What’s In a Name?

A tomato soup cake that tastes like cinnamon.

Winter, 2020–21 / No. 46
Brian Francis

When it comes to my collection of community and church cookbooks, let’s just say I could open my own museum. Not that anyone would come to it. 

My cookbook collection’s origins span coast to coast, from Block Parent Associations in Melfort, Saskatchewan, to United Churches in Nova Scotia. Needless to say, I’ve become a bit of a scholar in regards to these coil-bound gems, and, after spending more than my share of Saturday nights poring over them in search of my next culinary masterpiece, I’ve learned a few things.

For starters, the local cooks who contributed to these books took a lot of pride in their dishes, even if the recipe instructions started with, “Open one can of . . .” After all, most of the recipes featured in these cookbooks included the name of the person who contributed it. Imagine the wrath you’d incur if you submitted a crappy recipe that wasted the time—and ingredients—of your neighbours and colleagues. 

Another thing I’ve learned is that there isn’t anything you can’t add a can of Campbell’s soup to. (I credit the sodium.) But more on that in a moment. A third thing I’ve noticed? The names of many recipes leave a lot to be desired. I’ve come across Pink Thing, White Stuff, Bun Spread, and Corn Ring. And while I’ve made all of these—and they were delicious—the names aren’t exactly what you’d call taste-bud motivators. Why, dear people, couldn’t you have been a little more creative when naming your recipes? Would it have killed you to throw in a couple of adjectives? I mean, I once saw a recipe for Make Do Squares. Could that culinary arrow point any lower?

Which brings us to this column’s recipe: Tomato Soup Cake. The name alone sends shudders. Some people even refuse to step into the same room as it. And I understand. The words “tomato,” “soup,” and “cake” seem like the unholiest of trinities. But believe me, Tomato Soup Cake is definitely worth making—and eating. You don’t get the taste of tomato soup at all. No one would ever even know there’s tomato soup in it. So, why name it that? Why not something more appetizing, like Cinnamon Raisin Spice Cake? That said, I have a theory that many of these home cooks loved the thrill of a secret ingredient, especially if that secret ingredient saved you the inconvenience of cracking eggs. 

Although Tomato Soup Cake is a staple in many of my cookbooks, this particular recipe hails from a very special book in my collection. It’s taken from the cookbook of St. Luke’s United Church, in Sarnia, Ontario—the church I attended growing up. (Although I haven’t been back to St. Luke’s in years, I still vividly recall the annual Christmas bazaars, the cubes of Wonder bread and shooters of grape juice we enjoyed at Communion, and the smell of percolated coffee at the after-service socials in the basement.) Added bonus: My mom’s name appears in this cookbook, although I don’t recognize any of the recipes she submitted. This proves a long-standing theory I have about her: my mom never actually made the recipes she submitted to our church cookbooks. Instead, she grabbed the latest copy of TV Guide and wrote down whatever was featured in that issue. 

In terms of taste, I can promise you that, if you like spice cake, you will absolutely love Tomato Soup Cake, especially with that topping of cream cheese frosting. You get the chew of the raisins, the aroma (scratch the photo to the right and find out for yourself!) and warmth of the cinnamon and cloves—and not a hint of tomato soup taste. Take my word for it. You can thank the church women of St. Luke’s United when you proudly serve this treat, ideally with a cup of percolated coffee. Just don’t tell your guests what it’s called.

Tomato Soup Cake
Ingredients
Cake:
1 cup white sugar
⅓ cup butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 can tomato soup
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
1 cup raisins

Frosting:
125 grams Philadelphia cream cheese
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup icing sugar

Directions

1. Cream together sugar and butter. 

2. Dissolve soda in soup and add to mixture of sugar and butter. Add flour, spices, and raisins, and mix well. 

3. Pour into a greased or parchment-paper-lined eight-inch-by-eight-inch cake pan and smooth out the top. 

4. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for thirty-five to forty minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

5. Beat frosting ingredients together well and spread over cooled cake. 

Brian Francis recently published a memoir, Missed Connections. His most recent novel, Break in Case of Emergency, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. He writes a monthly advice column for Quill and Quire, and is a regular columnist for CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. Last updated summer, 2021.