This 100-Year-Old Cake Recipe Is Just as Delicious Today (2024)

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This 100-year-old one-bowl cake is an easy and flavorful retro dessert.


Mark Beahm

This 100-Year-Old Cake Recipe Is Just as Delicious Today (1)

Mark Beahm

Mark is the head baker at Hjem Kensington, a Danish café in London. He has been developing recipes for home bakers for the last two years.

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Updated April 01, 2024

This 100-Year-Old Cake Recipe Is Just as Delicious Today (2)

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Lately, I’ve been inspired by the retro baking recipes from tattered family cookbooks and recipe tins. While tweaking a vintage chocolate cake recipe called Depression cake, another cake from the same era and frugal spirit kept appearing in my searches. War cake is another eggless, milkless, butterless cake and it was begging to be baked each time I came across it.

War cake is a rustic cake loaded with dried fruit and spices. It’s denser than a pound cake but not yet in fruitcake territory. More utilitarian than showstopper, war cake is not the prettiest cake I’ve displayed on my kitchen table.

But it’s what’s on the inside that counts—a beautiful flavor and texture that stays moist for days. It has a comforting spicy molasses flavor that reminds me of my mom’s molasses cookies or the spiced ontbijtkoek my mother-in-law serves for breakfast when we visit her in the Netherlands.

What Is War Cake?

War cake is an eggless, milkless, butterless cake recipe that helped keep dessert on the table during the shortages and rationing periods of World War I, II, and the Great Depression. I’ve seen several other variations of the name, like 1918 war cake or Canadian war cake.

The cake is sweetened with dried fruits and molasses, honey, or brown sugar—all historically easier to acquire during lean times than white cane sugar. Like Depression cake, war cake contains no milk, using water for the liquid instead. Originally a butterless cake, bakers would use shortening or rendered fats, like tallow or bacon grease that they saved when cooking.

This 100-Year-Old Cake Recipe Is Just as Delicious Today (4)

My Take On a Modern War Cake

I didn’t feel like I needed to change many things about the vintage war cake recipes I found, but here are the substitutions I made for a tastier cake that’s suited to modern pantries.

  • Many versions called for molasses, but I prefer using just brown sugar. When I tried using molasses or a mix of molasses and brown sugar, the molasses flavor completely took over.
  • Instead of water, I plumped the dried fruit in coffee. They soak up the coffee, brown sugar, and butter and I was tempted to eat them warm right out of the pot. The coffee flavor wasn't strong in the baked cake but accentuated the flavor of the brown sugar and dried fruits.
  • Using butter in a cake that’s traditionally butter-free may be contentious, but I prefer butter's rich flavor to shortening, and rendered fats seemed a bit too strong and savory a flavor.

Simple Swaps and Substitutions

Frugality and making do with what you have on hand are at the essence of this cake, making ingredient swaps and substitutions not only easy but authentic.

  • I use half raisins and half chopped dates. You can try sultanas, currants, dried apricots, dried cherries, prunes, or candied citrus peels, chopping larger fruits into raisin-sized pieces.
  • You can add 1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped toasted nuts like walnuts or pecans. Reduce the dried fruit by the same amount.
  • For a nuttier flavor, try replacing half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat or dark rye flour. Many versions of this cake called for barley flour or other grains to conserve the use of wheat.
  • I love how the coffee accentuates the molasses flavors from the brown sugar and dried fruits. You can substitute brewed coffee with 1 cup of water and 2 to 3 teaspoons of instant coffee granules. If you prefer the cake to be caffeine-free, you can use decaf coffee or plain water.

This 100-Year-Old Cake Recipe Is Just as Delicious Today (5)

Retro Cake Recipes

  • Chocolate Depression Cake
  • Dr. Pepper Cake
  • Lazy Daisy Cake
  • Bumpy Cake
  • Sad Cake

War Cake

Prep Time15 mins

Cook Time30 mins

Total Time45 mins

Servings8to 10 servings

Yield1 (8-inch) cake


  • 2 cups (300g) dried fruit, such as raisins, chopped dates, and/or currants

  • 1 cup (213g) packed light brown sugar

  • 1 cup (240ml) strong brewed coffee

  • 1/3 cup (75g) unsalted butter

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • Powdered sugar, for serving, optional


  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

    Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan that's at least 2 inches deep. Line the bottom with parchment paper and grease. Dust the sides and parchment paper with flour and tap out the excess.

  2. Boil the dried fruit:

    In a medium saucepan, combine the dried fruit, brown sugar, coffee, and butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Continue to boil for 3 minutes. The butter will melt, the brown sugar will dissolve, and the dried fruit will plump. Take the pan off the heat and set it aside for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

    Simple Tip!

    A medium pot will seem oversized at first, but the tall sides of the pot come in handy. When adding the baking soda, it will foam up like a volcano science experiment. Plus, we will mix the cake right in the saucepan to save on dishes.

  3. Add the dry ingredients:

    Sprinkle in the baking soda; the mixture will bubble and foam. Carefully stir the mixture with a silicone spatula.

    Add the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, baking powder, and salt to the saucepan. Stir with a silicone spatula just until combined and no lumps of dry flour remain.

  4. Bake:

    Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean or with a moist crumb or two attached (no wet batter), about 30 minutes.

    Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife around the edge of the cake, then turn it out onto a rack to cool completely, peeling off the parchment. Dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar and serve.

    Store the cake, covered tightly, at room temperature for up to a week. The cake can be frozen for up to 3 months. After cooling, wrap the cake in one layer of plastic wrap and one layer of aluminum foil. Thaw the cake, still wrapped, in the fridge overnight.

    Love the recipe? Leave us stars and a comment below!

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
7g Fat
74g Carbs
4g Protein


Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8to 10
Amount per serving
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7g8%
Saturated Fat 4g19%
Cholesterol 16mg5%
Sodium 225mg10%
Total Carbohydrate 74g27%
Dietary Fiber 2g7%
Total Sugars 49g
Protein 4g
Vitamin C 1mg4%
Calcium 56mg4%
Iron 2mg11%
Potassium 296mg6%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.

Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.

This 100-Year-Old Cake Recipe Is Just as Delicious Today (2024)
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