Alright, you left the giblets out of your Thanksgiving gravy so that your vegan cousin Megan could eat something at your family dinner. Smooth move, my friend, especially since we both know she gives the best Christmas gifts. But now that December is here you’re expected to bake for people too, and you can’t just leave the butter and milk out of your favorite snicker doodle recipe! Now what will you do?!
The answer, dear reader, is science!
In my 3.25 years as a humanities major here at Davis, I’ve made it a point to avoid any areas of study that might require me to sit in a lab for 3 hours. Luckily, baking science only takes about half an hour of actual work and ends in brownies rather than lab reports. What’s more, the better you understand the ingredients you’re using, the more substitutions you can make. This is important for lazy, cheap-skate bakers like myself, and it’s especially great if you want to adapt your favorite recipe into a vegan one.
The recipe for the brownies pictured above comes from my “Very Vegan Christmas Cookies Cookbook” by Ellen Brown, but it was adapted based on the ingredients I had on hand. The original recipe reads as follows:
Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownies
8 oz. chopped bittersweet chocolate, divided
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup soy milk, divided
1½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ tsp. baking powder
1 cup roasted salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
¾ cup of chunky commercial peanut butter
6 Tbs. soy margarine, softened, divided
¾ cup confectioners’ sugar
1) Preheat oven to 350˚ F and grease an 8×8 pan.
2) Combine 3 oz. chocolate and oil in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on Medium (50 percent power) at 30-second intervals, stirring between the intervals until chocolate is melted and smooth. Scrape into a mixing bowl and set aside for 5 minutes to cool.
3) Reserve 1 tablespoon of soy milk. Add sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla and remaining soy milk to the mixing bowl. Whisk until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder and baking powder and whisk well. Add flour mixture to the liquids and mix until smooth. Stir in peanuts.
4) Scrape the batter into a prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 20-23 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached. Remove from oven and cool completely.
5) Combine peanut butter and margarine in a mixing bowl and beat at low speed with an electric mixer to combine. Add confectioners’ sugar, reserved soy milk and remaining vanilla, and beat for two minutes or until light and fluffy. Spread mixture on top of brownies.
6) Combine remaining chocolate and remaining margarine in a small sauce pan and melt over low heat. Stir until smooth. Spread chocolate over peanut butter layer and spread to cover completely.
Since I am lazy and cheap, however, I made a few substitutions based on what I had on hand.
The chocolate was an easy switch as most chocolates other than milk and white (which isn’t actually chocolate at all) are vegan. This does occasionally vary by brand, however — damn you, Nestle! — so always skim the list of ingredients for the chocolate you’re using before throwing it into the mix.
The last time I checked with the vegans in my house, cow’s milk was still on the no-fly list, so instead of using that — or, heaven forbid, walking all the way to the grocery store in order to buy soy milk — I made oat milk. This can be done in two minutes by grinding ½ cup of rolled oats into a powder and then adding them to a blender full of water, blending the two together and then straining out the oats. Oat milk at this stage is great for cooking, but if you’d like to drink it I would suggest adding vanilla and your favorite sweetener.
It should also be noted that because the purpose of milk here is just to add moisture to the recipe, any number of non-dairy milks, or even water, can be used here, though I would advise adjusting the amount of sugar the recipe calls for depending on how flavorful your chosen substitute is (less sugar for almond or coconut milk and more for water).
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour:
Whole wheat flour is often used as a healthy alternative to white flour because it still contains the fiber and nutrients that are processed out of its white counterpart. And pastry flour is just thinner and lighter than you’re run of the mill (pun fully intended) all-purpose flour. Luckily, having been stripped of its fiber and nutrients, white flour is already lighter than whole wheat flour. And if we cared about our fiber intake, we’d be making bran muffins, not brownies, right now.
I’ve never actually purchased confectioners’ sugar myself. Why? Because I have granulated sugar and a coffee grinder.
Once you figure out the science of baking, making tasty confections becomes easier no matter what you have at your fingertips. And with these tips in mind, there’s no reason why you can’t be your cousin Megan’s favorite family member at your next holiday party, thereby securing yourself a preferential place on her shopping list.