GTPulse: Depression Cake Stands the Test of Time

This vintage vegan cake was often made during The Great Depression with minimal and inexpensive ingredients. The timeless recipe is still made by novice and accomplished bakers alike.

With pandemic related restrictions slowly starting to lift, hopefully, some panic buying will too. Throughout quarantine there were times I would go to the store and couldn’t find plain butter or eggs. This didn’t fare well for me because one of the main ways I coped with quarantine was baking. I don’t think that I’m bad or great, but I do think that I’ve learned a lot through it. For the first time in my life I understand the convenience of having stuff like baking powder, brown sugar and sour cream on hand. I made things that I knew would last me for a few days. I found relief from the outside world by putting my phone on Do Not Disturb and carefully following a recipe. These past couple of months have been a lesson in care and domestic growth for me. Social media algorithms must have caught on because before I knew it my feeds were beings flooded with recipes. One that caught my eye was called Depression Cake. Initially thinking that it was a sassy recipe blogger asserting that chocolate is the cure-all for mental health issues, I clicked onto it. When I brought the recipe up later on the phone to my grandmother (a domestic queen), she remembered her mother making the same thing, but called Crazy Cake.

Depression or Crazy Cake is one without butter, eggs or milk. During The Great Depression people struggled to find or afford these items and they had to get crafty with the ingredients they had. I had everything to make it here, but I doubted that it would taste good. The most I could hope for would be something that’s taste reminded me of cake, and that hopefully turned out okay so I had pictures of it to post here. 

Sarah Steele, owner of pastry shop Sweet Tartlette in Traverse City eased some of my uncertainty about the texture of a cake without any of the ingredients that make a cake good. She makes them at her shop and I’m no baker. I mean, this thing will more than likely be dry, right?

“They are amazingly moist.  One of the key ingredients is vinegar.  It reacts with the baking soda to give lift to the cake.  The other is oil, instead of butter, is what makes it moist.  Most of my cakes have oil in them whether it is along with butter or the only fat present, as with my devil’s food.  I actually used to make these cakes all the time when I was a kid because they are so easy.  I used a recipe from the Fanny Farmer Baking Book, which is no longer in print.  My mother gave me a copy for Christmas this year and I made it with my kids during quarantine.  It’s good with just a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar, though I find it doesn’t need it.  Two really great versions of this type of cake can be found on the Smitten Kitchen website.  I intend to also experiment with making them with other flavorful liquids instead of water.  I think it would work great with raspberry puree, or passion fruit juice.”

I followed a simple recipe for the cake that only used one bowl to mix in and a pan to put the cake into, and it reminded me of a boxed cake mix. The smell, the consistency, the simplicity. I made the cake after a trip to urgent care for gouging my finger open earlier in the afternoon. Even with no experience and a sidelined finger, the cake came out beautifully. Firm, spongy, moist and good.

Traditionally Depression Cake was eaten without frosting and sometimes with a sprinkle of powdered sugar. I didn’t have powdered sugar so I ate it old school and, I’ve gotta tell you it’s been my favorite and easiest quarantine baking project yet.

It’s fast, tastes great with morning coffee, and is vegan! Beyond how easy and good it was to make, it made me feel connected to people who were struggling in a different time. The world changes constantly and there aren’t many simple things that stay constant and true, but I know that the cake my grandmother ate as a kid tasted a whole lot like this one, and there’s comfort in that. This recipe will stick with me for a while.

If you want to make Depression Cake of your own, here is the recipe I used. If you just want to enjoy one without dirtying up the kitchen, Sarah makes them at Sweet Tartlette.

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Categories: GTPulse