This Depression-era ‘magic cake’ contains a secret ingredient

This Depression-era 'magic cake' contains a secret ingredient

Sylvia Plath cooked her mother’s meals tomato soup cake the day she wrote “Death & Co.” in 1962. This was not unusual for the poet, who whipped up apple pies and hot milk cakes dripping with caramel at a pace sometimes described as fanatical. Despite her criticism of gender roles, Plath was an avid baker who once wrote that she “study The pleasure of cookingreading it like a rare novel.

Since his death in 1963, Plath’s recipes have become a source of obsession for many, as well as the subject of a popular Twitter account. Yet neither “Clara’s Basic Yeast Dough” nor “Grandma’s Fish Chowder” has quite the cultural resonance of tomato soup cake. On paper, the recipe, which calls for a 10.5-ounce can of tomato soup, reads like a spectacular typo. Saline and decidedly flavorful, condensed soup seems like an unlikely addition to a confection, to say the least.

Although many now associate this culinary curiosity with Plath, it predates it by four decades, if not more. The earliest known printed iteration of the cake dates back to 1922, according to research collected by the Campbell Soup Company. According to some anecdotal accounts, tomato soup cake was popular among Irish immigrants to New England, although no one can say for sure who invented it.

A slice of “Mystery Cake” with a not-so-secret ingredient. Diana Hubbell for Gastro Obscura

“Spicecake recipes from turn-of-the-century cookbooks call for early forms of baking soda, which require an acid and the presence of heat to create a reaction that generates bubbles of carbon dioxide,” says Susan. Reid, recipe tester and history. researcher at the King Arthur Baking Company. One can easily imagine a resourceful baker running out of buttermilk and rummaging through the pantry for an impromptu substitute. “Because tomato soup was acidic, it provided the acid needed for this reaction to occur, much the same way applesauce would have done in the ancestor of soup cake,” she says.

The cake’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1930s and 1940s, when food shortages caused by the Great Depression and World War II rationing left many American households reeling. As incongruous as it may seem, tomato soup has proven to be a secret weapon for home bakers. “Condensed tomato soup contains both gelatinized starch from thickeners and pectin from the tomatoes themselves,” says Reid. “Both hold water in suspension, creating a wet cake.”

A vintage recipe for
A vintage “magic” cake recipe. Courtesy of King Arthur Baking Company

First introduced by the Campbell Soup Company in 1895, canned tomato soup was cheap and readily available, unlike eggs, butter and other forms of fat and emulsifiers typically used to prevent products of bakery to taste like sawdust. “Fat can be replaced with pureed fruits or vegetables – condensed soup qualifies for this – which is why it’s easy to see how reaching for a staple when a shortage occurs,” says Reid.

Tomato soup cake was just one of the cakes born out of necessity during the series of crises that defined the first half of the 20th century, from the rich, chocolaty miracle that was the “zany cake” (so named for its absence of eggs, butter and milk) to “victory cakes” in times of war. All of these recipes were marked by the conspicuous absence of expensive or hard-to-find ingredients. “The rise of carrot cake is tangential but worth noting. When sugar was scarce, carrots were used in puddings because of their sweetness,” says Reid. While spicy carrot puddings date back to the 18th centurythe cake as we know it took root during World War II, when the average A British adult had a weekly sugar ration of eight ounces.

A recipe in the Campbell's archives dating back to 1922.
A recipe in the Campbell’s archives dating back to 1922. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company

By the time Plath stumbled upon the recipe, the tomato soup cake had passed its humble origins. According to James Regan, director of corporate media at the Campbell Soup Company, Campbell’s jumped at the chance to introduce their product in the 1940s, when their test kitchen began working on variations such as a ” steamed fruit and nut pudding” which called for figs. , raisins and nuts, as well as the can of soup. “The basis of this recipe is for a spice cake, which was much more common around the turn of the century in the 1930s and 1940s,” Reid explains. “The ancestors of spice cakes came from England in the form of steamed puddings made from fruits and vegetables.”

In 1949, the tomato soup cake appeared in The New York Times. In 1960 Campbell’s printed a version of the recipe on the sides of its soup cans and in 1964 the joy of cooking ran a recipe for “Mystery Cake”, confiding in readers that, “The deep secret is the tomato, which after all is a fruit.”

To some extent, the evolution of tomato soup cake over the decades reflects changes in the broader American gastronomic zeitgeist. What began as a relatively lean, eggless riff on an English pudding morphed to suit the tastes and socio-economic conditions of the day. In the 1950s, when the economy was booming and Americans were eager to forget the wartime shortage, eggs and buttercream frostings began to appear in soup cake recipes. tomatoes. Since ready meals, including canned soups, were all the rage, most of these recipes called for the addition of canned spice cake mixes from Duff’s, Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.

A tomato soup cake recipe from 1966.
A tomato soup cake recipe from 1966. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company

Maria Gamble, director of the Culinary & Innovation Hub at the Campbell Soup Company, sings the praises of this versatile cake. “It really is a recipe for all ages and for all seasons, a recipe that has been reviewed and modified to adapt to changing needs and tastes, a recipe that has stood and triumphed over the test. time,” she wrote in an email.

In 1951, Campbell’s introduced its first chocolate variation of the Tomato Soup Spice Cake, followed by a series of upside-down cakes using everything from canned pineapple slices to peaches in 1954, and then a moist chiffon cake. in 1956 topped with a lemon buttercream icing. In the 1960s, when Bundt pans were all the rage, the company poured soup batter into one of the ring-shaped pans. Around 1966, a cream cheese glazed version surfaced, which remains the most popular version to this day.

A tomato soup cake recipe from 1941.
A tomato soup cake recipe from 1941. Courtesy of Campbell Soup Company

While other recipes born out of scarcity, like fake “apple pie” made with Ritz crackers, have faded over time, the tomato soup cake has proven to be quite resilient. The recipe resurfaces in the pop cultural lexicon every few years, largely because it really works. Rusty in color and tender in the crumb, the resulting cake has nothing to do with its secret ingredient.

Campbell’s says around 65,000 people per year always look at the recipe, a number that increases each time, say, a The TikTok influencer rediscovers it. There’s a reason that tomato soup cake recipes over the years have often been called “Mystery Cake” or “Magic Cake.” This cake may have been born out of necessity, but it lives on because every generation loves a celebratory trick with a big reveal.

Cream cheese frosting makes everything better.
Cream cheese frosting makes everything better. Diana Hubbell for Gastro Obscura

Tomato Soup Cake

Adapted with permission from a recipe by the King Arthur Baking Company

Cake ingredients
1 large egg, at room temperature
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1 can (10.5 ounces) plain condensed tomato soup
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon chilli
½ teaspoon cloves
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
¾ cup raisins
¾ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

Frosting ingredients
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (optional)
½ teaspoon of salt
2 cups icing sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour a 9 inch square cake pan.
  2. Mix the egg, oil and sugar until the sugar is completely incorporated. Stir in canned tomato soup.
  3. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, spices and orange zest to the wet ingredients and beat until smooth. Stir in raisins and nuts until evenly distributed.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the edges begin to pull away from the pan and a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Take the cake out of the oven and let it cool completely on a wire rack.
  5. While cake cools, combine softened cream cheese, icing sugar, orange zest and butter (if using) in a large mixing bowl and beat until smooth and fluffy. Spread over cooled cake and serve.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wonderful foods and drinks.

Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.