Heirloom Recipes

Ruthie's Tomato Soup Cake

by • March 10, 2014 49 Comments

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Every other week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.

Today: Food52 Assistant Editor Marian Bull shares her grandmother's recipe for a spice cake with a not-so-secret ingredient. 

Tomato Soup Cake on Food52

I was supposed to find a picture of my grandmother roughly five weeks ago. 

I never got around to it, until a few days back, when I frantically emailed an aunt and an uncle asking for an image, any image, of their mother.

What I received was a photo of my grandmother Ruthie, lounging on a beach, somewhere on Boston's North Shore. Her mouth is big, like mine. She's wearing a killer pair of sunglasses, and she's clearly having the most fun. The photo isn't as elegant or as clear as I was hoping for, but it's all I have, so it will have to do. 

Ruthie on Food52

I leave things until the last minute; I get this from my lovely mother. Who, in turn, got much of her charm and compassion and freakish capacity for unconditional love from her mother, Ruthie. She died before I was born, but I carry her name proudly between my first and last.  

An Irish Catholic mother of seven whose husband died, too young, from a heart attack, the woman lives on in all of our minds as a saint. She raised seven (loud, rambunctious) children with grace; worked tirelessly; always had an eye out for those around town in need. She brought an Irish sensibility to her resolution to keep going. She put corned beef and cabbage on the table each St. Patrick's Day. And she made this tomato soup cake.

Tomato Soup Cake on Food52

Which, I know, sounds scary. It sounds like it's trying, ostensibly, to push your boundaries, to eke you out of your comfort zone; but it's more resourceful than avant garde, more humble than hilarious. It's more Betty Crocker than Andy Warhol.

The story goes that Irish immigrants devised this cake from a lack of fresh ingredients -- it calls for no milk, no butter. You'll only open your fridge once, to retrieve two eggs; this recipe pays more attention to your spice drawer, and tastes like something you might come across over the holidays. But I suggest you serve it year round.

Tomato Soup Cake on Food52

Soup cake is my lone heirloom recipe. I'm proud of its freakishness, its humility. It's an embrace of a cake, and then a joke; a hug and a laugh, just the way I imagine Ruthie would welcome me into her home, had she ever been given the chance. 

Tomato Soup Cake

Makes one 2-layer, 10-inch cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
One 10 3/4-ounce can tomato soup
1/2 cup shortening (or butter)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup water
1 cup raisins
Cream cheese frosting

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Cake photos by James Ransom

Tags: heirloom recipes, family recipes, tomato soup, cake, dessert, irish, boston,

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Comments (49)

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10 months ago Marylyn

Marylyn
My Mother used to make this cake along with Poor Man's Cake. I loved both of them. I just bought Campbell's Tomato Soup today and will make it tomorrow. I can't wait to see how my husband and kids and grandkids like it. What wonderful memories this has brought back for me. Thanks for sharing.

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11 months ago Tiffany Kampmann

The writing of this article was extremely charming and enjoyable! I'm not intimidated either, I'm ready to take this cake on! Thank you for sharing both recipe and story

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about 1 year ago audrey thompson

i think i will bake this for Mothers Day and remember....my Mom made ours with peanut butter icing

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over 1 year ago Hilary Friedrich

Would this be really strange with chocolate chips? My husband is not a big raisin fan.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Rare are the days when I say no to a chocolate chip. I say give it a try.

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over 1 year ago SophieL

I made this cake yesterday afternoon on an impulse because I had all the ingredients on hand, and boy, was it a hit at dinner. The only change I made was baking it in a 13x9" pan for 40 minutes. BTW, my batter was more brownish than pink, but no matter - it was delicious. I took it to work today and people couldn't stop eating it. It's a keeper!

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

So happy to hear this!

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over 1 year ago Carole lynn

Go to this website to see the original. http://www.foodchannel...

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over 1 year ago melissa

now all we need is the apple pie made with no apples and ritz crackers !! depression era food

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Tell me more.

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over 1 year ago diaday

I haven't purchased a box of Ritz in a long time, but this recipe used to be on the back of the box. It's called Ritz Mock Apple Pie. http://www.snackworks.com...

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over 1 year ago Jane Eyrehead

I like this comment thread. Everyone seems to have an emotional attachment to this recipe. That's why it's important to share food, recipes, fun.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Totally agreed!

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over 1 year ago kate72

OMG! My grandmother used to make this when I was a little kid, minus the cream cheese frosting because she hated dairy. I always loved this cake but never got around to asking her for the recipe before she died. I'll definetely be making this cake soon. thanks for the memories ;)

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

I love hearing how many people ate this growing up! Hope you enjoy trying it again.

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over 1 year ago Carole lynn

I still have those sun glasses and a bathing suit sort of like the one she is wearing. Eating too much cake has made it impossible to fit into but the glasses can still remind me of Atlantic City in the 50s and 60s. All they needed was bongo drums and it could have been a picture of our crowd in front of the Ambassador Hotel.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Love this story!

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over 1 year ago Anna

I will think of your Grandmother when I make this!

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Thank you!

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over 1 year ago karen

My grandmother made this cake and served it with cream cheese frosting. Good memories.

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over 1 year ago Carole lynn

The earliest reference in print for this cake was an article in the Los Angeles Times newspaper dated September 18, 1928 in a class taught by Mrs. Maybelle Wyman. This cake was very popular in the early 1920s also.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Wow, good to know! Thanks!

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over 1 year ago melissa

my grandfather disliked tomatoes and cheese ,it was always a secret as to how my grandmother made his favorite cake .. this brought back wonderful memories.. thank you

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

How funny!

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over 1 year ago stingraystirs

I love the sunglasses too! Gina - do you have a recipe for that eggless, butter less-milkless cake? Just curious. And thanks again Marian. I made your recipe and it was a hit. Still on the hunt for my Grandmother's, which I'm sure is very similar, if not identical. I put an A.P.B. out within my family for the tattered, stained recipe card I remember it being on. A cousin remembers a Campbell's soup can label taped to a greeting card. I'll keep you posted….

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

This might be the one! http://food52.com/recipes...

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over 1 year ago gina graff

This recipe, and its WWII cousin recipe, Eggless-butterless-milkless cake, were the birthday cakes I always asked for as a kid.
I would KILL for those sunglasses.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

I wonder if that's the Amazon cake you're referring to? http://food52.com/recipes...

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over 1 year ago GraceMargriet

This sounds delicious and interesting! I am in Europe and I am curious what canned tomato soup I should use. And if I can find it here.. Was it Campbell's? (which I find a bit sweet compared to the canned soup we find here)

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Yes, Ruthie used Campbell's!

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over 1 year ago Sam

Great Tomato Cake Recipe. What I love even more than the recipe is the very affectionately you speak of you grandmother. It's very refreshing.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Thank you, Sam!

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over 1 year ago debbie holland

Sam is right - its not only the ingredients but also the love that went into everything you grandmother cooked. I had a grandmother like that too. Thanks for sharing.

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over 1 year ago Shelley Loader

OMG, my mom used to make a recipe that appears to be just like this one, back in the 70's. She wasn't a very good cook, but this was one of her recipes that I LOVED!

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over 1 year ago Hilary Friedrich

You don't know how happy you have made me with this recipe. My grandmother used to make us tomato spice bread. Same as your cake without the frosting. I was born in 1960 and I think she was about 75 then. I'm still trying to figure out her jello mayo recipe.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Wow, jello mayo! I'm so glad that this cake made you happy!

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over 1 year ago Jane Eyrehead

This was the "hippie-go-bake" cake of San Francisco in the 'sixties. Someone must have received the recipe from Grandma.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

"Hippie-go-bake" is now my new favorite phrase.

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over 1 year ago Jane Eyrehead

Seriously, the recipe was printed in one of the counterculture papers under that name. We all made the cake. I lost the recipe years ago, but this appears to be the very thing. I'll make it for my hipster kids and they will be enchanted.

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over 1 year ago stingraystirs

Love this story.. I grew up on the coast in N.H. and my Grandmother made soup cake too. No frosting though, just powdered sugar. Thanks for posting. You inspired me to find her recipe…and I'll try yours too.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Awesome! Let me know how it turns out.

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over 1 year ago Heather

This is a very common cake on the Alberta prairies! My friends from Ontario all think I'm crazy when I talk about growing up eating this. My Grandma would make it for me because I wouldn't eat carrot cake and she found spice cake too boring. Thanks for a walk down memory lane with a recipe.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Yes, I like how it's reminiscent of carrot cake but still totally different! Love knowing that this is popular in Canada, too.

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over 1 year ago boulangere

Cynthia is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Children's book author, Patricia Polacco, wrote a wonderful book called Thunder Cake (http://www.amazon.com/Thunder...), one of whose ingredients is tomato purée, though we used tomato soup, figuring it would be more familiar to children. When my son was in first grade, I organized a scavenger hunt all over the school for the cake's ingredients, and when they'd all been gathered, we mixed the cake in the classroom and the cafeteria ladies kindly baked it for us. Then we ate it that afternoon . . . . during story time. The tomato soup totally makes the cake.

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over 1 year ago Louise

I love Tomato soup cake and yours sounds delicious! Did you know it was Sylvia Plath's favourite too?

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

I had no idea! What a fun fact.

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over 1 year ago Lindsay-Jean Hard

Lindsay-Jean is a Contributing Writer & Editor at Food52.

"I carry her name proudly between my first and last." Love this.

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over 1 year ago Julie Myers

Julie is an Editorial Assistant at Food52.

So good!

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Aw thanks ladies!