Introduction: The Ultimate Substitution Cake

About: Where there's a will, there's a way! Never give up, never give in...BE the good you want to see in the world. :)

I wanted to see if I could make a cake using tons of baking substitutions and baking hacks!

Here's how it turned out...

One word...


It's moist, chocolaty, creamy, perfectly fluffy, and addictingly decadent!

It is (or can be) vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free, nut-free, sugar-free, and basically allergy-free. You can make it with whatever you have on hand or whatever is in your pantry, which is perfect for this quarantined time in which we are living.

Not to mention, whatever I didn't use in my personal cake, I made sure to supply TONS of substitution information to get your there!



I will list out supplies for the recipe as-is. But you can use whatever you have on hand (note substitution suggestions next to each item).

This recipe was derived from the website "Nora Cooks," but I have tweaked it to what I had on hand, and further tweaked it to substitute for different items you might have on hand.


  • 1 cup almond milk (or use soymilk, rice milk, cow's milk, or coconut milk)
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar (or use white vinegar or lemon juice)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour (or use one-third to one-half whole wheat flour mixed with all purpose flour, or use 1:1 Gluten Free Baking Flour, or a gluten free flour blend)
  • 1 3/4 cup sugar (or agave nectar, blended dates, 100% maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, maple sugar, fruit concentrates, or a sugar free blend of erythritol + maple extract + stevia glycerite)
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder (or unsweetened baking chocolate, or omit if allergic to chocolate)
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder (or use 1 teaspoon baking soda + 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, or plain yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice, molasses, vinegar, whipped egg whites)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (or 4.5 teaspoons extra baking powder, or potassium bicarbonate + optional salt, or baker's ammonia/ammonium carbonate, or self-rising flour with adjustments of the overall recipe)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or omit if low-sodium diet or allergic to salt)
  • 1/2 cup oil (vegetable oil, coconut oil, olive oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, or mashed bananas, applesauce, or fruit puree)
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened applesauce (or mashed up bananas, apricot or peach puree, prune puree, banana puree, yogurt or sour cream, melted butter or oil, or pineapple puree)
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract (or 100% maple syrup, almond extract, rum or brandy, vanilla milk, or vanilla bean)
  • 1 cup boiling water (sorry, no substitutes!)


  • 1 cup cocoa powder (see substitutions above, or omit for a vanilla frosting which is what I used)
  • 1 1/2 cups butter, softened/room temp. (or use 3 sticks of vegan or regular butter, or use tub vegan butter or margarine, or Greek yogurt, nut butters, olive oil, black beans, avocado, coconut oil, applesauce, or pumpkin puree -- but the pumpkin will completely alter the overall frosting flavor)
  • 4-5 cups powdered sugar (or make some from granulated sugar + cornstarch, blended until fine powder)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla (see substitutions above)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup almond milk (see substitutions above)


  • 2 to 3 Mixing bowls, Large
  • 2 - 9" round cake pans
  • Electric hand mixer (or fork, spoon, whisk, standing mixer with paddle attachment)
  • Toothpick for checking doneness of cakes (or thinnest, sharpest serrated knife you have, or dry spaghetti noodles)
  • Toothpicks for assisting in cutting cake layers (or pins, dry spaghetti noodles, cleaned/new construction nails, etc, or omit)
  • Unflavored dental floss for cutting cake layers (or thin string, or cake slicer/leveler, or a long and thin bladed knife)
  • Kitchen Shears (or regular household scissors, or a knife, or your keys if you need to!)
  • Parchment paper (or silicone mat or a greased surface for baking, aluminum foil, or plastic wrap (when not baking), or wax paper (when not baking)
  • Plastic wrap (or parchment paper, wax paper, aluminum foil, or a plastic bag)
  • Off-set Spatula (yeah, I don't have one either! So you can use a butter knife, cheap plastic paint scraper, dull side of a long bread knife, or spoon)


  • 2-Giant Hershey's Milk Chocolate or Dark Chocolate Bars (or one of each, or chocolate melts, or vegan chocolate bar/chocolate melts)
  • Piping bag, optional (yup, I don't have this item either, so you can use a plastic sandwich or freezer bag, or parchment paper. Also, grab a tall water cup for a hack!)
  • Piping tips, optional (or use a cleaned white school glue cap! Hack in the recipe!)
  • Cheese grater, optional (for baking hack)
  • Vegetable peeler, optional (for baking hack)
  • Stick butter and butter wrapper, optional replacement for softened butter (for baking hack)
  • Simple syrup, optional (1 cup water + 1 cup granulated sugar, boiled until sugar is fully dissolved, then cooled)
  • A lighter, optional (for baking hack)
  • Cake turntable, optional (I used a crafting turntable for this)
  • Cake board, optional (I used a large cutting board covered in plastic wrap for decorating the cake, and then I used a Dollar Tree pizza pan covered in aluminum foil and plastic wrap to store the cake in the fridge, or you can use a cardboard sheet covered in wax paper or plastic wrap, or any other sturdy surface like a flat plate)

Step 1: Making Buttermilk

One hack for the aspiring vegan baker is making this quick and easy vegan buttermilk (however, it can just as easily be made from dairy if you prefer). It adds lightness and tenderness to baked goods, and is very similar in it's use to dairy buttermilk in any recipe that calls for such.

In a bowl, simply take 1 cup of almond milk and whisk in 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar.

Set it aside for a few minutes (about 5) until it begins to curdle.

After that, it's ready to use!


  • Almond Milk: soymilk, rice milk, coconut milk, or cow's milk
  • Apple Cider Vinegar: white vinegar, or lemon juice

Step 2: Mixing the Chocolaty Cake Base

In a large bowl, add flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to combine.

OR: omit the cocoa powder for a vanilla cake base.


  • Flour: 2/3 cup whole wheat flour + 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, or 1 cup whole wheat flour + 1 cup all-purpose flour, or 1:1 Gluten-Free Baking Flour, or an equivalent Gluten-Free Flour Blend
  • Sugar: agave nectar, blended dates with water, 100% maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, fruit concentrates, maple sugar, or a sugar-free blend of erythritol + maple extract + stevia glycerite. *NOTE: Use a little first, and add to taste. Adjust recipe as needed to accommodate liquid substitutions.
  • Cocoa Powder: Use 4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate for this recipe, and then REMOVE 4 Tablespoons oil from this recipe (because the unsweetened baking chocolate is higher in fat, so you have to remove fat to balance out this recipe)
  • Baking Powder: 1 teaspoon baking soda + 2 teaspoon cream of tartar, or plain yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice, molasses, vinegar (use very small amount to substitute), or whipped egg whites.
  • Baking Soda: Use 4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder for this recipe (3x the amount of called for baking soda), or potassium bicarbonate + optional salt, or baker's ammonia/ammonium carbonate, or self-rising flour. To Substitute any of these last three options for baking soda in this recipe, please consult the direction of this website here.
  • Salt: Omit if on a low-sodium diet or if you are allergic to it.

Step 3: Make Banana Mash

Omit this step if you have unsweetened applesauce on hand.

I didn't have unsweetened applesauce on hand (what can I say, we love cinnamon applesauce!), so I chose to use mashed up bananas as my substitute for this recipe.

To make this mash, add two medium-size ripened or well-ripened bananas to a bowl. Using a whisk or fork or potato masher, mash up the bananas into small pieces. Add a little water to give the mashed bananas a more applesauce-like texture. Take 2/3 cup of this mash and set it aside. Proceed with the recipe.


  • Unsweetened Applesauce: mashed bananas (as I used), apricot/peach/prune/pineapple or banana puree, yogurt or sour cream, melted butter or oil (use 1/3 cup OR LESS to start, add more if needed, so it doesn't throw off the whole recipe).

Step 4: Mixing It Together

Add oil, applesauce (or substitute), vanilla, and the curdled milk to the bowl of dry ingredients. Mix with a hand mixer (fork, spoon, standing mixer, or alternative) on medium speed until well combined.

DID YOU KNOW: a cap on vanilla extract is equal to 1 teaspoon!? So if you can't find your teaspoon, use the cap!


Oil: use vegetable oil, coconut oil, olive oil, canola oil, or grapeseed oil, or substitute mashed bananas, applesauce, or fruit puree.

Unsweetened Applesauce:mashed bananas (as I used), apricot/peach/prune/pineapple or banana puree, yogurt or sour cream, melted butter or oil (use 1/3 cup OR LESS to start, add more if needed, so it doesn't throw off the whole recipe).

Vanilla: 100% maple syrup, almond extract, rum/brandy, vanilla milk, or vanilla bean

Step 5: Boiling Water

Boil 2 cups of water either over a stove or in the microwave (for 5-6 minutes). I say 2 cups, because some will evaporate off.

Carefully, add 1 cup boiling water to the batter bowl and mix it with the hand mixer (or substitute) on a lower speed.

NOTE: The batter will be very runny...this is NORMAL, so do not fret! :D

Step 6: Grease Your Pans

A hack to grease your round cake pans (if using sticks of butter for the frosting) is to use the butter wrapper of a stick of butter. This has just the right amount of butter left on the wrapper, and it will easily grease both pans (if it doesn't, wrap it around the stick of butter again and use it again).


Greasing Your Pans: butter, cooking spray, oil, or use easy release cake pans.

Step 7: Making Parchment Paper Rounds

A hack for making a quick parchment paper round for the bottom of your greased cake pans is to:

  1. Cut a sheet of parchment paper larger than the cake pan.
  2. Fold it from the bottom to the top to make a long rectangle shape.
  3. Fold it from the right to the left to make a square shape.
  4. Fold the bottom left corner up to the top right corner to form a triangle.
  5. Fold the left side up to the right side again to form a tighter and longer triangle.
  6. Put the tip of the triangle in the center of the bottom of the cake pan. Where the edge of the cake pan touches the parchment paper excess, cut off that excess.
  7. Open up the parchment paper and it should now be a perfect fit for your cake pan.


Parchment Paper: round silicone non-stick baking mat, aluminum foil + butter or cooking spray coating, or omit this step and simply add flour to the greased cake pan. There is also a cake pan release you can make in lieu of parchment paper and flour by using equal parts flour, vegetable oil, and shortening, then applying this liberally to the cake pan with a pastry brush.

Step 8: Divide & Conquer

Add a sprinkle of flour (or if you don't want the bottoms of the chocolate cakes to have a white dusting, use unsweetened cocoa powder instead) on top of the parchment paper.

Divide the cake batter between the two cake pans and put them in a 350 degree oven for about 30-35 minutes. If your oven bakes quicker than usual, start at 25 minutes and watch it from there.


Flour for Dusting: unsweetened cocoa powder.

Step 9: Making Buttercream Frosting

A hack for quickening the process of bringing cold stick butter to room temperature is to grate it and set it out. The grated butter is smaller pieces, so it is quicker to bring those smaller pieces to room temperature than a whole stick of compacted butter.

To make the buttercream frosting:

  1. Add 1 cup cocoa powder, if using it, to a large bowl. Whisk to remove clumps. (I omitted this step because I wanted vanilla buttercream frosting).
  2. Add in the 1 1/2 cups softened butter to the bowl, and mix it with the hand mixer (or alternative) until creamed and well combined. This will only take a minute or two.
  3. Add in 2 to 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar and 1/4 cup almond milk to the bowl, and mix until combined.
  4. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups (if making vanilla frosting) to 2 1/2 cups (if making chocolate frosting) powdered sugar plus the 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract to the bowl. Mix on low up to start, and work your way up to high speed until the mix is light and fluffy. You can add up to another 1/4 cup of almond milk if too thick, or extra powdered sugar if too watery until you get to the perfect consistency.
  5. Set aside the frosting at room temperature with plastic wrap over it. Optionally, you can add it to the fridge, but it may thicken/harden the frosting, so don't do this if you like your frosting at exactly the consistency it is.


  • Cocoa Powder: unsweetened baking chocolate (with alterations to recipe as aforementioned).
  • Butter: vegan butter, margarine, Greek yogurt, nut butters, olive oil, black beans, avocado, coconut oil, applesauce, or pumpkin puree (but the pumpkin puree will change the entire flavor profile).
  • Powdered Sugar: 1 cup granulated sugar + 1 Tablespoon cornstarch and blend until fine powder. (To substitute the sugar you can use an equal amount of cane sugar, or coconut sugar, or maple sugar. To substitute the cornstarch you can use 1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder, or 1 to 1 1/2 Tablespoons quick cooking tapioca, or 1 Tablespoon potato starch, or 2 Tablespoons rice flour, or 2 teaspoons rice starch.)
  • Vanilla Extract: 100% maple syrup, almond extract, rum/brandy, vanilla milk, or vanilla bean (in equal amount to the called for amount of vanilla).
  • Almond Milk: soymilk, rice milk, coconut milk, or cow milk (equal to the amount of almond milk called for).

Step 10: Melting Chocolate

This is totally OPTIONAL, but if you want to make a fun "cage" or "lace" effect around the completed cake, like I did, you will need to melt chocolate so it can be designed in the next step.

To melt the chocolate you can temper it (aka: melt it) in many different ways:

  1. In a microwave (the approach I used) - Break up a chocolate bar into pieces in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat it at full power for 30 second intervals, taking it out to mix with a spoon or fork after each, until it reaches a creamy melted chocolate consistency. I melted mine for 2 - 30 second intervals (stirring after each) plus a 10 second interval to get it perfect.
  2. On the stove: Fill a small- to medium-sized pot with water and bring it to a simmer. Place a metal bowl or a bigger pot (so it won't fall off) on top of the smaller pot, and add the chocolate bar chunks (or alternative) to the top pot/bowl and stir frequently until it comes to a smooth melted consistency.

NOTE: It is better to melt the chocolate slower than to overdo it and not be able to go back.


Milk Chocolate Bar: dark chocolate bar or a blend of both, chocolate melts, vegan chocolate bar/melts, or omit entirely.

Step 11: Adding Chocolate to a Piping Bag

A hack to substitute out a piping bag is to use a freezer bag or even parchment paper.

Freezer bag:

  • Use a tall drinking cup to make the bag easier to fill.
  • Place the freezer bag corner down into the cup.
  • Fold the top of the bag over the top of the cup.
  • Fill the bag with melted chocolate.
  • Twist the top of the bag, and pull it out of the cup.
  • Cut off the corner to allow the chocolate to flow nicely.

Parchment paper:

  • Roll a piece of parchment paper up, keeping one of the corners as the point of the triangular cone shape that's created.
  • Tape (or hold) the parchment paper in this shape as you fill it with the melted chocolate.

Step 12: Pipe & Freeze

Line something flat that fits into your freezer with wax paper (or parchment paper, or plastic wrap, or aluminum foil if that's all you have on hand).

A fun hack to get super fine lines (in place of a fine tip piping tip) is to use a well-cleaned top from a school glue container. As you can see in the third picture, the super fine lines underneath the thicker lines were created from me holding the glue tip to the corner of the makeshift piping bag. I took off the cap for a thicker line on top.

Pipe any shapes or designs you want. I used simple circle swirls.

Place the flat something (I used a tortilla pan) in the freezer. I set the pan on my Quick Freeze shelf of my freezer to chill the design faster.

Step 13: Checking Cake Doneness

There are several ways to check if your cakes are perfectly done. The most common way is to use a toothpick, insert it into the center of the cake, and if it pulls out clean the cake is done.

But, what if you don't have a toothpick? You can use the thinnest and longest serrated knife you have on hand as a cake tester to see if it comes out clean. Or, you can use the following signs of cake doneness...

When a cake is done, the following will happen:

  1. The sides of the cake will slightly pull away from the baking pan.
  2. The cake will be springy.
  3. When you touch the cake gently on top, it will not feel mushy or wet underneath, it will feel cooked like a sponge texture.
  4. The internal temperature will have cooked to 210 degrees (F).
  5. The cake top will no longer sizzle. (Yes, I said sizzle! Wet ingredients make a slight sizzling sound when they are cooking, so when they are cooked through this sound will be absent.)

Remove the cakes and leave them IN the pan for a minimum of 10 minutes (the longer the better) to cool at room temperature. Alternatively, you can cover them with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge to cool even further after the initial 10 minutes cooling time in the pan. Then pop them out of their pans in the next step...

Step 14: Turn Out the Cakes

To turn out the cakes, lay down a sheet of wax paper (or parchment if needed, but I found out it will pull off a little bit of the outer shell of the cake top when peeling it away from the cake), or plastic wrap and carefully flip the cake pans over on top of it. The cakes should pop out of the pans easily if you did the proper preparations (or are using easy release cake pans).

Remove the parchment paper lining from the bottom of the cakes.

Carefully and quickly flip the cakes over, so the tops are now face up.

OPTIONAL: Move one of the cakes to a cake board on top of a cake turntable (or, I used a plastic wrap-covered cutting board on top of a crafting turntable to accomplish the same thing) for ease of decorating.

NOTE 1: You can wrap the cooled cakes in plastic wrap and chill them overnight for ease of cutting. But this isn't necessary.

NOTE 2: You can cover the cakes with simple syrup to lock in moisture (simple syrup: Boil 1 cup water + 1 cup sugar until all the sugar dissolves, and then cool it completely and brush or spray on the cakes), but this is unnecessary too because this cake remains super moist without it.

NOTE 3: You can add a thin layer of frosting around each cake as a "crumb coat," and chill them in the fridge, but it isn't specifically necessary either if you don't have room in your fridge (as I didn't) or you don't want to add additional work or waiting time for yourself.

Step 15: Cutting Cake Layers

This is a fun, effective, and simple hack for cutting perfect cake layers without any special tools or equipment.

  1. Measure the total height of each cake, and put toothpicks into the middle of that height all the way around the cake (spacing the toothpicks out as seen in the third picture).
  2. Use UNFLAVORED dental floss (or thin string) and wrap it around the cake, leaving excess to pull with.
  3. Allow the floss to rest down onto the toothpicks, without losing the full tautness of the floss (aka, don't let it fall down completely, keep the ends in your hands).
  4. Taking one end of the floss in your right hand, and the other end in your left hand (where they overlap), pull in opposite directions (crossing the floss over itself) until you have completely sliced through the cake. NOTE: It will be a little hard at first to pull the floss through the cake, but then it will suddenly become easy.

Alternatively, you could use a cake slicer and leveler tool if you have one, or a long serrated bread knife and a steady hand, or any other means of cutting the layers evenly that you have on hand.

Repeat splitting the cakes in half until done on both cakes, so you have four total layers.

Step 16: Combine & Frost the Cakes!

We are almost done! YAY!! One step closer to chow time!!

  1. Lay the first layer down (a bottom half of one of the cakes).
  2. Smother in delicious buttercream frosting. Allow the frosting to come out the edges. (You can use an offset spatula, spoon, or butter knife to spread the frosting.)
  3. Add a top of one of the cakes. (Yes, you can cut off the tops of the cakes too so they are flatter and more level, but I alternated the cake layers in such a way that I didn't need to do this.)
  4. Smother in frosting.
  5. Add a top of the second cake with the dome either facing up (as I did) or down.
  6. Smother in frosting.
  7. Add the final layer (the bottom of the second cake) UPSIDE DOWN on top of the whole thing. This is a hack to make the top of the cake have that bakery-style squared edge look.
  8. Add a smooth layer of frosting to the top and smooth out the frosting along the sides. (Alternatively, you can use a cheap, plastic paint scraper to accomplish this too. I used the BACK side of a butter knife and it worked great.)

I wanted my cake to SHOW the delicious layers from the outside (I liked the tuxedo look of the layers!), so I didn't frost the edges any further after smoothing them the first time. However, you can cool the cakes in the fridge after the first frosting for about 30 minutes, and then add a second layer of frosting over top of that to get full coverage.

NOTE: Feel free to make an additional batch of buttercream frosting if needed to fully cover the cake to your liking.

Step 17: OPTIONAL: Making Chocolate Shavings

A hack to make chocolate shavings for decorating the cake is to use a vegetable peeler and slice down the length of a second chocolate bar. Beautiful, easy, and quick!

Step 18: OPTIONAL: Add a "Cage" or "Lace"

You can slice through the frozen chocolate swirls (or design you made) and add it to the edges of the cake to form a cage or lace effect. Or you can add it however you want! Be creative!

NOTE: Be careful leaving chocolate out too long, or with touching it for too long with your hands. It WILL start to melt QUICKLY. So if you aren't planning to eat this very soon, put it back in the fridge to chill until it's time to eat it.

Add any other decor you want to finish your cake! Cherries or strawberries go nicely with it.

Step 19: You're FINISHED!

Enjoy your delicious cake! Mmmmm mmmm mmmm! It's SOOOOO good!

My son (a slightly picky eater) said: "This is the best chocolate cake EVER!!!" High praise indeed!

As you can tell in my pictures, trying to get a great shot at nearly sundown proved to keep my cake out long enough to melt down my chocolate cage a bit. However, it didn't taste any different! Did I say Mmmmm yet!?!? Mmmmm!!! :D

What hacks do you use when baking? Share in the comments below!

Were there any hacks or substitutions in this Instructable that you learned for the first time? Or did you try some of them--if so, how did it go?

I look forward to seeing your creations below! Thanks for stopping by!

Step 20: Extra Baking Hacks/Tips + BONUS!

BONUS: For your convenience, I created 2 easy visual guides to all the substitutions from this Instructable (plus some). One in color (for online sharing), and one in black and white (for easier printing).

Also, here are some extra baking hacks or tips I found when researching for this project.

  • If using eggs in a recipe and you get eggshells in the egg yolks, wet your finger with water to easily fish out the eggshell pieces (the pieces will stick to your finger).
  • Heat your offset spatula (or butter knife) in hot water to create a smoother surface on the frosting.
  • Use a cookie cutter and sprinkles to make perfect sprinkle-filled shapes when decorating a cake.
  • Use a lighter to heat the blade of a knife to make slicing your cake cleaner.
  • A baker's secret weapon: Always use room temperature ingredients when baking cakes (butter, eggs, and milk at room temperature)
  • When using cocoa powder in a recipe, add boiling water to it first (like we did in this recipe). It helps to bring out a deeper/richer chocolate flavor in the recipe.
  • Always whip egg whites in recipes. This makes the texture of your baked good extra light.
  • Put parchment paper around the blade (or dull side) of a knife. Cut your cake as usual leaving the parchment paper behind in each slice when you remove the knife. This allows you to do two things: 1) Decorate each piece individually, or without blending toppings from one piece to the next, and 2) the cuts will be extra smooth between pieces.
  • Double your amount of store-bought frosting by whipping it with a hand mixer until light and fluffy.
  • Make marble frosting from store-bought vanilla frosting by adding 1 chunk of dark chocolate and 1 chunk of milk chocolate into the container, then microwaving the container for 30-60 seconds (or until melted, but do NOT stir). Pour the melted frosting over your cake for a marbled effect.
  • To soften hard brown sugar, put the brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl, place a damp paper towel over top and microwave for 20 seconds.
  • To make a bundt cake from a round cake pan, simply add an empty (cleaned, with the outer paper label and adhesion removed) metal soup can to the center of the round cake pan. Fill it with dry rice or dry beans to weigh it down. Add your cake batter in around the can. And bake like normal.
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