(Not) Sylvia Plath's Tomato Soup Spice Cake

In 2017, Eva gave me a tomato soup cake that she made (frosting on the side and as I have no pride left I can admit that I ate what did not make it onto the cake directly out of the jar with a spoon. It was that good). 

Plath's tomato soup spice cake is fairly legendary. Plath herself mentions it just once in her letters (15 September 1961, from Court Green; Letters, Vol. II, p. 649, Amazon) and no times, that I could find, in her journals. Plath did make several references to it in her 1962 Letts tablet. On 22, 25, and 26 February and 10 May. The cake has a life of its own on the internet, frequently being written about, but always using someone else's recipe. Until now.

Lot 45 of Frieda Hughes' auction of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes items includes some recipe cards and a rolling pin. One of the recipes is "her" Tomato Soup Spice Cake. I say "her", in quotes, but really the recipe is not Sylvia Plath's at all. Sotheby's did not include the full recipe as a visible item in their photograph (above, left). However, I can report the following. (And, no, I did not buy the cards.)

Sylvia Plath's tomato soup spice cake recipe was sent to her by her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, sometime after she visited England from June to August 1961. It is on page three of a four page letter (pages one and two seem not to be extant). Page three is on the recto of the leaf of tissue-thin paper; page four on the verso. ASP's signature is in pencil. There is a reference to Molly in ASP's letter, which was instrumental in dating it, as Molly was the "little Australian hairdressser" living in the Merwin's house, where Mrs. Plath primarily stayed during of her visit to England that summer (Letters, Vol II., p. 623). So, Mrs. Plath's letter likely dates from mid-to-late August or very early September 1961. 

We can infer from Plath's letter of 15 September, cited above, that she had tried to make it. She writes: "I didn't think to question, but our cans seem to be bigger than yours, as my cake was a bit 'wet'." Aurelia Plath's clearly responded as Plath wrote in "10½ oz" on the retained page letter.  

Last weekend my wife made the cake. I wanted to do it, but I am what is termed a "Kitchen Disaster."  We made some executive decisions based on our own taste preferences. Such as we skipped the nutmeg and allspice. And no raisins. Raisins are, to quote my wife, "the devil's fruit." We topped it with a cream cheese frosting and walnuts. The instructions do not include the pan size, so we used a 9" x 13" pan. Mrs Plath cut hers into squares after placing a walnut on it, so that everyone got a walnut. So, so very nice and special and thoughtful.

Was the cake good?  Oh yeah. And the walnuts are a really nice touch.

Here are some images.

Most of the ingredients

Viciousness in the kitchen!

Ready to bake

Baked

Getting there...the icing

BAM!!

This is the "good" side

We have made Plath's "Heavenly Sponge cake" twice, which SP sent to Olwyn Hughes on 25 May 1959 (Letters, Vol. II, pp. 323-4). What we learn from the recipe card for the "Sponge Cake" is that it comes "from Aunt Dot's file." In addition to Plath and Mrs. Plath, other's represented are her grandmother Aurelia Schober, Edith Hughes (mother-in-law), and Shirley Norton (Perry Norton's first wife), someone called Clara, and Dido Merwin. There are two recipes for mayonnaise. Someone else can help themselves to that nasty stuff.

I searched Newspapers.com for "tomato soup spice cake" and it seems the cake came into prominence around February 1931 because "some housewives", it was reported in an article called "Soup Besides Saving Meat Greatly Add's To Meals Formality", started adding it to spice cake in the place of milk. This is depression era, and so perhaps there were dairy shortages? The Tennessean seems to be the first to publish the recipe, on 1 October 1931, under the name "Tomato Soup Spice Cake." It was also labeled a "Mystery Cake." In the 1950s and 1960s references to the cake in newspapers exploded, relatively speaking, with it appearing 33 and 77 times respectively.

The Plath family recipe is pretty similar: 
½ cup of shortening
1 cup of sugar                                                            
1 egg                                                                      
1 can of tomato soup (undiluted) (10½ oz)           
1 teaspoon of baking soda                                         
2 cups of flour
1½  teaspoon of cinnamon
½ teaspoon each of clove, allspice, nutmeg
1 cup o'raisins

Pre-heat oven to 350F. Cream shortening and then add sugar and a well-beaten egg.  Mix in tomato soup. Dry ingredients should be sifted and added leisurely to the mix. If using raisins, add them in after flouring lightly.  Before adding batter into a pan, make sure it's well-greased and lightly floured. Bake for about 45 minutes. (We did 35 minutes in our pan and it was sufficient, which indicates to my wife that Plath might've used an 8" x 8" in baking thingy.)  

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All links accessed 17 July 2021.

Comments

  1. Raisins are the greatest thing since tomato soup 😂

    ReplyDelete

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