The Great Throwing-Away: Tomato Soup Cake

The Great Throwing-Away continues to unearth items I refuse to throw away.

Today it’s The Household Searchlight Recipe Book my mother acquired, according to the inside cover, in 1940.

It’s had a hard life. I referred to page 77 repeatedly during my Divinity Phase, when I was eleven. Every rainy weekend—and there were more of them back them—I made divinity. It never set. I knew it wouldn’t, and I didn’t care. I didn’t like divinity all that much, but I enjoyed using the candy thermometer. The divinity always turned out sticky and had to be eaten with a spoon, but it was perfectly good.

Anyway, the highlight of the cookbook appears in the back, written in pencil, under “Additional Recipes”: Tomato Soup Spice Cake.

I grew up hearing the Legend of the Tomato Soup Cake: “Ted [my mother’s uncle Ted Lynn] was always saying, ‘Crys, when are you going to make me a tomato soup cake?’ That was his favorite.” For some reason, maybe because my father was more of a chocolate- and lemon meringue pie addict, I never got a glimpse of the cake. I don’t think I wanted to. I was addicted to Campbell’s tomato soup (cream of, made with milk and mushy with saltine crackers) but cake and tomato soup sounded incompatible (like bleh). I was in my twenties when I finally insisted on seeing what Ted was so crazy about.

Well, Ted was right. For anyone who likes spice cake, this is the one. For anyone who doesn’t like spice cake, this could be a game changer. The layers are velvety. The icing is a candy in itself.

My mother got the recipe from—if I remember correctly—the wife of the Methodist minister in Martindale, Texas, in the late 1930s. Instructions were dictated and lack detail. I’ve inserted a few extra steps in brackets. Some I remember doing myself. My mom might have directed the operation the first time I baked it, or she might have written out a fuller version for me.

And before anyone asks, I have no idea how to define a scant teaspoon.

Tomato Soup Spice Cake

Layers

2 cups tomato soup [2 cups canned soup, not the entire two cans]
1 cup melted butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs – optional
1 handful raisins
2 scant tsp. soda

[A wisp of memory said to dredge raisins in flour before mixing with other ingredients. Specifically, I remember saying, “What does, ‘Dredge raisins mean?'” BUT, on second thought, I believe dredged raisins went into my grandmother’s applesauce cake, not into the tomato soup cake. I hate to make this difficult, but I haven’t baked either since the 1980s.*]

Cream butter and sugar, add 2 scant teaspoons soda to soup and add to sugar and butter mixture.

Sift together:

4 scant cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cloves
3 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. all spice
1/2 tsp. mace (or nutmeg)

[Add sifted dry ingredients to wet ingredients and blend.]

Add 3 tsp. vanilla to mixture.

Makes 2 large or 3 medium layers. [For best results, make 3 layers. See “Further instructions from Kathy,” below.]

[Pour into cake pans. Bake. Possibly at 350 degrees.]

Icing

This:

1 Phila. cream cheese
? powdered sugar
? vanilla

[The corner of the page is missing, so I don’t know how much powdered sugar and vanilla are called for. Check online, act on experience, or guess. But if the online recipe calls for butter, don’t add it.]

or [and!]

This:

1 C milk
2 C sugar
1 C dates [Pitted dates. And a warning: 1 cup doesn’t sound like enough. In fact, I’m not sure this makes enough icing to cover three layers. If you increase the recipe and have some left over, that will be all right, because the extra can be eaten as candy.]

Boil to soft ball and add dates before taking off.

Add 1 tablespoon butter afterward.

[Another warning: After butter is added, the icing may need to be beaten a bit. I think it does. Fudge and pecan pralines do.]

 

Further instructions from Kathy:

Now. This is what the all the fuss was about.

Make 3 layers.

Make the second “This” icing with milk, sugar, and dates. Ice the tops of layers.

Make the first “This” icing with cream cheese. Ice the sides of the cake.

My experience: Do not try to slice in wedges. The candy icing hardens/sets and can make slicing difficult.

Instead, bisect the cake—a bread knife and a light touch can help—and then make cuts perpendicular to the cross cut. (The icing might have hardened because I cooked it too long. But I think it’s supposed to set that way. Like divinity does when the humidity is low.)

I’ve seen similar recipes online, but none looks like it would match this beast. Combine three layers of light, velvety cake with two kinds of icing, and the end product is simply devastating.

The Tomato Soup Cake recipe is included in a cookbook published by the Fentress Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary (or maybe it was the church?) in the 1970s or ’80s. I don’t have my copy any more, so I can’t verify, but one of the ingredients may have been recorded incorrectly. I seem to remember—lots of my memories are wispy these days—using it and coming out with an unexpected result.

According to WorldCat, The Household Searchlight Recipe Book is housed in the collections of the Turpin Library (Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX), the Texas Woman’s University Library (Denton, TX), the Marfa Public Library (Marfa, TX), the Alcorn State University Library (Lorman, MS), the Perry Memorial Library (Perryton, TX), and the Conway Springs City Library (Conway Springs, KS).

It receives excellent reviews on Goodreads. Various editions are available on Amazon.

***

*I haven’t baked much of anything since the 1980s.

8 thoughts on “The Great Throwing-Away: Tomato Soup Cake

    1. The key is liking spice cake. If you like it, you’ll like this cake. There isn’t a hint of tomato soup about the finished product. What the soup does, aside from provide liquid, is a mystery.

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  1. I’ve thought a lot about Crystal’s Tomato Soup Cake lately for some reason – and here the recipe turns up right before my wondering eyes! NOW, can you possibly print (or copy) the recipe and email it to me?? Pretty please!! If not, I’ll see if Jim and I can figure out how to do it from here. Believe me, Crystal used to make this cake a lot, much to the family’s delight. Sorry to say I don’t cook any more myself – Jim does – or Mary. Thanks for the memories!! Auntie Barbara

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    1. I’ll be glad to send the recipe. I haven’t baked in years, and David has been doing all the cooking for quite a while. He doesn’t have to, just does, and I haven’t been moved to argue about it. As I remember, the tomato soup cake was labor intensive–I don’t know why, particularly, maybe it was the date icing. I should make one. After we’re in our new place. Maybe.

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