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Saturday
May162009

Getting Canned: An Exploration of the Tomato Soup Cake

Andy Warhol Cupcake

From Soup to nuts? Pshaw. We're talking soup to cake, baby.

 

With Seattle's brand new Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. offering an attention-grabbing Tomato Soup cake, it seemed appropriate to talk a little bit about the background of this unusual confection.

How long has it been around? foodtimeline.org, Tomato Soup Cake, which is also known as "Mystery Cake" or "Tomato Soup Spice Cake", was perhaps first mentioned in 1928 in a Los Angeles Times snippet about cooking classes--however, in 1932 the same paper had a more official mention of the cake, including a recipe.
Tomato Soup Cupcake, The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co., Seattle

Why did it gain popularity? Consider these factors. It made its debut on the cake scene right around the Great Depression, when times were lean. Certainly there was bound to be a place for a cake that required limited ingredients (some early recipes include no eggs, no butter, and little sugar) but still tasted good, and that kept well too. Additionally, it's been proven that soup consumption holds steady during times of depression, so Tomato Soup was probably something that would commonly be found in a pantry. Further to this point, this was around the time that manufacturers were getting savvy to the concept of using back-of-the-box style recipes to promote their products. 
What does it taste like? Well, the reason it's referred to as "mystery cake" is that if you didn't know the secret ingredient, it's not likely you'd guess it to be tomato soup. The cake is generously spiced, and the flavors of cloves and nutmeg tend to hit you first. Some say they can distinctly taste the tomato, but it would be interesting to see how many of them already knew it was an ingredient. 
Is it delicious? Some love it, some loathe it. M.F.K. Fisher was a fan, citing that "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". Personally I find it to be a pleasant, if not especially memorable, spice cake. Original recipes don't always call for topping, but I think it needs a healthy dollop of cream cheese frosting.

How do I make Tomato Soup Cake? Here's a recipe from the venerable foodie M.F.K. Fisher, from her classic How to Cook a Wolf:

 

 

  • 3 tablespoons butter or shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg, ginger, cloves mixed
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will
Cream butter, add the sugar, and blend thoroughly. Add the soda to the soup, stirring well, and add this alternately to the first mixture with the flour and spices sifted together. Stir well, and bake in a pan or loaf-tin at 325 degrees F.
(CakeSpy Note: At this point, upon cooling, topping it with a generous amount of cream cheese frosting would be appropriate).

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (9)

When I made tomato cupcakes, no one guessed there was tomato in them unless I told them. It's really tasty! Love your drawing at the beginning of the post!

May 16 | Unregistered CommenterStef

Thanks for more of the info...I am going to link to this story from my blog. Its so interesting!

Have you read Amy Bentley's book Eating for Victory? I think you'd love it.

Now that I'm done plugging for books (and people) I love, I find it really interesting to think about how people make do in times of financial distress. Tomatoes have dietary fiber, thus reducing the fat needed (3 T fat to an entire 2 cups of flour!) and have a fair amount of sweetness (although the sugar in MFK Fisher's recipe isn't that low). Fun!

May 16 | Unregistered Commenterchou

Oh I love, love, love this cake. I made it once a for a friend of mine that said she wanted something "earthy". Tomatoes are earthy, right? ;)

I made this with a cinnamon cream cheese frosting and it was so dreamy. Thank you for reminding me about this cake... I have to make it again very soon!

(P.S. I absolutely LOVE your site and your art work!)

Stef: Thanks! :-) What recipe did you use? I am going to your site to investigate!

Jennifer: it's interesting, isn't it? Thanks!

Chou: I think I would love that book too, right up my alley. True, MFK's recipe isn't the lowest in sugar, but the earliest recipes are. Since I hadn't tried any of them though, I figured hers was probably trustworthy! I think that tomato paste though would probably yield a more tomato-ey taste.

Julia: Wow, a cinnamon cream cheese frosting sounds awesome...I could probably eat that business by the spoonful. Thank you for the sweet comment!

May 17 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

I haven't had it in so long. I remember the first time I had it and could not believe that it was tomato soup in there.

May 18 | Unregistered CommenterPeabody

I have made this wonderful retro cake - both as a child, and an adult. It is a close cousin to Carrot Cake, certainly, but maybe that's the illusion created by the cream cheese frosting. Just a couple of days ago, a friend gave me a slice of "Ketchup Cake" based on the same principle - Mystery Cake in all its forms is trendy again!

I've never heard of this! Crazy. So easily vegan too!

I remember my mom making tomato soup cake when I was small...I seem to recall it was one of those tricky desserts like spice cake...better than no cake at all, but still not quite the double-fudge layers and frosting one might wish for!

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda
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