To further my education in the world of baking, today I took a day off to attend a vegan baking class at Haven’s Kitchen, near Union Square. It’s a cute little culinary escape on 17th St., between 6th and 7th Av. with an unassuming black and white storefront. Upon entering, you see a small specialty shop filled with gourmet ingredients, and a little reception area just inside, right before the entrance to the small kitchen classroom in the back:
This image above came from this article on the opening of Haven’s Kitchen, where there are other pictures of the space. It was a very clean, very tranquil and friendly atmosphere.
But on to the meat and potatoes of this post — a funny choice of words, considering my class was for vegan baking! The class was taught by pastry chef Archana Rao, of Love Street Cakes, whose own background was pretty impressive. She attended pastry school at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and worked for two years under renowned pastry chef, Ron Ben-Israel, whom many of you may be familiar with through his Food Network show, Sweet Genius, before going into business on her own. You can see her creations on her web site, to which I’ve previously linked. I should’ve asked her if he was just as crazy in person as he seems on the show, but it slipped my mind.
The class was quite informative and I learned a lot. She talked about the different flours and how when it comes to vegan baking, the more natural the ingredients, the better. I learned about the differences between the many different sweeteners used in vegan baking. Table sugar originates from either the sugar cane plant or from beets. Refined cane sugar isn’t considered vegan because animal bone char is used in its processing. Beet sugar, on the other hand, does not require the use of bone char. This fascinating article explains in further detail — http://www.vegsource.com/jo/qa/qasugar.htm. As for sugar substitutes, I didn’t realize that Truvia was more natural than Splenda, which is a hybrid of artificial and natural sweeteners. Truvia comes from the stevia plant, and you can’t get any more natural than a plant.
We started off with a vegan peanut butter cookie:
Vegan peanut butter cookies.
In addition to sweeteners, she got into the topic of using flax seeds mixed with water to substitute for eggs. I’ve heard of this before, but I’m not sure if I’d be willing to use this substitution. Perhaps one day. I’m sure nothing works like the real thing, but of course in vegan baking, that’s going to be a no-no.
As for a butter substitute, coconut oil (which was in a jar in solid form) is used in many recipes. I had asked if the use of the coconut oil would give the finished product a distinct coconut taste, but apparently the coconut flavor is so subtle that it’s pretty undetectable. The coconut butter was used in the black pepper vegan biscuits that we also made in class:
Black pepper vegan biscuits
In addition to being a butter substitute in vegan baking, coconut oil is used in India as a hair treatment and also a skin moisturizer. In fact, some of the ladies in class took some coconut oil out of the jar and started rubbing it into their skin. I love multi-purpose baking ingredients.
The highlight of the class for me was probably the vegan chocolate cake and the tofu chocolate mousse.
Tofu chocolate mousse
I’d heard of making mousse out of tofu before, but I’d never seen it done nor have I ever tasted the end result. She basically took 1 package of firm tofu, added some maple syrup, put it all into a blender and added 10 oz. melted dark chocolate. I forget if the recipe called for anything else (we’re supposed to get the recipes e-mailed to us later on). She blended it all until the mixture was super smooth. I tasted it and was pretty impressed — not bad for something with a slightly unappealing description — honestly, tofu mousse??? But throw in the chocolate and baby, I’m a believer.
The mousse was used to fill and frost the vegan chocolate cake, and the combination of the mousse and cake was very good. By itself the mousse might be a little overwhelming in large quantities without the chocolate of the cake to break it up, but together, the cake and the mousse make an excellent flavor combination.
Vegan chocolate cake
Vegan Cake + Vegan Mousse = Vegan Love
If I had to rate the things we made today, I’d say my ultimate favorite was the vegan chocolate cake with the tofu chocolate mousse. In the middle is the peanut butter cookies, and my least favorite was the biscuits. The biscuits, while not bad in flavor (we didn’t hate it), were lacking a little something in terms of texture and were a little dry. I described them as “savory cookies” and the instructor agreed with me. After class was finished, we sat down to a light lunch and enjoyed our vegan desserts.
In conclusion — vegan baking, yay or nay? I’d say definitely “yay.” Being a relatively new sub-genre within the larger field of baking, it requires a lot of experimentation and a lot of trial and error. I’m eager to take the recipes we used today and improve upon them, tweaking them here and there. A lot of people think “yuck” with the word “vegan,” and I think this isn’t entirely fair. You can’t compare the real thing with its vegan cousin, because you have to approach vegan baking as an entity all on its own. You have to take it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. There will never be anything like the real thing made with butter, cream and eggs, of course, but you can try to come pretty damn close. And that’s the challenge that is presented to bakers who dare to try vegan baking. And what I love about it is that there’s plenty of room to discover new things that work.
Now, gluten free and vegan…that’s a whole other story for a whole other post.