Stop Pretending Your Chocolate Cake is a Salad

Cake or salad

One of these is a salad. The other…is not.

I have a bit of a history with chocolate cake. About ten years ago, and for a good while, I was on a mission to find the very best one. I wanted to find the chocolate cake that Bruce Bogtrotter would agree was worth a few hours in The Chokey. The hunt started, as these quests often do, with the bitter taste of disappointment. I was so tired of biting in to a piece of chocolate cake and not being able to taste the chocolate. Each time what promised to be a rich, chocolatey delight was just…brown cake. Crumbly, bland, sad. Not to be defeated by ready-made offerings I experimented at home with assorted brands and ratios of cocoa powder, resulting only in varying degrees of more or less adequate brown cake. Then it happened. I had in my collection a generic baking book, one that covers the basics: biscuits, bars, small and large cakes. On page 126 was a recipe for ‘Rich Chocolate Cake’. Sure, whatever. I’d heard that one before. But then I read the recipe and it occurred to me. This was different. It had the one thing all that all the others had been missing. Chocolate. Not in chunks or chips or grated on top. But melted and combined in the batter so that the rich flavour shone through. Of course! Because cocoa isn’t chocolate. Without the sugar and cocoa butter it is bitter and unpalatable. Once combined, the flavours develop and are softened and rounded. What a cake dunce I had been. I was blind but now I could see.

This cake was unlike any recipe I had tried before. The ratios were completely unfamiliar. It contained barely any flour. The main ingredient was sugar and it called for a cup of water to be stirred in. This could never work. Surely it would be more of a torte than a true cake, delicious, for sure, but dense and sticky. But I had tried everything else, so, I figured, I had nothing left to lose. I baked the cake and, how do I say this without exaggerating? It. Changed. Everything. It was a spiritual moment. This was the chocolate cake road to Damascus. The title hadn’t lied. It was rich. It was moist. It was light. It tasted of chocolate. It was the kind of cake that people remembered. It was the kind of cake that people requested. Demanded that I make again. When my housemate moved out of our shared house and in with her boyfriend (now husband) it was the recipe she took so that she could make it for birthdays for the rest of time. It’s the kind of recipe that becomes a signature dish; pleasingly familiar but never fading in its ability to impress. It is a culinary hero. And like any worthy hero it has a nemesis.

On an overcast October day something…something strange popped up in my newsfeed. It took me a moment to fully comprehend the entirety of what was on the screen. I blinked in disbelief. What was I reading? Vegan Dark Chocolate-Avocado-Beetroot Cake. I felt like I was back in my psycholinguistics lectures trying to fathom a sentence with two completely different meanings. ‘It’s a dairy/egg-free cake mostly made of salad?’ But…why?

I firmly believe that vegans have the right to enjoy delicious chocolate cake. A friend of mine became vegan back in school so I have a few good vegan cakes in my repertoire. I’m cool with that. But why the vegetable takeover? The recipe description made claims about the nutrient content of the avocado and beetroot but the proportions of these nutrients that you would receive from one serving are negligible. In each serving you’ll enjoy 1/10 of an avocado and 1/20 of a beetroot. More importantly, cake isn’t a health food; trying to portray it as such is both silly an unhelpful. If you’re trying to achieve your daily nutrition intake in the form of cake, we’ve got a problem.

To look at the list of ingredients for this purportedly healthy cake was to gaze upon a ‘Who’s Who?’ of hard-to-find-and/or-expensive ingredients. Dutch-process cocoa powder, aluminium-free baking powder, coconut sugar, unrefined coconut oil and, mysteriously, apple cider vinegar.  This was not a cake for the masses. This was not the egalitarian Cake of the People. This was a Private Members Invitation Only confection. But okay, so maybe it’s not *actually* any healthier, that really doesn’t matter. And, probably, most of the people who will eat it are not vegans. All that can and should be forgiven if it tastes good. Irrespective of what handpicked-by-Pablo-in-Southern-Guatemala ingredients you throw in to a recipe the whole point is that it tastes good. Thus, like any self-respecting, scientifically-minded, baking psychologist I put it to a taste test.  

First, to find the ingredients. I have a pretty well-stocked baking cupboard (and breakout room). I have Einkorn flour, diastatic malt powder, silver cachous in an array of sizes but even I had to head out to a specialist shop to get hold of coconut sugar. Buying all the ingredients required to make this cake cost £25.93 compared to the £8 of my standard recipe (mid-range, own-brand products). That’s more than it costs to have a chocolate bombe handmade by an award-winning, internationally renowned patissier at the luxurious Hotel Café Royal. Including service. Seriously.

Preparing the cake was pretty straight forward. No real issues. The raw batter had the texture of clay but I know that an oven can work magic so I was undeterred. All that matters is the taste.

To me it tastes like undercooked bread. Not unpleasant, but non-descript with no discernible reason for existing. This is a cake without purpose. A cake with an identity crisis, unsure of what it is or where it belongs. As a result, it is unsatisfying. It doesn’t hit the spot. Not good. In the interest of fairness, I subjected it to a blind tastes test on naïve participants. They said:

“It’s like a trick in the mouth because you are expecting the flavour to come…but it doesn’t.”

“It’s not satisfying.”

“So the question is, What’s the point?”

Excellent question. No doubt this cake was conceived as a ‘guilt-free’ alternative to the regular chocolate cake. The goal of this recipe is not to make a delicious tasting celebration food but to mitigate the guilt that so many people experience when eating chocolate. More than any other food, chocolate is marketed as a frivolity, an indulgence, a sinful ‘treat’. Something you really shouldn’t eat. However, chocolate’s near perfect combination of sugar, fat, and stimulating compounds makes us reluctant to even try to resist. Thus, the point of this cake is purely psychological; for the eater to be able to say, ‘I can eat chocolate cake and not hate myself too much because…avocado!’ But, as others have already remarked, the problem here isn’t the chocolate, it’s the guilt. Chocolate cake is not a health food and trying to turn it in to one only results in disappointment, a product that is neither really delicious nor particularly healthy. We should all be able to enjoy a piece cake or a chocolate brownie free of the judgement that we have been ‘naughty’ or the conviction that now we are having a ‘bad day’. The enjoyment of good (by which I mean delicious and handmade) food is a legitimate and important pleasure. And pleasure is essential for wellbeing. To be able to feed yourself a nourishing and balanced diet of foods you enjoy, without rules and conditions is the clearest sign that you know how to look after yourself, respect your body, and trust your mind.

In summary: This cake is three times more expensive than a standard chocolate cake, even a standard vegan cake. For that price is should taste fucking delicious. But it doesn’t. There are better vegan chocolate cake recipes out there. To compensate for that, though, it should be a magical life-enhancing health bomb. It’s not. The distribution of macronutrients is almost identical to the standard chocolate cake (see table below).

Look, if you personally find recipes like this genuinely delicious and have coconut palm sugar knocking around your cupboards then, by all means, go for it. We don’t all have to like the same things. But if you are preparing a recipe like this in the belief that you are making a ‘good’ nutritional decision then allow me to save you the time and money by saying: you’re really not. All that you will be left with is the lingering taste of disappointment and a plateful of broken promises. Instead, here is a recipe for chocolate roulade. Great with fresh berries – still not one of your 5-a-day.

 

P.s. Avocado and beetroot are savoury stars in their own right. Try blending either with cool, salty feta, a little finely chopped red chilli and slather on buttered toast for a snack that will reassure you that you are winning at life. And then, if you want to, buy or make the very best quality chocolate cake you can, and enjoy it for what it is. That, my friends, is what we call balance.

 

Vegan Standard
Fat 46.6% 48%
Carbohydrate 47.6% 46.7%
Protein 5.8% 4.5%
Fibre 3.8% 3.3%
Kimberley Wilson is a Chartered Psychologist working in private practice in Harley Street.
 
A former Great British Bake Off finalist and Food & Drink presenter, she combines her love of food with her training in nutrition and psychology to address the nutritional, biological and psychological aspects of mental wellness, with a focus on resilience and prevention.