War Cake - A Recipe and a Small Disquisition on What We Decide "Cake" to Signify

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wars usually bring about times of scarcity. We read in textbooks about soup lines, people bartering for eggs, victory gardens, and developing new tricks and recipes to make what you have work out. Sure, you can sling together an amazing recipe on Iron Chef or at home when you have the world's kitchen at your fingertips, but can you bake a cake when you have no butter, refined sugar, or eggs?

Now war cake is not a cake in the traditional manner. Rather it was what cake was when you were in times of need. One need not go without on a special occasion, but one had to make due. Tastes and concepts of what food was had to change during WW2. The name cake was kept because the end product was still something sweet, something special. Indeed the word has become a signifier to us - its a word we associate with joy, indulgence, celebration, something beyond the material mound of sugar and whipped egg whites and colored frosting. War cake requires you to alter your understanding of cake.

War cake is more like a very large, round cookie. A huge, super-thick cookie. It's harder than biscotti on the outside, but sweet, dense, and chewy on the inside. It has a taste that's very similar to gingerbread but with out the heated bite of molasses. Studded with sugar plumped raisins it's actually quite a treat. Those who tried it loved it and the recipe is extremely simple. Given the jawbreaker-like crust can be a workout for those good chewing teeth, but a dunk in some black coffee or tea easily loosens it up. However, it actually gets softer as time goes by as the raisins release their moisture into the bread. My roommate and I have taken to cutting off pieces on the go in the mornings for breakfast and it's now a regular staple here. A not too sweet nibble that's great on the go, and easy to make when I'm tired.

The recipe is strikingly easy, and you have to put some faith in it as the method is very unique and developed based out of poverty. The original recipe I dug up had few instructions, after some trial and error I've put together something that I believe is true to what real 1940's war cake was.

War Cake
I hope that you'll all give it a quick try and attempt to stay true to this recipe your first go. The first bite is eye opening and will certainly inspire reflection and thought about the history of cooking. If you don't have shortening ready on-hand, then butter can be used in its place. (Butter was near impossible to get in 1944.) This cake is very moist from the melted sugar and raisins and will keep for a week.

1 cup of brown sugar
1 cup of hot water
1 tablespoon of shortening
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
11/2 cups of flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 cup of raisins

Bring brown sugar, water, shortening, salt, raisins, and spices to a boil for five minutes. Allow to cool.

Dissolve the baking soda in a teaspoon of water. When the sugar mixture is cold, mix in flour and baking soda.

Mix together, using a spoon and then your hands as it gets thicker. Form into two discs about 5 inches in diameter. You may need to use your hands a bit but don't add a lot of extra flour.

Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 45 minutes at 325F.


  1. i have my grandmothers original war cake recipe written in her handwriting on her little recipe cards. she was an amazing baker living in south philadelphia, of german (pennsylvania dutch) and french descent. she packed war cakes in cans and sent them to her sons wherever they were serving (greenland and korea) and she wrapped many in paper which were sold for a nickel with the money going to the red cross. my dad still makes war cakes and they will be on the menu when i open my bakery. i wont be using the original recipe because it used lard instead of shortening. it did have molasses in it, no brown sugar. and it had a lot more spices. our version doesnt have the hard crust you describe.....its a very moist cake and it keeps a long time. when it gets stale my dad toasts it and spreads it with butter.

  2. This looks delicious. It's especially nice because it has hardly any fat in the recipe. I will definitely make this "cake" soon.

  3. Actually sugar was rationed in the war, too, and in some places darned near impossible to lay hands on, but the "cake" sounds good. In the matter or rationing, would you care to speculate on what might happen if such a measure were taken today. I shudder at the thought.

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  5. Cool!!!

    One of the first recipes I ever made was "Martha's Crazy Cake". It was in a kid's cookbook and was much like this recipe - it doesn't use eggs, milk, or butter. But, to this day it has remained one of my favorite recipes. It produces one of the most moist, light chocolate cakes I've ever tasted.

  6. Great recipe! I just made some this afternoon to have for breakfast tomorrow.

  7. Yummy looking cake.

    I was reading your previous post regarding placentology, and it is something I am slightly moderately informed about. One area I noticed you did not address, however, is the safety of such a practice. We live in a very toxic, chemical laden environment, and the toxins around us are often stored in our tissues. Eating placenta, while perhaps satisfying various nutrient requirements, may also re-expose us to toxins, and put us at risk for disease later in life. Just another angle to examine.

  8. I was introduced to wartime baking during college through a professor's wife. She made "Wacky Cake" for all the students, and it sounds very similar to the one described by JulieAnn and the Captain. Not the prettiest, but lovely moist chocolate cake that is wonderfully forgiving and versatile, without the tooth-chipping crust that some have.

  9. It sounds interesting. I'll give it a try.

  10. So I got up and made this for breakfast this morning. I didn't have raisins, so I chopped up some dried nectarines which are a little more tart - but work about the same. I like hard crusty breads, so I'm glad your recipe comes out this way as opposed to the moist cake mentioned in many of the comments - though the center was softer and chewy. It was great with my coffee. In fact, it was just great! Please keep us posted on more of your war-time goodies.

    PS Adding a question to anonymous' comment: were all types of sugar rationed, or just refined white granulated? What kinds of sugar were available in the 1940's grocery before the war?

  11. Refined white sugar was rationed, however, molasses-y unrefined cane sugar that often had a slight bitterness to it was not rationed. Brown sugar is pretty darn close to that sugar in terms of flavor and texture.

  12. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  13. Hi Garrett, Update...FYI
    I buttered an 8"x8" poured the "batter" in and baked at 325 for 25 minutes. It's delicious! Moist, plump raisins, spicey and will be fabulous w/ whipped cream later!

  14. I have never heard of war cake until I read your blog. I love to cook and I'm definitely going to try this recipe. This would be a wonderful family holiday tradition. So I thank you for posting this recipe.


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