No Surprises

Leaping to her feet instantly, arms outstretched and swinging wildly, happy exclamations filled the previously quiet room. Lipstick kisses imprinted our cheeks as the hubbub slowly died down, the birthday girl was genuinely delighted by her unexpected brunch guests and party in her honor. It may have been a surprise party for my grandma, but honestly, I was the most surprised; No one told me we weren’t expected!

No matter, even without the full details there’s no way I’d arrive at any celebration empty-handed. Far from it; The 3-layer, chocolate-smothered tower weighed quite a bit more than calculated, and I was relieved to have it out of my hands upon arriving. Knowing me, you might imagine that some wonderful, unexpected twists must be lurking inside. Some crazy flavor or bizarre ingredient, unusual preparation, funny shape, anything! But no, the surprises ended after our dramatic entry, as this is just a chocolate cake.

No, I take that back- It most certainly is not just a chocolate cake, but in fact the chocolate cake. The chocolate cake I’ve been searching for before I even knew what good chocolate cake was, when I would have been just as thrilled by a half-price grocery store cupcake as a fine French gateaux. All it took to get there was of coarse endless experimentation over the years, but also a bit of humbling. That’s because I had to enlist some help from an ingredient previously reviled and downright banned from this household… Mayonnaise.

Way back when I was 10 years old, from the time I took a bite of a croque monsieur at the Charles de Gaulle Airport on a tedious layover to Italy, I was convinced that mayo was nothing but evil in condiment form. Shocked to find this pasty, fatty white sludge lining the limp bread, it was everything wrong with airport food, and everything wrong with mayonnaise. It was the worst thing I had ever eaten in my young life, and may still hold that illustrious title today, if I cared to think of all those terrible meals past. Though that was our first chance meeting, I was done with mayonnaise forever, and very vocal about my passionate animosity. That’s why it was even harder to reach for the glass jar, and admit that this substance may actually have a place in my kitchen.

This is one accidental re-introduction that I’m blaming squarely on Dreena Burton. Yes, the wholesome sweetheart behind a string of foolproof cookbooks. It was her fault that I needed a dab of mayo to photograph her rocking veggie burgers, her advice to get Vegenaise instead of the other gloppy stuff that’s almost worse than the original, and thus her fault that I had almost a full jar of the stuff to contend with afterwards.

Without the mayo, this cake couldn’t happen, so I’m trying to accept that painful reality. However, the cake itself isn’t hard to swallow; it practically melts in your mouth, despite its impressive density. So moist, in fact, that I could only think to name it the first thing that popped into my head, “Ultra-Moist Amazing Chocolate Layer Cake.” Not just under-baked or painfully gummy like so many other “moist” cakes, this one holds itself together with a nearly fluffy crumb, which dissolves into pure chocolate fudge in moments. Creamy bittersweet chocolate frosting is the luscious glue that holds together this tower of three tender cake rounds together, and though no further decoration is needed, a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar really seals the deal. Nothing short of a show-stopper, it may not be a surprise, but it’s sure not your average cocoa birthday cake.

Ultra-Moist Amazing Chocolate Layer Cake

Chocolate Fudge Frosting:

1 1/2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk*
1 Pound Semi-Sweet chocolate, Finely Chopped
1 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1 1/2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

*Chose a full-fat, richer variety for the best results; I prefer almond milk that’s slightly on the thicker side. Coconut milk would also be a good choice here.

Rich Chocolate Cake:

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1 Cup Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder, Sifted
2 Tablespoons Whole Flax Seeds, Ground
1 1/2 Teaspoons Salt
2 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
2 1/4 Teaspoons Baking Soda
1 1/2 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 1/2 Cup Brewed and Cooled Coffee
2 Tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Vegan Mayonnaise
3/4 Cup Canola Oil

Unlike most standard cake-making procedures, you’ll want to start by preparing the frosting first, since it takes some time to cool and set.

Place the non-dairy milk in a medium sauce pan, and bring just the the brink of boiling. You only want to scald it, so quickly take the pan off the heat, and add in the chopped chocolate. Let sit for a few minutes to melt, and then stir the mixture thoroughly until smooth. Cut the margarine into tablespoon-sized pieces, and add them into the melted chocolate, stirring until completely melted and mixed in. Incorporate the vanilla, and let sit at room temperature until cool. Transfer into the fridge to chill. It may take as long as 2 – 3 hours to fully cool, but bear in mind that it will not thicken to the point of being pipe-able; This is a very soft, silky frosting, more like ganache than buttercream. Once it’s merely spreadable, it’s ready to use.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease and flour 3 8-inch round cake pans. You can also do this successfully with just two pans, as long as you measure your batter carefully and have patience.

In the bowl of your stand mixer or just a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, ground flax seeds, salt, baking powder, and soda. Make sure that all of the dry goods are evenly distributed throughout.

In a separate bowl, combine the non-dairy milk, coffee, vinegar, and vanilla, and let sit undisturbed for about 5 minutes. At that point, add in the secret ingredient here, the vegan mayo, as well as the oil, and mix well.

Add the liquids into the bowl of dry ingredient, and slowly mix, just until the batter is mostly smooth and homogeneous. A few lumps are fine, as long as you don’t over-mix. That would cause your cake to come out very tough and chewy, which is not what we’re looking for! Don’t worry if the mixture seems excessively soupy- That is indeed the correct consistency.

Divide your batter evenly between your three prepared baking pans. [If you’re only using two, measure out the full amount of batter, and divide by three. You should end up with somewhere around 2 1/2 of batter in each pan. Reserve the remaining third in your fridge while the first two cakes bake, and allow the cakes to cool completely before turning them out onto a large plate. Quickly rinse and dry one of the pans, re-grease and flour, and bake the final amount of batter in the same manner.]

Bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out cleanly, with perhaps a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Let cool completely before assembling and frosting.

To achieve the decorative pattern on top of the cake as pictured above, first chill the frosted cake thoroughly so that chocolate frosting can set slightly. Take a large doily and gently place it on top, without pressing down, and sprinkle powdered sugar all over. Lift the doily straight up without shaking it, which will remove the excess and leave a lovely, lacy design in its place.

Serves 12 – 18

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