gluten-free chocolate cake

chocolate cake II

Back in 1994, I taught this singular young man. Nearly everyone I taught on this little rural island was singular. Vashon breeds eclectic kids, full of quirks and talents, whether it’s mud bogging in the woods or juggling chainsaws. I’ve never met so many kids who wanted to be artists — and so many of the ones I taught have become filmmakers, musicians, painters, and writers — and so many who were clear and happy about the fact they are not artists.

Maybe it’s all this fresh air. Or the fact that kids grow up near woods or beaches, free to roam for hours. I read a small piece recently about how to simplify your life, which struck all kinds of harmonious chords in me. However, I did a double take when I read this: get outdoors once a day. Wait, really? You need a reminder about that? And I remembered again how lucky I am.

When I lived in New York City, a place I adore with fierce intensity, I spent a couple of years thinking Central Park was enough. Nearly every day I strapped on my rollerblades and glided to the park, thrilled with the movement and people and sound. After skating fast, and watching hundreds and hundreds of people in a blur of motion, I returned to my desk to write, done for the day. I had been outside. I had seen New York.

However, I knew the moment I needed to leave New York, my beloved city. I was tutoring a student in the SATs at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side. He was struggling with the word terrestrial. I prodded him on extra-terrestrial. “Oh, like ET!” he said, and I nodded, vigorously. “So, if extra-terrestrial means out of this earth, then terrestrial means the earth.” Instinctually, I swept my hand across the view out the window. And then I stopped. Because I realized, with horror, that I couldn’t see the earth. Anywhere. Every single image out that window was concrete and man-made.

I moved back to Seattle a few months later, still in love with my city, determined to leave it before I choked on all that exhausted air.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with that student I mentioned and never named. Or, more urgently, get to that chocolate cake, Shauna. Forgive me. It’s early in the morning. All the windows are thrown open. I’m drinking coffee reheated from yesterday’s pot. (ew.) And I’m writing. It has been a tremendous week filled with big, important tasks. And we have been laughing. But I haven’t been writing.

Maybe that’s why Vashon kids come out so cool. And of course, it’s not just this place, but any rural space. We so love cities and all that rapid-back-and-forth haberdashery. (I’m well aware that haberdashery means the making of hats. But it just fits there, you know? Plus, it’s my birthday, so I can write what I want.) But open spaces, land that remains unbroken with houses and cars and expectations, small towns? The older I grow, the more I appreciate this slowness. Growing up in a place where you can ramble, where you have a favorite beach instead of one you have to drive to via freeway, where you know the name of everyone you see at the pharmacy? It’s a pretty great experience.

And what I love about this experience of living here now, again, nearly 20 years later, is how time bends on itself, and doubles back.

That student I taught in 1994? Adam. He was singular. He wore Vibram toe-shoes to school every day, lugged a beat-up metal Thermos everywhere he went (clearly, it held more than coffee), and often had grimy hands. (Of course, memory being what it is, I mis-remembered. Those toe-shoes didn’t exist then. Adam wore flip-flops in high school, every day, or went barefoot.) He asked good questions because he really didn’t give a shit about any of the expected behaviors of a model student. He bombed tests because he didn’t feel like studying. He had a fabulous mind, far more curious and tough than any of the girls who groveled for As. He had a deep throaty laugh, ratcheted back in his throat. He was utterly himself.

On Saturday morning, he was in my kitchen, picking up this chocolate cake for his wife.

You see, when Danny and I moved to the island with tiny baby Lu, we met this wave of former students of mine who had all moved back to the island with their kids. As adults, they are as singular and interesting as they were as 16-year-olds. But this time, I don’t have to grade their research papers. Instead, we talk about our kids and the island and the rumored opening of a new Thai place. (It’s open now! And it’s amazing.) We walk together, talking, in the woods as our kids run ahead of us, laughing.

Adam and his wife, Sue, have a spunky sprite of a girl named Zea, who is one of Lu’s best friends. She is bound to be as interesting in high school as her father was. Sue’s one of my best friends now. And she’s gluten-free. So when Adam asked me to make her a two-layer chocolate cake as a surprise for her birthday? Of course.

So there he was, in my kitchen, when I taught him Greek and Latin roots nearly 20 years ago. Our kiddo was playing outside in the yard. I’m sure his kiddo was too, at her house. Life felt pretty simple at that moment.

After he left, however, I started laughing. When I taught Adam in a classroom on Vashon in 1994, you could not have told me that his daughter and my daughter would be best friends, that I would have Danny with me in the kitchen, that I would be writing full-time instead of teaching. I would have cheered if I had heard it. Sometimes life just takes its own time.

You certainly couldn’t have told me that I would be making a gluten-free chocolate cake for a friend. Adam sent me a text after they ate it: “Cake was spectacular. I honestly couldn’t tell it was gf.”

And that’s why I wanted to share it with you. You, dear readers, are a constant surprise. I never could have predicted you.

chocolate cake


A few months ago, when I was developing recipes for the dessert chapter of our cookbook, I made a different chocolate cake every day. I tried different ratios, different recipes, cocoa powder and melted chocolate, double layers vs. sheet cakes. Danny could not have been happier. Our friends and neighbors were thrilled. At the end of the week, I realized something strange: I don’t really care that much about chocolate cake. I mean, I enjoy it — don’t get me wrong — especially on a birthday. But when I was thinking about the desserts we wanted to offer in that cookbook, chocolate cake wasn’t top of the list. 

I love a good fruit dessert, attuned to the season. Chocolate cake has one flavor: chocolate cake. But a tayberry crisp? Now that’s interesting. 

However, from all that chocolate cake making, I discovered this: if you want to make a great chocolate cake, follow David Lebovitz’s German chocolate cake recipe. That man knows what he’s doing. 

In fact, since his recipe is already so meticulously written, and it’s my birthday, I’m not going to re-write it here. All you have to do is follow his steps exactly. And when he calls for 2 cups of all-purpose flour, substitute 280 grams of gluten-free all-purpose flour mix. Maybe a 1/2 teaspoon of psyllium. That’s it. 

But if you want to make this chocolate-sour cream frosting? I can help you with that. 

2 ounces softened unsalted butter
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
9 ounces (about 2 cups) powdered sugar
2 ounces sour cream
2 ounces light corn syrup

Melting the butter and chocolate. Put the butter and chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl. Run the microwave for 30 seconds. Stir the butter and chocolate together. Microwave them for another 30 seconds. Stir. When the chocolate and butter are fully melted and smooth together, set them aside to cool to room temperature.

Making the frosting. Put the powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. (You can also make this by hand, if you don’t have a microwave.) Add the melted butter and chocolate chips. With the stand mixer running on low speed, add the sour cream and corn syrup. (If it feels too runny, add some more powdered sugar. If if feels too thick, drizzle in a bit more corn syrup.) Let the stand mixer whip the frosting for a few moments until it is fluffy. Spread immediately on the cake.

41 comments on “gluten-free chocolate cake

  1. Stella Cooks

    Shauna, what you say about rural life is so true.

    Having grown up in a small town in East Texas, a five minute walk from secluded woodland creeks (where I played for hours every summer with my neighborhood friends), I always found it difficult to imagine being a child in Manhattan; no grass, few trees, no animals to meet (except, I suppose, rats, pigeons, and humans).

    I do worry that there will be a mass migration to Vashon based on your blog, though! You make it sound like a valhalla, a time capsule.

    Also, this cake looks amazing. As someone who’s only recently started exploring a gluten-limited diet, I needed this. Now I just have to think of an excuse (who’s birthday is coming up next…?). Shouldn’t be too hard!

  2. Danielle

    Happy birthday Shuana! I hope it’s a lovely one. And yes, you can use any word you like in any way you like today. Try some of Humpty-Dumpty’s “portmanteau words” they’re a great fun. Thanks for this lovely reminder of the beautiful changes time can bring and the unexpected wonderfulness of life. I definitely don’t just read your blog for the amazing recipes! You never fail to inspire and to brighten my day. All my best to you and yours!

  3. Natalie

    Happy Birthday to you! It’s mine tomorrow. This cake will probably feature prominently on the treat table this weekend when we welcome friends and family to celebrate with me!

  4. Jen

    Happy birthday, Shauna!

    I love this post. I’m stuck in my office and lab in the middle of a big, concrete city. It’s a gorgeous summer day and I will have to remind myself to put aside my work and go outside at some point. Sad but true. I so very much love your descriptions of life on Vashon. Maybe someday I too will be fortunate enough to live and work in such a place.

    PS- thanks for the cake recipe and idea. My mom’s birthday is on Friday. I bet she would adore this.

  5. Beth R.

    You want to know something? I don’t care for chocolate cake either. In fact, we had vanilla bean cupcakes on my birthday, because I haven’t found a spectacular g.f. biscuit recipe yet for strawberry shortcake. Having a birthday at the very end of May, I look forward to that seasonal treat every year.

  6. Rachel

    I’ve been looking at your website for awhile now reading the archives and trying some recipes out. I wanted to save my first comment here for your birthday. Why? Because I am so glad that you (and this site) were born. What a difference you have made to my life! I’ve always been afraid to cook. Sure I could “scratch” decent recipes out of boxes but that is so boring. I’ve never had a decent amount of veggies in my life. YOU have inspired me to get up and experiment and it is so refreshing. I hate it when someone says “why are you doing it that way? It won’t be good unless you do it this way.” The world has forgotten how to live and you breathe life into everything you do. Its so refreshing to feel such a relatability to someone I don’t know. I love everything you do. Thank you so much for sharing your life. Its beautiful. Happy birthday Shauna

  7. Mirna

    Happy Birthday to you! I am not a celiac nor is anyone in my family. I come to your blog to read your wonderful writing about everything, not just food. Wishing you many more birthdays and happy cooking.

  8. Charr Douglas

    Happy Birthday ~ I hope your day is grand –

    So would my Grandkids find something they like at the new May Kitchen? I have not had a chance. I have been on this Island for a lllllllllllllllooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnngggg time but often it seems you know it better than I since I commute off for my work. This may be their last weekend (my weekend) visiting for the summer : (

    They love the Rock because their Uncle works there and for all the machines with that junky stuff in plastic. Yet, last time my Grandaughter took a picture of her food from
    “The Hardware Store” …so it worked too.

    Have a funtabulous day !

    1. shauna

      Charr, if they are at all adventurous, they’d love May. Man, it’s amazing. It’s not only the best restaurant on Vashon now, but it’s also some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.

  9. Franchesca Havas

    I am wondering if there is a way to make this sugar free too. What would you substitute for the light corn syrup?

    Normally we would use sugar free pudding to make the frosting but that requires putting the cake in the fridge until it is totally gone and it would be nice to be able to make one that allows the cake to sit out over night for at least one night. 🙂

    Second question, how do you cut the recipe down for a mini cake? 🙂

  10. Katie

    Happy Birthday! Our baby boy is 5 tomorrow! What a wonderful time of year for a birthday. Here in the Chicago area school starts in two weeks but summer is still here this week and I just love the warm laziness of August. And unlike his brother whose birthday is in February ( in Chicago!!!) Declan’s birthday is always a long day that always comes with running in the yard and splashing in the local pool and that summer feeling that is truly extra terrestrial! Enjoy your day and have a great year!

  11. Kowa Mattern

    I know what you mean about Manhattan! One can’t help but fall for the city, but I often find myself spending weekends at my parent’s in upstate NY. The much more rural surroundings allow me to relax and breathe in fresh air. I never have such a good sleep as when I am in their tree-surrounded home.

    Thank you for posting the frosting recipe, I used cocoa powder in the past, but this looks much more decadent.

  12. Molly

    Happy Birthday, Shauna! This cake sounds amazing; I need an occasion to make it for. 🙂 Thanks for all you bring to the gluten-free world!

  13. Dana

    Happy Birthday Shauna! I love your meandering posts, how you begin in one place, travel to another, and then circle back. It’s like a good story, but in miniature. Thank you for this recipe, too. My four-year-old daughter, who has celiac, is a huge chocolate fan. Her birthday was a few months ago, but I’m sure we can figure out someone else’s birthday to celebrate this with 🙂 Looking forward to more of your lovely stories and recipes. I hope you enjoyed your day.

  14. sarah

    Wishing you a happy birthday! Your blog constantly encourages and breathes creativity into my own life not just as I think about how I eat but how I live. Thanks for reveling in the simplicity and reminding others to do so as well.

  15. Rachel

    Before going gluten free I made the DL german chocolate for my husband’s birthday… I hated coconut until that fateful night… that cake is magical!

  16. Terry

    Happy Birthday, Shauna. Your life, to me, is circles upon circles of beauty and wonder. Love too. It always makes me happy to come here. Hungry too. xoxo

  17. Sami

    Happy birthday Shauna. I also lived for many years in a small village and people greeted each other on the street and you knew whose family that kid belonged to, etc. Now I live across the world in a city, not too big tough, but good enough to lead an enjoyable and relaxed life.
    I have the perfect occasion to try out this Chocolate cake, as this Friday one of my colleagues at work is leaving and I offered to bring a cake to the farewell party. Chocolate cake it is!!

  18. Grubarazzi (@Grubarazzi)

    I love when life circles back to us like this. Every person we meet and connect with eventually makes their way in again. Even if by memory alone. Vashon sounds amazing. A place I would love to visit.

  19. Lynne @ Mumma Funk

    I really enjoyed your post Shauna. Thanks so much for sharing. We have moved around Australia through my husbands job and I my observations align perfectly with what you shared about rural life. We moved from a big city to a small country regional town and delighted in the change. What we were surprised at was the difference in kids that my daughter had made friends with. They seemed more down to earth, practical and genuine. If I’d not experienced this myself, I’d have debated this with rigor, but we couldn’t help but notice this. It stood out in both rural towns we ended up living in. I agree with some of your readers comments, you make Vashon so appealing. Who knows, maybe this very post will trigger a movement of people to your beautiful town xxx 🙂

  20. Tilley

    Happy birthday! It was my birthday too, and I was secretly craving some kind of chocolate cake, but my mom offered to make a pumpkin cheesecake for me, which was (is) very delicious. I miss the German’s chocolate cakes she has made for me for the past dozen years, and I’m still thinking how much I want a chocolate cake, so perhaps I will try this for myself. Thanks.

  21. MikeVFMK

    You are such an inspiring writer. And obviously, you were inspiring as a teacher as well. That’s why people like Adam came full circle back into your life. Loved this. And the GF chocolate cake too.

  22. Campbell

    Shauna, now I get it, you’re a Leo. Same as my beloved wife Zoe who in her way makes a huge difference in the world – as do you. She is a Landmark Education Forum Leader who is currently in Philadelphia and will be there for her birthday on the 13th.
    I was wondering what I could send to the local Landmark office for the team there to offeer on her birthday, I now have the answer.
    I’m sure someone at the office will be able to bake this and have it available to her and the team on the day.
    Also – on nthe 31st of August I will be 50, and GF for now over 4 years – inspired rthe entire time by you.

    Simply – thank you and all my love


  23. Archer

    Oh, Shauna! I loved the playfulness and style of this post. Your writing today had me hooked. Thanks for drinking day old coffee to write for us. Btw, this is totally crazy, but I had a dream about you and Danny the other night. I can’t remember what happened though!

  24. Sini

    I really enjoyed this post. Lovely stories. “Because I realized, with horror, that I couldn’t see the earth. Anywhere. Every single image out that window was concrete and man-made.”

    And this cake? It looks sooo delicious!

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY Shauna! May all your wishes come true.

  25. Clarissa

    Happy Birthday,

    I hope all went well for you. I was wondering if you had a recipe that was dairy free and gluten free too? (for desserts)

  26. Yoko

    Hi Shauna,

    I love how meticulously you explain gluten-free baking, and even have steps on how to make your own gluten-free all purpose flour. I substituted regular flour with the Ahern’s all purpose flour a number of times now and each time it turned it great. Until today..

    I found a recipe for “old-fashioned chocolate cake” which calls for cocoa powder, vinegar and baking soda, without any eggs, milk or melted chocolate. I don’t know if the lack of eggs was the issue, or that I used gluten-free flour instead of gluten-full, but the cake came out like chocolatey mochi instead of the fluffy chocolate cake it was supposed to be. Should I have added xanthan gum? Or are certain recipes just not compatible with gluten-free flours?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Comments are closed