How to Make Essential Vegan Desserts

pear tarts from my final showcase

pear tarts from my final showcase

Earlier this year I mentioned that I was taking an online pastry class from Rouxbe Culinary School. It was a wonderful course that showed me how to refine and challenge my baking skills. Chef Fran Costigan explained techniques and ingredients that enabled me to build a stronger baking skillset. The course has delicious recipes, including the tarts in this photo that I prepared as part of my final dessert showcase. My final project was so much fun, and I was proud of how professional my vegan desserts looked.

The class, called Essential Vegan Desserts, teaches you how to make an array of scrumptious treats. I have shared a few course recipes on my blog, but if you want to join in the baking fun, the next cohort starts July 28. You can get information here. Or you can keep reading my posts and see where my new-found knowledge is taking me. I’m okay with that.

How to Make the Perfect Date Paste

the perfect date paste

the perfect date paste

The first time I made date paste I found the results to be less than desirable. I had followed the directions, as minimal as they were, but it looked more like I was making a smoothie. Paste wouldn’t describe what was in my blender. Later, after poring over many recipes, I discovered that the key was the water. Too much made a runny mess, while too little seemed to tax the blender. It was like the fairy tale in which the middle was “just right.”

The success of the paste starts with the dates. The moisture content in them varies greatly depending on how old they are and how they are stored. My guess was that my dates were very old so I added lots of extra water at the start. But the trick is to add water a little at a time; this helps to create the perfect consistency. Another trick is to use the soaking water as it has a hint of date flavor. These tips will help you create the perfect date paste to add to baked goods, such as Baked Oatmeal with Peaches.

Date Paste adapted from Fruit Paste from Rouxbe Culinary School’s Essential Vegan Desserts

1/2 cup pitted dates
1 cup water (or as needed)

Soak the dates for 1 to 2 hours or until quite soft. Strain in a colander set over a bowl in order to save the soaking water. Transfer the dates to a high-speed blender with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the soaking water. Process until smooth. Add more water as needed to create the desired consistency. If using the paste in baked recipes, use as little water as possible. The paste will keep for over a week in a jar in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen for several months.

Until next time, happy non-baking!

Vegan Baking Roundtable

Dale's demo at Vegan Baking Roundtable

Dale’s demo at the Vegan Baking Roundtable

There was pie; there was cake; there were cookies; there was even spanakopita. It was a Vegan Baking Roundtable and it was a blast. The event brought together enthusiasts who were eager to learn baking and decorating tips. As one of the presenters, I offered advice and explanations on baking at high altitude (as I have written about in Why does high altitude affect baking? and Dazzled by Science). I also prepared my Easy Chocolate Cake-Pan Cake which seemed to satisfy the attendees as they nibbled on samples.

The demonstration panel showed everyone how to make vegan baked preparations simple. The class taught us how to (finally) make a good pie crust, how to keep high altitude cakes from deflating, how to wow guests with an easy Greek appetizer, and how to be a kid again in the guise of cake decorating. Failed recipes were discussed with ideas brainstormed on how to fix them. We also ate a. lot. of. sugar. But it all tasted oh-so-good.

This event came about through the generosity of Dale Ball, who has worked with Lynn Halpern of Bleating Hearts Sanctuary on the annual Vegan Dairy Fair. (I have been to these fairs, and next year’s gathering should prove to be as exciting and yummy as those past.) Bakers that day also included members of the Boulder and Beyond Vegan Meetup. This was a group hungry for vegan camaraderie, vegan recipes, and vegan snacks. The roundtable gave us all that, and more.

DIY Confectioners’ Sugar

Confectioners' Sugar

Cookie with Confectioners’ Sugar

Recently I made a treat that used confectioners’ sugar in the frosting. Confectioners’ sugar, also called powdered sugar or icing sugar, is granulated sugar that has been ground into a fine powder. It can be sprinkled over a baked good, but it also readily dissolves in liquid making it easy to stir into icings and frostings. Just be sure not to confuse it with superfine sugar or bakers’ sugar; they are ground finer than granulated sugar but not as fine as confectioners’ sugar.

So, I have taught you exactly what confectioners’ sugar is. Now I am here to offer you a method for making your own, in case you are preparing frosting while a cake cools and find that you have run out of powdered sugar. (No, of course, this has never happened to me. Or, at least, not this week.)

The Spruce Eats gives us their advice: “All you will need is a blender, measuring cup, a clean dish towel, (and) sugar. … For each cup of confectioner’s (sic) sugar needed use one cup of regular granulated sugar. … Put the granulated sugar into the blender and secure the lid. Place the dishtowel over the top of the blender to catch any powder “smoke.” Blend using the pulse method until the sugar turns to powder. This method works best in small quantities, 1 to 2 cups at a time.

If you are making even a smaller amount, alternatively you can use a coffee grinder, spice grinder, or mini-food processor. Just be mindful that the sugar crystals can scratch plastic, so consider carefully before making the powdered sugar in a plastic blender or processor.” I have a dry cup for my Vitamix which works beautifully for making powdered sugar.

Store bought confectioners’ sugar will have additives, such as cornstarch. You can opt to make your own confectioners’ sugar just in emergency situations, or you can prepare it yourself to ensure that your sugar has no additives.

New Vegan Dairy Products

New Plant Based Dairy Products

The world of vegan dairy options is rapidly expanding. When I first went dairy-free there were only a few companies with milk and cheese offerings, and you could forget about alternatives for butter and yogurt. Nowadays, shopping for vegan dairy products is exciting, with some products out-doing their non-vegan counterparts. Many of my recipes have “non-dairy dairy” ingredients, and here are a few of the newest that were spotted at Natural Products Expo West 2019 by Jenna Blumenfeld of New Hope Network.

Culina Botanical Yogurt Alternative

One of the best nondairy yogurts we’ve ever tasted, Culina won us over with its ultra-creamy cultured coconut base, floral botanical add-ins (the Strawberry Rose flavor was beautiful) and lack of plastic packaging. Instead, each yogurt is packaged in a terra cotta flower pot lined with a food-safe, biodegradeable glaze.

Mooala Organic Oatmilk Unsweetened Coconut

Oatmilk was a trending plant-based dairy option at Expo West, and Mooala earns points for launching an unsweetened, USDA Organic blend. This version is blended with organic coconut cream for improved consistency.

Malk Sprouted Organic Oat Malk Original

This brand’s dedication to simple formulations and conscious sourcing shine through with this USDA Organic, sprouted oatmilk. Bonus: Malk also pursued The Detox Project’s Glyphosate Residue Free Certification to quell worries about glyphosate-contaminated oats, which is printed on the back of the product packaging.

Milkadamia Macadamia Buttery Spread

Milkadamia Macadamia Buttery Spread

This beloved nondairy milk brand launched a plant-based buttery spread at Expo West that employs silky, rich macadamia oil to add body and flavor. We also like how no palm oil is used in this formulation.

Cultured Cashew Brie Alternative Beet Blush

The fermentation experts at Wildbrine bring their expert knowledge of microbes into the plant-based dairy category with this excellent cashew brie. Tinted with a hint of beets, this USDA Organic plant brie will steal the limelight at cheese parties.”

This post (or portions of this post) was provided by New Hope Network. I am a member of the New Hope Influencer Co-op, a network of health and wellness bloggers committed to spreading more health to more people. Images courtesy of New Hope Network. #NewHopeInfluencer

How to Stop Your Cookies From Spreading

Spread Cookies image courtesy of crypto on flickr.com

Spread Cookies image courtesy of crypto on flickr.com

Here in the Decadent Vegan Baker’s kitchen I have whipped up my fair share of cookies. I always want them to look good for pictures, and for bragging rights, so I did some research on how to avoid the dreaded cookie spread. You know — when the cookies turn into unsightly blobs or, worse yet, fuse into each other. Here is what I found out …

A tip I got many years ago was to be sure to cool baking sheets down before placing the next batch of raw dough on them. That’s easy enough to do in the winter as I just prop them on the wall near an outside door. In the summer I have to wait patiently while the sheets cool off, but that time can be well spent engaged in the next piece of advice.

My second item of advice is to place the dough in the fridge prior to baking the cookies. “Chilling the dough solidifies the fat in the dough, meaning that it will melt more slowly under the heat of the oven and result in taller, thicker cookies,” say the chefs at Food52. Dough that is too warm can make cookies that look like flat blobs.

On the King Arthur Flour website they recommend two things for attaining the perfect cookie: lowering the baking temperature while also extending the baking time. For a recipe that called for cookies baked at 350°F for 14 minutes, they “dropped the temperature to 300°F, and extended the baking time: 22 minutes for chewy, 30 minutes for crisp.” They explained that “the fat in cookies is a big part of their structure, prior to baking…Once those cookies hit the oven, though, the fat starts to soften and melt. And the hotter the oven, the more quickly it melts. If the oven’s hot enough, the fat melts before the cookies set. And since their flour/liquid matrix hasn’t yet had a chance to harden, the cookies spread.”

A final trick offered by Food52 is that “when a recipe calls for room temperature butter, you should be able to make a small indentation easily with your finger without the area sinking under its weight. If the butter is too cold, you’ll have to do more mixing to get it to properly incorporate.” Unincorporated butter leads to airy dough that leads to cookies that fall in the oven, and that leads to the ugly blob.

If you find that you have tried all of my recommendations and still produce unsightly cookies, do not worry. Send the cookies to my house and my husband will dispose of them properly … for dessert.

What to do when your brown sugar is hard as a rock

soft brown sugar with a sugar saver

soft brown sugar with a sugar saver

Occasionally I will replace the type of sugar used in a recipe with something else I have on hand. The choice may be because the alternate sugar is healthier, but sometimes it is because brown sugar is required but I have none that is useable. The sugar I have often turns into a hard clump (thank you, dry climate). If you are plagued by this same problem, then this post is here to save the day.

For the issue of brown sugar resembling a door stop, I looked to The Spruce Eats. First off, they explained that “(t)he moisture in brown sugar evaporates much faster than in other similar products and causes the sugar to harden. To remedy this problem, you … can either restore the moisture content or prevent it from evaporating in the first place.”

One of their tricks confronts the problem when you need soft brown sugar right now. They recommend that you “place the brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl and cover it with a damp paper towel. Microwave the sugar in 20-second increments until it is soft. You can use your fingers or a fork to soften any clumps that remain.” I cannot do this fix because I do not have a microwave. (I see you nodding as you realize why my recipes never talk about using a microwave to heat things up.)

Another suggestion from The Spruce Eats is for when you have thought ahead and do not need soft brown sugar this second. I have never tried this technique either because thinking ahead is not my strong suit when it comes to food. But, here goes: “place a few apple slices (or a slice of bread) in an air-tight container with the brown sugar. Then remove the apple slices or bread when the sugar has softened. You can also place the brown sugar in a bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it sit overnight.”

My solution to this circumstance is to include a brown sugar saver with my sugar. I tried various methods of doing this, including sticking one of the damp terra cotta stones in the zipper bag of sugar, but had no success until a helpful Sur La Table salesman told me I was using the saver incorrectly. The new instructions involved thoroughly soaking the stone for a whole 10 minutes in a bowl of water, then lightly patting it off before inserting it into the sugar. I took it a step further and poured the sugar out of the bag into a (recycled) jar before I put the brown sugar saver in.

I approached the situation by bringing moisture back to the sugar while also attempting to stave off moisture loss. Now I always have soft brown sugar.

Flourless Fudge Cookie Failure

chocolate cookie failure

chocolate cookie failure

When I write blog posts, they usually include a few words about how the baked good was altered and include a recipe. Well, not this week. I have spent 8 hopeless days trying to produce an egg white based flourless cookie by using Aquafaba (the bean liquid from chickpeas). The substance makes a wonderful meringue cookie and is supposed to act in other eggy ways. I’ve used it in my super flegg egg substitute, but never as a stand-in for egg whites. It’s apparently going to require quite a few more trials.

The recipe for a flourless fudge cookie sounded like a challenge, but not as great a one as it turned out to be. The recipe called for whisked egg whites. I replaced them with whisked aquafaba and got an ooey gooey un-cookie like substance. Next I thought to whip up the chickpea water in the stand mixer to get more volume, but was still unsuccessful. Then I tried switching brands of canned chickpeas and discovered that the included brine varied immensely and a thicker liquid got me closer to a cookie but not exactly. The baked cookies were a bit gooey and rubbery at the same time, although my hubby thought they were good dipped in espresso.

So, today’s post will not include a recipe. This egg white substitution is still a failure and requires more testing. And more research. I plan to get it right one day, just not today.

Baking Bread at High Altitude

breadYeast scares me. When a recipe includes yeast it also includes hours of time until you actually get to eat. Instant gratification is much better. I can go from gathering ingredients for cookies to eating them in less than 1/2 hour. But I understand that many people love the meditative qualities and joy of baking bread. In order to help those bakers out, I have delved into the science of bread baking at high altitude.

According to Taste of Home, “High altitude (over 3,000 feet) affects bread baking because the lower air pressure allows the yeast to rise 25 to 50 percent faster, and the drier air makes the flour drier. If the dough over-rises, the results might be a heavy, dry loaf or misshapen or collapsed loaf.” The lower air pressure and dryness affects all baking but may have a more drastic effect on bread. I would eat a dry chocolate cookie, but dry, leaden bread … never!

Cultures for Health includes other specifics that affect high altitude bread baking, including adjustments to time. Increasing baking time is important. “The amount of extra time depends on the exact elevation. The easiest way to judge when a loaf of bread is finished baking is to use a thin-tipped instant-read thermometer inserted into the bottom of the loaf. A temperature of 195°F is a good goal, but temperatures all the way up to 205°F should be fine.”

They mention that proofing time should also be changed. “Rising time decreases as altitude increases. Keep in mind that the longer the rise time, the more complex the flavors will be, usually a desirable goal. Try rising at cooler temperatures and giving the dough a second rise. When the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it double again.”

These all seem like good tips to ensure a beautiful loaf of bread. I’ll stick with quick breads for now, but I’m hoping my favorite taste tester can use these recipes to create his perfect cinnamon roll. I look forward to being his taste tester.

Is chocolate vegan?

Chocolate Bar

Image courtesy of Lisa Salamida at flickr.com

You’re at the grocery store to purchase goodies for a vegan baking spree. You look at your list and think, “Vegan Chocolate … that’s easy, I’ll get dark chocolate. It’s vegan.” Although that sounds like a no-brainer, unfortunately it is not always the case. It would be nice if it were true, but since it’s not here are some pointers to lead you to the vegan stuff.

You will want to stay away from milk chocolate, as you realized with your initial instinct to buy a dark variety. To find a viable dark version, PETA recommends to “always look for a high percentage of cacao, between 55 and 85 percent—the higher the percentage, the purer the bar. Also, be sure to check the ingredients, as some brands’ dark-chocolate bars still contain dairy products. Avoid chocolate that has a long list of ingredients, because chances are that some of them are fillers.”

While you are looking at the ingredient label, also keep in mind that quality chocolate will have “pure ingredients and no additives. The ingredients will be simple: cocoa, cocoa butter, lecithin, sugar and sometimes vanilla. And that’s it.”

By now you have read the ingredients, checked for the short-list, and deemed your chocolate worthy. But there is one last step – look for food crossover warnings. These might say “Manufactured on the same equipment that also makes products containing milk” or “May contain milk.” If you don’t see these sentences proclaimed in tiny print, you should be safe.

By now you are thinking that chocolate comes from a plant (Theobroma cacao to be precise), so why isn’t it vegan? Good question. It was simpler in the past, but in recent years manufacturers have been adding butterfat for a creamy “mouth feel.” So now some varieties of dark chocolate are no longer non-dairy.

This is making my head spin. Maybe I should just stop baking with chocolate. Hmm, not likely.