Cooking, Family, Food and Drink, Friendship, History, Recipes

Friday Food and Drink Post: Have Your (War) Cake and Eat It, Too

To commemorate the 74th anniversary of V-J Day on August 15, herewith, a couple of family recipes for War Cake a more-or-less appetizing (de gustibus, and all that) sop to the sweet tooth of the war-weary denizens from the Old and New Worlds. One is from 1942 and was shared with me by a friend in the early 1970s, and the other we found handwritten on a slip of paper that fell out of my grandmother’s favorite cookbook when we were sorting out her stuff after she died. It and the paper it’s written on are of sufficient antiquity that it’s quite possible this one is from WWI. Our guess is that it was sent to Granny by the branch of the family that emigrated to British Columbia; hence its name, Canadian Cake (click to embiggen):

War cakes were made with basic ingredients, usually ones that kept well, and ones which could be stockpiled until there were enough of them to splurge on such a treat. They were usually very light on fresh ingredients and egg and dairy products, including butter, most of which were consumed as soon as possible, and others’ rations of which were often given to children. Plain fats, likely those rendered from other cooking projects were kept and used–lard, suet, bacon (if you could get it) grease, newer and cheaper fats such as margarine and shortening–whatever could be obtained or kept long enough for the purpose.

And when you had enough, you got your bowls and pans out, preheated your oven (coal, coke, wood, sometimes gas, and increasingly electric) to a “moderate” heat (350F-375F) and went to town.

The second War Cake recipe I have is this one:

8 oz brown sugar
4 oz shortening
2 cups boiling water
10 oz seeded raisins
1 teaspoon salt

Boil the above ingredients gently together for ten minutes. Then cool.

1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon ginger
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 lb flour

Mix. Pour into loaf pan and bake in slow oven, 2 hours at 275F.

I’m not suggesting you try these. They’re a bit of an acquired taste. They both have quite the “fruitcake” vibe, and Lord knows I’ve done my turn in the barrel defending fruitcake too many times on the Internet not to know how that conversation usually goes.

But the fact of the matter is that people have been inventing, adjusting, and improvising with recipes since time immemorial, to use what they had, what was left over, what they could scrounge, what they could afford, eliminating what they didn’t like, and adding what they did. They’ve been substituting when they ran out, having brilliant (and not so brilliant) ideas for new and delicious (and not so delicious) dishes for hundreds of thousands of years. Where else do you think such old-time British delicacies as cold boiled mutton, toad in the hole, bubble and squeak, and haggis, came from? They didn’t come from a people with French chefs and bottomless privilege, that’s for sure.

It’s gratifying and inspiring when our kitchen experiments work. It can be devastating or hilarious when they don’t. Maybe its time to share some of those recipes. Your creative challenges. That time you made a mouth-watering meal which arose, like a phoenix from the ashes, out of an about-to-expire selection of leftovers in the fridge. That one-dish-wonder you made completely from canned food. (No peas, please. There will be no tinned peas on this thread.) Times you’ve had to think on your feet to rescue a recipe, or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the kitchen. Times when things have worked brilliantly. And times when things haven’t gone so well. Think of it as cooking therapy. We’re not here to judge you (well, except for the peas). Have at it.

Just don’t overdo it. You’ll probably know when you’ve gone too far:

PS: That V-J Day business? Thank you, all those who served in the cause of freedom, before, during, and since. I don’t forget.

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