Question: Can dessert be creamy, buttery, or indulgent without including the likes of milk, butter, cream, or other animal byproducts in its composition? A few short years ago, my conjecture would likely have been “ummm…no!” But today, having consumed more education about veganism and having experienced the sheer pleasure of tasting vegan desserts, I am resolute in my stance that vegan desserts do in fact deliver the taste, quality, and visual appeal that whet our voracious appetites for the traditional desserts we love.
So, what do you think? For dessert artisans and dessertpreneurs, does the steady uptick in consumer demand for vegan cuisine (figuratively) mean that money truly does grow on trees? Let’s examine some examples of why the answer continually proves to be yes!
But first, some statistics:
What is veganism?
As defined by www.vegansociety.com, veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
What is the vegan population in the States?
According to www.mercyforanimals.org, 25 percent of Americans 25 to 34 years old identify as vegan or vegetarian as of December 2018.
Do all chefs who make vegan/plant-based desserts need to be lifetime vegans?
Not necessarily! A great example of this is Chef Fran Costigan, internationally renowned as the authority on vegan desserts.
Costigan was raised eating the standard American diet, which included dairy. However, the worsening digestive upsets that had plagued her from the time she was very young, were collectively the springboard that propelled Costigan to transition to eating a completely plant-based diet. “My health improved very quickly, and I was actually quite delighted by the range of plant-based foods new to me. That is, all but the desserts,” recalled the partially dissatisfied pastry chef.
“If you don’t like something, change it.
If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
– Dr. Maya Angelou, American poet and Renaissance woman
Costigan wasn’t the only one looking for more enjoyable plant-based desserts. Because the vegan lifestyle was growing (and continues to do so), plant-based foods are in higher demand, and that includes desserts. Aware of this undeniable statistic, the classically trained pastry chef used traditional pastry techniques to create reliable recipes for “unapologetically” luscious vegan desserts. “I did R&D for a full year,” Costigan explains. “I cracked the code, so to speak, on my breakthrough cake, The Chocolate Cake to Live for, and to this day, that moist and deeply chocolate cake is my most requested recipe,” Costigan adds.
Sounds good, but is having vegan desserts on my menu that important?
Absolutely! As a matter of fact, Bake magazine recently published the article “Developing products that appeal to the vegan consumer.” In it, GlobalData reports that only 1% of US consumers claimed to be vegan in 2014, and three years later, that number soared to 6%.
The article also establishes that plant-based foods are in huge demand, and the cake sector is joining into this important development by introducing new products that appeal to the growing number of vegan consumers in America.
As a vegan pastry chef, who has dubbed vegan desserts as a “mega trend,” Costigan advises that not offering a variety [of desserts] means “leaving money on the table.” She adds, “Those who are asking for vegan desserts do not want sorbet or fruit salad. That is insulting at this point in time.
Vegan desserts are inclusive, meaning they are suitable for a diverse population, and there is no question that people seeing vegan desserts will show up at the table.”
To add to the point of why having vegan desserts as menu options is important, Costigan pointed out these items are needed for people with and without dietary considerations such as:
- lactose intolerance
- allergies to eggs
- avoiding or limiting cholesterol
Having a sense of being eco-conscious or just curious about vegan desserts also plays a part. PreGel International Training Centers – FL Pastry Chef, Victoria Burghi, highlighted one of the main reasons why people transition to a vegan lifestyle, and their need for vegan dessert options, saying, “Vegan foods are attractive to people who are opposed to animal cruelty,” she started. “In the end, it gives them a sense that they are doing the right thing by giving up animal products.”
So, what’s the process? What would I need to know to make the transition from traditional to vegan desserts?
According to Costigan, the transition is much easier now than it was twenty-five years ago, seeing as the variety of plant milks, fats, and other quality ingredients that are widely available to the vegan pastry chef today were non-existent,” she explains.
Backing the case for more readily-available vegan ingredients are Kristen Battaglia, assistant pastry chef, PreGel International Training Centers – NC, and Chef Burghi.
When tasked with making several vegan desserts for a PreGel photo shoot, Battaglia had to alter her thought process when it came to preparing vegan oatmeal raisin cookies, a vegan granola bar, and vegan oatmeal raisin cookie gelato (which, according to “Healthy Dessert? Eating the gluten-free cake, too” published by www.smartbrief.com, is a trend-forward nostalgic flavor).
“Knowing that I had to stay away from dairy, I thought it would be best to choose some of our [PreGel] nut-based Traditional Pastes and fruit-based Fortefrutto® flavoring pastes,” Battaglia explained. “I tried to think about more of the healthier trends and create something that customers are looking for,” she continued.
Consequently, all three chefs seem to agree that looking for “healthier” ingredient options is a must when preparing vegan desserts, as echoed by Burghi. “Because most people are aware of the effects of white sugar on our bodies, using alternative sugars along with vegan ingredients seems to be the right move. Alternative sugars and other sweet ingredients like sweet potato do not raise the glycemic index in our bloodstream. For that reason, vegan desserts that use other sugars are considered healthy,” the vegetarian chef explains.
“Find something you’re passionate about
and keep tremendously interested in it.”
– Julia Child, chef
I’m definitely passionate about adding plant-based desserts to my menu, but the process sounds a bit intimidating. What are some examples of ingredients I can use to make vegan desserts?
Sourcing the right ingredients to make vegan desserts is not as intimidating or complicated as it may sound at times. And there are a lot of examples of which ingredients to use to keep your recipes 100% vegan. In regard to the previously mentioned Vegan Oatmeal Cookie Gelato created by Chef Battaglia, she says,” It was actually very easy to switch out the eggs with applesauce, and the butter with vegan butter.” She adds, “When it came to fats we were able to use coconut fat and cocoa butter, which gave the gelato a great texture.”
Adding to the ease of transitional ingredients, Burghi suggests the following to start:
- Vegan butter also called Faba Butter, which can make a decent buttercream
- Aquafaba (the water from canned chickpeas) can be a great substitution for egg whites
- Tofu can be used to substitute eggs
- Fat in coconut milk can be whipped into a whipped cream
- Coconut sugar is one of many examples of ways to sweeten desserts without white granulated sugar
Burghi adds that ready-to-use ingredients, such as those provided by PreGel, can play a pivotal role in creating vegan desserts because “they take a lot of the guess work out of the equation, and contain emulsifiers and stabilizers that are essential to the final structure of the dessert,” Burghi elaborated, concluding with, “They are easy to use and they taste great.”
“Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.”
– Wolfgang Puck, chef
Are vegan ingredients really gaining that much traction?
Yes! Just recently, the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute released new data showing U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 11 percent in the past year, bringing the total plant-based market value to $4.5 billion. And much like Chef Burghi said, “We see plant-based ingredients more and more in the supermarkets, and that is always a good indication of how popular the movement has become.”
Here’s a bit more on that “growing movement”…
GrubHub, the nation’s leading online and mobile food-ordering and delivery marketplace, recently released a report including statistics about the vegan food industry in general. Results showcased that orders of vegan-friendly foods on the Grubhub platform increased by 25% so far in 2019 (as compared to Jan-May 2018).
Additionally, the digital resource published a list of areas ordering the most vegan foods – locations they dubbed
- Los Angeles, CA
- Brooklyn, NY
- Portland, OR
- Las Vegas, NV
- Rochester, NY
- Philadelphia, PA
- Detroit, MI
- San Diego, CA
Seeing as plant-based desserts is a formidable trend, are there any myths about vegan desserts that I should ignore?
In terms of myth-busting, Chef Costigan offers inspiring advice: “It isn’t about what is not in the desserts. It is about serving delicious, appealing, attractive, innovative desserts that are suitable for everyone, whether or not dietary considerations are an issue.” Battaglia adds that “If the chef is knowledgeable on flavor and able to balance a dessert well, then you can create something amazing where you would never be able to tell the difference.” She continues, “I think that currently we are able to access such great ingredients to make desserts vegan that I don’t see a huge difference when it comes to most vegan desserts.”
In reference to myth-busting, Chef Costigan recalls some of the most surprising responses she’s heard from skeptics about tasting vegan dessert for the first time.
“I am no longer surprised to hear, ‘vegan desserts are good,’ or ‘I can’t believe there is no dairy or eggs in the dessert,’ as a well-crafted dessert should be luscious, whether it’s vegan or conventional. I am used to having to defend, and saying yes, this dessert is vegan,” she recollects, while subsequently retelling the funniest response she’s ever heard about one of her chocolate vegan cakes.
“The funniest response, in fact, was taking a Brooklyn Blackout Cake (chocolate cake, filled and frosted with chocolate pudding and covered with chocolate crumbs, made famous by the now defunct Ebingers Bakery in Brooklyn) to an industry event in New York City. Several of my colleagues asked what made me leave the vegan world– they simply could not believe the cake was in fact a vegan version.”
I understand why vegan desserts are important to consumers, but does creating vegan desserts take the fun out of dessert-making?
Culinary arts is indeed an art. Taking a blank canvas and filling it with something beautiful that tastes great, and incites all kinds of emotions from the consumer is an amazing accomplishment, even for amateur cooks like me. One of the best aspects of culinary arts is the creativity it demands, which is something that producing vegan desserts does not lack.
“The creativity was always my favorite part of creating desserts and that has not changed with creating vegan versions. What is important is to use traditional techniques and adapt them to vegan specific ingredients,” Costigan shares.
To that point, Burghi mirrors Costigan’s sentiment, saying,” Other reasons why vegan desserts are having a moment right now, is the fact that pastry chefs like challenges,” she begins. “Making vegan desserts that taste fantastic is very difficult (but not impossible). Tweaking recipes and substituting ingredients is an interesting challenge for a pastry chef.”
Okay, I’m interested! Which vegan desserts should I start adding to/or transitioning my menu with?
There are plenty!
To begin, Chef Costigan suggests these familiar desserts:
- Cupcakes, layer cakes, – Chocolate Ganache Glazed Torte, Chocolate Mousse, Puddings, Crème Brulee, ice cream; Baked Alaska, pies and tarts
- Component desserts
- Pavlova, Eton Mess, and other meringue-based desserts are possible with the correct use of aquafaba meringue. My technique calls for reducing the aquafaba so that it whips successfully every time.
- Add a chocolate truffle or another confection to the plate.
- Seasonal desserts: bread puddings, sticky date pudding, berry slumps, and grunts
- Holiday desserts: Buche de Noel, why not?
And according to Chef Costigan, the following are the kinds of trending desserts consumers are looking for, because, as she states, “Consumers who seek vegan desserts are looking for the very same desserts that omnivores are eating.”
- Ice cream, gelato, affogato.
- Vegan Baked Alaska is very on trend today.
- Commercial vegan ice creams are readily available and homemade ones are excellent. I have a whole chapter on frozen desserts in my cookbook, Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts
- Cupcakes are always popular
- Vegan French Macarons
- French pastries: croissant, palmiers, truffles, mendients
- Chocolate cakes, whether finished with a bittersweet ganache glaze, buttercream, or pudding
- Lighter desserts and using less refined sweeteners
- Component plates and deconstructed desserts are desirable
- Ethnic flavors trending like matcha, tahini, za’tar, for example
More inspiration for creating delicious vegan desserts as menu options can be found here.
And, of course, guidance with creating any artisanal desserts with plant-based ingredients is always available here via private demo.
Indeed, Americans value traditionally-made sweets, and everything in moderation is key no matter how it is prepared. Therefore, especially in today’s consumer climate, it seems as though money does grow on trees with the blossoming of the plant-based movement that offer the kinds of treats carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores can appreciate.
About Fran Costigan
Fran Costigan the “Queen of Vegan Desserts,” is director of Vegan Baking and Pastry at Rouxbe Culinary School.
The recipes in her bestselling cookbooks, More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally and
Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts, from retro desserts to elegant vegan versions of classics, produce excellent results every time.