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WHAT SHE'S HAVING

When cooks in the Great Depression had no eggs and butter, they baked anyway

An unusual and delicious chocolate cake, mixed with cocoa and mayo, has stood the test of time

On a week when you haven’t been shopping yet, and need something sweet for the table, you might find Depression Chocolate Cake does the trick.
On a week when you haven’t been shopping yet, and need something sweet for the table, you might find Depression Chocolate Cake does the trick.Sheryl Julian for The Boston Globe

There are very real hardships right now, and getting unwanted substitutions in your supermarket delivery bags isn't one of them.

Hardships in the kitchen are when there is food rationing, like there was in the Great Depression and World War II, when there were very long lines (not like today’s short ones where you can knock off a bunch of e-mails or check Instagram while you stand there).

Author Laura Shapiro, an authority on the history of American home cooking, calls Depression cooking “fear cuisine,” but there was a way that housewives could offer their families a treat. In a 2008 article in gourmet.com, she writes, “Sweetness became a staple ingredient in fear cuisine, the number-one source of comfort for comfort-food cooks.”

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Sugar and butter were both rationed so confections became harder to make. When the US Department of Agriculture gave out food to families, the federal agency put a fictitious narrator named Aunt Sammy (wife of Uncle Sam, though that was never mentioned) on a radio show in 1925 called “Housekeeper’s Chat” in which she talked about how to use the ingredients, writes Andrew Boyd of the University of Houston.

The segments became so popular, he writes, that “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes” was published by the Bureau of Home Economics at the USDA, and was revised and reprinted several times in five years.

Perhaps Aunt Sammy came up with some of the very unusual cake-making methods that emerged during the Great Depression, or maybe it was America’s thrifty and clever housewives who did.

One dessert was Wacky Cake (also known as Crazy Cake, Depression Cake, War Cake). You put all the ingredients, which includes unsweetened cocoa powder, oil, water, and vinegar, into a pan, stir them with a fork, and bake.

Wacky Cake was the standard birthday fare for Baby Boomers and their kids. You hardly needed to do anything! It typically had a super-sweet frosting.

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More adventurous, but richer, was the same chocolate cake made with mayonnaise, which stood in for the missing eggs, butter, or oil that a batter typically needs. (Mayonnaise is made from eggs, oil, and vinegar, all ingredients you might find in any chocolate cake.) You stir the liquid ingredients into mixture of flour and unsweetened cocoa powder and bake. It’s a delicious confection that might be mistaken for Devil’s Food Cake.

This Depression Chocolate Cake calls for water in the old recipes, but recently I used strong black coffee instead of the water in one version and the coffee brought out the taste of the cocoa powder and made the best cake.

It needs a buttered and floured pan, though brushing the pan with melted shortening (like Crisco) and dusting it with cocoa powder gives it an especially nice edge.

Eggless cakes came in other versions, some with raisins, dates, and nuts in the batter, as in the Mayonnaise Cake from James Beard's "American Cookery."

Some bakers slip a little mayonnaise into modern cakes made with plenty of eggs and butter, for the rich texture it adds.

There are still eggs and butter in the markets, but on a week when you haven’t been shopping yet, and need something sweet for the table, you might find Depression Chocolate Cake does the trick. It might become your family’s favorite cake, as it was for two generations, reminding them that even in a bad time, they found some comfort at the table.

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Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.