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Tasty Vegan Food? Cupcakes Show It Can Be Done
By TARA PARKER-POPE
Many people equate a vegan diet with deprivation, thinking that recipes prepared without eggs, butter, meat or other animal products are certain to be tasteless and boring.
But the reputation of vegan eating got a much-needed public-relations lift this summer from an unlikely place — the Food Network’s popular new show “Cupcake Wars.”
The program, which each week features four of the country’s top bakers facing off in three elimination challenges, recently pitted a 22-year-old vegan chef, Chloe Coscarelli, against three bakers of traditional high-end cupcakes.
The judges were skeptical at first. “I was surprised at the bravery and boldness to parade four different flavors of vegan cupcakes in front of the judges when everyone else was clearly going to be working with butter and eggs,” said one judge, Candace Nelson, the owner of Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I thought it was possibly working at a disadvantage.”
Ms. Coscarelli not only survived the first round, but did so to rave reviews. In the second round, her cupcakes — chocolate strawberry shortcake, raspberry tiramisù and crème-filled chocolate orange — captivated the judges. And then she took the final round — a presentation involving 1,000 cupcakes. The victory won her a $10,000 prize and the chance to supply the cupcakes for an OK! magazine celebrity event.
“Of all the shows we’ve done, the thing I hear the most is, ‘Were those vegan cupcakes really that good?’ ” Ms. Nelson said. “People are in sort of disbelief that this vegan chef beat out the rest of the competition. My answer is yes, they were delicious. It was everything we were looking for in a cupcake.”
Raspberry Tiramisu Cupcake
Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake Cupcake
Chocolate Orange Cupcake
Vegan eating has had a growth spurt in recent years. The book “Skinny Bitch,” by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin (Running Press, 2005), with its sassy arguments for vegan eating, has been a best seller for years. “The China Study,” by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II (BenBella Books, 2006), which takes a scientific look at the benefits of plant-based eating, has sold more than a half-million copies. And celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and the “Glee” star Lea Michele have embraced vegan eating.
But what was different abut Ms. Coscarelli’s Food Network triumph was that it didn’t rely on health or dietary benefits, or sympathy for animals, to promote the virtues of vegan food. Instead, the vegan cupcakes just tasted better.
“I think the waves it created and the coverage it got showing that vegan food can stand up to traditional baking is enormous,” said Colleen Holland, the co-founder and associate publisher of VegNews Magazine, to which Ms. Coscarelli is a contributor. “It was a pretty big moment for getting vegan food out there and showing there’s no deprivation, and that it’s the same level of food that’s made with eggs, butter and milk.”
Ms. Coscarelli, of Los Angeles, a recent graduate of University of California, Berkeley, and the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, said she tried out for the show hoping to change the image of vegan baking. Still, she worried that the network and the judges might reject the notion of vegan cupcakes out of hand.
“It was a huge risk,” she said. “I think right now veganism is portrayed as that horrible stereotype of hippie food that doesn’t taste good and that’s bland. I wanted to break through with a different image, that vegan food can taste exciting.”
Since the episode was shown in June and repeated in August, Ms. Coscarelli said, she has been swamped with e-mail and inquiries to her Web site, ChefChloe.com. She’s heard from several parents of children with egg or dairy allergies who were excited by the opportunity to finally bake cupcakes for their children.
“People are really inspired,” she said. “They realize it’s not weird if they’re choosing to eat a different way or have to eliminate certain ingredients. This shows it can still be done well.”
The biggest challenge of vegan baking is to create moist, light and rich-tasting cake without eggs and butter, the traditional binding ingredients for pastry dough. “I use a combination of baking soda and vinegar — it may sound gross, but it works chemically to bind the cupcakes,” Ms. Coscarelli said. “If the flavor is there, it doesn’t matter what kinds of ingredients you’re using to hold it all together.”
For frosting, traditional bakers use butter or shortening, whipping it with powdered sugar and other ingredients. Ms. Coscarelli substitutes organic refined coconut oil or nonhydrogenated margarines to achieve the same creamy texture. Other winning ingredients, like fresh raspberries and pure dark chocolate, are vegan to begin with.
On her videos and in her recipes, Ms. Coscarelli is venturing beyond cupcakes. Recently on her blog, she offered black-bean sliders with spicy mango sauce and guacamole, accompanied by Cajun yam fries. In January, her mango masala panini (made with spiced chickpeas, roasted-cauliflower curry and mango chutney) won a sandwich competition in Brentwood, Calif., beating out panini made with animal products like spiced pork loin, ham and Gruyère cheese.
With her porcelain skin and shiny, chestnut-colored hair, Ms. Coscarelli certainly appears to be a testament to the health benefits of the vegan lifestyle. But she says her goal is not to convert people to veganism, but instead to promote balanced eating and delicious recipes made from fresh, whole ingredients that just happen to be vegan.
“I like the challenges of cooking vegan because there’s more ways to impress people by showing them that it’s delicious, and it’s vegan, and it’s healthy,” she said. “I also like if you’re making cookie dough and there are no eggs in it, you can eat the batter. That’s one of the benefits of vegan baking — you always can lick the spoon.”
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ALLIANCE FOR ANIMALS RECCOMENDS: COLOR ME VEGAN:Maximize Your Nutrient Intake and Optimize Your Health by Eating Antioxidant-Rich, Fiber-Packed, Color-Intense Meals That Taste Great