Depression Cake

depression cake w/figs

i’m not sure what made me think of it, but i had a memory recently of a chocolate cake that i used to help my mom make when i was little. normally kid “help” in the kitchen doesn’t really equate to assistance, but this cake is so non-fussy that i think i may have actually been doing some of the work (mom, am i making this up?).

i couldn’t remember what the cake was called initially, but i remembered that it involved cocoa, baking soda, and vinegar, and that it was mixed in the baking dish. a bit of googling yielded the name: wacky cake. i guess it’s wacky because of the weird ingredients, and the fact that you just kind of throw it all together and it magically comes out of the oven as something edible…? the googling also garnered a number of hits referring to something quite similar, but by the name of depression cake. apparently this style of cake was pretty common in the 1930’s, when people didn’t have access to dairy products. “depression cake” is a much more interesting name than “wacky cake,” i think. more serious… and somehow a serious cake that hails from harder times is more enticing than a goofy cake that makes you wonder if it’s even edible.

i settled on this cake that night… different name, same ingredients. i went the water route because i didn’t feel like making coffee at the time. the cake was pretty good, and the flavor was as i remembered, but i had forgotton that it tasted a little weird… not enough depth to it. it didn’t have enough cocoa in it! if you know me, you know that “didn’t have enough cocoa” isn’t the kind of thing that i’m likely to say – presented with the option, i will choose the fruit dessert over chocolate every single time. and yet, here i am talking about baking chocolate cake twice in one week. wacky.

right, on to the second attempt. i made some modifications, and here’s how it ended up:

vietnamese coffee depression cake
(adapted from chocolate cake on

1 1/2 c flour
1/2 c cocoa powder
1 c sugar
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/4 t cardamom (approx.)
1 c strong iced vietnamese coffee (i used trung nguyen legendee)
1/2 c vegetable oil
2 t maple extract
2 t balsamic vinegar

preheat oven to 350F. put all dry ingredients into an ungreased square baking pan (8×8″ i think), and mix with a whisk until well combined. in a bowl*, mix the coffee, oil, and maple extract, then add to the dry ingredients. whisk until all dry ingredients have been incorporated… it will be fairly smooth. add the vinegar and quickly whisk that into the mixture so that it’s evenly distributed (you’ll know because it’s going to start to bubble and you’ll see lighter streaks where the vinegar is strongest). pop it in the oven, and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

depression cake
depression cake
depression cake

the genius who invented this must have been paying attention in science class during the volcano experiment… the baking soda and vinegar in this cake make it so light! this version had a great deal more flavor than the last, and was a rich and striking dark color as well. one thing to note is that this isn’t the type of cake that gets more delicious as the days go by (like a carrot cake)… it’s surprisingly moist for a couple of days, but then it will start to dry out.

we were really impressed (L called it “remarkable”)… i think i’ll be making this again.

depression cake, round 1
the first try

* i used a bowl, but i really don’t think it’s necessary. i’m pretty sure we added everything directly to the pan of dry ingredients when i was a kid.


9 thoughts on “Depression Cake

    • i know – it’s kind of an anomaly. we were startled with how well the second one came out. i’m not really big on frosting, but they’d be good as cupcakes with a little whipped cream on top. got to get the fat in there somehow. heh.

  1. Mmmm, looks delicious! I was just looking at a similar cake recipe the other day. Yours is enticing because there is cardamom in it – always looking for a reason to use cardamom! YUM.

    Oh, and the figs look beautiful.

    • thanks! i made a cardamom banana cake recently, too. such a wonderful, comforting spice. my mom makes an excellent cardamom tea cake… the recipe has changed a bit over the years, but i’ve got it somewhere (note to self).

  2. Cardamom lifts the spirits in heart chakra and breath/prana according to Ayurveda, and helps digest. U R right Rena Bena – we made wacky cake right in the baking pan and it cooked up/released from the pan nice, looking much like yours here. Love the fig association! I’d be adding cardamom now too. Don’t have you underfoot anymore to cook for so rarely make a cake, but I still have that cardamom tea cake recipe – actually was from the Age of Enlightenment Cookbook by Meriam Kasin heavily updated into scrumptious and a little too sweet but wonderful thick volumed cross cultural commentary and ayurvedic cookbook called Heaven’s Banquet. The cardemummakakka (that tea cake) is still in it.

  3. oh yes, it was a good “short person” participant project. Those days I used carob, and discovered it was better with a little concentrated coffee for flavor. Now I avoid carob, coffee and chocolate except special events. I would try this one for sure. Balsamic?! Brilliant! – Mom

  4. I would think that the coffee route would add some of the missing depth. And vinegar is the secret ingredient in many a cake…especially red velvet. Light fluffy and moist.

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