In an ultimate nod to retro-recipe legend, today we’re tacking a curious classic dating back to the 1930s — Tomato Soup Cake. A simple spice cake (also known as “Mystery Cake”), the recipe called for a can of condensed tomato soup mixed into the batter and used hardly any butter or eggs. That last bit is likely the reason it was so popular, since the Great Depression had made both resources and wages scarce. Fortunately, in this case, thinking outside the box was as easy as looking inside a familiar can.
Tomato Soup Cake, along with Mayonnaise Cake, is one of those recipes where the “secret ingredient” is gleefully revealed after the guests have already started eating. The idea is that the guests might not be happy to hear about the tomato, but we love carrot cake and zucchini bread, so why not tomato cake? It’s true that the carrots and zucchini are usually fresh, while the tomato comes out of a can in condensed soup form, but let’s not split stems. The butter, sugar, spices, and nuts more than make up for any canned concerns.
I had a sneaking suspicion I’d find a Tomato Soup Cake recipe in the Yankee archives, and sure enough, September of 1978 delivered.
It was just one of a collection of recipes submitted by that month’s featured “Great New England Cook,” Dorothy Oliveira of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Dorothy’s claim to fame, as the article clearly states, was her Fricasse Chicken. Fortunately, she also included a handful of recipes for classic New England desserts like Indian Pudding, Devil’s Food Cake, Blueberry Slump, and this Tomato Soup Cake, which she baked into loaves and considered “great for wedding cakes.”
I followed the recipe as written (which wasn’t saying much — this was an era of 3 sentence instructions), but have to confess I was a bit disappointed with the look of the results. After 40 minutes — the listed bake time — I could tell the middle still wasn’t cooked, so I crossed my fingers and gave it another 10 minutes, but all it did was start to burn. I had encountered a dreaded sunken-middle quick-bread! It tasted fine, but looked dreadful.
I decided to try again, but not without a little preemptive research. Some common causes for sunken quick-breads are stale baking powder or soda, over-mixed batter, or an over-filled pan (the batter needs something to climb, after all). I didn’t think I had done any of these, but bought new boxes of both leaveners just in case (baking soda can be kept for six months, baking powder one year). I also hunted around online for similar tomato soup cake recipes to see if there were any glaring discrepancies, and discovered that many other versions called for an egg, less baking powder, and no water. Duly noted.
The second test (the recipe has been updated to reflect my changes) was better in both looks and taste. It still had a less-than-ideal middle, but that was nothing a little frosting couldn’t help. Appreciating the warm and spicy flavors, I topped it with a sweet cream cheese frosting.
And how did it taste? Well, like a tender and moist spice cake studded with nuts and raisins, mostly…but yes, the faint aftertaste of condensed tomato soup was unmistakable if you were looking for it. Unmistakable, but not entirely unpleasant. Curious? Well…you’ll just have to try some for yourself!
Have you ever had Tomato Soup Cake?
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.