Vintage Tomato Soup Cake

Cake made from tomato soup. Really? I’ve seen the recipe over and over in my old cookbooks, but just hadn’t tried it. Yesterday I did, and wow was I glad.

Let me say that at first,  while I was incorporating the tomato soup into the batter, I was starting to regret the decision to try this. The smell of tomato soup, which I don’t even like, was making me a bit sick. And as I started to read the label of the organic tomato soup I used instead of Campbell’s (I didn’t want to eat all the junk like high fructose corn syrup in the Campbell’s)  I really got worried. Spices, carrots, onions oh my!

But to our delight the cake is very flavorful and delicious. Just as the recipes say, this is a moist spice cake. More modern recipes call for slathering it with a cream cheese frosting, but we opted to leave it plain. No frosting was mentioned in the recipe I used and really it doesn’t need it. Both Dan and I are now converts!

Tomato Soup Cake has a fascinating history. Contrary to what one would think, Campbell’s Soup did not invent the recipe though they certainly did their best to make it popular as you can read in their history post.

The recipe first appeared in cookbooks in the late 1920s and was very popular during the Depression. Campbell’s first introduced a recipe for tomato soup cake in October 1940 for a spice cake using their tomato soup. The recipe was so popular they even printed it on the soup can labels as seen here.

Fun 1960s ad for Tomato Soup Cake

Early versions of the cake, that was also dubbed Mystery Cake, use either no or small amounts of butter and egg and no milk at all. This made the cake perfect for the Depression and also through World War II rationing. Post WWII with the return of prosperity found that the cake became more lavish. The recipe I used from 1948 used 1/2 c. shortening and 1 egg.

Among the interesting references I found while researching the cake’s history was that great the cook M.F.K. Fisher included a  tomato soup cake recipe in her book How to Cook a Wolf from 1942. Here’s what she wrote about the cake:

“This is a pleasant cake which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is.  I let my guests venture guesses as to the surprise ingredient.  They were nearly finished with their cake slices when someone finally said “Tomatoes?” Initially, everyone dropped their cake in horror.  Then they found peace with the idea and wolfed the remainder down.”

And while we’re on a literary bent, turns out this cake was a favorite of author Sylvia Plath. Go figure.

The recipe I used is from one of my favorite vintage cookbooks, Green Mountain Kitchen Recipes, 1948.

The book is a compilation of recipes sent in to the Vermont Rutland Herald’s “Vermont Kitchens” column. It says this recipe was from Mrs. Charles Dowd of Glens Falls, NY formerly of West Pawlet, VT. and that the recipe was given to her when she was living in Florida during World War II.

If course I had to look Mrs. Dowd up on Ancestry.com and save her from oblivion. Charles Dowd was indeed living in Glens Falls in 1948 with his wife Mary Jones Dowd. They owned a Sunoco Gas Station. Mary was born in 1897 in Vermont to Welsh parents who no doubt came to work in the quarries located in this area of Vermont. Charles and Mary were married in 1921 and Mary passed away in 1964. Thanks Mary for this delicious recipe!

Tomato Soup Cake

  • 1 c. sugar, white or brown
  • 1/2 c. shortening (I used softened butter)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (if you use Campbell’s Soup you might omit this or it will be too salty)
  • 1 can tomato soup (can sizes have changed. I went with 1 cup based on another recipe from 1951 that I consulted.)
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 c. raisins
  • 1 c. walnuts

The actual directions were very vague saying “Mix the ingredients as for any other cake.” So I consulted a 1951 recipe in 250 Classic Cake Recipes edited by Ruth Berzolzheimer. The recipes were almost identical except the 1951 version had no egg and called for more baking soda and also baking powder.

Sift flour, baking soda and spices together three times

Cream shortening with sugar until fluffy

Add the egg, beaten

Add sifted dry ingredients and tomato soup alternatively in small amounts beating after each addition

Stir in nuts and raisins

Pour into a greased tube pan or loaf pan

Bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes (I think I had to bake even a bit longer. Test for doneness)

Mary Dowd’s recipe did not mention frosting while the 1951 version called for cream cheese frosting. Knowing Dan would never eat that, I chose to not frost the cake. It really doesn’t need it.

I bet many of you remember your mother or grandmother making this cake. I’d love to hear your stories!

 

 

 

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