Miss Marie’s Poor Man’s Cake
June 27, 2011
Early in the Depression years, Marie Toscano’s father died suddenly, leaving her mother with little money and three children. Marie was five, her siblings much older. Desserts were rare because money was tight, and the recipe that she gave me seventy years later for “Poor Man’s Cake” reflected the thrift with which they lived.
Good Italians, they made their pasta weekly, cut it into strips, and spread it on sheets on the beds to dry. Tomatoes harvested from their small garden in Providence, Rhode Island and canned kept them through the winter. If her older brother had earned a little extra money he might bring home meat for the Sunday table, and they could afford a cake.
Marie’s Poor Man’s Cake, or Depression Cake, used only flour, water, sugar, and oil with baking powder for leavening. When she gave me the recipe, exactly as shown below, she didn’t feel the need to add instructions for mixing or preparing the pans. She assumed that I would know all of those things. I haven’t made the cake, but note that most of the more recent recipes I’ve found use a bit of vinegar in addition to baking powder or soda, to increase the leavening effect. They all add spices, or chocolate, or other flavorings, and often dried fruit, especially raisins.
Poor Man’s Cake
From Marie Toscano, March 28, 2005
“baking powder 2 ½ tsps
flour 2 cups
oil 1/3 cup
sugar ½ cup
water 3/4 cup
Tastes better if you can add raisins.”
Depression cakes stayed popular because they are moist, quick to mix, and freeze well. That simplicity makes them an excellent base for experimentation – curious cooks can play with liqueurs, fruits and nuts, or try different sugars, flours, and oils or shortening. Marie’s Italian delight in the sensual shows in her comment, “Tastes better if you can add raisins.” She would approve of the creativity others use to enhance the frugal ingredients.
Recipes for poor man’s and depression cakes abound. My 1956 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (p. 142) called this an “inexpensive fruit cake,” and said “. . . our staff likes this moist cake from the first World War. . .” The January 1967 copy of Joy of Cooking (Irma and Marion Rombauer, page 637) characterized it as “Eggless, Milkless Spice Cake,” (good for people with allergies) and used a raisin base and spices. The recipe also suggested substituting beer for the water that appears in most versions. By 1997, the same Joy of Cooking cake had become “Dairy-free Chocolate Cake (Vegan)” or “Ultra-Orange Cake (Vegan),” both of which omitted the raisins and (alas) the beer. The changes reflected the cultural alterations over the years, both in eating styles and health considerations.
Internet versions of depression cakes or poor man’s cakes can be found at
● http://savorysweetlife.com/2010/01/chocolate-wacky-depression-cake-recipe/ [this is very like the 1997 Joy of Cooking recipe];
● http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/depression-cake-iii/detail.aspx [a recipe that uses coffee for the liquid, and raisins];
● http://www.yankeemagazine.com/recipes/search/onerecipe.php?number=373 [a recipe that uses brown sugar and raisins]; and
● http://www.food.com/recipe/vanilla-eggless-and-dairy-free-vegan-cake-216376 [A vegan version that substitutes soymilk for the liquids used in other recipes to increase the nutrition].
Note: We met Marie Toscano when our younger daughter became a student at her Montessori preschool, hence the “Miss Marie.” She came to Alaska as a Jesuit Volunteer when she was in her mid-30s, and spent many years teaching in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages. In 1975, she came to Anchorage and opened the preschool, taking only twenty children a year. She became a close family friend, who could often be persuaded to tell us stories of her early years in Rhode Island and her days in the remote Yupik towns. When she died in January 2010, people came from all over Alaska to remember her warmth and great contributions to their lives and those of their children.