Many of us grew up eating chocolate cake made from a cake mix. Although my mom always made her own chocolate chip cookies and whole-wheat bread from scratch, cake was just better when it came out of a box. Box mixes make light, fluffy cakes, especially those mixes that have pudding and tons of oil as part of the ingredients.
Once I went gluten free, there were still gluten-free cake mixes to help me out. Betty Crocker mixes are available at the grocery store, but they are expensive and didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. Since I’m a perfectionist when it comes to baking, I was sure I could come up with something that would rival the boxed chocolate cakes I used to make before going gluten free, but creating my own gluten-free chocolate cake required me to learn the principles that lay at the heart of gluten-free baking.
Baking Without Gluten is a Challenge
Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. It contributes important properties to baked goods. Some of those properties include structure, texture, taste, moisture, and a strong ability to bind the ingredients together. When gluten is removed from the recipe, the result can be disastrous. Cake is dry and crumbly, tastes funny without the wheat, and has often been described as a hockey puck. If you can get the cake to hold together, it's extremely heavy and dense.
Obviously, that wasn't what I wanted, so I started hanging out at a couple of gluten-free forums. I listened to the experienced bakers there, as well as the gluten-free cookbook authors who made a helpful comment now and then. I took what I learned from them, went back to my old collection of recipes, and pulled out an emergency cake recipe I used to use when I had unexpected company show up, and I didn’t have any cake mixes in the house.
Although that starting recipe produced a cake that was denser than a cake mix, it was moist, fudgy, and delicious.
A Gluten-Free Flour Mix is Essential
In order for gluten-free baked goods to be edible, you have to use alternative ingredients that will mimic the missing properties of gluten. Without gluten, cakes won't rise and hold their shape.
The protein in flour forms a web-like structure that's capable of trapping air. That's where cakes get their tender crumb from. But gluten is also sticky, which causes the ingredients in the recipe to stay together. In addition, gluten traps moisture inside it's web. That keeps baked goods from drying out. However, there isn't a single flour without gluten that can do all of that.
As a result, gluten-free bakers have to use a variety of methods and tricks, rather than a single gluten-free flour. That calls for a mixture of different flours, starches, vegetable gums, and protein boosters that when used all together in a recipe comes as close to imitating gluten as possible.
Most gluten-free recipes use a gluten-free flour mix that gives the recipe the properties that the cook is looking for. When prepared ahead and stored in an airtight container, these ready-made mixes save loads of time. Since a number of different gluten-free flour mixes can quickly become overwhelming and impractical, most gluten-free cooks have come up with a basic, all-purpose gluten-free flour mix that they use most of the time.
Since gluten-free cakes should be as light as possible, especially a gluten-free chocolate cake, I use an all-purpose gluten-free flour mix that one of the moderators over at the Celiac Disease Support Group at the Delphi Forums uses. It was the first homemade gluten-free flour mix I tried. It worked so well as a cup-for-cup substitution for wheat flour that I've only experimented with a couple of others. I keep coming back to it, because it's the best one I've ever tried.
You can find that recipe in my article about gluten-free flours for beginners, or simply use your own favorite recipe.
Great Gluten-Free Cakes Need Moisture As Well As Structure
Protein ingredients such as high-protein flours, eggs, and milk help to give your gluten-free cake and other baked goods a strong structure, but cakes also need to be moist and as velvety in texture as possible. That requires moisturizing ingredients, extra leavening, and vegetable gums to give the cake an extra lift.
What my original recipe had going for it was the applesauce. Applesauce and other fruit purees, sour cream, yogurt, and mayonnaise work extremely well in gluten-free recipes. They add moisture, help hold the gluten-free flours together, and add a nice flavor to a rice-based cake. In addition, chocolate cake mixes produce a cake that's light and fluffy because they're made with cake flour.
Cake flour is ground from a softer type of wheat that's lower in protein, and therefore lower in gluten. That quality is easy to imitate when you use a rice-based gluten-free flour mix that's also heavy on the starches. For a great gluten-free cake, you want to use flours that have less protein, but you also need to make sure that you don't use too much rice in your overall diet, since rice currently contains high levels of arsenic.
Jean McFadden Layton, co-author of Gluten-Free Baking for Dummies, recommends a 50/50 mixture that's split between your flour and starches. That will give your cake enough structure, but keep it light enough for a good rise.
Don't Overbeat the Batter
Although many gluten-free cooks will tell you that you can't overwork a gluten-free batter, so you don't have to be afraid to whip in plenty of air, my own experience with vegetable gums hasn't found that to be true. Xanthan gum activates when you beat it into the cake's ingredients. Overbeating the cake batter will give you a bready texture, so I never use my Kitchen Aid stand mixer when making a cake. But I do use it for the frosting.
Best Gluten Free Chocolate Cake
- 1/4 cup milk or milk alternative
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
- 1 cup superfine gluten-free flour mix
- 1/2 cup unsweetened dark baking cocoa
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup melted butter or oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 3/4 cup applesauce
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Spray an 8-inch or 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, and set aside. Don’t use “baking” spray because that type of spray is not gluten free.
- In a small bowl, measure out the milk. Add vinegar, and set the bowl aside so the milk has time to sour. Alternatively, you could use 1/4-cup buttermilk.
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine gluten-free flour mix, cocoa, xanthan gum, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Thoroughly mix the ingredients together. The more evenly distributed the xanthan gum is, the better it works.
- In a large bowl, measure out the melted butter or oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Beat with an electric hand mixer until well mixed. Don’t use a stand mixer because it will over-develop the xanthan gum and your cake will come out with a bread-like texture.
- Add the soured milk and applesauce, and then beat again.
- Slowly add the flour mixture. Continue beating with the electric mixer until the batter is nice and smooth.
- Pour into your prepared pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean. Be extra careful not to over bake this cake, as an over baked gluten-free cake will always be dry, even with the superfine rice flour.
- Move the baked cake to a cooling rack. Allow it to cool for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then cover the cake tightly with plastic wrap to keep it moist. Allow the cake to finish cooling completely before frosting.
Gluten-Free Chocolate Frosting
Unlike the cake’s batter, gluten-free frosting comes out nice and fluffy when made in a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Plus, it’s easier because the mixer does all of the work for you.
- 1/2 cup soft butter
- (or 1/4 cup shortening and 1/4 cup soft butter)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 cup unsweetened dark baking cocoa
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- Enough evaporated milk or cream to thin, about 3 to 4 tablespoons
- colored sprinkles, grated coconut, chopped nuts, or chocolate curls
- Place the soft butter (or shortening and butter) in the bowl of a stand mixer or another large bowl. Beat the butter until it’s nice and fluffy. If you don’t have a stand mixer, just use an electric hand mixer.
- Add vanilla and cocoa, and beat again until it’s completely smooth.
- Add powdered sugar and a couple of tablespoons of evaporated milk or cream. You don’t want to add all of the milk because the amount you need will depend upon the time of year, and how humid your kitchen is. Beat the ingredients well, adding additional milk or cream as needed. Continue beating and adding milk a tablespoon at a time until the frosting is smooth and has reached a good spreading consistency.
- Once the cake has completely cooled, you can frost it. If using, top the cake immediately with colored sprinkles, grated coconut, chopped nuts, chocolate curls, or other topping.
If you keep this gluten-free chocolate cake well covered, it can sit on the counter for three or four days before it begins to dry out. Generally, the frosted cake becomes even moister the second day.