Vegan Baking – how to start?

Baking – but omitting almost everything. That’s how I viewed vegan baking, and if I’m absolutely honest I didn’t think I’d ever venture into that world. I am an “everything is better with butter” kinda girl. And how does one make an aerated sponge without whipping up eggwhites?

It was my birthday a week or two ago. And one member of a “dinner club” I belong to (it’s more “alcohol, nibbles and laughter” but dinner club sounds so much more sophisticated) is vegan. Now I firmly believe in adjusting whatever I cook to whoever is visiting – one friend always gets garlic olives because her husband hates them and it’s her guilty pleasure when visiting me. There’s usually a leftover portion that she snacks on in the car driving home as well. Don’t tell the hubby, although I’m pretty sure he can smell it.
Any excuse to bake a lot of mini cakes should be taken advantage of, so the theme of the party was High Tea with cocktails. This also gave me the perfect opportunity to experiment with two or three vegan bakes, and make the rest non vegan. She could eat cakes and I wouldn’t fully have to miss my whipped eggs and butter. Perfect!

Research time

First, time for some research! Go big or go home.
I tried to find information about vegan bakeries near my house and came up with a whopping… zero… So that wasn’t going to help me much. In my city there’s a vegan restaurant called Daantje, which has rave reviews and I’ve always wanted to visit. According to their website they also serve homemade cakes. Bingo.
So I went to the market just around the corner from them, but I arrived too early. They didn’t open until noon, and it was 11.30AM. I decided to check if they were setting up so I could at least ask if they sold cakes to go. If they didn’t it was no use for me to wait 30min. It was raining and my patience was a little less than usual. They weren’t open or setting up, but I ran into a gentleman whom I can only assume works there, and I got the all important information: yes they had cake and yes they also sold to-go. It was my lucky day.
So I twiddled my thumbs for 30min and came back at noon. Two ladies were in the restaurant and I decided to all-out explain my predicament. A non vegan (not even vegetarian) who wanted to bake for a vegan friend and had absolutely no clue how to tackle this. Instead of just selling me some cake, they directed me to their wall of vegan cookbooks. I was welcome to have a look and to take pictures of any recipes I found appealing. I spent about 30min going through a couple of books, one fully dedicated to vegan baking.
I left with a phone full of pictures and three bakes: glazed chocolate cake, carrot cake and a chocolate chip muffin. Plus a vegan chocolate bar and kombucha, just because I was curious. The chocolate wasn’t to my liking at all, and the kombucha is still unopened in my fridge. It’s scaring me somehow…

But, back to the cakes. Now I should tell you that I ate these cakes spread out over multiple days. That’s what I should have done. What I actually did was eat everything for lunch, like any wise woman would when presented with three cakes.
I started on the muffin, and I was instantly disappointed with vegan baking. I was ready to give up. The muffin was bland and very dry. I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and tried a second small nibble, with the same effect. The muffin went into the trash after those two bites.
Now you can imagine, that being my very first vegan bake to try, that I was disappointed and disheartened to say the least. How the hell was I going to make something edible if this was going to be the result?
Next, I tried the carrot cake. Oh my God, my perspective did a complete 180! The carrot cake was moist and so, so delicious! I wasn’t a fan of the “frosting” which was an oil based spread, but the cake underneath was amazing. Fragrant and moist, with plenty of flavour.
On to the chocolate cake. The cake wasn’t that dry taste wise but dry enough to be crumbly (as was the carrot cake, they didn’t hold together as well as regular cakes would) but the flavour was absolutely nothing to complain about. And the frosting was lovely. This one would definitely be rated as very acceptable!

The girls at Daantje had told me that I could get the recipe for anything I liked, so a week later I returned and got the recipes for the carrot cake and the chocolate cake.

So that was 2 cakes down. That was my target, right? Wrong! Because I had now realised that vegan baking was a challenge which could obviously lead to great results, I decided to accept the challenge and make it a fully vegan spread for my birthday. Because I have a wish for insanity or something.

What to use instead? Eggs:

So, now that I decided I couldn’t use butter, or eggs, or dairy of any kind… what should I use instead?
The vegan baking book at Daantje spoke of Ener-G egg replacer. Ok… this was getting too difficult. I like knowing what I put in my food and I was looking for regular ingredients. Luckily other recipes were easier for me to utilise, using banana or apple sauce as replacements for egg. Now that was something I could work with.
The internet also helped me out, giving me recipes for chia and flaxseed pastes.

Chia and flaxseed pastes
I have used chia seeds for breakfast “puddings” before, as they gel up coconut milk to make it scoop-able. I am only familiar with flaxseed in bread, or as seeds to toss into my yogurt for breakfast – as a small quantity keeps me full for a loooong time. Flaxseed has a much stronger flavour than chia, which I can find overpowering in sweet treats. However, chia seeds are black, which makes them less appealing in white cakes. There are white chia seeds available as well but so far I’ve never been able to find any. Considering that taste goes before looks, I opted for chia paste.
The recipe is simple. 1 part chia (ground fine) to 3 parts water. Which gave me a very thick paste. Turned out, those parts were to be considered in volume, not weight. I hardly ever use volume measurements, everything goes in weight (even liquids). After adding some extra water, the paste became easier to use. It needs a bit of time to start the gelling process, but as it keeps in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, I kept mine in the fridge overnight. After that, 2 tablespoons of chia paste take the place of 1 egg. Some recipes online state 3 tablespoons or even 4, but I prefer to keep a little crumble to the bakes and not make them too firm.

Aquafaba meringues
So that was eggs taken care of. Or was it? What about whipped egg whites? They’re the (not-so-secret) secret to a lot of aerated cakes. I had used aquafaba once, which whipped up wonderfully but then collapsed when folded into almond flour – leaving me with a dense but very delicious cake. That was my first venture into vegan baking but although it was tasty, I was insecure about how dense it was and I definitely wanted lighter cakes for my High Tea.
For those of you who are about to Google what aquafaba is – it’s the juice in a can of chickpeas. Which sounds far less appealing than it really is! It doesn’t taste of anything when baked, and it whips up to perfect white peaks.
Instead of folding the whipped aquafaba into a cake, I now wanted to use it for meringues. So, I set to work: whipped up the aquafaba, added a little sugar – as I prefer things not overly sweet – and piped them into lovely round domes and little “kisses”. Into the oven they went, at a low temperature. And after 30min I peeped into the oven and the perfectly piped domes and kisses were no more! They had melted to some sticky mess on the baking sheet.

Google told me two things: don’t skimp on the sugar and refrigerate the aquafaba – although opinions were divided on whether the latter really made a difference. I decided it couldn’t hurt. I drained a new can of chickpeas (what to do with all those chickpeas? Make some hummus!) and set the aquafaba in the fridge. I upped the quantity of sugar, and even added arrowroot powder. After placing the meringues in the oven, I nervously checked the oven every 5 minutes. Who am I kidding? I checked basically every minute for the first 15 minutes. Those three tweaks made a difference: wonderful crisp vegan meringues. I was over the moon happy with them. There’s always something extra fulfilling about success after you’ve first failed at it.

Setting agents

Agar Agar
Gelatine is out, even for vegetarian bakes, as it is made from the bones of pigs.
Luckily, agar agar is becoming a much easier to find alternative. I remember trying to find it a number of years back and only being able to get my hands on very tiny, overpriced satches. Nowadays my pantry always has a big pot of it at the ready.
Agar agar works different than gelatine in the sense that it needs to be added to a liquid and brought to a boil to be activated. It sets much quicker than gelatine at room temperature, and if you want to remelt it, that requires bringing it back to the boil. I would place gelatin glazes in the microwave for a few seconds whenever the glaze would become a bit too thick, and then stir to divide the heat, which makes it liquid enough to use. With agar agar, that method won’t work. The agar agar glaze/jelly simply doesn’t seem to melt. The bottom parts eventually do become liquid, but once you stir the rest in, lumps tend to form. It can also splutter in the microwave.
When glazing, the excess drip of a gelatine glaze can be scooped up and re-used up until it’s cooled down too much and starts to be too thick (at which point you can re-melt easily). With agar agar glazes, that stuff sets immediately into a jelly! It does make for nice glazing, as the glaze sets so quick that you don’t need to fear very thin glazes (and re-applying glaze). But it isn’t that easy to work with, because the working window is much smaller. For jellies where you pour the hot liquid into cups and then let it set, this is a perfect jelling agent though.
Some guideline for substituting: 1 sheet of gelatin equals 1 teaspoon of agar agar. 1 teaspoon of agar agar is approximately 2 grams.

Pectin
Now this ingredient I know well! It’s is a familiar ingredient for many jam and jelly makers, because it’s the natural setting agent in many fruits. It is one of the reasons why orange peel is added to jams during cooking – citrus has a large quantity of it, and so do apples. Pectin can be bought as a separate ingredient, extracted from the fruit: you can get a powder version and a liquid pectin. I use the powdered version, simply because the first time I used it, it was the only option to buy. Very good to know: you can use pectin to make French p√Ęte de fruit candies – I adore them and have uploaded several of my recipes under the candy section.
Pectin can be added to any cooked liquid to help it set. I use it for fruit based fillings, similar to a jam but with less sugar (sugar is also a setting agent in jam, binding with the pectin that the fruit contains).
When using pectin, do a jam setting test every once in a while: spoon a drop of the jam onto a cold surface. Wait half a minute or until it’s cooled. For a jam, you want the surface to wrinkle when you push it with your finger. For a cake filling, it should at least be thick and spreadable. You don’t want it running out. If it won’t set enough, add more pectin. I can recommend dissolving the powder in a very small amount of water, adding a bit more water after the pectin is dissolved to thin it out, before stirring it into the jam: the powder can clump otherwise.

Frostings

This one had me panic slightly. A buttercream needs butter. A mousse needs whipped cream – and I was not keen on using coconut cream for everything, there is only so much coconut flavoured cakes one can bear. And a cream cheese frosting needs cream cheese.
In the end I chose two kinds of nut creams: cashew and almond. Made from blending together nuts, water, oil and syrup – I swear it tastes better than it sounds. This makes a thick, spreadable creamy frosting. One downside to vegan baking is that some of the cheaper ingredients such as cream cheese and butter need to be replaced by more expensive components like nuts. But as long as the flavour is up to par, I am down with that.

Chocolate mousse

Finally, I can’t write this blog without including a chocolate mousse. The best chocolate mousse is made with an egg custard, and they tend to also include whipped cream or egg whites. Now, I know that there is a way to beat chocolate and water into a mousse – which is a Heston Blumenthal method and should make a great mousse according to The Internet – but I just don’t feel comfortable adding water to chocolate. They don’t tend to like each other. And why add water if you can add something like cream, which is much more decadent! Oh, right, because cream is not allowed in vegan baking. Damn it.
I had made an avocado chocolate mousse before, using Greek yogurt and honey. Both of which are not vegan. So I had to come up with an alternative recipe: basically a vegan ganache with avocado. And it works a treat. I refer to it as “the only way to make avocado taste good” (I’m really not a fan of avocado, the flavour doesn’t do it for me but the texture is especially wrong). Turns out that it freezes and defrosts well too, which makes it perfect for entremets. And it tastes rich, creamy and a bit fatty – all the right things for a chocolate mousse. It’s makes a great “guess the secret ingredient”, which always makes people panic (cue my wicked side).

Vegan pantry: stocked!

So after ensuring I had the components I needed, I set out to plan for the High Tea (yes, this was only the start. Like I said: go big or go home!) But that is for another post.

The following basic recipes can be found via these links:

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