Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The truth about vegan desserts

"What does a vegan donut taste like?" someone asked. "Like the hole: Nothing." was the snide response. Another popular retort is "cardboard".

I'd like to open by pointing out that the diatribe you are about to read is not by a vegan. I am vegetarian which permits me egg and dairy without compromising my title. Gelatin, rendered down bits of horse hooves, euthanized pets and dead circus animals, is not vegan nor vegetarian, so boo-hoo, I have to count myself out on marshmallows and jello/jelly. I never liked them anyway. I admit, it stings if gelatin is contained in a tiramisu and I have to pass. Now that you know all that about me, I hope to enlighten those who are ignorant of the potential magic in vegan desserts.

More important than the fact that I can eat eggs or dairy is the fact that I can eat sugar. Sweet, sweet sugar. And cocoa. Oh, I would give your right arm for a fine piece of 60% dark chocolate, preferably from Belgium. I'll eat any chocolate, vegan or not so I am not married to vegan desserts as I write this. It might shock you to know that sugar and cocoa are not only vegetarian but they are also vegan. So is flour! *Gasp* Seriously? Key ingredients of many desserts are not made from animals? Yes, that is correct. No, vegan desserts are not comprised of cucumber and lentils. If you aren't such a snob that you'll eat a Safeway cake or store bought candy, you are no sweet-treat snob, so don't cry about the use of soy milk like you know the difference.

Fried can be vegan, and for that, I am grateful.
When I hear people making cheap cracks at the expense of vegan desserts, it really irritates me because it is just so completely misguided and flat out ignorant. I don't begrudge someone who enjoys a buttery cake, but I was of the understanding that sweetness is what drives the world of dessert, not butter.

Eggs are used as a binding property and so for vegan baked goods, some sort of egg replacer is used. I don't know how all this works because personally, I don't believe in baking. I never have.* I am however willing to reap the benefits of the baking efforts of others and can tell you I have not said myself, nor heard others say of a cupcake "Hmmm, it's okay but it could use more egg." The cakey part of a cupcake can be as moist and delicious as can be, even while vegan. We all know the heart of a cupcake is worn on its sleeve, and by that, I mean it's in the frosting. A frosting consisting mostly of sugar. Nothing is lost here because margarine was substituted for butter, soy milk for milk. Again, I can eat any cupcake, and all I care about is the sugar content.

Choc-orange, one of my all time favourite combos, is contained in this delicious cupcake made by my dear vegan friend, Emily. She was a friend. She became 'dear' after the cupcakes.

Having said all this, there is a group out there who are possibly responsible for the poor showing of the vegan dessert (though honestly, I believe the ignorant naysayers have never tried any of them) and those people are called hippies. While travelling in the middle of nowhere with limited vegetarian options, I admit I will gladly welcome the restaurant offerings of hippies. But as they seem more preoccupied with health and tending to their dreadlocks, it isn't likely to be a foodie's paradise. There are exceptions as the odd hippie will somehow take us to culinary heaven, but generally I have low expectations for what they dish up. Once the main course is completed, one runs the risk of encountering the most tragic words in any dessert cook book and they are "fruit sweetened". No, no, no nononononono! We don't want that. Yes, I agree, a vegan, fruit sweetened chocolate cake tastes like crap. The problem isn't that it is vegan, but that it lacks SUGAR. I urge you not to eat anything fruit sweetened unless you just can't eat sugar, in which case, I'm truly sorry. GOD, I am SO sorry...

A vegan peanut butter bomb cake. I think this is the kind you get in New York which can be found at Moby's tea house, Teany Cafe. This thing blows my mind.

I'm not trying to tell you that all desserts should be vegan or that everything can be perfectly substituted. It just can't, but that's not to say that magic can't and doesn't happen. You are reading the writings of someone who put two spoons of sugar on their cereal, has 5 pumps of flavoured syrup in their mocha, and is known to, on occasion, eat a quality piece of chocolate first thing in the morning (no, I am not a diabetic). I simply do not fuck around when it comes to my sweet treats.

My beloved dark chocolate Bordeaux from See's Candies. Not vegan, but high up in my personal food chain.

My favourite ice-cream is a vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter Zig Zag by Purely Decadent. If you look to ice-cream for milky creaminess, then maybe vegan ice-cream isn't for you, though it is still creamy. I actually wont eat chocolate ice creams that are cut with too much milk like those at Stone Cold Ice Creamery (plus it stinks in there). But if you enjoy rich chocolate flavour and with the added bonus of peanut butter, then you are a bloody idiot to turn this thing down. I can and do eat any ice cream I want, but this is my favourite.

Really? Do I need to explain this?

Another favourite dessert of mine is from a vegan restaurant in the San Fernando Valley called Madeleine Bistro. This is a place for fine dining, small portions, and explosive flavours, but the thing I wait for and long for is the Bananas Foster Split. I first encountered Bananas Foster while doing extra work on the Tenacious D movie. I guess it's some sort of magical concoction of slices up bananas sauteed with brown sugar and likely butter. It was magical and I longed for it, but never ended up having it again until Madeleine's. There's a twist on the traditional Foster as they lay out the warmed, sugared banana, but add a drizzled raspberry sauce (raspberry sauce!) and top it off with vegan ice cream, hot chocolate sauce and on top of that a vegan cream made of cashews (with lots of sugar). How can anything made of cashews and sugar not be fantastic? As I said, the restaurant is fancy and I just about have to have my hands cuffed to the back of the chair to stop me from bringing my plate up to my face to lick it clean. I do quietly continue scraping every bit of sauce from the plate with my spoon until the waitress comes to take it away from me.

Oh sweet Bananas Foster Split, it has been too long! We will be together again soon...

A blog about vegan desserts can't be complete without honouring the beloved cake maker of Melbourne. Vegetarian Orgasm was a much loved vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne. While the food was of a pretty high standard (until they expanded, and cut portions and raised prices and went out of business) the desserts were completely out of this world. They were the work of a man we all considered an artist in the realm of cake making. While not vegan himself (just vegetarian), Mark the cake maker appeared to spend most of his spare time dreaming up new cakes. His father, like mine (both were Sri Lankan) was a sugar junkie and this had rubbed off on him. He would not cut any corners when it came to appeasing a sweet tooth. Among his classics were the peanut butter bomb cake, Turkish delight cake and honeycomb cake. He even made a Coca-cola cake, complete with little pieces of chocolate he'd made from a chocolate mold of Coke bottles. The main body of the mega cakes were a good 3 inches in height, but atop that would be some kind of flourish, enhancing the already intense flavours (pieces of Turkish delight if it were a Turkish delight cake, etc) then topped off with lots of cream and drizzles of hardened chocolate. I'm tearing up just thinking about it.

There were regulars on the dessert menu, but he was consistently coming up with new stuff. We would often stop by just to get cake. So loved by all were his cakes whether one was vegan, vegetarian or carnivore, that we didn't have to think twice about employing his mastery to make our wedding cake. He did one of his fabulously dense mousse cakes, one layer was just chocolate, another chocolate hazelnut. I forget what the third one was, but it was so rich and divine that just a sliver could send you into a diabetic coma. I for one was never able to eat a whole slice in once sitting, despite all my boasting of sugar consumption. I wont lie, the vegan cake did not have the strength of whatever feats are used for regular wedding cake architecture for a three tiered cake. It sunk a little, but he warned us this might happen. No help that the cake required an hour and a half car ride, but aside from a little sinking, it looked just fine and more importantly tasted fabulous, the two chocolate echidnas he made stood proudly atop. It was so great that the staff at the reception place we caught trying to hide the remainder from us to keep for themselves.

Not one of Mark the cake maker's mousse cakes, but kinda similar on the inside. His were darker though and I'm guessing even more delicious.

Good vegan dessert makers should not be scoffed at. They are not making something that visually resembles a dessert, but trying to tantalise taste buds while adapting to certain dietary needs. They are to be championed for their innovation and dedication to the glorious world of desserts!

So be a lover, not a fighter of vegan desserts. If you love sugar, fruit flavours and/or chocolate, these decadent needs can be fulfilled without animals products. No need to bag it out, because it just ain't true. Besides, you sound like an asshole.

*Remark about not believing in baking was stolen from Andrew Dice Clay.
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