In the following two (or perhaps three) posts, I’m going to describe to you my seven-year search for methods of perfectly replicating all traditional baked goods using only vegan ingredients, the way I view this problem, and the tactics I’ve used to try to solve it. I feel the need to tell you this so that you might understand where it is I’m coming from as you read the upcoming blog posts in this series.
I made the transition to a vegan diet about 7 years ago, during the summer before my Senior year in high school. Having always enjoyed preparing and eating non-vegan baked goods, I was eager to adapt these habits so that they could be compatible with my veganism . The availability of convenient vegan baking ingredients was much more limited seven years ago than it is today: the only vegan margarines I could find back in 2002 had significant trans fat content, which I refused to eat, for obvious health reasons. I could find recipes for vegan cakes and other things which used liquid vegetable oil, but I was left with no solid fat ingredients with which to make things dependent on the presence of solid fat, such as buttercream frosting. This inability to make trans fat free vegan buttercream was a MAJOR problem; having a frosted birthday cake was simply not something I was willing to give up easily. The way I approached this problem explains something about the way I tend approach a lot of problems, which is why I am talking about this obsolete issue in the first place. Before I tell you how I tried to solve this problem though, let me tell you the ways which I did not try to solve it:
Ways I did not try to solve the problem of not having a trans fat free vegan substitute for butter with which to make vegan buttercream frosting for a birthday cake in 2002:
- Give up on ever being able to have vegan trans fat free birthday cake.
- Settle on topping my layer cake with something besides vegan buttercream: fruit, jam, powdered sugar dust, glaze, fondant, or marzipan.
- Sit around waiting for the Earth Balance company to solve my problem for me.
Those would not have been life-destroying options… I would have survived just fine if I had approached my problem with any combination of the above techniques. By the start of the next summer, I would have discovered the brand-new “Earth Balance” vegan, trans fat free margarine anyway, which would solve this problem entirely. But that would not have been my style. The following, however, is what 17-year-old me did:
How I did solve the problem of not having a trans fat free vegan substitute for butter with which to make vegan buttercream frosting for a birthday cake in 2002:
- I looked up the composition of butter on the internet. Butter, reportedly, was mostly made of a thing called saturated fat. I had learned somewhere that saturated fats were “solid fats” and that unsaturated fats were “liquid fats”. (This wasn’t exactly an accurate definition, but it worked, more or less, for my purposes.) I knew that fats were found in plant foods as well as animal foods. So maybe, I thought, there were some saturated fats to be found naturally, in plant foods.
- Then I went to the library, and found a food science book (Sorry. This was 6.5 years ago. No citation.) with a bunch of tables listing food composition, and I found a section on fats. The book listed melting points for all sorts of fats. Once I figured out how to convert the units from Centigrade to Fahrenheit, I realized that the book was telling me that there were some plant-sourced fats: coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter, and palm kernel oil, were all solids at room temperature. Maybe, I thought, I could use these solid plant fats in place of butter fat to make a vegan trans fat free frosting.
- I bought a coconut (!), and I tried to get the fat out of it. I think I wound up putting the coconut flesh in a blender with hot water (to let the liquid fat separate from the coconut flesh), then strained the blended slurry through some kind of filter, to get the fibrous coconut flesh out of the mixture. Then, I cooled water-fat mixture which was left after filtering, so that the fat would solidify. I then found that if I took an electric mixer to this cooled mixture, that clumps of fat would start to clump together, resembling the process of churning butter from cream.
- Once all the fat was clumped together, I threw it in a new mixing bowl, and proceeded to follow a recipe for buttercream frosting, directly substituting the butter called for in the recipe with my coconut fat. I figured that because I had tried to re-create the composition of butter by producing something mostly containing saturated fat, that I would be able to use the stuff exactly like butter in any recipe.
The buttercream frosting resulting from the above process was used to frost the cake I made for my 18th birthday party. Humorous, the way this experience foreshadowed the rest of my adult life.
Anyway, the point of this story is to demonstrate my motivation for trying to make vegan versions of traditional foods, and that I use a rather reductionist approach in doing so: I’m inclined to break a non-vegan recipe down, to the molecular level, try to find identical or similar replacements for those non-vegan components from the plant-world, and then build the recipe back up, using the vegan substitutes. Although I’ve greatly expanded and refined my understanding of bakery and food science significantly over the past 7 years, this basic approach remains fairly unchanged.
So, why did you just spend the past 1000 words reading about my solution to what is now an obsolete problem for vegan bakers? Well, I had to describe my outlook, and a simple, already neatly-solved veganization problem provided a good way to do that. Next up, I’m going to be introducing the thing I’m going to be talking about for most of the rest of the summer, which is not a simple, already-solved problem. This has been the problem which has consumed me for the past 6 years, has led to my enrollment in baking school, and – when that wasn’t enough – to my decision to become a food science major. This problem is replacing eggs in traditional bakery products. Egg composition and egg function are wonderfully complicated topics… and that’s all I can really say without launching into the next blog post, so I’m going to have to end this here.