War Cake – A Part of Wartime Culinary History

Remembrance Day Service at the cenotaph in front of Province House, Charlottetown, PEI, Canada [11 November 2012]
Every year on November 11th we pause to remember the sacrifices and achievements of those who valiantly and selflessly served our country in times of war and conflict, and in peacekeeping missions around the world.  We remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice – their lives for their country so future generations could have a better, more secure life.  We think about their achievements and the role they played in forming Canada’s nationhood.  We thank them for the peace, freedom, and human rights we enjoy in Canada today.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough never to have known or experienced war have opportunities to demonstrate our respect and gratitude for, and remembrance of, these acts of bravery and sacrifice.  For example, we wear a poppy on the left breast, close to the heart to signify remembrance of the lives lost.  

Poppy

Thousands of people across the country will attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in their local communities where they will respectfully observe a moment’s silence at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month to mark the time the Armistice was signed to end WWI.  Wreaths will be laid in commemoration.

Remembrance Day Wreath

One of the most well-known poems about war was written in May, 1915, by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian Medical Officer in WWI.  While stationed near Ypres, Belgium, where some of the most horrific and bloodiest fighting of WWI occurred, he was motivated to write about the death he saw around him and of the prolific red poppies growing amidst the devastation of war in the Flanders area of western Belgium.  His poem, “In Flanders Fields” has become synonymous with Remembrance Day in Canada and Lt. Col. McCrae is often credited with being the catalyst that led to the poppy being identified as the symbol of remembrance of the blood shed by soldiers who were casualties of battle.

 

“In Flanders Fields”

On this Remembrance Day, I am going to focus my food blog feature story on war cake, a wartime dessert that is still made and served in several Island households today.

War Cake

As a small child I well remember my grandmother making war cake and this was long after WWII had ended.  I loved her war cake!  It is such a simple raisin-spice cake that is characterized by the absence of eggs and milk — ingredients that would have been scarce during wartime.  This cake is sometimes referred to as “boiled raisin cake” because raisins form the main content and the majority of the ingredients are boiled, then cooled, before they are mixed with flour and baking soda and then baked in the oven.  Because of food shortages during war time, many foods were rationed. 

Ration Books, Cards, and Stickers

Born of necessity, homemakers during wartime became resourceful, frugal, adaptable, and creative in order to feed their families.  Cooking tended to be very basic.  Women were known to have saved their ration stickers so they could buy the raisins and sugar that the war cake recipe called for – thus war cake would have been a very prized commodity. 

War cake was made for consumption on the home front but many also made the cakes in tin cans and packed them in socks, mittens, and underwear they were shipping overseas for their loved ones serving in the war.  Imagine the excitement when a soldier would have received this package from home and discovered a mother’s or sister’s war cake inside!  Amazingly, with the slow mail and ship service during WWI and WWII, there is evidence these cakes were received as the soldiers would refer to them in their letters home, letters that would have looked much like the July 7, 1914, letter in the photograph below.

Letter from a soldier written from “Somewhere in France” on July 7, 1914.  In the letter, the soldier encloses two pansies as “souvenirs from France”, one flower each for the young lady he was writing to and her mother.  All these years later, the pressed pansies have still retained their color and are intact.
Old War Cake Recipes

In my research for this story, I examined many recipes for war cake and found similarities amongst them all.  Some were very sketchy in terms of amount of ingredients to be put in the batter and many were almost totally devoid of any directions. While the amounts of the ingredients may vary slightly, all of the recipes I reviewed were essentially the same in ingredient content. All called for big, sticky raisins (you may know these as “Lexia” raisins), a variety of spices of the cook’s choice, either brown or white sugar or a combination of both, shortening or lard, boiling water, flour, and soda.  One thing I noted was the significant amount of sugar that the recipes called for – i.e., two cups per cake.  Sugar was one item that was commonly rationed during wartime and a cake taking two cups of sugar would certainly have been considered a luxurious dessert, I am sure.  Flavour may vary from cake to cake based on spices used in the batter.  The choice of spices varies but typically consisted of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, as a minimum, with ginger frequently appearing in recipes.  I added mace and cardamom to my cake  to give it a bit more flavour (recipe follows at end).

Ingredients for War Cake

I am told these cakes were often made with lard (as opposed to butter) for a couple of reasons.  First, lard has a longer shelf life than butter would have had and, for cakes being sent overseas to the soldiers, it would have been a long journey for the cakes to reach Europe so shelf life of the cakes was an important factor.  Second, butter was often scarce during wartime because there were no big herds of cattle on local farms so butter would have been used sparingly, even for those living on farms and churning their own.  Lard, on the other hand, would have been much more readily available, particularly on farms.  I found a couple of recipes that indicated either butter or shortening could be used in the recipe; however, butter was called for in a much lesser quantity than the shortening, if the latter was used instead.  For example, I found one recipe that called for 2 tablespoons of butter or 1 cup of shortening which demonstrates how judiciously butter would have been used, if at all.

While its ingredients are simple, war cake takes some time to make.  All of the ingredients, except the flour and soda, are boiled on the stove for 5 minutes.   Then it is important to let the boiled raisin mixture cool to room temperature as the mixture will thicken naturally on its own as it cools.   This will normally take 4-5 hours.  If the flour and soda are added into a mixture that is too hot, the result is likely to be a gummy cake.  When the raisin mixture is cooled, the flour and soda are stirred in and the mixture turned into the baking pan.  My grandmother made her war cake in a loaf pan; however, traditionally, war cake seems to have been made in some kind of a round pan – usually a tube pan or, in the case of overseas shipping during war time, in tin cans.  War cake is a very dense cake which makes it sometimes difficult to get the center of the cake baked without drying out the outside edges.  It is also a heavier type cake which makes it somewhat prone to falling in the center.  A tube (or Bundt pan, if you have one) removes the baking uncertainty and helps the cake to bake more evenly.  

War Cake Baked in a Bundt Pan

 

War cakes take, on average, about an hour to bake.  The old recipes I reviewed didn’t even mention baking the cake let alone at what temperature (in fact, one recipe simply said “to thicken” but didn’t elaborate on what thickening agent was to be used!).  These recipes predate our modern electronic ovens!  While some suggest baking the cake at 350F, I thought that might be a bit high so I baked my war cake at 335F for one hour.  Because there are no eggs or milk in the cake for moistness, it is very easy to overbake the cake and end up with a dry product.  Hence, it is important to time the baking carefully and to use a cake tester starting at about the 45-minute point.  If the cake starts to darken on the top or edges too quickly, simply place a piece of tin foil loosely over the top.  Adding a small pan of water to the lower shelf in the oven while baking the cake will also help to keep the cake moist. 

Including a Small Pan of Hot Water on the Bottom Shelf of the Oven Helps to Keep the Cake Moist During Baking

Because of the texture of the cake, it may seem soft on the top and not baked; however, if a cake tester comes out of the cake clean, it’s time to remove it from the oven before it dries out.

War cake is a “stick to the ribs” substantial, hearty kind of cake.  It goes particularly well with a nice cup of tea. 

War Cake and Tea

In keeping with the traditional way war cake was served, I have photographed the cake plain, just as it would have been eaten during wartime. 

Sliced War Cake

War cake was not traditionally iced.  However, it would be lovely served with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla or maple ice cream.  It could also be dressed with a brown sugar sauce or, to make a plain cake really decadent, why not serve all three – ice cream, brown sugar sauce, and whipped cream! 

War Cake on a Tea Table

 

War Cake

Regardless where you are in the world, if you have any wartime memories (either your own or those passed down to you from your ancestors) of war cake made for consumption on the home front or to send to the soldiers fighting the war, I would love to hear about them.   War cake is a part of wartime culinary history.

Here are some photographs of the Remembrance Day Ceremony at the cenotaph in downtown Charlottetown, PEI, this morning.

Remembrance Day in Charlottetown, PEI [11 November 2012]
Lest We Forget

 

Hon. Robert W.J. Ghiz, Premier of the Province of Prince Edward Island lays a wreath on behalf of the people of the Island at the Remembrance Day Service in Charlottetown, PEI [11 November 2012]
Small Child Watches as a Veteran lays a Wreath at the Remembrance Day Service in Charlottetown, PEI ]11 November 2012]

 

Remembrance Day 2012

 

Veterans Laying Wreaths at Remembrance Day Service in Charlottetown, PEI [11 November 2012]
At the Charlottetown Cenotaph – Remembrance Day 2012

 

Flag Flies at Half-Mast on Remembrance Day, Charlottetown, PEI [11 November 2012]

 

 

War Cake

By Barbara99 Published: November 11, 2012

  • Yield: 1 cake (12-14 Servings)
  • Prep: 5 hrs 0 min
  • Cook: 60 mins
  • Ready In: 6 hrs 0 min

An old-fashioned cake made with large sticky raisins and a mixture of spices. Common cake during war time.

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Assemble ingredients.
  2. Into a large saucepan, place the shortening, brown sugar, raisins, salt, spices, and boiling water. Over medium-high heat, bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and boil mixture for five minutes. Remove from heat and set saucepan on cooling rack. Let mixture cool to room temperature (4-5 hours), stirring occasionally.
  3. In bowl, whisk the flour and baking soda together. Set aside.
  4. When raisin mixture has cooled completely, add the flour and baking soda. Stir until dry ingredients have been completely mixed into the raisin mixture.
  5. Spoon mixture into greased pan. Add a small pan of hot water to lower shelf in oven for moisture while cake is baking. Bake cake on middle rack in 335F preheated oven. If cake starts to brown on the top too quickly, loosely place a piece of tin foil on top of cake. Bake apx. 1 hour but begin to test cake for doneness, using a cake tester, at the 45-minute point as cake can dry out very quickly.
  6. Remove cake from oven and place pan on cooling rack for 10 minutes then remove from pan. Allow cake to cool completely before cutting.

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Roasted Marinara Sauce on Halloween Pasta

Roasted Marinara Sauce with Sun-dried Tomato Pork Sausage on Halloween Pasta

I was looking for a meal to serve that would have a Halloween theme when I came across these wonderful orange and black Italian-made farfalle pasta.  I bought them not knowing how I would prepare and serve them.  They just looked so fun and season-appropriate that I couldn’t pass them by!  Served with locally-made sun-dried tomato and pork sausage tossed in a rich and flavourful homemade marinara sauce, and topped with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, this pasta dish was a real hit.  Add a freshly toasted garlic and cheese roll and a glass of red wine, and this meal is easily dressed up.

Italian-made Durum Wheat Semolina Farfalle Pasta

I am very lucky as we have a great little meat shop in Charlottetown, located at the Riverview Country Market on Riverside Drive.  Using locally-produced pork from Home Town Pork in Morell, PEI, they make several varieties of wonderful sausages onsite.  The variety I chose for this dish was sun-dried tomato and I was not disappointed – it was really good!  They tell me their sausages are all natural with no additives or preservatives.  I also dropped by our local “Liquid Gold” store and picked up two new products (will soon need extra cupboards to store all these oils and balsamic vinegars in!) — a bottle of oregano white balsamic vinegar and one of organic Tuscan herb infused olive oil were added to my growing collection!  Both were used in the marinara sauce and I also cooked the sausage in a small amount of the Tuscan olive oil.  Freshness matters and I find their products are super-fresh.

My recipe for the marinara sauce is my own creation.  Don’t be put off by the number of ingredients — it takes them all to make the flavour.  I like to roast the vegetables for the sauce because it gives them a distinct and rich flavour that I would classify as “full-bodied” in any dish.  After they are roasted, I break them up loosely with a potato masher.  There is no need to worry about getting them crushed completely at this point since that will occur later during the purée stage.  All that needs to happen at this point is that they are crushed enough to allow their juices and flavours to permeate the sauce while it cooks.  I like to use the immersion blender to purée the sauce in the stock pot.  I tend to like the sauce a bit on the chunky side so I don’t purée it completely smooth but that is a matter of personal taste.  If you don’t have an immersion blender, a food processor can, of course, be used – just make sure you let the mixture cool before placing it in the processor.  The sauce takes a bit of time to make but it is good (and the house smells divine in the process!).  This recipe makes about 3 1/2 cups but it is easily doubled.  The sauce also freezes really well which makes meal preparation quick and easy on a busy evening.  I cooked the sun-dried tomato pork sausage, then sliced it into thin slices (about 1/8th inch thick) before tossing it in the sauce and serving it over the pasta.

This was a fun dish to create and even more fun to eat, particularly with the orange and black Halloween pasta!

Halloween Pasta Served with Roasted Marinara Sauce

 

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Roasted Marinara Sauce

By Barbara99 Published: October 30, 2012

  • Yield: 3 1/2 cups

A rich, thick, flavourful tomato sauce that is a great accompaniment to pasta or pizza

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut vegetables into 1/2" - 1" pieces. Slice the parsnip slightly thinner. Place in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil, tossing to coat vegetables. Place on tin foil lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast for about 40 minutes until vegetables are slightly fork tender and edges of vegetables start to char slightly. Peel garlic. Transfer vegetables and garlic to stock pot and, with a potato masher, loosely break up the vegetable chunks.
  2. Add remainder of ingredients. Over medium-high heat, bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat and simmer over low heat for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf. Using an immersion blender, purée sauce to desired consistency. (Alternatively, let mixture cool and transfer to food processor to purée.)
  4. Toss with pasta (and meat, if using) or use as pizza sauce. Freezes well.

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Maple Syrup Baked Beans (from My Island Bistro Kitchen)

My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Maple Syrup Baked Beans

Growing up, baked beans was a traditional Saturday night supper in our household.  While I haven’t continued the Saturday night tradition, I do frequently have baked beans on the menu.

Baked beans make a very economical dish and freeze well for reheating later in the microwave.  These are a staple packaged in meal-portion sized dishes in my freezer.  I will make up a large batch and then divide them into serving sized containers that will freeze well.  I serve baked beans with homemade bread and molasses and mustard pickles and sometimes tomato chow.  When prepared ahead, they make a quick and nutritious meal.

We know beans are a good source of fiber and protein so they are good for our diet.  Making your own homemade beans is not difficult although it is a somewhat lengthy process:  The beans have to be soaked in water overnight, pre-cooked for about an hour or so, then baked in the oven for about 3 hours.  The bonus of homemade beans, however, is that they taste so much better than canned beans off the store shelf.

I like to use yellow-eye beans as I find they cook well and are not hard as I find dark beans to be.  My grandmother always grew the dark beans solely for the purpose of drying them and using them to make baked beans.  I always found the beans to be very hard despite that she would have baked them in a bean crock in the wood stove oven for hours and hours.

Soaking the dried beans accomplishes three things:

1) It softens the beans and lessens the cooking and baking times (the beans also expand to double or triple their size in the soaking process);

2) It allows the beans to absorb the liquid (become rehydrated) thus they will cook more evenly and hold their shape when baked (i.e., they won’t split open or become mushy)

3) It removes the indigestible complex sugars, making the beans easier to digest.

The jury is still out on adding a small amount of baking soda to the cooking process of the beans.  Some say doing so will make the beans more tender, particularly if the water is hard.  Others claim the soda may also aid in digesting the beans while others subscribe to the theory that the baking soda does nothing for the beans.  My mother always added the baking soda to the beans and I continue the practice of adding 1/2 tsp of baking soda when cooking beans.  I figure 1/2 tsp will not harm the beans and, if it does do some good, so much the better.

Beans, on their own with no seasonings, can be very bland and tasteless.  I don’t think my grandmother added much to her baked beans other than some molasses, brown sugar, and water.  My mother always added some onion and ground mustard along with molasses, brown sugar, and water but very little else.  I like to gently spice the beans up a bit and, over the years, have perfected a recipe that suits my taste.  When an ingredient calls for a “dash”, I use an actual measuring spoon that has the “dash” as a measurement.  Spices, and the amount added, are very much a personal preference so each cook should adjust them to his or her own tastes.  My recommendation, of course, is to make the recipe the first time using the measurements called for and then decide what needs to be adjusted for the next time.  As well, if there is a particular spice that you absolutely do not like, simply omit it.  The recipe that I have developed does not use large amounts of any one spice.  I did this because I still wanted the original bean taste and didn’t want any particular spice to overpower the natural taste of a traditional baked beans dish.

Some like to add salt pork, regular bacon, or cut-up weiners to the baked beans.  I prefer just the beans but that is a personal preference and meats can certainly be added, if desired.

As those of you who have been following my blog will know, I recently went to Woodville Mills, near Cardigan, PEI, to visit a sugar shack that was in operation producing maple syrup.  Since I like to add some maple syrup to my baked beans, I thought this was a good time to share my recipe with you so, here it is.  Enjoy!

My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Maple Syrup Baked Beans

Ingredients:

 Method:

Place beans in large bowl.  Add enough cold water to completely cover the beans. Cover.   Soak overnight.

Soaking the Dried Beans
Soaking the Dried Beans

Drain soaked beans in colander.  Discard water.  Place beans in large pot and add 4 cups fresh cold water.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and add 1/2 tsp baking soda.  Cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally and fork-testing beans for doneness.  Beans should still be firm but not hard when cooked.  Do not overcook or beans will become mushy and lose their shape.

Drain the beans in large colander, reserving the liquid.  Set liquid aside. Rinse the beans with cold water.  Place beans in 2-quart casserole or small roaster pan.  Add remaining ingredients and 3 cups of the reserved liquid.  Stir gently until well combined.

Ingredients for Maple Syrup Baked Beans
Ingredients for Maple Syrup Baked Beans

Bake, covered, in 300F oven for about 3 hours or until beans are fork-tender.  Check beans 2-3 times during baking and add more liquid if needed.

Baked Beans
Baked Beans