When I first started Brooklyn Homemaker, I hoped it would be an outlet for not only my love of food, but also for my love of food history and my off-the-charts food nerdiness.
I used to post lots of recipes (especially cake recipes) with fun details and anecdotes about their histories, how they came to be, and why we were still making and eating them today. As much as I still love writing these kinds of posts, life gets in the way and the fact of the matter is that researching the history of a recipe is a lot more involved and a lot more time consuming than just whipping something up on a whim. I also thought that I’d sort of exhausted my supply of cool, iconic desserts with histories that I’d find interesting enough to write about. That is, I thought I had until this month’s bundt bakers.
Felice of All That’s Left are the Crumbs chose Retro Desserts as our theme this month, and I was all over it! You know how much I love an old cookbook, and I kind of feel like this theme was hand selected to appeal to me! Thanks Felice!
To me the word “retro” always inspires images of the 50’s and 60’s, the atomic era, the age of ambrosia salads and jell-o molds. The days of gas guzzling pastel land yachts, wall to wall pink tile bathrooms, and single story cookie cutter ranch homes. I prefer my “old fashioned” dessert recipes from the 30’s and 40’s though, so I decided to go back a little further. People were doing all sorts of inventive things with food back then, either just to stretch their scarce resources, or maybe even to make their lives a little lighter and brighter.
My favorite (and most popular) dessert history post that I’ve written so far is Red Velvet Cake, which didn’t actually originate in the 30s, but did reach it’s wild popularity in that era. Long story short; a big food coloring and extract company started giving away a red velvet cake recipe, complete with color photos, to try to boost their struggling sales during the Depression. It worked like a charm and soon red velvet cake was on American tables, and in American hearts, where it’s managed to stay for almost a century.
Not surprisingly, the cake I’m posting today is another Depression era recipe, though not currently as well known and loved as Red Velvet. Originally called “Mystery Cake”, this spice cake contains a full can of condensed tomato soup. The “mystery” was that you’d never guess the “secret ingredient” if you didn’t already know.
This recipe most likely originated in the 20’s, as the first printed reference to it comes from a September 1928 notice about cooking classes in the Los Angeles Times. “The opening of the fall season is observed on the menu arranged by Mrs. Mabelle (Chef) Wyman for her demonstrating this afternoon… Under the dessert classification are velvet cake and mystery cake, a culinary idea of Mrs. Wyman’s skill.”
Mystery cake didn’t really become well known though until the Great Depression. The use of egg, dairy, and butter substitutes was very popular during this time because these grocery items were expensive and scarce. Grated or pureed vegetables like zucchini or carrots were popular substitutions for eggs and butter, as was applesauce, which remains a popular substitution for health conscious bakers to this day. Along with it’s moisture content, condensed tomato soup had the added benefit of an acidity that works as a flour conditioner. This meant that it could not only be used in place of butter, but could also replace the buttermilk usually used in baking to ensure a moist, tender, and delicate crumb.
Mystery Cake really took off in the early 1940’s when Campbell’s started promoting their own recipe during World War II. The same ingredients that were too expensive for home bakers in the 30’s were suddenly being rationed for the war effort in the 40’s and were even harder to come by. Canned food companies all over the country were using wartime rationing as a way to boost sales, and Campbell’s didn’t miss the opportunity. They quickly developed a recipe for Tomato Soup Cake that included only two tablespoons of butter and no eggs to appeal to homemakers with limited resources.
The American food writer and cookbook author M.F.K. Fisher even included a recipe for Tomato Soup Cake in her 1942 book on wartime rationing and shortages, How to Cook a Wolf. Her recipe varied just slightly from Campbell’s but the idea was the same. “This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people 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 remained popular even after the war, and another version of the recipe was included in the Joy of Cooking in 1964. Modern homemakers in the 1960’s and 70’s, fascinated with convenience foods and time saving tricks, loved to make their Tomato Soup Cake with boxed cake mixes.
Eventually the cake did wane in popularity though, and today many people have never even heard of it. I myself only discovered it a few years ago, and had a really difficult time wrapping my head around the idea when I first saw it. Eventually I warmed up to trying it, and by the time this month’s theme was chosen I was full well ready to give it a shot!
Since the Great Depression and wartime rationing are now just distant memories, the butter and eggs have found their way back into most of the recipes you’ll find out there, including Campbell’s updated version. Of course, the tomato soup still remains as a way to add moisture, acidity, and interest to this simple spice cake.
Nuts and raisins have always been common additions to Tomato Soup Cake, and for my recipe I kept the nuts but skipped the raisins. Sorry raisin lovers. You can add them back in if you want.
Mystery Cake was definitely an appropriate name for this recipe. I was worried that the tomato soup would add a weird tinny chemical taste, but I really don’t think I could have figured out what was in it if I hadn’t baked it myself. The tomato soup concentrate adds a subtle sweetness and tang, and ensures that the cake is moist and keeps well for days. It has a perfect just-enough sweetness and a lovely touch of spice that doesn’t overpower the cake. The walnuts add a nice contrast in texture and a welcome touch of earthy bitterness.
Many older recipes for Mystery Cake were topped with chocolate icing, but cream cheese icing has always been popular too. I decided to go for a drizzlable cream cheese glaze that adds sweetness and tang, and helps keep the cake from drying on the outer edges. I don’t usually go for sprinkles, but this fun retro theme got the best of me and I couldn’t help but add a handful of bright red jimmies as a play on the iconic tomato soup can!
Although this recipe has been around for almost a century, it definitely still feels relevant and delicious in these modern times. Why not step back in time and see what other retro bundts the talented team of bundt bakers came up with this month? Please scroll down past the recipe to find the links.
Tomato Soup Bundt Cake
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 can (10 3/4 ounces) Condensed Tomato Soup
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup chopped walnuts (or pecans)
Cream Cheese Glaze:
4 ounces (1/2 package) cream cheese, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 to 8 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 350.
Butter and flour pan. Refrigerate.
Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, allspice, & cloves together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a separate small bowl, whisk together condensed tomato soup and water until smooth.
Cream butter and sugars on high speed with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time, and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Alternate additions of the flour mixture and the tomato soup mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Mix each addition just to combine. Do not over-mix.
Stir in walnuts just until evenly distributed.
Pour into prepared bundt pan and bake for 45 to 55 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes. Invert the pan and turn the cake out onto the rack to cool completely before glazing.
While the cake cools, make the glaze.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until it’s soft and smooth and light. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla, and 4 tablespoons of milk and blend until there are no lumps. If necessary, add more milk, a tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition until the glaze reaches the desired drizzle-able consistency. It should be about the consistency of melted ice cream to drizzle correctly.
Place a tray under cake and cooling rack to catch any drips. Pour glaze over cake and let the glaze work its way down the side, tapping the tray on the counter if necessary. Top with red jimmies if desired.
Well covered in an airtight container, this cake should keep at room temperature about 3 or 4 days.
Don’t forget to travel back in time with all the other retro cakes the bundt bakers came up with this month.
- Boston Cream Bundt by Andrea at Adventures in All Things Food
- Boston Cream Pie Bundt Cake by Mary at Los Chatos Chefs
- Campbell’s Tomato Soup Cake by Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm
- Coca~Cola Bundt Cake by Mondo at I Bake He Shoots
- Hummingbird Bundt Cake by Teri at The Freshman Cook
- Inside-Out Ho Hos Lava Bundt Cake by Colleen at Faith, Hope, Love & Luck Survive Despite a Whiskered Accomplice
- Key Lime Bundt Cake by Sarah at The Chef Next Door
- Lemon Meringue Pie Bundt by Felice at All That’s Left are the Crumbs
- New York Style Crumb Cake by Tammy at Living the Gourmet
- Nutella Chocolate MIlkshake Bundt Cake by Bea and Mara at I Love Bundt Cakes
- Orange Creamsicle Cake by Sue at Palatable Pastime
- Pantera Rosa Bundt Cake by Rocío at kidsandchic
- Root Beer Float Bundt Cake by Rebekah at Making Miracles
- Sock It To Me Cake by Stacy at Food Lust People Love
- Strawberry Milkshake Swirl Bundt Cake by Laura at Baking in Pyjamas
- Tomato Soup Bundt Cake by Tux at Brooklyn Homemaker
- Tunnel of Fudge Cake by Kelly at Passion Kneaded