Wartime Cake Baking

In today’s society, for most of us, food is varied and plentiful – too plentiful some might say judging by the increasing levels of obesity amongst the British population. Just by popping into our local supermarket we can choose from hundreds of ready-made meals from countries all over the world, or we can make our own delicious dishes from a huge variety of exotic ingredients from Africa, Thailand, Brazil, anywhere you can think of.

Imagine then going back to a time when we not only didn’t have such choice but what we did have was severely rationed.


Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, Britain relied on 55 million tons of imported food every year in order to keep its people fed. When war started the cargo ships that had been transporting that food were needed to carry troops and munitions, and that, combined with the German blockading of ports, meant that rationing had to be introduced.

Petrol was the first thing to be rationed followed soon after by butter and sugar. Tea, margarine, jam and eggs followed and by the end of 1942, rice, dried fruit, sweets, chocolates and biscuits had all been added to the list.

Housewives had to be inventive with what they had. Edith, who was a newly-married woman at the start of the war, recalled, ‘Because butter and margarine were rationed we used liquid paraffin in cakes instead.’

The diet might have been boring – and unusual – but by the time the war ended Britain had a very healthy population!


Bread and flour wasn’t rationed during the war but white flour was in short supply. In order to produce as much as possible, a more intensive extraction process was introduced. This resulted in a healthier but slightly greyish flour.

Doris Grant, the author of a number of books about the importance of a healthy diet, devised a loaf during the war that became known as the Grant Loaf. Part of its success she attributed to the fact that she’d accidentally forgotten to knead it.

This recipe for the dense and moist bread is adapted from Ms Grant’s Your Daily Food (1944).

Grant Loaf

  • 800g (1lb 12oz) stoneground wholemeal flour
  • 2 level teaspoons salt
  • 20g (1oz) fresh yeast
  • 15g (3/4 oz) soft dark brown sugar
  • 700ml (1 pint 4fl oz) tepid water

Mix the flour and salt together and leave in a warm place. Grease 3 small bread tins and leave in a warm place. Crumble the yeast in 150ml of the water. Stir to dissolve and then stir in the sugar. Leave in a warm place until frothy.

Mix the yeast into the flour along with the rest of the tepid water. Stir and tip into the prepared tins. Cover loosely with clingfilm and leave in a warm place for about 45 minutes.

While the dough is rising preheat the oven to 150ºC, gas mark 5. When the dough is well-risen remove the clingfilm and bake in the centre of the oven for 50 – 60 minutes. Turn out and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Alternative ingredients

The Ministry of Food advised housewives to try using mashed potatoes in place of flour and carrots as a sweetening agent. Carrots really came into their own during the second world war being promoted by Dr Carrot, ‘the children’s best friend’, and with an official carrot cookery leaflet including recipes for carrolade (a carrot and swede drink), carrot marmalade and toffee carrots.

The Ministry of Food imported large quantities of dried milk and egg powder from America. One packet of dried egg was allocated to each person every other month. This was the equivalent of 12 eggs. Although dried egg tasted good scrambled, it’s one of things most people will recall with a shudder when talking about food shortages during the war.

An inventive cook in Canada came up with this alternative to the traditional Christmas Pudding.

War-and-Peace Pudding

  • 150g (5oz 1 cup) flour
  • 110g (4oz 1 cup) breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup suet
  • 110g (4oz ½ cup) mixed dried fruit
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 110g (4oz 1 cup) raw potato, grated
  • 110g (4oz 1 cup) raw carrot, grated
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tablespoons water

Sieve the flour and spice together and mix in with the suet and dried fruit. Add the grated potato and carrot. Dissolve the bicarb in hot water and mix all together. Spoon mixture into a well-greased pudding bowl. Cover loosely and steam for 2 hours.

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