Cowboy Cake

Our very first recipe is for “Cowboy Cake”. No one knows why it is called “Cowboy Cake” but it was and is.

And I can attest to how good it is, as I have eaten my way through more than one, thanks to Jan Olive.

So here is the story, and of course the recipe, for Cowboy cake.

Cowboy Cake.jpg

During World War ll, rationing meant that food staples were scarce. My mom was always finding ways to “spoil” her family and to help supplement the family income. She developed many recipes and ways to use every scrap of food, nothing was ever thrown out. This was so ingrained in my sisters and me that I’m afraid our families always question why a meal that is really good can’t be duplicated. The answer which is so logical to me is often perplexing to them as the answer is simply I don’t have the same ingredients…never know what leftovers may wind up waiting to be reinvented. 

There was no hard and fast recipe, except for the proportions…Anyone could make the cake (if they had the recipe) and call it their own.

Mom baked for the Women’s Exchange in New York City When I was little. She would decorate individual cookies, wrap them up, and take them by bus and subway into the city to sell. I recently found a price list in one of her cookbooks. Individual large decorated cookies sold for 5 cents. An assortment of cookies sold for 50 cents a dozen. She developed her cowboy coffee cake…(don’t know how it got its name) so that it could be made with whatever staples were on hand. There was no hard and fast recipe, except for the proportions. shortening/margarine/butter, a mixture or all one kind of sugar, whatever spices /extracts were available or desired, as for the moisture.. a good use for sour milk, buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream, any toppings or additions such as nuts, coconut, chips, or sprinkles or even all of them. It all worked. Anyone could make the cake (if they had the recipe) and call it their own.

I remember that she made her cowboy coffee cakes in large cookie pans and took them to a newsstand/candy store that sold coffee and breakfast pastries. They sold her cake by the piece.

Those coffee cakes also accompanied our family every time we went to our farm upstate New York. The 100-mile trip took a good part of the day to get there. When my kids were little it took me 2 hrs. Anyway, my father was a boy scout leader and these coffee cakes went on every campout with the scouts and oftentimes to a scout meeting.


EMMY SCHAFF CROSS, circa 1940 (mother of Jan Olive)

Single recipe, makes 3 pie tins

Mix well:

  • 2 1/2 cups flour

  • 1  cup sugars (mix white and brown in any proportion) 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1/2 tsp spices (mix any spice :nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon,) 2/3 cup shortening (or butter, or mixture)

Remove 1/2 cup for topping cakes, set aside. To the remaining mixture, add:

  • 2  tsp baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp baking soda

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 cup sour milk or buttermilk or sour cream or yogurt

  • 1 tsp vanilla

Mix well with spoon; batter will be lumpy. Pour into greased tins (or, for a single cake, a greased cookie sheet), sprinkle reserved crumbs over the top (you can add chopped nuts or choc chips or coconut at this point!), and bake 20-25 min at 350° until light brown and springs back when touched with a fingertip.

This cake can be made to be all your own with different toppings, flavorings or whatever you have on hand. Drizzle top with a white icing made of confectioners sugar and any flavoring – lemon juice, orange juice, or milk – again, whatever you have on hand. (Tip: a tiny amount of salt in the icing improves the flavor!)


DOUBLE RECIPE Modifications

  • 5 cups flour

  • 2 cups sugars

  • 1 tsp salt


  • 1 tsp spice

  • 1 1/3 c shortening

  • 4 tsp baking powder 1tsp baking soda

  • 4 eggs

  • 2 cups “milk” product 2 tsp vanilla

TRIPLE RECIPE Modifications

  • 7 1/2 cups flour 3 cups sugars

  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1  1/2 tsp spices

  • 2  cups shortening


  • 6 tsp baking powder 1 1/2 tsp baking soda 6 eggs

  • 3  cups milk “product”

Barb currently resides in Central Florida with her three horses; when she’s not writing or riding for HRL, she loves to read and travel.

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