February 12, 2013

A Cake for President Lincoln




It’s Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. I baked an old-fashioned cake.

Believe me, I know that sounds geeky. But if a holiday is worth celebrating, surely it’s worth celebrating with food. Special dishes for special days—Thanksgiving turkey, Mother’s Day brunch, frankfurters on the Fourth of July—is a deeply rooted tradition, even in a nation as young and sprawling as ours. Corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day; guacamole for Cinco de Mayo.

For President Lincoln’s birthday each year, I make an election cake.

By all accounts, Abraham Lincoln didn’t care much about what he ate. He apparently liked his food simple (coffee, apples, cornmeal mush), rather than rich and fancy. Election cake would make sense, then. It’s listed as one of his favorites in the handsome First Ladies Cookbook, an oversized all-color volume published in 1965 with recipes for each President and photos of pretty state china.

Martin Van Buren liked Huguenot torte; Jefferson liked plum pudding. Lincoln favored a country cake without too much fussiness in it, the kind that rural church women baked when polling day rolled around.

An election cake resembles nothing we eat in the 21st century—certainly nothing we now call a “cake.” It dates from a time before the invention of chemical leavening agents, when cooks had nothing to work with to lighten their cakes but yeast. It’s dense but not heavy, just slightly sweet, something between a hot cross bun and a liquor-laced Christmas fruitcake.

Good with a cup of strong coffee. And pretty darn good by itself.

Old recipes can be dicey. Tastes change, and so do ingredients. (Who among us, really, wants to try Zachary Taylor’s jellied boiled beef and canned peas?) But my annual stab at election cake helps put Abraham Lincoln in context, vividly reminding me that the war-burdened 16th President lived and wrote and brooded and ate in an age long before my own.

It’s a cake that takes a full day to make, not counting the overnight hours required for soaking raisins in bourbon. You need the arms of a blacksmith to mix the yeast sponge with the batter, a nearly immovable substance of flour, sugar, butter and egg. It’s rugged and homely, a squat little loaf, fragrant with spices in bold farmhouse measures no one would dare to use now.

So happy birthday, Abe Lincoln. The nation is stretched pretty thin these days, but so far the Union is holding. You’re pretty big news at the movies right now, though I reckon that will blow over.

I thought of you in the kitchen today while making a fine yeasty cake.




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5 responses to “A Cake for President Lincoln”

  1. Greg G says:

    Heather, yes, the history of food and how our tastes have changed is very interesting and your article stokes that interest. While I admire your gumption and energy to bake it and I am very curious to taste election cake, I probably would not care for it let alone take the initiative to try making it.

    So, what are you making for Valentines Day?

  2. Sue Lean says:

    Heather, excellent! As one who careens from one holiday to another, no matter how “minor”, this story is most appreciated. It will be printed and filed under Presidents Day. Will you be publishing the recipe?

  3. admin says:

    The “First Ladies Cookbook” recipe for Election Cake is widely available online (search “Abraham Lincoln Election Cake”). Over the years I’ve tweaked the recipe some, using candied orange peel and raisins instead of currants, and bourbon in place of brandy. Other versions use grated nutmeg, so I throw a teaspoon of that in, too. And you’ll need a good dose of patience. Tuesday’s cake took ten hours to rise.

  4. Bruce says:

    Thanks, never really considered what the former presidents ate,who cooked what they ate or even what it was cooked on. Come to think of it I never even considered presidents eating on a day to day basis.

    Sounds like a veritable gut bomb… thank god for levening agents. I did look up some info on who may have cooked this cake and ran into this article about his white house staff http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/inside.asp?ID=14&subjectID=2. Rather interesting.

    Maybe next year you should go for the total experience and hire someone to do the cooking.

  5. Joanne says:

    You are ambitious….all day to make a cake? Few people even eat cake today, unless you count cupcakes which seem to be in for some reason. Keep writing friend…how about a garden story this spring. Joanne