With Mother’s Day approaching I’m starting to think about what I could make to celebrate the day. We are a ‘sit around in our jammies for hours while drinking way too many cups of coffee on a Sunday’ sort of parents, so heading out to a restaurant to face a mother-laden line out the door isn’t at the top of our list. I realize I’m probably not the one that is supposed to be thinking about what to cook on this particular holiday, but I can’t help myself. I think about food even when I shouldn’t. In order to restore the balance, I’ll make sure to delegate some of the cooking and all of the cleaning that day to my husband and kids.
The thought of Mother’s Day still stings since I lost my mom a number of years back just before moving to Oak Park. I assume it will continue on this way, but reminiscing about her culinary concoctions always gives me a good amount of joy. Cooking and dining out were a big part of our relationship. When I moved out of the house in my twenties I called her almost daily. If my dad answered he’d joke that I was calling for him, but he knew I wanted to spend the next hour gabbing with her.
My mom helped resuscitate my recipe fails from afar and I tried to pick her often faulty memory to find out how she whipped up my favorite meals from her oeuvre. Although cooking kicked off these chats they often developed into long, sprawling conversations about whatever, anything, and everything. These calls not only helped bridge the distance, but they also fostered the next phase of our relationship taking us from the parent/child dynamic toward a maturing friendship. And through many trials, tribulations, and her tutoring, I became quite the cook in my own right.
When I went back to work after my daughter was born, my mother was a frequent babysitter. She often ate our leftovers for lunch and I remember feeling so proud when she would ask me for the recipe. Of course, just like her, my details were always a bit fuzzy, “a pinch of this, one or two tablespoons of that, ummmm … paprika?”
To bring things full circle, I’m planning on making a dish of hers with my kids this Mother’s Day. It makes me happy to honor her in this particular way instead of being weepy over missing her. I reached out to some of her older grandkids and a few close friends to ask them what meals reminded them of her the most. I was hoping for two things: that they would all say the same recipe and that it would be something written down somewhere in a legible hand. But who was I kidding? When everyone responded no one mentioned the same dish. It went from pistachio cake (yes, it’s a beautifully soft green made with Jell-O pudding mix) to a Doritos bedazzled taco salad and a creamy casserole featuring a truckload of Velveeta that I promised to make for my lucky husband on Father’s Day. My bestie recalled loving my mom’s chicken piccata recipe that surprisingly doesn’t call for any 1950’s Kraft food inventions.
With all these amazing suggestions floating around I remembered one of my own personal faves: Tomato Soup Cake. You read that right. This was a recipe my mom got from her mother-in-law that was thankfully written down, albeit on a 3×5 index card stained and splattered with drippy cake ingredients. I found that the only way to read the thing is by holding it up to a light. Talk about a much loved recipe! Over the years I’ve learned that the harder to read, messier recipes hands down yield the yummier meals. Steer clear of the clean and crisp cards and beautiful books with unbent bindings. The only dishes worth making come from falling apart, tattered tomes with scribbled yellowing notes and ancient magazine clippings shoved in them. I could never part with the ones I inherited from my mom who, in turn, received many from the moms in her life. They’re too precious. In fact, I’m known to rescue said relics from garage and estate sales because my heart just can’t handle the thought that someone isn’t cherishing them.
These old timey, hand-me-down recipes might not make it on the table every day. They tend to only get hauled out for holidays. Most probably aren’t extremely good for you, some of them might not even be particularly tasty, but in order for Thanksgiving to be Thanksgiving, for example, they command to be made. And Tomato Soup Cake is shouting at me at the moment!
It might make you shiver to see a full can of creamy tomato soup is prominently placed on the list of ingredients, but I loved this spice cake as a kid and didn’t even realize the soup was in there. This is most likely due to the scene stealing one-inch thick layer of sweet cream cheese frosting my mom would slather on top.
So, this Mother’s Day I will toast a can of soup to my mom and to the generations of moms that have come before her. To the women who found creative culinary uses for everything in their cupboard, who would do absolutely anything to avoid loading the kids up in the car to make a grocery store run. One of them figured out you could dump soup in a cake and for this, I salute you!
Tomato Soup Cake
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/3 cup sugar
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground clove
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 (10 3/4 oz) can of tomato soup
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) melted butter
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 cup raisins (optional)
- 1 cup crushed walnuts (optional)
Crank your trusty oven up to 350 degrees. Dig through a kitchen cabinet that you’ve been promising to organize for the past 6 years to find a 9×13 baking pan; grease it with some butter or pan spray.
Grab a small bowl and whisk the heck out of the flour, sugar, baking powder, and spices. Crack open a can of tomato soup and dumped it in; seriously do it now. I know it seems odd, but really, just do it. Then add the butter, eggs, vanilla, and water and beat it all up with an electric mixer until it is good and smooth.
At this point if you’re want to add raisins and walnuts fold ‘em in. No pressure, it’s up to you. Pour your beautiful batter in to the greased pan and bake for about 35 to 40 minutes ~ or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cake cool and then slather on yummy cream cheese frosting until the top is thoroughly covered.