Parsnip Parsimony- A vegan baking and science blog.

“You’re crazy, Susie!”

Method Post #1: Pre-EB parable for explaining why Susie is Susie.

Posted by Susie on June 26, 2009

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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16 Responses to “Method Post #1: Pre-EB parable for explaining why Susie is Susie.”

  1. margot kidder said

    Will there be egg stuff soon? Still curious aboutall that.

    • Susie said

      Margot,
      Eggs stuff is on its way. There is so much to say though, that I’m taking it ~1000 words at a time, and this introductory stuff needs to come first. I aim to all of everything written RE all of the egg stuff by the end of August, so stay tuned!

  2. Veronica said

    That is an excellent approach and makes perfect sense. I appreciate this proof of why animal products are unnecessary. I get the “Well, certain goods require eggs and dairy to get it right,” adage all the time, and we know that’s not true. It’s the chemical properties that matter and they can be replicated.

    • Susie said

      Veronica, I’m so glad that somehow all that rambling managed to get my point across! Woohoo! Now I just have about a million more points to make before Summer is over…

  3. Laura said

    Really interesting post! I’m looking forward to the next two, thanks for sharing!

  4. VeganMike said

    I just checked your blog for the first time in a month or so, only to find that I’d missed new posts! I can’t wait to read more… seriously, the idea of getting in your head and understanding your approach will be invaluable to those of us who are vegans and love to cook, not just follow recipes :)

    Out of curiosity, what’re you going back to school to study?

    • Susie said

      VeganMike, After six wonderful years spent in community college, I’m finally transferring to a university this fall semester, to finish the last two years of a BS in food science. And right now, odds are looking good that I will wind up with a double major in biochemistry. I’m going to be so busy with classes, that once fall semester arrives, this blog will be going into another coma. Which is why I’m getting this stuff written now, over the summer!

  5. getsconed said

    well well well!

  6. doubledogyoga said

    Wow I’m so impressed with 17 year old you! I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts – so glad I found your blog :)

  7. Ariann said

    Eagerly awaiting post #2!

  8. Um, I’ve made vegan buttercream frosting numerous times using vegan Finnish margarines which do not contain palm or coconut fat nor any hydrogenated fats or trans fats. Where is the problem supposed to be?

    (Why didn’t you just use ready-made coconut oil?)

  9. Hajari said

    How is the next post coming along?

  10. vegebon said

    Hi Suzy !

    I am so happy to find you blog !! I also love cooking and science (I am a PhD student in cellular biology), and turning to vegan. I have been vegetarian for less than 1 year, it takes time to change a whole food culture centered arount animal-derived stuff… So I have opened a blog to try and think about becoming vegan, hoping to add a scientific touch in the field : http://vegebon.wordpress.com (yes I also use WordPress ^^ and I am sorry I write in French).
    All this to say I am reading a lot about vegan cooking and try to connect this with my biochemistry background… so I really LOVE your blog :), and I would like to give some help in your study. As I am more in the biology side and you in the chemistry one, we could maybe collaborate to get faster results, especially on hard topics like egg replacement.
    Even if you prefer working on your own, I am happy note to be the only one turning my kitchen into a lab for the sake of vegan cooking ! (in France, Hervé This, among other, is working a lot in uniderstanding the cooking chemistry, but unfortunately he uses mostly animal-derived products)
    Thanks a lot for your blog !
    Sandrine

  11. VeganMike said

    Hi Susie… so I know you’re busy with school and it’s been a while since you last posted, but I’m wondering if there’s any chance of the blog being updated again. I’m happy to wait patiently as long as I know you’re still out there :)

  12. Nannette said

    I am very excited and found this site at the most perfect time. I’m a baker on the verge of veganism but have been apprehensive replacing butter and egg. My fear is sacrificing flavor. It’s my dream to serve a vegan cake to someone and them be unaware that no animals were harmed in the process. I admire your dedication and am excited to learn more!

  13. Michael said

    Whoa, forgot all about this blog for the past two years… and I come back to this cliff-hanger! Would love to hear what’s happened since then and finally learn what you’ve discovered about eggs. Thanks, Susie!

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