The Secret to Home Vegan Baking for the Masses?
Don’t Mention the Vegan Part
Vegan baking is like Fight Club. The first rule of vegan baking is that you do not talk about it being vegan. The second rule of vegan baking is that you do NOT talk about it being vegan!
These rules are especially crucial if you’re making blueberry pancakes for anyone under 18, the universal age at which an interest in plant-based eating kicks in. Or when you’re serving chocolate cake to your mother-in-law, who is decidedly not vegan. Or even when you’re giving freshly baked peanut butter cookies to your best friend (also not remotely vegan) who has dropped by for a cup of coffee. And by “you” in these examples, I mean me, a novice vegan baker attempting to feed the skeptical and the picky without involving any animals but the family dogs, who troll for scraps.
The word “vegan” isn’t widely considered appetizing because it is rooted in denial. By its very nature, it connotes absence, paucity, a depressing lack of all the delicious things—butter, eggs, milk, and even honey—not in the mix. The term “vegan baking” conjures historical images of flax seeds bloating in water and the mucus-like liquid drained from canned chickpeas. It suggests wet zucchini bread and tragically dense muffins. Does anyone, in theory, wantto eat a vegan cupcake?
This instinctive distaste makes sense because we’re culturally hard-wired to associate baked goods with the animal byproducts that have become kitchen staples. Julia Child instilled in a generation of American home bakers an ideological devotion to butter. This pure, rich, golden fat is the soul of pie crusts, the backbone of cakes, the bath that gives cornbread its richness and crunch.
How do you bake without it? Don’t say margarine, that chemical abomination of bad trans fats and laboratory fakery. The answer is oil. A high-quality organic oil—say pure, rich, golden sunflower—is just as flavorful and hearty and imparts the same velvety mouthfeel.
Oil for butter, OK. But what about those magical, structure-building eggs? Can we even call it baking if there’s no white and no yolk in the batter? The aforementioned flax seeds in water can replace whole eggs, and whipped chickpea liquid (known as aquafaba) can substitute for beaten egg whites. But you can also go for something grown a little closer to home: fresh applesauce, or pumpkin or winter squash puree. Using a quarter cup of puree for each one egg called for in most recipes gives baked goods structure and a small boost of flavor. I add a little vinegar to most purees I use to balance the sweetness.
Milk is a simpler switch due to the proliferation of modern non-dairy substitutes. Successful baking isn’t dependent on the dairy-ness of milk, just the sugar and protein it contains. So any non-dairy kind will do: almond, cashew, soy. I favor oat milk for its rich, clean flavor and satisfying similarity to cow’s milk, and for the fact that oats are grown here in Maine. Although homemade oat milk can separate in coffee or tea, that isn’t a problem when it’s mixed into a batter.
Now let’s talk refined white sugar. It’s vegan, all right, but since we’re having so much fun with plant-based, local substitutions, let’s tap a Maine sweetener, too.
Right here in my fridge, there happens to be a big jug of maple syrup, Maine’s very own source of plant-based sweetness. Boiled-down maple tree sap, unlike refined sugar, is full of minerals and antioxidants. It’s low-glycemic, so you won’t get that blood sugar rush/crash that white sugar causes, which ultimately means you can eat more cake!
Maple syrup also has flavor, a rich caramel depth that refined sugar lacks. In a classic chocolate cake, maple syrup boosts the cocoa’s richness, setting it off like black velvet with rubies. In pancakes, maple syrup mixed with a little apple cider vinegar and applesauce gives the batter a pleasing tang and lightness. And in peanut butter cookies, which can be dry, maple syrup adds moisture and depth.
“Can I have another pancake?” asks the visiting carnivorous teenager. “This cake is so delicious,” says my non-vegan mother-in-law, cutting herself a second piece. And as we drink our coffee and discuss the myriad controversial topics at hand (but not vegan baking), my friend and I snarf the entire plate of peanut butter cookies.
No one compliments me on my ability to bake something palatable without using animal products, but that’s only because they can’t tell. And neither do I.
Chocolate Cake with Chocolate-Espresso Frosting
Adapted from a recipe originally published on the Minimalist Baker website.
Makes one (9- by 11-inch) sheet cake or one 8-inch double layer cake
For the cake:
⅔ cup pumpkin puree
¼ cup applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sunflower seed oil
¾ cup maple syrup
½ cup coconut sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cornstarch
1 cup cocoa powder
2 ¼ cups superfine almond flour
1 ¼ cups oat milk
For the frosting:
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
½ cup cocoa
1 tablespoon espresso powder (plus more for dusting, if desired)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional, for a kick)
5 tablespoons sunflower seed oil
3–4 tablespoons boiling water
Preheat oven to 350°F. Oil a 9- by 11-inch sheet cake pan or two 8-inch round pans.
In a large bowl, mix pumpkin puree, applesauce, vanilla, oil, and maple syrup. Add coconut sugar and mix well. Add dry ingredients, one by one, mixing well after each addition. Stir in oat milk. The batter should be just pourable, not too thin or thick, so adjust with more oat milk or almond flour as needed. Pour batter into the cake pan(s) and bake for 30–40 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan(s) for an hour before frosting.
To make the frosting, whisk together confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, cinnamon, and cayenne, if using. Stir in sunflower seed oil, then 3 tablespoons boiling water, adding more water as needed, until you have a glossy, spreadable frosting. Frost the cake, dusting with more espresso powder if you like.
Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes 10 cookies
1 cup chunky peanut butter
¼ cup maple syrup
Flaky sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix peanut butter and maple syrup together well until you have a thick cookie batter. Spread a sheet of parchment paper onto a cookie sheet and spoon out 10 equally sized cookies. Use fork tines to make hatch marks on the top of the cookies and sprinkle each with a pinch of flaky sea salt. Bake for 12–15 minutes, cool on the pan for 15–20 minutes, and serve.
Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes
Makes 10–12 pancakes
1 ½ cups Bouchard fine-milled buckwheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup oat milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
½ cup applesauce
2 tablespoons sunflower seed oil (plus more for cooking)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup maple syrup
2 cups Maine wild blueberries (frozen is OK)
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In a measuring cup, combine oat milk and vinegar. In a large bowl, combine applesauce, oil, vanilla, maple syrup, and oat milk mixture. Stir in dry mixture and fold in blueberries. (Pause to admire the remarkable algae blue-green color of the batter.) In a large skillet on medium-low heat, heat oil, then spoon in enough batter for 3 pancakes and cook on medium-low heat. When the tops bubble and start to set, turn and cook the flip sides until done. These pancakes are best if you cook them slowly and thoroughly. Repeat until all the batter is used. Serve hot with more maple syrup.
Kate Christensen is the author of seven novels and two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, which won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir. Her essays and stories have appeared in many magazines. She lives in Portland.