No money? No problem! Try this vintage cake recipe, appropriately named poor man’s cake.

Known as “poor man’s cake,” this recipe was first created in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. At that time, dairy products were considered a luxury, so Americans sought recipes that could do without.

Later, during World War II, variations of this cake came about, often called “war cake,” that incorporated some dairy, but still in modest quantities due to wartime food rationing. The recipe we’re sharing is a World War II-era “poor man’s cake” that was originally published in The Birmingham Eccentric around 1941.

What’s in Poor Man’s Cake?

Since poor man’s cake typically requires little to no butter or milk, it relies on other basic pantry ingredients for flavor, tenderness and moisture, like brown sugar, raisins, cinnamon and cloves.

It also contains one special vintage ingredient you likely have never heard of (or tried): watermelon rind preserves.

Yep, you heard us. One of the main ingredients in poor man’s cake is fruit preserves made from the rinds (that’s the white part) or watermelon (similar to pickled watermelon rinds).

What are watermelon rind preserves?

This old-fashioned recipe uses something that would otherwise be tossed to make candied watermelon pieces in a cinnamon-spiced syrup. It used to be more common in the United States; however, today it can be tricky to find them outside of small Amish markets or specialty food retailers.

Your best bet at finding a jar of this stuff is to make a batch of homemade watermelon rind preserves yourself!

How to Make Poor Man’s Cake

Poor Mans Cake

Lauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

This moist vintage spice cake is made with limited dairy ingredients but loaded with plump raisins and crunchy walnuts.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon mace (or ground nutmeg)
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup watermelon rind preserves
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped

Directions

Step 1: Soak the raisins

Place the raisins into a small saucepan, add water to cover by one inch, and bring to a boil. Cook the raisins for about 10 minutes, or until plump, then drain and rinse with cool water.

Editor’s Tip: Alternatively, pour boiling water over the raisins and let them soak overnight. Drain excess water before using.

Step 2: Whisk together dry ingredients

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt and spices. Set aside.

Step 2: Cream butter and sugar

Next, cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, for 3-4 minutes, or until smooth and fluffy. (Here’s how to cream butter and sugar the right way.)

Step 3: Add wet ingredients

Add the watermelon rind preserves to the butter and sugar, stir to combine, then beat in the eggs.

Step 4: Combine

Gently stir the plumped raisins into the wet ingredients and gradually begin to add the dry ingredients to the mixer. Stir until no flour remains and the mixture is smooth. Take care not to overmix the cake.

Step 5: Bake the cake

Pour the batter into a greased 9×9 baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove, let cool, then slice and serve.

How to Serve Poor Man’s Cake

Poor man’s cake may be sliced and served warm or at room temperature. Enjoy it plain or with an array of toppings.

  • Try dusting with powdered sugar
  • Drizzle with caramel sauce (either store-bought or homemade caramel would be divine).
  • Add a dollop of whipped cream to individual slices (thankfully we’re not rationing dairy presently).