A Gift for This Moment and Wacky Cake (Gluten Free, Grain Free, and Top 14 Allergy Free)

Necessity is the mother of invention.

I remember hearing my folks say this sort of thing to each other as they sautéed their way toward dinner. I never quite understood what they meant because it never felt like we needed anything. Dinner was always awesome. My mom would dig out a few leftover baked potatoes and dice them, saggy skin and all, while my dad dug out leftover roast beef and heated up oil for hash. They chopped up onions for good measure, then tossed it all together in a hot skillet until the potatoes were crispy and golden. Dinners like that were some of my favorite, regardless of what food my folks wished they had on hand.

Now I know that our pantry sometimes got bare. Now I know my mom bought Hyrdox Cookies instead of Oreos and big tubs of generic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers Vanilla Bean for one reason: they fit her budget better. But even those bargains were only sometimes treats. Even so, I don’t really remember going without. In fact, a bare pantry meant my dad jumped at the chance to bake a Wacky Cake–the dessert for which we always had ingredients. The fridge doesn’t have to be fully stocked with cream or eggs or milk or butter for a slice of his famous impromptu cake.

Last week I read The Kitchen Front, a novel about ordinary women struggling to cook palatable meals during WWII England. Wartime rationing redefined pantry staples, so pantry stockpiles looked awfully paltry compared to the way they looked before the war. Fresh eggs were limited; dairy products too. Food women used to take for granted were whisked away from them without their consent or approval, and before they knew it they were whirling together bits of stale bread and overcooked vegetables to make mock roast chicken. Some of their concoctions sounded just plain awful (mock anything makes me cringe), but I admired their resourcefulness and creativity nonetheless.

I imagine it was heartbreaking to have to forego serving a cake on a birthday because there weren’t enough ration coupons for eggs. Someone somewhere figured out how to make cake without it–necessity is the mother of invention, right?–and vegan cakes were born out of a different sort of necessity back then.

When I put the book down, I couldn’t help but see the parallel to my own cooking life, of course. Wartime rationing isn’t to blame for the changes in my kitchen, but outside forces beyond my control stormed in and bossed me around too, and I find myself staring at a smattering of ingredients that don’t feel like enough, wondering how to make familiar food out of mock versions of the real thing. Like them, I was frustrated and angry but powerless to do much else than slip into survival mode at first and just keep cooking something. Little by little, they learned to let go of what they didn’t have and how to make do with what they did have, and so did I, and in the process new things are born–like grain free, vegan cake that is familiar and delicious.

Wacky Cake proves that God really does bring about good things out of desperately difficult situations. All the harrowing hardship of the war didn’t change the fact that women wanted to serve something celebratory and sweet. I know what that’s like on a much smaller scale, of course, but imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t serve cake for your boy’s birthday and you might understand a little. This crazy cake made out of cassava flour, cocoa powder, sugar, oil & water makes a decadent, distinctly not weird confection that could be served to just about anyone. It’s flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of allergies–a feat women working in WWII kitchens couldn’t imagine, and yet somehow they secured it long before we ever really needed it. I feel a kinship with them when I make it, because even though allergies and intolerances and dietary restrictions weren’t really a thing back then (like they are today), they knew the frustration and heartache of going without.

I like to think Wacky Cake is a wartime gift God gave to women two generations before me during that dark, difficult season. Food doesn’t solve everything, but sweet balances out the bitter, so cake helps. God must know that; why else would he have made cocoa beans bitter and sugar cane sweet? This dessert uses both, without any of the dangerous ingredients that we can’t serve to our people this season. When I whisk this cake together, I whisper a prayer of thanks because I am certain God knew we would need this recipe for this moment, right now, when so many of us are wondering how to serve special foods to the people we love, too.

The best gifts just keep on giving, and this gift is for you too.


The Real Thing and Cocoa Cola Cake

Dear Joey,

Without further ado, here is a fun cake that made an otherwise lonesome birthday a little bit more fun last week: Cocoa Cola Cake.

It was Grandpa’s 90th birthday, which felt big and important, of course. Celebrating him mattered, Covid or not. But the big question looming over my head was this: How?

Not one for making a big to-do about himself, Grandpa is a cool, come-alongside sort of guy who built and nurtured things his whole life. He planted seeds; watched them grow; and today he reaps the reward of a life well-spent.

But life doesn’t look much like he thought it would look these days, I imagine. Settling into a new rhythm in a new home thousands of miles away from where he built his life, adjusting to life’s complications as they presents themselves; turning 90 in seclusion with most of the folks he loves so far away from him now–the idea of this milestone birthday must have made him feel more lonesome than ever. Even so, he never complains.

In fact, I have never heard the man complain. Instead, his calm and quiet strength taught me to accept what comes with an attitude of hope that the Good Lord knows what’s best for us and divvies things up accordingly.

He taught me that speaking one’s mind doesn’t have to include shouting; hamburgers taste better after a long, hard day’s work; and use up every ounce of the things you are blessed with, because you’re lucky to have them. He taught me to be thankful for the the things we have and to care for them well.

I know a Cocoa Cola Cake doesn’t really sound like it’s at all good enough to honor or celebrate such a milestone, but Grandpa loves the classic cola from which it gets its name, and every time I see him take a sip of his favorite afternoon beverage, it I hear that old soda pop jingle singing in my memory: “Can’t beat the real thing.

My Grandpa: he’s the real thing, and nothing beats that.

When someone you love turns 90, and he loves Coke, and you need a way to celebrate his birthday in the middle of a disappointing, hard season, and you miraculously find a way to make it free of all those pesky allergens and it’s still moist and delicious? You celebrate and eat a slice and feel like things aren’t so bad after all. Gluten free. Dairy free. Egg free. Soy free. Nut free. The list goes on. Full of rich, chocolatey flavor that won’t let you down. (Which is why I changed the name from Coca Cola Cake to Cocoa Cola Cake. It’s that chocolatey!)

A few notes:
1. It’s flexible! Use regular flour or regular buttermilk of that suits your family.
2. Use a gluten free flour blend that contains xanthan gum. The xanthan gum acts as a binder, so don’t skip it.
3. Try any non-dairy milk you prefer, but I am devoted to plain unsweetened Flax Milk.
4. The original Coca Cola Cake recipes I consulted contained eggs. This made it *too* moist in my opinion, but if you’d like to try it that way, add 2 eggs with the wet ingredients.
5. Sugar content reduced down to 1 cup instead of the 2 cups all those originals called for. It was waaaay to sweet for me that way (thus the reduction in sugar in my version).

Best enjoyed with family and friends: this one’s a keeper!


The Great Cake Debate, and Vanilla Confetti Cake (GF/DF/NF)

Dear Joey,

When it comes to cake, you and I are contentious about which flavor wins: chocolate or vanilla. It’s an ongoing battle that will never end because we are so dead set in our ways that we cannot–and will not–change our minds. You could easily live without chocolate, but my life lived without it would be no life at all.

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It’s not that I dislike vanilla; it’s just that I like to think of it as a canvas upon which to play with color, composition, texture and form, but for you vanilla is a finished work of art, complete just as it is. For better or worse, we choose to live peaceably despite this disagreement. Plus, there are other flavors of cake that help smooth things over (like white cake with chocolate frosting, or chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. It’s all about compromise.)

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Through the years we have come to respect each other’s preference, of course, partially out of marital duty and partially because we understand each other a little bit more than we used to. We started listening to each other without trying to win the other onto our own team. Now we appreciate–and even enjoy–the differing perspectives we bring to the dessert table. You will happily eat a slice of chocolate cake (or gulp down a chocolate cupcake in swoop so the Goobies don’t see you going back for seconds), and I accepted the idea that you really do enjoy the one cake in the whole world that sounds completely boring to me: white cake with white buttercream frosting.

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We try to lure the kids onto our own teams, but they generally have one foot in each camp because the truth is, they just plain like cake. Flavor matters little to them, as long as it tastes good. Given time, they’ll form their own opinions I think, but for now, cake wins.

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When I started tinkering around with baking gluten and dairy free treats , I tried to tackle chocolate cake first (clearly) because this girl can only live so long without the stuff. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would need to be fair to vanilla, though, if only for the sake of our marriage. Admittedly, I actually liked the result of my efforts (and am restraining myself from nibbling on a slice as I write this).

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I imagine some might say I liked this cake because my taste buds have forgotten what really good cake actually tastes like (given the fact that they are accustomed gluten free and dairy free treats taste like), but kids don’t lie about stuff as important as this–not ours, not any. Kids always tell the truth about cake.

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I served slices of Vanilla Confetti Cake to a gaggle of kids at a baby shower yesterday: kids with food allergies that span the gamut of the top 8, along with a few kids (like Addie) without any food allergies to speak of. The consensus? “More cake! More cake! More cake!” — and that right there, my friend, is sort of the whole point of tinkering around with these recipes in the first place: to make a cake that tastes good, one that kids think is yummy, a cake that everyone can all agree on–whether we fall in the chocolate camp or the vanilla camp, gluten intolerant or allergic to dairy, nut allergies or no allergies at all. With this cake, everyone wins.

Love,

Scratch

Vanilla Confetti Cake

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If dessert is art, this cake is a blank canvas in the best possible way. The confetti is only an option; leave the sprinkles out if you want a plain vanilla cake, or swap them out for mini chocolate chips (yum!) for a cake compromise. Disclaimer: I only ever make this cake with my own flour blends (click here for the recipes), both of which yield fantastic results. Smear Mema’s Buttercream on top for a classic decorated cake (as above) or serve with sliced strawberries and a dollop some coconut whipped cream for a springtime treat. Either way, you’ll end up with a masterpiece. This recipe makes two 8″ rounds or 24 cupcakes.

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) Earth Balance Soy-Free Vegan Buttery Spread, softened OR 3/4 cup softened refined coconut oil (not melted)
  • 2 large eggs (or for an egg free version, substitute 1 very ripe medium banana, well mashed, to equal 1/2 cup*)
  • 2 1/4 cups pure cane sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened flax milk (or regular rice milk)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups  gluten free cake flour OR gluten free all-purpose flour blend
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt**
  • 1/4 cup gluten free sprinkles, optional

*If using banana instead of egg, reduce sugar to 1 1/2 cups

**If using coconut oil, increase salt to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt.

Method:

Start by preheating your oven to 325°F. Then, spray two 8″ round cake pans with nonstick spray (or smear with coconut oil), then sprinkle a little gluten free flour in the pan and shake until the flour completely covers the oil. Set aside.

Next, sift together the gluten free flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together, and set that aside too.

Then in a large bowl of a Kitchen Aid (or similar electric mixer), cream the softened Earth Balance until it’s nice and smooth. Turn the mixer off, dump in the sugar and beat the two together until they get nice and fluffy. Turn the mixer off again, add the eggs and vanilla and turn the mixer back on, making sure to whip well. Turn the mixer off.

After that, measure 1 1/2 cups flax milk (or rice milk) into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup, and add the 1 1/2 Tablespoons white vinegar to the measuring cup. Pour the vinegar/rice milk mixture to the batter, turn on the mixer again and mix well. The batter will look a little clumpy–do not fret. Turn off the mixer and scoop in the dry ingredients about a cup at a time–dump, then mix; dump, then mix; dump, then mix; then turn the mixer on high and beat until the batter is smooth and luscious, about 1-2 minutes.

Finally, swirl those sprinkles into the batter and divide it between the prepared cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes or so, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the comes out clean (mine were perfect at 35 minutes, but oven temperatures vary. Cool the cakes in the pan for about 5 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack and cool completely before frosting. (We love to top our cakes with Joey’s mom’s classic frosting recipe, which you can find here, way down at the bottom of the page after my recipe for chocolate cake.)