I have wanted to try my hand at a checkerboard cake for ages, but have never quite gotten around to it. But every March, Andrew’s birthday comes around, which means that the search begins for a new variation on chocolate mint cake for his birthday. We’ve been together for nearly twenty years now, and I don’t like to repeat myself, so that makes for a lot of different chocolate mint cakes.
I decided that this year, the time was ripe for a checkerboard cake.
My sister-in-law is vegan most of the time (she is very kindly flexible when visiting others), but since she is also actually the least picky eater in Andrew’s family, and thus the most fun person to cook for, I try to come up with things that she doesn’t have to be flexible about. And, after all, I’ve made plenty of good vegan cakes before. How hard could a vegan checkerboard cake be?
Well… a bit hard. Most of my best vegan cakes rely heavily on going all out with the flavour ingredients, sacrificing a nice, easily cuttable texture in favour of something a bit fudgier that tastes better. But you kind of need a cake that will be structurally sound for a checkerboard cake, so that wasn’t going to work here. Also, you can’t use standard buttercream to hold a vegan cake together, and I’m not that delighted by the flavour of most vegan margarines I can get my hands on readily.
I decided to start by adapting some of the recipes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, which are reliable, if not always pitch-perfect for flavour (American cakes always have too much sugar for my palate). The chocolate cupcake recipe I left largely untouched – I reduced the sugar, and used Callebaut cocoa, which has a very high cocoa butter content and thus a stronger chocolatey flavour. The vanilla recipe needed a bit more adapting – rather than using margarine or canola oil, I used melted cocoa butter, giving the cake a slightly white-chocolate taste, and then I skipped the vanilla in favour of peppermint oil and maybe a bit too much green food colouring
I find most vegan buttercreams pretty unpleasant – in all honesty, I’m not that keen on buttercream made with real butter, but buttercream that tastes of fake butter is a bridge too far for me. So I decided to continue on with my cocoa butter theme and use that to make a cocoa buttercream. This has a deliciously white-chocolate-ish sort of flavour, only with more depth. I almost didn’t want to adulterate it with peppermint, but I couldn’t disappoint the peppermint fan in the house, so I went with that. And then I covered the whole lot in vegan chocolate ganache, because you can really never have too much chocolate in a cake.
The results are good, but rather rich – but then, if you are going to spend hours faffing around with rings of cake, you want to wind up with something that people won’t inhale in seconds…
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- 2 cups soy milk (Bonsoy works best, in my experience) + 1 tbsp for the cocoa buttercream + 1/2 cup for the ganache
- 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 slightly heaped cup caster sugar
- 1/3 cup canola oil
- 1/3 cup melted cocoa butter + 1/4 cup for the cocoa buttercream
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- peppermint oil, to taste
- green food colouring
- 2 1/4 cups plain flour
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 1/3 cup really good cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp bicarb of soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup icing sugar
- 240 g dark chocolate (Lindt 70% is good)
- 1/4 cup dark agave nectar or maple syrup if yours hasn’t gone mouldy like mine had (who knew maple syrup could go mouldy?).
Now what will you do with it?
Get out two medium bowls, and pour 1 cup of soy milk and 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar into each. Stir a bit, and leave for a few minutes to curdle.
Preheat your oven to 175°C, and grease and line two 20cm round cake tins.
Add a heaped half cup of sugar to each bowl, and stir into the milk. Add canola oil and vanilla extract to one bowl, and stir well. Add cocoa butter, several drops of peppermint oil (I have a very strong oil, so 5 drops is almost excessive – but if you have peppermint essence you will need a lot more – start with 1/4 tsp, and go from there) and green food colouring to the other, and stir well.
To the green mixture, add 1 1/4 cup of plain flour, the cornflour, 3/4 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp of bicarb and 1/4 tsp salt. Don’t mix in just yet – it’s good if the leavening agents don’t hit the liquid until the last possible moment before going into the oven.
To the plain mixture, add 1 cup flour, the cocoa powder, 1/2 tsp baking powder, 3/4 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp of bicarb and 1/4 tsp salt. Beat together until everything is well-mixed and there aren’t too many lumps (I find that there are always some small lumps). Pour into one of the prepared tins.
Mix the ingredients in the other bowl together well – this will be a thicker batter, so don’t worry if it looks different. Use a spatula to scrape it into the second tin, and put both tins into the oven.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until they bounce back when pressed gently, and a skewer comes out clean.
Let cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. You might want to put them into the fridge or the freezer once they are partly cooled, because they will be much easier to manage if they are very cold (though not frozen through).
While they are cooling, draw two circles – one 6 cm and one 13 cm – or find two cutters or plates of the right size. I had a 6cm cutter and a small plate to trace around.
If the cakes are domed at all on top, use a bread knife to slice off the dome, so that you have two flat-topped cakes.
Now for the tricky bit! What you will be doing here is making each cake into three concentric circles – a 6cm circle in the middle, a 13cm diameter doughnut and a 20 cm diameter doughnut. And then you are going to swap the middle doughnuts between the two cakes so that you have two cakes that look like targets, after which you will be stacking the cakes on top of each other to make your stripey effect 3D.
Also, you are going to need a lot of boards or plates to put the bits of cake on during assembly. Sorry.
So. Put the green cake upside-down on a breadboard, and place your 13cm circle on top of it. Try to centre it as much as you can. Cut around it carefully, with a sharp knife, making sure you are cutting through to the bottom. Push down gently on the circle while lifting the ring around it, and set the ring on a serving plate. Now cut the 6cm circle out of the middle of your 13cm cake, and separate it as you did the other circles.
Repeat with the chocolate cake, but this time, the cake will be right side up (you want the bases of the two cakes to face each other in the final cake.
Make your cocoa buttercream. This is easier than the regular kind. Melt the cocoa butter, and stir in the icing sugar. Add a tablespoon of water, which will make it go all annoyingly crumbly, and a tablespoon of soy milk, which will bring it back together, and one drop of peppermint essence if you are as obsessed with peppermint as my husband is. You should have a lovely, very spreadable, icing.
Use a butter knife to spread the cocoa buttercream fairly thinly onto the inside of the green 20cm ring, then gently place the chocolate 13cm ring down inside it. If you push the sides of the chocolate ring inward very gently as you go, it will lower nicely into the green cake and then spring back to stick itself to the icing. Ice the inside of the 13cm chocolate ring, and put the green 6cm circle inside that.
Repeat this process with the other three rings and the rest of the buttercream.
Now make the ganache. Chop your dark chocolate, and set aside. Bring the soymilk to a boil, reduce the heat, then add the chocolate and stir until it melts. Add the agave nectar, and stir until you have a nice shiny ganache.
Spread a fairly thin layer of ganache on the cake that is upside down on the serving plate, and place the other cake on top of it. This is as hair-raising as it sounds, but I recommend speed over caution – you don’t want your rings to separate.
Now pour the rest of the ganache over the cake, using a butter knife to spread it evenly down the sides to cover the entire cake.
Decorate as you like – I had some vegan crystallised mint leaves, so I went with that.
Cut into wedges to serve – don’t go all fancy and wedding cake-ish with thin rectangular slices, or you will lose the checkerboard effect…
This cake is already vegan and nut-free, and it is never, ever going to be low-GI, I’m afraid. I’d be wary about making it with gluten-free flour, to be honest – this is a cake that really needs the structural integrity that comes from either gluten or eggs, so if you were going the gluten-free route, I think you’d probably have to revert to using a standard butter cake mix rather than a vegan one. But maybe I’m overestimating the difficulty? I’m extremely tired at present, so that’s certainly possible.
You could, of course, change the flavours. Chocolate and orange would be very easy – use orange oil or orange zest in the non-chocolatey cake. I’d love to make this with freeze-dried passionfruit powder and have a chocolate passionfruit cake. Gorgeous. Or use kirsch and make it chocolate and cherry…