She is called the queen of vegan baking, and, although I covet that title, she is a dear friend and I have to agree that Fran Costigan is probably the most recognized and beloved face of vegan baking today. She is also a wonderful and interesting person who shares my intense attraction to all things chocolate. As well as enlightening us on the finer points of vegan baking, Fran is also doing a vegan cookbook giveaway here today. Read to the bottom for more on how you could win Fran’s new book More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally (Book Publishing Company 2006).
Allison Rivers Samson: Due in part to the innovative efforts of people like your wonderful self, vegan desserts have come a long way since you started your journey. Do you find that people still have misconceptions about how delicious vegan desserts can be? How do you handle it?
Fran Costigan: Thank you Allison! Vegan desserts have certainly come a long way since I started my journey more than 25 years ago. I left the traditional “butter, egg, cream, white sugar” pastry recipes determined to apply foundational pastry technique to vegan desserts. At that time, unless you liked to eat dry, brownish or grey, heavy tasting desserts, vegans were out of luck. The biggest insult to me was seeing carob cakes passed off as chocolate. That was not good for carob, chocolate or the disappointed diner.
While the vegan dessert as cardboard (blech), or “it’s good for what it is” (mediocre) misconception happens far less frequently these days, it’s still an issue. My fix is pretty simple. Nothing leaves my test kitchen for publication, clients or classes unless it is excellent. Let’s face it, the really bad vegan desserts of old mean we have a big obstacle to overcome, so another way I handle the prejudice again vegan baked goods is to let the dessert speak for itself without announcing first, “this is vegan; you won’t believe this is vegan.” Now, instead of defending vegan desserts as wonderful, I find myself regularly having to prove that my desserts are in fact vegan!
I get lots of feedback via email, and social media posts from people who are using the recipes in my cookbook, More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally (Book Publishing Company 2006) to win baking contests, make celebration cakes and more. And, as I have begun to notice that requests for my recipes and classes, like Fran Costigan’s Vegan Baking Boot Camp Intensive®, are coming from non-vegan companies and organizations, I have realized that vegan desserts that taste good are sought after by everyone.
ARS: Wow, hearing that makes me feel like you’re in my head; I have said so many of the exact same things! With desserts as your primary focus, do you find a general perception that we must either deprive ourselves of “treats” or be considered overly indulgent?
FC: Typically, whether at a cocktail party or the dentist’s office, as people learn about my work, the conversation transforms instantaneously into a discussion about diet, health and… dessert. There is that general sense that to be healthy and eat a healthful diet equals deprivation, or if we do eat “sweets,” they mustn’t taste good or look indulgent. Of course, this scenario is a set-up for binge eating and guilt. Desserts are celebratory and even the most pure eater has a birthday, wedding, graduation or will share a holiday meal. The conversation often goes something like this:
“Do dietary restrictions mean dessert deprivation?”
(Me: No, they don’t!)
“Can I eat safely and healthfully and still eat dessert too?”
(Me: Yes, you can!)
“Can vegan desserts possibly taste as good as my old favorites?”
(Me: Absolutely! As good as, if not better than!)
ARS: Ok, really, are you in my head?! Do you find that there’s a balance with sugars and fats that’s healthy?
FC: My students are always surprised—shocked really when I start class by saying that dessert is a discretionary food group. You do not “need” desserts in order to be healthy. Then again, studies show that to be happy is healthy—so I must be extra healthy. Sugar has really been demonized lately in the news and in print with new books by doctors saying sugar is the devil. And fats are controversial too. Is no fat at all the only way? What about coconut oil versus olive oil? Add to this the uptick in media attention to the palm oil industry as it relates to destruction of irreplaceable rainforests and threatens the survival of humankind’s closest relative, orangutans.
Having taught and spoken with thousands of people over 20 years, I know anecdotally that the majority of healthy plant-based eaters enjoy some wholesome treats made with good quality fats and unrefined sweeteners. If I see a frosting recipe calling for 2 cups of powdered sugar, 2 cups of coconut oil or coconut butter or palm oil shortening of any kind, I am not going there. It doesn’t sound good to me. I am not dissing people who like these kinds of recipes; they are just too sugary and fatty for me.
ARS: Please share your philosophy on desserts as well as how your recipes are healthier than junk-food vegan desserts.
FC: My cakes almost always contain at least 50 percent whole-wheat pastry flour. The egg replacer is built in to my recipes, so I’ve never had a need to use commercial replacer. I choose not to use margarine, likely since I never used it when I was a traditional pastry chef. I prefer the real deal. Having found a mild tasting, California grown and processed extra virgin olive oil that’s perfect for desserts has been a great surprise. I love the way the extra virgin olive oil works in desserts. Since canola oil is a GMO group and heavily sprayed unless it is organic, I have been using the EVOO more.
This cake (below), made by a recent Vegan Baking Boot Camp Intensive® team, is composed of 2 layers of the Chocolate Cake to Live For, filled and frosted with the Chocolate Tofu Cream and glazed so beautifully with Bittersweet Ganache.
Eating a smaller portion of a treat that looks and tastes great is the way to avoid the deprivation/binge cycle. I’m not a health professional, but I do believe as a culinary professional, mother and now grandmother of four, that “treats” made using wholesome ingredients can be part of a healthy whole foods plant-based diet. This “dietary system” works for me and I know I am not alone. I have not deviated from my devotion to the Costigan theory:
“Eat a whole foods plant-based diet and save room for an unapologetically delicious, satisfying vegan dessert made right!”
(I’d say that any of the recipes in my books and all of Allison’s Gourmet desserts are in that category!!)
ARS: We truly are of one-mind, Fran! Your latest book, More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally calls for mostly organic ingredients. What are your reasons for preferring to use organic?
FC: Once I learned about herbicides and pesticides used in the production of our food, I simply could not imagine putting those things into my body. Using organic ingredients is better for the growers, the earth, and us.
ARS: Agreed. You teach courses in vegan food preparation for chefs-in-training at the Institute of Culinary Education and at the Natural Gourmet Institute. Do you find that mainstream chefs and restaurants are more accepting of vegan options these days? What’s it like for your work to be embraced by an industry that is so traditionally focused on animal products?
FC: Whether for personal health concerns, curiosity or a need-to-know for customers’ requests, chefs are seeking the information. After years of being marginalized, it feels terrific to be sought out by traditional chefs. I am now regularly invited to give talks & dessert demos, and submit recipes & articles for truly mainstream groups and publications including Desserts Professional Magazine.
To see the amazement of someone who can’t imagine dessert without eggs is exciting—and fun. When I was invited to do a chocolate vegan dessert demo in Paris at Paris Vegan Day Fest, I knew the time had come for new vegan desserts.
ARS: You and I share a deep love for our silky brown friend, chocolate, and you are working on a grand project on that topic right now. Care to share a sneak-peek on that?
FC: My next project is in fact an all chocolate cookbook, Irresistible Chocolate Vegan Desserts for Everyone: Dark and Decadent, Organic and Fair (Running Press, fall 2013). Over 100 recipes, all chocolate, with lots of basic, and not so basic information about using high quality, high percentage chocolates—as you say ‘our silky brown friend.’ I am constantly writing updates on my testing and tasting for the book on my Facebook and Twitter: @GoodcakesFran
ARS: Do you have a favorite Allison’s Gourmet goodie?
FC: This is almost like asking me if I like my son or daughter more. Every one of the chocolates in your Artisan Chocolate Assortment was my favorite. Gorgeous and heavenly bites to savor, and with treats like those, gift-giving is solved. I also adore all of the Chocolate Bark flavors and your Salted Chocolate Brittle. I want it—all the time.
Thanks Fran, you have such great insight into navigating the dual worlds of health and sweets. For a chance to win an entire cookbook full of Fran’s to-live-for vegan dessert recipes, comment here telling us what your dream birthday (or other special occasion) cake would look like. Two or three layers? Fudge or creamy frosting? Semi sweet or bittersweet icing or glaze, or…… You must be a resident of the US or Canada to win, and we’ll pick that winner on Thursday, June 7th. Have fun!
*This Giveaway is now Closed.