A Genius Chocolate (Vegan) Birthday Cake with Super-Fluffy Frosting

July 13, 2016

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“What is the best timeline to make and eat this cake? Can I make it two days before frosting and eating? Or best cooked the day before?”
— Melissa W.

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.

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

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Melissa Whitson
    Melissa Whitson
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    Katherine V. McMahon
  • Elizabeth
  • Chester Blonkowski
    Chester Blonkowski
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Melissa W. June 18, 2020
What is the best timeline to make and eat this cake? Can I make it two days before frosting and eating? Or best cooked the day before?
Amy February 24, 2017
Is the unsweetened cocoa powder Dutch-processed cocoa powder or Natural cocoa powder?
Katherine V. August 24, 2016
Best to use bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate? Thanks!!
Kristen M. August 24, 2016
It's funny—the terms bittersweet, semi-sweet, and dark are used pretty interchangeably for similar chocolates and mean different things depending on the brand. Any of those will work for this, but use bars, not chocolate chips (which have other stuff in them), and I'd look for a 70-85% dark chocolate (or bittersweet or semisweet) that doesn't have a long list of ingredients besides chocolate! Especially check the ingredients if you want to be sure it's vegan.
Elizabeth August 21, 2016
In the frosting recipe, could I substitute using coconut oil for the shortening ?
Kristen M. August 22, 2016
Anita tells me coconut oil will not work, but vegan butters will.
Elizabeth August 22, 2016
OK, thanks for getting back so quickly. Love your site!
Kristen M. August 22, 2016
Thank you! And no problem. Here's even more brilliance from Anita:
"Earth Balance would be a great substitute. It actually comes out tasting better than the shortening. You may have to use less milk though. Just keep some of it on the side as you may not need the last 1/4-1/2 cup.

Coconut oil on its own is not emulsified like shortening and vegan butter and will therefore behave much differently. Using coconut oil would create more unpredictable results in this recipe, especially because it becomes completely fluid when warmed. You may end up with more of a liquid glaze that hardens after it is cool.

The solution would be to substitute a portion of the shortening for coconut oil, no more than 1/4 the quantity, or use a coconut oil-based margarine. Earth Balance makes one now."
Chester B. July 18, 2016
I was going to try this recipe, but then I saw brown rice syrup. Forget it! I'm not going to add another item to my pantry.
Uta L. August 16, 2016
Just use any other syrup then.
Souaâd July 18, 2016
No eggs?
Kristen M. July 18, 2016
No, it's vegan!
kokeguri July 16, 2016
Looks great! My son is allergic to wheat, soy and nuts; would it be possible to use a different flour with the same results? Thanks!
Kristen M. July 18, 2016
I haven't tried it, but I imagine if you have a favorite gluten-free blend like Cup4Cup, it should work well here. Let us know if you try it!
euniceyl July 16, 2016
Id like to substitute shortening with something else. Any suggestions?
Kristen M. July 16, 2016
Anita has used vegan butter like Earth Balance, too, and if you're not concerned about keeping it vegan, you can just use regular butter at room temperature.
Kathryn July 15, 2016
Thank you Kristen. I do appreciate your time and answer. I am making this tomorrow.
Kathryn July 15, 2016
The frosting. Allergic to nuts, can I use regular milk instead? Will it still work?
Kristen M. July 15, 2016
Sure thing—Anita has also used coconut milk.
Alexandra S. July 13, 2016
Happy Birthday Genius Recipes!! Beautiful cake, candles, and story.
Kristen M. July 18, 2016
Thanks so much, Ali!