Retro recipes revisited: Tomato soup cake

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“Soup” and “cake” are two words you don’t often use together — even moreso when the soup in question is a bright red tomato soup.

For years, I’ve wondered about a recipe from 1950 for a “Magic tomato soup cake” (as well as a fruitcake version published in 1962), which sounded like something that would taste terrible. How did soup at all fit as an ingredient in a cake, of all things?

We know that way back when, people loved things like jello and aspic and mayonnaise, so I wondered if people back in the fifties and sixties just had different tastes. Or maybe the fact that this recipe existed was because so many fewer people ate out at restaurants, and craved variety in their home-cooked meals. Store-bought prepared foods and canned goods were getting more and more popular, and recipes featuring these products filled magazine and newspaper pages.

I wanted to find out whether this unusual dessert’s popularity way back when was for good reason… or if the fact that the recipe has all but vanished from modern-day cookbooks was a better indicator of its quality.

To discover that, I really had to taste-test the recipe to decide if this old-fashioned tomato soup cake still had some magic in it… or not.


Retro recipe revisited: Tomato soup cake

Flour and spices, with the tomato soup waiting for its moment

According to the directions, the flour needed to be sifted several times, so I did so to try to help make the cake as light as possible. (Note: I didn’t have cake flour, so I instead used all-purpose unbleached flour.)

Adding the tomato soup to the sugar mixture

This was the strangest step at all — pouring in a savory, saucy tomato soup to a sweet quick bread recipe!

The recipe didn’t say when to add the sugar mixture to the flour mix, so I added the soup (and baking soda) to the creamed sugar and butter in order to be able to complete the next step: combining the wet ingredients with the dry.

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Spreading the cake batter into a loaf pan

The batter came out very thick, even though I tried to be sure not to over-mix it. I had to make sure to spread it around to even it out, because I don’t think it would have found its own level before it started to really bake.

There are no eggs in this cake, per the recipe, but I wonder if it might have been a bit lighter with the addition of at least one egg. You can see here how heavy the batter was!

The baked loaf

For being called a cake, this recipe turned out a lot more like pumpkin bread — especially thanks to the inclusion of pumpkin-spice type spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. (It smelled pretty amazing while it cooked!)

This cake was heavy and dense, and you can still see some of the swirls from how I spread the raw batter.

After it had risen, cracked and turned a beautiful golden brown, I used a fork to check to see if it was done. It peaked a little ahead of schedule, and came out clean about 40 minutes into the 50 to 60 minute cooking time.

Vanilla cream cheese frosting

Rather than the chocolate cream cheese frosting mentioned in the recipe, I decided to use a plain cream cheese frosting (cream cheese, powdered sugar, vanilla, a little milk). I used a whole 8-ounce package of cream cheese, and ended up with enough frosting to cover three or four of these cakes.

This cake is not particularly sweet — probably because it relies on the frosting to balance the sweetness. After trying a little piece from the bottom of the cake, I decided to go ahead and add the frosting in a pretty thick layer… but I still had more than half of it left over!

The frosted and sliced tomato soup cake

It came out pretty well — a bit more dense than I expected, but still moist and mildly flavorful. (It could have used a lot more spice, I think.) The frosting hadn’t quite set when I cut the pieces, but that was really a factor of the frosting being quite soft overall, even though it tasted great.

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And the tomato soup part? Only slightly detectable. I had three people (warily) test the cake before they knew the secret ingredient, and none of them could figure it out (after all guessing pumpkin). My son said it tasted okay when he was eating it, but later noticed a bit of a tomato aftertaste, and the kid who eats almost everything actually turned down another slice.


Would you like a bite?

slice of Tomato soup cake

Bite of cake with frosting


And the final judgment

Overall verdict? I wanted to be pleasantly surprised… but I’m glad I kept my expectations low, because even then, they were only barely met.

The cake wasn’t bad (in fact, one family member really likes it), but it isn’t something I can’t see myself making again. The texture was fine, but the taste was just a little bit… off.

For something with this general kind of flavor and texture, I’d rather go with a pumpkin loaf, carrot cake or even zucchini bread. In other words, I’ll trade the bizarro factor for something tried-and-true. When it comes to desserts, I want to make sure every delicious bite is really worth the calories.

While I have no doubt that this bread would delight some of you out there, for 4 of the 5 people who tested this recipe in my house — including myself — the only good part was the cream cheese frosting. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is easy enough to spread on to cakes that don’t include soup.

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