How do you create a great tasting vegan dessert when you can’t use key ingredients like eggs, milk and butter?
It’s certainly an area that is challenging chefs, with Tredwells’ Chantelle Nicholson grappling with it while developing recipes for her plant-based cookbook and even chains like Crussh taking on the tough task of turning classic desserts like key lime pie and banoffe pie into vegan delights.
But it’s also stimulating chefs' creative juices. Take Clarisse Flon, head chef of London’s first vegan patisserie. She drew on her training as a French pasty chef to
open Cafe Forty One, which offers vegan afternoon teas and French classics in vegan form.
Then there are bakers like Maria Mannoukas and Alex Ridley, who went from the street food scene to their site S.E. Cakery last month and are selling vegan cakes, balls, bars and loaves. Supermarkets might be slow on this front, but Whole Foods is also introducing B-Tempted’s vegan and gluten-free cupcakes and muffins into stores.
So how are vegan desserts hitting the sweet spot?
As a passionate vegan, Flon has spent four years developing vegan dessert recipes – something she openly admits has been an uphill battle.
“I think I have had a long time trying to make pastries vegan, like a croissant and the pain au chocolat. It’s about getting the right texture and the buttery taste, getting it not too sweet, and it’s a hard balance when you don’t have the usual ingredients,” she tells Food Spark.
“I think the brioche needs to taste like butter, and when you don’t use butter its quite hard – those technical recipes took me a bit of time. I’m still working on developing choux pastry – I haven’t been satisfied with the tests I’ve made. We have this project where we want to open a fridge counter, so we could have patisserie to go, so people can grab a coffee and cake. It would be nice if people could grab an éclair, as choux pastry is such a big part of French desserts.”
Flon was also determined to move past cupcakes (“there are a lot of vegan cupcakes out there”) and bring the delicacy, flavours and textures that define French patisserie. Things like lemon meringue, strawberry tarts and millefeuille – a bestseller so far – as well as deconstructed desserts.
“We have things that are a bit more personal to us. We have the apricot, raspberry and matcha dessert, which is with a matcha biscuit, grilled apricot and apricot mousse. I really like the plating, and it’s so nice to have something a bit more fine dining and to offer options that are quite unique to us.”
Pass me the plant-based milks
It’s a bit of science redeveloping classic desserts into vegan treats, says Flon, as you have to work out what the animal product is bringing to the recipe – whether it be texture, flavour, binding ingredients together or even making things like meringue fluffy. She says substituting butter for different types of margarine has been key, as well as using aquafaba (the liquid from chickpeas), while plant-based drinks have really flung the door open.
“Oatly blew up and changed a lot as their milk has the richness that you get from cow’s milk while other plant-based milk can be watery, which in pastry is not what you are looking for. We use a lot of different milks, which is quite exciting when you make vegan desserts as you have so many more different flavours than cow’s milk,” she says.
“We have rice milk, which is going to bring out different tastes more strongly. Oat milk is a bit creamier and we use it for crème patisserie. We use almond milk in our almond cake, hazelnut milk in our hazelnut entremet, that’s what’s very fun. People think veganism is very restrictive and you have less to play with, but that’s not true – it opens you up to a lot more options.”
Flon predicts more fine-dining-style vegan desserts will appear in the future, but for now she is determined to find the right texture for her vegan choux pastry – to open up a world of vegan profiteroles, éclairs and choux puffs.
As common as gluten-free?
Street food is credited for driving many new trends. In the increasingly common move from street food success at markets like Street Feast and Kerb, former DJs and now bakers Mannoukas and Ridley opened their first permanent bakery, called S.E. Cakery, in East Dulwich last month. Their street food staple, Brownie Bars, will be available in a variety of flavours, including salted caramel, honeycomb and peanut butter.
The couple are vegan, which has helped them to cater to this growing market, though they also created dairy- or egg-free cakes or brownies before launching the bakery.
When it came to designing the bakery menu, the obvious choice was to start with vegan eats, Mannoukas tells Food Spark.
“We went with a vanilla cake for the sake of a simple staple. In addition to that we chose flavours based on what we generally enjoy in a dessert. Whilst things will of course rotate, we started with coconut and lemon bars, ginger bliss balls and chocolate raspberry loaf, amongst others,” she says.
As for the future, Mannoukas sees vegan desserts becoming as common as gluten-free products in supermarkets. “There is so much more available in the likes of mainstream supermarkets, which I think is always indicative of demand. The general cultural lean toward wellness is driving this and people still want to indulge,” she says.
Chickpeas and gummy worms
Around the world, Food Spark’s trend spotters have also noticed some interesting experimentation happening with the sweet side of vegan.
One of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants last year, Villanos en Bermudas in Bogotá, is making a chickpea mousse with passion fruit sorbet.
Over in the US, Sweets by Chloe has been enjoying a good run since opening. The offshoot of the enormously popular by Chloe, the menu contains the usual cakes, cupcakes and cookies, as well as more unusual treats include a matcha chocolate babka pastry and grapefruit poppy seed muffins.
Then there are popular restaurants in New York like Dirt Candy, which specialises in vegetarian food but can make most of their desserts vegan – things like an onion chocolate tart, celery cheesecake roll and cucumber semifreddo pie. Michelin-star Nix currently has two vegan desserts on the menu: a spiced pear sorbet with sherry-poached pears and a chocolate mousse cake with passion fruit and amaro (an Italian herbal liquor). Nix has also ventured into chocolate dirt puddings with red currant puree and house-made vegan gummy worms in the past.
Then there are full-on vegan places like ABCV, which offers desserts like a matcha crème brulée.
So does Sparkie see sweet success for vegan desserts?
It is interesting. This is an area that serves as a solid example as to how slow retail can be. A single ingredient did the rounds on social media years ago now, with enormous potential: aquafaba. It is only fairly recently that I have heard about it being used in large-scale food production for this market.
The retailers are doing everything right with the savoury vegan/vegetarian market, but desserts do seem to be slower. Retail will get there, but it will begin slowly, with a few crowd favourites I think.
Outside of retail, it will go as far as creativity will let it, although there still seems to be the divide when food is advertised as vegan. Advertising vegan food seems to come with a stigma that it can't possibly be as good as the non-vegan product it is trying to mimic – that isn't always the case though and attitudes are slowly changing.
I think a quality first marketing approach may serve some well, rather than leading with the vegan stance. There are ultimately a lot of competitors now, so to remain successful, they have to break into the mainstream market by appeasing the concerns of non-vegans.