Thursday, May 12, 2016

The UT Recipes: Shhh! It's a secret.

"Instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing - I go make apple pie or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel."
-Sylvia Plath

Baking has always been a form of therapy for me. The preciseness is appealing; measuring ingredients, mixing them just so, following specific instructions for baking, setting a timer. The organizer in me likes the steps and the order especially given how chaotic and uncontrollable most of life can be. When I bake, particularly old favorites like banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, or yellow cake, I don't have to make decisions or argue with anyone about a minor detail that will end up being forgotten ten minutes after our conversation ends. It's just me, Stanny (yes, I named my stand mixer), and whatever recipe I've settled on for the day. The benefit for everyone else is delicious treats and my decreased stress level.

I have friends who also find baking soothing when stressed; Jessica has written about it over at Neek Confessional and I have a conversation about this with at least three people at work every time I bring in baked goods. Some people find the same feeling with cooking but I never have unless I'm following a recipe. I'm not the type of person that just throws things together and makes a fabulous dinner. I suspect this is why I'll never be a chef but I can see myself being a baker one day.

As I started work on this month's UT Book recipe, I began researching the recipe (one I was not at all familiar with) and stumbled upon an interesting nugget related to it: the cake I've selected was a favorite recipe of Sylvia Plath. She made the cake frequently and supposedly baked one up the day she wrote the poem "Death & Co."; Plath baked when she wrote. According to author Kate Moses, Plath found baking and cookbooks a connection to "the life of the body" and kept a baking journal to log her daily baking (this is a wonderful idea). She adored The Joy of Cooking and subscribed to Ladies' Home Journal to keep up to date on the latest recipes. She wrote of her kitchens in an essay called "Kitchen of the Fig Tree" for the Christian Science Monitor, one of the first essays she had published. And before you ask, yes, I see the irony in her baking and her suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning (from the oven in her kitchen). I choose to look beyond this and simply focus on the joy baking brought her in life rather than the macabre. Moses, in her research for her novel Wintering, found the same sort of solace in baking as she worked through her fictional account of the last days of Plath's life. I understand Moses completely and feel a kinship to her baking need as she finished the final chapters of her book.

So what was this cake Plath so loved? Depends on who you ask; the cake has several names including Secret Ingredient Cake and Mystery Cake. However, it's real name and the name it shall forever have in my heart is Tomato Soup Cake.

Tomato Soup Cake has a history in the 1920s and 1930s when ingredients like eggs and dairy would have been scarce. One blog I read about the cake called it "a recipe of frugality"; it could be made with things you would naturally have at home including canned soup (made popular by Campbell's in 1897). The soup adds moisture to the cake without extra expense. Original versions of the cake didn't include frosting which makes sense given the popularity during the Great Depression. The cake was a staple of community cookbooks for decades (although I couldn't find it in either of the Junior League books I have from 1950 and 1964). According to the Campbell's article, community cookbooks were the way recipes were shared before official test kitchens cropped up; their kitchen opened in 1941. Campbell's first version of the recipe was more like a British pudding (more similar to a bread pudding or custard or both). In 1942 they released the first version of the cake more like the one in the UT Book called "Halloween Spice Cake." They would test versions of the cake from 1950-1966 until they conducted "recipe experiment #38" which adapted the recipe to use cake mixes that were popular at the time. This recipe became the first recipe to be put on a soup label and it's one of their most searched recipes today.

I have never had Tomato Soup Cake nor had I ever heard of it until I found the UT Book. I'll admit it was the recipe that caught my eye when I was flipping through the book at the vintage store. The ingredient was one thing but it's also one of the few recipes that has a specific source, Mrs. Gibson. I wonder a lot of things about Mrs. Gibson including pondering which type of frosting she would use on her version of the cake. Since the recipe mentions the frosting, it helps put the notebook into a specific time frame - the late 1960s or early 1970s. During this period, frosting finally makes it way into the recipe. The popularity of carrot cake in the 1970s and its cream cheese frosting are partially responsible for this. Many of the modern versions of the recipe pair it with cream cheese frosting rather than chocolate or lemon as the older versions reference. As I researched the recipe I found more and more people who love this cake. One person commented on a blog that he/she has this cake every year for their birthday and have been doing so for 40 years. What a great historical cake!

It's a lot like a carrot cake, specifically in the spices used for the batter. Cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg combine with tomato soup, sugar, Crisco, and other dry ingredients to make a light cake that's sort of red in color. It smelled a bit like fall as I mixed it together. No pan size was mentioned in the UT Book recipe; the ones online varied from 9x13 to 8 inch square pans. I split the difference and used a disposable 8x12 pan I happened to have; it seemed to work just fine. It was easy to mix up and took ten minutes less to bake than the recipe indicated. This is probably my oven specifically; it tends to bake things faster. Some recipes include the addition of raisins and nuts like a carrot cake but this one does not so I left them out.

For the frosting, I opted for my standard vanilla buttercream recipe because it's awesome (not to brag or anything) and because several of my co-workers have an aversion to cream cheese frosting. I don't get it but I'd rather they enjoy the cake instead of complain about the frosting. A handful of my co-workers knew what the secret ingredient was in advance because I've been discussing this cake obsessively for weeks. I didn't tell everyone though, and made a little sign using one of the other names for the cake, Secret Ingredient Cake. I asked anyone who tried the cake if they could guess the secret ingredient. Both this name and Mystery Cake were used to hide the fact that the cake included tomato soup. I wanted to hide it as long as possible from my co-workers/testers.

The verdict?

It took several people before anyone guessed the secret ingredient. One person named all of the other ingredients but could not place the secret one. Some of the other guesses included: pumpkin, applesauce, apples, licorice, and brown sugar. Only one person said that had she known what the secret ingredient was in advance, she probably wouldn't have eaten it but was glad that she was brave and had a piece. Some of the group who knew what the ingredient was in advance said they only noticed the tomato soup taste on the first bite and it wasn't even that strong of a taste; this wasn't true for everyone who knew the ingredient though. I didn't get the taste at all but maybe that was because I tried the batter before trying the cake. We also discussed the color - it's not quite red, not quite orange but it's really pretty and makes for a lovely cake. I did get two requests for cream cheese frosting despite the haters in the office. Maybe next time.

Overall score for this recipe: I'm going to give it an A. It was super easy to make, tastes like fall, and gave me an excuse to make really good frosting. I'd make this again using the UT Book recipe or using one of the other recipes I found while doing research.

In addition to finding another great recipe to add to my repertoire, I'm also looking forward to reading Kate Moses's novel Wintering and contemplating Sylvia Plath, her work, her death, and her baking.

Blog posts:
The Enduring Allure of Tomato Soup Cake
A Spicy History of Campbell's Tomato Soup Cake
Campbell's recipe
Tips for Housewives
All others by me

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