With baking activities on the rise but the availability of fresh ingredients strained, it might be the perfect time to revisit a recipe birthed out of a time of scarcity - The Great Depression Cake.
This cake has also been referred to as "War Cake" or "Wacky Cake," but it's essentially a light and fluffy vegan cake since it's made without any eggs or dairy. I don't know who should be credited for the original recipe, but it's believed to have been created during the Great Depression of the 1930s when all you had were readily available pantry ingredients and needed to adapt when you still wanted to celebrate and provide a treat for your loved ones.
Image of Great Depression Era Kitchen Stove. Credit: Shuttershock.
This idea of adapting might seem counter to the process of baking, which is known to have far less room for error than cooking. But there is quite a bit of adaptability involved when you're trying to substitute the key elements that make a delicious baked good - fats, sugars, leavening agents, liquids, and proteins. For example, you might switch out butter with vegetable oil for your fat, which is precisely what this recipe does.
Before I dive into the recipe though, I also wanted to briefly address why there might be such an increase in baking right now in kitchens throughout the world.
With most of the world staying indoors as we try to flatten the curve in this COVID-19 pandemic, people are definitely craving comfort and connection more than ever. Though cooking can be therapeutic as well, I argue that baking might be an even better outlet for several reasons that distinguish it from cooking:
- Baking provides structure and a sense of control.There is a sense of what you can expect at the end as you follow a recipe and measure out ingredients.
- Baking requires patience and precision. Cooking can be more improvisational.
- Unlike cooking, baking is associated more with desserts. With baking, you have the power to create basic sustenance (bread) or a treat (cake)!
Baking can feel especially therapeutic right now because of the sense of control and method it offers during a time dominated by what feels like chaos and the unknown. It's a practice that can engage all of your senses in a positive way, providing a chance to be tactile and creative with a very tangible, delicious reward waiting for you at the end.
We now have science to back up these speculations too!
Last summer (2019), I had the opportunity to carry out a pilot study with Carlow University professors Dr. Jennifer Roth (Psychology) and Dr. Beth Surlow (Biology) to explore the therapeutic impacts of baking as a potential form of art therapy. We designed a process that engaged people in a therapeutic art activity that incorporated baking and decorating cookies from scratch. To measure anxiety, we used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger, 1983), a reliable psychological survey to determine state and trait anxiety; state referring to one's present moment, and trait referring to one's typical reactions over time. In order to measure stress, we analyzed cortisol levels in saliva (cortisol being understood as the key hormone related to stress). Out of 30 total participants, we were able to use the data from 25 and found a statistically significant decrease in both self-reported anxiety and cortisol levels before and after therapeutic baking activities!
Pictured above are music and art therapists from the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh going through a test run of our research study design
So, what is therapeutic baking, and how is it different from ordinary baking? Essentially, intention and mindfulness.
Below are my tips on how to carry out mindful, therapeutic baking at home to reduce stress and anxiety based on our research:
1) Create space for it
In other words, minimize distractions so that you can stay as present as possible while baking. Carve out the time for it. Declutter your kitchen workspace so you can stay as present in the moment as possible as you follow your recipe. Turn off your phone. If you're a parent, you can still create a space together with your children by establishing that it's an intentional family activity you're all doing together.
2) Set an intention
When you work with a therapist, you typically set an objective as you work together to heal through interactive sessions. You can do something similar with mindful baking at home. You can set an intention as simple as, "I want to calm down," and then focus on regulating your breath throughout the baking process. If you're baking with your family or loved ones, you can set a more external intention of baking in order to gift something to your neighbors or offer support to your community.
3) Use the bake time as an opportunity to reflect
While your baked good is coming together in the oven, use the time to reflect on your intention. This can be an opportune time to journal, create art, just sit and focus on gratitude, etc. Another fun family suggestion is to take a moment to draw out how you might want to decorate the cake after it's baked, or what kind of sandwiches you want to make after the bread is done.
4) Approach baking as a metaphor for your life
I believe much of the baking process and ingredients can serve as metaphors for life. There's a lot of waiting and patience required with baking; how does that apply to your current life circumstances? Some recipes require you to "gently fold" in ingredients, otherwise you run the risk of deflating your batter. Sound familiar? Sometimes we need to remember to gently fold in changes to our lives. The current pandemic is certainly a time where we're feeling challenged because of abrupt changes being thrown into our lives instead.
Following some of these guidelines can help you practice an intentional, mindful approach to baking, although zoning out while baking tends to naturally happen. I've seen it happen consistently in my cookie decorating workshops across age groups; people will especially zone out when they start to ice and sprinkle. Even in group settings, people won't talk until after they're done decorating at least one cookie!
There is one final important note I want to share to distinguish therapeutic baking from bake therapy, and this applies to any established field of therapy like art or other expressive arts therapies. Anything that is therapeutic can be done without supervision and innately enjoyed by an individual as a healing or energizing activity. Any form of actual therapy is carried out in a co-created space with a licensed professional, and the healing process is more likely to be a long and difficult journey. The latter is what I hope and envision the field of Bake Therapy to be one day - a field that aspiring and licensed helping professionals can study and add to their toolkit to support their clients. It's widely accepted that we have multiple intelligences and learning styles. It only makes sense to me that our healing processes would be just as diverse. Baking can hopefully become a form of therapy that is effective for certain populations like me who use the kitchen as both a safe space and as an outlet.
Great Depression Opportunity Cake Recipe
- 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon vinegar (apple cider or regular)
- 6 tablespoons vegetable oil (or any oil without too strong of a flavor)
- 1 cup water
- Optional: 4 tablespoons cocoa powder (leave out if you want a vanilla cake instead!)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8" or 9" square pan (I used an 8" for the cake in the photo). Whisk together all dry ingredients; if you're adding cocoa, it's best to sift into the mix. Create a well in the center and add in all your wet ingredients. Mix until just combined. Pour into your pan and bake for 30 minutes. You can check that your cake is done when you insert a toothpick in the center, and it comes out clean. If underbaked, there will be batter on the toothpick.
I topped mine with peanut butter whipped cream. You can leave it naked or top with whatever frosting you want!
Questions to reflect on for mindful baking, specific to this recipe:
- This cake was created during an era marked by its scarcity, thus it was called The Great Depression Cake. I see so much more opportunity and resilience in this recipe though, as people still found ways to make cake anyways. In what ways can you take how we reframed this cake as The Great Opportunity Cake and apply it to your life?
- Vinegar and baking soda are used in this recipe to replace the leavening properties of an egg. In other words, it's the vinegar interacting in the batter that makes this cake rise. Is there any bitterness you're experiencing in your life right now? Reflect on how the present bitterness will actually teach you to rise higher in life. We all go through vinegary, bitter moments, but we also know life gets sweeter as we overcome them.