Tonight we’ll have a central Asian rice stew (because I have everything on hand, including two cups of cooked rice from last night’s curry), with Poverty Cake for dessert. Poverty Cake was a staple of my mother’s family during The War and was too good to let go when times got just marginally better in the fifties and sixties. I remember this cake sitting on the counter at the house on Tunxis Avenue, the dark brown of the cake showing through the brilliant white frosting on one slice – because my mother liked her’s plain.
This recipe is for the dark, rather chocolately version that includes cocoa. You can skip the cocoa and up the spices a little bit and it will still be very good. Some people prefer it this way. My family used Crisco, but my uncles preferred it sans cocoa and with bacon fat or lard for the shortening. My own variation is to add chocolate chips, and I’ve made it that way for decades so that’s how my family expects it. Obviously this recipe is a blank canvas on which to paint your wildest cake dreams, or something. It also packs well in a lunchbox.
Poverty Cake (from a recipe card in my mother’s handwriting)
Grease and flour a tube pan, regular size – not a Bundt pan. This isn’t a huge cake, which is another of it charms.
In a medium saucepan combine 1 C water, 1 C sugar, 1 C seeded raisins (can you buy non-seeded raisins nowadays?), 1 heaping Tbsp shortening (whatever), 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp cloves, 3 Tbsp cocoa (optional) 1 tsp salt. Boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Cool. (The cooling part is important. If you’re in a hurry go out and put the pan in a snowbank or something like I’m going to in a minute. If the mixture is still hot when you put in the flour and baking soda you’ll end up with little white sour clumps in the finished cake.)
Add 1 3/4 C flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp vanilla and about a cup of chocolate chips (optional). Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes, or until firm and glossy.
Frosting: A heap of confectioners sugar (about half a bag), add 3 Tbs melted butter and enough milk to make it spreadable. If you’re planning a vegan version, use Earthsource or another soy margarine and almond or soy milk, or follow in my mother’s footsteps and enjoy it without frosting.