M.F.K. Fisher’s Tomato Soup Cake Revisited

June 16, 2013

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“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, about love, the way others do?. . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it. . . “

~MFK Fisher

 

This week will mark the 21st anniversary of the death of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher who died in her cottage home in Sonoma California on June 22nd, 1992.

Fisher is considered to be one of the greatest food writers of all time.  She has been called a culinary giant, a pioneer of food and memoir writing, and a pre-eminent American food writer.

When she died, the Los Angeles Times said of her, “M. F. K. Fisher [was] the peripatetic author whose crystalline prose and keen observations raised food writing to the high art of literature.” The Chicago Tribune said,  poetically, “Her voice was deep, knowing and hovered somewhere near the soul.”

Fisher had two daughters that she parented for the most part single-handedly, despite her three marriages. She travelled widely and wrote 27 books. She was known for being sensuous, charming, and witty. She wrote eloquently about food and love and longing. A few of my favourite topics. I love this about her. 

I was reminded recently of MFK Fisher when my mother and I were invited to have afternoon tea at the home of two of my mother’s dearest friends.  Her friends live off-grid in a house they built themselves from stones they gathered on their own property. Both their beautiful home and their extensive gardens are works of art. For a couple of exquisite hours, we sat in the garden in the sunshine eating MFK Fisher’s Tomato Soup Cake and drinking tea and coffee from china cups whilst amongst other things, we paid homage to Fisher.

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If you haven’t tried Tomato Soup Cake – don’t let the tomato soup put you off. It tastes like a cross between a fruit cake and a spice cake. The recipe came from Fisher’s 1941 book, How To Cook a Wolf.  (For the record – the wolf refers to the metaphoric wolf at the door.) The recipe, which uses no eggs and minimal butter or shortening, was devised to circumnavigate war-time shortages and rationing.

“This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is. It can be made in a moderate oven while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure.” MFK Fisher

This is MFK Fisher’s original recipe – my adaptations are included in bold. The cake, minus the icing, is easily made vegan by using vegan margarine.

Tomato Soup Cake

  • 3 tablespoons butter or shortening or margarine
  • 1 cup sugar (I used 3/4 cup sugar and 1 tbsp molasses)
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg, ginger, cloves mixed (I just used 1 tsp ground ginger)
  • 1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will (I used 1 & 1/2 cup of combined raisins, chopped dates and chopped crystallized ginger)

Cream butter, add the sugar (and molasses), and blend thoroughly. Add the soda to the soup, (there is great chemical reaction here) stirring well, and add this alternately to the first mixture with the flour and spices sifted together. Add fruit, stir well, and bake in a pan or loaf-tin at 325 degrees F. (I used three mini loaf pans and cooked them for about 40 minutes.) Ice when cool.

Icing – if you feel like it….

  • 1 cup cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp rum (or vanilla – but I used rum)

Beat the icing ingredients together and spread over cooled cake.

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22 Comments

  • Reply fionaward June 16, 2013 at 5:36 am

    How amazingly unusual! And a great idea from MFK Fisher. I can tell how it will work with the cream cheese icing. My tastebuds are telling me now that it’s tastier than my initial reaction made me think it would be!

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 16, 2013 at 5:42 am

      You’re absolutely right it is much tastier than the name would imply. The first time I had it – years ago – I didn’t know what it was called or I might have turned up my nose and thought I wasn’t going to bother with it. But it really is so delicious. MKF Fisher rarely went wrong. She was quite the legend for very good reason! 😉

  • Reply Eliza B June 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

    MKF Fisher sounds very sassy and I like it. I’ve never heard of her though. I must do some wikipediaing.

    The cake looks intriguing. I’ve seen tomato soup in chocolate cakes before, but never in a spice cake. And I like how it makes you feel “noble”.

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 16, 2013 at 11:23 am

      I think you would love MKF Fisher. She would have been the ultimate food blogger!
      And yes, I’m so with you on her sentiment about feeling noble – using the oven for more than one thing at a time makes me feel noble too!

  • Reply gotasté June 16, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Lindy, thanks for introducing me to this great food writer. I’m so naive not to know but will google more about her. And I totally agree with what she said in your starting paragraph. I felt that way too. I love tomato soup but I can’t quite imagine how this cake will taste like by going through the recipe. Which makes it mysterious enough for me to try it out 🙂

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 16, 2013 at 11:29 am

      I hope you try it Danny. I would be sceptical too – I hate things cooked in gingerale or coke or with bizarre combinations of things just not meant to be. BUT she devised this recipe to cope with rations and food shortages and it is amazingly good. I had to get my head around the fact that tomato is technically speaking, a fruit. (At least I think it is!)
      Also hope you read a little about MKF Fisher – she was a delightful writer – full of wit and charm and that hunger that she wrote about in the opening quote. I love that.
      Thanks for writing here and love your last post – the mango avocado chicken salad – looks beautiful.

      • Reply gotasté June 18, 2013 at 6:14 am

        Thanks again Lindy. I do also think that tomato is a fruit. I’ve read a little about MKF Fisher and I find her so charming. This recipe to cope with ration and food shortages is already a must try! I will let you know after I made it 🙂

      • Reply gotasté July 7, 2013 at 11:46 am

        Lindy! I baked this cake yesterday without the icing. And I love it. The fact that a minimum amount of flour used in the recipe creates a really moist cake with the tomato soup. I will be making it again and again. And for me who is afraid of sweet things, i can even make this as my very own christmas cake 🙂

        • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen July 7, 2013 at 11:57 am

          Danny – that’s the best compliment ever and I’m SO happy you liked it! Hurray for you and for MKF Fisher! 😉

  • Reply apuginthekitchen June 16, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Love M.K.F Fisher, I have never tasted the tomato soup cake but have heard and read about it. It looks delicious and so moist. I have to give it a try.

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 16, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      Isn’t she wonderful!? I love that her legacy will live on right here in my kitchen and in kitchens around the world. And I love how she writes about that “hunger”….
      The cake is really really good – well worth trying.

  • Reply Dave More June 16, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Admirable and profound writing as always. Dave

  • Reply chef mimi June 17, 2013 at 7:53 am

    My first thought was eeeewwwww. But if you make it and like it, it must be good! lovely post

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 17, 2013 at 8:02 am

      I agree Mimi – the thought is pretty eeewww! I might not even read this post if someone else wrote it and I didn’t know about MKF. But I LOVE MKF Fisher – her intellect – her honesty – that beautiful “crystalline” writing – her quest to satiate that hunger of the human condition – and her phenomenal ability in the kitchen. I think I’d try anything she came up with. The cake is actually amazing!
      And thank you for the lovely compliment. You are very generous. xx

  • Reply tinywhitecottage June 17, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I imagine this cake is wonderful. I love your post today! Great little reminder of M.K.F.Fisher. We have a restaurant here in Seattle called “How to Cook a Wolf” and it too is a lovely reminder. Great restaurant!

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 17, 2013 at 5:47 pm

      I’m going to be in Washington and Oregon later this summer and made the decision to bypass Seattle and instead go up the Olympic Peninsula and take ferries along the coast back to British Columbia. I think if I’d known about the How to Cook a Wolf restaurant – I’d have planned a different route! I’m so happy to know about other MKF Fisher fans. And the restaurant – well that will have to be another trip…

  • Reply laura mechefske June 17, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Hummm… I think I like this tomato soup cake idea… I seems to suit an afternoon picnic by the water, perched on a piece of chipped china in the centre of a thick wool blanket under a willow tree. And no other way to serve it would quite do justice.
    I am definitely going to try this dessert! Thanks for the amazing post, as always.

    xoxoxoLAURA

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 17, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      Well – it’s pretty good in the garden. And it’s also pretty good right out of the Tupperware container while standing in front of the pantry. So even though a great old piece of chipped china and a beautiful woollen blanket under the willow tree would be a charming setting – strictly speaking – it’s not necessary to go to all that trouble! (When you’re talking chipped china – are you thinking of my blue cake plate with the chip out of it – the one in the photograph?!). Your doting mother. xoxoxoxo

      • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 17, 2013 at 10:25 pm

        PS – Your grandmother used to make this cake. And I’m saving the chipped cake plate for you. Insert heart here. 😉

  • Reply johnnysenough hepburn June 17, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Have to go with the obvious, I’d neither heard of soup cake nor the food writer. Now I’m curious about both. Partly as I adore tomato soup, one of the few soups I’ve never made! This seems to be my new thing for summer…soups (as always) and baking.

    • Reply A Taste of Wintergreen June 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      Well then Johnny – the cake is way up your alley. 😉
      And please note that in her original recipe from How to Cook a Wolf, MKF Fisher said to use, “Raisins, figs, or what have you.” That’s how she wrote the recipe. But more to the point – FIGS! You’re onto figs lately.
      As for MKF Fisher, if you’ve got a library handy – I think you might really enjoy her. Her writing is perfectly exquisite. She was the ultimate food writer.

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