Not so long ago, most Americans considered vegan desserts an oxymoron.
But thanks to new and better ingredients, as well as improved availability, the last decade has seen a revolution in the world of egg- and dairy-free baking.
"In the old days, you'd think of vegan baking as whole-wheat flour and fruit-based sweeteners and grains, sort of like a reflection of vegan food from the '70s," says Colleen Holland, associate publisher of VegNews magazine.
"Now it's petits fours. It's brownies. It's fudge. And you can't even tell the difference from the mainstream versions."
For starters, interest. Healthy eating trends have led more people to investigate vegetarian and vegan foods. Vegetarian Times magazine, for example, says half its readers aren't vegetarian.
As a result, vegan bakeries have opened around the country, and vegan cookbooks and Web sites are more prolific, offering a wealth of resources to bakers who prefer to eliminate animal products — including eggs and milk — from their diet for ethical or health reasons.
"Not everything has to taste like wheatgrass now," says Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World" and the forthcoming "Veganomicon." ''Veganism has gotten a lot more decadent."
Vegans also have benefited from tremendous growth in the organic and natural foods industry. Organic foods aren't necessarily vegan, but strong interest in them has fostered a marketplace that allowed vegan products to flourish.
Greater attention to food allergies has helped, too. Awareness of egg and dairy sensitivities has prompted many families to seek out alternatives, efforts that sometimes turned into businesses.
As in the case of Divvies, a South Salem, N.Y., bakery and online shop started in 2005 by Lori Sandler, a mom frustrated by the lack of treats available for her son Benjamin, who is allergic to eggs, dairy and nuts.
"I wanted to turn the tables when it came to food for allergic people," she says. "I wanted Benjamin to walk into the party with food everyone wants, not a petrified cupcake that's been sitting in the freezer."
Now Divvies sells vegan and nut-free cupcakes, cookies, candy and popcorn, all wrapped in festive and upscale packaging. Customers include Disney, which sells several of the treats at its amusement parks.
As of last year, the vegetarian food industry is worth about $1.2 billion, more than double what it was in 2002, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel International Group.
"People don't want to suffer for their choices," says Lee Busch, founder and owner of Somerville, Mass.-based Goodbaker, which sells vegan baking mixes. "So vegan products have gotten a lot better in terms of taste."
HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
While eggs and dairy have long been considered baking staples, vegan bakers say that in most recipes both ingredients are easily eliminated, and many new products make that much simpler than a decade or so ago.
"When people were baking cakes with whole-wheat flour and using apple sauce for moisture, you might as well have used them for door stops," says Christina Pirello, host of the vegan public television cooking show Christina Cooks.
"It's changed a lot. It's finally come out of the fringe because of the products that are available now," she says.
A wide range of oils, margarines and shortenings, and fruit purees can be used for butter, while soy and rice milks can replace cow's milk. And in all cases, the quantity and quality of choices have improved dramatically.
Where once soy milks were grainy and unpleasant (at least to most mainstream tastes), newer non-dairy milks (which now include almond and various grain-based versions) are sweeter, smoother and creamier.
Avoiding eggs can be trickier, but it's not impossible.
Popular substitutions, depending on the recipe, include arrowroot powder, vinegar, ground flaxseed, pureed banana or silken tofu, and commercial egg replacers such as Ener-G, a product made from potato starch and tapioca starch.
"People associate baking with eggs, butter and cow's milk, but it's more accurate to say baked goods need fat, moisture and leavening," says Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, author of "The Joy of Vegan Baking."
"And those are available in plant form," she says.
THE LIMITS AND THE RESULTS
Nothing is perfect. Even with the advances in vegan baking and ingredients, some egg-dependent recipes — such as angel food cake and meringue — just can't be replicated.
Still, with more people experimenting with more products and ways of substituting for dairy and eggs, the results have sometimes been inspired. It also helps that the focus in much vegan cooking has shifted from ethics to taste.
"My activism is in my products," says Allison Rivers Samson, whose Nevada City, Calif.-based Allison's Gourmet sells organic vegan fudge, truffles and other treats.
"I don't say 'You should be vegan because of these statistics and these horrible things that are happening to the animals,'" she says. "That's important to me, of course, but I find people can be swayed a lot more by good taste than by horror stories."
Not so long ago, most Americans considered vegan desserts an oxymoron.
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