The Canned Shortcut For Moist 'Magic' Cake Used During The Depression

You may already be familiar with the concept of a depression cake. According to Today, these low-ingredient cakes — which are sometimes called "wacky cakes" — made a comeback in 2020 as provision-strapped bakers attempted to relieve stress during the pandemic. Initially, back in the 1930s, this cake was a feat of ingenuity created out of necessity. With widespread financial unrest during the Great Depression, people couldn't easily get their hands on ingredients like eggs, milk, and butter to make something special for a celebration the way they could 10 years earlier, so new recipes had to be devised that could do the job without those costly ingredients. Wacky cake is a chocolate cake made with only a few basic pantry ingredients like flour, sugar, and cocoa powder. According to Southern Living, part of what's so "wacky" about this dairy-free chocolate cake is that it's traditionally mixed in the baking pan, which saves on soap, water, and labor time.

As chef Michael Zebrowski, a lecturing instructor at baking & pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America, tells Today, the "trick" of an old-fashioned wacky cake recipe or any depression cake is substituting cheaper ingredients for more expensive ones. In the wacky cake for example, eggs are replaced by the quick foaming mixture of vinegar and baking soda. But there's another depression-era cake whose cheap ingredient substitution may seem even wackier — tomato soup "magic cake!"

The 'magic' of tomato soup

According to King Arthur Baking Company test baker Susan Reid, tomato soup would act similarly to a more expected cake-baking ingredient: buttermilk. Apparently, there's a lot canned tomato soup can do. As Reid told Atlas Obscura, "Condensed tomato soup has both gelatinized starch from thickeners and pectin from the tomatoes themselves," she says. "Both of these keep water in suspension, creating a moist cake." That's in addition to the baking-soda-like carbon dioxide that the soup's acidity releases. Canned tomato soup can even replace emulsifiers like butter, aka the fat that makes things taste good.

The recipe actually predates the depression; the first recorded example appeared in the Campbell's archives in 1922, but it became especially popular during the 1930s and 40s when the Great Depression and World War II rationing left pantries strapped. However, the dessert remained popular after that. Campbell's helped it along by relentlessly promoting the recipe in ads for its tomato soup. The fashionability of canned foods in the 1950s combined with all that advertising made this humble spice cake the star of the show for quite some time.

Despite its strong combination of spices (likely to cover the tomato flavor), according to social media food influencer B. Dylan Hollis — who liked the cake so much he made it twice — it tastes like chocolate. However, according to YouTuber Emmymade, who made a vintage community cookbook version as opposed to the vintage Campbells' version Hollis made, the addition of raisins placed it squarely back in the spice cake department. This 70-plus year-old cake recipe may be known for containing tomato soup, but it clearly also contains multitudes.