Whole Grain Chocolate Cake: And Yes, You Can Eat It Too!

I made dinner for my friend the other night, and as I was handing her containers of soup, crackers, bread and my first-ever almost-all-natural chocolate cake, I found myself prefacing each item with an explanation-turned-apology, in that way that starts out humorous and becomes borderline obnoxious.

A beautiful chocolate cake placed on a white cake stand.

Do any of you do this? I am desperate to stop.

The potato-and-onion soup should have been thicker, I told her, so that’s why I added the carrots and zucchini and, you know, it’s normally not like this; the bread — well, I think my yeast must be bad because it never rose fully, so it tastes fine but is pretty dense; oh gosh, I am sorry about the crackers, which were supposed to be last-minute substitutes for the bread (or really, substitutes for substitutes for the bread, via great recipes sent to me by Tara and Celeste that I ended up not having all the ingredients for) and I don’t know why they turned out more like crackers that bread, you don’t have to like them; and oh ok, the cake — look, I’m eating unprocessed, whole foods more now, and this is a healthier cake, so don’t expect much — and on it went.

Even typing it now is painful, so you can imagine how my poor friend felt while it was happening.

Slices of yummy chocolate cake in a shallow bowl.

But even worse than the fact that I was letting my insecurity and pride at wanting someone to think I make only delicious things put my friend into the incredibly awkward situation of trying to make me feel better about food that I had made her for the very same reason was the issue of the food in question: while yes, the bread and crackers had been disappointing, the soup was perfectly good and the cake, while healthy, actually tasted like pudding cake when warm and, combined with some light and sweet homemade whipped cream, did not deserve any of the ho-hum expectations I was putting upon it.

So the facts are this: this chocolate cake recipe uses whole wheat pastry flour (remember that?) instead of bleached white all-purpose; pure maple syrup instead of sugar; and other ingredients like coconut milk, which I’ve never used in a cake before (or actually, ever, in anything). And I call it almost-all-natural because I did still use Dutch-processed cocoa powder while it’s better to use non-Dutched, and my baking powder does still have aluminum in it, while I don’t think I will ever buy that kind again (as you can surmise, there is another battle in my kitchen: frugal vs. healthy; nobody’s really winning.

However, I did read you can make your own non-aluminum baking powder, in the David Lebovitz article I just linked to).

It was the Dutch-processed cocoa that gave my version of this cake its jet-black color, crumbly like potting soil, which meant that even more so than when I made those sparkling cookies of a few months back, I half-expected a red geranium to pop out of the top, particularly because my nine-inch round cake looked an awful lot like the size of a large planter.

Remnants of a chocolate cake with frosting on a white cake stand.

Studded with bittersweet chocolate chips throughout, this chocolate cake has been best warm, either fresh from the oven or set on the counter to return to room temperature for a few minutes. Would I say it is as good as a typical chocolate cake, the kind that’s smothered in frosting and light and velvety to taste?

No. It took me a little getting used to (as did that maple blueberry coffee cake, you may remember), but it’s not bad.

If you’d like a slice, I will try to hand it to you, without caveat, and let you tell me what you think.

Mostly Natural Chocolate Cake
Slightly adapted from 101 Cookbooks

**One added note about the frosting; after you’ve added it to the cake, the whole thing needs to be refrigerated!

2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder (I only had Dutch-processed on hand)
1 tablespoon baking powder (look for non-aluminum type)
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup barely melted unsalted butter (or coconut oil)
1 cup real maple syrup, room temperature
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup coconut milk, room temp
8 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate chips (or shaved or finely chopped)

Preheat oven to 350F degrees with a rack in the middle. Butter and flour an 8×8 square cake pan (I used a 9-inch round instead, which worked well).

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter and maple syrup until it looks like the color of caramel.

Whisk in the eggs, vanilla and then the coconut milk. Pour the wet mixture over the dry mixture, and stir until barely combined.

Add the chocolate chips and stir until everything comes together and is no longer dusty looking, trying to avoid over-mixing. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake for about 40 minutes (give or take, depending on what size pan you choose). Heidi recommends leaving the cake a little under-baked, where the toothpick tester has a little on it still, so I followed that advice, particularly because of all the chocolate chips throughout.

Remove from oven and allow to cool (absolutely completely) in pan before frosting (frosting recipe below). I went ahead and turned it out onto a cake platter, so I could frost the sides, too, but that is definitely optional.

You can use several different frosting types including old fashioned cocoa fudge, a chocolate version of buttercream, or even chocolate ganache.

About Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.

37 thoughts on “Whole Grain Chocolate Cake: And Yes, You Can Eat It Too!”

  1. Chocolate and I get along great. I would absolutely love to try this cake, it looks fabulous. And, I like Dutch-process cocoa, a lot, maybe even best. I don’t care if it is less healthy. Ooh, I’m living dangerously now. 😉

  2. Thanks for the mention Shannalee.
    I wished we lived closer tog. so that we could work on a project together.
    The apology part…that is me and it drives me crazy.
    Last evening I catered an Indian curry dinner with our youth at the church. I know how to make curry, that is not the issue.
    The issue is cooking in another kitchen that is not equipped.
    When being thanked (numerous times) I start to apologise for the dinner. But, thankfully I caught myself knowing full well what was happening. Said, thank-you and smiled.
    I’m learning.
    I am just a perfectionist when it comes to food.
    Maybe shoot me a note about what did or did not happen with the bread recipe??

  3. I think apologizing comes with being a foodie — it is almost like we are obsessed with perfection. We must must remember that food is love and we don’t apologize for love, right?
    PS I will take a piece of that cake!

  4. I do the same…..apologize when in fact your friend was probably just thrilled to have some actual home cooking! (and the cake looks delicious!)

  5. I’m all about the apologies and it’s awful. I’ve been doing my best to stop but it really is hard. I’ll leave you with a quote from Julia Child that I love because it really is true (in fact its written in the side column of my own blog)…
    “I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as ‘Oh, I don’t know how to cook…,’ or ‘Poor little me…,’ or ‘This may taste awful…,’ it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, ‘Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal!’ …The cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile — and learn from her mistakes.” -Julia Child

    …Also if you don’t tell people that you’ve adapted something to be healthier..9 times out of 10 they won’t know 😉 I love Heidi’s recipes as well!


  6. Well. I am kind of impressed… and smiling, see –> : )

    It’s still ‘all-natural’ with dutch processed cocoa. It’s not artificial, it has just been processed with alkali to neutralize the acidity. Purists just prefer the natural acidity and fruit flavors of unprocessed cocoa.

    I think sometimes those experiences of not having things perfect teach us the most, well, at least they teach me the most –> : )

    ah symmetry

  7. I do that with everything in my life from the food I cook to the house I live in. I think we just don’t know how to take a compliment. Someone will come in and say, what a great place, and I’ll say, yes, it’s great BUT the bathroom really needs to be redone, see those tiles? Etc. Etc. I notice myself doing it and now you’ve brought it to my attention again. Thank you! I’ll work on it.

    By the way, a cake that tastes like pudding? Awesome!

  8. I have been up and down about the whole debate w/ aluminum and health issues. I’ve looked into the debate that David Lebovitz’s blod links to. It’s hard to link something to a disease that has no known causes period. If you can’t tell me what causes Alzheimer’s, you can’t tell me aluminum plays a big role in it, especially since the entire country intakes aluminum of some sort and not every has Alzheimer’s.
    As David Lebovitz says, it’s more for the taste than health reasons since there is no conclusive proof of any of it.
    I have to say, I am definitely one of those people that wouldn’t sacrifice taste for health. Maybe that sounds bad, but I don’t gorge on the baked goods I eat, so I’m ok w/ the occasional “un-healthy” sweet. And on the flip side, when I cook, it’s usually healthier ingredients, but that’s the difference b/w using fresh veggies or organic meat as opposed to honey instead of sugar or apple sauce instead of fat. I do sub different flours for all purpose, mostly b/c I have a hard time digesting all purpose flour, but I do taste a difference, so most of the time, I deal w/ the stomach issues.
    I do admire your efforts though. Especially b/c of the issues you’ve talked about in the past, you certainly have good reason to try healthier options. I hope it works for the best!

  9. Jenny, Ha! And of course, the one major benefit of Dutch-processed is that color! so dark! I do enjoy it.

    Celeste, I wish we lived closer, too. I would love to meet you and bake some bread. Maybe you could help me get better at it! Thanks again for the recipe – I will try it very soon!

    Jessica, I am stopping myself from saying something about how it’s not really decadent and instead saying yes! you should try it! i’d love to hear your feedback. wish I could hand you a piece right now.

    Anne, LOVE the way you put that. So good.

    Jennifer, Yay! Please do and let me know your thoughts!

    Suzanne, You’re sweet. My friend is an incredibly considerate person who thanked me several times and sincerely tried to reassure me, but gosh I definitely could have made the whole experience more enjoyable (for both of us), and I will try to next time!

    Lisa, That is one of my favorite Julia Child lines ever. I was totally thinking of her when I wrote this post, but since I had just quoted her in the last one, I didn’t mention it here. Thanks for posting it here. Love it.

    Tim, I was reading about alkali though and doesn’t that processing make it more refined/less natural? I mean, I’m not worried about it, but out of curiosity. And thank you. You’re kind.

    Michele, You’re right – it’s not just with cooking! Why in the world do we do this? I am going to make a concentrated effort to hold my tongue. Truly.

    Niki, I totally get what you’re saying, and I think that’s fine, honestly. Sugar is probably the only thing I am really, sincerely wanting to get out of my diet for good – just the white refined kind, which has absolutely no health benefit and only negative effects – but since I love sweets, I’m drawn to subs like honey or maple syrup. Haven’t turned to applesauce yet, ha! but I love butter. Is THAT wrong to say? Oh well. I do.

  10. Ah, Julia’s time-tested advice – and I paraphrase – never apologize or provide explanation for the food you lovingly create.

    I find myself doing this too – in my case because most things I cook in my home are vegan, and I always worry I’ll offend my omnivorous dinner-dates with my simple fare. But I don’t! And it’s really so much nicer when they don’t have to reassure me that things taste okay.

    That cake, Shannalee? Please don’t apologize, because it looks absolutely delicious, and I want to crumble some over coconut milk ice cream – immediately. At 10:00 in the morning. 🙂

  11. I totally identify with apologizing over the food. I had a friend over for dinner the other night to try out a new recipe with us (Veggie Moussaka). Since this was the first time I had cooked this recipe or used eggplant, I felt compelled to assure my friend & my husband if it was gross they didn’t have to eat it. I even promised to order pizza – numerous times. Even as they were asking for seconds I was saying don’t eat it if you don’t like it. Grr…just to learn to be quiet – what a gift that would be! 🙂
    Your cake looks super yum. Great job at continuing to try out new things!

  12. I’m always blabbering on about whatever I did to make the recipe imperfect, even when it’s completely fine and no one would notice except for me. I have told myself recently, when the two of had scheduled a mirror chat, that I was going to try to wait until after people took a bite. Just to see. If their faces screw up in horror, then I am allowed to apologize. Hopefully the rant lasts 30 seconds or less, but I won’t be timing it. But if no adverse reaction appears, I am simply going to let it all go.

    My goal is to receive genuine responses from here on out. We shall see.

  13. It’s cooking… therefore it’s always going have space for tweaks and improvements. So, there is no need to apologise then, right?
    At least that’s what I keep telling myself….

  14. your title struck me as a bit odd for this post and almost contradictory to the story. a lot of us have the tendency to apologize for things that we don’t need to or for things that are out of our control. maybe the point is not to condemn ourselves for what seems like a personal (or personality) failure. but unless we realize what we’re actually apologizing for, it doesn’t matter what the reality of the situation is. to “never, never apologize” is just as bad as over apologizing. sometimes we need just a little bit more perspective to understand our own actions…
    in terms of your experience: it’s easy to only want to present our best side (or in this case, your best dishes), but maybe the thing to remember here is that food isn’t just nourishing, it’s also fun. if you lose that joy to insecurities, of course it won’t taste the way you want it to. i have the feeling that, had you let up on yourself a bit, you would have enjoyed even the bread and crackers more. (plus, there’s nothing wrong with thinner soups 🙂

  15. Yes, it is more refined and processed and thereby less natural… but as far as food labeling (if you go to the store for example), even refined white sugar is “all natural” in that it is not artificial sugar (like splenda, sucralose, etc.). Non-dutched cocoa has more antioxidants and is more healthful but what you made was all natural.

    I would’ve eaten it, ha.

  16. Urgh…I do the apologies, too. As much as I hate to gender certain behaviors, I think it’s definitely more common with us gals. I even apologize when someone runs into me at Target…like hello, not my fault! Something to work on, for sure.

    I always remind myself that the people you’re cooking for have NO idea what the picture looks like in the cookbook and 99.9% of the time are so grateful to have a homemade meal, it could be almost anything. Happy weekend!

  17. girlfriend, i’ve learned (and can’t do it all the way, yet) not to apologize. our company is good enough!! 🙂

    that said, a CUP of maple syrup? ugh…does it taste good? you’ve got such great adventurousness. 🙂

  18. Totally understand with the apologizing part. My mother-in-law does it a A LOT, so I have tried to remember how much it bugs me, and of course my husband has helped with reminding me not to apologize for something before we’ve even tasted it! Love the Julia Child quote and love whoever said your guests don’t know what the picture looks like – so true!! It’s a matter of being confident that we CAN cook and can serve our guests something that we’ve put time and effort into!

  19. I understand entirely. I recently went sugar- and white flour-free, and I’ve found myself over-explaining all the time when cooking for people. If nothing else, know that I would be over the moon with excitement to try your chocolate cake. I think I might try this recipe myself, minus the chocolate chips. And I’m going to be back here even more often now that I know you’re focusing on more whole things.

  20. Maria, You are a sweetheart. For the record, this non-vegan would love to try anything you make.

    MaryAnn, Your comment made me laugh; I so relate. I was telling my friend about this post, and she was like, You always do that when you give me something you baked/cooked…. Always!?? Pretty sure I’ve offered pizza before, too. LOL.

    Christine, Wait until they take a bite – brilliant! That is great advice.

    Kendall, Thanks – I’ll keep telling myself that, too. 🙂

    sm, Ha! I was so proud of the title because you could take it as a double negative OR as double emphasis, but when I tried explaining that to someone in person, it was definitely lost, lol. I think we are on the same page exactly – food should be fun. yes.

    Michele, And you are kind. Thanks.

    Tim, OK, well if YOU would have eaten it, then victory! Thanks for the explanation, too.

    Kim, I love that you added just kidding at the end. You’re awesome.

    Megan, OH MY GOSH I know exactly what you’re talking about. Last night, some woman walked right into me on the street, and I immediately apologized to her. Then she walked away and I was like, Wait a minute. LOL.

    JessieV, “our company is good enough” – that was hilarious. And on the maple syrup: you don’t even taste it. It sweetens things, but you’d don’t feel like you’re eating pancakes, promise.

    Kristen, Yes, exactly! I appreciate what you said about remembering how it feels when other people do it; that helps so much, you’re right.

    Alicia, You sure about that? Cause I think I’ll be seeing you sometime soon…

    Kylie, How interesting that you’re making some of the same changes I am! Very cool and we’ll learn together.

  21. I totally do the same thing! Lovely blog, by the way. I just found you today and will be reading often. 🙂

  22. I completely identify with you about the apologizing. Many times when I make something I find myself saying I’m sorry when there is no need. A huge part of it comes from me being a perfectionist (I blame culinary school) and if what I make doesn’t exactly come out the way I want it I feel the need to apologize. Thing is my friends and family don’t care. They think whatever it is I made is delicious and they don’t care that it doesn’t look like it popped off a cookbook page. I am very excited to try this cake recipe. I’ve been looking for something just like it since I’m making some healthy changes in my life. I’m really glad I stumbled across your blog tonight.

  23. I am so guilty of apologizing this way! I was cringing reading your recount. Glad it all turned out great! I concur with the others, the cake looks delicious.

  24. I read this recalling the number of times I apologized too! It’s a terrible habit that’s only cured by more cooking, baking and kitchen failures. =)

    Coconut milk in a chocolate cake! That sounds so delicious especially right out of the oven all moist, gooey and warm. Will try this and report back especially since it uses maple syrup! Wow. I love the all-natural ingredients in this cake – it eases the excess calories with regular sugar and better for the metabolism. Hehe.

  25. Carrie, Thank you and your blog is beautiful.

    Leslee, I’m glad you stumbled over here, too. You’re right that there’s a perfectionism at work with this apologizing, which is funny because I sometimes wish I were a perfectionist with other things, at least the ones I get sloppy about (like typos!), and yet it doesn’t work that way, ha! But realizing it is half the battle, right? I think so.

    Americandreamer, I cringe when I read it, too! And thank you.

    Janet, Is more cooking the cure? I hope so. It’d be nice if enough making-things-in-the-kitchen resulted in a better perspective on it. And I hope you enjoy this cake – can’t wait to hear.

  26. Oh, gosh, I’m SO THERE with you. How often have I spent time on a meal and apologised because everything didn’t come out “just so.” It’s terrible what we put ourselves through for the sake of some crazy perfection (that really… if we’re honest… doesn’t even exist). We should definitely be better at embracing what we create in the NOW.

    I must confess, that chocolate cake looks just divine — even if it takes a bit of getting used to… would love to have a “go to” cake for weeknights that I don’t need to feel guilty over!

  27. Lo, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I wrote this post, and you’re right about pursuing a perfection that isn’t even possible. Why do we do that? Pride I guess? We should be better at embracing the steps along the way. Yes.

  28. Shannalee – I love your site, I just discovered it. Your pictures make me hungry! Just wanted to say I do the same thing when I make food for other people. I am always apologizing and am really hard on myself about my own food. From the looks of it, you don’t need to apologize! Everything looks delicious 🙂

  29. Jackiefo, Ha! I was about to say, Looks can be deceiving!, but I guess that would be me apologizing again, wouldn’t it? Thanks for the kind comment – glad to have you discovering and reading here!


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