ISO truly sumptuous vegan bakes
July 21, 2021 5:08 PM   Subscribe

I am occasionally tasked with providing some vegan baked goods alongside, or in place of, my usual Heinous Carnivore butter- and egg-fests, and I have run into a recurring issue: the vegan stuff just ain't as good. And I hate that! Please send me your truly indulgent, celebratory, gorgeous vegan bakes! Or, BONUS: clue me in to the techniques I'm missing.

I'm a baker of medium competency when it comes to conventional baking. I still need recipes for most stuff, but I can reliably turn out sponges or quickbreads or cookies to whatever texture and flavor are desired, and I can roll out a decent all-butter pie crust as-needed. I got there through a combination of very good recipes, lots of reading, lots of trial and error. I've also improved significantly at gluten-free baking.

But after a couple of years of vegan baking, 90% of the time* I still end up with:

-things look pretty but are dry, flavorless, or taste vaguely of chemicals
-things that taste all right, but are basically...lumps? Or cakes that fall to pieces and can't support layers or icings.

Tasty lumps are fine much of the time, but sometimes you want to present something both lovely and tasty, especially for things like birthday cakes, you know? And it especially sucks when it's a mixed-group thing and the conventional treats are going like gangbusters.

I feel like I am being careful to avoid the chief pitfalls of vegan baking: I don't skimp on the fats, I don't try to make things "healthy" by cutting carbs, and I'm very careful about my egg substitutes. I almost always try to work from recipes that were written vegan, rather than guessing at substitutes and proportions.

What am I missing? Is there a variable I should isolate? A true visionary of a vegan blogger I should follow? A no-fail-no-foolin' cookbook?

*I do know about the Smitten Kitchen olive oil chocolate cake, which is ABSOLUTELY able to hold its own against any buttery creamy confection. But I've already made that one for these folks, and yet they have birthdays every year (what the fuck).
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
It's not a fancy cake, but the ultra orange cake from the Joy of Cooking is good, and not at all dry.

I see both cakes rely on vinegar/baking soda for leavening, so perhaps that's something to look for, vs other egg replacements?
posted by loop at 5:19 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]

Isa Chandra Moskowitz is the queen of vegan baking. You cannot go wrong with her recipes. Her cranberry orange muffins are amazing (I sub chocolate chips for the nuts). She has many fantastic books of vegan desserts, but the website will give you a start.
posted by FencingGal at 5:33 PM on July 21 [8 favorites]

A fruit pie or tart that goes all-in on design (either with fruit or crust) might fit the bill. Crisco or vegan margarine to sub in the pie crust is not that poor of a sub for butter. Candied fruit is decorative and a pain in the ass if effort is what makes something feel special.

Also, I know the kind of fall-apart vegan cakes you describe, and although you're totally right about them not having the structural integrity to get layered, they're still regular requests in our non-vegan household because they are so tender, even for celebrations. Sometimes we decorate them by dusting powdered sugar over a cut paper template laid on the cake.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:35 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]

Here Is Moskowitz’s recipe for vegan Hostess cupcakes if you want something that’s a lot more work, but impressive.
posted by FencingGal at 5:42 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]

You should bake a wacky cake for sure! It's so moist and delicious and easy. Seriously better than any non-vegan chocolate cake I've had. You would never think it was vegan.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 5:43 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]

Years ago I used to bake weekly for various activist events and made a lot of vegan cakes.

If you make the ultra orange cake in layers and frost it with a buttery-spread buttercream mixed with toasted walnuts and chopped golden raisins, well, people usually think highly of that. It's not quite as robust as an egg cake but it's not at all too fragile to frost. If you're worried, do a skim layer.

I also used to make a big linzertorte basically like this one. IIRC, I'd double it and make it in a 9x13 pan. I am clumsy with my hands, so I would just roll out the pastry for the topping and cut it into shapes and lay it on the jam rather than trying to weave a lattice. I'd substitute buttery spread and one "flax egg" for the yolks.

Everyone everywhere always agrees on the flavor and value of these Cooks Illustrated Raspberry Streusel Bars; once again the only substitution is buttery spread for the butter.

I used to make a bunch of galettes from this recipe, again IIRC just substituting the buttery spread. If you like things to look nice, you might want to do a trial run first since galettes can be kind of juicy.

I made a very successful Bakewell Tart although I don't remember which recipe I used - really any one will do.

I also used to make blueberry buckle, although I can't find the specific recipe. Any one will do; substitute buttery spread for butter or shortening and use a flax egg.

I rarely baked "vegan" cake recipes and in general I don't like them as much- they often seem to use trendy ingredients and techniques and tend to have, as we used to say in the happy days of lolcats, a flavor. Instead, I'd look for regular recipes and veganize them. Buttery spread is an easy substitution - I actually usually used the whipped stuff in the tub rather than the baking sticks. The critical part is that you can substitute eggs in any recipe where there's no more than one egg per cup of flour and where the eggs are not whipped to add loft to the cake*.

Pate sucree and pate brisee are good bases - you can always make tarts and galettes with pretty good results. As I say, I'm clumsy so I prefer pat-in pastry to rolled and "rustic" shapes to formal, but people always finished my desserts. Homemade marzipan is good and so is almond or hazelnut pastry - not the gluten-free kind in particular, just the regular with buttery spread.

*Contra my anti-vegan assertions, I actually bet you could get good cake loft by whipping the canned chickpea liquid and as long as you left out the salt from the cake you'd probably be okay. I am meh on chickpea liquid/aquafaba and think that it too has a flavor, but when the flavor can be disguised it's okay.
posted by Frowner at 5:50 PM on July 21 [4 favorites]

I ended up making a bunch of vegan cakes for my own wedding. I used a mix of tips from Smitten Kitchen and Moskowitz’s tips, back when it was Post Punk Kitchen. The biggest revelation for me (besides the way different egg substitutes for different things) was to freeze the cakes thoroughly THEN frost and decorate, they really retained their structure that way, to the degree I did a multi layered tier thing and it held up.
posted by stormygrey at 6:06 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]

I can't eat dairy. A lot of recipes use vinegar to activate baking powder; I use apple cider or orange juice, and the flavor's better, with plenty of acid to activate the baking powder. The toasted walnuts and chopped golden raisin or coconut, dried cranberries, dried cherries, pecans, etc., sounds great. Not all of it, but fruit & nuts help. Earth Balance is my preferred non-butter; always check ingredients, as some spreads have a lot of water.

Also, pie or crisp is an easy vegan treat. You can even use a mix of rice flour and ground almonds along with rolled oats, non-butter, sugar to make it gluten-free.
posted by theora55 at 6:25 PM on July 21

The Grit in Athens, GA, has the Chocolate Death Cake, which is a vegan chocolate cake that's now the only chocolate cake my husband will bake (we're not vegan). It's moist, dense but with a light crumb, super rich, and just...damn. It's so good. The ganache is made with silken tofu and dark chocolate chips, and it's fantastic.

The recipe is in the Grit's cookbook, but it's also available here:

Their cookbook has several specifically vegan dessert recipes, and all their desserts can be made vegan with substitutions.
posted by malthusan at 6:35 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]

Have you ever made Magic Bars before? These are stupidly easy to make, are vegan, and you can make them gluten free as well if you use gf graham crackers. I made them for a friends party once and no one “could tell” that they were vegan or gluten free, which is the highest compliment. They were also completely demolished which is the other highest compliment.
posted by Champagne Supernova at 6:55 PM on July 21

I love this amazingly moist carrot cake from Simply Recipes. To make it vegan, I switch out the 4 eggs with 4 tblsp ground flax seed with 12 tblsp water, mix and let it sit for 5 minutes. Also, I sub vegan cream cheese (premade) for the frosting. Really delicious and can be layer, sheet or cupcakes.

I bake exclusively vegan and I use both regular recipes with substitutes (flax eggs, oat milk, earth balance/butter) or veg bloggers like Minimalist Baker or Nora Cooks Vegan. Good luck!
posted by j810c at 7:04 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]

I swap out homemade soy / brown rice milk and Bob’s Red Mill egg replacer for milk and eggs in a lot of recipes with great success - including Hokkaido milk bread, various cookies and so on. I also use Country Crock brand plant butter - I’ve even gotten pretty good biscuits with that.

And I’m not using vegan recipes. Just the same stuff I’ve always made but with vegan swaps. I do think the homemade milk makes a difference tho - something about the store-bought ones always has an “off” flavor to me and my homemade milk is very thick / creamy.
posted by hilaryjade at 7:21 PM on July 21

Yep: that delicious choc olive oil cake is a wacky cake, and she has a couple others on the site that are just as plush / "really, it's vegan?" No links but one is coconut and the other is funfetti. I have also improv-ed a lemon-lime wacky cake and it was delicious. I haven't ever had as much luck with other egg replacements as I have with good ole acid and baking soda.

Lump-adjacent, but the peanut butter cookies in the original Post Punk Kitchen cookbook are also very, very good (if sometimes a little crumbly) and these mexican hot chocolate snickerdoodles also always turn out so delicious AND profesh-looking.
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:37 AM on July 22

I've been a vegan for more than 20 years and am a pretty serious baker, so I have opinions about this topic. Most vegan baked good recipes on the internet are just bad. It's a fact. Here are a couple of trustworthy sources:

1. Isa, as many people have mentioned above, -- I haven't had consistent good luck with her cookies (some of them are great, like the hot chocolate snickerdoodles mentioned above, but some taste "vegan") but her PB blondies, lemon-poppy bundt cake, and all the muffins/quick breads I've tried are really good. Terry -- who often co-authors with Isa -- has an amazing pignoli-almond cookie that can absolutely stand up to anything non-vegan.

2. Hannah at Domestic Gothess. I've made her stollen, battenberg cake, banana-chocolate-peanut butter cake (I made peanut brittle to top it and it was insanely good), Hokkaido milk bread, and used the milk bread dough to make cinnamon buns, and they've all been excellent. You will need to measure by weight. (Some of her older recipes aren't vegan, but everything from the last few years is.)

3. Constanze at Seitan Is My Motor. Her "best vegan brownies" really and truly are the best (if you like a fudgy brownie). She is a professional chocolatier and a phenomenal home baker.

4. King Arthur -- I actually haven't made any of their specially vegan recipes, but I've veganized a fair number of their enriched/fancy breads that don't have too many non-vegan ingredients (like this one) following the tips outlined below and have had good results.

You might also take a look at (they look promising but I haven't actually made anything from their sites):
Project Vegan Baking
Vegan Dad

Some thoughts on veganizing recipes:

1. Don't use earth balance from the tub in place of butter. If you can find and afford it, Miyoko's butter sub is much more delicious and has less water. If you need to use earth balance or another margarine, get the sticks, not the tub kind or your fat/water ratios will be wrong.

2. Aquafaba is the only egg replacer I use these days (adding some extra fat to make up for any egg yolks left out). No weird aftertaste or little bits like flax, and it's cheap and easy to come by if you eat chickpeas with any regularity (I just keep a little container of it in the freezer and top it off every now and then when I open some chickpeas).

3. Pick recipes that have a flavor that doesn't rely on butter/eggs. Vegan yellow cake is hard to make delicious. Vegan banana cake or chocolate cake is easy. Similarly, recipes with actual chocolate, peanut/nut butter, or coconut milk tend to be good bets since a good portion of the fat in the recipe will already have the right flavor and people won't just be tasting margarine.

Finally, here are a couple of hand-wavy recipes that can get you to really delicious, impressive desserts easily if you're already comfortable baking:

Aquafaba pavlova -- super impressive and the meringue just tastes like sugar and vanilla like any other meringue. I don't have a specific recipe as this is one recipe where random googling will probably work out fine.

Chocolate-berry tart: make a crumb crust (oreos + a little coconut oil work well), bake it, fill the shell with chocolate ganache (melt chocolate with a bit of almond milk and a smidge of coconut oil) and top with berries arranged in a fancy way (you can top with melted jam too, if you want).

In a similar vein, Bon Appetit has a great vegan chocolate tart with a salted oatmeal crust that's very delicious and beautiful (two notes: their ganache recipe is weird but tastes great, and double or triple the topping recipe and add pecans or other nuts/seeds to it)
posted by snaw at 3:54 AM on July 22 [13 favorites]

Also, I am not a prolific user of instagram, but if you want to see photos of some of the recipes I mentioned above, they're here.
posted by snaw at 5:14 AM on July 22

I also came in here to recommend the Joy of Cooking's ultra orange cake - you'd want to fancy it up with frosting etc. to get something impressive, but it's a really tasty base. One day, my (relatively young!) children wanted to bake something and we were almost out of groceries, so I said - I am not going to the store, and I am not going to help you beyond safe oven supervision, but if you can find a recipe in here that you can make by yourselves with what's in the house have at it. And they made this cake, and I took a bite, and I was like, what!? you MADE this? and it's VEGAN? My son has made it several more times and it seems to be pretty foolproof and delicious.
posted by zibra at 5:50 AM on July 22

I also used to bake Isa Chandra Moscowitz's pumpkin muffins but with sweet potato and using five spice powder - you can bake them as a bread or a cake if you keep an eye on the pan and you can frost with a five spice frosting. I should really make those again.

In terms of vegan baking in general:
I've become skeptical of some of the truisms that you read. I've baked with both buttery sticks and buttery spread, for instance, and found that it did not make much difference. In theory, of course, the water/fat ratio is different, but in practice I've come to doubt a lot of the "baking is a SCIENCE" stuff because when I try it both ways it doesn't seem to matter.

During the pandemic I've been baking with a mid-century cookbook (sadly, pretty egg-intensive) and they do a lot of stuff that you're not supposed to do in contemporary baking - mix cake batter for 300 strokes as a matter of course, for instance. It turns out that it is difficult to overmix a cake if you haven't added whipped egg white /aquafaba. Mixing for 300 strokes changes the texture, but the texture is just slightly coarser (and for some cakes I prefer that!) if you don't mix for 300 strokes (some days I have the arm and some days I don't).

I've also experimented with different ways and degrees of creaming sugar into butter/buttery spread, starting with different temperatures of butter, etc. And again, it doesn't make much difference.

I have no doubt that if you are making croissants or folding in whipped egg white or making milk bread or something that is indeed very texture dependent then you need to follow the directions exactly. But most baking isn't like this and it never was - someone baking at home in 1815 used approximate measurements a lot of the time and relied on experience and the robustness of the recipes.

For that matter, ingredients themselves aren't consistent - some flour is drier than other flour (King Arthur always seems particularly thirsty to me and I usually add extra liquid). Eggs aren't perfectly consistent in size, even fairly carefully graded ones. I have measuring spoons that are slightly different from set to set.

For me, the best assist to my baking has always been baking regularly.
posted by Frowner at 7:34 AM on July 22

and yet they have birthdays every year (what the fuck).

Are you sure this is a problem? In my family, treats that occur regularly on special days are highly valued. I would personally be happy to see the olive oil chocolate cake again and again, because I am not a confident baker, and I enjoy it when someone makes the cakes I love again and again.
Right now, I have a big jug of aquafaba in the fridge, and I've been thinking of making macarons, like these. Maybe tomorrow. I think blueberry macarons with a vegan "nutella" filling would be divine.
Lately I have been making crêpes and galettes with aquafaba instead of eggs, and they have been very good. Crêpes with vegan "nutella" and berries is a good thing. But there is also a Swedish tradition of pandekagekage, which is a lot of crêpes layered with sweet delicious stuff. Normally, there is cream involved, but it would be gorgeous just with raspberry jam and chopped almonds in the layers. (link to google image search, so you can see the concept). If you really want something creamy, I have discovered that against my convictions, I rather like flavored vegan yogurt.
posted by mumimor at 7:59 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]

I am not vegan, but bake this chocolate cake often, simply because i like it, and it is easy to make.

I copied the recipe and method from the Guardian.
chocolate fudge cake
This is such an easy cake to make: no creaming, no sifting. Be sure to use a tight-fitting cake tin as the batter is quite wet and will run out if there are any gaps.

Cook 45 min
Cool 30 min
Serves 8

For the cake
225g plain or light spelt flour
1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 good pinch salt
75g cocoa
250g dark muscovado sugar
75g coconut oil
1½ tsp vinegar (or cider)

For the icing
75g coconut oil
50g dark muscovado sugar
1½ tbsp cocoa
150g dark chocolate (70% cacao), finely chopped

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Grease an 18cm round springform cake tin with oil and line the base with baking parchment.

Put all of the icing ingredients except the chopped chocolate into a heavy-based saucepan with 60ml cold water. Heat until the coconut oil is melted, making sure the mixture doesn’t boil, then turn off the heat, add the chocolate and leave it to sit. After about a minute, whisk until you have a dark glossy icing and set aside. It should be cool and thick by the time the cake has baked and cooled.

For the cake, whisk the flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and cocoa together in a bowl. Make sure there are no lumps of bicarbonate of soda.

In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, 375ml of just-boiled water, the coconut oil and vinegar. When the coconut oil has melted, stir into the dry ingredients, then pour into the prepared tin.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. When it is ready, the cake should come away from the edges of the tin and a skewer inserted into the centre will come out clean. Cool for 30 minutes in the tin, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Pour over the icing and decorate as you wish.
Personally, i spread the cake with jam, before pouring the icing. Sometimes i also slice it in half horizontally and spread jam in the middle before putting the top back on. Or filled it with butter cream but i don't have a recipe for vegan butter cream.
posted by 15L06 at 8:06 AM on July 22

Not much baking in Alton Brown's tofu chocolate pie, but it's basically decadent chocolate ganache in a crust, and easily veganized by substituting for the honey in the pie and butter in the crust.
posted by esoterrica at 9:02 AM on July 22

Apparently almost three years ago I asked for vegan gingerbread recipes and this response was really helpful -- it's naturally vegan instead of having a lot of substitutions and very flavorful and moist without falling apart; it's now my go-to gingerbread recipe even for non-vegans. Thank you for asking this question!
posted by an octopus IRL at 10:38 AM on July 22 [2 favorites]

I recently made a chocolate pie with melted chocolate, coconut milk, and cashew butter as the filling. SUPER decadent and easy. I think it may have been a minimalist baker recipe. Also there's a great cookbook, modern vegan baking I think it's called, with an AMAZING recipe for a peanut butter pie that uses pb and vegan cream cheese. People I made it for swooned and still talk about it.
posted by bookworm4125 at 8:40 AM on July 23

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