Cooking without

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it’s usually about abundance

For me, cooking has generally been a positive experience – I don’t just mean that I enjoy it, but that it is associated with abundance (often from the garden) or a desire to cook with a specific ingredient or create a particular dish. In recent years, however, I have increasingly found my cooking constrained – dealing with restricted diets or needing/wanting to avoid particular ingredients. From my own perspective, this has been mainly related to making more ethical choices – supporting local producers, avoiding processed food, considering animal welfare, not using ingredients associated with habitat destruction and so on. But when I cook for others, there are other limits. Vegetarian cooking is never a problem – I used to be a vegetarian myself and anyway there so many wonderful dishes that don’t include meat that this, in itself, is never an issue. Gluten-free baking, on the other hand, is a challenge and this is something I have been exploring over the past few years as a result of cooking for one particular friend.

My most recent excursion has been into vegan cake-making. If you search the internet, you are overwhelmed by vegan cake recipes and so, at first sight, making a vegan cake seems entirely straightforward. However, the restrictions that I put on the ingredients I am prepared to use make it much more difficult. For example I never use margarine and many vegan cake recipes rely on this for both cake and frosting. Many recipes also make use of ingredients that have ethical issues linked to them – avocado, for example, is something I never buy because of the social problems and environmental degradation associated with the huge western demand for this fruit (you can read more here). And then there are ingredients like aquafaba (the liquid from cans of chickpeas or other legumes), which sounds great, but since I never use canned chickpeas, is not particularly something I wish to buy. And that’s before we get on to how I feel about food miles and the packaging certain ingredients have associated with them. Life is complex for the ethical cook!

So, when I offered to make a cake to take to yesterday’s tea party, my heart sank slightly when I remembered that the person whose birthday we were celebrating is vegan.  I put aside my happy hens’ eggs and organic butter wrapped in paper and searched for a recipe using ingredients that I had in my store cupboard. And finally I found a chocolate cake recipe that I was happy to make. I first tested out a gluten-free version and that was a bit dense, but the wheat flour one (modified a little from the original recipe) that I took to the tea party was light and moist and very easy to make. So, if you want a vegan cake, look no further…

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vegan chocolate cake

200g plain flour
200g caster sugar
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
250ml water

Simply put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and whisk them together by hand with a balloon whisk to remove any lumps and get some air into them. Add the wet ingredients and gently whisk them together until they form a smooth batter. Pour the batter into a lined loaf tin (13 × 23cm) and cook for 45 minutes in a preheated oven at 180ºC.

I wanted to put some sort of frosting on the cake, but I simply couldn’t find a recipe that I was happy with, so in the end I made ganache. Usually this involves heating cream to just below boiling point and then, off the heat, stirring in very dark chocolate. Vegan dark chocolate is the norm, but a cream substitute is more of a challenge. I don’t use soya products if I can help it (for both environmental and social reasons), so I trundled off to the wholefood shop and examined the alternatives. In the end I selected organic coconut cream in a recyclable carton. I put a couple of dollops of this in a pan, heated it to below boiling, removed it from the heat and then stirred in chocolate until I achieved a nice gloopy consistency, before pouring it over the cake.

I was hoping to retain some of the coconut flavour, but sadly this was swamped by the dark chocolate. However, the verdict was good and I produced a moist and decadent cake despite all the limitations.

It’s certainly a cake I would make again… although not whilst we have an abundance of eggs!

Leave a comment

33 Comments

  1. Well done! Like you I have tried to accomodate various restricted diets. If these are because of food intolerances or religious prohibitions I am happy to do so. However I have met a fair few smug vegans who believe that they are ethically superior by avoiding animal products but are happy to substitute foods from far away and grown in destructive ways.

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    • I think we’d all like life to be simple and so the idea that vegan = ethical, non-vegan = unethical is very appealing if you don’t want to investigate your food (or other choices) in more detail. I have found, however, that life is complicated and the more informed you become the more difficult it is to be smug about your choices. I am, however, really pleased to have found this particular cake recipe as (apart from the coconut cream) everything else is a store cupboard staple that means I could make an ’emergency cake’ without too much trouble.

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  2. The cake does sound good, but would need a few tweaks for me! I’m with you on the coconut cream, very useful if I can’t get lactose free, but I don’t like buying the additives most carton coconut cream has here, so I buy cans, which can also be recycled. I love the way you can put the can of coconut cream in the fridge overnight, and in the morning you have a wonderful thick dollopy wodge of super thick cream at the top.

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    • I spent ages reading ingredients and the one I chose was fairly “natural” and the carton was much smaller than the tins, so I knew it wouldn’t go to waste as I don’t really have a use for it in this week’s cooking. The small left-over amount is going to go in a trifle later.
      My initial attempt with the cake used g-f flour and it came out rather dense and a bit dry, so it would need something to allow it to rise a bit better for you… I’d be interested to know how you would modify it to make it better for a coeliac.

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      • I’d substitute unbleached almond meal for half the flour, use a good GF flour blend, and if the coeliac wasn’t a vegan, I’d stick in a couple of eggs. I think some psyllium husk would open out the texture a bit. Cocoa does tend to dry a batter quite a lot, so I might consider melting chocolate with some of the oil to add to the batter rather than using cocoa. For me, I’d also take out half the sugar and substitute half chopped, soaked dates and half maple syrup; we’ve cut back drastically on the added sugar in our diet, and this cake is about 30% sugar! Which is probably why it’s so yummy… 😦

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  3. Congratulations on a super cake and what a wonderful and considerate friend you are

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  4. Murtagh's Meadow

     /  August 13, 2017

    I often bake gluten free and egg free to cater for food allergies/intolerance. I find olive oil a perfect substitute for margarine when making muffins or fruit cake though it seems rarely to be used on recipes on find on the Internet. You cake looks lovely. And I will check out you avocado link too.

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    • I haven’t tried using olive oil in baking – the stuff I have has quite a distinctive flavour and I’ve always worried that it might not quite work in sweet things. Currently I’m using cold-pressed oil – either sunflower or rapeseed, although I think there may be environmental concerns about the latter.

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      • Murtagh's Meadow

         /  August 13, 2017

        It is hard finding ethical food. I did read that avocado article and it certainly will make me think of looking for alternatives.

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  5. Annie

     /  August 13, 2017

    Yes, it really is difficult. I’m trying to reduce cows milk, but have reservations about soya. Our milkman does do one that is GM free, organic and grown in Europe, which is the best I have found. We have hemp in our cereals, but it isn’t worth using in hot drinks, same with walnut milk. Don’t like to use almond as most come from California (drought), and coconuts make me want to throw up. The best solution seems to be to have a herbal tea instead…. 🙂

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  6. I’m not even a cook, or not much of one, though I enjoy it occasionally. I certainly am not skilled at it. Yet even as a consumer I wrestle with these choices. You have done such a nice job of summarizing the truly complicated issues that arise when we become aware of what we eat and whence it comes. The closest thing I have seen to a real guideline, for this or anything else in life, is a quote attributed to St. Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” So I guess the starting point that almost all of us can agree upon is that we should not eat mindlessly, and each of us may have different considerations to prioritize, whether they be health issues, ethics, sustainability, or the concerns of others. Bravo to you for reminding us not to be overwhelmed by the complexity as we seek the best path.

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  7. Looks lovely but I’d, personally, have to find a substitute for the cocoa as I have stopped eating it! (It causes me to have migraines with vertigo.) Years ago I had a friend who I discovered, rather too late, was a vegan. He’d come to a party and the only thing he was willing to eat out of all the food I made, was the sesame seeds off the top of some crackers! I began paying more attention to people’s dietary needs after that.

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  8. Laurie Graves

     /  August 14, 2017

    Oh, my! That was quite a challenge.

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  9. Tasty! I’ll have to give that a try. I didn’t know about the issues for avocado, so thank you for that. I’ll stop buying them unless I can find fair-trade and organic! You learn something new every day!!

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    • I think that most people don’t realise the problems with avocados. These days I’m a big eater of British apples – no ethical issues (phew) when picked from my own or friends’ trees and bottled/preserved for use throughout the year… not quite an avocado but hey-ho!

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  10. Yummy!
    I am going to do try this
    Thanks!

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  11. That sounds so good, I might have to try that as well!

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