Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On Baking Vegan

I love to bake.  I really Really REALLY (with all the superlatives of an 11 year old girl who has just discovered unicorns and rhythmic gymnastics) love to bake.
            My mother is a fantastic cook, but I am the better baker.  (With the possible exception of the time that I got the tea-towel caught in the electric hand mixer and we had to scrape cookie batter off of the walls all the way over in the living room.  It only happened once, and shouldn’t still count against me.  Can we let it go?)
            While I was growing up, she and I tag-teamed in the kitchen - I kitchen-maid-ed for her while she cooked and she kitchen-maid-ed for me while I baked.  Our kitchen ran very smoothly and produced some seriously epic meals, but our system had one failing.  It wasn’t apparent at the time, but when I moved out and began cooking for myself, I discovered that while I was washed dishes and peeled potatoes, I was failing to learn the intuitive feel for a casserole or stir-fry that I had for a cake batter.
            When Mr Tabubil and I moved in together, the good meals happened when it was his turn to make dinner.  I could manage a plain roast, and produce a saucepan of plain steamed rice, but anything else was beyond me. 
            My magnum opus happened the evening I got home slightly earlier than Mr Tabubil and decided to pan-fry a pair of large pork chops I had found in the fridge - and have dinner ready for him when he got home.  Because I am very nice that way.
            I didn’t know much about meat but I knew that you were supposed to cook pork chops until all the pink had been cooked away.  I hadn’t realized that it would take so very long to happen – when Mr Tabubil got home an hour later, the apartment was full of smoke, I was sweaty and cross, the pork chops were dry as a bone and pure charcoal to a quarter inch depth on every side, and they were still pink in the middle. 
And Mr Tabubil had to sit down right there in the kitchen doorway to properly appreciate just what I had done to an extremely nice and extremely expensive pair of prime rib-eye steaks that he’d been resting in the fridge in anticipation of a really bang-up Friday dinner.

I didn’t truly learn how to cook until we moved to Whyalla, in rural South Australia, and began taking lessons with Saul the cordon bleu chef, who gave me, first and foremost, a basis of technique, and then, later, the beginning of an understanding.  These days I count myself a perfectly capable cook – in certain things, possibly even slightly better than the average.  But when it comes to baking – I rock.
            I do. I really do.  Cakes, brownies, cookies, bars, soufflés and lamingtons - bring on the sugar and the chocolate and the spices and the booze and the egg whites and the cream and the butter –!
            Which presents me with certain problems at the moment.  Here in Santiago my social circle includes several vegans, and the dairy and the eggs - even the sugar - aren’t working anymore, and I’m having real trouble finding recipes that make palatable alternatives.
            I’ve been all over the internet, and even ordered a book or two, but quite a lot of vegan-substitute ingredients are unavailable here in Chile, and I’ve found that even the best regarded recipes are rather hit and miss.  I’ve added a moderately decent red-velvet cake to my repertoire, and an adequate maple-syrup and hazelnut muffin.  My vegan friends rave, but not to put too fine a point on it, most of the vegan recipes I’m making are deeply mediocre.
            And Merely Acceptable is Not How I Roll.  Someone once tried to tell me that not every dessert needs to be a showstopper, and as far as I’m concerned, they might as well have been speaking Swahili or Bhasa Indonesia (neither of which I speak.)   If you’re going to invest yourself in a dessert, it had better be worth every single calorie.  Go Big, or Go Home.
            So when I stumbled onto a vegan recipe for chocolate brownies last month – a recipe that was not only good by vegan standards, but stood handsomely against most regular brownie recipes I know, I was ecstatic.  (They're not quite up there with the Best Chocolate Brownies Ever, but very few things in this universe are.  Sort of like the Chinese synchronized divers in the 2012 Olympics.  The nations of the world might duke it out for bronze and silver, but the Chinese divers were  diving on another plane entirely.)  And when Alba (who is vegan) asked me to make her birthday cake, I said ‘Sure!  No worries!’ and felt extremely smug and reckoned that my social cred was going to earn maximum points for the price of an hour in the kitchen on a Friday afternoon.

These brownies consist mostly of flour, melted chocolate and home-made applesauce, tossed together into a bowl, then stirred, and baked for half an hour in the oven. The night before the party, I mixed up a big double batch  and popped them into the oven, where they completely refused to bake. They wouldn't rise, they wouldn't brown -
          They boiled.  Mr Tabubil and I watched through the oven door as they simmered and bubbled, a lake of brown apple stew with ribbons of chocolate that rose like lava from the depths of the baking pan and swirled and sank again –
            We took them out after a full hour and threw them into the fridge for the night.
            “Maybe” Mr Tabubil said hopefully, “they’ll harden in there. Like a chocolate cheesecake sort of thing?”
            After a whole night in the fridge, the brownies remained a liquid.  Of a sort.  The sugar in the apple had caramelized and the alleged brownies had become two pans of a strange, sucking, toffee-like tar.  When I poked at it, my finger didn’t want to come away.  When I sliced into it, the incisions oozed slowly closed again while I watched, and as for the taste, Mr Tabubil has fillings in his teeth and I have crowns on mine and neither of us were silly enough to experiment.
            I had a theory.  The recipe called for melted chocolate or cocoa powder (eight ounces of each) and possibly – just possibly, I had misremembered myself and used cocoa powder the first time i made the recipe?  And maybe my applesauce had been too thin?  Mr Tabubil nipped off to the shops to buy up all their cocoa powder while I made up another batch of applesauce, and we stirred everything together and…


Eight ounces is rather more cocoa powder than people might appreciate if they haven’t tried this themselves - it is finer and thinner than flour and a little goes a very very long way. The applesauce melted into it like it had never existed, and I had a mixing bowl that looked like an overflowing dustbath for chocolate sparrows. I added a cup of soy milk to wet it down.  The cocoa powder didn’t even notice.  I added another cup, and then I doubled the applesauce. The air in the kitchen was turning brown with floating cocoa powder, but at last, I had something that approximated at least a bread dough – if not a cake batter.  Good enough, we reckoned.  We threw it into the oven where it began to rise away happily, like a real cake. 
            And came out of the oven with the density of plutonium, and tasting exactly like the bowl of straight-up cocoa powder that it was.  Edible, it was not.
            Mr Tabubil and I had an afternoon engagement with another couple for an double-bill of back-to-back superhero movies. 
            “I think” I sighed “that I’m not going to make it to the cinema. Give my apologies, will you?”
            While Mr Tabubil went off to watch the new Batman movie, I whipped up an emergency red-velvet cake, and collapsed limply into bed for a nap.  And got up again to have a shower (my hair was full of cocoa powder, and my arms were streaked red to the elbows with food coloring from the red-velvet cake. There had been a small accident with the hand-mixer, and the kitchen looked like an abattoir.  Red food-coloring just keeps on giving.) and dashed off to the Parque Arauco mall to meet the others for the second movie on the afternoon’s schedule.
            And after that we had to go home and have a nap because we still had to ice the cakes before we got to the birthday party.  
            I wasn’t at all sure about the cocoa-powder neutron bomb, but Mr Tabubil made soothing noises and talked me into taking both.

It was a very nice party, if slightly schizophrenic.  The non-smokers refused to go outside on the balcony because out there it was freezing.  The smokers sat on the small balcony and froze and refused to come inside at all.  At one o'clock in the morning Alba’s husband Sebastian orchestrated a détente and turned down the lights and came out with my red velvet cake and we all sang happy birthday.  It was quite a nice cake.  People smiled a lot and I felt moderately fulfilled on a personal level.
            Half an hour later, Alba sliced up my death-by-cocoa cake and passed that around as well.  I picked up my purse and prepared to do a runner, but glory to the kitchen gods - 
            The vegans all dug in with relish and had a second slice!
            Which was about what Mr Tabubil had said when he'd talked me into bringing it.  "It's going to be pretty boozy party. So bring it.  When people get tanked, they'll eat anything." 
            And now I have a reputation as an epic-fantastic master baker, based, mostly, as far as I can tell, on the fact that I actually bake
            That’s a good thing, right? 

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