary Cornelius’s The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, and the original version is as follows:

Federal Cake
A pound each of butter and sugar, a pound and two ounces of flour, a pound of raisins, five eggs, a cup of sour cream (or, if milk is used instead of cream, add a quarter of a pound more of butter), half a nutmeg, a wineglass of brandy, and a teaspoonful of saleratus. Stir the butter, sugar, and nutmeg to a cream, then add the eggs, then the cream and saleratus mixed, next the flour (a little at a time), except a handful in which to mix the raisins, and last, the brandy and fruit.
Very delicious for persons who like rich cake.

And who doesn’t like rich cake?

Here’s a more fleshed-out version for modern cooks:

Federal Cake
Serves 8

There are a lot of different recipes called Federal Cake, which some say goes back to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist political party. They were often cut into small diamond-shaped cakes, but we made ours in a loaf pan. 

8 oz butter (2 sticks)
8 oz sugar (1 1/8 cups)
2 eggs
½ tsp ground nutmeg
8 oz flour (1 7/8 cups)
½ tsp baking soda
½ cup sour cream
8 oz raisins (any kind you like, or other chopped dried fruit if you don’t like raisins. Dried apricots are especially good here.)
1/4 cup brandy (you can substitute apple cider or some other liquid if you prefer)

Have all ingredients at room temperature. 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the brandy and raisins in a small bowl and set aside.

Cream butter, sugar and nutmeg together with a hand mixer or stand mixer.

Add eggs and beat on medium to high speed for 3-5 minutes, until it is fluffy and light-colored.

Stir baking soda into the sour cream and beat in.

Drain the brandy from the raisins and add it to the mixture.

Add the flour in four parts, mixing just until incorporated. Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl as you mix.

When you get to the last part of the flour, toss the raisins in the flour and add them along with it.

Spoon the batter into a greased loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Baking time can vary widely depending on the pan and your oven–start testing at 45 minutes, but it can take as long as 90.  If you notice the top browning before it’s set in the middle, cover with foil and keep baking.

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