No eggs, milk or butter? 'Depression cake' is making a comeback

This Depression-era recipe has become a trend among quarantine bakers.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Ronnie Koenig

If you've been passing the time during the quarantine by stress baking, but you're quickly running out of dairy, don't worry. You can make this simple-yet-delicious "depression cake" that doesn't require milk, butter or even eggs.

Also known as "wacky cake," the recipe calls for flour, sugar and cocoa powder, plus a few other pantry staples. You can stir it up in one bowl and when it's done, finish with powdered sugar, whipped cream or nothing at all. The result is a sinfully delicious cake that's a crowd-pleaser (or in this case, quarantine-pleaser!).

The cake, which gets its name from the cakes baked during the Great Depression when rations were limited, is currently making a big comeback as many home bakers are searching for recipes that are tasty but also extremely adaptable.

Chef Michael Zebrowski, lecturing instructor, baking & pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America, told TODAY Food that the trick of the "depression cake" is that it substitutes cheaper ingredients that still get the same jobs done for more expensive ones.

"Butter usually serves to keep cake soft and tender by coating the flour in fat and preventing it from developing a tough gluten matrix," he explained. "In this recipe, butter is replaced with vegetable oil, which can achieve a similar effect, but with significantly less cost."

Zebrowski noted that eggs usually help leaven cakes and give them structure but they can easily be replaced, too. "Here, the eggs are replaced with a combination of vinegar and baking soda, which foams up quickly, making the cake light and fluffy."

Tracy Wilk, lead chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, told TODAY that "depression cake" is actually pretty similar to a vegan cake, and that many older cake recipes (like red velvet) use oil because it keeps cakes moist and is less expensive.

"Look around to see what’s in your kitchen," Wilk suggested. "You don't have butter? Try oil. I recommend you use a neutral oil, like canola or vegetable so you don’t pass a flavor onto your cake. When I bake at home and my recipe calls for milk, I usually end up using a non-dairy milk because that’s what I keep in my fridge for coffee. Once you understand the science of baking, recipes are merely just suggestions."

Emily Luchetti, Executive Pastry Chef for Marlowe, Park Tavern, and The Cavalier Restaurants in San Francisco told TODAY that the "depression cake" is one that many pastry chefs across the country have in their repertoire.

"This cake is quick and easy to make — one bowl, no mixer,"she said. "You can add chocolate chips and cover it with whipped cream, ganache, peanut butter cream cheese frosting. Pretty much anything works," she said. Luchetti added that she's tried using water or coffee in the recipe, which gives it an extra intensity.

Her best advice to home bakers is to relax: "If it comes out of the oven a bit goopy, put it in bowl and call it a pudding," she said. "Too dry, break into pieces and serve with fresh cream or ice cream."

Try this version, featured on Salon.com:

Ingredients:

  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (or black cocoa)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup cooled brewed coffee (or water)

Instructions:

  1. Preheat to 375°F. Grease an 8-inch round or square pan.
  2. Mix the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt and the sugar. Poke three holes into the mix. Pour the vanilla, vinegar, and oil into each hole.
  3. Add the coffee and stir the ingredients until well blended. Add to the pan.
  4. Bake for 35 minutes, or until the top is set but springy. Cool the cake in the pan, then top with the frosting of your choice or enjoy plain.