Monday, August 31, 2009

Ask Veg Baker, J.D.

Recent inspiration has brought about a new segment on the blog: Ask Veg Baker, J.D. If you have a burning baking question, email it to me or post a comment, and once or twice a month, I'll post an answer and a recipe to go with it. Admittedly, I am not a trained pastry chef, so I definitely don't want to give the impression that I'm a baking know-it-all. I hope these monthly Q&A sessions take on more of the flavor of friendly banter where people can trade tips. In that vein, if you have anything to contribute to a question, please post in the comments. And if I don't know the answer, I'll happily research to figure it out.

So what's the story behind this idea? A phone call from my wonderful sister, Alison. If you don't know my sister, please go out of your way to do so. I'm one of her biggest fans, not only because she's a fabulous big sister, but she's just an incredible person. I always looked up to her as a kid, and I continue to look to her for support and guidance as an adult. I'm just super proud to be her little sister.

One of the many areas where Alison shines is her hostessing capabilities. She always throws these amazing parties, and she is a fantastic cook and baker to boot. Whereas I like to take recipes and modify them, Alison just pulls these ridiculously good ideas for food and parties out of the various recesses of her brain and, in true Tim Gunn style, she "makes it happen."

It is the topic of Alison and baking that brought about the Ask Veg Baker, J.D. segment. Alison gave me a call last week because she was in a predicament that I am in more than I care to admit: she was in the middle of baking and realized she was short on an ingredient. Here was her question: when you are baking and short on vegetable oil, is there anything you can substitute?

The answer is: yes! As a general rule, in baking, a solid fat can be substituted for another solid fat, and a liquid fat can be substituted for another liquid fat. If you think about it, we've been doing this for years already; people use butter, margarine, and shortening interchangeably all the time and don't think twice about it. For some reason, though, doing the same thing with liquid fats just didn't get the same amount of press. In Alison's case, she was short on vegetable oil, so my first recommendation was to use applesauce to make up the difference. Applesauce actually is a great substitute because it adds a lot of moisture without altering flavor and its fat-free. When she scoured her fridge and realized she was out, though, we went to Plan C: she melted some butter and added it to the oil and put it in. (This would work with Earth's Balance, too!) Alison added the butter and found success! (I can personally attest to the final product's yumminess.)

I should note, though, that when substituting liquid fats, it is important to use neutral fats, like vegetable/corn/canola oil, applesauce, and melted butter. For example, you should NEVER use something like olive oil. It has a tremendous taste that beefs up the flavor profile of savory foods, but put it in your cakes and cookies, and you've got yourself a big pile of yuck (unless, of course, the recipe calls for it, and then that's a different story).

In honor of my sister's idea to start Ask Veg Baker, J.D. (and her enthusiastic proclamation of "Thanks, Veg Baker, J.D.!" when she hung up the phone), I am going to post today's recipe in honor of Alison. When Alison was a teenager and starting to bake for the first time, she made the Hershey's Best Brownies recipe, and it was super delicious. It's a recipe I've turned to time and again. I've recently veganized it, and I'm still tinkering with it, but I definitely like the result below.

I should note, though, that when you make these brownies, because applesauce is used, they are going to look undercooked when they come out of the oven. I can't stress this enough - it is really important that you test the brownies and make sure a toothpick comes out clean, otherwise these are really easy to overbake. If you're like me, the toothpick will come out clean and you'll pull the brownies out of the oven, but then you'll pace and lament that you can't believe you stopped baking the brownies even though they look so raw and you spoiled this batch, and then 30 minutes will go by and you'll want some form of chocolate so you'll cut yourself a brownie, and you'll realize you have a warm, super soft (and fully baked) brownie, and you'll feel goofy for doubting yourself. Not like I've gone through this dance before or anything...

Anyway, these brownies are at their best still hot out of the oven in a brownie sundae as well as in traditional cooled down brownie form.

Best Brownies, Vegan-Style
Yields: 12 brownies

1/2 c. melted non-dairy butter substitute, like Earth's Balance
1 c. white sugar
1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
1 -1 1/2 tsp. vanilla (optional; there will be a darker chocolate taste without it)
1/2 c. flour
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. baking powder

1) Mix together butter substitute and white sugar; add applesauce and vanilla until well mixed.
2) Mix flour, cocoa, and powder into wet ingredients until just mixed.
3) Pour into an 8x8 or 9x9 well-greased square pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out in the center (and in different spots of the pan) cleanly.


  1. OK - I have a question for VegBaker! Do you know a good recipe for banana frosting? My favorite banana cake of all time was a Sara Lee banana cake with banana frosting, which I think was discontinued a few years ago. But every year on my bday from about the time I was 10 I would have that cake. I imagine that you'd need to use a banana extract to make it taste about the same. I'd love to use your banana cake recipe and try it with a banana frosting. If you've got any recipes for banana frosting, let me know!

  2. Great question! I don't have a recipe per se, but I have a couple of thoughts. I'll play around and get back to you. I'm so glad that you like the banana cake so much!