Exploring the Art of Vegan Baking

Swiss rolls, Hokkaido milk bread, canelés…I’ve baked a lot in my life. But what do all these have in common? None of them are vegan-friendly. Growing up, I was never exposed to the concept of vegan cooking or baking and felt intimidated by even the vegetarian lifestyle. What would I do without eggs or milk?

For some necessary context, I stress-bake. A lot. If you had dropped by my house during finals week, you would have found an assortment of every bread delicacy imaginable, scattered unceremoniously across the kitchen table. My family essentially lived in a constant food coma during remote learning. Instead of studying, I would be consumed by the rush to deliver all the food to my friends as soon as possible. However, I remembered that one of my soon-to-be roommates is vegan, and about 90% of the bread and baked goods I make are not. So what would I do with all the food I make?

My First Attempt: A Deceiving Success

My most requested baked good is my signature honey tangzhong milk bread. The slightly sweet and floral bread encased in a thin, crunchy exterior is my pride and joy. You’d want that bread if you saw it. But here’s the catch: the main ingredients are butter, whole milk, and honey.

The first step to veganize a recipe is to establish the role of each ingredient. For instance, it was easy to swap out milk for unsweetened soy milk and butter for vegan butter or flavorless oil. However, I did need to consider the fact that butter is a solid at room temperature, while oil is a liquid. To combat this issue, I  reduced the amount of bread flour I used to accommodate for the extra liquid. Instead of honey, I used maple syrup instead. No big issues were encountered in my trial run for a vegan Hokkaido milk bread. For this, I patted myself on the back.

Try out this Whole Wheat Honey/Maple Syrup Bread:

Eggs: The Nemesis of Vegan Baking

If you have done any vegan baking, you would know that there are usually two classic replacements for eggs: either use a flax egg (made with 2 tbsp + ⅛ cup boiling water to replace one egg), or ¼ cup of applesauce (or any fruit puree of your choice, as long as you don’t mind the flavor). While these alternatives work great for most pancake or muffin recipes, both lack one crucial characteristic. Eggs play the role of a leavener. But fear not, because here I offer you a couple of solutions.

Case Study 1:

Though I mentioned that both a flax egg or applesauce work for muffins, the superior alternative is aquafaba. Aquafaba is the liquid that you usually drain out from a can of chickpeas. Because of the inherent high protein content that seeps into the liquid, it also has the ability to whip up and hold onto air bubbles—similar to how egg whites can be beaten into peaks.

#SpoonTip: For a vegan snack, make hummus with a can of chickpeas and reserve the aquafaba for your vegan meringue!

After a couple of trials, I came up with this light and airy Vegan Coffee Cake (16 servings).

For the cinnamon streusel topping:

- 1 cup brown sugar

- 1/2 cup all purpose flour

- 1 tbsp cinnamon

- 1/4 cup cubed cold vegan butter

1. Combine brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon.

2. Rub cold vegan butter into the mixture until crumbly.

For the cake base:

- 1 1/4 cups of plant milk of choice (I prefer soy)

- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar or lemon juice

- 3 cups all purpose flour

- 2 1/4 tsp baking powder

- pinch of salt

- 1/2 cup flavorless oil (I use vegetable oil)

- 3/4 cup organic sugar

- 1/3 cup aquafaba

1. To make vegan buttermilk, combine plant milk with apple cider vinegar and let sit for 10-15 minutes.

2. Mix flour with baking powder and salt. Set aside.

3. Whisk together oil with sugar and combine with milk mixture.

4. Add liquid mixture into the flour mixture and fold.

5. Whip aquafaba until soft peaks form.

6. Gently fold in whipped aquafaba to the cake batter until homogenous. Do not over mix.

7. Carefully add ½ of the batter to a parchment lined 8x8 inch pan.

8. Sprinkle half of the cinnamon streusel, spread remaining cake batter evenly on top, and finish sprinkle an even layer with the rest of the streusel.

9. Bake cake at 350ºF for 45-50 minutes (until toothpick inserted comes out clean). Let cool for 10 minutes before slicing. Enjoy!

Case Study 2:

When I think of eggs, I think of protein. So what is another protein-dense food that can add a silky texture and moisture to my cakes? Silken tofu. Although tofu provides a lovely texture for most baked goods, it lacks a leavening effect. Because of this, make sure you incorporate baking powder or baking soda. Silken tofu would be a perfect replacement for eggs in a thicker waffle or pancake batter, where flour would still serve the role of providing structure and crunch.

#SpoonTip: Add your baking soda/baking powder sparingly—they're stronger than you might think and you don't want to make your baked goods bitter!

A Work in Progress…

As much as I want to say I have it all figured out, I still have a long way to go. Just this past weekend, I absolutely destroyed a butter cake after attempting to veganize it. Its unappetizing remains are a testament to just how particular vegan baking can be.

I am also still looking for the perfect replacement to enrich my bread dough without a good quality butter and heaps of egg yolks, as well as the ideal substitute to support an airy Swiss roll, where the entire cake relies on the structural element and the natural ability of eggs to set at high heat. Although a few options are taken off the table, there are still countless desserts in the vegan baking realm for me to try. In some ways, it’s this very expanse of opportunity that makes vegan baking so enjoyable. As I continue to solve the mystery of vegan baking, I will also take this opportunity to seek for alternative desserts that may just hit the spot.

In the meantime, try making these delicious chocolate chip cookies and this amazing fall-worthy pumpkin bread.