“Cakes Were Hard Hit”

Being a history buff I’ve been glued to The War, Ken Burns’ new 14-hour documentary on World War II currently airing on PBS. Though I have to say I’ve seen equally good documentary work on the Hitler, er…History Channel, there is something unique in the way Burns covers the home front and the sacrifices that were made there. Of course my ears rose to points when one woman started talking about the effects of rationing on the fine are of cake baking. “Cakes were hard hit,” she said while the camera, in classic Burns style, slowly swept over a vintage photo of a woman trying to write “Happy Birthday!” on what looked like an automobile brake pad with icing on it. “When someone went to the trouble of making you a birthday cake it really meant something,” she continued. “Because you knew they’d been saving for weeks.” And of course by that she meant ingredients: flour and eggs, but especially butter and sugar — without which there is no creaming method, no leavening, no crumb…no cake.

But human beings are ingenious. Most people made do without butter, substituting shortening, and swapped things like corn syrup, honey and molasses for sugar. Much of the time the result wasn’t “cake” in the technical sense, but it was sweet and satisfying. Who cares? Quite a few of those old recipes are still in circulation today, in books, but most often among people on special diets. It might be interesting to try one of those…

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