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This is a banner day: There are not one but two secret ingredients in this genius chocolate cake. They help make the whole thing vegan (so that everyone at the party can take a slice), but better yet—and is the case with so many genius vegan recipes—the constraints of axing eggs and butter led to tinkering, and ultimately to something better: a fudgier cake; a frosting that’s as fluffy as Swiss buttercream but without fuss.
The tinkerer in question is Anita Shepherd, who, before she became a coconut yogurt pioneer and entrepreneur, was a pastry chef. After making herself sick on batters and creams, she started reverse-engineering sugary treats to make them vegan. (That’s how she realized she could make her own yogurt from coconut milk without stabilizers, but that’s another story.)
First up: the cake. Like Amazon (or “wacky”) cakes, the batter can be made anytime from your pantry, and fast, because it relies on the fizz from vinegar reacting with baking soda for its leavening—no eggs or butter-creaming needed.
But for this version, you will need to stop by the store for a couple avocados. Odd as it might sound, the mashed avocado adds richness and buoyancy—you get a soft, bouncy crumb with a friendly cocoa flavor. Anita started making this recipe from Joy the Baker—skipping the Alton Brown avocado buttercream, which I recommend you also tiptoe past—but now she doubles the avocado for an extra fudgy texture.
The cake part is dependable and very good, but on its own, not bringing anyone to the yard. Like all good birthday cakes, it’s really there to give the frosting a place to pile up. (This isn’t a bad thing! Sauce needs pasta to carry its message; butter needs warm bread; this frosting needs this cake.)
And this is where our tinkerer really got going. Anita resented how traditional buttercream, when she tried to veganize, would become dry and plaster-like, but if she added more almond or coconut milk to compensate, would turn into glaze. So the next time she had to make a birthday cake, she went to C-Town and studied the back of a Cool Whip package. She saw that the third and fourth ingredients were corn syrups (after water and hydrogenated vegetable oil), so she started playing with the wholesome equivalent: brown rice syrup.
Added on its own, the syrup made frostings sleek and glossy, but still heavier and stickier than she wanted. But! She discovered that the syrup helped stabilize the base enough that pouring in almond milk (a whole cup!) made it poof into pillowy ripples in the mixer instead of thinning it to a glaze like you might expect.
The frosting that comes out is smooth and cloud-like, with the richness of melted chocolate rather than cocoa’s relative plainness. The flavor is anchored by salt, vanilla, bitter chocolate, and something less familiar: The earthy, molasses-like hint of the brown rice syrup doesn’t overpower the chocolate but actually makes it more rounded and intriguing, yet still recognizable enough to remind you of the best birthday cakes of yore.
When I saw it was recently this column’s 5th birthday (okay, when my mom reminded me), I knew that I had to celebrate by baking it a cake from my favorite tinkerer, the embodiment of genius at work in the kitchen—of risk-taking and evolution and letting memory and passion and happy accidents guide you toward discoveries, and of sharing them with other people who will love them, too.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup neutral oil like vegetable oil (or nut oil like almond oil)
- 1 cup soft avocado, very well-mashed, about 2 medium avocados
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 9 1/2 ounces good-quality baking chocolate (we used 100% Dagoba bars)
- 1 1/2 cups non-hydrogenated shortening
- 4 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 cup almond milk, divided
- 1 cup brown rice syrup
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 protected].
Photos by James Ransom