Vegan Chocolate Cake by Molly Brodak

Happy Birthday to me! 

I visited my mom and sister recently back home in Michigan and mom made for me my favorite birthday cake she used to make when I was little: wacky cake.

Wacky cake is apparently a recipe created in the 40s when home bakers were rationing on account of World War II. It requires no eggs, no butter, and no milk. It's "wacky" because the recipe traditionally calls for you to make three wells in the dry mix--one for vanilla extract, one for oil, and the last for vinegar. Then you cover the whole thing with water, stir with a fork, and bake. 

Now, to be honest there's no real science behind this method, it seems to me just a clever way to make a recipe memorable. It really makes no difference to the outcome of the cake if you make the three little wells or not, as wacky-cake pros like my mom know.

Essentially, this is a great vegan cake, and with this inspiration in mind, I created a recipe for a very similar chocolate vegan cake. It's extremely soft, with a loose, wiggly crumb and incredible lightness. I like this even better than non-vegan chocolate cake, plus it brings back memories of home.

yes I am eating it with my hands

yes I am eating it with my hands

Now, the fact that wacky cake is usually baked as a sheet cake tells you something. This cake is SO tender that it is hard to work's a terrible candidate for carving, and is so delicate it is hard to slice and tort, or even move the layers around unless you are very deft with cake-moving. I recommend baking this cake, too, in a 8x8 pan or as cupcakes. It doesn't have much structure because of the low protein content in this recipe. This recipe can easily be doubled for a 9x13 or similar larger pan.

painting with buttercream!

painting with buttercream!

Of course, thinking about what can be done with a sheet cake without having to carve it or slice it, I thought about a painting. I created this Spring-inspired "oil" painting using vegan margarine-based buttercream and created a fondant frame for it out of a mold I made from a fantastic old framed mirror in my bedroom. 

I painted the frame with edible gold coloring and dusted it with cocoa powder to antique it slightly. 

most of the frame was held up with rolled foil (you can see it in this pic) since I didn't want to waste a ton of fondant

most of the frame was held up with rolled foil (you can see it in this pic) since I didn't want to waste a ton of fondant

I altered the basic wacky cake recipe to boost flavor and add richness. I promise the addition of coffee will not impart any coffee flavor to the cake, just deepen the chocolate taste (trust me, I'm not a big coffee fan so I wouldn't do this if the coffee flavor was detectable). Starbucks (and lots of other retailers) now make fantastic microground instant coffee that is miles away from those horrible crystals your parents used to drink--these are perfect for this recipe. Any cocoa powder will do--my favorite grocery store cocoa powder is Hershey's Special Dark, but feel free to use your fancy high quality cocoa powder if you have it. Dutch-process cocoa is better in this recipe than natural cocoa because it will make a richer, darker cake and the acidity of natural cocoa is not needed since we have plenty of other acidic ingredients here, but natural (such as regular Hershey's cocoa powder) will substitute ok.

Bonus: all you need for this recipe is a whisk!

Vegan Chocolate Cake

1 c. unsweetened soy or nut milk of your choice

1 packet microground instant coffee or espresso (to make one cup)

1 tsp. apple cider vinegar

3/4 c. (160 g.) sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 c. vegetable or canola oil

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 c. (133 g.) all-purpose flour

1/3 c. (34 g.) Dutched cocoa powder (Hershey’s Special Dark or KAF Black Cocoa work great)

3/4 tsp. (4 g.) baking soda

1/2 tsp. (2 g.) baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and lightly grease and flour 8x8 baking pan or line cupcake pan with liners. Heat nondairy milk until warm in microwave; stir in coffee powder until dissolved. Add vinegar and set aside. Whisk flour, cocoa, baking soda, and baking powder in a small bowl until thoroughly mixed. In a larger bowl, combine milk mixture with sugar, oil, vanilla, and salt, and whisk until lightly frothy. Add dry mixture in two batches, and whisk. Mixture can have small lumps. Pour into prepared pans and bake for about 18-22 minutes or until center is set. Allow to cool completely before icing with your favorite frosting.

art saved my life. thanks for another year!

art saved my life. thanks for another year!

Vegan Agar Gems by Molly Brodak

The recipe for agar gems is so simple that it really doesn't need a lot of explanation--which means this post is going to be full of just tons of eye candy instead.

Agar jellies have a less chewy consistency than gelatin desserts. Instead of being wiggly and gummy like gelatin treats, their texture is almost crisp in a way, incredibly delicate and quick to melt in one's mouth. It is the perfect treat on a hot summer day or as a refreshing dessert that doesn't require firing up the oven. The recipe I have here is just a slight adjustment to the instructions on the box: I have made these slightly more firm, and you can make your gems more or less firm by simply adjusting the amount of liquid you add. 

Making these gems is also super fun. Agar sets up much faster than gelatin dessert, so it is easy to layer colors and make interesting shapes while keeping the mixture warm on the stove. I ladled out small portions of the mixture into bowls and mixed in food coloring, or added a teaspoon of coconut milk to make the mixture opaque.

mini mountains

mini mountains

I was using flexible candy molds and flexible bakeware to make the agar dessert in since popping out the completed shapes was much easier with a flexible mold. If you don't have any flexible silicone bakeware to use, just be sure to line any cake pan or container you are pouring your agar mixture into with parchment. Then when you are ready, run a knife along the sides, turn agar out, and cut into desired shapes (the parchment is important because agar dessert will break apart easily).



You can also make agar spheres by dropping the mixture slowly out of a squirt bottle into a glass of cold vegetable oil (strain the agar beads out with a wire strainer and rinse briefly in cold water.

A blue sphere suspended in a triangle

A blue sphere suspended in a triangle

Below you can see how to make clouds on a celery green sea: just gently drop some opaque coconut-milk-agar mix into a clear portion of agar mixture that has been setting up for about 5-7 minutes (if you drop it in too early, it will all mix together). Once that layer is set, add another layer (the "sea" layer) and then when you cut this piece up, flip upside down.

The agar has basically no flavor except for a very light herbal taste. You can add any flavorings you like to the mixture, but clear extracts are best to keep the colors bright. I recommend lemon or coconut.

I used Swallow Globe brand agar-agar powder, which I picked up at my local Asian food grocery but you can purchase this online, too. I found it was not as crystal clear as I would have liked, so if anyone has any recommendations for an agar-agar that sets crystal clear, let me know!

Vegan Agar Gems

1 oz packet agar-agar powder (7 g)

120 g (4.25 oz) sugar

750 ml (25.3 fl. oz) filtered water

2 tsp lemon extract

Coconut milk and gel food coloring

Bring water to a gentle boil in a small saucepan and add the sugar, stir until dissolved. Turn the heat down to barely simmering and add agar-agar powder, stir until dissolved. Add extract. Keep mixture warm while ladling out small portions to color. Allow layers of mixture to set for at least 8 minutes before adding another layer. Cool completely, turn out, and cut into desired shapes.

looks and tastes like joy

looks and tastes like joy

Early Spring Wagashi by Molly Brodak

I have been working on these delightful treats for a long time now and I'm really excited about these forthcoming posts. I will post about each recipe separately so the series will have three parts--what follows is a general overview, and I'll be sure to keep this page updated with links as they appear.

Wagashi is a term for a wide range of Japanese sweets. If you were going to be served wagashi at tea, you would expect a variety of tiny desserts, artfully arranged, and evocative of the current or upcoming season. Summer wagashi might be colorful and refreshing, autumn wagashi might be more subdued and warm. You get the idea.

I have been poring over websites and cookbooks and magazines for the last few months to study these treats and I wanted to stay true to the seasonal themes, but replace many of the traditional Japanese ingredients such as sweetened bean paste and chewy glutinous rice for more familiar dessert flavors and textures for American tasters. 

These adorable baubles are modeled on temari balls, decorative objects made by wrapping silk thread in various patterns around a ball. The wagashi version is made with mochi and red bean paste, but I made these with easy homemade marzipan. They are super simple but very fun and would be a great project for kids or on hot days when you don't feel like firing up the oven.

Next come the jellies. These are vegan, too, made with agar and the occasional splash of coconut milk for opacity. These are my version of yokan, which are jellies traditionally made with red bean paste and served chilled in summer, sometimes with an assortment of fruit. I made them with lemon and rosewater to keep the fresh spring feeling going. Agar sets up much faster than gelatin and doesn't need to be chilled, so layering colors and textures in this process is way more satisfying and and easy. Spheres of agar can be made by dropping it from a squirt bottle into a glass of chilled oil, just like those molecular gastronomy goobers do with their nerd-food concoctions (I am not knocking those goobers, I love them, please serve me all the nerd-food spheres you've got).

And lastly we come to the rakugan springerle. Rakugan are little cakes of dried sugar and rice flour that have been pressed into molds and imprinted with designs. They aren't delicious really, they have the chalky texture of Smarties, but are meant to serve as a counterpoint to the astringency of matcha. I started collecting old kashigata (the wooden molds made for these sweets) on ebay and they reminded me so much of german springerle molds, the connection seemed obvious. So I made traditional springerle in the Japanese molds and dusted the resulting cookies with matcha powder for flavor and beautiful light green color. I used edible petal dusts for the other colors. I also used some of my fondant/gumpaste molds to supplement the kashigata designs. The anise seeds that normally stud the bottom of these cookies were swapped out for sesame seeds, which toasted lightly in the oven and added to the subtle lemon and green tea flavors.

Stay tuned for these posts! Recipes and tutorials for all of the above will be coming out throughout March!