Where Vegan Meets 'Decadent'

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The mere mention of veganism prompts raised eyebrows among those who see it as a strange world of limited choices. But two New York writers are out to change that with "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World" (Marlowe & Co., 2006, $15.95), packed with 75 dairy-free recipes and lush photos aimed at making vegans and omnivores drool.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero first made a splash in 2003 with "The Post Punk Kitchen" on public-access TV (and viewable online at Google video and at http://www.theppk.com/); they describe it as "Brooklyn's fastest-growing vegetarian punk rock cooking show because it's the only one." Moskowitz went on to write the cookbook "Vegan With a Vengeance" (Marlowe, 2005), now in its eighth printing.

Editorial assistant Leigh Lambert talked to Moskowitz, 33, by telephone about vegan cooking and cupcakes. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Are your show and your books meant to speak to vegans, or meant to convert people who are not?

When we started we were just two girls cooking whatever we wanted. Now I feel I'm speaking to both [groups], which is hard, because you don't want to be condescending to people who are already vegan. So I just try to do what my mother told me and be myself.

How did you learn to cook?

I learned to cook when I went vegetarian [at age 10], simply by using cookbooks and cooking every day. In the '80s there weren't a lot of options for vegan food, and ramen noodles and pizza with no cheese gets tired after a while. I also cooked for Food Not Bombs feeding the homeless and hungry, and that really gave me a familiarity with all kinds of vegetables, plus knife skills chopping up piles and piles of vegetables. My friends and I were always having potlucks and cooking big meals every night. Cooking was a big part of the punk rock culture I was involved in. The kitchen is a great place to start when you're taking control of your life.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about vegans?

Lots of people think that vegans have no sense of humor, and that we're all constantly judging; that might be a little bit true. That vegans are so pushy, so aggressive. Or the opposite: that vegans are so meek and frail and waiflike. I'm not. People think we don't get a balanced diet. Just because you eat meat doesn't mean you're getting everything you need. I drink fortified soy milk with B12, which is really the only thing you can't get on a vegan diet.

Are there any techniques you regularly apply to turn traditional baking recipes vegan?

I rarely "veganize" an actual non-vegan recipe. At this point I have enough of my own recipes, so I just modify those. Generally speaking, soy, rice or almond milk replaces the milk. That's a no-brainer. If it's buttermilk, adding a little vinegar will do the trick. For butter I generally use a light-tasting oil like canola, just use a little less of it, about two-thirds of a cup or less per cup of butter called for.

Of course the trickiest part is the eggs. I often employ the "just leave them out" method, and you'd be surprised at how well that works, especially for cakes, but I'll also use ground-up flax seeds, soy yogurt, silken tofu blended with soy milk, and sometimes applesauce, which can also be used to replace fat. If it's a custard type of dessert, like, say, a pumpkin pie or peanut butter pie, something that is using the eggs to firm and jell things, then I use agar-agar, which is a tasteless gel from seaweed and tapioca starch.

Are there any things you just won't convert to vegan?

I don't bother trying to veganize meringues or anything that calls for egg whites to be turned into stiff white peaks. There is nothing I've found that really acts like an egg white, but when is the last time someone was craving a meringue cookie when there was chocolate mousse and peanut butter silk pie to be had? Also, if a recipe calls for a ridiculous amount of eggs, I just come up with a new recipe altogether.

What is the biggest challenge when baking vegan?

The same challenge any pastry chef faces, I think. Once you're familiar with the ingredients and methods, it's just a matter of coming up with new recipes, hoping that your oven cooperates and working with the recipe until it's perfect. I never think, "I'm vegan baking." I just bake.

Why a book on cupcakes?

I don't really have a rhyme or reason for what I do. Which is nice. The first episode of the show was cupcakes. It is a nice, accessible way to introduce people to veganism. It can still be fun and decadent.

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