It’s been called Crazy Cake, Wacky Cake, and War Cake among other names, all with the same basic concept: a sweet dessert with no eggs, butter, or milk. While versions of it existed during WWI (hence the name “War Cake”), the Great Depression of the 1930s rebirthed it as Crazy Cake. Rich, moist, and chocolatey, this dish was the result of food substitution at its finest.
The Origin Of Crazy Cake
During the Great Depression, many ingredients became scarce. Families had little money, and hardworking wives and mothers had to stretch their resources. While some families lived on unaffected farms with access to eggs, butter, and milk, others did not. If they wanted to add a dessert at the end of their meal, they’d need to get creative.
Women learned how to substitute cheaper ingredients for those higher-priced or too precious to use regularly. Sugar and flour, on the other hand, were a quick, fast way to provide calories with little money or effort. Thus, Crazy Cake was born. This recipe substituted cake essentials with cheaper ingredients that would still make it rise and retain moisture. (1)
Chef Michael Zebrowski, commenting on Crazy Cake to TODAY Food, explains how the ingredient substitution works. “Butter usually serves to keep cake soft and tender by coating the flour in fat,” he said, “preventing it from developing a tough gluten matrix.” In a Crazy Cake recipe, vegetable oil does the trick instead with similar results. Eggs are replaced with a combination of baking soda and vinegar. Zebrowski notes that this combination “foams up quickly, making the cake light and fluffy.” Water can then be added instead of milk for moisture, with coffee being an alternative choice. During the Depression, coffee was actually plentiful and could be added to stretch foods. (2)
A Baking Revival
When most of the globe went on lockdown during the Spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, many turned to baking as a means of stress reduction. Some supplies were initially scarce, as citizens panic-bought pantry staples, and some flow of product was interrupted. With jobs lost and uncertainty looming, many looked to the past for ideas on how to get by.
With the hope of a vaccine still unsure and the weather turning colder, many people are turning back to baking as a way to create comfort. Crazy Cake is a great option for an easy, affordable afternoon project and a fun recipe to make with the kids. Mixed all in one bowl and baked in a pan, Crazy Cake can be topped with frosting, cream, or ice cream for a delicious depression-era treat.
Crazy Cake Recipe
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 Tbsp. cocoa (unsweetened)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. white vinegar
- 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 5 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 cup water (or coffee)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Mix flour, cocoa, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a greased, 8″ square baking pan.
- Making 3 depressions in the dry mixture–two small, and one larger. In one depression pour vinegar and vanilla in the other. In the largest depression, pour vegetable oil.
- Pour water (or coffee) over the entire mixture and mix until the batter is smooth.
- Bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick, when inserted, comes out clean.
- Cool and top with a frosting of your choice! (3)
Recipe from Sweet Little Bluebird
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