A kitchen goes to war

A moist and rich chocolate cake you can put together in less than 10 minutes, with ingredients that are affordable and most likely sitting in your pantry? Oh, and did I mention it’s vegan?

Friday night, the end of another week. Dinner’s over, and the mind turns to dessert. Where can an aspiring vegan get her late-night baked goods fix here in rural America? I rack my brain in vain, even though I suspect that I’m on my own for this one. The health food store closed at 5:30pm, and there are no vegan desserts at any of the other grocery stores in town. I recall with nostalgia living a few blocks from Whole Foods (in Alexandria, VA) and being able to run out to pick up one of their vegan pies or cakes in similar times of ‘need’. Now, the closest Whole Foods is about a 4-hour drive away, in Reno, NV. Don’t get me wrong, I love mountain living but sometimes there are inconveniences. This is one of those times.

I flip through cookbooks, eliminating recipes on the basis of “don’t have that ingredient”, “that’d take too long”, “too much effort”. Like I said, it’s Friday night, and it’s been a long week. I want to have my vegan cake and eat it too – preferably within the next hour.

Suddenly, I remember a recipe from my friend Jefferson, whose mom makes a chocolate cake based on a recipe from World War II. During this period, ingredients such as eggs, butter, and milk were sent overseas to feed the troops and, as a result, were expensive and in short supply on the home front. Housewives and cooks on both sides of the Atlantic had to get creative to work within the limits imposed by wartime rationing. The situation was particularly severe in Britain, where rationing lasted from 1940 to 1954; check out Lessons from wartime recipes and The Kitchen Front for some fascinating (and witty) insights on this period. It was the job of Lord Woolton, Britain’s Minister of Food from 1940-1943, to sell the concept of rationing to the public and teach people how to adapt traditional recipes to the constraints of a war economy. To support his cause, Lord Woolton created a popular ad campaign that included catchy verses about eating vegetables. As in:

” Those who have the will to win,

cook potatoes in their skin,

knowing that the sight of peelings,

deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.”

I have seen this type of cake referred to as War Cake, Depression Cake (a similar version was made during the Great Depression), and Wacky Cake (an allusion to the unconventional combination of ingredients). Whatever its name, this cake does justice to dessert – vegan or otherwise. What’s more, it is a reminder that in periods of deprivation (even if it’s just Friday night “I need my vegan cake” deprivation), you can usually find what you need, by getting creative with what you have.

Some final words of encouragement from Lord Woolton:

‘Carry on, Fighters on the Kitchen Front. You are doing a great job.’

World War II Chocolate Cake

1½  cups of flour

3 tablespoons cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup of sugar

½ teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons cooking oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 cup cold water

Sift dry ingredients in a greased 8×8-inch pan.  Make three grooves in mixture. Into one pour oil, into another vinegar, and into the third, vanilla. Pour cold water over all and mix thoroughly. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.

Notes: You can also make this in a bowl and then transfer to the pan. Serve plain or dusted with confectioner’s sugar or your favorite frosting. I spread some leftover blueberry-pomegranate syrup on mine, and then topped that with a quick chocolate ganache that I made (bring 2 tablespoons of water to a boil, add  ½ cup of chocolate chips and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup and mix off-heat until fully melted and smooth). Total time from start to finish (in this case, come-out-of-the-oven time) was about 40 minutes; a little longer if you intend to frost and have to wait for the cake to cool sufficiently.

High-altitude adjustments: This cake holds up well to altitude, and I had to make few modifications to bake it here at 4,500 feet. I reduced the baking soda by about 25% and increased the baking time by 10 minutes.