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A Decadent Chocolate Valentine Cake for Your Sweetie That Just Happens to be Vegan!

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In the many years I worked in the restaurant world, Valentine's Day meant whipping up confections for other people's sweethearts. The pressure was steep: People scramble for reservations on the romantic holiday, and desserts are expected to impress.

This year, I'll be at home -- and focusing on a Valentine's Day sweet for my very own Valentine. I knew the dessert would have to be chocolate, and it would be a huge boon if was also dairy-free, because Phil, like millions of others, has difficulty digesting lactose. I also knew that he prefers cakes to pies, puddings, tortes, or even truffles. So I had a place to start, but there were more requirements.

I am a very picky home baker -- lazy even, some might say. I bake professionally, so when I am baking for family I like to keep things simple. I don't like to hear the noise of an electric mixer, so I prefer to stir things together by hand. I don't want to wear my arm out beating egg whites, so I tend to choose batter cakes, which can easily be stirred together. Last, I want something relatively easy because I do not want to spend my whole day "off" on my feet in the kitchen. That's a lot to ask of one dessert, I know.

Frosting on the Cake

I have long had a favorite vegan chocolate batter-cake recipe, so I used it as a starting place. Ten years ago it was simply my favorite easy chocolate cake, before I even noticed that the recipe was vegan. As in many American oil-based cakes, this one leans on baking soda and vinegar for leavening. The recipe is adapted from Fannie Farmer's "Mix-in-the-Pan Chocolate Cake." I have made it so many times, with so many different variations, that my versions barely resemble the original. But the Fanny Farmer backbone remains. To finish, I usually just give it a simple dusting of cocoa powder or powdered sugar. But Valentine's Day was just the challenge I needed to come up with a delicious vegan chocolate frosting to make it special and new.

I generally look down my nose at most vegan desserts because they rely on soy margarine, which is a product that I prefer not to use in my cooking. I am not a fan of the taste of soy margarine or soy milk, and in general, I try to limit my intake of unfermented soy. When you eliminate soy from vegan baking, things get much more complicated. I knew that I could make a ganache glaze with chocolate and coconut milk, but I wanted a cake that was reminiscent of the soft and fluffy chocolate layer cakes of my childhood, with old-fashioned fudge frosting.

I got out my family recipe for fudge frosting, which calls for half and half and butter. I decided that I would use coconut milk in place of the half and half and would try virgin coconut oil in place of the butter. Virgin coconut oil is a product that I have been experimenting with a lot this past year, and I absolutely love the heavenly aroma it lends to baked goods.

Coconuts and Bolts

Coconut oil has begun to reenter our food system after being abandoned in the saturated-fat scare brought to us by intense lobbying from the domestic vegetable-oil industry -- the same campaign that convinced millions to replace traditional fats with partially hydrogenated (and completely unhealthy) vegetable oils. Yet minimally processed tropical oils are healthful, do not contribute to heart disease, and have been used safely for thousands of years.

My first challenge was substituting coconut oil for butter in frosting. I figured I'd have to do some tweaking, because coconut fat is harder at room temperature than butter. But to my surprise, on the first try, it worked like a charm. For the coconut lover, this frosting might even be an improvement on the butter and cream version. Better still, this frosting can be easily whipped up with just a few strokes with a wooden spoon.

Once I knew that a coconut fudge frosting would work, I decided to underscore the coconut flavor in my cake as well by using virgin coconut oil and coconut water in the batter. Two other less processed ingredients that I employed in this recipe were natural, fair-trade cocoa powder and Rapadura, or evaporated cane sugar juice. I've struggled in the past getting Rapadura to melt the way sugar does, so I opted for organic unbleached sugar in the frosting and Rapadura in the cake. Rapadura is high in trace minerals so it has more nutritional value than sugar, but should still be used in moderation.

I used natural, Fair Trade-certified cocoa powder in both the cake and the frosting. Natural cocoa powder has a fruity and complex taste, and I prefer it to Dutch-processed or alkalinized cocoa powder. Dutch-processing of cocoa powder is used to lower bitterness, but the process isn't necessary if the beans used in the cocoa powder are of very high quality.

Finally, because I don't like to have a whole cake around for just my husband and me, I baked the cake in a 9 x 13-inch pan and cut it into heart shapes. I layered the heart-shaped cake with fudge frosting and dusted the top with cocoa powder. Now I can share the love with friends.

Ha ha! You're going to have to click here for the recipe!
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