Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Emily's Wartime Eggless Christmas Cake

Doing your bit on the home front with carrots!

Now, there's no question that Christmas during the 30's and 40's meant slim pickings on the holiday table for most Americans, but Christmas in wartime England was no picnic either. As we've already discussed, rationing in Britain was a lot stricter throughout the entire war and so kids like Emily had to learn to make do without the traditional sweet treats most people expect around the holiday season.

But just like Molly and Kit had recipes for inexpensive Christmas cakes, the British government, professional chefs and home cooks came up with plenty of solutions to give people what they were looking for without using all their rations on one sweet treat.

How did they manage this without free access to sugar, eggs and milk?

By using substitutes! Some of these are pretty straightforward - golden syrup, honey or corn syrup instead of sugar is still something we do today - but there was another important staple of World War II era sweets: carrots.

That's right. Carrots.

Now, I'm not just talking carrot cake. I mean carrots were used for lots of sweets, whether cake, carrots or candy. They were also just eaten a lot in general. Vegetables were one of the few things that weren't rationed at all, so people were encouraged to eat lots of them and grow their own. Carrots in particular were talked up as being versatile, good substitutes for rationed foods, and mostly importantly, they were full of vitamins. Carrots had enough Vitamin A in them that eating a lot of them could improve your eyesight!

Or so the propaganda posters said. While it's true that carrots are pretty good for you nutrition wise, they don't actually have enough Vitamin A in them to noticeably affect or improve your eyesight unless you're already really Vitamin A deficient. This was a tactic both to get people to eat the veggies, and to give a "logical" explanation to the Germans for why the RAF was so successful at night raids and dogfights. The real reason was that the British had sophisticated radar systems that needed to be kept secret from the Nazis to keep giving them the advantage in the air war.

Carrots were so heavily marketed by the British - and later American - government that there were songs, cookbooks and cartoons starring the root vegetable. Dr. Carrot was a cartoon creation of the Ministry of Agriculture, and became a celebrity among kids and grown ups along with his friend and predecessor Potato Pete.

Aside from all that, carrots are easy to store for a long time, and have been bred to have a sweet taste, so they're not a bad substitute for other sweeteners if you're really in a bind. 

So, confession time: this post was originally going to feature a different carrot based recipe. A Girl for All Time (the relatively new doll line that's essentially Britain's answer to American Girl Dolls) has a selection of war time recipes on their character page for Clementine, their 1940's character. I was super curious to see how this would taste, and got all my ingredients together to give it a shot.

Condensed milk, golden syrup, vanilla and finely grated carrot get put in a large pot and heated up. Once the candy thermometer hits 200 degrees, or it starts looking kind of like toffee, you're supposed to take it off the heat, stir it all together, and put it in a pan to cool. Carrot fudge!

Everything seemed like it was going okay at first...

And then things went... awry.

Once again, I'm really not sure what happened. The temperature wasn't anywhere close to where it needed to be, but it still burned. It could be anything from using the wrong pan to American condensed milk being different from its British cousin to differences in equipment from the 1940's to now to just plain bad luck. After some less than AG friendly language, I dumped the remains in the trash, set the pan up to soak, and went back to the drawing board to find the perfect wartime treat to enjoy this Christmas season.

Fortunately, The 1940's Experiment came to my rescue! This blog was started as a weight loss blog, using authentic 1940's recipes to try and eat healthier. It has a lot of great material on it, including very honest critiques of some of the recipes she's used. This recipe can be found on her blog here. Just like the carrot fudge, this cake starts off with grated carrot (just one) and golden syrup (two or three tablespoons), which gets cooked over low heat for maybe five minutes.

This gets a teaspoon of baking soda mixed into it, and then the whole thing is mixed into 4 ounces of butter and 3 ounces of sugar, which have been creamed together. 1/2 teaspoon each of almond extract and vanilla extract get mixed in, followed by 6 ounces of dried fruit (I used the left overs from the barmbrack I made for Halloween and some raisins to make up the extra weight), and finally a mix of 12 ounces of self rising flour and a teaspoon of cinnamon. This all gets mixed together and poured into a greased tin.

If your dough is too stiff, you can add a little warm - but not hot! - tea to help loosen it up. Do it a little at a time, though, because the dough is supposed to be thick, but not dry. I only used a couple tablespoons at most to help loosen mine up. The recipe also recommends pressing a dip in the center of your dough in the pan, as this will help keep it from rising too much in the middle. I'd never been told to do this before, and was definitely interested to see how it worked.

This gets cooked for 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven, and then for 45 more minutes in a 320 degree oven. When I pulled mine out, not only had it cooked through all the way, but it didn't puff up in the middle! I'm definitely going to give this a try with some of my other loaf cakes.

It's not a giant cake, but it's big enough to serve a decent sized crowd, and dense enough to keep your stomach happy!

Seriously, it's quite a dense cake, and it's a little dry. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't win me any baking competitions on Food Network! But that said, this might not be quite as sweet tooth satisfying as a real chocolate cake, or a good spice cake, but I really do think it's super tasty. You can't really taste the carrots, but the fruit, almond and vanilla really come through, with just a little bit of spice. There's a bit of a crust, but not enough of one to feel like you're breaking your teeth on it, and overall, this was just a really good cake. I'd totally make it again! Considering I threw it together literally ten minutes after my first recipe was a total disaster, I think I'm going to call this an extremely happy accident. I'm also going to go on the record and say this was a lot tastier than the inexpensive Christmas cake I made a couple weeks ago. No weird bits of salt pork!

So, once again, we've learned you don't need eggs, milk or butter to make a tasty cake. Even if it's a little dry, this cake is definitely worthy of being on any holiday table, even seventy years after Dr. Carrot first started promoting the value of more carrots in your diet. Your guests might not even realize there's anything remotely healthy about this cake!

And think of how surprised they'll be when they're better at flying airplanes at night!


  1. I was thinking of trying to make that carrot fudge myself. Do you know if the recipe wants us to measure by volume or by weight? Volume measurements have a wider range of possible mass than weight does.

    1. It's weight based! It's a British recipe. They almost exclusively use weight based measurements.