My very first attempt at egg-free, dairy-free baking was for our son’s first birthday.  The recipe I chose — one held dear by vegans and parents of food-allergic kids everywhere — was an astonishing success (unlike my second and third attempts, which yielded doorstop muffins and cookie puddles).

Legend has it that this recipe — which relies on baking soda and vinegar rather than eggs for rise — was created during World War II by resourceful home bakers trying to make-do when dairy products were scarce.  This “wacky cake” — so-called for its unorthodox method of mixing the ingredients directly in the baking pan — is light, moist, versatile, and easy.  I’ve made it many times, in many different ways, and it’s always terrific.

Today is my birthday, and to celebrate I baked chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow frosting.  An egg-free marshmallow frosting is still a work in progress (this version was more marshmallow than frosting), but the cake, as always, is perfect.

Chocolate Birthday Cake

Yield:  One 9-inch round or 8×8 square, or 12 cupcakes

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1 c. granulated sugar

3 tbsp.  cocoa powder (ideally natural cocoa powder, but dutch-processed will work)

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1 c. cold water

5 tbsp. safflower or canola oil, plus a bit more for the pan

1 tbsp. cider vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour pans and set aside.

Sift flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl or liquid measure, combine water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla.  Pour wet ingredients into dry and gently whisk until just combined (do not beat).  Pour batter into prepared pan.  Bake until top of cake springs back when gently pressed or a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes for cake or about 20 minutes for cupcakes.

Make it gluten-free: Replace all-purpose flour with 1 c. rice flour, 1/3 c. tapioca starch, and 1/3 c. potato starch.  Add 1 tsp. xanthan gum to the dry ingredients.


Yellow cake: omit cocoa powder and add another 1/2 tsp. vanilla.  You can also use fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar, if you like.

Lemon: omit cocoa, replace vinegar with fresh lemon juice, and add finely grated zest of 1 lemon to dry ingredients.

Banana: omit cocoa and add ½ tsp. ground cinnamon to dry ingredients.  Add one mashed, very ripe banana to wet ingredients.

Pumpkin spice:  Omit cocoa and add 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/8 tsp. cloves, and 1/8 tsp. nutmeg) to dry ingredients.  Add 3/4 c. canned pumpkin puree (NOT pie filling) to wet ingredients and reduce water to ¾ c.

Coconut:  Same as yellow cake above, but also add 2 oz. shredded, sweetened coconut to batter (and sprinkle top of frosted cake with more coconut).

Mocha:  Same as chocolate cake, but replace water with cold, brewed coffee and add up to 1 tsp. instant espresso powder to dry ingredients.