Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats

The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats
Author: Dunja Gulin
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small (2013)

Everyone loves a treat once in a while. It’s almost impossible to think of an office meeting, open house or even road trip without some sort of edible, and while muffins and cookies aren’t considered “health food” in any sense of the phrase, they can provide a much-needed pick-me-up during the day. However, those who have dietary restrictions are often at a loss when it comes to the conventional sweets table. Most commonly purchased bakery items are laced with eggs, dairy, nuts or one of the other common allergens, and those who follow a specific diet for religious or ethical reasons often avoid prepared foods for this reason as well. One of the most basic ways to eliminate two of the major allergens, as well as any animal product-based restrictions, is by preparing vegan items. While they may be stereotyped as things only palatable for hippies and health gurus, the science and methodology of vegan baking has progressed enough to be more than capable of producing items that are approachable, economical and simply delicious – no segregating identifier of “vegan” required. Dunja Gulin believes delicious baking that just happens to be vegan is accessible to everyone, and avers this passion in her third cookbook: The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats.

Vegan Baker takes not only a dairy- and egg-free approach to baking, but a healthier twist as well. Gulin stresses the use of the best possible ingredients, organic items when possible, and limiting or eliminating refined sugar – resulting in wholesome, not-too-sweet goods that are still most definitely treats. While some people may argue against all these restrictions (or “rules”) for what is supposed to be something decadent and special, Gulin’s reasoning is that the finished goods will taste just as rich and delicious, if not more so, than their conventional counterparts. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the belief that organic food tastes (or is in general) better, but I do know that quality ingredients in any form of cooking or baking make a huge difference. This is not to say you should break the bank on imported chocolate and hand-harvested and ground grains for flour, nor do you need to cook beans and grind nut butters from scratch at home – just have faith that the items you choose to cook with will produce stellar results.

If the passionate introduction and thorough discussion of ingredients doesn’t whet your appetite for the recipes, Clare Winfield’s fantastic, full-colour photos just might. Beautifully styled shots of almost (if not every) recipe fill the pages, and unlike many cookbook pictures provide a relatively authentic representation of the words alongside.

Carob Slice
Yummy Carob Slices (p. 58)
Of the recipes I tried in Vegan Baker, I was consistently amazed. Not because the methods were outlandish or the ingredients were exotic, but because they were anything but – fairly simple, straightforward and quick, with the most outrĂ© ingredients being carob and agar powder (which even in my relatively rural neighbourhood were easy to locate at the health food and bulk store). The results weren’t anything other than decadent – not just “good for being vegan” – and while I included a list of ingredients on the packages I put together for some friends of mine (in order to avoid any potential allergies to soy, gluten or nuts), no mention was made of the treats being made without many conventional staple ingredients and no questions ever came up. The Rich Tea Bread (p. 36) was first on my list to try, and I actually made it twice in different forms to use up a bunch of partial bags of nuts and dried fruit in my pantry. Both the original, more “British” combination of Earl Grey, prunes, dates, Craisins, sunflower seeds and walnuts and the “tropical” rendition with mango tea, candied ginger, apricots, macadamia nuts, dates, cranberries, almonds, pumpkin seeds and raisins were moist, dense and flavourful – better than any standard fruitcake I’ve ever made or had before! The sleeper hit for many of my taste-testers was the Yummy Carob Slices (p. 58).  Given that carob is the unfortunate recipient of the “70’s-era hippie food” stereotype, I waited for the unbiased opinion to be leveled before cluing in the group. While it didn’t taste like your standard chocolate cake (and it wasn’t billed as such), it was moist, rich and nothing short of a wonderful dessert.

The only recipe of Gulin’s I questioned was the Coffee Toffee Cookies (p. 89), as there was no real “toffee” or true “coffee” element in the ingredients. I expected a buttery, bittersweet note from the two ingredients, but the cookies only contained coffee extract, not brewed, ground or instant coffee, and contained cocoa powder which seemed out of place. If I was to re-make these, I would use a vegan butter substitute instead of the relatively flavourless coconut oil, add a dash of butterscotch or caramel flavouring, leave out the cocoa and use a spoonful of instant coffee along with the extract.

Tropical Tea Cake
Rich Tea Bread (Tropical Version) (p. 36)

On the whole, Dunja Gulin does the culinary world as a whole a great service with The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats. With sweet, rich tasting treats that have a subtly healthy twist, the book will become a staple on my baking bookshelf and I urge you to take a look yourself.

Available on Amazon

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