The Enduring Allure of Tomato Soup Cake

published Jan 29, 2016
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(Image credit: Casey Barber)

You don’t see tomato soup cake on dessert menus at Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s not a postmodern invention of the molecular gastronomy set. Unlike donuts or meatballs, it’s not going through some upscale comfort food revival. Yet for the past century, tomato soup cake has endured, remaining a stalwart presence through decades of food trends to become an American dessert icon. And if you haven’t tried it yet, you’re in for a revelation.

Despite its sometimes off-putting name, this is a genuinely solid dessert, an easy-to-make cake that converts fans with just a single bite. Tomato soup cake is essentially a basic but flavorful spice cake that uses a can of tomato soup in place of milk, oil, or other dairy products; if you’ve ever made chocolate mayonnaise cake, you’ve used a similar technique to bring moisture and texture to your dessert without adding any weird flavors.

A Cake to Combat the Depression

Although today’s recipe iterations don’t always reflect its original frugality, tomato soup cake has roots in Depression-era cooking. Recipes for the cake, sometimes called “Mystery Cake” because of its secret ingredient, first appeared in community cookbooks in the 1920s and 1930s. And these prototype tomato soup cakes were very simple: single-layer pan cakes or loaf cakes with scant quantities of dairy in the ingredient lists.

MaryJane Robbins, a baking specialist and blogger for King Arthur Flour, helped develop the current King Arthur version based on her family’s recipe, handwritten by her mother and kept in a cookbook her great-aunt began compiling in 1932. “When I wrote the recipe for the site, I bumped up the amount of butter,” she admits. Her original recipe called for just two tablespoons of butter and one egg, and she remembers using the rest of a half-stick of butter to make a simple icing to top the cake.

(Image credit: MaryJane Robbins)

Campbell’s Soup Takes the Cake

It didn’t take long for Campbell’s Soup to develop its own version and to start using it to promote their own goods. According to official Campbell Soup Company records, the first company-developed tomato soup cake recipe came out in 1940 as a British-style steamed pudding. (A brief timeline: Campbell’s Tomato Soup itself was introduced to the public in 1897, but the Campbell’s test kitchens didn’t officially open until 1941. Hence the decades of housewives crowd-sourcing and developing their own cake recipes.)

The steamed pudding recipe also called for scant amounts of fat — one tablespoon butter, one tablespoon lard — but as butter rationing fell by the wayside after World War II, tomato soup cake recipes got a little more lavish to match the nation’s new prosperity (not to mention the growing American obsession with culinary convenience). Nancie McDermott, author of Southern Cakes, notes that in the postwar era, advertising started targeting female homemakers (think of Mad Men‘s marketing campaigns) and — as today — weekly newspaper food sections featured recipes, which helped influence and drive the knowledge of home cooking.

Meanwhile, she adds, cooking was becoming less regional; from Louisiana to Delaware to Minnesota, ladies all across the country could buy Campbell’s and get in on the trend. By the ’60s, the tomato soup cake as we know it today was making its way into homes across America.

Tomato Soup Cake for the Modern Age

Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, founders of the New York bakery Baked, discovered the tomato soup cake when working on their second cookbook Baked Explorations. It was the kitsch factor that first attracted them to tomato soup cake. But like many bakers before them, they discovered the unexpected and genuine pleasures of the recipe. Beyond the interest-piquing ingredient, Poliafito found another connection between this quintessentially American recipe and another cooking tradition brought here by immigrants: “Being Italian, you added a little sugar to your sauce depending how acrid the tomatoes were,” he explains.

The guys loved it so much they included their own take on the classic: a recipe for tangy tomato soup cupcakes with mascarpone frosting. By turning the cake into cupcakes, a thoroughly modern American dessert, the Baked team added one more layer to the long history of tomato soup cake. And the mascarpone frosting they swirled on top is yet another evolution of the tomato soup cake recipe.

(Image credit: Casey Barber)

Just Add Cream Cheese Frosting

Frosting and icing were not part and parcel of the very first tomato soup cake recipes (again with the frugality), and the presentation was very simple. It was always served as a single layer cake and almost always plain, Robbins remembers, except on birthdays, when she made a special request for vanilla frosting.

According to McDermott, cream cheese frosting came to prominence in the 1970s when “healthy” carrot cake took the dessert world by storm. “It was a huge turning point,” she says. And now, thanks to the simplicity, speed, and undeniable tastiness of cream cheese frosting — as McDermott laughs, it’s much easier to make than boiled icing or meringue — this topping has now become part of the tomato soup cake canon, along with the trend of making a double-layer cake.

Have you tried this simple, comforting cake? A good place to start is the Campbell’s recipe, which came out in 1966 and is considered to be the standard — most modern versions deviate only slightly. Slather it with cream cheese, or don’t; share it with others, or save it all for yourself as a secret snack.