By AJ Dronkers
One of my life’s great fortunes was that I knew my great-grandmother, Caroline. She was a part of my life until I was 12 years old, and in my earliest recollections I remember sharing a real connection with her instantly. She performed and sang live on radio back in the early days. When I knew her as young boy, she lived in a house with an overflowing teddy bear collection, lugging around an oxygen machine through rooms that, of course, smelled of cigarette smoke.
So even though she grappled with the setbacks of age and bad health, Caroline was incredibly upbeat. We sat side-by-side on the piano bench while she played and sang, breathless by the end. She would make drinks with her vintage stirrers (I was obsessed!) from Vegas, offer me treats from her ceramic cookie jar and make delicious spaghetti dinners. I felt incredibly special when she made ice cream cones, taking particular care to stuff the ice cream all the way to the base of the cone so every last bite was just perfect.
Caroline lived through the Great Depression and knew how to make a little go a long way. She also passed down a recipe to my grandmother and my mother for Tomato Soup Cake. Disclaimer: I usually don’t tell people the name when I serve it so they keep an open mind. This Depression-era recipe essentially tastes like a delicious spice cake with the benefit of only needing a little butter. Lacking other hard-to-find ingredients like eggs and milk that were often short in supply back then, tomato soup offers the moisture this cake needs. There have been many iterations of this recipe over the years and, at one point, cream cheese frosting was introduced as a topper, which is how I like to serve it.
Mix the ingredients and use a 9- by 13-inch pan for a sheet cake, or use 2 (8-inch) rounds and stack them.
Tomato Soup Cake
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 (10½-ounce) cans of 10.5 Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
2 pinches cloves
1 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Prepare baking pan(s) with butter and flour, or spray with nonstick product.
Mix together sugar and butter first then add soup until butter is dissolved; set aside. Mix together all dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Add the raisins and walnuts.
Add the soup mixture to the flour mixture, stirring by hand till everything is mixed together. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.
Depending on the size of the pan, bake for 40 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon whole milk, and more as needed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
16 ounces confectioners’ sugar
Beat the cream cheese with the milk and extract in a medium bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Slowly beat in the confectioners’ sugar until the frosting has the desired consistency. The icing needs to be stiff, so my tip is to only use 1 tablespoon of milk to start and then add more as needed.