Friday, 4 March 2011

Old-fashioned recipe for old-fashioned chocolate cake

In a terrible act of complacency, I have totally overlooked writing up my most-used, fallback, failsafe vegan chocolate cake recipe. The closest I've come is this coffee and walnut-ish variation. I don't remember where I found it, though there are many versions of this method online - it's sometimes called 'three hole' chocolate cake for some bizarre reason. It's a wartime recipe, when eggs and dairy were rationed and most people were effectively eating vegan. And it certainly does make for effective eating! No one will ever know it's vegan - I was serving this happily to omnivores before I was even vegan myself. You can also modify the recipe to incorporate any number of other flavours, using the appropriate essence along with or instead of the vanilla, adding nuts, dried fruit, orange rind, and so on to the batter; and of course adding/filling the cake with whatever topping you like. My favourite thing to do with it is split it horizontally and fill it with raspberry jam, then sprinkle the top with icing sugar or spread it with a thin layer of chocolate ganache.

A word of warning though: the quantities given here make for an astounding quantity of batter - enough to fill my round 12" tin, which serves about 20 people quite large pieces of cake. For a normal sized tin, go for two-thirds to a half of the amount. Or make sure you have two cake tins handy!

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
6 tbsp cocoa powder (this is the most important part - even if you use supermarket basics brand for the rest, use the best cocoa you can find, Dutch processed if possible - I normally go for Equal Exchange cocoa powder or similar)
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

3/4 cup oil
2 tbsp vinegar (any kind will do, even balsamic if that's all you have!)
2 tsp vanilla essence
2 cups cold water

This is so easy it's silly. First make sure you're oven is on, set to 200C/400F/gas mark 6, and that you have greased and floured your cake tin(s). Flouring is a cunning and important step that is often overlooked in baking recipes, but will prevent your cake from adhering permanently to the bottom of the tin.

Get two mixing bowls, at least one of which needs to be pretty sizeable. Combine your dry ingredients (except the sugar) in one bowl - don't worry about sifting, just use a whisk to mix it all together and remove any big lumps before adding the liquid, but make sure you do mix them up thoroughly because you want to minimise mixing of the batter once it's wet (overmixing causes the gluten strands to develop and makes for tough cake). Combine all your wet ingredients, and the sugar, in the other bowl. Now mix the wet ingredients into the dry. If you only have one big bowl, combine the dry ingredients first, then add the wet directly into the mix. Stir with a spoon or a hand-held whisk (no need for electric gadgetry here) until the dry stuff has been fully incorporated. Pour into your tin(s) and bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes*, or until the cake is springy on top and a knife/skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Once you've removed the cake from the oven, leave it to cool in the tin - if you try to take it out too soon, I cannot vouch for its integrity. Once it's cool it will be much firmer and the structure more coherent.

*A note on baking times: this will vary depending on the amount of batter you have made, and the size and shape of your baking tins. The more surface area the cake has, the quicker it will cook - so with my large, shallow 12" pan 30 mins is fine, but if I were to put the same quantity of batter into a smaller but deeper tin (which I have done in the past), it would take much longer - up to an hour. Less batter in a tin of similar proportions probably will take less time. I'm sure there are complicated mathematical formulae to work out this sort of thing accurately, but a quick peek in the oven is a perfectly acceptable way to do it! As long as you don't peek too early on in baking process (leave at least 15-20 mins before checking), it shouldn't cause the cake to sink.

I should also add a note on 'cups' as a measurement. They are fairly well known in the UK now, with the recent influx of cross-pond baking recipes, but to clear up any confusion for the staunchly British, a cup is a volume-based measure, equivalent to 284ml. So find a receptacle that measures roughly this amount of liquid, and use this to measure out your ingredients. Or if you're feeling pedantic, find an online conversion calculator to ascertain the exact weight/measurement of each substance contained within a cup, or portion of a cup.

Happy caking!

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