My first ever vegan birthday cake (and some chocolate sauce on the side)

It took me six months of knowing my friend Joe before I really caught on to his particular brand of Veganism. See Joe is what I like to call a “cagey vegan” in that it is a personal preference and how he lives his life as long as it stays simple. But some combination of age and years of getting shit from non-vegans about his choice have driven him to calculated reticence around those he doesn’t know well. He will decline non-vegan food to the extent that it is possible to do so without explanation, but if really put on the spot, he will simply eat the cake with eggs or the pasta with cream sauce. For a while as I caught on to the strategy, it annoyed me. Maybe this was because my first tip-off was a bag of cookies that I gave him that sat uneaten on top of his fridge for months, or maybe it was just that it seemed kind of dishonest. Recently, however, my culinary curiosity has propelled me to a more productive strategy: embrace it. It started with an invitation for him to come over and help me bake a vegan gingerbread cake that I had found in my trolling around food blogs online. He enthusiastically agreed, and we discussed the merits of almond milk vs. soy milk as a baking liquid as we measured, poured, and mixed. The cake came out divinely moist and gingery (if a little flat) with none of that “funky” taste or consistency sometimes associated with vegan baked goods (I fed the leftovers to my colleagues, who scarfed it up without comment).

Less than a week later happened to be Joe’s birthday. I, a zealous – some might say overzealous – fan of birthdays and newly motivated by my success with the ginger cake, was inspired. I was going to make the perfect Joe Cake . . . okay maybe not perfect, but I was going to give it a shot. Here’s what I had to go on:

1) The vegan thing

2) Joe LOOOOOVES Reese’s Pieces. As in, will-eat-a-whole-44oz.-bag-in-a-day loves them.

3) Joe doesn’t like frosting, unless it’s peanut butter. Growing up with a mom who is a professional cake decorator will do that to you.

4) I had most of a giant box of rice crispy cereal leftover from my last birthday-baking effort.

. . . Somehow all of these things stirred around in my head and came out as: Vegan Rice Krispy Cake with Reese’s Pieces, Peanut Butter Ganache Filling, and Chocolate. Okay, so maybe it took a few days to come together, but that was the end result. Which set me off looking for ways to make rice krispy treats vegan. Let me tell you, what I found was not pretty: lots of dubious-sounding recipes involving corn syrup and looking like pebbly potato pancakes (or worse). I gave up on the blogs and instead went hunting at New Seasons, where I could have sworn I had seen vegan marshmallows lurking on the shelves. Lo and behold, I was right, and so, after ten minutes in the dairy aisle reading margarine labels and trying to figure out if the existence of something called “soy lecithin” implied that just “lecithin” was an animal byproduct, I emerged, plan intact. I had a slight hiccup when I looked at the label on the box of Reese’s Pieces and discovered that there are totally milk solids in there, but I let this one slide figuring that if Joe eats them in such quantities, he is clearly willing to bend the rules here.

So into the kitchen I went, enthusiastic, but also not entirely optimistic about what I would come out with. First thing first: the vegan marshmallows went in the pot with the (hopefully) vegan margarine, and sure enough, they melted, just like good old Jet-Puffed. I measured out the cereal into a bowl and tossed in the Pieces and a chopped up bar of Lindt dark chocolate with sea salt (I forgot to mention, Joe also likes the chocolate/salt combo). It looked like too much cereal to me so I scooped out a cup, but when I went to add the dry ingredients to the marshmallow mixture, it turned out that I hadn’t taken out enough. So picture me furiously trying to get all the cereal and candy coated with gooey goodness and flinging large and small clumps of the stuff all over the kitchen as I went (I also didn’t use a big enough pot). Somehow, miraculously, I ended up with a mixture that was just about the right consistency and it promptly went into two 8×8 square baking pans. Once the pans had cooled completely, I removed one cake layer from the pan to see how it looked. Perfect. So far so good.

Next step was the filling. This was a pretty simple process. I even ditched the measuring cups and eyeballed a scoop of peanut butter, a blop of margarine and a shake or two of powdered sugar into my mixing bowl. I mixed it up, tasted, and it went straight onto one of the “cake” layers where it spread out to just the right thin layer of filling. That left the “coating”. I use the term deliberately because I didn’t want to make a frosting (you will recall item 3 from my list above) or anything that resembled one. My instinct was to just melt a lot of chocolate and pour it over the top, but this seemed too easy. I discussed it with my housemate (also an avid baker who far surpasses me in the decorating department), and she suggested trying just a little bit of milk added to the chocolate instead of the full amount called for in a ganache recipe. I melted some chocolate chips down in a double-boiler, and just when they were looking perfectly smooth, shiny, and delicious, I dribbled in a splash of almond milk. Big mistake. BIG MISTAKE. Before I could say “coagulation” the chocolate transformed into a hard ugly mass. But I was raised right, so I knew what to do. I grabbed my phone and called my mom. “My chocolate seized mom, help!” And my mom – wise woman that she is – went straight for Julia Child, who informed me that if one is to add liquid to melted chocolate, it must be in a ratio of at least 25% liquid to chocolate or the chocolate would seize. I could rectify the situation by adding a bunch more liquid and cooking it down slowly until the chocolate mass re-melted, but I wouldn’t end up with the perfect un-frosting-y coating for my cake that I wanted. So into the bowl went some hot water and some amaretto, and what emerged quite some time later after a lot of patient stirring and further tiny additions of liquid, was quite a large batch of chocolate-amaretto dessert sauce. Hmmmm, this was not where I saw that going, but on the upside, I did have a nice birthday present for Joe to accompany his cake (plus enough leftover for me and my mom, who had to be rewarded for helping me out of my spot).

I was discouraged and running out of steam and patience (that sauce took a long time), and I almost called it a day on the cake, but I decided to rally. Digging a bag of chocolate chips out of the cupboard, I started over. This time, I went with my instinct (and my newly acquired cooking savvy), and abstained from adding any liquid. The melted chocolate went straight over the cake and spread to a perfectly smooth, thin coating, just as I had imagined. Voila! Now all I had to do was wait for it to dry, embellish with a little cheesy, store-bought decorator’s icing, and it was done.

The Recipe (such as I can recall)

1 bag (10 oz) vegan marshmallows

3 tablespoons margarine

4.5 cups rice krispy cereal

1 4 oz. box Reese’s Pieces

1 3.5 oz. bar high quality dark chocolate, chopped (you can experiment with flavors here)

½ cup creamy peanut butter

2 tablespoons margarine

1/3 cup powdered sugar

1 12 oz. bag high quality dark or semisweet chocolate chips

Generously butter two 8×8 inch cake pans. In a large pot over low heat, melt marshmallows and margarine (be patient, it takes a little while). Meanwhile, measure cereal into a bowl, add candy & chocolate and stir to mix. When marshmallows have completely melted (no lumps!), remove pot from heat, add cereal mixture and quickly stir just until marshmallow mixture is evenly distributed and all the dry ingredients are coated. Immediately distribute evenly in pans, spread out, and press down firmly (I find that hands work best for this). Allow to cool completely, and then remove from pans.

Combine peanut butter and margarine in a standing mixer or mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Add powdered sugar and mix until smooth again. Spread frosting evenly over one layer of rice krispy treats. Top with second layer.

In a double boiler, melt chocolate chips. When smooth and liquid, pour over cake and immediately spread to a thin layer on top and sides of cake. Allow to cool completely before decorating.

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