10 Odd Ingredients Your Genius Grandmother Added to Chocolate Cakes

If you've ever asked your grandmother for her amazing chocolate cake recipe, you know that sometimes in those recipes, we come across some surprising ingredients. The greatest generation knew how to stretch a dollar in a world where necessity was the mother of invention. No matter the reason (wartime rations or pinched pennies during the Great Depression era), creative home cooks and bakers still made the most of what they have. Today, thanks to that ingenuity, we have a collection of delicious depression cake recipes that, incidentally, use a few wacky ingredients you might not expect.

Remember that commodities like buttermilk and a cup sugar could be hard to come by in those days, and often home bakers only had homemade chocolate cake ratios memorized in their head when making substitutions. Think of the classic pound cake, for example, with its pound of butter, a pound of sugar, pound of all-purpose flour, and pound of eggs. Here are some interesting cake ingredients, substitutions or otherwise, that you'd probably find in your grandmother's cookbook.

1. Mayonnaise

Our grandparents knew that because mayonnaise was a mix of vegetable oil, vinegar, and egg, it would make the cake tender. An extra egg added to the wet ingredients could take the place of mayo or Miracle Whip, but here are three good reasons why you shouldn't.

  • The oil keeps the cake tender.
  • The egg moistens and adds a glossy touch to the batter.
  • The acid from the vinegar enhances the chocolate flavor.

The Chocolate-Mayonnaise Cake is a Depression cake recipe in a time when those extra ingredients couldn't be spared, but there was a jar of mayo in the closet. The fat content adds a great airiness to the cake without it tasting like mayo. This recipe is adapted from Hellman's with a few surprising additions such as chocolate buttercream frosting recipe and caramel hidden between the cake layers.

Get the recipe here.

2. Coca-Cola

Enterprising bakers learned that with just a box of cake mix and a bottle of soda, you can make one incredibly moist and delicious crazy cake. By nixing the other additional baking ingredients, bakers could rely on the soda effect without spending more money at the market. While Coca-Cola is listed and featured, other ingenious cake additions include 7-Up with cherry cake mix or Mountain Dew with yellow cake mix.

In this recipe that mimics a Texas sheet cake, two cans of Coke are boiled in the frosting and baked the batter, respectively, to add a caramel, vanilla flavor. This easy chocolate cake is a snap to put together with unsweetened cocoa powder, eggs, granulated sugar, flour, and Coca-Cola.

Get the recipe here.

3. Vinegar

White vinegar and baking soda combined in World War II to create a light wacky cake that's fluffy and airy, while also giving home bakers a chance to save an egg here and there during rationing. The batter is made more acidic by the addition, which brings out the complex and rich chocolate flavor. It also keeps the batter dark and luscious, perfect for a death-by-chocolate cake or served up as cupcakes.

This aptly-named Chocolate Depression Cake is a pure example of the ingenuity of our ancestors in the kitchen. The cake is vegan, egg-free and dairy-free, making it perfect for lifestyle diets. The frosting contains butter, but you can serve powdered sugar to swap the dairy.

Get the recipe here.

4. Mashed Potatoes

By adding the fiber from potatoes to the cake batter, home cooks were buffing up a sweet recipe with a bit more nutrition. So why mashed potatoes? When mixed in the batter, they give the cake a tighter crumb structure that retains moisture well, producing a fluffier version than without.

The best part is that you can, like your ancestors, use those leftover mashed potatoes in this recipe that really proves mashed potatoes were meant to be in a depression cake recipe.

Get the recipe here.

5. Beets

Midwest bakers can lay claim to the addition of beets to cake as they were the perfect swap for sugar rations during World War II. They add a natural, subtle sweetness to a moist, dense layer cake. Let's not forget their color, either. Beets add a rich depth to a chocolate cake which, in some, borders on a deep purple or red.

While there are various interpretations to adding beets, from using grated and raw to puréed and cooked. This Chocolate Beet Cake with Beet Cream Cheese Frosting embraces beets both as a flavor enhancer and as a color palette. This poor man's cake is like a dark chocolate red velvet cake without all the fake coloring.

Get the recipe here.

6. Sauerkraut

The acid that we keep talking about that comes from using vinegar applies even more so in the case of sauerkraut. Creating a moist and dense cake, sauerkraut also adds a little extra oomph to the chocolate flavor in the cake. It might seem unappetizing, but a few pulses of the food processors breaks your sauerkraut down even further to an ingredient that only adds and doesn't subtract.

Consider sauerkraut like coconut in Coconut Cake, and you won't believe just how amazing this wacky little cake tastes. Just test with a toothpick to determine when it's done!

Get the recipe here.

7. Tomato Soup

In most cases, these wacky ingredients are pantry staples. None fits that description more than a can of Condensed Tomato Soup. So what's the deal with tomato soup in cake? It comes pre-spiced and the flecks of cinnamon in the can were fully appreciated by home bakers who often couldn't afford to buy spices in bulk with frivolity.

While you can create tomato soup cakes with a white base, the chocolate flavor is the perfect canvas for the zing of the tomato soup. Rose Levy Beranbaum created this cake for Campbell's, and the recipe is perfection. Just mix up the moist chocolate cake, pour it into round cake pans, and decorate with your favorite chocolate frosting.

Get the recipe here.

8. Applesauce

If you're health-conscious, you might use this trick even now. Applesauce can replace oil, canola or vegetable, in a cake mix recipe. Unsweetened applesauce doesn't add sugar to the recipe, and this substitution has been expanded even into chocolate cake mixes. Fruitcakes and spice cakes have always relied on a little bit of applesauce, but your grandmother knew what she was doing when she threw some into the chocolate cake.

This perfectly Chocolate Banana Applesauce Cake doesn't use any oil, hence the applesauce, and is so moist, only chocolate chips top it instead of frosting.

Get the recipe here.

9. Parsnips

Much like beets, parsnips add a deep spice flavor to the batter when the cake is baked. It brings a much earthier taste to the rich chocolate batter, and it was used to add additional moisture in flavor when rations, again, were an issue for most home bakers.

This Roasted Parsnip Chocolate Cake recipe was adapted to loaf form, proving that Depression-era cooking has stood the test of time. This American recipe is super tasty with a dusting of powdered sugar.

Get the recipe here.

10. Boiling Water or Hot Coffee

Using boiling water in chocolate cake batter leads to the blooming process, where the flavors in the dutch cocoa powder are allowed to fully develop. Depending on the rations and availability, either boiling water or hot coffee was used to create this deep, complex flavor in an otherwise simple chocolate cake recipe.

Known as the Best Chocolate Cake Recipe Ever, this recipe uses a teaspoon of espresso powder and 1 cup of boiling water to get the full effect. It's so much better than you think.

Get the recipe here.

Did your grandparents or family unorthodox ingredients in their cake recipes to stretch a dollar? We'd love to hear them! Comment below to share.

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