Cake Week, Tuesday edition: pull up a chair for coffee and War Cake

Today’s post is a recipe cribbed from M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (1942), which I reviewed here a few years ago and did not love.  However, this recipe stuck with me, because it seems like an ingenious way to make a cake without butter or eggs:  hide the use of sub-standard fat with gingerbread spices!  (And/or ganja, or as M.F.K. Fisher herself would say, “what have you.”)

Now to the recipe and its explanation:

Coffee, when it is brewed intelligently, is a perfect accompaniment to any dessert, whether it be a Soufflé au Grand Marnier, or a bowl of frost-whipped Winesap apples, crisp and juicy.  It is good, too, with a piece of fruity cake, and here is a recipe for one which is foolproof to concoct, and guaranteed to make the world take at least two steps back, instead of one step nearer.

It is a remnant of the last war, and although I remember liking it so much that I dreamed about it at night. . . like all the other children who ate it, I can’t remember that it was called anything more appetizing than


1/2 cup shortening (bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon other spices. . . cloves, mace, ginger, etc.

1 cup chopped raisins or other dried fruits. . . prunes, figs, etc.

1 cup sugar, brown or white

1 cup water

2 cups flour, white or whole wheat

1/4 teaspoon soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

Sift the flour, soda, and baking powder.  Put all of the other ingredients in a pan, and bring to a boil.  Cook five minutes.  Cool thoroughly.  Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix well.  Bake 45 minutes or until done in a greased loaf-pan in a 325-350 degree oven.

War cake can be made in muffin tins, and baked more quickly, but in a loaf it stays fresh longer.  It is very good with a glass of milk, I remember.  (I am sure that I could live happily forever without tasting it again.  There are many things like that:  you recall with astonishment and a kind of admiration some of the things eaten with sensual delight at eight or eighteen, that would be a gastronomical auto da fé for you at twenty-eight, or fifty.  But that does not mean that you were wrong so long ago.  War Cake says nothing to me now, but I know that it is an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children.  And I’m not ashamed of having loved it. . . merely a little puzzled, and thankful that I am no longer eight.)

I like how she describes her love of the cake like a former lover one has long since outgrown:  “not ashamed of having loved [hir]. . . merely a little puzzled, and thankful that I am no longer [that age].”  But that does not mean that you were wrong so long ago.

Let us cast aside childish things for something richer and more sophisticated.  Here’s the recipe for Nigella Lawson’s Sticky Gingerbread, of which I am very fond, and of which War Cake is a very distant cousin from the previous century (and probably the century before that one).  It keeps well, is good for gifting, works after dinner or for breakfast the morning after, and needs just a dusting of powered sugar to dress it up.  (Note the similar methodologies in both recipes–both call for simmering or boiling the sugars, fats, and spices together before mixing in the flour, a classic gingerbread technique.)

What’s your usual holiday dessert?  Will you be making or baking it this year?

19 thoughts on “Cake Week, Tuesday edition: pull up a chair for coffee and War Cake

  1. I love to bake ~ my traditional Christmas treat is vaguely related to this type of cake as well. It’s made with walnuts and cranberries in a brown sugar base, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Simple and scrumptious — the sweetness of the cake and the tartness of the cranberries are wonderful!


  2. That sounds fantastic–also related to fruitcake/Christmas cake recipes, I would guess. I love walnuts and cranberries together. My grandmother used to mix walnut halves into her cranberry sauce.


  3. I assume that for Fisher, the “last war” was WW I, but ironically, the one she was writing into in 1942 is still probably the last one that any broad range of Americans did too much nutritional sacrificing to or for. I gave up every proverbial twelfth bottle for Korea, while I yowled disconsolately, but that was mostly for style points, since I was going to yowl disconsolately anyway. By Vietnam, as the government went for “guns and butter,” my college fired one dining hall managing company and brought in another that declared every Saturday night “steak night.” I can’t imagine what those steaks were made out of, but they ratified our sense of boomer privelege. And the last series of wars, with the cutesy “Operation Hand-Ker-Chief” type names, certainly haven’t bared any gaping holes on supermarket shelves. I found some WW-II rationing coupons while cleaning out the old house, but I think they were for gasoline.

    I’m sorry that _HtCaW_ was not among the book-of-the-month-club offerings that my mother began to collect in earnest in right about 1942, because I just Wikied Fisher and the sketch was quite interesting. Her father got his volunteer fire department pals to spray down the sides of their house when she was born during a heat wave on July 3. Her mother vetoed the idea of calling her “Independencia” had she been born a day later. Sounds like a good balance of parental yin-and-yang.

    I’ll drink coffee *from* anywhere, *with* anything! For the holidays, though, I’m partial to a hard German cookie whose name I’m blanking on now, but you need a special rolling pin to get the shapes, sort of licoricey-tasting. Springerle?!?


  4. I’ve had my holiday baking mojo undermined by living in close proximity to my in-laws. My mother-in-law is an excellent baker, so my wife considers my baking agenda both superfluous and un-manly.

    But when I was a bachelor and still had my holiday baking mojo I was partial to spritz cookies and a panettone.


  5. I make Nurnberger Lebkuchen every year, as did my mother before me. I started making them soon after I moved away from home and have over all those years used the same wine glass to cut them out. I have a gaping drawer full of fancy cookie cutters now (I am a practical collector though, they are for use not display) but I always go back to that wine glass. T

    It’s an austere dough, no fat (and I use no egg) but lots of spices, blanched almonds, and candied citron (or similar). I make my own candied fruits and peels and have over the years moved from the traditional honey to a combination of rice and agave syrup. Last year I used candied grapefruit peel, which I loved but others thought was not as good as the prior year’s candied orange peel. This year I used a combination of the two. The tops are decorated with a little flower: a candied cherry middle and three blanched almonds for petals. I use pie cherries for this, from a friend’s farm. The cookies need to age so I bake them in November. We keep a few all year long and eat the last of the old along with the first of the new in December.

    This may be the first year in a long time that I do not produce a multitude of decorated sugar cookies (my kitchen is half packed in anticipation of a move). Piping fine detail with (eggless…I use light Karo syrup instead) royal icing is a great pleasure and I always make a point to reserve some time for myself to do this.

    I also like to make steamed pudding for holiday meals, soaked with whatever local brandy-like spirit I can find. I put some coarse maize meal and coarsely chopped fresh cranberries in the mixture because I live (for now) in the Americas. Unfortunately, nobody else in my family is as keen on this as I am, so I have not made it in a while.


  6. We don’t celebrate Xmas. This time of year there are are two popular deserts. First and foremost is the donut with jam (sufganiyah). These donuts are mostly baking powder based and full of sugar. They are fried in oil although one can bake them too. The best is to buy one properly made for Hanukkah at a deli or a supermarket stocking them.

    Rugelach continue my mom’s tradition. They are yeast based, easy to make and can be filled with chocolate, jam, raisins, etc. I don’t use recipes if I can help it (handcuffs) and use whatever the pantry has or whatever comes to mind.


  7. I’d be intrigued try this War Cake, although I would want someone else to bake it for me. The idea of working with that much bacon grease is vaguely unsettling to my stomach.

    In a general way, the concept also reminds me of how distant that past must seem to people even a few years my junior. (And I thought it was long ago, when I was a kid!) All of these things – wartime rationing, resignation to luxury-free hard times as a general state of affairs, and maybe even knowing how to cook stuff from scratch – were familiar to my grandparents, and utterly unknown to me in my childhood. (I learned to cook in graduate school, which is as close as anyone in my family has come in a long time to honest-to-FSM poverty.) But the awareness that things used to be like that was still there. My grandparents were all grown-up enough in 1942 to worry about things like this — the youngest of them was 16 then, and she surely knew a lot about cooking for a household at that age.

    I wonder if a 16-year-old today can feel any closeness to that era, the way I did. The oldest of my grandparents was born in 1911. That year might as well be 1066, for most of my students.


  8. There are a number of holiday traditions. The most important is an Orange Fruit Cake, which is a fruit cake, but amazingly delicious (one is shipped across the country to my stepchildren, by request).

    I also almost always bake a cookie that Fannoe Farmer calls Viennese Crescents, made with walnuts, butter, and a small bit of flour, rolled in powdered sugar.

    Every few years I also do a Buche de Noel, following the NYT Craig Claiborne recipe. But that is a real commitment.

    Finally, I’m often making spiced nuts, cranberry bread, etc as gifts… Chocolate truffles too.


  9. I hear you, Dr. Koshary, on 1911 being like 1066. But then, I have a friend who’s roughly a contemporary whose father was a vet of the deuce, whereas my mother was born after the war. (She’s actually among the first of the baby boomers, born as she was in February of 1946, just about 10 months after VE day.)

    I have a friend whose stepbrothers are about college age, and their dad is a vet of WWII! (I didn’t think there were any college students left whose parents were WWII vets, but there are!)


  10. We don’t have any holiday food traditions. Maybe this is from being midwestern? No, I’m kidding. My father’s family has a series of family desserts (usually involving instant pudding), and in my mother’s family it was all apple pie all the time. But in our house, my mother liked to experiment, so we always have different things. A few years ago, we made a buche du noel, and last year I made a wonderful sticky toffee cake which sounds very sweet but was actually a date cake that held mere hints of sweetness. That was my first kind-of-plummy Christmas cake. This year I’m toying with making my first panettone. We’ll see. I’m definitely going to candy orange rind and dip them in chocolate, though.

    My mother was also born in February 1946, Historiann. No wasted time there!


  11. cgeye–I agree! *Good* fruitcake is really terrific. My mother-in-law bakes dynamite Christmas cakes, which are what most Americans probably think of as a “fruitcake.”

    I even like those Claxon fruitcakes you can get at the grocery store–a little heavy on the candied marischinos, but pretty good for a grocery-store pickup.

    Perpetua: why make Pannettone when you can buy it and make Christmas french toast with it? Mmmmmmmmmmm. . .


  12. A ten-day old fruitcake also makes a great impromptu football when the blowzy bros-in-law impulsively decide to recreate the desperate ten-yard toss to the tight end–hooking in front of a stairway bannister–that won the Harbottle Industries Macaroon Freedom Bowl (r) down in Valdosta. In the pre-videotape era, I got tossed from at least a couple of post-gift-unwrapping brunches for getting mixed up in this kind of nonsense. The dogs go crazy; car alarms wail in the neighbors’ adjacent driveways; nobody remembers any of it a day or two later.


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