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.
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.