Today: Your new go-to birthday cake, bake sale cake, dinner party cake, late night snack cake -- for when the fridge is at its barest and you need chocolate cake now. (It's also vegan and parve and dirt cheap, but you wouldn't know unless we told you.)
There is almost nothing you can throw at this cake that it can't handle. Say you want chocolate cake but -- what's that? You're out of eggs? And butter? And chocolate? You're going vegan this week? You need a dessert that's kosher with brisket? You want it in 45 minutes? You got it. This cake balks at nothing. Even Duncan Hines asks for more.
If the Depression taught us anything, it's that in times of scarcity, there can -- and should -- still be cake. You must bake from what you've got, even if what you've got is mayonnaise or canned tomato soup.
But this cake is much better than those, and expects even less of you (and your wallet), if that's possible. There's no waiting for butter to soften just enough, no creaming of things, no wondering if your eggs are the right temperature. All you need are two bowls and a whisk, a cake pan of sorts, an oven, and to be armed with the most minimal of nonperishables in your pantry.
Cocoa powder. Baking soda. Sugar, salt, oil, vanilla. Cider vinegar (or white vinegar, or even lemon juice). If you don't have these in your cupboard right now, you probably don't actually like cake.
Margaret Fox, cookbook author and, for 23 years, the driving force behind the famed Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, California, isn't sure how she stumbled on this formula -- similar to the crazy cakes and wacky cakes your grandmother might have made. But it was, as she says, "in a frenzy of cake baking, trying to find what I thought of as the perfect chocolate cake." When she spotted a recipe that was missing eggs and dairy, ingredients she thought were integral to a tender crumb, she thought, "I have to make this cake -- it's got to be weird."
But it wasn't weird -- not at all. In fact it looked eerily like the front of a cake mix box, and tasted better than it should. "This cake has legs, and a legitimacy and a flavor that's so wonderful, vegan or not," Fox says.
As is, it's not the richest, most chocolatey cake -- if you like, you can amp up the chocolate by swapping in coffee for the water, or adding more cocoa.
But you don't need to. It's a different animal: light, delicately strung together with cocoa, and not terribly sweet. You could eat a lot of it and still feel civilized, and not compelled to go ball up on the couch.
But how does it work? As we know from 4th grade science projects, baking soda reacts with vinegar -- and the acidity of the cocoa powder too. No need for airy creamed butter or eggs to leaven when you're harnessing a volcano.
On top of that, we know oil makes an exceedingly moist cake too, and one that keeps for days without staling. Win, win, win.
So make like Fox and frost it with mocha buttercream or turn it into black bottom cupcakes. Dot it with crème fraîche or whipped cream or ganache. Or just serve it as is -- this cake can take it.
Adapted from Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret Fox and John S. Bear (Ten Speed Press, 1984)
Serves 6 to 8
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water
5 tablespoons neutral oil (like canola, vegetable, or grapeseed)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar
Confectioners' sugar (optional, for dusting)
Photos by James Ransom
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at email@example.com. Thanks to Laura Perry for this one!