By Sarah Khalkho
Silence. My spoon hovers in anticipation over the fat slice of chocolate cake sitting pretty in front of me. It stares back in all its fudgy, layered beauty. After a few moments of thick, unbearable suspense, I close in, push my spoon across the slice and climactically shove the generous serving in my mouth. Swoon. A pretentious French background score follows but this time it’s not me, just the bakery’s ambient music. The location is an upscale bakery in South Mumbai but it could well be anywhere else – on the couch devouring a homemade chocolate loaf, inside a tiny Mongini’s eating a slab of really bad truffle chocolate cake which manages to hit the spot every time – and the fanfare would be the same.
In the cinematic world of desserts, chocolate cake is the cool but relatable star with a sea of admirers fawning over it. The cake even at its understated best manages to draw awed gasps and a compelling desire to take a satisfying bite off of a slice. That is one of the many charms of chocolate cake – its ability to don several hats at once and still pull it off with a chutzpah that only it can.
Chocolate and by association chocolate cake, has always pulled people. The origins of chocolate are hazy at best but it is clear that it was cherished from the start.
The history of chocolate cake is even more muddled. According to Food Timeline, the first chocolate cakes didn’t even have chocolate in them. The name was more by alliance, given to yellow tea cakes accompanying a chocolate drink during early 1800s. This later progressed to the same yellow or spiced cakes slathered in modest chocolate icing. Chocolate was a luxury which only the rich could afford to relish. It wasn’t until 1850s did chocolate find itself as an ingredient in cakes and other baked goods.
By 1900s, extensive availability and committed marketing by companies like Hershey’s, Nestle and Cadbury put chocolate (and chocolate cake) firmly on its revered throne.
When chocolate cake found its way to India is not known, though it is likely that it was introduced to the subcontinent through our colonizers. Cakes, chocolate or not, were restricted to cities and hill stations with concentrated colonial populations where bakeries tried to catered to the demand, writes Vikram Doctor in an Economic Times article.
Chocolate has been worshipped, then seen as a health food given its energy-giving properties before finally coming to the juncture it is at today – the foundation of an ubiquitous, much-loved dessert. Which begs the question:
Why is chocolate cake so delicious to the point of being addictive?
The answer can be found in science. A 2007 study found that chocolate sends our brain into overdrive and quickens our heartbeat – the effect a passionate kiss would have, except with chocolate, it’s four times longer! We are wired to love it. Chocolate is also guilty of being packed with feel-good chemicals and stimulants that make it taste so scrumptious. They also make it practically impossible to stop at just one bite. One of these chemicals – anandamide is responsible for giving us a chocolate ‘high’ similar to one from marijuana (containing anandamide of a different kind).
What makes a chocolate cake a mind-blowing chocolate cake?
Yielding. A good chocolate cake should give in to the weight of cutlery without the slightest of resistance. Yet, its softness should not be mistaken for weakness – the cake should still be sturdy enough to be subjected to lashings of frosting of choice and emerge from the ordeal intact, without sagging sides or nary a crumb out of place.
There are too many bad chocolate cakes out there – dry and tawny with the texture resembling more to stale bread than a dark crumb with a softness that melts in your mouth.
The type of cocoa powder is partly to blame. Low-quality cocoa powder is more chalky than smooth and caramel-colored rather than a deep, lovely brown. Cadbury and Hershey’s are dependable cocoa powder brands which produce a dark cake with a pronounced chocolate flavor. If you want to up your chocolate cake game, try Hintz or any other Dutch processed cocoa powder brand. Expensive, but worth a special occasion. Dutch processed cocoa is alkaline compared to the neutral natural cocoa and produces a result which could well be the dictionary definition of chocolate cake.
Second, most traditional Indian chocolate cake recipes skimp on fat. It is understandable from a business standpoint since butter and oil are expensive but fat provides much needed moisture to a cake. This issue disappears in a chocolate cake made at home with all of the TLC.
Keeping allergies and preferences in mind, here is a dead simple recipe for vegan chocolate cake made with pantry essentials in one single bowl. Hallelujah! It checks off all the boxes we discussed, hedonistically chocolatey, soft but stable.
A bonus is the highly addictive vegan chocolate frosting you’ll be licking off from the bowl.
Vegan Chocolate Cake
- 1 + ½ cups all purpose flour (180 grams)
- ½ teaspoon baking soda + ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup cocoa powder (40 grams)
- ½ cup castor sugar (120 grams) + ¼ cup brown sugar (60 grams)
- 5 tablespoons olive oil (75 ml)
- 1 cup water (240 ml)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla essence/extract
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Grease your pan (one 8” inch pan or two 6” inch pans) with oil/butter and line it with parchment paper.
- In a bowl, dump all your dry ingredients in – flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder and sugar. Sift if you want to, it is recommended but isn’t a deal breaker.
- Give it a thorough mixing with a whisk. Then one by one, dump in all the wet ingredients – oil, water, vanilla and vinegar. Don’t be tempted to mix after each addition, it will lead to lumps. Once all ingredients are in, give it a proper mix with a whisk till the batter is smooth.
- Pour into pan(s). Bake for 20-25 minutes or till a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with a few dry crumbs.
- Let cool for 10 minutes. Remove carefully from pan and let cool (or eat warm!)
Vegan Chocolate Fudge Frosting
- 15 dates, pitted (about ½ cup)
- 1/3 cup almonds, roasted
- ¼ cup cocoa powder
- Pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla essence
- 1/3 cup warm water
- In the jar of a mixer-grinder, pulse the almonds for about 5-10 minutes till they resemble the consistency of nut butter. They will first become a coarse powder, then clump together and finally release their oils to make a smooth(ish) paste.
- Add the dates and grind till the dates also form a dry paste and mix with the almond butter. Add a little of the water to aid the process.
- Add the cocoa powder, water, salt and vanilla and run the mixer till it all comes together in a smooth frosting. Add water to adjust consistency. It should not be runny but spreadable.
- Decorate the cake with the frosting as you wish. Cut yourself a slice. Enjoy!
Substitutions & Swaps
- Swap half of the AP flour with atta for a healthier version
- Reduce the cocoa to ¼ cup for a lighter, less chocolatey cake
- Swap the brown sugar with white sugar for a taller, fluffier result rather than a dense, fudgy one
- If you don’t have olive oil on hand, don’t sweat. Just use any other neutral vegetable oil
About the Columnist
Sarah Khalkho is an enthusiastic lover of dappled sunlight, flaky pastry, and vintage ceramics. Her fridge is always overstocked with butter and her shelves with cookbooks because she believes one can never have enough of both.