This is the note I received from Mary Ann Sawicki, 71, of Fuquay-Varina with a recipe for tomato soup cake: “My mother used to make this for me when I was a child back in Hamburg, N.Y. She said it was a ‘Depression-Era recipe.’ I am not sure but it is good and gives one pause with the ingredients. It brings back warm memories.”
A close look at this cake recipe reveals no eggs and very little fat: only 1/3 cup of shortening. And yet, it produces a moist spice cake that Sawicki says travels well, especially in lunchboxes.
Chapel Hill cookbook author Jean Anderson sheds some light on origins of this cake, also known as mystery cake, in her classic “American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century” (Clarkson Potter, 1997). She cites information from “Campbell’s Best-Ever Recipes, 125th Anniversary Edition” cookbook that indicates this cake was first made with canned tomatoes, but by the 1920s with condensed tomato soup.
There are many variations of this basic recipe, including fruitcakes, pineapple upside-down cakes and even layer cakes with cream cheese frosting.
For some, the tomato soup cake will always be a more humble affair. In fact, M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her classic Depression-era cookbook, “How to Cook a Wolf,” about this cake, which she baked in a loaf tin: “This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is. It can be made in a moderate oven while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure.”
Tomato Soup Cake
Mary Ann Sawicki of Fuquay-Varina notes that this cake travels well, cut in squares and sent in lunchboxes.
1/3 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 (10.75-ounce) can condensed tomato soup
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 cup raisins
Powdered sugar, optional
PREHEAT oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-inch square baking pan.
CREAM shortening and sugar with a mixer until fully mixed and fluffy.
DISSOLVE baking soda in soup and then add to the sugar and shortening. Add flour, cinnamon and cloves; stir until fully combined. Stir in raisins.
POUR batter into baking pan. Batter may be a bit dry. That’s OK; spread evenly with a spatula. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean.
COOL and sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired. Cut into squares and serve.
Yield: 10-12 pieces.
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