What Is In This Cake?!

…Zucchini, anyone?

If chocolate chip cookies are the quintessential baked good for experimentation, chocolate cake is the quintessential baked good for versatility, malleability, and acquiescence to food allergies and special diets. My family and I were discussing chocolate cake last weekend. “You can put anything in a chocolate cake,” I said confidently. “Haven’t you seen all those recipes? ‘You won’t believe what’s in this cake!’ ‘This cake has a secret ingredient you will never guess!’ And it’s always like, black beans or avocado or something.”

So my mom, my sister, and I did a little research to find out what you can, in fact, put in a chocolate cake. Here is the list, which I am sure is not complete (click on the ingredient name for a link to a sample recipe; no guarantees as to the quality of said recipes):

Black beans. Easily 50% of all “secret ingredient” chocolate cakes.
Garbanzo beans. Again, beans are popular.
Or any beans, really.
Avocado. Another common “secret ingredient,” especially for raw or vegan cakes.
Banana. Banana is a superfood for vegan bakers. It is magic. (Do I get bonus points for finding a banana recipe that also includes carrots?)
Sauerkraut. We made this once (not this exact recipe, but something similar). My grandparents left us sauerkraut after a visit and nobody wanted it. Ta-da! Chocolate cake to the rescue.
Cabbage. Not that different from sauerkraut, I guess.
Mayonnaise. Invented earlier, but made popular during the Depression by Hellman’s.
Tomato soup. Dates back, I suppose, to the “Mystery Cake” of the 1930s (though that was a spice cake rather than a chocolate cake).
Zucchini. If you can put sauerkraut in a cake you can certainly put shredded zucchini in a cake.
Greek yogurt. Ok, not that revolutionary, but still.
Ice cream. Again, not that revolutionary, but still… why? Why put it in the cake?
Quinoa. A semi-popular gluten-free alternative.
Polenta. A slightly odder gluten-free alternative.
Prunes. Actually my mom’s own favorite gluten-free chocolate cake recipe uses prune baby food (unfortunately I did not snag it before leaving).
Cauliflower. This one actually did kind of surprise me.
Mashed potatoes. Not so surprising after cauliflower.
Sweet potatoes. I bet this would actually be really good (never tried it).
Bacon. I must confess to doing this once. It was my best work or my worst, depending on who you ask.
Coca-Cola. Soda cakes in general are not all that uncommon.
Beets/borscht. Why. (Actually the rationale for this one is somewhat sensible.)
Onions. “I bet nobody puts onions in chocolate cake,” said my mom.
Black garlic. “What about garlic? Can you imagine garlic in a chocolate cake?” said my mom. Google can. So can would-be vampire victims.
Kale. “I’m trying to think of what would be really bad… Kale. Kale would be bad,” said my mom. I wouldn’t know because I plan on never attempting this recipe.

Chocolate cake is also incredibly versatile in what you can take out. For example, flourless chocolate cakes were popular long before gluten-free food became a fad. I found recipes for gluten-free, vegan, soy-free, sugar-free, raw-foods, and paleo chocolate cakes—and combinations of all of the above. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, obviously, but I am not convinced it counts as chocolate cake if you just mix unsweetened chocolate with coconut flour and agave syrup and shape it into a cake pan.

Of course, what “counts” as a chocolate cake is an entirely different blog post. Things included under the name range from microwave cakes, to rich flourless cakes nearing tortes, to lava cakes with liquid centers, to cake-like brownies, to fudge-like cakes. So that is not the debate here.

What really gets my goat about this whole thing, I guess, is the language people use when they post these recipes or describe these cakes. And yes, I do realize that many bakers of my own generation simply do not know that bakers of eras past have already discovered that mayonnaise is a convenient and cheap substitute for eggs, oil, and acidic properties. And I understand that if you have only ever baked “traditional” recipes with flour and animal products, you might not be aware of the rich variety of substitutions available. And I suppose that if you have never Googled “chocolate cake recipe” before, you might actually be surprised to learn that you can make a chocolate cake with black beans. Allowances made, some of the introductions to these “secret ingredient” cakes are still way overdone. “You will NEVER in a million years guess what is in this cake!” “I will only tell you the secret ingredient to this cake if you PROMISE not to tell anyone!” Including everyone who uses the internet and can look up the recipe themselves right here on my public blog! “I served this cake to my boyfriend//family/guests/over-trusting coworkers/pet rock and NO ONE SUSPECTED that there was anything unusual in this cake!” My co-workers never trusted me again! The pet rock has been around for a million years and it still hasn’t guessed!

Literal quotes I pulled randomly from blogs and comments (emphases original):

Who doesn’t love chocolate cake? Moist, dense, rich…and healthy too! A few weeks ago… my sister made me the best chocolate cake ever, except for this recipe was SPECIAL.

Now don’t go all running out the door screaming – I promise you, you can’t taste or feel the texture of the cabbage in this cake. And you’d never see it, especially since the chocolate covers up any chance of detection. You can serve this cake proudly to family and friends, and smile on the inside, knowing that you’ve helped increase their veggie intake in chocolate form. They’ll never know (unless your ear-to-ear grin gives it away, and you have to confess), and will happily enjoy their decadent treat. 

I can feel your crazy stares through the computer screen, and, I’ll admit, they are totally warranted.

I am all about “secret ingredients”. It’s like a food mystery.
And in case you didn’t already know this, I am basically a detective. Ask my husband. Call it woman’s intuition…call it perception… call it psychic. I mean, don’t even TRY playing me in Clue. Mrs. Peacock. Ballroom. Revolver. Win.
Anyhow, back to food. Throw a secret ingredient into the mix I will figure it out. Except when you make this recipe…
(ftr, the secret ingredient here was mayonnaise).

I have fed the cake to many people including two professional chefs all of whom praised the cake but none of whom guessed my secret! Each time, I smiled from ear to ear and then excitedly revealed that the cake contained two and a half cups of….(drum roll please)

And we have the self-aware blogger:

Here’s something fudgy with an ingredient you’d never know was in it.  Errr, why do I make statements like that when it’s in the title and there’s a big photo of it below?

The stars of this show are black beans! I never in a million years would have guessed that a cake made from black beans would be so moist and tasty. I served it over the weekend to both my family and my husband’s family. I didn’t, however, reveal the main ingredient until they had tasted a bite and had raved about how wonderfully delicious it was. Sneaky, sneaky!

Never in a million years, I guess, did the author read reviews like this:

This gluten-free chocolate cake is so decadent and moist, you’ll never guess its secret ingredient – black beans!

black bean chocolate cake, yes, a chocolate cake made without flour, but including cooked black beans. this makes it gluten, wheat, dairy free, and sugar free. it’s also ridiculously tasty, cheap to make, reliably rises every time and is perfect to offer guests. … the texture is very moist and spongy, and its a very rich cake.

This might be my favorite:

Are you ready for the secret ingredient?  Are you sitting down?  I don’t want you to get hurt.  Ready?  Black beans. Ok, be honest, did that just blow your mind?  It did, right?

Oh, the innocence. Ignorance is bliss, you know. (If you never read any food blogs, your poor brain would still be intact.)

Personally, I think the most surprising chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten was the slice I bought from Whole Foods to enjoy during an outdoor movie one evening on the Mall in DC. Reclining on the ground near the big screen, in the dark, I slowly nibbled away at my indulgent slice of chocolate cake, absorbed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was only gradually that I realized I was consuming not only the moist cake and decadent frosting, but also most of the curious and hungry ants crawling all over it. If the “surprise” offered by your chocolate cake is anything less than this experience, there is no reason to write, “I just can’t get over what is in this cake!” because, unless it is live ants, I’m guessing you can get over it just fine.

What we have on our hands, my fellow food bloggers and food blog readership, is only a microcosm of a larger internet phenomenon. In a forum where everyone can talk and only the loudest are heard, we try to be the loudest. We start exaggerating for no reason. We use linkbait (I did not even know this was a term until just recently). We make emotional appeals and rave about how much we love something, how much it has changed our world, how it is our new favorite thing, it is just THE. BEST. and all the hype is for a 5-second gif of a kitten yawning. Or, you know, a chocolate cake made with beans. While I believe it is important to celebrate small joys, I also believe we are wearing our language thin. When you engage in hyperbole as a means of description rather than using it as just one literary tool, you dull its effect. It’s like using dry erase markers on paper, or scissors on wood. It can do the job, clumsily, but eventually the tool is ruined for its original purpose. You later reach for your hyperbole to use it in a clever or funny way, and the effect is lost on your readers who have been dulled by your previous claims of “mind-blowing” (except not-mind-blowing), “life-changing” (except not life-changing) chocolate-and-avocado cake.

Anyway. I do not mean to wax all English major on you. But I don’t think it takes an English major to understand that when everyone claims their chocolate cake’s special ingredient is un-guessable—and there are so many different un-guessable ingredients out there—it’s not hard to begin assuming that anything can go in a chocolate cake, no?

So before you write your mind-blowing, detective-defeating, veggie-sneaking, secretly-healthy cake recipe up in your blog, do us all a favor. Do a little cursory research. Understand your context, your audience. And save the exaggerated introduction for a really worthy recipient. Something like, you know, broccoli chocolate cake…


Additional Sources:  I want to give a shout-out to this amazing website, which I discovered in my attempts to research the origins of mayonnaise cake: http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html

One Response to “What Is In This Cake?!

  • Thank you for bringing us down to earth again. Splendid blog article! There’s something about the hyperbole that makes my own baking seem like a faded, limp flower in contrast. Now I don’t feel so bad. Thanks.

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