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It may sound odd, but this vintage recipe from Campbell’s for tomato soup cake calls for a full can of tomato soup! Don’t back away just yet: This cake doesn’t actually taste like tomatoes, and unless you tell people about the secret ingredient, they would probably never guess.
The role of the can of tomato soup in this old-fashioned spice cake recipe is simply to keep it moist. It also adds an earthy brick-red tone to the cake (or cupcakes, if you prefer).
Many people reminisce about this nostalgic recipe, saying it reminds them of their childhood and grandma baking in the kitchen. Tomato soup spice cake recipes were first published in community cookbooks, as well as a cookbook by Campbell’s, back in the 1920s or 1930s, although the company says its first official record of a cake using tomato soup is from October 1940, with its Steamed Fruit & Nut Pudding.
Over the decades, recipe testers at Campbell’s took the spice cake recipe through many different variations (including different fruits, nuts and spices), even promoting it as a Halloween spice cake in 1942. “Today” reports that Campbell’s published a recipe for the cake in The New York Times in 1949, and it then became the first recipe to be distributed on a Campbell’s can starting in 1960.
Around the 1950s and 1960s, the recipe really started to become an American tradition and gained cult status. Today, the recipe and its variations still get 65,000 hits each year on average, Campbell’s says. It’s also called Mystery Cake or Surprise Cake in some circles.
Undoubtedly part of the reason why the tomato soup cake recipe from Campbell’s became so popular was that the post-war generation was looking for kitchen shortcuts and ways to make cooking and baking easier and less time-consuming. Convenience cooking was a staple for this generation as many more women were entering the workforce and had less time to spend in the kitchen.
And it doesn’t get much easier than this recipe for tomato soup cake: All you need is a box of ready-made spice cake mix (like this one from Duncan Hines), a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, shortening, butter, sugar and eggs. You probably already have all these things in your kitchen.
For the frosting, all you need is cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla. Or use a store-bought cream cheese frosting.
(And here is a helpful baking tip: If you don’t have spice cake mix on hand, you can use yellow cake mix and then simply mix in spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice).
You can also use Campbell’s cupcake variation. This version doesn’t use the pre-packaged cake mix shortcut, but you’ll get the same tomato soup-inspired texture and flavor. Additionally, if you want a more from-scratch version, you can visit this recipe from Sylvia Lovegren via the University of Chicago Press.
Lots of people remember their grandma putting yummy additions like chopped nuts or raisins into their tomato soup cake. And here’s a twist on Campbell’s tomato soup cake that calls for the addition of cocoa powder. You can find it online at CKBK (you’ll have to register for free to get access).
Instead of cream cheese frosting, the Chocolate Tomato Cake is topped with “mystery ganache.” Developed by Rose Levy Beranbaum and published in “Rose’s Heavenly Cakes,” this cake is topped with a ganache made with dark chocolate, heavy cream, rolled wafer cookies (like Pepperidge Farm’s Pirouette’s) and yes, more tomato soup!
Beranbaum created this recipe for Campbell’s 50th anniversary and even brought a tomato soup spice cake into the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate the special occasion.
“This cake is great for a party. No one will ever guess the mystery ingredient,” says Beranbaum in her recipe description. “Tomato adds both a deeper color and intriguing zing to the chocolate. Don’t worry about the absence of salt in the ingredients — it’s in the soup.”
And here is another cool variation on this tomato soup cake: Tomato soup waffles! You can easily turn a can of tomato soup into a delicious breakfast (or brinner) recipe, simply by mixing up a box of spice cake mix and a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. Use your favorite waffle maker or mini waffle maker to turn the mix into a stack of delicious treats. Then drizzle with the cream cheese glaze listed above or top with fresh fruit and maple syrup or even a dollop of fresh whipped cream!