Eating History: Making “War Cake,” a Remnant of WWII Rationing

When butter was rationed during the war, bakers had to get creative. Find out how their makeshift sweets hold up today.

  • U.S. Office of Price Administration. War Ration Book Four, issued to Juan A. Castellanos, 1943. New-York Historical Society.
  • Courtesy New-York Historical Society Library's Manuscript collection
  • Courtesy New-York Historical Society Library's Manuscript collection
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena
  • Photo: Jaya Saxena

Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

During WWII, America resorted to rationing certain goods. Everything from tires to shoes to nylons were rationed, along with many edibles such as sugar, coffee, and cheese. Fuel shortages made it tough to send fresh food across the country, and many processed foods had to be shipped to our soldiers and allies. And yes, we’re all enlightened with our CSA memberships, our adherence to seasonal diets, and our shunning of anything processed, but you try telling your kid that you can’t make their favorite birthday cake because you already used up that month’s ration of butter!

Fortunately, America’s home cooks got crafty and created a bunch of makeshift recipes for popular dishes, using ingredients like applesauce, molasses, or lard to stand in for usual fats and sweeteners, and deploying lots of common spices to mask the taste. So, how do these recipes hold up?

Below is a recipe for “War Cake” found in an anonymous cookbook from the 1940s in the New-York Historical Society Library’s Manuscript collection. It boasts: “no butter, no eggs, no milk, delicious.” We’ll see about that!

Recipe for “War Cake”

  • 2 cups castor sugar
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 2 Tbsp lard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 package seedless raisins.

Boil all together. After cold, add 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in 1 teaspoon hot water. Bake about one hour in a slow oven (300-325°F).

The verdict: This cake, while delicious, definitely doesn’t mask the substitution entirely. It’s sticky and thick, with a chewy crust instead of that melt-in-your-mouth airiness you get from a Funfetti cake. But it flat-out tastes good. A spicy, fruity cake like this could be an excellent addition to any baking repertoire. Though maybe you can figure out a way to add an egg.

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