© 2018 Can Caramelo

Vegan Triple Chocolate Orange Cake

The other day we found out that our son was one of the three out of 28 who lost the lottery for a place at the public school next to us. So the probability he wouldn’t get the slot was rather low, but it definitely was a possibility. Even though I knew this could happen it felt like a punch in the stomach to find out it did. Actually we weren’t even sure about the school in the first place, in general we would prefer him to keep on learning by playing, by deciding himself what to do and when and with whom, all the time being taken care of by adults who are there for him in moments of need and to accompany him emotionally. Even better if ages were mixed, more like in a family, so that the younger kids can learn from the older and the older ones learn to take care of the younger kids. 25 3-year-olds for one teacher sounds kind of crazy to me. Still there were a few good things about that school. It is located in the woods with a big and interesting outside space, they have chickens there and cultivate vegetables, but most importantly, Simón would go together with 15 kids he already knows and whose parents are our friends. But what I really want to talk about in this post is that we seem to have an optimism bias – we tend to overestimate the probability of positive future events to happen. We think we’ll live longer and healthier than the average and that our chances at the job market are higher than average. We underestimate the probability of getting separated or divorced, of getting cancer or being in a car accident. Or that our son will be the one who doesn’t get the place at the school we chose. This optimism bias seems to be a very robust phenomenon across age, gender and nationality and according to most estimates, around 80% of all people show it. A group of people that doesn’t show this optimism bias are those who suffer from depression. Mildly depressed individuals have more realistic predictions about the future, while the severely depressed show pessimistic expectations about future events.

Two main questions come up: Why should an optimism bias be adaptive and how can it hold up a lifetime of being faced with reality? It seems that one mechanism of upholding exceedingly positive expectations about the future is that we are more likely to adjust our expectations to positive information than to negative information. In an experiment where the participants were asked to estimate the chance of negative life events happening to them (like getting Alzheimer’s disease or being robbed) and were subsequently presented with the average percentages of theses things happening and then asked again to estimate, they wouldn’t significantly adjust their expectation if the actual percentage was higher than expected. But if the actual possibility of being robbed for instance was lower than expected, participants would make significant adjustments. So through a positivity bias in updating one’s beliefs, optimism becomes resistant to be modified with evidence.

Prediction of future events is a key cognitive ability. In our brains, the right inferior frontal gyrus is involved in updating beliefs. In optimistic individuals, activity in this region is low when confronted with a negative mismatch of our positive expectation, leading to a failure in updating our beliefs according to a reality that is not as friendly as expected. If we encounter that the reality is even better than expected on the other hand, regions of the prefrontal cortex encode this efficiently in both optimistic and less optimistic individuals. Other brain regions involved in optimism include the amygdala, important for emotional processing and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (involved in emotion regulation).

But can it be adaptive to misjudge the future? Shouldn’t we think that realistic beliefs about our future are more adaptive? Research concludes that optimistic illusions might be the only misbeliefs that are adaptive, because they reduce anxiety and stress which is beneficial taking into account that chronic stress is detrimental to our health. In this direction, optimists have been shown to get less infectious diseases and have a stronger immune system. And as optimists are also shown to have a greater belief in their influence on what happens and better regulate their emotions, they are more likely to engage in health promoting activities like exercise and a balanced diet and are less prone to suffer from anxiety. Regarding work, optimism can be an advantage, as overestimating one’s capabilities is favorable in a competitive environment.

Still, if optimism goes too far, it can lead to risky behaviour like unprotected sex, smoking or spending too much money. In conclusion, a certain dose of optimism seems to be advantageous and might have even been a motor in human evolution.

A couple of references in case your interested in further reading about the neuroscience of optimism:
My post is largely based on this article, published in Current Biology, and this is another interesting article which identifies brain structures involved in trait optimism.

Actually I started researching trait optimism, because after receiving the news about the school, I felt quite bad, while Sebastián said I should have known it was a possibility from the start (which I of course did, I just kind of also thought it wouldn’t be us, the ones left out). He always tries to foresee every possible outcome and take necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) measures and claims it is better to be prepared for the worst and then be happy if things turn out well. But while I understand this position and actually think it can be very useful to be prepared if something doesn’t come out as we expect and wish it to, I also don’t want to be anxious until I know what will happen. Expecting the worst makes me feel bad for a long time while I usually (depending also on probabilities) bare in mind that things might not go as hoped and feel that I’m quite capable of adjusting to a new reality. Admittedly, a few tears might be shed, but afterwards I can embrace a new reality quite quickly and well, I’d say (not talking about cases like cancer or death now). The research I did, didn’t really indicate whose strategies are the best, as I wouldn’t describe Sebastián as especially anxious. It didn’t weaken my position on optimism though, on the contrary, so while I acknowledge that it is good to be prepared, I keep being optimistic. And we’ll most certainly find a satisfactory school for our son.

Oh and there is a recipe of course. A triple chocolate cake I promised my friend whose little kid didn’t get a place at the school either. I thought we needed something chocolaty, with chocolate chunks and chocolate puddles topped with chocolate sauce. I had been wanting to try and make a vegan biscuit with aquafaba (the water from cooking chickpeas – and don’t make a face, it’s actually awesome!), so I made a vegan chocolate cake with a cashew-chocolate frosting. It’s spongy, super moist, overly chocolaty and with an intense orange flavour. I think it might have magic powers. Make it and see for yourself. A note of warning: if you want to indulge in sadness, don’t make this cake.

Notes

  • You don’t have to make a 4 layer cake, you can make 2 layers or just one cake by using larger pans and adjusting the baking time, comment if you have any doubts
  • I used some spelt flour, but I’m pretty sure it would turn out perfectly with most gluten free flours as well (not coconut flour though)
  • Due to it’s moistness, this cake conserves itself very well and is perfect to be made ahead. It’s actually firmer and a lot easier to cut on the second day.
  • Regarding the aquafaba: I have had quite different experiences depending on the brand. They all worked, just that there are more liquid ones which don’t get as stiff and some more jellyish one which get very stiff, still I think both will work in this recipe. If you don’t care about this cake being vegan and don’t have any chickpea water at hand or just find it too weird -I promise you can’t taste it at all though! – you can use 4 egg whites instead and add the yolks to the rest of the batter.
  • I made the chocolate for the topping myself, but you could use 40g store-bought chocolate and add 1/2 tablespoon coconut oil

Ingredients

For the cake

  • around 1 cup of aquafaba (chickpea water, I got it from a can with a net weight of 660g/23oz and a drained weight of 425g/15oz)
  • 100g/3.5oz dark chocolate (70-85% cacao)
  • 1 cup white spelt flour
  • 1 cup almond meal (ground almonds)
  • 1/2 cup pure cacao powder
  • 1 cup coconut sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup unsweetened plant milk (I used Oat milk)
  • Juice and zest from 1 organic orange (should be about 1/3 cup orange juice)
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract (leave it out if you don’t have any)

For the frosting

  • 1 cup cashews, soaked for a couple of hours or overnight
  • 150g/5oz dark chocolate (70-85% cacao)
  • Juice and zest of one organic orange
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)
  • 1/4 cup water

For the chocolate (optional)

  • 1/4 cup cacao butter
  • 2 tablespoons pure cacao
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 18ºC/350ºF. Line two 16cm/6inches springforms with parchment paper and grease them (I used coconut oil). Start by melting the chocolate in a water bath. Meanwhile, add all ingredients except the chickpea water to a mixing bowl. Beat the chickpea water in a clean bowl until stiff peaks form (for me it took around 4min with a hand-held electric mixer). Use the same mixer to combine the ingredients in the other bowl. Now carefully fold in the aquafaba and the molten chocolate. Fill the two springforms with one quarter of the batter each. Bake for 12min or until a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and repeat with the rest of the batter, so that you end up with four layers for your cake. Let cool completely.
Meanwhile prepare the frosting by melting the chocolate in a water bath. Add all the other ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Combine with the molten chocolate. At first the frosting will be quite liquid and it hardens as the chocolate cools down. It’s best to let it cool a bit and apply it when it has a creamy texture, so it won’t spill over, but will spread easily.
Now you can start assembling the cake by topping one layer of cake with a quarter of the frosting. Repeat until you have your 4-layer cake. For the chocolate on top, melt the cacao butter in a water bath and, once liquid, stir in the other ingredients. Leave to thicken slightly, than spread on top of the cake. Decorate with a few sprinkles of flaky sea salt or as you wish. Enjoy, tell me how you liked it and show me your pictures by tagging me @cancaramelo in instagram.

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