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From Z to A: Local cafe's chocolate zucchini cake gets an apple makeover

Apples replace zucchini in At Sara's Table / Chester Creek Cafe's vegan and gluten-free menu item. Chocolate Apple Cake is a two-tiered, decadent treat. 1 / 4
Shredded apples and vegan and gluten-free chocolate chips go into At Sara's Table / Chester Creek Cafe's Chocolate Apple Cake. 2 / 4
Savannah Villa, pastry chef At Sara's Table / Chester Creek Cafe, updated a menu item with fresh apples picked across the street from the cafe. The old Chocolate Courgette Cake is now Chocolate Apple Cake, and like its predecessor, it is vegan and gluten-free. Melinda Lavine / mlavine@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Chocolate bits on top of the cafe's Chocolate Apple Cake work as a plate garnish. 4 / 4

They had too many zucchini, and they were big ones. They came from the garden kitty corner from At Sara's Table / Chester Creek Cafe. That was the origin for the cafe's Chocolate Courgette Cake. ("Courgette" is British for zucchini.)

Now, zucchini are out of season, but apples are way in.

Pastry chef Savannah Villa recently picked seven 5-gallon bins full, and with that, she saw an opportunity to update the cafe's hit gluten-free and vegan menu item. (She made 50 Chocolate Courgette Cakes in a month and half.)

"Apples and zucchini aren't that far apart when you think about it. Both add moisture."

The cafe's new Chocolate Apple Cake is made from shredded apples, picked from the cafe's tree located across the street. While Villa didn't share the recipe, she did share the vegan and gluten-free ingredients:

Apples (Tip: You can use a sweeter apple to cut back the sugar), canola oil (vegetable oil works the same), vanilla (made in-house), instant espresso powder, cane sugar, brown sugar, gluten-free blend flour, baking soda, baking powder, Dutch process cocoa powder, vegan and gluten-free chocolate chips.

It takes a while to bake at an hour, said Villa, who specializes in gluten-free and vegan treats for the cafe, and the focus hits close to home.

"I became celiac about eight years ago out of the blue, and it was really hard for me," she said. Many options were dry, expensive or not very tasty, so she takes pride in experimenting with recipes for customers with food restrictions, and being able to offer accessible treats for everyone.

In the cafe's vegan and gluten-free repertoire: brownies, pies, cookies, breads — the latter covered a countertop in tins before going into the oven during a visit last week.

Getting the texture right is a big element in cooking for food restrictions, she said. "Especially with gluten-free, often it's really slimy or it's flat or it's dry and crumbly, so getting it to actually fool people has been my big goal."

In the garden-level bakery in the Chester Park neighborhood, big tubs marked "whole wheat flour" and "tapioca starch" rest next to a large, steel mixer. On the shelf lining the windows are shakers of Vietnamese cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves. On the counter: Vegalene spray and a red ketchup bottle filled with homemade vanilla extract.

Make sure the frosting is soft enough before stirring, Villa said, smoothing it over the two-tiered cake. "Use frosting kind of like spackle, fill in the cracks."

When the Chocolate Apple Cake was good and covered, she sprinkled chopped bits of vegan and gluten-free chocolate on top.

"It is definitely a classic-looking cake, but it's not too classic in flavors."

The cake is fresh and rich. The chocolate chips are decadent and scattered sparingly throughout. (The recipe only calls for 1 cup.)

Experimenting on recipes with fresh ingredients like this is a joy for Villa. And while the pastry chef doesn't have much of a sweet tooth herself, the "chemistry" of her work all leads to her favorite part of the process — watching people enjoy.

"To make people happy, it's totally worth it — that's the point."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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