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The current events of the world have created many unexpected ripple effects. One of the more positive changes has been the sharp spike in home cooks looking for recipes to wow and comfort. And in their own category altogether, there has also been a steep increase in home bakers, with more sourdough starters brought into existence these past few months than in the past decade (corroborating data to follow). We at Literati wanted to dedicate at least one of our cooking adventures to the orderly maze that is the baking trade, and we brought two new faces to the series to help accomplish the task. Read along to see how our bakers tackled messy mise’s, missing ingredients, and, most daunting of all, following directions.
With the recent disruption to many meat processing plants, and a general effort to live more sustainably, we’ve decided to make the theme of this very special baking edition…
Theme of the week: Vegan
Love is Served by Seizan Dreux Ellis/Cafe Gratitude
The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook by Isa Moskowitz
Vegan for Everybody by America's Test Kitchen
Beginner: Café Gratitude’s “I Am Sacred: Spiced Shortbread Cookies”
Intermediate: Isa Moskowitz’s “Spicy Chocolate Cupcakes with Hot Candied Pecans”
Advanced: Vegan Pistachio and Orange Blossom Layer Cake, using America’s Test Kitchen’s “Yellow Layer Cake” and Curious Chickpea’s Italian meringue buttercream (minus the strawberries)
Young Eun, Beginner
Cooking makes me happy. I love that you can hack vegetation, and then add spice, heat, and flavor. Or soak in liquid for even more flavor, and then fire or freeze, or usually something in between. It’s a humble, universally creative act. You eat and transform food into delicious, body-moving energy. Every meal can be an adventure with surprising roads.
Which is why baking has always felt like a narrow rope bridge with small obstacles waiting to stab you in the foot. One wrong step and you die. With this attitude, I picked the shortest recipe in Café Gratitude’s cookbook, the “I Am Sacred: Spiced Shortbread Cookies.” I love vegan desserts, and this Café Gratitude recipe felt friendly. I am sacred. Most days, I feel like a sacred mess, but okay.
Lesson 1: Git your mise (and your mind) in order
So…I didn’t gather my ingredients initially. Which is why I almost threw in almonds instead of the pecans that were called for in the recipe. The almonds would’ve been a fine replacement except mine had garlic powder on them. Almost oops. I also thought that maybe I could forage some wild walnuts outside, only to get distracted by all the different trails I’d like to run in town. There are many, many cool trails just outside. That’s right, I run now! But okay, no wild walnuts. The right nuts eventually ended up in the recipe, but Anthony Bourdain was right. A messy “meez” equals a messy mind.
Lesson 2: You can eat wet sand and make your own powdered sugar
After I mixed all the ingredients together, I was confused to find that the texture wasn’t dough-like, but more like a pile of wet sand. Then I tasted the sand and it was pretty good! Which meant that even if this recipe goes south and the sand doesn’t turn cookie, I can use it to top ice cream. Luckily, the transformation happened in the oven. Or maybe unluckily? The ice cream would’ve been tasty.
I also realized too late that I don’t have powdered sugar! A quick duckduckgo search later, and I’m using my spice grinder to blitz regular sugar with a tiny bit of cornstarch and voila! Powdered sugar. Who knew?
Lesson 3: Letting go can be its own adventure
I take out the little sandy balls from the oven and realize at that exact moment that I was supposed to have flattened them into disks beforehand. Also the recipe says that you have to let the cookies cool completely before powder-sugaring them all over. I didn’t, and the sugar hardened into an unappetizing-looking glaze. Thankfully, they tasted wonderful. The baking brought together these cookies’ gingery, heady spice, with the lightest touch of sweetness, and a good bit of salt to balance everything out. I ate three in quick succession. I am so lucky to have really delicious vegan bakeries in Ann Arbor (hello Tasty’s, Juicy Kitchen, and Detroit Street Filling Station!) but I think I can make these in a pinch. The rest of the recipes in the book look delicious and do-able.
Verdict: A very easy recipe. If you have children, this would make for a good activity. The wet sand part was fun, and the child labor would be useful for when you need tiny hands to make tiny cookie balls. Plus, it has so many spices that you’d expand the child’s palette OR they wouldn’t appreciate it, and you’d get to eat all the cookies by yourself with some strong, black tea, and a fun book. A hammock is optional, but recommended.
Everyone knows baking is more fun than cooking. Baking is elective, silly, a bonus, a delight! These are reasons I like it, and since I’ve had more free time lately, I’ve been doing some bakin’—vegan bakin’. My partner has been vegan for a while, and that has rubbed off on me. There are many reasons to be vegan. For me, one of the best is that it’s easy. We all want to make a positive impact on the world, and we’re all limited in how much free time and money we can give. But we all eat every day. I find, without going out of my way, that I can continually make choices that are better for my planet (and myself!) simply through my diet. I think of it as a very lazy way to do good every single day. (Added baking bonus: there’s no raw egg in your batter or dough, so you can eat that shiz up.)
For this challenge, I decided to bake spicy chocolate cupcakes with hot candied pecans. My recipe came from The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook. It’s organized by holiday (it begins with New Year’s, Super Bowl, and Chinese New Year), but still has you covered from breakfast to dessert. So, yes, it’s super handy when you want to make a killer matzoh ball soup for a virtual seder, but in my house it’s an everyday cookbook. We use it more than any other.
This is a solidly intermediate-level recipe. There’s nothing difficult about it, but with making the glaze and candying the pecans, it’s a bit too much multitasking for a beginner. Speaking of multitasking…
Leçon 1: Mise en place
The cake batter came together without a hitch. I added the cayenne. I zested the orange. It was amazing. What worried me were the candied nuts and the glaze, and rightly so. I started toasting the pecans, and they seemed to go from unfazed to kinda burnt in the blink of an eye. But really, I was looking at my recipe and scrambling for measuring spoons instead of paying attention to my pan. When candying in the future, I should remember to have all my ingredients measured and ready before turning on the heat. Luckily, after adding the sugar, cayenne, and other things, I couldn’t really tell that the nuts were burnt.
Lesson 2: It never turns out like the picture
I need to research melting chocolates. The glaze recipe called for finely chopped bittersweet chocolate. I knew better than to use baking chocolate (it never melts—learned that the hard way), so I thought I’d use what I had on hand: my favorite chocolate from Trader Joe’s. While it did melt, I wouldn’t say it turned into a glaze. It stood up tall like icing.
I thought, hey, that’s fine. So what if it’s tall? But then the “glaze” began to set, and I could see that the unsweetened soymilk I’d used hadn’t completely mixed with the chocolate and maple syrup. And so my hubris was revealed: who did I think I was that my cupcakes would turn out like the picture? They tasted great, and that’s all that really matters.
Lesson 3: No one says no to a cupcake
All the rules have gone out the window except for this. I texted one friend asking if I could drop some off at her house, and she replied, “Are you kidding me??????? I would accept w all my heart!" Everyone’s looking for nuggets of joy right now, and what a delight to be able to deliver some! The happy texts make me want to do it again.
Verdict: I may not be an expert, but Moskowitz makes me feel like a champion!
I generally look at anyone doing something cool and tell myself that I could do it too if I tried (ha), but there are a few skills that I have written off as beyond me, like baking. I think I’m pretty good at cooking, but there’s nothing intuitive about baking to me. I can’t freeform it, and I often ruin it, so I guess I’ve just, not, really, ever…liked it?
And then I was asked to do this project. As the expert! Like sure, why not, that I suck at baking is just something I tell myself! I can bake like an expert! I’m an expert, dangit!!
I used the yellow layer cake recipe from “Vegan For Everybody,” which has been lying around my house for years unopened. It’s an America’s Test Kitchen cookbook, with a big open-faced vegan burger and a tower of crispy onions on the cover. I’d been neglecting this book because it hadn’t seduced me with that subdued, Kinfolk-esque minimalism that I’ve been taught to want and love. No photos of misty pastures or ancient women standing in fields with long skirts shot on film. No personal narrative to blend recipes with lifestyle philosophy. No millennial sex appeal.
What a sucker I’ve been! Reading through this cookbook, I realized how good “Vegan For Everybody” is and what I’ve been missing. It doesn’t proselytize for veganism, making it highly approachable for all eaters. Its recipes are beautiful and thoughtful and very doable. What’s really cool is that every recipe includes an explanation for why it works, and insight into the recipe development process. It also includes their research on individual ingredients, like aquafaba, which I found super interesting and in some cases revelatory.
Lesson 1: AQUAFABA FOR PRESIDENT
Or at least a cabinet pick! You know the goopy liquid in cans of chickpeas? Potent magic! It’s a big deal in the vegan baking world, because it’s cheap and accessible and works like eggs. This recipe even explains what the aquafaba does for the cake structurally and texturally (light, fluffy crumb!). We also reduced a bunch of aquafaba to make an Italian meringue buttercream frosting—unfortunately, there’s no recipe for this in the book, but there is on the Internet!
Lesson 2: Baby steps to intuitive baking
I’ll probably still need to religiously follow recipes for future baking projects, but this cake taught me that you can take creative liberties while following the rules. For example, I followed this recipe to an immaculate T, except I added citrus zest and orange blossom water to the batter, and as mentioned, we also went rogue on the frosting. Plus, this book is AMAZING for explaining the why’s behind every step, which will hopefully make me less dependent on recipes in the future.
Lesson 3: The taller the cake, the closer to god
This one is important. Multi-tiered cakes have always been a mark of serious bakership to me. This recipe makes a two-tiered cake, sandwiching a layer of whatever delicious goop you want, and, you guys, I did it. And you can too! Heck, you can finagle a way to adapt this recipe to three or four or SEVEN layers if your heart wants em! There are tricks to it of course, namely patience as the layers cool. But the important thing I learned here was that the only thing that has stopped me from making tall cakes before is myself and my lack of multiple cake tins. Both obstacles have been overcome. A new me has been born.
Verdict: I’m a friggin baker now. And a less judgmental book cover jerk! Thanks, “Vegan For Everybody,” for making me a better human being in these two very important ways!