For my May cooking challenge, I selected Erin McKenna’s cookbook, Babycakes: Vegan, Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York’s Most Talked-About Bakery. I had randomly picked up this cookbook, as well as its follow-up, Babycakes Covers the Classics, at a Half Price Books over a year ago, but I hadn’t baked a single item in either book since then. I’ve dabbled in vegan cooking here and there thanks to Mark Bittman’s VB6 program, but apart from vegan banana bread and pancakes from the Minimalist Baker blog, I’ve stayed away from vegan baking. I’ve never believed that vegan baked goods recipes could compare to my full-of-dairy favorites.
There’s nothing like a mother’s motivation, however, to finally push one to make a change. James appears to have a dairy allergy, breaking out in red rashes around his mouth and chin (and sometimes belly) when he eats dairy products. He drinks almond milk as a result, although we have given him cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Cheese is the dairy item least likely to cause the rash, while yogurt and ice cream are culprits nearly every time. So as he’s growing older and getting to enjoy more sweets, I’ve had twinges of guilt for not making a greater effort to prevent his rashes. It was time to give Babycakes a try, and luckily I had a three-day Memorial Day weekend in which to bake up a storm.
James’s red spots after eating yogurt.
As it turns out, vegan baking is not nearly as intimidating as it sounds – at least once you locate the ingredients. It did take us multiple trips to HEB, Whole Foods, and Sprouts before we (mostly) found the ingredients for the recipes I’d selected from the cookbook. But I learned a lot in the process, knowing now, for example, to simply order some items online and save us the grief of unsuccessfully scouring health food store shelves.
It also helps to carefully read not only the individual recipe instructions but the introductory material to the baking cookbook, as well. It turns out that all of the recipes in Babycakes use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients and wet ones. Too bad that I read that AFTER I had made all of my recipes – oops! It didn’t seem to skew my results very much, except for #4 below, but that recipe had multiple issues going on with it anyway.
And so on to the recipes! The four Babycakes recipes I prepared in May, ranked in order from most liked to least liked, are as follows:
1. Spelt Biscuits – p. 37 – 4.5 stars
I knew it was risky trying vegan biscuits, as I already have a beloved buttermilk biscuit recipe from Southern Living that made my husband say the first time that I made them for him, “We would’ve gotten married sooner had you made these for me while we were dating.”
So expectations for these were rather low. But, wow, these spelt biscuits were good. The recipe calls for white spelt flour, which was one of those ingredients we had trouble finding at first. (John finally tracked some down in the bulk foods section of the downtown Austin Whole Foods.) I keep regular spelt flour on hand, as it’s the primary grain in the vegan pancakes I often make, but white spelt flour was new to me. The remainder of the ingredients were simple: baking powder, salt, coconut oil, and hot water. [Side note to those of you wondering – no, spelt flour is not gluten-free. Spelt is a distant relative of wheat which often causes less distress to those with gluten issues, but it is not considered gluten-free. The subtitle of the book isn’t entirely accurate.]
The dough came together very easily, and it was nice to be able to skip the rolling step of making biscuits, as the spelt biscuit dough was easily patted down by hand. I did have to bake the biscuits longer than the 8 minutes stated in the recipe, but otherwise they did just as the recipe indicated they would.
We all gobbled these biscuits up and laughed as James repeatedly pointed to the bread basket and begged, “More! More!” Are they as good as the Southern Living buttermilk biscuits? No, not if you’re doing a side-by-side comparison. But on their own, they are more than worthy of the biscuit name.
2. Strawberry Shortcake – p. 41 – 4 stars
Growing up, strawberry shortcake meant store-bought round spongy cakes, sliced strawberries, and Cool Whip. I loved it.
As an adult, I find that combination less appetizing, especially after my mother-in-law made a biscuit-like strawberry shortcake last year that was extremely tasty. That is likely why I selected this particular recipe from Babycakes to prepare – the photograph in the cookbook looked just like Loveta’s strawberry shortcakes from last summer.
The recipe for the shortcakes is very similar to the spelt biscuit recipe above, but it includes cane sugar and vanilla extract where the biscuit recipe does not. I used a 3.5-inch round cookie cutter for the shortcakes, which yielded impressively large shortcakes (the recipe calls for a 3-inch cutter). None of us minded the XL size too much.
Instead of a whipped topping, the recipe uses vegan vanilla frosting (recipe #4 below). Because my frosting turned out to be coconut frosting instead of vanilla (read on for that fun story), the shortcakes had a slightly tropical flair to them. But coconut frosting or no, the shortcakes were downright delicious. I will make these again!
3. Zucchini Muffins – p. 31 – 3.5 stars
If you’re on the hunt for a moist, spiced muffin, look no further. These zucchini muffins, while not much to visually look at (hello, flat tops with sad depressions in the middle), were super yummy.
Most of the ingredients I had on hand, including spelt flour, flax meal, and coconut oil, but I did have to pick up a bottle of agave nectar and a carton of rice milk. Those ingredients overlapped with other recipes that I’ve been eyeing, however, so I didn’t feel that they would be going to waste.
I baked these while James napped one afternoon, so I offered one to him for his post-nap snack. He picked it up in two hands, brought it to his mouth, and then proceeded to hold it there, without a break, while biting, chewing, and swallowing just as fast as his little jaw could go. Then the muffin was gone and he asked for another. Same procedure. Two muffins gone in about two minutes flat.
I call that a successful muffin recipe.
4. Vanilla Frosting/Vanilla Sauce – p. 91 – 2 stars
I love my mom’s buttercream frosting recipe. I spread it generously on cakes and cutout cookies throughout the year. But it has dairy, obviously, so I wanted to see if it was possible to make a vegan frosting that came anywhere close to that beloved buttercream.
The Babycakes frosting recipe, sadly, did not make the cut. The photographs in the cookbook show a gloriously creamy, spreadable frosting atop cupcakes and cookies. My frosting was grainy and a tad bit crumbly. It tasted great in the strawberry shortcakes, but I would not be able to frost a cake with it.
Before I judge the recipe too harshly, however, there were two variables at play (in addition to the dry vs. wet measuring cup issue) that may have adversely affected my outcome:
a) I could not find dry soy or rice milk powder at any of our grocery store stops, but I did find one bag of dry coconut milk powder at Sprouts. I used that to prepare the frosting, which was why my strawberry shortcakes above had that coconut presence to them.
b) The frosting is made in a blender or food processor. Once it’s prepared, you can either refrigerate it overnight (in which it’ll firm up into frosting) or leave it on the counter (in which you’ll have a sauce). I did not add the coconut oil and lemon juice while my blender was running as the recipe instructs. There was already so much liquid in the blender that I feared it would splash out the top if I removed the center piece of the lid to add the oil and juice while the rest of the liquid was spinning.
So before I toss out this frosting recipe for good, I want to give it a second chance in which I follow the recipe exactly. I have a carton of dry rice milk powder on order from Amazon, and I’ll try making the next batch in my food processor instead of blender.
All in all, I consider my weekend of vegan baking to have been a success. I even managed to work in a few additional vegan baking adventures by also trying recipes from one of my favorite blogs, Minimalist Baker: Aquafaba Granola (yes, John, I DID use chickpea brine to make that granola that you loved – surprise!), Almond Meal Chocolate Chip Cookies (also known as secret aquafaba recipe #2), and Vegan Chocolate Ice Cream (no chickpea brine here, but maybe it would’ve helped this to not be so thick and pudding-like; this, even more than the vanilla frosting, was the big disappointment of the weekend).
I don’t have my June cookbook selected yet, but perhaps I’ll keep rolling with the vegan baking train and try recipes from Babycakes Covers the Classics. Stay tuned!