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Let them eat cake

(article, Ashley Griffin Gartland)

No dairy. No eggs. No butter. Vegan baked goods are defined by what they lack — specifically, animal products. Once upon a spelt cookie, “vegan pastry” meant dry, gritty, lumpy, yuck. Non-vegans regarded vegans and their cuisine with a wary, even mocking, eye. 

These days, however, enterprising bakers across the country are opening bakeries dedicated to the idea that “vegan” and “delicious” can co-exist. Thanks to the increased variety and quality of vegan cupcakes, bread, and the like, the word “vegan” now more often summons up images of manna instead of dust and ashes.

[%image teatime float=right caption="Tea time at Teany." credit="Photo courtesy Kelly Tisdale"]

At Teany, a vegetarian teahouse in Manhattan (co-owned by Moby, the pop star and committed vegan), the bakery menu is enthusiastically and completely vegan. When Teany opened in May 2002, its vegan scones, muffins, and array of tempting desserts garnered an immediate following. 

“It couldn’t have been better,” says co-owner Kelly Tisdale. “Every single customer we had couldn’t believe how great these desserts and breakfast breads were.” 

Teany has provided vegans with a cute and indulgent café for diners with dietary restrictions. And yet it also serves a non-vegan crowd, a clientele that regularly registers disbelief upon biting into vegan treats — especially Teany’s vegan chocolate cheesecake. 

“I get the impression that non-vegans think that everything that is vegan tastes like cardboard,” says Tisdale. “So to taste something that is so perfectly sweet, decadent, moist, and vegan shows non-vegans that there are many great vegan options out there.”

The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that vegans make up just a tiny fraction of the population. In a 2006 poll, the VRG found that 1.4 percent of the total U.S. population is vegan. The VRG’s statistical sample is small (just 1,000 adults), but the growth of vegan bakeries like Teany suggests that interest in vegan foods, at least, is on the rise. 

[%image minidonuts float=left caption="Mini donuts at Mighty-O." credit="Photo courtesy Ryan Kellner"]

h3. To market, to market

When Ryan Kellner opened Seattle-based Mighty-O Donuts in May 2000, the initial response was small but positive. The company quickly adopted some simple strategies to help its vegan goods appeal to both vegans and non-vegans, starting with a pledge to make only tasty, quality products.

“It was suggested by friends that we make our donuts organic and vegan. It was a great idea for all the good reasons organic and veganism embody,” says Kellner. “We thought it would be well received if we didn’t compromise the quality and made a donut that everyone could enjoy.”

Today, all of the company’s powdered, sprinkled, and glazed donuts are made from scratch using certified-organic ingredients. Unlike donuts produced by national chains, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Mighty-O donuts contain no chemical preservatives, hydrogenated oils (i.e., trans fats), artificial coloring, or artificial flavors. They are also 100 percent plant-based (i.e., free of animal products). 

Mighty-O has promoted the better-for-you aspects of its donuts, but for the most part, the company lets its donuts speak for themselves. “We did what we did the best way we knew how, and that was to make organic vegan donuts,” says Kellner. “We told people about them and put them out there for people to try.”

Kellner says that Mighty-O customers are diverse but exhibit common traits: They are all intelligent, aware, and conscientious individuals. As these consumers spread the word, the demand for tasty vegan goods — Mighty-O’s top seller is the Good’ol Glazed, although Nutty French Toast and Lot’s O Chocolate follow close behind — should allow bakers to shift away from marketing and toward expanding their culinary repertoire. 

h3. Kitchen secrets

A few hours south of Mighty-O, in Portland, Oregon, an ambitious 29-year-old named Amanda Felt has brought vegan treats to the locals. For seven years, Felt’s Black Sheep Bakery has fed a steady stream of regular customers who purchase her products at local farmers’ markets, mainstream coffee shops, and such larger retailers as Whole Foods. 

"Sixty percent of the customers who buy my muffins are not vegan,” says Felt, whose bakery is one of two pastry providers for the Peet’s Coffee & Tea chain in the Portland area. “I attribute it to the rise in healthy, conscious, and local eating habits. Vegan baked goods just happen to fall into these categories.”

When she started Black Sheep, Felt says, she believed that the vegan market was primed for better-tasting, better-quality baked vegan goods. Her intention was to make locally produced goods that people would not only eat but crave and come back for more.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Blueberry muffins at Black Sheep Bakery." credit="Photo: Chloe Willrett, courtesy Amanda Felt"]

“There was a humongous hole in the vegan market, and while packaged goods are wonderful, I have no idea when they got made or where they came from, and that scares me,” Felt says.

All of her products, Felt adds, have less fat than traditional sweets because she’s eliminated butter, hydrogenated margarines, and dairy fats; they’ve been replaced with non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, unsweetened applesauce, low-fat soy milk and soy buttermilk. 

Across the country, vegan bakers are doing what Felt does: marrying flavorful, high-quality ingredients like fresh orange juice and citrus zest with vegan products like soy milk or egg replacements. Felt describes it as “the eternal harmony of science, art, and sensuality,” a process that begins with mathematical measurements and ends with creativity in substitution. 

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Using oil, for example, in place of butter helps produce a more reliably moist treat — a trick that the makers of boxed cake mixes have known for decades. "The variables involved in butter or margarine, i.e., temperature, whipping, water content, and quality, are eliminated with oil," says Felt. "Oil lends itself to greater foolproofness, and you can safely credit the oil for the bulk of the moistness."

But all the kitchen wizardry would be useless if the end result tasted dreadful. Perhaps one of Felt’s customers at a farmer’s market put it best: “Woman, oh my God, where have you been all my life? This is the best carrot cake I’ve ever had.”

h3. The sweet life

[%image wedding float=right width=200 caption="A wedding cake crafted by the bakers at Sweet Life Patisserie." credit="Photo courtesy Sweet Life Patisserie"]

Another couple of hours south, in the college town of Eugene, Oregon, patrons at sisters Catherine and Cheryl Reinhart’s Sweet Life Patisserie echo similar sentiments about the bakery’s lengthy line of vegan desserts. At Sweet Life, a good quarter of the pastry lineup boldly displays “animal-product-free” labels. Eugene is known for its hospitality to alternative ways of living, but the vegan treats at Sweet Life (especially the vegan cheesecakes) are popular with picky, doubtful, non-vegan college students as well. 

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h1. Sampling the vegan wares

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Teany
90 Rivington St
New York, NY 10002
212-475-9190
Mighty-O Donuts
2110 N 55th St
Seattle, WA 98105
206-547-0335
Black Sheep Bakery
833 SE Main St
Portland, OR 97214
1-877-23-VEGAN
Sweet Life Patisserie
755 Monroe St
Eugene, OR 97402
541-683-5676
Sticky Fingers Bakery
1370 Park Rd NW
Washington, D.C. 20010
202-299-9700

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Catherine Reinhart believes that the current interest in vegan foods is traceable, in part, to the demands of other restrictive diets. Vegan baked goods provide options for individuals, like herself, who are lactose-intolerant. Since her bakery started tagging its vegan goods as “no dairy, eggs, or animal products,” rather than “vegan,” she says people with other special dietary needs have started ordering the vegan items. 

“It increased our business, because people who were lactose-intolerant started buying it since it wasn’t just targeted as vegan,” Reinhart says.

But she doesn’t believe that vegan baked goods are an entrée, so to speak, into veganism. “It seems to me that people make that decision based on diet or the environment, but I think that the fact that there are desserts they can eat make the decision more palatable,” she says. “It’s nice for people to be able to indulge.”

Eating vegan, Reinhart adds, is a still dietary choice based on personal ethics, health needs, or food allergies, not on the convenience of local bakery options. Ultimately, while the proliferation of vegan bakeries may increase the ranks of vegans nationwide, its real accomplishment might simply be broader acceptance of alternative ways of baking. 

“I’ve spoken with many people whose sweet tooth or chocolate habit has pushed them off the (vegan) wagon,” says Felt. “I feel it’s similar to the idea that sweets are the hardest part about eating healthy. I could eat lettuce and carrots all day, so long as I can have a cookie after my dinner.”

p(bio). Ashley Griffin Gartland is a Portland-based food writer and the executive director of the Portland Culinary Alliance. She occasionally goes vegan, usually when eating Amanda Felt’s moist, delicious muffins.

Elsewhere on Culinate: A book review of two vegan cookbooks, and an interview with Isa Chandra Moskowitz.


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