I discovered this post lurking in the background on my website Australian Food History Timeline. Because it didn’t fit the timeline format, it was relegated to being a page rather than a post. I thought it deserved a better airing, hence its reappearance here, some six years later.

So we were taking photographs for my upcoming book. Including some to illustrate recipes from past decades. And the 1940s recipe is for Butterless and Eggless Fruit Cake. It was a wartime thing, when rationing made cooking a challenge.

The first rationing regulations were gazetted in May 1942 and food rationing began in June, when Australians were issued with identity cards and ration books. Tea was the first commodity to be rationed, the allowance being half a pound (227g) per adult per five weeks, and from July 1942 sugar was restricted to 2lb (just under 1kg) per fortnight.

In the following years, butter and meat joined the list of restricted foods. Since early in 1942, there had been two ‘beefless days’ each week. In recognition of the Catholic population, one of the beefless days was always a Friday. But by 1944, you needed ration coupons to buy any meat at all. Butter rationing began in 1943 and continued until 1950. Other foods, including eggs and milk, were rationed from time to time when shortages occurred.

The butterless, eggless cake recipe, published in The Age in 1944, substituted lard for butter. It had a footnote pointing out that this cake fits the soldier’s cake tin and further investigation revealed that Willow manufactured such tins in their thousands during World War II. In kitchens all over Australia, women baked fruit cakes and shipped them in their Willow tins to husbands, sons and sweethearts on active service.

We tracked a soldier’s cake tin down online – a bargain at $20. When it arrived, I remembered one just like it in my mother’s kitchen.  Our example still had marks on the lid where sticky tape had firmly attached it to the tin itself, suggesting it had made at least one long-distance journey.

It remained to make the cake.  The first step involved boiling up half a pound of lard along with sugar and dried fruit.  It didn’t smell or look appetising – raisins, sultanas and currants floating in a sea of melted fat. After the mixture cooled and I stirred in the rest of the ingredients, I called in my taste tester. Fred declared that it tasted like fat. Not what I’d hoped for, but perhaps it would improve with baking. The greyish, gluggy batter almost filled the tin, then it was into the oven.

The recipe called for a ‘moderate’ oven – 300 degrees – which translated to around 150 degrees Celsius. In keeping with the era, I decided against the fan-forced option. Two and a half hours seemed like a very long baking time, even with the rather imprecise instruction to turn the temperature down gradually during the cooking process.

After an hour, the distinctive aroma of fruitcake had permeated the apartment. I checked the oven. Alarmingly, the cake had risen and was threatening to overflow. It also looked almost burnt on top, so I covered it with aluminium foil for the rest of the cooking time and turned the oven down. This was, perhaps, a mistake.  After the allotted two and a half hours, the cake had a distinct sag in the middle. But it did appear to be cooked.

We duly photographed it, in and out of the tin. Then, having destroyed it to photograph a slice, we were able to taste the final thing. It was dark, fruity and very moist. And it tasted like…fat. “Oh well,” said Fred. “I suppose if you’d been living on army rations, any kind of fruit cake would be welcome.”

Perhaps so. But ours ended up in the bin.


Ingredients: ½ lb. each dripping or lard, brown sugar, currants, sultanas, ¼ lb. raisins, 2 oz. nuts (if available), ½ teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons mixed spice, ½ nutmeg (grated), ¾ pint water, 2 teaspoons bicarb. soda, good ¾ lb. flour.

Put fat, sugar, fruit and nuts, with water, in a saucepan. Boil gently for five minutes, stirring all the time. When cold, sift and stir in flour, salt, spice and nutmeg. And bicarb. soda dissolved in a teaspoon of warm water. Turn into a cake tin that has been lined with paper and bake in a moderate oven 300 deg. F. for 2 to 2½ hours, gradually reducing the heat as the cake cooks.

N.B. – This mixture fits the soldier’s cake tin, and can be sent with safety to boys as far away as New Guinea.(The Age, 11 August 1944)