Vegan Valentine: Healthier Sweets for Everyone Forget heavy, fruit-and-nut-filled offerings from the local co-op. Just in time for that sweetest time of year, Nicole Spiridakis offers hip vegan twists on tried-and-true dessert classics that match up to their traditional counterparts.

Vegan Valentine: Healthier Sweets for Everyone

Forget heavy, fruit-and-nut-filled offerings from the local co-op. Today's vegan recipes give their butter-egg-milk versions a run for their money. Nicole Spiridakis for NPR hide caption

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Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Forget heavy, fruit-and-nut-filled offerings from the local co-op. Today's vegan recipes give their butter-egg-milk versions a run for their money.

Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Easy Substitutions

For milk, substitute with rice or soy milk in a 1-to-1 ratio. For buttermilk, add one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice per cup of soy or rice milk and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

For eggs, 1 tablespoon flax seeds plus 3 tablespoons water replaces one egg. Finely grind 1 tablespoon whole flaxseeds or use 2 1/2 tablespoons pre-ground flaxseeds, then beat in 3 tablespoons of water using a whisk or fork. Or mash 1/2 banana until very smooth and use it in place of one egg.

For butter, use the equivalent amount in margarine, or use olive or vegetable oil (for example, 1/4 cup of butter would equal a little less than 1/4 cup of oil).

About the Author

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her cooking blog, When she's not in her (tiny) kitchen working on a new dish, she writes a column about apartment living for the San Francisco Chronicle's Home and Garden section.

My adventures in vegan baking all started with my dad.

Even though he kept to a low-fat diet and swam a mile-and-a-half several times a week, hereditary high cholesterol forced him to give up his favorite buttery treats — and his sweet tooth suffered.

I decided to do something about it.

Once relegated to a dusty rack by the health food store checkout counter, vegan baked goods have acquired a bit of cool lately. Cookbooks such as Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz of public television's Post Punk Kitchen, and a general turn toward healthful eating, have helped make animal-free more appealing.

Today's vegan sweets bear little resemblance to the heavy, fruit-and-nut-filled offerings I remember from my college co-op — and thank goodness for that. As more people are diagnosed with food allergies or have to limit their fat intake due to cholesterol or other issues, vegan options are cropping up at coffee shops and even some non-vegetarian restaurants. In short, vegan has become more hip than fringe.

Not to mention that it's kind of fun to put a twist on classic recipes and adapt them to suit new needs and tastes.

But really I started baking vegan cookies and cakes for one simple reason: I love to spoil people, and the main way I do it is through food. As I met more people who were going the vegan route, I became even more determined none of them should miss out on delicious baked goods just because they no longer ate animal products.

When I began my exploration, I first took down my battered Fannie Farmer cookbook. I turned to some of my previous tried-and true recipes — a chocolate cake, gingersnaps, banana bread — and then took out the butter and eggs.

Sometimes I swapped in margarine and sometimes applesauce; sometimes my cookies turned out perfectly and sometimes they were perfectly inedible. But through some strange trick of alchemy — and a lot of trial and error — I managed to hit on combinations that were almost better than their cookbook counterparts.

In the early days, my dad ate pretty much everything I put in front of him. Once I made carrot cake studded with juicy raisins and walnuts and topped with a faux cream cheese frosting that was quite passable. The shredded carrots kept the cake moist and sweet, so we hardly noticed it lacked butter.

The oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, however, were less successful. When I used a combination of cornstarch and water in lieu of eggs, and substituted vegetable oil for margarine, the cookies ended up too dry for my finicky taste. Dad, though, still ate them up.

As time went on, I got bolder. I learned that a particular combination of vinegar and baking soda made my favorite cake bake up high and light, with a tender crumb. I sometimes added a little more cocoa powder for extra richness, and served the cake sprinkled with slivered almonds. Butter? Who needed it?

Now, my standards reach even higher. I'm not content merely to create something that tastes OK; it must be memorable and delicious. I strive to create cupcakes that are gobbled up just because they are so tasty. I take pride in presenting guests with slices of rich lemon cake piled with sliced strawberries, and silently wait until they scrape their plates to inform them it was made sans animal products. I love the element of surprise, and disbelief: "This is vegan?" they all say. "But it's good!"

An added bonus is that the recipes often are easier to prepare — usually just a whisk or spoon will do to mix up the batter — and the results are very good without being too cloying. (We've all had that regretful feeling after devouring a particularly rich butter cream.)

As Valentine's Day approaches, I'm plotting what vegan treats I'll make for the sweeties in my life. This year, I think a batch of sugar cookies with a kick of ginger will do nicely, along with a luscious apple-pear galette with a crust so crisp and shattery they'll never miss the butter. And of course there must be chocolate — specifically, rich chocolate cupcakes with a decadent chocolate "butter cream."

What better way to spoil those you love than by whipping up something sweet that also respects their dietary restrictions? And who said tasty desserts can't also be healthy? Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of experimentation — and a reckless abandonment of butter.

Note on Substitutions for These Recipes

In these recipes, where margarine is called for, I recommend using Smart Balance, as it's free of trans fat. If you'd rather not use margarine or Smart Balance, 1/4 cup of olive oil may be used in the sugar cookie recipe. And instead of frosting your cake with the "butter cream," melt some dairy-free dark chocolate and drizzle it over the top for a light, trans-fat-free glaze.

Chocolate Cake with Chocolate 'Butter Cream'

I make this recipe a lot as cupcakes (it makes one dozen) and it's since become my go-to chocolate cupcake recipe. Rich and moist, you'll never miss the butter (I promise). Double the recipe and bake in two 9-inch round pans for a layer cake, and double the frosting to fill and frost.

Makes 12 cupcakes or one 9-inch cake

For the cake:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (can use a mix of wheat and white flours)

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar

1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease one 9-inch cake pan or line a cupcake tin with cupcake liners.

Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the oil, vanilla, vinegar and water. Whisk together until smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool before frosting.

For the butter cream:

4 ounces unsweetened (or bittersweet) chocolate, chopped

3 cups confectioners' sugar

1 stick margarine, room temperature

2 to 3 tablespoons soy milk, plus more, if needed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat chocolate in a double boiler until melted. Let cool to room temperature. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, combine the confectioners' sugar, margarine, milk, vanilla and salt, and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes, then reduce the speed to low. Add the chocolate and beat until combined, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 minute more.

If the frosting is dry, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it is creamy but still holds peaks.

Gingered Sugar Cookies

Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Gingered sugar cookies
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

There's no egg substitute in these cookies — I don't think it's necessary. The ginger lends a nice bite, and if you use a good-quality margarine, you can hardly tell the difference from "regular" sugar cookies; they bake up very crisp and thin.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

1/4 pound margarine, room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)

1 tablespoon soy milk

1 1/4 cups flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoon dried ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the margarine, then gradually add the sugar, beating until light with an electric mixer on medium speed. Add the vanilla, soy milk and lemon zest, if using, and beat on medium speed to mix thoroughly. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking powder and ginger together, and add to the first mixture; blend well.

Arrange by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheets (or roll out on a well-floured board and use cookie cutters), at least 1 inch apart. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until lightly browned. Let cool for a few minutes before removing from baking sheets.

Apple-Pear Galette

Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Apple-Pear Galette
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

I also use this crust recipe for apple pies; I love the lighter taste that comes from the olive oil, and actually now prefer it to a butter pie crust.

Serves 6

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons cold water

Mix the flour, sugar and salt. Drizzle the olive oil over the flour and cut in with a fork, combining lightly until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle water over the flour, a tablespoon at a time, and mix lightly with a fork. With your hands, press the pastry lightly into a ball, wrap in waxed paper, and let rest in the fridge at least 20 minutes.

For the filling:

2 apples, peeled, cored and coarsely sliced

1 pear, peeled, cored, and coarsely sliced

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ginger

2 tablespoons flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Mix together the cinnamon, ginger, flour, sugar and salt. In a large bowl, toss the apple and pear slices with the dry mixture. Drizzle lemon juice over the top.

On a wide surface, roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until it becomes a 1/4-inch-thick circle. Arrange the fruit mixture in the middle of the dough, and loosely gather the dough around the fruit, leaving an opening at the top (the dough won't close completely). Place the galette on the parchment paper and bake in the middle of the oven until filling is bubbly and crust is lightly browned, about 35 to 40 minutes.