Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Basically Vegan Chocolate Cake

Having just flown home to Phoenix from a month in the frozen north, I must say I feel a bit like the hypothetical frog dropped suddenly into hot water. But instead of leaping to air-conditioned, iced tea-sipping safety, I've recklessly sought shelter in my overly warm kitchen. It's just so nice to finally return to a well-stocked pantry and familiar cooking implements. Besides, now that I'm not working 60 to 70 hours a week in the lab with zero days off, I actually have time to explore new recipes and recreate old favorites. Risotto, seitan bites, fennel tea, corn and black pepper crackers currently in the oven, and this chocolate cake in celebration of my boyfriend's promotion yesterday* at work!
 *"Currently" and "yesterday" being relative terms… I tend to write these posts over several days.

The cake is mostly vegan (you can make it 100% vegan if you like… I must disclose that I greased the pan with butter and used dairy-containing white chocolate for the topping), quick, delicious, and awesome. Obviously. I mean, we're talking about chocolate cake here. How could it not be awesome?

Equally obviously, such a cake should be paired with sufficiently awesome science. And it will be: in the next post, I'll be writing about one of my all-time-favorite scientific papers. In deference to the more squeamish among you, though, I won't pair the recipe and science directly. Ah, not that you should be worried or anything…

Just don't think about it right now. Think about… chocolate!

Most cake recipes worth their salt (or sugar) will tell you to grease and flour your baking pan. You're better off using cocoa powder instead, though, for dark cakes like this one. Use a sifter or a fine-mesh sieve, like a tea strainer, to dust that greasy pan.

If you didn't sift your dry ingredients together, use a whisk to mix 'em up. It'll break up clumps much more effectively than a wooden spoon (no offense to any such spoons out there).

Science tidbit for today: Oil and water don't mix because fats are hydrophobic. People infected with the rabies virus also exhibit hydrophobia, likely because swallowing liquids induces painful spasms in these patients. Indeed, "hydrophobia" is another term for the disease.

Don't try feeding this cake to wild animals foaming at the mouth--the rabies virus goes about its business of invading cells, conning them into replicating the virus, and bursting forth into the world in the salivary glands of those infected--and you should be safe.

Basically Vegan Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Joy of Cooking, Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 heaping cup sugar
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp white vinegar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional; use 2 tsp vanilla if you don't have almond)
Your choice of decorations

Note: As with pretty much any recipe, your cake is only gonna be as good as the ingredients you make it with. Cocoa is the star here, so please stay away from Hershey's. Both Rapunzel and Green & Black make delicious organic, fair-trade cocoa. Do the farmers who are growing your chocolate a favor and spend some extra moolah for ethically traded cocoa powder (and sugar, too, while you're at it). You expect to be paid fairly for your work, right? Why do the people who grow, harvest, and prepare your food deserve less? I know fair trade products cost more--sometimes considerably more--than their conventional counterparts, the fair trade system isn't perfect, and lots of us, myself included, certainly can't afford to buy everything fair trade… but please consider making an effort to get at least some of your groceries fair trade or ethically traded.

1.   Grease an 8x8" square pan (preferably glass) and dust with cocoa powder. Preheat your oven to 375˚F.

2.   Sift or whisk together the dry ingredients (flour through salt) in a large bowl.

3.   Stir together the wet ingredients (water through almond extract) in a separate bowl or measuring cup. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the wet ones, and stir until smooth and mostly free of clumps.

4.   Pour the batter into the prepared pan, using a spatula to even out the top.

5.  Bake for 30 min. The cake is done when a toothpick or knife stabbed in the center comes out non-goopy.

6. Once the cake has cooled, decorate it to your heart's content. I opted for melted white chocolate splattered on with a spoon à la Jackson Pollock and topped with red sprinkles, but you could dust it with powdered sugar (try cutting out a stencil or paper snowflake, but don't make the design too fine), frost it, glaze it, whatever you like.

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