Delicious Vegan Chocolate Desserts from Fran Costigan
Fran Costigan’s new book Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Dessertsis filled with enticing vegan chocolate ideas, from her very popular Bittersweet Ganache Glazed Chocolate Cake to Live For to her vegan versions of Brooklyn Blackout Cake, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups and a decadent Chocolate Espresso Gelato. I caught up with the busy author and teacher to talk about vegan baking in general and her love of dark chocolate.
Dédé Wilson: Fran, thank you so much for spending some time with me to chat about vegan baking.
Fran Costigan: My pleasure, Dédé. I am enthralled with Bakepedia! What a wonderful resource.
Thank you! I wanted to get you onto our site because we have bakers coming from all perspectives, including those who have an interest in vegan baking – and who better to ask about that! Tell me about your approach.
I’m always telling my students that vegan baking doesn’t mean not understanding classic baking technique.
You began as a traditional pastry chef…
Yes. I graduated from the New York Restaurant School and my first job was as a traditional pastry chef. You know how it is; I would go through mountains of butter and eggs and white sugar…this was the1990s…I was working and not following a vegan diet – I didn’t know any vegans -and I liked the work but I didn’t feel very well. I had had stomach aches my whole life and allergies. By chance I picked up a copy of Food and Healingby Annemarie Colbin (and founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute) and started to read about how diet could affect one’s health and how one feels. Today that sounds so obvious, but back then it was not so widely known or accepted. I decided to eat a more whole foods and plant based diet and I started to feel so much better. Now, I want to make a point of saying that this is what works for me. I think we are all bio-individuals and I think the food police should go away. But I started to feel great. This was 22 years ago! Digestion was better, allergies went away, energy was steady and for me, because I was interested in food, I wasn’t interested in deprivation. I don’t think of it as what I can’t have. I think about all the new foods; it was a whole new world I grew up with TV dinners and canned peas. Now I was excited about the grains and beans and fruits. It was different back then. People weren’t eating as “whole” as they are now.
I didn’t want anything to do with desserts. I felt so radically different and I shunned sweets for years. Then one day my 14 year old son said, ‘You can’t put a candle in a sweet potato and call it my birthday cake. I will run away from home!’
(Laughs). He really said that?
Yes, he did. You know at that time I looked around (at healthy style offerings) and the so-called desserts people were eating were dry and gummy and brown. Nothing tasted good to me. I looked at the few cookbooks available and they didn’t make sense. They would suggest 1 cup barley malt or 1 cup maple syrup and I could tell that the recipe wasn’t wouldn’t work. You can’t just substitute liquid sweeteners for sugar.
Tell us a little about white sugar and vegan baking.
Many people who eat vegan won’t use white sugar because it is filtered through bone char. But here’s the thing. I use all kinds of alternative sweeteners, but I don’t say my desserts are healthy. They might be more healthful, but desserts are not a food group. Moderation is key.
Around that time I was working in a kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen (NYC) called Luma. It was a high end restaurant; they did serve fish but that was it. There was soy for coffee, a miso/root vegetable spread on the table instead of butter. I was charged with creating the dessert recipes. I was making their cake recipe and I could taste the hydrogenated margarine in frosting and the cake itself had cake tofu in it and was quite heavy. I began adapting my skills. I had never used margarine in my traditional pastries because I do not like it as an ingredient. Why would I use it in my vegan desserts?
I love this approach and is one of the things I love about your new book, Vegan Chocolate. Your sensibility is apparent; that you come from a classic background and the techniques are sound.
My breakthrough came with Chocolate Cake to Live For. I invited friends over – non-vegans – to taste it and they said, ‘Fran, you did it! This is a vegan cake we would eat!’ They loved it. It is my most Googled; my most requested. I had to learn about different sweeteners; they are more humectant, they have different flavor profiles. You can’t just use one in place of another. Agave, for instance, wants to stay liquid so I don’t use for batter based desserts like cakes. I differentiate between liquid and granulated sweeteners.
So back to sugar. You do use whole cane sugar as a granulated option.
Yes, I like organic Wholesome Sweeteners as a brand. I will use whole cane sugar, but since it has molasses in it I won’t use it in my lemon cake.
There’s your classic training.
Right! The molasses would overpower the lemon. My vegan desserts do have some healthful qualities. There is no cholesterol in them and I use whole-wheat pastry flour. I think it works better with liquid sweeteners; the crumb is better.
Being happy is healthy. Vegans follow their diet for many reasons but they still have birthdays and weddings and bake sales and want desserts and baked goods that taste great. I have something everyday!
Fran, tell us some of your top tips for home bakers who want to bake vegan desserts.
Well, Vegan Chocolate was written for beginner and advanced bakers. You will find something for your level. The number one thing is that you should approach vegan baking as you do traditional desserts.
For instance, measure carefully using the right equipment! You have some great tips on Bakepedia and these are sound baking practices. I like to whisk dry ingredients first, measure with the correct sized cup, sweep off the excess, then sift.
Know the difference between dry and liquid measuring cups. And when it comes to sifting, I just use a mesh strainer. Such a multi-purpose tool! I don’t even own a traditional sifter anymore. And by the way when it comes to flour I often use a mix of 50% organic, unbleached all-purpose flour and 50% wheat pastry flour. I will use organic cane sugar in place of white sugar. Some granulated sugars are very coarse, such as Sucanat, which I grind down to a finer consistency.
Make sure your oven is preheated and that the racks are placed properly. Keep the dry and liquid ingredients separate until your pan is prepped and oven is ready. Read the recipe all the way through and follow it! Use the right ingredients: alkalized and Dutch-process cocoa are different. Do a mise en place: roast and cool nuts and coconut, chop chocolate finely and evenly and in the case of vegan or organic sugars: Grind them as directed. Preheat the oven, prepare and use the right size pan.
Sound familiar?? Pay attention to details! I stress these to my students in Costigan Vegan Baking Boot Camp Intensive®
You are right! These are just best practices for any kind of baking. It makes sense that they would apply to vegan baking.
Also, people don’t always know what vegan means. Sometimes they think vegan and gluten-free are interchangeable, but this isn’t necessarily true. You have to pay attention. As I said before,
I didn’t use margarine when I was a traditional chef and I don’t now. I will use extra-virgin olive oil or another neutral oil. I insist on quality chocolate. I won’t use boxed egg replacers.
Now talk to us about chocolate. When you started baking vegan desserts were there any surprises?
I wanted to use higher percentage chocolate because they give us the most bang for the buck. 70 to 72% is my go-to and works really well but I was quite surprised at how different the same percentages can be from brand to brand; they can vary hugely. People need to taste to see what they like. I prefer to use a fair trade chocolate if I can. I suggest these things, but I don’t tell. It’s not a rule. Also people always ask me if chocolate is vegan. If it has no milk products and if it uses an organic, less processed sugar then it is. The milk addition is something to pay attention to. Up to 12% milk solids are allowable in chocolates labeled “dark” but it will be disclosed on label. Read the labels! If you have severe life threatening allergies you have to be aware.
So if the label says organic chocolate the sugar is not processed through bone char?
Right. Also, beet sugar is never filtered through bone char and has been favored by vegans, but beets are a big GMO crop, so it has fell out of favor.
Fran we are going to include your Chocolate Dulce de Leche and your Chocolate Ice Cream Shell. Our community is crazy for dulce de leche and a chocolate version is just so decadent. And I love the idea of being able to make a chocolate sauce at home that hardens on cold ice cream, just like you can get at an ice cream shop.
Thank you, Dédé. It’s been great chatting with you.