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Thursday, September 29, 2005

IMBB #19: Having my (Vegan) Cake

Let them eat cake!

Apologies for the blurry quality of the image, I took this pic at an odd angle.

I am a dedicated omnivore and am no stranger to eating vegan (no meat, no fish, no dairy, and no eggs). One of my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants in town, Vegi Food, is 100% vegan and everything there is incredibly tasty. The Asparagus with Black Bean Sauce I did for IMBB #11 (and as an early IMBB participant who has dropped out, I'm happy to be back even if the fabulous Sam weren't hosting this) was my home kitchen rendering of something I ate, and loved, there.

I've moved more in the vegan direction in my own kitchen (interestingly enough I was vegetarian myself for years, but relied heavily on cheese and eggs for protein). My best friend, who cannot eat meat thanks to her hippie parents raising her vegetarian, is married to someone who has developed dairy sensitivities, so if I want to have them over, I have to be creative. Fortunately they love things like veggies with black bean sauce or spicy peanut sauce as much as I do.

Vegan cooking, while still subject to an appetite-killing degree of earnestness from those to whom politics seem to be more important than palates, has come a long way. Back in the seventies and early eighties it seemed to be a lot of lentil loaf (a la early Moosewood), but cookbook writers such as Deborah Madison and Lorna Sass have really helped it be "for everyone".

There is, however, one area where I think that vegan cooking falls seriously short and that is in the Dessert-Type Baked Goods department. While it is perfectly possible to make a lovely fruit compote, or a crisp, or even fruit pie without use of animal products, sometimes the soul just cries out for ... chocolate cake.

I got help in this department from an extremely non-hippie source: an acquaintance of mine who is a convert to the Orthodox religion. Orthodox Christians have prescribed rules about abstaining from particular foods in the seasons of Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter), as well as being enjoined to "fast" (scare quotes because mostly the rules are about abstention again, as opposed to going without all food) on (most) Wednesdays and Fridays during the year. The proscribed items vary per day, but they are "no meat, no dairy, no eggs" at a minimum (shellfish is usually allowed, for some reason) and go all the way to "no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no olive oil, and no wine" (even some days "no fish") for large parts of the Lenten fast.

The following dish is well-known in Orthodox circles, as it gets considerable use as a birthday cake for those unlucky enough to have their birthdays fall during the Advent or Lenten fasts. I've seen it (or minor variants) on a number of church recipe sites, but I'm renaming it in honor of the lady who tipped me off about it:

Josephine's Lenten Chocolate Cake

Preheat oven to 350 F and put two cups of water into a container in the fridge. Grease (not butter!) and flour a 9x13 pan.

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vinegar (have seen up to 3 T in other recipes)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup (6 fl oz) corn oil
2 cups (16 fl oz) COLD water

Optional: dark chocolate chips or nuts

Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl until well blended. Mix wet ingredients together (I found my 4 cup Pyrex good for this and used a whisk). Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix together (again, my flat whisk was helpful).

If you want to add dark chocolate chips (check ingredients ... some have whey) or nuts, you can do so at the dry-ingredients stage.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until tested done.

For topping, you have several options. Josephine either dusts it with powdered sugar, or frosts with frosting-in-a-can that passes the ingredient test. If you are a better person than I am, you can whip up some frosting of your own as long as you use margarine or shortening, not butter. What I did was put some high-quality dark chocolate chips on the cake the minute it came out of the oven, and after they melted (about 5 minutes), spread them with my spatula to cover the cake.


This came out very high, light, tender, and chocolatey. It is undeniably tasty - it reminded me a lot of the butter-and-eggs chocolate sheet cake my mom used to make for our birthdays and cover with "Rocky Road" frosting. Indeed, if you had an appropriately vegan chocolate frosting and vegan marshmallows, you could easily make this into a rocky road cake. (Thanks to the commenters who politely pointed out the non-vegan status of most marshmallows.) I took it into the office and the remarks were "How did you do that without eggs?" (after "That's good!"). I couldn't believe I ate vegan, and my standards for baked goods are quite high!

I will definitely make this at some point in the future; variations I'll consider are using walnut or hazelnut oil and/or flavoring variants - substituting coffee or raspberry puree for some of the water sounds tasty.

I now understand why there are so many web pages with Orthodox divines waggling their fingers at people who observe the letter but not the spirit of the fasts. Sort of like those luscious flourless chocolate cakes that are a Passover dinner staple, but, hey, neither of those are required by my religion and how people work these things out is not really any of my business, so I merely admire peoples' ingenuity as I ask for more.

If you or a near one are vegan, or dairy-sensitive, or egg-sensitive, or trying to cut down on your cholesterol, this is just a darn tasty cake, and it couldn't be easier to put together. If any of you break out in hives at the thought of organized religion, call it Josephine's Chocolate Cake and be done with it.

And if you want some more vegan baking tips from the Orthodox church ladies (most of whom can cook up the proverbial storm), here's one of the parish recipe sites, and a general guide, or let me know and I'll send you some more of Josephine's, including a variant on "Tomato Soup Cake" that she swears is wonderful despite sounding very weird.

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That looks good and thanks for sharing a cake recipe as I have been looking for a good one for quite some time.
Great choice, Charlotte. I like the idea of a rocky road frosting. It would be a good excuse to try out the vegan marshmallows I've seen.
This is very similar to a recipe I make all the time, to rave reviews. Except I make a peanut butter/chocolate frosting. And I use cold coffee instead of water.

Marshmallows have gelatin in them, btw, which makes them not even vegetarian.
A cake is a cake, whether blurr or not, it looks delicious to me!
Interesting. It looks luscious.

I've been messing around with various specialty cooking over the past eighteen months, and have become very good at producing gluten-free baked goods, low fat baked goods, pareve baked goods... (and a couple of recipes that address _all_ of the above, making them party favourites) but have not narrowed in on vegan much lately.

One product in my cupboard that helps in that department is Kingsmill Foods Egg Replacer (local to Canada, www.kingsmillfoods.com), which is made of cornstarch, potato starch, guar gum, sodium bicarbonate and baking powder. Fortunately, my vegan friends don't overlap with the first family friend group - yet.

thank you for your wonderful post. It sounds like you have a winner on your hands with this recipe. I was so happy to see you taking part in this IMBB, and even more happy that you enjoyed it.

love sam
The newer edition of Joy of Cooking has a vegan orange cake with the same vinegar/soda leavening method...it's quite good and moist, and my taste-testers didn't have a clue that it was eggless. But we all know that chocolate cake is better.;-)
I'm on no special diet, but I can always use another recipe for chocolate cake! I'll def. try this one, thanks. :)

Usually vegan desserts let me down, but your chocolate cake truly sounds tempting. I definately have plenty of vegan friends who would be extremely happy if I made this for them! Thanks for the recipe.
Thank you so much for sharing this recipe! I have been wanting to try a vegan/lenten chocolate cake for a while and this recipe was wonderful to try. The cake came out moist and delicious. I can't wait for my husband to try a piece tonight.
hey thanks a lot for the recipe, it looks great. For a long time i used to think that vegan cakes weren't as good as regular cakes, but now I stand corrected.
that looks good. and better for us too!
Truly delicious and perfect for fasting!

-Another Orthodox Convert
Amazing blog post,I will save it to favorites and let all my friends know about it. It's been a pleasure to read something like this.
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