Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Emily's Trench Cake

Don't let the name scare you off!

Happy Veteran's Day, everyone! Also, happy Armistice and Remembrance Day, as November 11th is called all three depending on where you are. To those not in the know, November 11th marks the date hostilities in western Europe stopped in 1918, thus ending the First World War. It's celebrated world wide as a day of remembrance not only for the causalities of that war, but of all wars, and the first celebration was held in 1919 at Buckingham Palace in England.

American Girl doesn't have a character who's specifically from America's involvement in World War One, but some of the characters do have connections to it - Rebecca's aunt, uncle and cousins leave Russia for America out of fear that her oldest cousin will be conscripted into the Russian army, Kit's dad fought in the trenches with the US Army, and Emily's grandfather served in the Royal Navy. Although it probably would have been more appropriate to do a Kit themed post, it's been a while since I've done an Emily solo post, and I was interested to see what was out there for British recipes for this period as they were involved in the conflict a lot longer than the United States was. After doing some poking around, I think I found something that will surprise pretty much everyone with how good it actually is, despite bearing one of the most unappealing names I've ever come across.

But before we get to that, I've got a couple other things to show you all!

As most of you likely know, poppies are the international symbol of remembrance, made popular by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields" and the real poppies that grew on the battlefields and graveyards of the war. The idea for using poppies as a symbol of remembrance comes from Moina Michael, an American YWCA worker who in 1918 vowed to always wear a poppy in memorial of those who died in the war. After realizing disabled veterans of the war needed financial support, she came up with the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for them. After campaigning to have the poppy internationally recognized as a symbol of remembrance, the American Legion adopted the symbol in 1920. This inspired a French woman named Anna E. Guérin to produce the poppies we see today. It was then quickly adopted by several other nations who participated in the conflict, and are often sold and worn on and leading up to November 11th.

I've always been very fond of poppies for explicitly that reason, and so people often buy things - cards, scarves, actual poppies - with poppies on them for me. This year, I somehow wound up with poppies from three different countries thanks to my parents: the paper poppy with the large white tag was made by the American Legion Auxiliary, the two flocked poppy pins are from Canada, and the paper and plastic poppy with the leaf is from England. My mom said she saw tons of people sporting the Canadian poppies while they were up north, while I can't see I've seen anyone stateside wearing one, although there were lots of people visiting our town green and paying their respects.

We headed down there this morning to do just that. Our town green features memorials - mostly made of our own Connecticut pink granite - to most of the major conflicts in America's history. Below is the Spanish American War Memorial, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Civil War and World War II memorials. We also have an American Revolution memorial, but my camera battery was getting fussy, and I wanted to save it for the one memorial we really needed to visit on the 11th.

Our World War One Memorial is actually pretty cool, in that it lists every towns person who served during the war, including women instead of just the causalities. Our town was pretty small in 1917 - only about 3,000 people - and the fact that so many were involved out of such a small population over such a short period of time is kind of crazy.

Four people were killed in action, and I definitely found myself wanting to know more about everyone listed on the memorial. Too bad there's no talk of doing a deep investigation into their lives like what was done for our Civil War memorial in honor of the our town's 375th birthday.

Anyway, I bet you're all impatient to get to what we all came here for: trench cake. Still doesn't sound very good, does it?

Hang in there, I promise, it's actually worth it. I stumbled upon the recipe while wandering the internet trying to find inspiration from this post, and after wondering "do I really need to make another cake?" Ari reminded me that cake is awesome, and I realized this is actually pretty similar to the war cake we made for VE Day, which makes this kind of a fitting compliment. The recipe comes from The Telegraph and can be found here! It's an authentic recipe for a cake that families would mail their loved ones who were fighting in the trenches, and like many recipes from that period, the instructions are... a little vague.

Fortunately, I know what I'm doing enough now to put most of this together and not completely panic when I'm suddenly dealing with measurements of weight, not volume. This recipe is different from the World War II era war cake because it does include margarine and milk, but it's still missing eggs and relies on a baking soda and vinegar reaction to make it rise.

It also requires getting more bowls dirty, which is kind of a bummer, but the war cake really spoils you with how incredibly simple it is to make.

Cut the margarine into the flour, add in the other dry ingredients and mix well. If you can't get your hands on currants, you could easily substitute with raisins, chopped or whole. A lot of American grape flavored products are actually currant flavored in England, including Skittles! Which I enjoy, because I like currants quite a bit.

Dissolve the baking powder in the vinegar and milk, pour it into the dry ingredients and mix well, then pour it into a greased cake pan.

Now, this is the part where the recipe lost me a little bit. Baking it in a "moderate" oven was easy enough to figure out, but it said to cook it for about two hours. That seemed like an insanely long time to bake a cake for, so we put it in for an hour and decided to check on it when it was done. If it was still undercooked, we'd pop it back in and see what happened.

At the end of the hour, it looked like this:

And the toothpick I inserted in it came out clean, so I decided it was done. My buddy Jessi and I have been trying to hypothesize why the recipe would say two hours - a typo, a cooler oven, maybe baking it into a cake shaped brick would help it hold up in the mail from England to the Somme? - but whatever the reason, this cake smelled really, really good, and I didn't want to ruin a good cake by messing around with it too much.

It's a pretty flat cake, and it's not as moist as my war cake was, but it still looks tasty enough for something with a terrible name. It also smelled amazing, and reminded my mom of some German cookies we used to get around the holidays.

Taste wise, it's very good. Not too sweet, but enjoyable and something that would go really well with a cup of tea or coffee. The actual flavors are pretty cool - it turns out ginger, nutmeg and cocoa are a great combination! The cocoa's not too noticeable and this definitely isn't a chocolate cake, but it brings out an extra layer to the spices that make this a little different from your average spice cake, too. If I didn't know cocoa was in it, I don't think I would have been able to tell, but I would definitely have senses there was something delicious in addition to the nutmeg and ginger. The lemon rind and currants give it some nice texture too, but aren't overwhelming or something you're going to want to eat around. Although this isn't my favorite historical cake I've ever made (I really, really liked my war cake, okay?), I definitely think I'll be making it again and seriously doubt I'll be the only one snacking on it!

My next question is how well it'll hold up in the mail, so I might be sending one to my buddy Ari. She lives a bit farther away from me than England to France, but the cake seems like it'll be sturdy enough to hold up to the journey!

I'll let you guys know how it turns out!

Cross your fingers for me!


  1. I love that you're testing out the mail-worthy-ness of the recipe!

    If you want to see people wearing poppies in the US, just watch soccer or hockey coverage on TV - you can always recognize the Brits and Canadians before you hear their accents just because of the poppies.

    1. Oh I know, I meant I'm disappointed more Americans don't do it considering the poppy's kind of become a symbol of remembrance beyond the context of World War I. 8( And I haven't had a chance to ship one yet, but I definitely am planning on it in the near future! I will keep you all updated.

  2. Thank you to all our Veterans out there! And thank you for honoring them on your blog!

    The cake looks pretty tasty for such an interesting combination of flavors. Might have to give it a go.

    1. I definitely recommend it, I really enjoyed it!

  3. I finessed a beer cake recipe from some old cake recipes that keeps well for weeks (although it never lasts that long in the house) when wrapped dryly. The idea of a trench cake makes perfect sense. My guess is that if you wrap this in a towel for a week on the counter then try it, your impressions might be totally different. You probably WANT it to dry out a little bit more and then dunk it in tea. :)

    1. I actually really don't like dunking things IN my tea, I like eating cake or cookies and then drinking tea with it, so the texture right out of the oven is perfect for me. :)

  4. This recipe reminds me of several of the cakes in my "Welsh Teatime Recipes" book that I was given when I spent a semester in Wales. And yes, the British LOVE their blackcurrant! I have to say that I'm pretty fond of it too.

    1. They're very tasty! I've been missing having them lately, might be time to make this cake again, haha.