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Poor Man's Cake

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I am a huge lover of Vintage Recipes. I think that there is a lot of value in these things. These are the kinds of recipes which our grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s would have cooked.
Simple recipes, composed of simple ingredients, put together in very simple ways.  Back in the days where things like raisins were considered a luxury item. 
We are so spoilt these days.  We virtually have a world full of ingredients at our fingertips, and beck and call.

When I was a child, my mother used to bake us a cake every Christmas which we loved called War Cake. You can find that recipe here.  
It makes a lovely moist raisin cake. This was a cake we always looked forward to enjoying every year. It was not Christmas without it! 
I stumbled onto this Poor Man’s Cake on the Old Farmer’s Almanac a week or so ago and it reminded me very much of my mother’s War Cake.  I was keen to try it out. As I said, I love anything Vintage, both in the home and in cooking.
I didn’t want a huge 9 by 13 inch cake however, with there only being one of me in the house and not having a lot of company these days. I decided to cut the recipe in half with excellent results.

This is a fabulous cake.  Stuffed with plenty of raisins, nicely spiced and perfect for enjoying alongside of hot cups of tea, herbal or otherwise.  

This is a Depression Era cake, brought forth by need during the Great Depression of the 1930′s when things that cooks normally baked with were scarce.  Things like milk, butter, eggs.
Indeed there is no need for any of those things in this cake. It is a milk, egg and butter-free cake.  You would think it would be dry, but it really isn’t!


Most of these ingredients can be found right in your larder, or pantry, whatever you call it. You can also add walnuts if you have them. They will only add to the deliciousness of the cake.  Toast them first. 
  • brown sugar
  • hot water
  • all purpose flour
  • raisins
  • salt
  • shortening
  • baking soda
  • ground cinnamon
  • ground cloves

As you can see there is nothing really fancy here. If you are opposed to using shortening you can use an equal amount of butter. The cake will be richer tasting.  And as I said, feel free to add some toasted walnuts.  Just a handful.  Yum!! 

I strongly suspect the recipe is even older than the depression.  It sounds very much like the cake which was mentioned in a book I loved as a child.  The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, by Margaret Sidney.
Written in 1881 it was a book about the Pepper Family. They were very poor. Mrs Pepper was a widow and worked all day to support her family.  The oldest daughter Polly and her brother Ben, being largely left in charge of their younger siblings. 

I remember reading about Polly baking a cake for their mother’s birthday and it sounded very much like this one, filled with raisins and flavored with cinnamon.
It was a very humble cake and ended up more burnt than anything else, but to my child’s mind’s eye it did sound delicious, and they decorated it with a paper ruffle and a candle.
That whole book made me grateful more than anything else for being able to live in a time and a home where what we had was plenty in comparison to what those poor children had.

This is a very simple cake to make. You need to begin by boiling some raisins in a quantity of water.  This helps to really plump the raisins up and makes for a lovely moist cake.
You will be adding the brown sugar, spices and the shortening to the water in which the raisins are boiled.  I used dark raisins.

You then need to let the raisin mixture cool down until it is lukewarm. You don’t want to be mixing the flour into it when it is hot.
I strongly suspect that this would make a tough cake. The brown sugar also adds to the moisture. Most cakes that contain brown sugar are nice and moist.

Once the raisin mixture has cooled down you can stir in the flour and baking soda.  In those days they always dissolved the baking soda in a bit of hot water.
The primary reason for doing this was so that the soda was more evenly distributed in the mixture.  There is nothing so nasty as getting a mouthful of bicarbonate of soda.  YUCK!

It doesn’t take very long to bake. My mom’s war cake takes a lot longer, but then again, it is a much larger, deeper cake.
You do need to let it cool in the pan. This also adds to the moistness of the cake.  As you can see it doesn’t rise very tall, which means it is a somewhat dense cake, but trust me when I tell you that you won’t mind in the least.

I remember mom’s War Cake with special fondness. She went to a great effort every year to get these large sticky seeded raisins. I have not seen those in years.
I am not sure why, but they had to be those particular raisins.  Perhaps because that is what they had always used in this cake.  
I strongly suspect this cake was baked mostly during the holidays and was meant to replace fruit cake, which would have required many more ingredients, and perhaps not fit within the budget of many people, especially during the Great Depression.

Although I would think that coming up with 1 whole cup of brown sugar would have been a bit of a struggle also. That’s why I don’t think it is a War time cake. 
During the War years nobody would have wanted to waste a whole cup of their sugar ration in one cake, unless it was a very special occasion indeed. 
I know in England after the War, when Queen Elizabeth was getting married, people were sending in their ration cards to help to accumulate all of the ingredients for her wedding cake.  Things were still being strictly rationed then and were for quite some time after.

Anyways, this is a lovely simple cake. Moist and dense.  Nicely filled with plenty of raisins and just enough spice. 
It went down really lovely with a hot cup of mandarin orange and spice herbal tea. Yes, I did dunk. Doesn’t everyone?

Poor Man’s Cake (aka War Cake)

Yield: 1 (8-inch) layer cakes
Author: Marie Rayner
Prep time: 30 MinCook time: 30 MinTotal time: 1 Hour
A deliciously moist fruited cake from the days of rationing when eggs and butter were in short supply.
  • 1 cup (200g) brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup (240ml) hot water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 TBS vegetable shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups (230g) raisins
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 cups (210g) plain all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 teaspoon hot water
To finish: (pick one, all optional)
  • vanilla butter cream
  • cream cheese frosting
  • icing sugar to dust
  1. Preheat the oven to 350*f/180*C/ gas mark 4. Grease an 8-inch round baking pan.
  2. Combine brown sugar, hot water, salt, shortening, raisins, and spices in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
  3. Stir in the flour and dissolved baking powder. Mix well together and then pour into the prepared pan.
  4. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan.
  5. Frost, if desired with either a vanilla buttercream or a cream cheese frosting. We like it plain, as is, dusted (or not) with icing sugar, along side hot cups of tea.
Did you make this recipe?
Tag @marierayner5530 on instagram and hashtag it #marierayner5530

This content (written and photography) is the sole property of The English Kitchen. Any reposting or misuse is not permitted. If you are reading this elsewhere, please know that it is stolen content and you may report it to me at: mariealicejoan at aol dot com 

Debunking the myths of English Cookery, one recipe at a time.
The English Kitchen


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