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updated: 5/21/2012 11:05 AM

Flavor not lacking in chocolaty vegan cake

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  • This boldly-flavored picnic cake will tempt everyone at your summer gathering and they'll never guess it was made without eggs and butter.

      This boldly-flavored picnic cake will tempt everyone at your summer gathering and they'll never guess it was made without eggs and butter.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer


With Memorial Day weekend on the horizon, it's time to start planning for outdoor get-togethers. Today's parties call for extra attention to food details as guests bring allergies and taste preferences to the table.

Baking for this diverse crowd brings on a few culinary challenges. Unlike entree or salad buffets that allow diners to choose from a variety of ingredients depending on diet or allergy preferences, once a cake hits the oven, guests can't hold the eggs and butter.

The secret to dessert with wide appeal lies in crafting a recipe that doesn't taste like it's lacking anything or sacrifice authentic taste. I've come up with a picnic cake that meets the strict guidelines for vegans (and also those with dairy allergies) but that also inspires those with butter-loving taste buds to beg a second slice.

While butter and eggs remain on the no-fly list for vegan desserts, one powerful ingredient gets the green light: cocoa powder.

Cakes on the dessert cart flaunting deep cocoa hues always catch my eye, yet I've had my fair share of lackluster chocolate cakes even when butter and eggs were in the batter. Butter doesn't guarantee success.

Great cakes begin with a baker's emphasis on the powerful aspects of an ingredient, not focusing on limitations and substitutions. For my vegan chocolate cake, I started with rich cocoa powder and looked for ingredients that not only partner well with cocoa, but brought their own powerful flavors or textures to the recipe.

With butter sidelined, I looked to either liquid oil or solid margarine to step in as the necessary fat. For the cake batter, I chose canola oil. Light and smooth, this easy-to-use fat nicely fits as cocoa's sidekick while infusing moistness into the finished texture. Think you'll miss butter's flavor? I boosted the amount of cocoa to heighten the chocolate experience.

As a baker, holding the eggs for a cake recipe just feels unnatural; eggs bring fat and leavening to desserts. In this vegan cake, I turned to an old-fashioned trick from grandma's cookbook: distilled white vinegar and baking soda.

The acid in the vinegar meets the alkaline of the soda to bubble the batter and raise the cake. My first test confirmed what you may be thinking. The amount of vinegar needed leaves a subtle aftertaste. Opting for hot coffee in place of water neutralized the vinegar taste and enhances the cocoa flavor.

With a great chocolate cake out of the oven, I set my sights on crafting a luscious cocoa frosting. Ganache felt fussy for a picnic cake and I didn't want to set off taste alarms by substituting soy creamer for the large amount of heavy cream. Powdered sugar frosting seemed the best choice.

To lure the non-vegan crowd, I knew the frosting needed to scream "chocolate" without tasting like a candy bar. I used vegan margarine to stand in for the butter and against conventional baking wisdom, heavily increased the cocoa powder. A splash of vanilla extract and a touch of soy creamer finishes the frosting.

I served this cake and no one guessed this chocoholic's dream to also be vegan and leaning toward healthy. If you're baking for a diverse crowd this summer, this recipe has everyone's tastes covered.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at

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