Modern Kitchens Try Their Hand at Dairy-less Desserts
On the holiday dinner table, a delectable bounty of homemade goodies greets your eye—a veritable sea of fudge, cookies, meringues and mousse stretching out to the horizon of red-and-green tablecloth. Most people would slip into a sublime coma at the very first pass, but if you’re in the one percent of Americans who follow a vegan lifestyle, according to a National Zogby poll, this may be a very sad moment indeed.
Why? You now eschew all animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and honey; that knocks even the angel food cake, which is 99 percent egg whites, right off your list. If you’re a really committed vegan, you steer clear of white and brown sugar as well, which are frequently processed with bone char, and gelatin, which is derived from collagen (an animal protein).
People concerned for both the environment and their health certainly don’t have far to look for convincing reasons to make the dairy-less leap. American farmers regularly administer recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to three million cows. The drug, engineered to boost milk production up to 25 percent, has raised concern for both animal and human health, and has so far been approved only by the U.S. While organic or rBGH-free milks are one solution, it’s nearly impossible to track the path of the hormone through the wide range of conventional products and baked goods that contain dairy.
A compound even more ubiquitous and difficult to trace is dioxin, a byproduct of industrial processes like chlorine bleaching, and a human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization. Dioxin is fat soluble, accumulating in animal tissue and milk fats, which then pass the toxic buck back to human consumers. Recently, unsettling levels of dioxin (many times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency “safe” standard) were even detected in a popular brand of premium ice cream. Although the point of this industry-sponsored research was to debunk federal standards as overly cautious, it also lent support to the argument that you can’t be too careful.
If nearly 70 percent of the adult population, however, listened to their stomachs, these points would be moot, as would the saturated fat and cholesterol that are part of the dairy package. These people lack the necessary digestive enzyme to break down the milk sugar, lactose. After consuming dairy products (also the leading cause of food allergies) an estimated 50 million Americans experience intestinal discomfort. Yet this is nothing compared with the number who experience discomfort at the mere thought of giving up dessert.
So who says you have to tell these treats goodbye? Grandma’s double-fudge bundt cake may be an institution in your family, but there’s no reason you can’t tinker with the recipe. “There is the illusion that dairy adds something,” says Caryn Conway, the self-professed “head cookie honcho” for Alternative Baking Company, “but in reality it only adds cholesterol and fat. Most things don’t even need eggs,” Conway says. “People have just cooked with them for so many years that they assume they do.” Here are a few hints to help break the habit:
Among the many egg alternatives appropriate for baking are a banana, two tablespoons of cornstarch or arrowroot starch dissolved in water, Ener-G Egg Replacer and one-quarter cup tofu.
A variety of non-dairy milks, like soy, nut and rice, easily replace the real thing; look to the soy version of margarine, sour cream, cream cheese and yogurt to substitute for other dairy ingredients.
Instead of refined sugars, sweeteners like maple syrup, brown rice syrup, fruit juices and purees and powdered fruit sweeteners will do the job nicely. Also fairly easy to find—dairy-free chocolate chips.
Conway, whose vegan creations include 11 types of cookies from Expresso Chocolate Chip to Cherry-Choco-Chunk, professes that “sometimes it’s amazingly easy, and sometimes I have to throw 15 batches into the trash.” If you don’t have the time to experiment, give thanks this holiday season for the companies that have done the legwork for you.
It took Allison Rivers, the mastermind behind Allison’s Cookies, four years to get a brownie recipe that really worked. “Using butter and eggs is really easy because we know what they do. There’s no guesswork there,” says Rivers, who makes organic, wheat-free versions of cookies like snickerdoodles and lemon coconut bars as well. “When using vegan ingredients, it’s a whole different paradigm. You have to look at the combination and the way ingredients work together—a more holistic view.”
No Cookie is another company that embraced that approach, leaving hydrogenated oils out of vegan, wheat-free cookies like ginger spice and peanut butter. Now and Zen uses organic whole grain flour, replacing butter, milk and eggs with ingredients like tofu, applesauce and raw nuts, in ambitious vegan black forest and lemon chiffon cakes. A new product mimics traditional chocolate mousse.
Even ice cream, the addiction that has many a person desperately popping Lactaid before a trip to the local scoop shop, has experienced a makeover. Frozen treats are not the dairy heavyweights they once were, and if for whatever reason you eschew the real thing, rest assured several companies have shined a light at the end of the dairy-less tunnel.
Tofutti is undoubtedly one of the kings with its tiny “cutie” (a popular combination of soy-based chocolate, vanilla, wildberry or peanut butter filling between two chocolate wafers), but its frozen dessert concoctions go on to include pints, “too toos” (chocolate chip cookie sandwiches), crumb cake bars, cannolis and dessert cakes as well. All are made without the dairy derivatives lactose, butterfat, milk, whey and casein.
Other popular frozen favorites include Soy Delicious, made from organic soybeans, and Rice Dream, derived from brown rice. Like Tofutti, they each boast an assortment of flavors and novelty items, from creamy fudge bars and brownie sandwiches to oatmeal cookie pies and nutty dream bars. John Borah, frozen foods buyer for Trader Joe’s grocery stores on the East Coast, vouches that these three brands actually outsell their regular ice creams.
“The response is overwhelming,” affirms Sam Grub, a food scientist for Soy Delicious. “I go through the mail every day and they really are love letters.” Sales in the entire non-dairy frozen dessert category were up 25 percent in 1999 alone, according to Spence Information Services (SPINS). This has opened the door for relative newcomers like OatsCream, currently a soft-serve, all-natural frozen dessert spreading nationally from Minnesota.
“More people want some level of health even in dessert, and are battling within themselves over how much they want products to be natural,” says Nechama Robinson, who has been perfecting Crave, a non-dairy whipped cream, for over 10 years. Though calories are calories any way you cut it, what you’re seeing in natural products now, explains Robinson, is a higher quality of ingredients, often organic, and sm
all company owners passionate about getting it right. “People care more and more about what they put in their bodies,” says Robinson. “But taste will always win.”
Dabble in dairy-less desserts this year, and you, too, can see who was up to the challenge.