“There can’t be any difference.”
One of the many heartbreaking moments for me as a mother of children on the autism spectrum was when my oldest started kindergarten. Several weeks into the year, I found my daughter in a corner crying. Apparently every day at recess since school had started, she sat alone on a swing because no one would play with her. As I gathered her into my lap, my own tears ran at her heartache. The autism meant she lacked the social skills needed to make friends, but it didn’t mean that she didn’t want or need friends nor that she couldn’t feel the hurt of not having any.
I arranged a meeting with the kindergarten teacher because I was a little surprised that at the age of five, students were already alienating other students. Isn’t everyone friends at the age of five? (Yes, I was naive. I was a young parent and didn’t know better yet!) When we met, I asked why no one was playing with my daughter, and the teacher said, “Well, Mrs. Castner, your daughter is a little… different.”
Different. If you look up the definition, you’ll see wonderful phrases like “not ordinary” and “distinct in nature” which appear to be good traits, but then you’ll continue reading to find “dissimilar”, “not identical”, “unusual”, “separate”. We live in a world where tension exists between sameness and difference. We encourage children to be themselves, to embrace what makes them unique… different… from everyone else while simultaneously wanting them to “fit in” and be like others around them… to be the same.
Too often the push toward sameness wins out over the desire to encourage individuality, and for my daughter, her difference meant children as young as five didn’t want to be her friend. She was too different, and therefore, they didn’t understand her. Without understanding, it can be difficult to draw into another’s experience.
Because I do understand, my heart ached again this past week when I received an email from a mother whose daughter is feeling “different” from her classmates because she has food allergies and can’t eat what others eat. We can ask as I did all those years ago, “What’s the big deal about being different?” The answer is that it IS a big deal because children at a young age don’t understand the difference and can react in negative ways. For this daughter, she felt she “wasn’t normal” because the other children wanted to know why she never ate cake at the birthday parties they attended and why her bread looked different at lunch.
The mother was reaching out because the girl was inviting classmates to her house for a birthday party, and she was anxious about the birthday cake. She didn’t want her birthday cake to be “different” because apparently children were asking her if there would be cake and whether it would taste the “same” as other birthday cakes.
I confess. I cried reading the email because it broke my heart to think of that much anxiety in a seven year old… all because of cake. I understood what was happening, though, because the fact is that many cakes which are gluten free and dairy free do have a different texture and different taste from “normal” cakes, and children know what they like and are often very picky about trying something “different”.
Fortunately, while the young girl in question couldn’t have gluten or dairy, she had no other food issues, so it was easy for me to create a chocolate cake “just like real chocolate cake” for her. The mother wanted it to be an “easy” cake which she could make with flour blends from her grocery store, so I used Bob’s Red Mill and Krusteaz blends which she could find at her store. I combined the two because, despite what you’ll read on the packages, a “simple substitution” of just one of the blends makes for either a crumbly or a fallen cake. To achieve the “same” texture as regular cake, I needed to combine the two different types of flour blends. For the dairy, I used vanilla soy milk because it’s consistency matches milk in most cake recipes and the vanilla enhances the chocolate flavor. Instead of refined white sugar, I used coconut sugar which adds a subtle undertone to the chocolate as opposed to a sickening sweetness. Instead of butter, I added safflower oil which has a neutral taste but adds the fat needed to retain moisture in the cake. Instead of regular unsweetened cocoa powder, I used the Special Dark because it has a deeper chocolate flavor, and I added a cup of mini chocolate chips (allergy friendly) to give another level of chocolate taste.
We made the below cake for the French exchange student we had staying with us, and she never knew the “difference”. It was just as chocolately, just as fluffy, just as moist, just as tasty. I was confident that the little girl’s schoolmates would never suspect that it was actually “different”. *grin*
Just the Same Chocolate Cake
2 cups coconut sugar
1 cup Krusteaz gluten free all purpose flour
1 cup Bob’s Red Mill all purpose baking flour (the one in the red package made from bean flours; not the rice blend)
1 cup Hershey’s Special Dark unsweetened cocoa powder (the one with the red lining; not the regular unsweetened cocoa powder)
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup vanilla soy milk
1/2 cup safflower oil
2 tsp gluten free vanilla
1 cup Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips
1 cup boiling water
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line three 9 inch cake pans with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, combine the coconut sugar, the two flour blends, the cocoa powder, the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
- Mix together in another bowl, the eggs, soy milk, safflower oil and vanilla.
- Stir the chocolate chips into the dry ingredients. Pour the bowling water on top, and add the wet ingredients along with the vinegar. Whisk everything together until it’s well combined.
- Divide the batter evenly among the three cake pans.
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until the cakes are puffed and pulling away from the sides and toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (I had set the timer for 15 minutes, checked, and put them on for another 5.)
- Cool the cake layers in their pans for at least 10 to 15 minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely. (I actually stacked them one on top of the other with the parchment paper in between the layers and put them onto a plate in the freezer for about 10 to 15 minutes to cool them faster!)
- Frost the layers and then the whole cake with your favorite frosting. (What is pictured above is a cinnamon frosting made with vegan butter, powdered sugar, cinnamon and soy milk.)