Deep Dark Secret Cake (Dairy-Free)

Deep Dark Secret Cake with coconut cream topping
Deep Dark Secret Cake (with coconut cream topping)
makes up to 12 slices

3 cups chopped dates (about 36 medium)
100g (1/2 cup) sugar or honey
100g (about 1 cup) walnuts, chopped finely
4 eggs
50g (1/2 cup) wholewheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla essence

3-4 bananas
2 large oranges or 4-5 satsumas

435g can crushed pineapple
400g can full fat coconut milk, chilled

Combine the first eight ingredients in a bowl, and mix together thoroughly. Spread them into a greased and lined cake tin, approximately 20x30cm. Bake for about half an hour at 180C, until the top is firm to the touch. Cool, then turn onto a wire rack.

Break half the cake into small pieces and spread out on a platter or flan dish, at least 30cm in diameter. Chop the bananas and spread over. Peel the oranges or satsumas, and place segments over the bananas, squeezing a little of the juice over them to stop them browning.

Break up the rest of the cake, and pile it on top, hiding the fruit. Top the whole with the can of pineapple, including the juice. Whip the coconut cream (see below for detail) and pile on top.  Refrigerate until needed.

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I had never seen or heard of this dessert until a friend brought it to a house group, many years ago. I asked for the recipe, and put it in my folder, but didn't get around to making it until recently. As I read through the ingredients, I realised that it would probably work just fine to make an ordinary cake - maybe a chocolate one, or even a plain cake - rather than the more expensive one using dates rather than fat.

But I had plenty of dates, including some medjool ones, so decided to follow the recipe as given. The only change I made was to use 100g sugar rather than 200g which was given in the original recipe. The dates make it very sweet anyway. Perhaps sugar could be left out altogether.

I suspect that egg substitutes, maybe even aquafaba would work for vegans, but I was a little dubious about replacing four eggs, so, again, decided to follow the recipe. I used my food processor to chop the dates, about twelve at a time. I then used it to chop the walnuts finely.

half the deep dark secret cake, covered in bananas and satsuma segmentsThe mixture did not seem at all cake-like when I put it into the tin, but after half an hour's baking, it looked and felt like any cake.  It was a bit gooey when I broke it up and placed it in a suitable sized flan dish, but the original recipe mentioned that it probably would be.

I used three bananas, as they were quite big, and five satsumas left over from Christmas. Piling them on top was easy, and I made sure it started to form a mound, as shown in this photo. If you use oranges or mandarins, make sure you remove any pips. If they are not in season, or are expensive, you could substitute a can of mandarin oranges, drained.

deep dark secret cake, with the fresh fruit covered in the rest of the cake
Piling the second half of the cake, in broken pieces, was a little more tricky as it kept falling down the sides, but I made sure the pieces were fairly small, and pushed them around the fruit so that it was all covered in cake. This, apparently, is the 'deep dark secret' - that the centre of this sweet and tempting treat is full of fresh fruit.

It didn't look particularly appealing at this point, but I had already tasted a few of the cake crumbs and realised that the resultant concoction was going to be extremely tasty, and well worth the apparent complexity of the process. It wasn't, in fact, particularly difficult or time-consuming.

deep dark secret cake, after adding the pineapple, before the cream
My can of crushed pineapple wasn't the same size as the one in the original recipe (an American one, so it said 20 ounces, which is 566g). But I realised by this stage that it didn't much matter as it was just used as a topping.  So I emptied it over the cake, juice and all.

If you are trying to avoid fat, then you could serve the cake at this stage. But it won't look as good as it does with the final topping.

The recipe I was given used ordinary dairy cream, 500ml of it, which is quite a large amount when whipped. We don't use dairy products these days as my husband is intolerant of cow's milk. There are many ethical and health-based reasons to avoid dairy produce too.  However, if you use them, you could simply whip some cream to go on top. Soya cream would make a good alternative for those who can tolerate it, but soya products give me migraines, and there are some health concerns about soya too.

However, the cream substitute we use (on the rare occasions we use cream!) is that found in canned coconut milk. And yes, I know there are health reasons to avoid cans! The coconut milk must be full fat, with as few additives as possible. Then you need to put it in the fridge overnight, upside-down.  This part is important if there's a ring-pull can opener. If not, you can turn it upside down after you take it out of the fridge, and then open the bottom.

The reason for this is that when refrigerated, coconut milk separates into water and cream, with the cream at the top. It's important to open the can at the watery end, so the water can be poured away or into a jug; it's not used in this recipe.

What remains is fairly solid, and needs to be assisted out of the can into a bowl with a knife or spatula around the edges.  Add a drop or two of vanilla essence, and then whip, ideally with an electric mixer. You'll need to be careful at first or it will spatter around the bowl, but it should whip easily and after a couple of minutes reaches the consistency of whipped cream.

There was probably only about 200ml of cream, and it didn't reach the bottom edges of the mounded cake, but it was plenty to make a suitable topping. It needs to be in the fridge until it's served, and any leftovers also need to be refrigerated.

The original recipe says it serves 6-8 people and I was sharing it with a group of eight of us. But we cut it into twelve slices, and each one was a good size. The remaining four portions kept well in the fridge and we enjoyed them over the next couple of days. 


Carrot Cake (dairy-free topping)

luscious carrot cake with dairy-free (cashew) topping
Carrot cake with cashew topping
Makes 12-16 slices

100-150g (2 cups) grated (shredded) carrots
200g (1 cup) white sugar
200g (1 cup) soft brown sugar
120g (1 cup) white flour
120g (1 cup) wholewheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 tsp cinnamon
60ml (1/4 cup) vegetable oil
4 eggs (or substitute)
435g can crushed pineapple, drained (about 1 cup)
100g (1 cup) raisins
60g (1 cup) crushed walnuts (optional)

150g (1 1/2 cups) cashews, soaked overnight
60ml lemon juice
2 tblsp coconut oil, melted
2 tblsp sugar or honey
(water if needed)

Heat the oven to 180C, without using a fan if possible. Grease a deep 23cm (9 inch) springform or loose-bottomed round cake tin with butter or coconut oil. Line the base with greasefree paper if the pan is likely to stick.

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, until well combined.  Place in the pan, and cook for about 45-50 minutes until risen and firm in the middle.

Cool in the pain for at least 20 minutes, then remove carefully to a wire rack.

To make the topping:
Drain and then rinse the cashews, which should be quite soft and larger than they were. Blend or food process with the other ingredients, stopping every thirty seconds or so to scrape down the sides.  If it seems very stiff, add a little water, but it needs to be quite firm.

Eventually it should become a homogenous mixture, rather like traditional cream cheese topping, which can be spread roughly over the cake when it's cooled down.  

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This was originally an American recipe, which is very easy to make with US measuring cups. So if you have a set, or indeed any cup or small jug with a 225 ml capacity, it's much quicker than weighing everything separately.  Exact quantities don't matter too much in this recipe, which is very rich and moist.

It can also be made in other sizes of cake tin; a larger round one or a big rectangular pan would lead to a flatter, dryer cake; you would have to adjust the cooking times accordingly, and perhaps make more topping.

This is a good cake even without the frosting; if you want a low-fat cake, omit the walnuts and eat it without a topping. You could use all wholewheat flour to make it healthier, although it would then also be denser.  Carrots, pineapple and raisins ensure that this is a surprisingly nutritious cake as well as being delicious.

However, carrot cake is traditionally topped with a cream cheese based frosting, whipped with a considerable amount of icing sugar.  Since we are mostly dairy-free, I was delighted to discover this cashew-based equivalent.  Raw cashews can be expensive, but if you can find them in bulk they are the basis of many dairy-free desserts, and make an excellent milk.  



Makes 16 bars

190g butter or spread
280g soft brown sugar
4 tblsp golden syrup
370g oats

Heat the oven to 180C (or 170 fan)

Melt the spread, brown sugar and syrup in a small saucepan over a low heat, stirring lightly, until the ingredients are mixed together.

Put the oats into a bowl, then pour in the contents of the pan, and mix together until well blended.

Line an ovenproof tray, 25cm x 20cm in size, with baking paper, then spoon the mixture in, pushing into the corners and smoothing the top so it's fairly even.

Bake for about 20 minutes, until the top is just starting to turn darker golden (or longer if you prefer them more crunchy). Remove from the oven, then leave to cool in the pan for about ten minutes. Cut into squares or rectangles in the pan, then turn out when cold.

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Flapjacks are popular as a quick snack, and sometimes considered healthy, despite the high fat and sugar content. Perhaps it's because they contain oats rather than flour. They are very sweet indeed; as a child I could eat two or three, but now I find that one is sufficient.

flapjacks in the tin with baking paper, before cooking
This is a recipe I remember from my childhood. I don't know where my mother found it; perhaps on the side of an old-fashioned tin of Lyle's golden syrup. Her recipe was for a 10 x 6 inch pan, which she greased rather than lining. I've had flapjacks stick too many times to risk it.

Even with a good non-stick pan, it's well worth using some baking paper too. Make sure it's not the kind that needs greasing, or the flapjacks will probably stick to the paper and make a mess.

I have tried other recipes, from books or online, but although they're all good, none of them match up to this. Other recipes sometimes include spices, and are picky about what kind of oats are used. I just use the breakfast oats that we can buy cheaply. I should think any kind would work but have not tried with any other kind.

cooked flapjacks cut up
I cut mine using a plastic firm spatula, so as not to damage the non-stick pan, and it works well. It's important to cut them before the mixture hardens, as it becomes much more difficult once it's fully set. If the cuts are made while warm, it's easy to break them apart when cool.

I cut mine into 16 good-sized bars, but you could of course cut them into smaller bars, perhaps 24 or even more, although it's more difficult to keep them looking even with smaller pieces.

If you are in the United States or somewhere else that does not stock golden syrup, I don't recommend using the high fructose corn variety that's popular there, but not legal in Europe. Honey might work as an alternative, or maple syrup, or even molasses; but they will each give their own distinctive flavour, which is best (in my view, anyway) with traditional plain golden syrup.

I was a bit dubious about using spread rather than butter; we use the Flora dairy-free one, as we tend to avoid dairy products, and I was afraid the flapjacks might not be solid enough. However they turned out just as I remembered them, gooey and yet firm, and I could not taste the spread at all.


Cashew Milk

home-made cashew milk in a jug
Cashew Milk
Makes 1-1.2 litres (US: about a quart)

50-65g unsalted cashews (US: about 1/3 cup)
About a litre of water

Extra water for soaking and rinsing

Note: You need a fairly high-powered blender for this; it's possible with an immersion blender but a bit messy. A food processor might work, but a good blender is best.

Put the cashews in a container with enough water to cover them well. Place in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours (or longer).

cashews for cashew milk, in the blenderWhen you are ready to make the cashew milk, drain away the soak water through a sieve, and rinse the cashews thoroughly under running water. They will be quite soft by this time.

Place the cashews in the blender with enough water to cover.

Remember to put on the lid!

Blend for about 40-50 seconds. I usually do about 20 seconds on low power, to get it started, then another 20-30 seconds on high power.

Milk starts to form almost immediately, but bits of cashew will fly up around the sides, so remove the jug from the blender and carefully drizzle water around the insides to wash it all down and into the milk.

Blend again until well combined.

Pour the resultant milk into a jug (US: pitcher) that holds about a litre or more (US: a quart) then use more water to rinse out the blender and add this to the milk until the container is full. Cover.

Keeps in the fridge for at least four days.

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The above instructions hardly seem like a recipe, as cashew milk is so very simple. When we first started using non-dairy milks, due to lactose intolerance in the family, we began with almond milk, which I liked very much, but it was a bit of a hassle to make. Moreover, there was all that almond meal left over each time. I used some of it in granola, and some for other recipes that needed ground almonds, but I wondered if there was any nutritional value at all in the milk.

Then we discovered coconut milk from desiccated coconut, which was simpler and very good indeed in coffee. I used the leftover coconut meal as an extra sprinkle on granola, so there was no wastage, but we found that it didn't really work in some recipes. Or rather, it worked, but there was a strong coconut taste. I like coconut, but it's not always appropriate. It's very strange in cauliflower cheese, for instance.

Then I read about cashew milk, where there's no need to strain at all; the cashews become so soft with soaking that there's almost no residue. Having said that, the milk does settle somewhat, and the 'cream' sinks to the bottom. It's a good idea to stir it before use; sometimes if mine becomes very creamy towards the end of its use, I stir in some extra water. But the creamier milk is extremely good on granola.

Cashews are high in monounsaturated fat, and also - my research tells me - high in trace elements such as copper, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. More importantly, it makes an excellent and inexpensive milk that can be used in drinks and in cooking, and has such a mild flavour that it's almost indistinguishable from dairy milk.

The most important thing is to give the cashews plenty of time to soak.  The first time I made this, I gave them about eight hours and it wasn't enough; the milk was gritty.  The second time I gave them 24 hours - longer than I had intended - and the milk was excellent. Sometimes my cashews soak for 48 hours - two entire days - if I think we're running out earlier than we actually do.

I only occasionally make almond milk now, but I do continue making coconut milk, usually right after I've made cashew milk; one litre of each usually lasts two of us about four to five days. 


Cashew and Mushroom Pilaf

cashew and mushroom pilaf, almost ready to serve
Cashew and mushroom pilaf

Serves 2

60-100g brown or basmati rice
1 onion, chopped
1 tblsp oil
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp salt
1 chopped bell pepper (any colour)
50g cashew nuts (raw)
100g mushrooms, sliced

Rinse the rice well, then cook in plenty of water, on the stove top or in a rice cooker or steamer until just cooked, slightly al dente if preferred.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan, then add the onions and cook until softened and transparent, and just starting to caramelise, stirring occasionally. Add the crushed garlic and stir in for a minute, then add the spices and salt, and stir quickly to combine.

Lower the heat, then add the cashews, chopped bell pepper and mushrooms, and keep stirring to prevent burning and to ensure all ingredients are well mixed.

Lastly, drain the rice and add to the mixture, stirring well to ensure it's all coated with the spicy mixture. Add a little water if it seems too dry or starts to burn, and stir fry for a few minutes until it is all piping hot.

Serve with other vegetables to suit your family.

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I discovered the recipe on which I based this in my elderly edition of Carolyn Humphries' '1000 quick and easy recipes', which offers a wide range of quick ideas for meals. I had wanted something rice-based but without meat, and had a memory of something called 'pilaf'.

The recipe I found was intended for four people and included soy sauce, one of my migraine triggers, so I tweaked it somewhat, adding a few spices - particularly my favourite healthy one, turmeric - and missing out the celery, which we don't particularly like. I also halved it as there are only two of us and I didn't suppose it would freeze too well.

We don't have huge appetites so I only use 60g dry rice, which is plenty for the two of us; others may prefer to use more. I buy brown basmati rice, which takes about half an hour to cook in water, and doesn't clump together as white or non-basmati rice is inclined to do. I don't suppose basmati rice is intended for pilaf, but I find it works very well.

cooking the pilaf - adding mushrooms after the initial frying of onions etc
It's important to use a large enough frying pan to take everything. A large saucepan might work but it's not so easy to fry onions to the right consistency, nor to stir fry so that the resultant pilaf is dry but not burned, the flavours blending together well. I haven't tried it in a wok, but would use one if I needed to make double quantity.

I wasn't sure what my decidedly non-vegetarian husband would make of this, but he was highly complimentary, and said he would be happy to eat it regularly, by which he usually means about once a month. So it has become part of my regular repertoire.

While it already contains mushrooms and peppers, it's all rather brown (unless you use green or red peppers) and we like our meals to be more colourful, so I do at least one separate vegetable, ideally a green one. I have sometimes cooked collard greens in a different frying pan at the same time to serve this this; other times I have been less ambitious, and have merely served microwaved frozen peas as an accompaniment.