Making America Cake Again

This year’s election is getting everyone down. Tensions are high, everything seems dire… thankfully the process will be over in just a few days, come what may. We all need a little something to feel better. So how do you feel about… cake?

Do you like cake? Does cake help make bad things better? Don’t we call easy things “a piece of cake?” What if I told you there was a cake just for elections, and it’s pretty dang tasty? Yes, these things are all true! We’re Making America Cake Again!

It’s a very specific kind of cake, this election cake, and yet incredibly variable. Based on colonial “muster cake,” election cake is a naturally leavened, sweet loaf full of booze-soaked fruit meant to draw people to the polls. And this year, a bakery in North Carolina has spearheaded a nationwide collaboration to bring this historic treat to the masses.

“Make America Cake Again!” is a collaboration and celebration among bakeries, food professionals, home bakers, scholars, and educators across the country. It is a non-partisan nation-wide project to raise awareness about our culinary heritage and the place of food in political and social life as well as to generate funds for voting access and rights.

Crumb Bread, a part of Sauce and Bread Kitchen, is one of two participating bakeries in Chicago. I spoke with owner Anne Kostroski about her participation in the election cake project.

Part of the entryway for Sauce and Bread Kitchen: a glass door with the name in beige letters, with a yellow sign next to it listing the hours and a Chicago Reader "Best of Chicago" flyer beneath.
“I wanted to introduce people to this different baked good that has historical significance…I think it’s awesome, to be able to build that sort of excitement around something.”

She initially discovered the election cake project via Instagram. “I don’t involve myself enough in things, I’m always here (in the kitchen) and I’m not always able to go to events, but through social media you can start to be a part of things a little bit more.”

She follows Susannah Gebhart, baker and owner at Old World Levain (OWL) Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina, who herself first read about election cakes on a food blog, and then “geeked out” about the recipes with fellow bakers while at a baking summit this past June. (Side note: how many amazing ideas get their start at conventions? LOTS.)

“In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Election Day was a holiday just as important as Christmas,” according to Bon Appétit, “and food was central to it. Bonfires, barbecues, whiskey, and cake helped to amplify the revelry and encourage voting. Whiskey, cake, and voting, an American tradition we can get behind.”

Of course, women weren’t allowed to vote in those days before 19th Amendment. So baking for those who could vote was one small thing they could do, hopefully encouraging men to the polls who would vote in ways the women would agree with.

OWL Bakery says the cakes “represent a connection to our shared history through food as well as an opportunity to bring attention to the upcoming election and issues concerning voter rights and access.” They encourage participating bakeries to donate a portion of their election-cake proceeds to the League of Women Voters in honor of the women who were excluded from voting in the early days of our country.

nine black springform pans full of rising dough for election cakes.
“Seeing how it’ll turn out is kind of fun right now. I hope we’re able to turn people on to something different.”

Though the cake’s sourdough base will likely remain the same, the finished cakes will vary from bakery to bakery. OWL will be using regional ingredients including sorghum and Kentucky bourbon, and Crumb’s four-inch cakes have been different every time. “I’m kind of letting it evolve every time I make it,” said Kostroski, “seeing what I can get away with. How’s it going to taste? Hows it going to rise? I did some tests, six or seven times… today I did one with apple and candied blood orange, and there’ll be a different glaze on it today.”

“This is the first time I’ve taken a recipe from someone with a specific goal and a specific purpose behind it,” she added. “But i think it’d be still fun to make it afterwards too, and start a tradition.”

While it’s bakeries that have been the main source of the action, a recipe has been adapted for home bakers who might not have 30 quarts of flour on hand at once (and there’s a gluten- and dairy-free version too). It’s meant to be adaptable to ingredients that are available to you locally, as well as those you prefer.

Kostroski notes that while the home recipe says to use a stand mixer, “it can all be so easily mixed by hand. And lots of people at home get nervous when they deviate from a recipe, so if it makes you feel comfortable just choose four spices that add up to [two tablespoons] and that’s ‘your’ spice blend. There’s a boozy fruit section… well, what do you like? That’s how it can be yours, personalized.”

You’ve gotta have some patience, I think that’s the main thing is the patience.”

If you’d like to try making your own election cake at home, I’d definitely recommend reading through the recipe a few times to make sure you’ve got a plan before you get started. The recipe states that the dough will take 2 to 4 hours to rise, and Kostroski emphasizes that home bakers definitely need to take that time. When you add in the time to get the starter going and to soak the fruit, it’s a two-day process… but the results are worth it.

I wasn’t ambitious enough to try making my own election cake, but Crumb’s version was delightful. I’d say it was almost like a coffee cake, a bit dense but moist with just the right amount of fruit. Crumbly, but I ate it with my fingers anyway. The cinnamon and spice blend made it very autumnal, a warmly comforting flavor that goes nicely with dropping temperatures and approaching holidays, and the drizzled glaze gave it just enough sweetness. It was fantastic toasted with butter, and Kostroski also suggested spreading it with ricotta or cream cheese, your favorite jam, or even eating it with ice cream.

With butter, with cream cheese, and plain. Toasted and untoasted. This is serious science here, folks!

Crumb will have election cakes available all this weekend, so get in there to pick one up while you can. (They’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so go get your cake today!) Other bakeries around the country will also have election cakes through November 8, or you can try making either this election cake recipe for home bakers or the dairy- and gluten-free version.

If you miss their election cakes this weekend, Sauce and Bread Kitchen takes orders and holds events year-round, including their monthly supper club where “we overfeed people, everybody rolls out.” And for the next election?  Kostroski is open to Making America Cake Again in the future, “building traditions one story at a time.”

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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