Depression Cake

Dec. 21st 2012
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 recipeĀ  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!

Facebook Link

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