Depression Cake

21/12/12 10:35 PM

Mildred Johnson"Grandma Johnson"

Mildred Johnson
“Grandma Johnson”

This Sunday will be my husband’s birthday. Each year, Brett looks forward to just one thing; a cake that his grandmother made him every year since he can remember. Even when he left home in 1982 to join the Navy, Grandma Johnson would bake this cake and ship it to where ever he was station. When she passed away in 1997, I pick up where she left off.

The cake that she would make was called an “Eggless, Butterless, Milkless Cake“. What it really is a Depression Era cake. Depression cakes, also known as “War Cakes” date back to World War I. The recipeΒ  was in a pamphlet distributed by the United States Food Administration in 1918 entitled “War Economy in Food“. War Cakes are listed under “Recipes for Conservation Sweets.” The United States Food Administration stressed the importance of reducing sugar consumption during the war and offered molasses, corn syrup and raisins in its place.

When the Great Depression hit the United States just after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, families were forced to stretch their budgets and to “make do” with minimal or cheaper ingredients. Desserts become a luxury for most and Depression Cakes were more affordable alternative to other cakes that used milk, eggs and butter.

It was through ingredient substitutions that made this possible. For example, shortening was substituted for butter, water for milk and baking powder for eggs. Some women took full advantage of the practice by making mock foods such as mock apple pies and mock fish. There were some women who were so good at this that they were able to feed their families on just $5 per week!

Radio shows and women’s periodicals played a large role in circulating the recipes during the Great Depression. “Betty Crocker’s Cooking Hour” was one such show that provided women with budget-friendly recipes.

A common Depression Cake is also known as “Boiled Raisin Cake” or “Eggless, Butterless, Milkless Cake“. “Boiled” refers to the boiling of raisins with the sugar and spice to make a syrup base early in the recipe. Boiled raisin cakes date back at least to the American Civil War.

Eggless, Butterless, Milkless Cake


2 cups brown sugar

2 cups boiling water

4 Tablespoons shortening (I use Crisco)

1 large box of seedless raisins (not small individual boxes) about 2 cups

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ground clove, heaping

2 teaspoons cinnamon, heaping

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 Tablespoon lukewarm water

2 cups sifted self-rising flour


Preheat oven to 325 degrees


In a medium size sauce pan, bring water to a boil.


Add brown sugar and shortening. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add raisins, salt, cinnamon and cloves and allow to boil for 5 minutes.


Take off the heat and cool for 30 minutes.


While the syrup is cooling, grease and flour a standard Bundt cake pan.


After 30 minutes, in a small bowl, add baking soda and lukewarm water. Stir to dissolve the baking soda. Pour this mixture into the cooled syrup in the same pan. You will see the baking soda start to foam.





Add the flour and stir with a spoon.


Once combined, pour into your greased Bundt pan, making sure that the batter is even around.

Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove and cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool on a rack. You may need to slightly run a butter knife around the edge of the cake to loosen before trying to remove it from the pan. This makes it easier to remove.

Eggless Butterless Milkless Cake


Make sure you keep your favorite cookie recipe handy after the holidays!

Something really special is coming in January!

To see other foods we have posted, please visit our Facebook Page and view our “Food” album!

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 96 Comments »

96 Comments on “Depression Cake”

  1. John Says:

    Looks very tasty, great reading. πŸ™‚

  2. Thank you!

  3. Fascinating cake, looks beautiful and really delicious, it’s vegan, I have made a vegan chocolate cake that I think could be considered depression cake too. Happy Birthday to Brett!

  4. Sound really good! Thank you! Brett loves this cake. Every time I make, the kids say, “It must be Christmas!”

  5. terry1954 Says:

    that really looks pretty easy. it is nice in color. i make a mayonaise cake that takes no eggs either. so good and soft

  6. I have used mayonnaise in place of eggs before in biscuits. It was a recipe my mother use to make at home. Now that I have the box of recipes, I am going to have to see if I can find it.

  7. terry1954 Says:

    yes i would be interested in that!

  8. Lynda Says:

    Interesting! I never heard of the mayonnaise in place of the eggs, but I have used it to replace half the butter or shortening in chocolate cake. It makes the cake more moist!

  9. Sandra Says:

    Looks great. I must try this.

  10. Thank you! Brett loves it. I generally don’t get a bite of it. When he went to lay down tonight, it was still in the oven. He told me that when he gets up in the morning, he is going to have a slice for breakfast and then have seconds.

  11. Lynda Says:

    This looks like a delicious and amazing recipe. I look forward to trying it. Maybe for New Years day. Thanks for sharing!

  12. You are so welcome! It is a great cake for the Holidays.

  13. I love this! Anything in a bundt pan is so festive. Historical food is fascinating me at the moment. AHundredYearsAgo on WordPress has been writing about the candy her grandmother might have made in 1912. Yum! Thanks for the post.

  14. Thank you! I love to combine two of my favorite subjects, history and food! I will have to look up that one and take a look! Thank you for letting me know.

  15. I adore that blog…She is showing us her grandmother’s diary and sort of explaining stuff. It’s very cool. Have you guys had your soft opening yet? Excuse my geographic ignorance but you aren’t in that area that the NY Times travel section just featured, are you? There were some other historic VA homes in that article and I thought of you!

  16. Thank you! We haven’t had the “Soft Opening” yet. We are hoping to have it on March 16th if we can get things together in time. No, we weren’t in the feature. We are located just south of Fredericksburg (20 miles) and south of DC (about 60 miles).

  17. So you are closer than the place in that feature? Sorry to be so weak in geography! Shocking really. Happy holidays.

  18. I am guessing that it was a Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia, but not our Belle Grove. There are three in Virginia. Two are related. Ours and one in Middletown, Virginia. The one in Middletown was built in 1797 by Isaac Hite and his wife, Nellie Madison Hite. Nelly was the sister of James Madison. When she built her home, she decided to name it after “Mama’s plantation” which would be our Belle Grove. James and Nellie’s mom, Nellie Conway Madison was born on our plantation just as her son, James. Our plantation has been around a little longer than the one in Middletown though.

  19. Aha! Good to know.

  20. Reblogged this on The Gardens of Boxwood Manor's Blog and commented:
    a wonderful idea!

  21. Looks yummy! Happy birthday!

  22. Thank you! Brett said yes it was. πŸ˜‰

  23. shofar Says:

    Looks yummy! Lucky man that Brett! I love the story of the cake!

  24. Thank you! Brett said yes it was.

  25. gardeniahung Says:

    A Magical Recipe For Brett’s Happy Birthday Anniversary This Weekend. Season’s Greetings and Best Wishes For A Prosperous and Joyous New Year 2013 For All of You at the Belle Grove Plantation!

  26. Thank you so much! We wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year!

  27. Ankit Says:

    This would perhaps show the birth of veganism in the early 20th century
    great cake

  28. Haha that could be! Thank you!

  29. Labrynthe Says:

    This looks great! I love “Granny” recipes!

  30. Thank you! Yes, you can find so much in their recipes!

  31. Labrynthe Says:

    And they’re always a sure hit too!

  32. πŸ™‚

  33. In the 1960s and 70s our family used to receive a cake just like this from relatives in Sag Harbour (but with considerably more eggs and butter I think). We always looked forward to our parcel from America, especially because as children we’d never seen a cake with a hole in it before! Thanks for reviving the memories.

  34. Haha, Brett had a laugh about the hole in the cake. You are so welcome! Thank you for stopping by and Merry Christmas from Virginia!

  35. Thank you for sharing this recipe. It sounds delicious and I will have try it. God bless and Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  36. Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation! You are so welcome! Brett loves it.

  37. kayjayaitch Says:

    A very interesting recipe. I have just discovered an eggless cake recipe in my cookbook. It is a wartime recipe (WWII) which I shall be posting with some other egg related recipes, also involving dried egg, in the new year.
    I shall have to give this one a try anyway.
    Merry Christmas

  38. We hope you will enjoy the cake as much as Brett does! Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  39. Curly Carly Says:

    Very interesting!

  40. Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  41. Jane Sadek Says:

    Happy Birthday Brett!

  42. Brett says Thank you! Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  43. Thank you very much – it looks so interesting – I must try it!!! Happy Birthday to your husband!!!

  44. Brett says thank you! Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  45. sarahlouisek Says:

    Looks wonderful. Is it like a bundt cake, or heavy like a fruit cake? When I was a kid, my grandmother always made me an angel food cake for my birthday. It takes all egg whites, so the next day she would make a sun cake, which takes all yolks.

  46. Its like a bundt cake, but just a little heavier. But not as heavy as a fruit cake. Yum Angel Food! Ooo, I want those recipes!

  47. sarahlouisek Says:

    Will let you know if I come across them. Plan to check your site every so often for progress on the B&B, sounds exciting. Would love to stay there sometime. Happy birthday to Brett!

  48. Thank you! I look forward to seeing them if you do. Brett says thank you too. Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  49. sarahlouisek Says:

    Hi Michelle, do you have a contact form in case I find those recipes? I am new to WordPress and blogging, and learning as I go. (For example, I just wrote a post that was meant to post in the future, but went live today, ack! I just withdrew it. I think…)
    Thanks, Sarah

  50. You can email us at or find us on Facebook at

  51. Dawn Says:

    Happy Birthday and all the holidays as well.

  52. Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  53. adinparadise Says:

    Happy Birthday to your husband, and a Merry Christmas to you all. πŸ™‚

  54. Thank heaven for memories and tradition. We had similar recipes in the UK; I think ours was just called Ration Cake. Happy Birthday to your husband and Merry, Happy and Peaceful Holidays to you and yours.

  55. I think the Ration Cake is about the same. Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  56. Reblogged this on First Night Design and commented:
    Some traditions have to sustained. This ‘Depression Cake’ recipe should be very useful at a time when we’re all struggling to survive on so little.

  57. tinatimebomb Says:

    Merry Christmas! You have won the STAR Award ….go to my link and check it out……

  58. Thank you so much for sharing us with your readers! It really means a lot to us! Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  59. tinatimebomb Says:

    You are so very welcome! (((hugs)))

  60. (((Hugs))) back at ya! πŸ˜‰

  61. When I saw the title, I had a suspicion. When I read the recipe: BINGO! In my family, we call this Boil Cake, and make it for Christmas most years (I didn’t this year. Shame on me.) My grandmother used to also call it Poor Man’s Fruit Cake….although it seems more popular than fruit cake! Since she was just learning to cook during WWI, it makes sense she would not have called it Depression Cake.. she was making it before the Great Depression.

    MERRY CHRISTMAS, Michelle and Brett!

  62. I love your story! How cool! Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  63. colmel Says:

    Sounds terrific! My grandmother probably made this too. She never left this recipe, but she did leave the recipe for the best brownies I’ve ever eaten. Maybe I’ll have to share those in my blog one day.

  64. Now you have our recipe! I do want the brownies recipe someday!

  65. I hope Betty Crocker saved those recipes we may need them again!! I like cooking from our PA grange cookbook most were depression era recipes. My mother had plenty of “meatless” or what we jokingly call poor man meals but they are delicious and have always been a favorite in our home. Can’t wait to try this cake recipe.

  66. I need some of those recipes! Of course breakfast is more eggs than meat πŸ˜‰ Thank you and Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  67. Hubs has a cookbook of UK Depression-era meals..including mock marzipan. I’ll see if it’s close to hand

  68. cool!

  69. Merry Christmas and blessings for a wonderful New Year.

  70. πŸ™‚

  71. Jen Says:

    Oh, cool! I’ve a recipe very similar to this which I found in a WWII-era cookbook, and it is fun to makeβ€”though I’ve never put it into a bundt pan! Good idea! Merry Christmas to you both. πŸ™‚

  72. Thank you! Its the first and only recipe I have ever had from WWI or WWII. Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  73. marydpierce Says:

    I have never heard of ‘Depression’ cake. I love how much I learn by reading your blog! (And I’m going to try the recipe. It looks so good.) πŸ™‚

  74. You know until I met Brett, I had never heard of it either. Hope you enjoy the cake. Thank you! Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  75. Fascinating! I have never seen a recipe for a Depression Cake and this was such an interesting read! Also great to see the finished product and to learn that it is delicious.

  76. You know I had never heard of them until I met Brett. But he loves the cake so I keep making it for him. Keeps him around. πŸ˜‰ Thank you! Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  77. jmount43 Says:

    Hey, I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Check out my post at
    for details about what to do should you accept. Congratulations!

  78. Thank you so much! We really appreciate you sharing us with your readers! It means so much to us! Merry Christmas from Virginia and Belle Grove Plantation!

  79. grahammb Says:

    That is fascinating! I’ve always been interested in the Depression because I think the lacks built great character. Thanks for sharing such an interesting post!

  80. You are so welcome! The Depression isn’t one of the historic periods that I have done much research on. But knowing what my grandmother told me, I could see how it built character! Thank you!

  81. hermitsdoor Says:

    Good to keep up traditions. Happy B-Day Brett.

  82. Thank you Oscar! Brett says thank you too!

  83. Happy Birthday Brett. Cake looks great!

  84. Brett says thank you!

  85. Lee Says:

    You splurged on yours. Ours was called “Poor Man’s Cake” and had the same ingredients, but not the shortning.

  86. Wow, its amazing how many different recipes there are of one cake. Thank you!

  87. Lisa Says:

    Thank you for sharing the recipe! I can’t wait to try it too! I absolutely love the story that goes with the recipe too!!

  88. Thank you! It is an annual cake we make every year now. The family just loves it! We hope you will like it too!

  89. Carolyn Chan Says:

    Hello ! I have finally found some time to read your blog – I’ve been meaning to for soooo long but work and family has eaten any of my spare time. Anyway, thanks for sharing this cake recipe – I love the story behind it as well !

  90. Thank you Carolyn! We do understand about time too. It seems as we get closer and closer to the opening date, the less and less time we seem to have. We are glad that you liked the cake recipe. It is such a tradition in our house. It’s almost like the signal that Christmas is here.

  91. swabby429 Says:

    Interesting coincidence…My grandma Johnson’s name was Mildred, too.

  92. Oh wow! That is so cool! Does she bake “Eggless, Butterless, Milkless Cake” too?

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