The Depression-Era Vegan Vinegar Cake You Should Know

Chocolate Depression Cake sounds like something out of an early 2000's Tumblr meme but it's actually a delicious (and vegan) dessert from the 1930's. During the Great Depression, nearly a quarter of the U.S. population was unemployed. Times were tough and food was scarce. Out from the darkness came Wacky Cake, made entirely without milk, eggs, or butter since dairy was outside the budget of most Americans at the time. The butter is substituted with oil, which helps to keep the cake moist. Eggs, which are the leavening agent – the ingredient that helps the cake rise –are replaced by baking soda and vinegar.

The lack of dairy isn't the only thing that's wacky about this dessert, though. It's a one-pan process: You pour all of the ingredients into the cake pan and mix it together before placing it straight into the oven. (For those of you unfamiliar with the complicated alchemy of baked goods, that's pretty unusual.)

For a variety of reasons that aren't entirely clear, Depression Era food is regaining popularity these days. Perhaps partly due to the pandemic and the concurrent economic downturn, families are looking for cheap and readily available recipes that still satisfy our cravings for sweets. Thus, Wacky Cake is riding that wave back into the public culinary sphere.

The rich history of Wacky Cake

Wacky Cake goes by many names: Impossible Cake, Cockeyed Cake, Wonder Cake, or Crazy Cake. Whatever you call it, it's surprisingly delicious considering one of its key ingredients is vinegar. The true origins of the cake are a mystery. It may have originated during World War One when the sacrifices of food rationing compelled the people back home to get creative in the kitchen. We know for sure that it was widely used by the time of the Great Depression. Even after the Depression had peaked, during World War Two, dairy was rationed again,[lo0 further solidifying its place in the American zeitgeist as an alternative to the classic cake formula.

In the '60s and '70s, Wacky Cake came back as an American staple as the children of the Depression grew up and started raising their own families. Many public schools included it in their cafeteria menu and you can find references to it scattered throughout cookbooks and food magazines throughout the second half of the 20th century.

How to make Wacky Cake

Making Wacky Cake is easier than any other cake you'll ever try. Start by heating the oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Grab an 8 X 11 baking pan and pour in the dry ingredients: 1½ cups of all-purpose flour, ⅓ cup of unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Mix them together. Then, with your finger or a spoon, create three divots to pour the wet ingredients into. You'll want to have a bigger divot for the oil than the other two but don't worry if it overflows — you're about to mix it all together anyway.

In separate divots pour 1 teaspoon of white vinegar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, and ⅓ cup vegetable oil. Now take 1 cup of water and pour it over the whole thing before whisking it all together. Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes until you can stick a toothpick in the middle and it comes out with just a few crumbs. You can serve it with chocolate frosting or as is. Alternatively, you can switch out the water for coffee to make a chocolate coffee cake.