A very berry (vegan) layer cake

Now I really wanted to make this cake for a couple of reasons. The first being, a lot of people have been complaining that Swiss meringue buttercream is hard. Personally, I don’t think that it’s hard, it’s more about knowing how to make it. To give a little explanation about meringues, we have three kinds. French, which is just whipped egg whites and sugar. This is the easiest one to make, but it has to be cooked or at least torched to prevent you from getting salmonella from the raw egg whites. Italian, which is whipped egg whites that are mixed with a heated simple syrup. This is an extremely stable meringue and it can be eaten straight because it was cooked with the syrup. And Swiss, which is egg whites and sugar, first whisked over a double boiler, then transferred to a stand mixer to whisk to stiff peaks. Like Italian meringue, it can be eaten as-is. And in both Swiss and Italian meringues, you can emulsify them with butter to form a meringue buttercream. Technically, you could do that with French meringue too, but the risk of salmonella in your frosting might disagree with that practice. But another way to guarantee no salmonella is to remove eggs entirely from the dessert. And that’s where the idea to make this a vegan cake really came from. Swiss meringue buttercream is so easy that I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to make an entire cake without any animal products, just to make a point that it’s neither difficult to do nor hard to make without the traditional ingredients.

So you might be asking how I am making a vegan meringue, and there are a couple ways to do that. But the most common is aquafaba, or the water from a chickpea can. When you reduce that liquid by half, and chill it down, it becomes as viscous as an egg white. Not only that, but it actually acts like an egg white as well. So you can whip it into a meringue. Admittedly, aquafaba from a can is a bit salty, so for the recipe listed below, I actually omitted all of the salt since the rest of the cake really doesn’t need it. I also wanted to tackle the infamous berry cake from my season of MasterChef, or at least a riff on it, just because that’s what caused so many people to DM me asking why Swiss meringue buttercream was so challenging(spoilers, it’s not challenging if you actually know how to make it/not be completely petrified of it). For my rendition, we have a vegan vanilla cake with accents of nutmeg and blood orange, and a blood orange-mixed berry Swiss meringue buttercream, which is also vegan. Having started as a vegan baker, I’m not afraid to tackle a difficult cake, nor am I afraid to make it free of all animal products. Baking should be fun and exciting, after all!

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For the blood orange-berry cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups soy milk
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 cup blood orange juice
zest from 2 blood oranges
1 cup canola or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
a pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup fresh blackberries
2/3 cups fresh blueberries

Line a half sheet pan with parchment and a light layer of oil. Combine your vinegar, orange juice, and soy milk and allow that to sit for 2-3 minutes. Sift flour and sugar together with baking soda and nutmeg. Combine all ingredients, sans berries, to create your batter. Sprinkle half of the berries evenly along the bottom of the sheet tray and pour and spread your batter over it. Sprinkle in the rest of your berries on top. Bake the sheet cake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes. Cool down at room temperature for 10 minutes, then cut out three 6-inch rounds. Place those into your freezer, divided with parchment so that they don’t stick or freeze together, until completely cold to the touch.

For the blood orange-berry coulis:
1/2 cup blood orange juice
1/3 cup blueberries
1/2 cup blackberries

Reduce these down together until the berries are completely soft and falling apart, making sure to stir occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning. Pass through a sieve and continue to reduce until the liquid is the consistency of a loose paste. Cool down completely before using.

For the vegan Swiss meringue buttercream:
1 can of chickpeas
4 sticks of vegan butter substitute (I used Earth balance)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Berry coulis

Strain out the actual chickpeas from your can, and reserve the liquid. Reduce that liquid by about half and then cool down completely. Over a double boiler, whisk the reduced chickpea water with your sugar until the sugar has fully dissolved and the liquid has started to turn foamy. Transfer to a stand mixer and whip on medium speed, slowly increasing the speed as the liquid begins to stiffen and increase in volume. Dice up the vegan butter substitute and make sure it is at room temperature. Whip in the butter, bit by bit, until it has fully emulsified in. Remove 1/4th of it. Color 3/4ths of your buttercream using the coulis, adding about 1 tablespoon at a time until you get a dark, burgundy color. That’ll be the frosting you’ll use for the cake. Color the remaining 1/4th with just a small amount of coulis, just to get the color to a light pink, and transfer to a piping bag with a round piping tip.

To assemble:
Fresh blackberries and blueberries

Spread about 1/4th of the burgundy frosting onto the first 6 inch round of cold cake and level it with an offset spatula. Repeat with the other two layers. Spread any excess frosting against the sides of the cake to form your crumb coat, then use about half of the remaining burgundy to form an even layer of frosting on the exterior of the cake. Pipe a circle of “Hershey’s kisses” with the light pink frosting on top of the cake. Pipe the rest into a bowl and add in another half tablespoon of the coulis. Transfer half to a piping bag with a different kind of piping tip (I used star and flower shapes). Mix the rest with the leftover burgundy frosting and place half into another piping bag with yet another different tip. Finally, color the last of it with another tablespoon of the coulis, and transfer to another piping bag. Pipe dots of the frosting against the sides of the cake and on top, as desired, and garnish with your fresh berries. Refrigerate just so that your cake stays set and cool before it is time to serve.

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