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Thursday, February 29

Gapers Block

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There are some people for whom cooking comes naturally. Give them a random sampling of ingredients and they'll toss together something that tastes surprisingly fantastic. Then, there are those people who, despite being devoid of such talents, can get by quite well with a good recipe. I'm the latter type, so when I wanted to surprise my vegan friend with cupcakes on his birthday, the first thing I did was head to the bookstore and crack open a few cookbooks to research the possibilities. I am nothing if not a girl who thoroughly enjoys her meats and cheeses, so I approached vegan baking with a bit of trepidation.

After perusing the shelves, I finally settled on Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World: 75 Dairy-Free Recipes for Cupcakes that Rule, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Their book was appealing because the ingredients they used weren't wholly unfamiliar to me, the baking techniques were par for the course, and the cupcakes themselves sounded quite tasty, vegan or not. The cupcakes I chose for the birthday were chocolate cupcakes topped with peanut butter frosting, because the Birthday Boy loves peanut butter and chocolate, and a pumpkin spice cupcake with vanilla icing, because in the fall everything comes dressed up in pumpkin. I altered the recipes slightly, in accordance with my own tastes and conveniences, and I've noted my changes in the instructions that follow.

Your Basic Chocolate Cupcake
1 cup soy, rice or almond milk
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract, chocolate extract or more vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder, Dutch-process or regular
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and line a muffin pan with paper or foil liners. My first alteration was the use of almond milk instead of soy milk in this recipe. Because I'm not a huge fan of milk, dairy or otherwise, I had very little to go on other than a friend's suggestion to use the almond variety in vegan baking. I've heard the quality of soy milks can vary wildly and not being able to ask the Birthday Boy for his favorite brand of soy milk without arousing suspicion, I heeded the almond milk suggestion and used Blue Diamond's Almond Breeze, Original flavor, which worked wonderfully. If you enjoy a specific brand of soy milk or prefer rice milk, go ahead and try using that instead. Whatever the milk you choose, whisk it with the vinegar in a large bowl and set it aside for a few minutes to curdle. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. (Sifting's not terribly important here — a nice fluff with a fork will do.) Add the sugar, oil and the extract(s) to the soy milk mixture and beat till foamy.

Unless you specifically want an almond-flavored cake, I would stay away from using almond extract here. I did a test batch of this recipe before the birthday, during which I followed it to the letter, including the almond extract. I found, however, that the almond didn't work in the cupcake's favor and almost overpowered both the chocolate flavoring and the peanut butter frosting. In the final version, I omitted the almond and simply added another 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract because it was what I had on hand and the cupcakes were all the better for it. I imagine chocolate extract would have worked well, too. Add the dry ingredients (your flour, cocoa powder, baking soda/powder, sugar, salt) to the wet ingredients in two batches and beat until no large lumps remain (a few tiny lumps are OK). Pour into liners, filling three-quarters of the way. Bake 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely. Both times that I made this recipe, the cupcakes turned out softer than I expected. They never formed particularly solid bottoms and, if handled carelessly, were easily mangled when removed from the baking pan. I'm not sure if that's the result of something I did or that's simply the way the recipe turns out, but regardless, the cupcakes turned out moist and chocolaty and did not seem to suffer for their lack of eggs or butter. Just use gentle fingers and the aide of a knife to ease them out of the pan. Top with Peanut Buttercream Frosting when cool.

Peanut Buttercream Frosting
1/4 cup margarine, softened
2 tablespoons shortening
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup or molasses (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1-2 tablespoons rice milk, soy milk or soy creamer

With an electric handheld mixer, cream together the margarine and shortening at medium speed until smooth. Add the peanut butter (I used a natural peanut butter with no sugar added because I didn't want a terribly sweet frosting), barley malt syrup (I omitted this because I had neither it nor molasses on hand) and vanilla extract and beat until very smooth, 2-3 minutes. Beat in the sugar; the mixture will be very stiff. I must confess that I neglected to sift here as well, having forgotten that I owned a sieve. The frosting turned out smooth anyway, so don't forgo frosting if the task of sifting seems too laborious to you. Dribble in the milk a little at a time — again, I used almond milk because I had it on hand — beating continuously until the frosting is pale tan and very fluffy. Adjust the thickness of the frosting by adding more milk or more confectioners' sugar in small increments if necessary. I found 1 1/2 tablespoons of the milk produced a frosting consistency to my liking. Frost cooled cupcakes. The result is a nicely sweet, lightly peanut butter-flavored frosting that sat quite well atop the chocolaty cupcakes. Because of the all the other ingredients, the peanut butter flavor isn't a strong as you might imagine and it works well to complement, rather than compete with, the chocolate base.

Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes with Cinnamon Icing
(or, Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Vanilla Icing)

First, the cupcakes:

1 cup canned pumpkin
1/3 cup oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup soy milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chocolate chips
(optional: 1/4 heaping teaspoon each ginger, nutmeg and allspice)

As an introduction to this recipe, the authors write, "We love the taste of pumpkin and chocolate; we didn't spice this up too much so as not to upset this delicate balance." I decided to shift that balance significantly. Since I was already doing something chocolaty that evening, I first omitted the chocolate chips in this recipe to produce a cupcake of a determinedly different flavor. Secondly, I love pumpkin-based baked goods not so much for the flavor of the pumpkin itself, but for the dense, succulent texture it lends; I also love pumpkin-based goods because they tend to include one of my favorite spice combinations: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. I decided to heed my own preferences here and add the spices, calling it a "Pumpkin Spice Cupcake" so my culinary guinea pigs... um, friends... would have a better idea of what they were getting. A tip: if you don't already have these four spices on hand, you can pick up a small container of Pumpkin Pie Spice that contains nothing more than this delicious mixture.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a muffin pan with cupcake liners. In a medium bowl, stir together the pumpkin, oil, sugar, soy milk (once again, I used the almond milk) and vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and additional spices, if using (and once again, not sifting won't hurt the cupcake). Stir together with a fork — don't use a handheld mixer, as it will make the batter gummy. Once well combined, fold in the chocolate chips, if using. Fill the liners two-thirds full and bake for 22-24 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let fully cool before icing. These cupcakes baked up much firmer than the chocolate cupcakes and had a texture much closer to my expectations. I suspect this may have been due to the added weight of the pumpkin. They tasted incredible, too — I even preferred them to the chocolate cupcakes and I'm a fairly big fan of chocolate.

Next, the icing:

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons margarine, melted
1 tablespoon soy milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. If you're like me and prefer a spicier cupcake, leave the cinnamon out of the icing so as to not overdo it with the overall product. Add the margarine, soy (or almond) milk and vanilla and stir with a fork until smooth. Keep at room temperature until ready to use. The mixture should look opaque and honey brown, if cinnamon has been added. If it's glistening a lot or looks too liquid, add a little extra confectioners' sugar. Similarly, if the icing seems too thick, add a little extra milk.

To assemble, take a small plastic sandwich bag and cut out a tiny hole in one edge or fit a pastry bag with a small-holed decorating tip. Fill the bag with icing and pipe it out Jackson Pollack style onto the cupcakes. You may also opt to pipe it in zig-zags, lines or swirls. Or, just drizzle it generously over the cupcakes with a fork. Let the icing set at room temperature or refrigerated. The icing is sweet and sticky and lends an even greater level of richness to the already full-flavored cake.

The final verdict: vegan baking isn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. With just a few ingredient substitutions, it doesn't differ all that much from any other baking I've done. Judging from my omnivorous friends' reactions, the recipes didn't produce any less satisfying of a cupcake than one full of dairy. Most importantly, though, was the vegan Birthday Boy's pronouncement of them as "delicious." Having satisfied the sweet cravings of such differing dietary preferences, I know these are two recipes I'll use again.

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Sheila / December 14, 2007 2:45 PM

Beautiful timing! I just started dating a guy who is vegan and this bacon-lovin'lady is finding it hard to figure out how to cook for him. I'm making these tomorrow and inviting him over for salad, soup, and cupcakes.


About the Author(s)

Veronica Bond is a guest columnist for One Good Meal; she's normally to be found in the Book Club blog. Cinnamon Cooper returns next week.

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