Let me first point out that if you decide to make this cake for anyone, call it by it’s other name, ‘Mystery Cake.’ I first heard of Tomato Soup Cake when I was flipping through a Michigan cookbook when I was working at a historic village during summer break after my Freshman year of college. It was at a time in my life when I considered cooking to consist of pouring a bowl of cereal or making a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. I was immediately disgusted with the very idea and promptly forgot about the whole thing until I started working on this blog. I prepared this cake the day before two of my college roommates arrived here from Michigan. As soon as they were in the door I had them seated at the table with a wedge of cake, impatient for them to taste the mystery ingredient. They were both stumped, guessed it was carrot cake (it looks very similar in colour and the taste is not too far off), and seemed a bit surprised when I gleefully pulled out a can of tomato soup for the big reveal. I have to say that the entire cake is now gone so in the end the can of soup is not too much of a deterrent, after all, it is delicious.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup, 1962
Oil on canvas, 30 x 23 cm, Kunstmuseum St.Gallen

As the leading figure in Pop Art, Andy Warhol introduced the idea of using popular icons (advertisements, celebrities, and brands) as the art subject. He had a tendency to take things literally and when a friend suggested he paint the things he loved, he did just that (1). His first major exhibition consisted of his Campbell’s Soup Can Series that he silkscreened onto canvas with lettering then hand painted. After the opening of the show a bit of a scandal erupted because his art only attempted to replicate a manufactured object but by expanding the preconceived notions of subject material, his depiction of the mundane helped to elevate him in art circles all over the country (2). His silkscreen canvases were made in a very mechanical and methodical way and the art studio where he worked was called the Factory. Warhol mimicked the repetitive way the manufactured objects in his art were initially created by employing a method that allowed him to create many identical multiples of the paintings.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Can – Pepper Pot, ca. 1966
mixed media / found object, 10 x 6.7 x 6.7 cm, University of Michigan Museum of Art

While I was an art history student at the University of Michigan I visited the Pop! exhibition in 2005. It was there that I found and photographed the work of art above. Warhol moved from reproducing the iconic branding on canvas to creating sculptures that mimicked the packing crates the products arrived in. A couple years later, Warhol finally began signing the cans of soup themselves à la Marcel Duchamp and his readymade sculpture the urinal he called Fountain. It is Warhol’s signature alone that elevates this banal can of soup into a credible work of art while paying homage to the series that made him famous. No other can of soup has had such an illustrious history so in the end, basing a cake around it does not seem so silly.

It is not only the soup that has a long history, the cake recipe has had its share of fame in it’s 90 years of existence. First published in a recipe booklet by Campbell’s, the cake was featured in the 1942 book, How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher. In her book she writes “This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure.” The recipe was useful in the 30’s during the Depression and at that time was made with no eggs and almost no butter. In the 1960’s the recipe was revitalized and become more of an assembled concoction of water, a spice mix, and a can of soup (3). My recipe is in line with those found in the 1930’s that created the cake from scratch and although you may decide to call it ‘Mystery Cake’ it may be more apt to call it by it’s third and final name ‘Conversation Cake.’

{Tomato Soup Cake}

The cake will keep 3 to 4 days in an airtight container. The flavors compliment autumnal recipes and is best served with strong coffee.

Yield: 8 servings

2 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, cloves, ginger, mixed
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 can tomato soup
1 cup chopped hazelnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, 5 minutes on medium-high setting. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each for 30 seconds. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with soup, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat well after each addition for 1 minute. Beat 1 minute longer, then fold in nuts with a spatula.

Pour into two 8-inch round layer pans which have been greased and lined on the bottom with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in pans, then remove to wire rack to cool thoroughly, 20 to 30 minutes. Frost with cream cheese frosting.

{Cream Cheese Frosting}

Adapted from Jamie’s America

125g cream cheese, softened
75g butter, softened
1 cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
juice & zest from 1/2 lemon

Cream together cream cheese and butter. Slowly add the icing sugar as well as the vanilla and lemon until well mixed.