No-Cola cake

A square of No-Cola cake sits on a plate dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. A forkful has been taken off, and sits on the fork in the foreground.

Hey guys! Guess what I’ve got for you: a cola coke!

Oh, cool, so you make it with a cola, like Coke or Pepsi?

Nope, there’s no cola in it at all!

Well, I guess the stress of recipe testing finally got to ol’ Mike. He’s not making sense anymore! Optional Kitchen: more like optional logic.

A pan of No-Cola cake sits on a blue striped tablecloth. One piece is missing from the corner of the pan, and a metal spatula rests in the hole where it used to be. Part of the missing square is visible, on a plate, in the lower corner.

Whoa, whoa: hold up there, imaginary reader. I know it sounds weird, and maybe like false advertising — a cola cake with no cola! — but if I hadn’t told you, you’d never know to taste it. I swear. Biting into this cake brings in all the bite and sweetness of a commercial cola, even though you won’t see Coca-Cola (or Pepsi, or RC, or whatever) in the ingredient list.

But let’s jump back a moment: why am I making a cola cake to begin with, and why not just use a bottled soda to do it? For the first, I’ll just say that there’s a long tradition of cooking with Coca-Cola, especially in the south. Although Coca-Cola is a huge multinational corporation now, it had its start in western Georgia, where it’s still headquartered today. So the drink is ubiquitous, and it’s an easy source of rich flavor and leavening. Most coke cakes, though, are chocolate coke cakes. And though I acknowledge that they’re tasty, a while back I got a bug in my ear to make a cake that carries the sweet, sharp bite of a cola, unmasked by anything else.

A miniature mountain of powdered sugar on a round plate, with half a lime sitting next to it, cut side glistening in the light.

As for the other matter, the lack of bottled soda? Simple: I mostly gave up drinking soda years back, so I don’t usually have it around. I’ll occasionally have a fountain drink at a restaurant, but at home it’s usually tea or water, or seltzer water if I want some fizz. (Ask me sometime about my small collection of fizzy water makers, not to mention my obsessive desire for LaCroix coconut and grapefruit.) So if I want to make a cola cake, I have to go out of my way to buy some Coke…

… or I can just fake it.  And if you go out looking for homemade cola syrup on the internet, you’ll discover that a lot of people do exactly that, for dietary, monetary, and other reasons. You can find a whole range of recipes, from the very simple to the apothecarily complex (think bitter orange peel and gum arabic) and all points between. But what they all have in common is lime, cinnamon, and something molasses-y, whether that’s molasses proper or cane syrup or brown sugar.

In a metal mixing bowl, flour and sugar are topped with heaps of cinnamon and coriander, the whole thing covered in a heap of tangly lime zest: heaven. Next to the bowl, 3 denuded limes and the microplane that zested them. This might be what heaven looks like.

Which is exactly what you’ve got going on here. A prodigious amount of lime zest (plus the juice from those limes), a heavy dose of cinnamon, and a nice thick pour of molasses, — plus an equally heavy dose of coriander, which brings out both the spicy and the citrusy notes of the other ingredients. A quick stint in the oven yields a cake with a tender crumb and bold citrus flavors paired with sharp woody notes from the spices, all backed up by a low rumble of dark molasses. Which is a fancy way of saying that the cake tastes like a swig of ice-cold cola… if cola were a cake. Whether you’re an expat Southerner like me, a soda fiend like I used to be, or you just think the idea of a new kind of spice cake sounds fun, give it a whirl.

One perfect square of No-Cola cake, plated with a sprinkling of cinnamon and powdered sugar.

No-Cola cake

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No-Cola cake? What? Simple: this cake tastes like it was made with a commercial cola (e.g. Coke, Pepsi), but without any actual soda at all. It’s culinary sleight of hand: lime + cinnamon + molasses = cola flavor. And all those flavors are very forward in this moist, tender cake: it’s bold and doesn’t mess around; it’s sweet and spicy, and it comes together in no time flat. Cheers.

Basic method adapted from my Texas sheet cake, itself adapted from the recipe of a family friend.

Ingredients

For the cake

1 1/2 c sugar
2 c flour
3 whole limes
1 Tbsp coriander
1 Tbsp cinnamon

1 c butter (two sticks)
1/2 c water
6 Tbsp molasses

1/4 c milk, give or take (see Directions)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla

For the glaze

1/4 lb powdered sugar (about 1 c unsifted)
1 Tbsp lime juice (reserved from cake making)
1 Tbsp water

Directions

For the cake

Preheat oven to 400°F and grease a 9×13-inch pan; set aside for now.

In a small saucepan, combine the butter, water, and molasses over medium heat. Allow to melt fully and come to a low boil while you prepare the other cake ingredients.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, coriander, and cinnamon in a large bowl.

Roll the limes firmly on the countertop to loosen their juices, then zest them. Add the zest to the dry ingredients. Juice the limes into a small measuring cup, reserving 1 Tbsp of the juice for the glaze.

You should have approximately 1/4 c lime juice. Add enough milk to make 1/2 c lime juice + milk, then whisk in the eggs and vanilla.

Once the molasses mixture has come to a boil, pour it over the dry ingredients and mix until smooth. To this batter, add the milk mixture and stir until fully combined.

Pour into the greased pan and bake for approximately 20 minutes. The cake is done when the center is no longer jiggly, and the sides have pulled away from the pan slightly. (This may take slightly longer if you have an insulated pan, more like 25 minutes.)

For the glaze

In a small bowl, stir together the powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp water, and the reserved 1 Tbsp lime juice. Spread the glaze on the cake while both are still hot and allow to cool completely, at least two hours.

Options

Early in the testing process, I had chopped walnuts in the glaze. They were, frankly, really weird there. But I think chopped walnuts would be lovely in the cake itself; add 1 cup chopped walnuts to the dry ingredients.

Though a change in citrus will move the cake away a bit from its cola-like flavor, the variations would all be delightful. Orange, lemon, grapefruit: fair game. Off the top of my head, I suspect that to get the right amount of juice and zest you’ll want 2 lemons or oranges, or 1 grapefruit.

This cake can be easily made dairy-free by subbing in an alternative milk (I tend toward soy in baking) and a vegan butter.

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