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Low Mileage Kitchen: A chocolate cake recalls earlier times

Oh how slice Eggless Chocolate Cake can do wonders for spirit! | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Oh how a slice of Eggless Chocolate Cake can do wonders for the spirit! | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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The year-round Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, 66 E. Randolph, offers Midwest-grown foods and other locally produced edibles, including those used in this recipe. Cooking classes are offered through the World Kitchen program ( Reach the Farmstand at (312) 742-8419, or go to


Meet author Jenny Lewis and historians Tim Samuelson and Rolf Achilles Feb. 29, as the Farmstand hosts a culinary conversation covering the sweet food history of Chicago in celebration of the city’s 175th Birthday. It begins at 6 p.m. and is free, but reservations are requested. Phone (312) 742 8497.

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Updated: March 16, 2012 8:02AM

Are you feeling a little blue?

We all seem to be a “little down” these days, what with so many unknowns about jobs and housing and economic woes of every kind. My own personal way to fight that feeling is to go into the kitchen and bake something. Kitchen therapy gets my mind off the problems, and the resulting sweets make everything seem just a little more bearable.

As down as we feel, hopefully we will not experience the lows of the Great Depression, a subject that I’ve been thinking about lately since the arrival of a new book, the Midwest Sweet Baking History. Written by local chef and pastry instructor Jenny Lewis, it is a reflection of history around Lake Michigan and an introduction to the background of so many “delectable classics” of the bakers’ art. It begins with a description of the foods of this area in the 1600s and continues up to the melting pot foodways of today.

A chapter covering the 1930s sent me into reflections of growing up enjoying my mother’s baked goods. She was married and learning to cook in 1934, at the height of the rationing of sugar, flour, butter and all manner of things we take for granted today. She continued to use those early recipes throughout her life.

In Lewis’ book I found Depression-era recipes, but even more interesting were the things I learned about ingredients invented in the Midwest at that time. Sugar was rationed, so honey, syrups and jellies were used to sweeten recipes. Red Star Yeast made new, dry yeast formulations so that baking for the soldiers would be easier. Swans Down Flour and all kinds of new replacements for butter came onto the market. And the introduction of time and energy-saving devices such as electric stoves and electric mixers, just before World War II, were greeted with excitement and then just as quickly with disappointment as their manufacture halted once the war began in 1939.

I have my mother’s recipe box and I searched through it, comparing her worn handwritten recipes to those included in the book. She raised chickens so eggs were available and she often indulged in using extra to make a fluffy cake, though when hard times hit, it meant less to sell at the Saturday market. In her ledger book she noted that she didn’t have as many to sell on a certain week because she’d baked two cakes for a church potluck.

Here’s a recipe adapted from a box of Swans Down flour and included in the book. Bake it in two layers and glaze each one individually, or stack them into a double layer version, generously frosted with your own favorite icing.

Lucky for us, eggs, butter, milk and flour are some of the most available and least expensive things at the market today. Baking a simple cake like this one will do wonders for relieving stress and it’s a universally acknowledged fact that a slice of Chocolate Cake will wipe the blues away!

Judith Dunbar Hines is the director of culinary arts and events for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, which operates Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.

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