Forget the Pie, Make Svea Johnson’s ‘Ugly Cake’ from an Obscure 1930s’ Recipe

At a Friends of the Library book sale this fall in Thermopolis, Wyoming, my sister picked out several interesting books for me.

One was titled “Lutheran Church Basement Women: Lutefisk, Lefse, Lunch and Jell-O.”

Topics covered included: How to make tried-and-true “dead spreads” for funerals; How to tie safe and proper knots in dish towels for hot dishes, scarves and aprons; Lutheran aprons and the six types a Lutheran lady needs to own; and most importantly The “oldies but goodies” recipes brought to Lutheran Church functions.

The recipes included every day cakes (“These good old ‘standbys’ are baked when you’re under the gun, on the run, with too much work that needs to be done”), the funeral cakes and the Ladies Aids cakes (“Always Bring Your Best”).

The last cake listed was Svea Johnson’s “Ugly Cake.” After reading its wonderful history, this was the first recipe I asked my son to make.

“Mrs. Johnson was an elderly widow who made this delicious cake from apples her tree bore every fall. Though it was not expected of her, she always wanted to do her part in providing for the church suppers, so she bought her “Comfort Cake.” Since it was not frosted, it was relegated to a position in the back of the serving table. That is where we young ones discovered it, laid claim and enjoyed two and three helpings.

“It was referred quietly by the committee as ‘Mrs. Johnson’s Ugly Cake.’ We watched for the cake and had little competition because it was so unassuming.

“One year a committee member told Mrs. Johnson she would come by and pick up the cake to make it easier for her; which she did. She took it home and covered it with a sour cream icing; then the cake became acceptable, others learned of the taste, and we lost claim to ‘Mrs. Johnson’s Ugly Cake.’

“We paid a visit to Mrs. Johnson and asked for the recipe, which pleased her mightly. Whenever I make this cake, it brings back memories, and while the frosting is delicious, I never frost it, because it is so good in its unassuming state.” (1930s)

This delicious, easy-to-make moist cake turned into a birthday cake.


2 c. sugar

3 c. flour

1 t. baking soda

1 t. salt

2 t. cinnamon

Mix those ingredients in a bowl and then add:

1 1/3 c. melted butter

2 eggs

2 t. vanilla

Stir together and then add:

4 c. peeled, chopped apples

½ c. raisins

Pour batter into a greased 9×13” pan and bake for ½ hours at 325 degrees or until cake leaves side of the pans. The cake is moist and will keep for a long time if no one discovers it; if they do—it’s a “flash in the pan.”


1 c. sour cream

1 c. sugar

3 or 4 egg yolks

Cook until thickened, then spread on cake and sprinkle with chopped nuts.

(Editor’s note: If your family doesn’t like raisins, they can be left out or put on top on part of the cake. The cake is wonderfully moist—and a new favorite “Ugly” dessert for our family—especially if you pick up apples from the local farmers market, which always seem to have the best taste.) 

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4 Responses to Forget the Pie, Make Svea Johnson’s ‘Ugly Cake’ from an Obscure 1930s’ Recipe

  1. Liz Jones says:

    This just made my day!

  2. Nona Hale says:

    I want a copy of that book! Basement ladies — love it. I went to a small town church as a young girl in South Dakota and remember those ladies well. There is a Lutheran church in Santa Monica that once offered a Swedish dinner during the holiday season. Put on by the basement ladies, I am sure. Oh, to be able to attend this year!

  3. K says:

    This looks so yummy…you really got me at the sour cream frosting, though I know it’s delicious enough without it. I just made baked apples using golden raisins, and since they’re still in the pantry I will use those when I make this. Always preferred over the dark raisins.

  4. Thanx for the recipe, Sue. I’m anxious to try it.

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