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This Pumpkin Spice Wacky Cake Recipe Tastes Just Like a PSL

Egg- and dairy-free “wacky cake,” a Depression-era delight, finds a new audience with austerity-minded modern bakers—and their vegan guests.

Recipe by Leah LeMoine | Photography by David B. Moore

When times get tough, the tough get wacky—wacky cake, that is. The thrifty dessert—also called Depression cake or war cake—emerged during the Great Depression, when ingredients such as milk, butter and eggs were in scant supply. Instead of relying on those luxuries for fat and structure, the rich chocolate cake is made with humble vegetable oil, cocoa powder, baking soda and vinegar. The latter three combine in a nifty chemical reaction to “give it moisture and promote the rise, the puff of the cake,” says legendary Valley pastry chef Tracy Dempsey. 

Dempsey knows a thing or two about Depression-era baking, having learned to bake at her grandma’s knee during summer visits to her grandparents’ Arkansas farm. “My grandmother, besides being able to craft her own furniture and fix tractors and cars, was also a fantastic baker and cook,” Dempsey says. She’d brew huge urns of coffee and bake treats like cookie bars for workers during the chicken harvest. “I just remember watching her turn the simplest things into these confections that people were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, would you share the recipe with me?’”

Today, transforming economical pantry staples into something decadent is an in-demand skill as grocery prices continue to soar. “Right now, eggs are crazy expensive,” Dempsey observes. “We were paying $25 for a case of eggs, and right now it can be anywhere from $60 to $85.” Passing on dairy and eggs doesn’t just help the food budget—it also makes the cake accessible to more folks. 

“It’s a different mindset, but just last week we had a vegan chocolate cake request,” Dempsey says. When she recently made a wacky cake to put in her bakery case, “I was hitting myself upside the head. This is the same cake we made last week! It just happens to be vegan. I have plenty of customers who appreciate that.”

Dempsey loves the flexibility of wacky cake, which can take on seasonal spicing, fun toppings or different vinegars. She’s partial to raspberry vinegar for chocolate and red velvet cakes. It’s all about “trying to find creative ways to make something that can be mundane interesting,” she says. “And I think those are lessons our frugal grandmothers would be proud of us for.”

Pumpkin Spice Wacky Cake

This retro confection gets the “PSL” treatment with the addition of brewed coffee and warming spices. Leave the cake unadorned or dust with powdered sugar in lieu of frosting for a fully vegan version.


1½ cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup cocoa powder, Dutch-processed if possible
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (½ teaspoon if using Morton)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon each: ground allspice, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 cup strong brewed coffee, cooled
1/3 cup vegetable oil


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mist a 9-inch cake/pie pan with cooking spray. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Add wet ingredients, and whisk until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the edges get too crisp, cover the cake with aluminum foil. Allow to cool completely before frosting. Keep any leftovers refrigerated.


8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons strong brewed coffee, cooled
1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt  (¼ teaspoon if using Morton)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon each: allspice, cardamom, nutmeg

With an electric mixer, beat butter and cream cheese together in a medium bowl on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add powdered sugar, vanilla, coffee, salt and spices. Carefully mix on low until incorporated, then mix on medium for an additional minute or two to thicken.

Makes 8-12 servings


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