Depression Cake

Culture Food and Drink

“Depression Cake” – not, as you might well assume, simply a chocolate cake rebranded to fit the current Corona mood, but a recipe which originated in America in the 1930s. When the Great Depression hit, rationing became commonplace and families had to stretch their budgets and make do with minimal ingredients to cook. Puddings became a luxury and ingredients such as milk, eggs, butter and sugar were hard to come by. So to continue making family favourites affordably, substitution was key and typical swaps included milk for water and baking powder for eggs. This Depression cake is just one of the many recipes which emerged from that time of rationing and replacement.

Although the name does fit quite neatly with how many of us are probably feeling in the face of this national crisis, the recipe also resonates today for its use of store cupboard ingredients over fresh produce. So if you can’t face the Sainsbury’s riots or the mile-long queues outside Tesco, then fear not – this chocolate cake is for you! The only potentially obscure ingredient is white vinegar but I’m sure if you rummage long enough in your parents’ cupboards you might find a hidden bottle just as I did. It’s decadent, it’s gooey, it’s cheap and it’s even vegan. What’s not to love?


  • 445g plain flour
  • 240g caster sugar
  • 60g cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 160ml vegetable oil
  • 470ml water

For the icing:

  • 100g Icing sugar
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • Water
  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line a medium-sized tin with baking paper.
  2. In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and bicarb.
  3. In a second bowl, mix the vanilla, vinegar, oil and water.
  4. Add the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and stir together.
  5. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 30-35 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.
  6. Once baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for at least 10 minutes before turning out onto a rack.
  7. To make the icing, simply combine the icing sugar and cocoa, then slowly mix in water until you get your desired consistency.
  8. Once the cake has completely cooled, cover in the icing and top with any decoration!


Image: Alice Hopkinson-Woolley