Lily found the recipe by accident. Her grandmother’s handwritten recipe book was a favorite of hers. When she wasn’t at the bakery or making goodies for her side business at the farmer’s market, she loved to spend time with the book, tracing her grandmother’s even script and inhaling the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg. The smells were faint but always present, permanent reminders of recipes past. Lily grew up making most of these recipes; the ingredients and instructions were as much a part of her life as breathing and walking. Banana bread, blondies, pumpkin cookies, peach pie with the perfect pie crust, blueberry coffee cake, German chocolate cake; each recipe evoked a memory for Lily. Each recipe made her happy.
She loved these recipes like they were family. When she was at work making yet another batch of petit fours or some other complicated confection, she let her mind wander to the simplicity of banana bread or the flavor combination that was the pumpkin cookies (with her own addition of brown sugar frosting). Macarons and eclairs could be such temperamental little guys; the perfectionist in her and the perfectionist in the desserts didn’t always play nicely. Where she to live the rest of her life never making another petit four again, Lily would be a happy woman.
The new recipe surprised her. It literally fell into her lap. She thought she knew every piece of the recipe book. She sat in the window seat in her living room, flipping through the recipe book. Lily was looking for a little inspiration. Her farmer’s market project was going like gangbusters, but she wanted to introduce a new recipe for the fall season and was stumped. Her standards for this time of year included banana bread, two types of pumpkin bread, various apple desserts and breads, and pumpkin cookies. She also made cookie bars by the trayful; she couldn’t bake them fast enough. But she felt something was missing. Then this recipe fluttered into her lap.
She picked it up carefully not wanting to damage the fragile paper. It was folded over and yellowed with age. Lily could also see the spots of use. That was a sign of a great recipe; smudges from oil and other ingredients showed the love a baker had for it. Lily carefully unfolded the recipe, seeing it was cut out from a newspaper. The date read February 12, 1930. She didn’t know which paper it was from; no name appeared anywhere on the page. In the margin, there was a name written in cursive script “Mrs. Gibson.” Lily had no idea who Mrs. Gibson was. The handwriting was similar to her grandmother’s but she couldn’t be certain. Along the bottom of the page, her grandmother had written (she was sure of the handwriting) “Use vanilla buttercream frosting or cream cheese frosting if you must.” Lily laughed at the “if you must”; her grandmother had never liked frosting despite the fact that she made excellent buttercream. Lily could hear her grandmother’s voice as she read those instructions. Her grandmother had also written another note on the back of the paper: “Make for Pop’s birthday - favorite cake.” Pop was Lily’s great-grandfather. She didn't remember him except from pictures; he died a few months after she was born.
The recipe was an odd one; it was called Mystery Cake. She scanned the ingredients: oleo, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, flour. It looked like a normal spice cake recipe. Then she saw it, the last ingredient on the list. Canned tomato soup.
Lily had never heard of using canned tomato soup in a cake. Would it taste like tomato sauce? Tomatoes are fruit so maybe it added sweetness. Would the cake be red? Personally, Lily found tomato soup nauseating. It tasted like it didn’t know if it was a fruit or a vegetable. The only way she’d ever been able to eat tomato soup was with grilled cheese. Something about the cheese and bread balanced out the weird tomato taste of the soup. Lily grabbed her laptop off the coffee table. She opened up Google and typed in “mystery cake.” Lots of hits but none that included tomato soup. She added “tomato soup” into the search and finally a few helpful links appeared, including an article about Sylvia Plath and baking. Lily quickly learned Mystery Cake or Tomato Soup Cake, as it was also called, was a favorite of the author’s. Who knew?
Several of the links took her to articles on the history of the cake from its origins during the Great Depression (aligning with the date on her recipe) and its resurgence in popularity in the 1970s when carrot cake was all the rage. From what Lily gathered, both cakes were seen as “healthy” alternatives to other types of cake despite the fact that this was also when cream cheese frosting got added to most recipes for the tomato cake. She also learned the recipe was the first recipe Campbell’s ever featured on a soup label. Fascinating. Lily knew she had found her new recipe. The mystery cake would spice up her fall offerings.
Surveying her cupboards and baking closet, Lily found everything she needed for the recipe including three cans of tomato soup. The soup surprised her; she had no memory of buying it. The expiration date was two years from now so she felt confident in its usefulness. She shot off a quick email to her booth partner, Hallie, letting Hallie know about the cake. Hallie handled the business side of their enterprise. Lilly was hopeful she would be able to come up with a fun and creative way to market the new product.
Subject: New recipe - something fun
I think I found a new recipe for our fall menu. It’s called Mystery Cake but it’s real name is Tomato Soup Cake. It’s basically a spice cake with tomato soup in place of some of the normal wet ingredients. The recipe was popular during the Great Depression; I found it in my grandma’s recipe book.
Anyway, since I have everything else ready for the weekend I’m going to play around a bit with the recipe. I’m trying it as a sheet cake and as individual cakes with two different frosting options.
What do you think?
Lily got to baking. She opted to use Crisco instead of oleo as the recipe suggested. The sheet cake version came together beautifully. The batter was reddish; more like the color of red bricks than of a tomato. The other ingredients seemed to tame the tomato red to a more palatable fall shade. It looked like a spice cake with no hint of the mystery ingredient. She tasted a little bit of the batter. Lily couldn’t taste tomato at all. Instead she tasted fall and crisp air and warm sweaters. Yes, one lick of batter conveyed all of that. She could only imagine what the finished product would taste like. She got to work making the individual cakes. They wouldn’t take as much time to bake. Her phone chimed with an incoming email as she finished pouring the last of the batter into the individual cake pans.
Subject: Re: New recipe - something fun
Tomato soup cake! It’s just weird/normal enough to work especially at our market. The history angle of the cake will definitely appeal to our regulars especially the little hipster children who like everything retro. I have a feeling a few of our older patrons will enjoy this even more. Let’s do a little contest to see if people can guess the mystery ingredient. They can put their guess and name on an entry form. The first winning guess we pull gets a free pastry on their next visit. We can also have people vote if they want it to stay. Why don’t we use the sheet cake for samples and sell the individual cakes?
Lily fired off a quick reply. Hallie was brilliant as always. The contest would be a fun way to get their patrons involved in the booth which Lily hoped would one day translate into them being involved in their brick and mortar bakery whenever that opened. She set to work making another batch of individual cakes and prepping frosting. The sheet cake was cooling and Lily was counting down the minutes until she could taste a little corner of the cake. The aroma of fall, spicy and crisp, lingered in her kitchen. She decided she couldn’t wait for the cake to cool. She cut a small piece from the corner. There was a hint of sweetness but no trace of tomato. She could taste the spices, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, clearly. They were the stars of the cake. It didn’t need frosting, her grandmother was right on that. The samples would include frosting-free options too. It was the only way to really show the versatility and simplicity of the cake. Lily knew she had a hit.
Two Days Later - The Farmer’s Market
“I can’t believe we sold out of everything by 10 am. That has never happened in the entire time we’ve had a booth here,” Hallie sat down, exhausted from the busy morning.
“Do you think the Mystery Cake had anything to do with it?” Lily began breaking down the booth.
“Could be. People definitely came by to try it and guess. And they stayed to buy. Unless our informal survey tells us differently, I think you can add Mystery Cake to the fall menu. Maybe give it a new name though.”
Lily laughed. “I already have a new name; Pop’s Surprise Cake. It was my great-grandfather’s favorite cake according to the note my grandma left on the recipe. I think he’d like having something named after him.”
“Works for me. Let’s get all this packed up and out of here. I have all this free time back in my day. I feel like should do something really frivolous.” Hallie folded up their booth sign.
“Let’s pick a winner before you run off and I don’t know, buy expensive shoes.” Lily knew that was Hallie’s definition of frivolous.
“Good idea. Let’s see what we’ve got in here. I hope someone gets it right. This one says “applesauce.” Next we have “licorice.” Not even close.” Hallie read through ten more entries, all of them wrong. Other guesses included pumpkin, brown sugar, cardamon, allspice, and apples.
“You try, Lily. Maybe you’ll have more luck.” Hallie handed the box to Lily.
Lily pulled the next entry. The handwriting was a little shaky, but still legible. “We have a winner! This man guessed tomato soup.” It wasn’t one of their regulars but Lily remembered the man from earlier in the morning. She’d seen him around the market before and he occasionally bought cookies or bread from them. Today he bought two of the mystery cakes after trying a sample. Mr. Franks. He’d introduced himself and told her it was the best cake he had ever eaten. Hallie took down his contact information so she could call him later about his prize.
“Lily, there’s a note here on the back. It’s definitely for you.” Hallie handed her the paper.
“Really?” Lily took the paper back.
Thank you for making my favorite cake. My mother used to make this for me for my birthday. We didn’t have much money back then but she always made birthdays special. For years, she wouldn’t tell me what was in the cake; she probably thought I wouldn’t like it after I found out! On my 18th birthday she finally told me and we had a great laugh over it. I would have never guessed. I haven’t had a tomato soup cake since 1955 so thank you for bringing back a little bit of my childhood. I’ll be back for more!
“This is the best note ever. Pop’s Secret Cake is definitely going on the fall menu. I don’t care what anyone else says.” Lily showed Hallie the note. “I never even thought about the fact that an entire generation of people grew up on this cake and probably haven’t eaten it in decades. What a cool find.”
“You’re the baker; I just work here,” Hallie replied, jokingly.
The women finished cleaning up and set up time to meet on Monday to discuss next week's menu and update to their business plan for the bakery. Hallie left to go buy shoes and contact Mr. Franks; Lily decided to head back home and she what other treasures she could find in her grandma’s recipe book. What else had she missed?
This post was inspired by the prompt "Your favorite recipe" from the book "642 Things to Write About" by the San Francisco Writer's Grotto. Follow my adventures of making a mystery cake here.