As my part-review, part-rant blog post about our visit to hip brunch venue Farm Girl should have warned you, I am deeply skeptical of fad diets and various other bits of ‘wellness’ fuckery. While I am willing to concede that what you eat can have a pronounced impact on your body, I am not willing to agree that spirulina is the key to happiness or that gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, joy-free brownies taste just like the real thing. No. Don’t make me fight you.
But, while I’ve eaten a couple of ‘healthy’ (e.g. the sugar is less refined than cane sugar but still present in significant quantities) cakes in my time, it is true that I’d never made one. This meant that when Imogen – who broadly shares my views on how we’ve warped healthy eating in recent years – suggested we bake a paleo chocolate cake, I was undeniably curious. I mean, could it be possible that a cake based around sweet potato tastes truly as delicious as a cake built on flour and butter? (No. But we’ll get to that.)
Paleo diets are based around the idea that humans were never more attractive than in our Neanderthal years, despite the fact that we didn’t have toothbrushes or deodorant or any concept of how much back hair might be too much.
Sorry, I’m trying (and failing) to keep the snark to a minimum. I’ll try again. Paleo diets are based around the idea that given the rapid pace of humanity’s social and agricultural progress over the past few thousand years, our tender digestive systems have not had a chance to catch up with the food produced by modern farming practices. Therefore, our sensitive little digestive systems are better suited to the diets of our Paleolithic ancestors, because evolution. As every ‘health’ diet claims, eating paleo is all to do with being closer to our nature as humans and has nothing to do with weight loss.
Except, of course, that every diet which advocates cutting a number of foods out of your meals is ultimately about weight loss. If you are truly eating with no concern for fitting into those uncomfortably tight jeans or taking a cute Insta snap on the beach, then the occasional slice of chocolate cake is not a threat, no matter how much it would confuse Fred Flintstone. All restrictive diets are about weight loss and weight management and therefore that means cutting carbs.
You’ll notice that the paleo diet advocates eating leans meats, vegetables, nuts and some ‘natural’ oils. Here’s a write-up from Harvard explaining how there is no significant scientific evidence suggesting that the paleo diet is especially good for you. You’ll also see that for most the part, paleo diets suggest cutting out most grains and sugars. Just like the Atkins diet, just like the Dukan diet, it centres on cutting out carbs. Because it’s really about weight loss and cutting out carbs is the most effective way to cut calories for the average person.
Fun fact: you need to eat carbs. Most cells in your body can metabolise all three of carbs, protein and fat in order to extract energy for being alive – but your brain can’t. Only glucose – the product of carbohydrate digestion – is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and fuel the crucial cells that make your brain function. If you cut carbs, you’re essentially starving your brain, which is why almost everyone on a no-carb diet ends up complaining about brain fog. It should go without saying that compromising your brain in order to get slimmer is a bad idea.
Yes, eating lots of vegetables and lean meats tends to be healthier than eating lots of processed foods. But you can primarily eat fruit, vegetables, protein and whole grains and still enjoy a cookie without betraying the essence of human nature. The paleo diet pulls on some fairly well-accepted dietary wisdom – eat lots of plants and fruits – and incorporates the golden rule of dieting: get rid of those evil high-calorie carbohydrates.
Of course, even the most diligent Neanderthal-in-training still enjoys a sweet treat now and then. So that’s how we come to be making cakes out of sweet potato and avocado instead of just eating vegetables, lean meat and whole grains most of the time and having a brownie when the craving hits like a normal person. Even the most ardent paleo supporter agrees that sweet treats should be sweet. But they also believe that cane sugar exemplifies sin, so instead they essentially shoot honey into their veins all the while extolling their ultimate digestive purity because they only take their sugar in syrup form.
I really have an issue with people moralising about food.
Anyway, eight hundred words later, that brings us to the paleo cake. As we are scientists by training, and we wanted ensure we’d end up with something nice to eat, we also made a regular, sugary, glutinous cake alongside the sweet potato monstrosity in order to make a comparison.
To make this paleo chocolate cake, you will need:
- Raw sweet potato
- A shit-ton of maple syrup (we used honey because maple syrup is too pricey to waste on bullshit vegetable cakes)
- Black cocoa powder (which is somehow healthier than… regular cocoa powder?)
- Baking powder
- Coconut sugar
- Coconut oil
- Coconut flour
- Coconut shampoo
- Your own coconut farm
- Really anything that has coconut in it
- …and some other things like eggs and salt that they haven’t made a coconut alternative for yet.
To start, mince the raw sweet potato. This step – in fact, the whole recipe – pretty much depends on having a high-speed mixer of some kind. Just like the cavemen did it.
Then add all the other ingredients together and blitz. Blend the mixture for longer than anticipated. The recipe says ‘blend until smooth,’ but don’t be fooled, that time will not come. The mixture will end up tasting like bitter coconut sweet potato mush regardless. Regret everything.
Put the potato mixture into a greased cake tin and bake in the oven. Again, just like our ancestors spent their weekends.
While the cake is baking, mix together steamed sweet potato, avocado, dates, cocoa powder and (coconut, if you’re a true believer) salt to make the icing.
If it looks like dog poo, then it is ready. Yes, that is what it’s supposed to taste like. “It’s not vile – it’s just not icing. It would be better with 500g of sugar.”
We then set about making a quick ‘unhealthy’ chocolate cake, which had GASP refined sugar instead of a hive’s worth of honey. Because that’s what health means now, apparently.
The regular chocolate batter was already a vast improvement on the paleo cake mix so we didn’t have high hopes for the final results. Imogen whipped up a chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream that was heavenly. I guarantee that ancient humans would have thrown their sweet potatoes in the bin as soon as someone had offered them that light, sugary goodness.
We brought the paleo cake out of the oven.
“It looks like a sad pancake.”
Indeed it did. There was no rise because even the cake could not muster any enthusiasm for itself.
The normal cake came out looking altogether livelier and didn’t smell like vinegar so again, expectations were low for the paleo version. But as we got it out of the tin and mopped up a few of the crumbs, we had to begrudgingly admit that it was not that bad. It was nice and moist, the cooked sweet potato had become gooey and sweet and mercifully the cocoa came through. There were a few bits of undercooked sweet potato at the bottom and those mouthfuls were not good.
At this point, spirits were high. The chocolate cake was far less of a disappointment that we’d envisaged. But then we tried to cut it and things were from fine to worse.
Honestly, this cake had no structural integrity whatsoever. Gluten has a purpose. In attempting to slice it in two, the whole thing just felt apart. It wasn’t a cake so much as a pile of cooked cocoa coconut sweet potato crumbs. Imogen then valiantly managed to ice it with the very un-sweet avocado potato icing. I know I am biased against this cake but really this was the lowest/most hilarious point of the whole baking session. She did find that fingers were a lot more effective than the spatula for icing application and that did add to the authenticity. I doubt that Paleolithic humans had spatulas to spread their food processor-blended icing.
The icing did work well to rebuild the cake from its fragments to the point where you couldn’t tell what a pile it had been. However, recovering this cake from the brink of disaster was a task too great for even the excrement icing. “This icing does hide a multitude of sins but this cake has so many sins that it’s just not enough.”
There wasn’t quite enough chocolate Swiss buttercream for the normal cake but there was enough for a middle layer and generous covering on top. It does seem important to compare the slicing process of the two cakes. The normal cake sliced perfectly in two. The paleo cake literally disintegrated. I know which recipe seems like it will stand the test of time, which is sort of the core of paleo eating.
We decided to rate the paleo cake in eight categories: visuals, texture, icing, how much does it taste like vegetables, flavor, ease of making, structural integrity and regret.
Visuals: “It looks more than edible.”
Texture: “I can’t tell where the icing starts and the cake begins.”
Icing: “Definitely looks like dog poo though tastes hugely better when paired with the cake.”
How much does it taste like vegetables: “Quite a lot – I miss sugar.”
Flavour: “Surprisingly good – especially given the icing and our prejudice against it.”
Ease of making: “0/10. Any cake that requires you buy eight different ingredients is not worth it.”
Structural integrity: “I’d feel safer in a sandcastle with the tide coming in.”
Regret: “A thought I had regularly as the cake fell apart in my hands – but no, I have no regrets.”
Overall, it was… a lot less terrible than we’d expected given the baking process. The icing and the cake worked surprisingly well together. But, crucially, it was not better than the normal cake. While I can’t be bothered to tally it up, I’d imagine they are similarly calorific. If you’re going to eat a cake that contains a bottle of maple syrup then you might as well eat a standard cake given that it tastes much better. I promise that the health benefits from always replacing cane sugar with honey, agave, maple syrup or dates are limited. From the recipe, ‘paleo’ seems to be defined by the question ‘can you replace each ingredient with a coconut derivative?’ and it’s not obvious that questions like that are the key to health.
This food experiment was interesting, though my attitude to food remains exemplified by Imogen’s response to the question, “where does the coconut flour go?” as we cleaned up. Her answer?
“In the bin.”