Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kit's Tomato Soup, Grilled Cheese, and Tomato Soup Cake

Bet you haven't heard of this one!

My godmother is the person responsible for this post. I, like many of you, had never heard of putting tomato soup in a cake before, and when she first mentioned her grandmother used to make a tomato soup cake all the time, I was more than a little skeptical. I mean, that's just weird, right? You wouldn't put ketchup in a cake, and I'd never heard of putting tomatoes in any baked good that wasn't savory, and even then...

But she insisted it was good, and then I started thinking well, we put zucchini in what's essentially a cake, some people use avocado, and obviously there's carrot or fennel. How weird could tomato soup cake be?

Besides, I'd been wanting to do a feature on one of my favorite comfort food meals, and it's not like you guys need me to tell you how to make Campbell's tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich, right?

The day I sat down to make this was actually damp, dreary and kind of cold for April, so it actually worked out to be a perfect day for soup and a warm sandwich. Didn't totally make me less bummed about the weather, but it helped a little bit!

People had been eating toasted cheese and tomato soup way before the stock market crashed in 1929, but this classic combination does really have the Great Depression to thank for its popularity and place among classic American comfort foods. It started catching on in households back in the early 1920's because of the availability of sliced bread and sliced cheese, making it an extreme convenience food. When the Depression hit, it kept this reputation, but with the added benefit of also being cheap. Toasting or cooking stale bread has been a technique people have used for centuries to stretch the life of your loaf, and cheese - if stored properly - doesn't go bad quickly. An open faced grilled cheese known as the "cheese dream" became popular during the Depression as well. This dish usually had bacon or another cheap meat added to make the dish a little more filling and something you could serve to a large crowd without totally breaking the bank.

Tomato soup has been on people's lunch and dinner tables since the late 1800's at least, and Campbell's began selling a canned tomato soup in 1897. Just like grilled cheese, it became a household favorite not just because it tasted good and was easy to prepare, but also because it was cheap! Both of my mom's parents were born into the Depression and lived through World War II as kids approximately Molly's age, and as they both came from working class families who didn't always have a big budget to work with - or any budget at all - tomato soup was a frequent guest at their table. In fact, they had to eat it so often, both of them told me they actually really hate it as adults. It was also something public schools would turn to as a cheap way to get Vitamin C into their student body, and people have suggested that's where the partnership of tomato soup and grilled cheese came from, but no one can really prove it. The fact is, the acid from the soup is cut well with the cheese, and so they just taste good together! The fact that they're nutritionally not horrible for you and relatively budget friendly is just an added bonus.

Although I totally sympathize with my grandparents for not loving this combination as grown ups after eating it too often as kids, it's one of my favorite go to meals when I'm left to my own devices in the kitchen. It's simple, tasty and filling, and it was fun tracing its roots back because it's something that's so iconic, you just don't really think about where it came from. To basically any American or person familiar with American food culture, it's just always been there. Its origin might not be the most exciting or unusual, but it's still pretty neat, right?

Like I said, I don't think you need me to tell you how to make tomato soup out of a can and throw together a simple grilled cheese, but here are the pictures of it anyway. Just looking at it makes me want to make more.

I'm a really boring person when it comes to grilled cheese. Sure, I might like to go with cheddar versus American cheese sometimes, but generally, I just want hot, melty cheese on toasty, crisp, maybe bordering on burnt bread. I don't need tomatoes, apples, bacon, fancy greens, or really anything else. Those things are okay sometimes, but for me, grilled cheese is all about the cheese and bread.

Oh, and I'm boring and make my soup with water instead of milk or cream. I do like creamier tomato soups at restaurants - or even my office cafeteria - but I never use anything but water when I'm making it out of a can at home. I'm not really sure why. Which way do you make it?

And that's where this blog post would have ended if not for the conversation I had with my godmother. Kind of boring, right? I'm pretty sure the conversation either kicked off because I was complaining about not knowing how to make a post like this interesting, or because we were discussing all the weird wartime cake recipes I've tried out. Kathy mentioned that her grandmother used to make this really good spice cake that used tomato soup as a primary ingredient. I must have made a face or something, because my mom chimed in and said she always thought it was weird, too when they were kids, but after she tried it, she was pleasantly surprised! I was intrigued, and immediately decided we had to try this out sometime soon.

Soon apparently means, like, four months later. Oops. Anyway, what research I did into this recipe said that this was a creation that started popping up in cook books in the late 1920's, or early 1930's, so basically right when the Depression hit and was getting worse. I'm not sure what the first person who added soup to their cake batter was thinking, but we do know that vegetables help make cakes nice and moist, and a tomato is a mild enough flavor that it makes sense that the sugar and spices involved would probably help mask it. There are weirder things you can put in a cake, right?

Like salt pork...

So, despite being pretty clearly a Depression era favorite, Campbell's actually doesn't have record of it in their archives until the 40's, which makes sense. Sometimes it takes a while for a major company to adopt a formal version of a recipe people have been making with their product. They'd occasionally market it as a Halloween cake - it really does turn out to be a pretty impressive orange color - and the recipe I decided to make is the one they have posted on their official website! You can access it on

You take 2 cups of flour, 1 and 1/3 cups of sugar, 4 teaspoons of baking powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons of allspice, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves and mix them all together in a bowl. Then, you add one whole can of Campbell's tomato soup, 2 eggs, 1/2 of a cup of vegetable shortening, and 1/4 of a cup of water, and mix it all together.

At first, you're supposed to blend this together with an electric mixer on low speed just until everything's mixed together. Then, you beat it for four minutes on high. That seemed like a crazy long time to me, and I was slightly worried that this would mess up my cake. Remember, I'm not a trained baker or chef, so I'm not totally certain of the science behind some of this stuff, but I do know that overmixing your cakes can make them collapse or have bad texture.

But that's what the recipe said to do, so I figured well, better give it a shot. The batter got really fluffy, thick, and kind of silky, and honestly, it didn't taste very good when I snitched some. I could totally taste the soup, and the texture was just bad. So, feeling a little nervous, I dumped the batter in a greased 9x13 pan, and popped it in the oven for 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

To my surprise, it looked nice when it came out! No collapsed cake here.

The recipe online says this should be topped with cream cheese frosting, but I'm not sure if this is truly Depression or WWII era accurate. 50's, maybe, but this seems like a lot of sugar to waste on one cake if we're dealing with war time rationing or Depression era frugality. I also really don't like cream cheese frosting, so I was reluctant to do this for a lot of reasons, but having never made cream cheese frosting, I decided well. Why not?

You one 8 oz package of cream cheese and blend it with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and one whole package of powdered sugar. Which just seems really excessive.

It turns out, yeah, this is kind of too much frosting for this one cake, and next time, I'm definitely going to cut down on the amount I put on the cake. I'm not big on having a huge layer of frosting on a cake, especially if it's cream cheese frosting.

Still, it makes a nice looking piece of cake.

I honestly wasn't expecting this to be as orange as it was. It's a nice color, though. Not artificial or anything, just very bright and inviting. Most spice cakes I've made and eaten are a more earthy brown or tan color, which is fine, but this one definitely made me think more spring than fall or winter... although I see why it's something that found its way onto Halloween tables!

By this point, I was dying to see what it tasted like, even if I was a little wary after not loving the batter, but the texture felt pretty nice when I was slicing through it, so my hopes were slowly creeping up and up and up...

And they weren't disappointed! I honestly couldn't taste the soup at all. It was just a really nice, fluffy spice cake. It actually tasted a lot like the Betty Crocker spice cake mix, which I grew up eating a decent amount of because spice cakes are one of my dad's favorite desserts. I can pretty much guarantee that if I put this in front of you and you ate the whole slice, you wouldn't know there was tomato soup in it until I told you so. It also makes a ton of cake with a relatively small amount of ingredients, so I can definitely see why this was a favorite for Americans living through tough times.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the cream cheese frosting, too. I still don't like it as much as buttercream, but I think the issue I have with it is I seem to often get cupcakes and cake with cream cheese frosting that literally just tastes like cream cheese, which is not something I want on my dessert. Bagels, yes, cakes, no. This frosting was sweet with just a little tang, so still not my favorite dessert topping, but not something that's meant to be on my breakfast sandwich instead of dessert. My mom mentioned she was glad I gave it a shot because she likes cream cheese frosting and I never make it, so I guess it worked out nicely for everyone that I decided to go out on a limb!

I've tried out a lot of interesting cakes for this blog, but I can honestly say, based on name alone, I probably never would have given this one a second thought. Or maybe I would have, who knows. Sometimes I make weird things! But regardless, I'm glad my godmother got it on my radar, because this is definitely something I could see myself making again. Thanks for the tip, Kathy! I like making from scratch cakes, and considering this basically tastes like a better version of a box mix I already really liked, I think it's a winner. I'm definitely going to be adding this to my list of go to desserts!

But maybe we'll experiment with some other frosting recipes... I'm still not a convert to cream cheese frosting!


  1. I remember the first time Kathy brought this in her lunch. I definitely made a face when she told me what it was, but she kindly offered me a bite. I am not too proud to say that I misjudged the cake. It was super tasty! As for grilled cheese, it will always be one of my many fond memories of my Nana. She hands down made the best grilled cheese. It was my lucky day when I got out early from school and mom wasn't home since Nana would always make me her famous sandwich. It was nothing fancy...just kraft singles, wonder bread and butter. But man, it was heaven!

    1. Nana was a wizard in the kitchen! I was I had been old enough to appreciate her cooking when she was alive.

  2. I am so glad that you gave this recipe a try - even if you reached outside your "frosting comfort zone." It looks wonderful. My grandmother's spin was to use a ring pan and add raisins.

    1. Sounds like we have to make it that way next time! :D

  3. Wow, that grilled cheese looks good! I can't remember the last time I had a grilled cheese sandwich but that is going to change. Sometimes I feel like the only reason my family eats anything that isn't fats food is because I read these recipes!

    1. Ahaha always happy to help! Enjoy that grilled cheese, I'm craving another one right now.