Sifting through my old recipes and photos has brought up many memories of my family members, but none more so than those of my late grandmother. Affectionately referred to as ‘Tigger,’ my grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. She was a strong and proud woman who would fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. I remember so much about her, but the core of all my memories include the smell of Dawn dish soap and Cinnabar, her impeccable taste in eclectic jewelry and décor, and how she referred to all of her grandchildren as "sugar." She loved dessert and, while she was thrifty, she would never settle for items that weren’t great quality. She loved her family intensely and would show that love through her unconditional support of their goals and passions.
When I was about 12, she noticed my interest in cooking and gave me my first blank recipe book and encouraged me to start filling it up. One of the first recipes she gave me was her recipe for Tomato Soup Cake. “That sounds strange,” I thought. But she told me it was one of her favorites, and that she enjoyed eating it on her birthday for several years. Ultimately, it was one of the first cakes I ever made from scratch, and I was very happy I did! To me this cake tastes like a comforting mix of carrot cake and gingerbread in the best way, especially when it's coated with a thick layer of cream cheese frosting.
What exactly is Tomato Soup Cake?
Tomato Soup Cake is a type of spice cake that first began appearing in cookbooks in the late 1920s, early 1930s. This cake gained popularity likely in response to the depression, since the original recipe didn't contain eggs or milk, which were in short supply during that time. Its name, of course, comes from the key ingredient used: canned tomato soup! Canned goods were an important staple during the depression, and like mayonnaise, the soup serves to bring moisture and bind the cake together. While it does not leave a tomato flavor in the cake, it does give the cake a lovely reddish color.
Originally, this cake was served as one layer, and without frosting. Sometimes a dusting of powdered sugar was added for decoration. Frosting was added a little later when carrot cake, another type of spice cake, gained popularity in the 70s with it's beloved cream cheese frosting. Campbell's began publishing their own versions of Tomato Soup Cake during the 50s and 60s. When they felt it had finally been perfected, they adapted it to use along with cake mixes. From the late 20s until today, there have been untold numbers of variations to this recipe. Some include eggs, varying amounts of flour, molasses instead of sugar, pecans, and some modern recipes even feature mascarpone frosting.
Today is my Grandma Tigger’s birthday, so I would like to share her recipe for the cake that she so loved with you. Appropriately, it reflects so many of her tastes - It’s sweet, affordable to make, and it’s slightly unusual, but tastes absolutely wonderful. I hope you enjoy this vintage cake, and through it, a tiny piece of what made my grandmother so special.
Making the cake
According to the original recipe, the cake is to be baked in a "small tube pan." I didn't have a tube pan, so I went out and bought one. Usually, I just cook this in a cake pan, but I wanted to stay true to the recipe for the purposes of this post. As often happens with these older recipes, they look simple at first glance and then I read more closely and realize I have questions, but no one to ask. This was one of those times, and I did not know how small a "small tube pan" should be. I used my best judgement for what "small" meant, but ultimately my choices were limited by the size selections in my local store (which included exactly one). The pan I bought had a 10 cup capacity, and worked just fine, but a smaller pan may have been even better. This recipe makes about 5 cups of batter, so if you know the sizes you own, you can use that information to decide which pan to use.
To prepare the pan, grease it lightly making sure to get in all the corners. Sprinkle a couple handfuls of flour in the greased pan and move it around until it's lightly coated everywhere; dump the excess out.
Preheat the oven and start mixing your ingredients. In a medium bowl combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. When measuring your flour, spoon the flour into the measuring cup taking care not to pack it down. If you level it off, do so gently to prevent adding too much flour. This is a dense cake, and too much flour will make it dry. Whisk this mixture to combine it well, then sift it into a bowl.
Now you'll need a separate bowl for your wet ingredients. It should be larger than the one you used for the dry. Add vegetable shortening and sugar and blend well. I like to use a fork for this because the shortening is very soft and easy to work with, but would likely get stuck in a wire whisk.
Add the tomato soup and blend again. If you like, you can use an electric hand mixer for this to make it go faster and get out the lumps, but it isn't strictly necessary. I usually do just fine with a whisk or a fork at this stage.
Add the sifted dry ingredients to this mixture a little at a time. You'll definitely want to use a fork or large spoon for this part. The batter will be very thick, so an electric mixer will not work well for this. Once combined, fold in the nuts and raisins. Add your batter to the pan, spread it evenly then bake.
I have provided a different range for the timing from the original recipe because ovens and pans can vary widely. The original recipe says to bake for "50-60 minutes in a moderate oven." For my oven and pan this was too long. I found that, taking it out at 45 minutes, it was just on the boarder of being overbaked. For most ovens, 35-45 minutes would be perfect, but if a toothpick in the center doesn't come out clean, don't hesitate to put it back in for a few more minutes.
A finished cake will be slightly pulling away from the sides of the pan, and a toothpick or knife inserted into the middle will come out clean. Once your cake is done, place it on a cooling rack for about 15 minutes before taking it out of the pan. Like most Bundt style cakes, it's fairly dense, so it should slide right out without a problem. Once the cake has cooled completely, you can add your frosting.
Tomato Soup Cake
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup Campbell's Tomato Soup
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup Raisins
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts
Extra chopped or crushed walnuts for decorating (optional)
Lightly grease and flour a small tube pan and preheat the oven to 350 F
Blend shortening with sugar
Add tomato soup; mix well
Combine all dry ingredients and Sift; and add to wet mixture
Fold nuts and raisins into the mixture
Scoop batter into the prepared pan
Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes or until a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean
Allow to cool for 15 minutes before removing from the pan
Allow to cool completely then frost
Top with remaining walnuts as desired
Cream Cheese Frosting
Below is the original frosting recipe that was listed on the recipe card, and to be completely honest, I have never actually made it. Something about raw eggs in frosting never sounded great to me, but if you want to try it for the sake of authenticity, go for it! Keep in mind that you should be using pasteurized eggs for food safety.
If, however, you'd like to keep with the cream cheese frosting, but lose the raw egg, I have an excellent Cream Cheese Frosting recipe that you can use. For anyone wanting to keep this cake vegan, you can either dust it with powdered sugar, or try a vegan version of cream cheese frosting like this one! Enjoy!
8oz package cream cheese
1 1/2 cups 4x confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg yolk*
Cream cheese and egg yolk together until the mixture is well combined and slightly chunky
Add sugar and vanilla
Mix until well combined, smooth and slightly fluffy
Spread on cake
*This ingredient serves to add to the overall richness of the frosting and helps to bind the ingredients. You'll see this in a lot of old-timey frostings.
*Consuming raw or undercooked eggs may increase the risk of foodborne illness. For alternate frosting check out my cream cheese frosting.