Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Chocolate Cupcakes (with option for Egg-free)


Robo turned two a week ago. As is customary for birthdays, I made him a cake—well, it was actually cupcakes. But this was not an ordinary cake because, as most of you know, Robo is allergic to many of the things you would ordinarily put in a cake: wheat, dairy, eggs, and nuts. I didn’t make him a cake for his first birthday because we were traveling in Maryland that day (it was a nearly perfect day of chilling on the beach, eating crabs at a Chesapeake Bay crab shack for dinner, staying at an idyllic beach home, etc.), so he just had an Enjoy Life chocolate cookie with store-bought chocolate frosting on it (many store-bought frostings are dairy-free). So this was my first real foray into allergy-free cake baking.

Well, not exactly. I’ve been making what is usually called “wacky cake” or “depression Cake” for over a year. Since it has no dairy or eggs in it, all I have to do is substitute gluten-free flour for wheat flour, and I’m good to go. Sort of. Gluten-free depression cake is easy but not that delicious, and it often doesn’t cook through all the way in the center (a common problem with gluten-free, egg-free baking in my experience). I could have just made that for his birthday cake, but I didn’t want to.

I started early looking online for a recipe. I started with egg-free chocolate cakes since eggs are usually the hardest thing to find a substitute for. I found a lot of recipes for wacky cake and a few that looked good at first but always ended up containing yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, or some other dairy product that would be nearly impossible to substitute. And these weren’t even gluten-free cakes, so I had no idea how adding that extra complication would affect the recipes.

So I switched to looking at dairy-free chocolate cakes. These ones invariably had 4–6 eggs in them for moisture and flavor. Egg substitutes do exist, but if a recipe was so obviously depending on real eggs, I doubted that just using half a cup of flax “eggs” instead would work.

So I looked for gluten-free recipes. All of those lean heavily on both eggs and dairy (and not just butter and milk, which are easy to substitute). Oh, and plenty of recipes called for coffee in one form or another. I looked at dozens of recipes.

An idea started forming in my mind. I do have a recipe that is gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free, but it isn’t for chocolate cake. It is for these Cinnamon Doughnut Muffins, and they are delicious. The egg substitute in that recipe is a combination of flax egg and applesauce and baking soda, and it works surprisingly well at giving the muffins the kind of lift and springiness that muffins are supposed to have but egg-free baking often doesn’t. They even involve reducing the non-dairy milk so that it is more flavorful and less watery. As a whole, the recipe is well-thought-out, but it isn’t exactly birthday cake.

I started to wonder. Could I adapt the recipe? I am confident at changing dinner recipes and do so all the time, but baking is different. Adding cocoa would change the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients, which could be disastrous if I didn’t adjust things correctly. But by the day of Robo’s birthday, I still hadn’t found a recipe, so I decided to give it a try.

The results were amazing, if I do say so myself. I am still eating like Robo does until he weans, and I haven’t eaten a dessert this delicious in over a year. They were rich, chocolaty, moist, light, airy, and sweet but not too sweet. Seriously, like eating a chocolate cloud. I shared some with a neighbor who is gluten-free and dairy-free, and she loved them too. Robo wasn’t feeling well the night of his birthday, so he didn’t eat any (or any ice cream, which is pretty much his favorite food), but he enjoyed one the next day.


So, without any more rambling, here’s the recipe:

¾ cup milk of choice (I used rice)
½ cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter or dairy-free alternative,
room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs*
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups gluten-free all-purpose flour blend of choice (Note that the original recipe called for xanthan gum in addition, but since pretty much all flour blends you can buy contain xanthan gum, I omitted it. The link, however, is to the Gluten Free and More site’s post on gluten-free flour blends, which is informative and helpful.)
¼ cup cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

*To make the cupcakes egg-free, replace the eggs with:

1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon flax meal
3 tablespoons applesauce
3 tablespoons hot water

When making egg-free cupcakes, mix these ingredients well before starting anything else and let sit on the counter until gelled and slightly bubbly.

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a standard 12-cup muffin tin or line with muffin papers.

2. Microwave the rice milk for 3–4 minutes or until reduced to ½ cup liquid. (NOTE: If using dairy milk, do not try the microwave trick. You will want to boil the milk on the stove so you can stir and watch it to prevent boil over.)

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter or dairy-free alternative and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time (not necessary if making egg-free—just dump it all in), and vanilla and beat until well combined.

4. Whisk together the flour blend, baking powder, salt, cocoa, and cream of tartar and add to the wet ingredients. Add the cooled (I didn’t cool mine very long, and it worked out fine) scalded milk in a slow, steady stream, mixing to combine. Beat the batter until it thickens and becomes a bit more elastic.

5. Divide the batter evenly among 12 prepared muffin cups. Place the muffin tin in the center of preheated oven and bake 15 to 18 minutes or until  toothpick inserted in the center of the middle cupcake comes out mostly clean.

I frosted these with store-bought chocolate frosting because it is usually dairy-free, and good dairy-free chocolate frosting is very hard to make at home. I put the leftover cupcakes in a plastic container with a lid, and they tasted great up to three days later, which is rare for gluten-free baked goods, which often get dry and hard even the next day.


A skinny woman talks about fat shaming

In the last 18 months, I have lost a lot of weight. Just before my fourth baby was born, in June of 2014, I weighed over 180 lbs. I wasn’t obese, and because I was pregnant and a lot of the weight was in my baby belly, I probably wasn’t even technically overweight (or if I was, not very much). I felt okay in my skin, but I wasn’t thrilled when, after my son was born, I had to go out and buy clothes that were bigger than any I had ever owned before, despite having had three babies before this one. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about what I’ve learned from being a very thin woman in my 30’s, and a lot of it makes me angry.

In November 2014, I found out that my sweet baby was severely allergic to wheat, dairy, and peanuts. I found out in January that we needed to add eggs and tree nuts to the list. And because of the severity of his allergies, he started getting eczema and reflux due to these allergies while he was nursing exclusively. That meant that not only he needed to avoid these foods, but I did as well. It took a while to figure out what, exactly, I could eat. Think about what YOU eat. I’d be willing to bet you eat dairy and wheat in every meal, and that you eat eggs more often than you realize. Did you know that most soy sauce contains wheat? That oatmeal often contains traces of wheat, sometimes more than traces? Did you know that pretty much every gluten-free item at the grocery store contains a lot of eggs? Or that the meat at a lot of fast-food restaurants contains wheat or dairy or both?

I now eat Chex with rice milk (or cocoa puffs or, recently, Cheerios since they went gluten-free) or gluten-free oatmeal without milk for breakfast every day; I eat leftovers for lunch when I have them, or, when I don’t, I eat a certain brand of taquitos, or hot dogs sliced into baked beans; I can almost never eat out or eat “convenience” food, which means I cook every night, and often more than one meal because nobody else wants to eat like I do. Many times, I stop eating because I’m bored with my food more than because I’m full. I’m hungry quite often, though less often now than I was at first because I’m getting better at finding and working with substitutions. I have a plan for the day I wean my toddler, and it includes pizza, donuts, and peanut butter sandwiches.

A couple of weeks after learning about Robo’s allergies and changing my diet dramatically to keep him healthy, I got pneumonia. I was so ill that I struggled even to drive to the school to drop off and pick up my boys. So ill that it took me an hour one day to work up the energy to go to the doctor, and I didn’t have any extra energy for getting dressed, so I went in my pajamas. And then they told me it was just the flu. Four days later, having suffered high fevers and horrible coughs and no appetite for most of a week, I went back (driven by a friend because I was in no shape to drive), and this time they did an x-ray. “You must feel awful,” the doctor said upon seeing my lungs. I almost cried in relief.

I lost 15 pounds that week.

I continued to lose weight due to my diet changes, but slowly. Then, in January of 2015, I got some weird stomach ailment. I don’t want to go into details, but I thought I had a bizarre and severe stomach flu, except it kept coming back every few days or weeks. It had a predictable pattern and unusual symptoms, and every time I got sick, there went another two to five pounds. I saw doctor after doctor. Antibiotics made me feel better while I was taking them, but soon after finishing the course, I would get sick again. So they’d try other antibiotics. Same thing. Stronger antibiotics. Same thing. They did test after test after test, finally ending in a colonoscopy to rule out cancer. And I still don’t have a real diagnosis. The gastroenterologist who saw me called it IBS, but the definition of IBS says it doesn’t cause weight loss.

Anyway, I kept losing weight. After March, it was more gradual, and sometimes I’d plateau for a while before losing again. I think I’m still losing, but I’ve mostly bottomed out at around 110 lbs. I have lost over 70 lbs. in 18 months without trying. And here’s how my life is different today:

1. Strangers and acquaintances compliment me on my weight. When they do, I can always tell there’s a hint of jealousy in the compliment. This didn’t happen very often before, and I’ve been relatively thin in the past. Apparently when you reach critical thinness (AKA almost skeletal), people notice and appreciate it.

2. People ask me, “What’s your secret?” I tell them they don’t want to lose weight the way I have. No, really, you don’t.

3. My grandma asked me what my pants size was and kept commenting that she couldn’t believe I have four kids, as if my weight is some sort of badge of honor.

4. My husband finds me more attractive. That’s fair. I weigh about what I did when he met me. 🙂

5. At first, I felt weirdly freaked out by my weight loss. My goal when I was still pregnant was to get back down to 130. I hoped but didn’t expect to maybe get back down to 125. I blew right past that goal when I got pneumonia in November 2014, and for a while I thought I’d just keep losing weight at a frightening rate. I saw my 120 pound body as a stranger’s; it felt unfamiliar and sickly. Then 115 pounds, and I felt like I was getting erased. Other people seemed to like how I looked, but I wasn’t planning on it or controlling it, and it was really uncomfortable looking in the mirror for a while.

6. There’s a small part of me that thinks, “If my weird stomach ailment never goes away, at least I’ll probably stay somewhat thin, even after I go back to eating normally.” I hate that part of me. What kind of sick world do we live in where being seriously ill sounds better than weighing a bit more?

7. I have a lot more energy because lugging my body around is easier now. Sometimes I’m amazed by how much easier it is to get up and move.

8. I don’t really feel that 110 pounds is a healthy weight for me. I have gotten here through illness and not eating enough over the course of a year and a half. My body’s equilibrium is 15–20 pounds higher than where I am now. But the world seems to think I’ve arrived at an ideal. That bothers me. Do we REALLY want women to look like they’re sick and malnourished? I’m not saying that all thin women are sick and malnourished. But it’s hard to weigh 110 pounds as a 30-something woman. It takes either a lot of effort and self-denial, a lot of genetic “luck,” or a lot of illness or dietary restrictions to get here. Maybe that’s why it’s an ideal: because almost no one can achieve it.

9. I still don’t have much of a thigh gap. That thing is so stupid I don’t have words.

10. I sometimes feel guilty, like someone let me into the thin club, with all its life benefits, without making me earn it. I feel similarly when I am treated differently because I am white. I didn’t do anything to deserve preferential treatment, but here I am. I wish I knew what I could do to make the world better for those who haven’t been so lucky. It’s hard to change the minds of millions of people.

11. I’ve started looking at people differently, thin and not so thin. I wonder what the story is that got them to the point they’re at with their weight. I know heavier people who count calories and exercise far more than I do. I see beauty in strong, motherly arms carrying children, and large, motherly hips that maybe never went away after childbirth. I thought my hips and arms and stomach would never completely get back to how thin they were before I had children, but my story took a different turn, at least for the last two years. And since I don’t see the results of that plot turn as a victory, I can no longer see weight as a defeat either. Our bodies are amazing and beautiful, and if we do our best to keep them healthy, their size shouldn’t be connected with our value as human beings.