Vegan baking for a healthier lifestyle

Not long ago my doctor told me to beware of such talk, lest it end up in the "famous last words" department. What bum luck. Just as I was falling in love with the magic of dessert-making — perfecting my techniques and constructing old-fashioned confections from scratch — I was warned that I had a cholesterol issue. It was starting to look like an egg-less Easter and a summer without ice cream for me.

But then I started to hear about the strange powers of silken tofu, flax seed and ripe banana — all of which can function as natural binders in vegan baking. Coconut oil — once assailed as the artery-clogging villain of movie popcorn — is being newly revisited as an alternative to butter and lard. A vegetable fat that congeals at room temperature, coconut oil works well in baked goods and helps solidify frosting and harden chocolate.

Perhaps if I adopted some vegan baking techniques, I could have my cake and eat it, too.

While flour and sugar remained a relative constant in my experiments with cholesterol-free cooking, I discovered the wonderful sweetness of agave nectar and the magic of agar (aka “agar agar”), a vegan alternative to gelatin that’s made from red algae and often found in Asian desserts.

In “Veganomicon,” Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s magnum opus of vegan cookery, I found an excellent sweet-tangy lemon bar, a confection that's always been a quick standby when I need a sweet fix or a light finish to a feast. In this easy, two-step recipe, vegan margarine stands in for butter to make a lovely shortbread crust with a fine crumble, while agar flakes replace egg yolk to create a delicious lemon curd-y filling. This delightful bar sets in the refrigerator and won’t require you to heat up the oven again.

OK. But what about something more decadent? The two-layer carrot cake from Buckhead's Cafe Sunflower is worthy of company and special occasions. One of my taster-friends very generously told me not to bother with conventional carrot cake anymore. “It was entirely awesome and cannot be bested,” she said of the vegan version. That’s slathering it on pretty thick, but I’ll take the compliment. The recipe is a standard-issue carrot cake — only without eggs in the batter or butter or cream cheese in the frosting.

It's been an interesting journey, this vegan baking, and I don't think I have scraped the bottom of the bowl. This summer, I plan to come up with some cholesterol-free ice-cream alternatives, and I’ll be making fresh berry cobblers and crisps — sans butter. (Canola oil and vegan margarine will do just fine for the crumble crusts, thank you.) I’m still working my way around to flax seed (said to be a good substitute for eggs) and brown-rice syrup (said to be marvelous sugar substitute).

What I’ve learned from this ongoing project is that you can create very satisfying sweets without using a modicum of animal fat or protein. If a heart-smart diet buys me a little more time to play around in the kitchen, it’s worth the occasional bizarre flavor profile or cooking misstep. Hopefully, I'll learn to love egg replacers before I need hip replacement.

And I am certain I’m not alone — in my health challenges or my cravings for sweets. A combination of vegan baking and the occasional splurge: That sounds like a good prescription to me.

Inside: Vegan Lemon Bars, Carrot Cake and easy Pistachio-Rosewater Cookies.

Recipe intro:

These vegan recipes are all delicious and don't require too many hard-to-find ingredients. The pistachio-rosewater cookies are simple and exotic. The carrot cake is rich and moist. And lemon bars never go out of style.

Lemon Bars

Hands on: 1 hour

Total time: 4 hours (includes three-hour chill time)

Serves: 12 (large bars)

Look, mom, no egg. These lemon treats employ a dash of turmeric to impart a bright yolk-y yellow. Agar — seaweed flakes often used in Asian desserts and sometimes called “agar agar” — gives the filling its gelatinous texture. The shortbread crust substitutes vegan margarine for butter. These delicious bars will keep for several days in the refrigerator. You can find agar at Sevananda in Little Five Points or at Asian markets.

1¾ cup all-purpose flour

2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for decorating finished bars

¼ cup cornstarch

1 cup vegan margarine

3 tablespoons agar flakes

1 1/3 cups water

1¼ cups granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

2/3 cup fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons arrowroot powder

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (about 2 large lemons)

¼ cup soy milk

To make the crust:

Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Pulse the flour, confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a food processor. Add the margarine in spoonfuls and blend 8 to 10 seconds; then pulse until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal. Sprinkle mixture into the greased baking pan, and press firmly into an even layer with a slightly raised side, so that it can hold the filling. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the unfilled crust for about 25 minutes, until just lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool.

To make the filling:

In a medium pot, soak the agar in the water for 15 minutes. While it soaks, zest and juice lemons (in that order). Mix the arrowroot powder into the lemon juice to dissolve.

When the agar has soaked for 15 minutes, place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, being sure to stir so that the mixture doesn’t stick. Boil gently for about 10 minutes, or until the agar has dissolved, stirring all the while. Stir in the granulated sugar and turmeric, and cook until dissolved, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium. Add the arrowroot/lemon juice mixture, lemon zest and soy milk, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. (The pot should be bubbling gently, not boiling.)

Pour the mixture into the prepared crust. Let cool for 20 minutes. Then refrigerate for three hours, or until the mixture has set. Use a sifter or fine-mesh sieve to sprinkle the bars with confectioners’ sugar. Slice into squares and serve.

Adapted from “Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook,” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero (Da Capo Press/Lifelong Books, $27.50)

Per serving: 332 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 2 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 18 grams fat (3 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 180 milligrams sodium.

Café Sunflower’s Carrot Cake

Hands on: 35 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (includes cool time)

Serves: 12

This vegan version of the classic cake is served at Café Sunflower, one of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants.

3 cups all-purpose flour (may use cake flour)

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon sea salt

¾ cup canola oil

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup soy milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ cup water

2½ cups grated carrots

1¾ cups chopped walnuts, divided

½ cup raisins

2¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

2½ sticks of soy margarine

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¼ cup soy milk

To make the cake:

Preheat oven to 350ºF and grease two 9-inch round cake pans.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt together in a large mixing bowl.  In a medium bowl, mix oil, granulated sugar, brown sugar, soy milk, vanilla extract and water. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and mix just until combined. Stir in carrots, 1 cup walnuts and raisins, mixing until well incorporated. Pour mixture into pans. Bake approximately 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted at the center of the pan comes out clean. Cool completely, about 30 minutes, before icing.

To make the frosting: In a large mixing bowl, place confectioners’ sugar, soy margarine, vanilla extract and soy milk. Blend slowly with an electric mixer for about 1 minute to combine ingredients. Turn up speed to high and whip until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Set aside. Place one of the cooled cake layers on a plate, and frost. Top with another layer and finish frosting the cake all over. Sprinkle remaining ¾ cup walnuts on top of cake.

Adapted from "Cafe Sunflower: Recipes You Can Cook At Home," by Lin Sun (Self-published, $30)

Per serving: 769 calories (percent of calories from fat, 50), 9 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 44 grams fat (6 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 687 milligrams sodium.

Pistachio-Rose Water Cookies

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Serves: 16 (2-cookie servings, 32 cookies total)

These sugar cookies are beautiful and easy to make. Hints of rosewater, pistachio, cardamom and lime give them a Middle Eastern air. Do watch the cook time. For a chewy cookie, they should be very soft when they come out of the oven. If they end up hard, they make great dunkers – for tea, coffee or milk. Make that almond or soy milk, please!

1¼ cups sugar

½ cup canola oil

3 tablespoons rice or soy milk

1 tablespoon rose water

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest

¼ cup cornstarch

1¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)

½ cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two cookie sheets.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together sugar, canola oil, rice or soy milk, rose water, vanilla extract, lime juice and lime zest. Add the cornstarch and stir until dissolved.

Add the flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom (if using). Mix well.

Roll about 2 teaspoons of dough into a ball (should be a bit smaller than a walnut) and gently pat into a circle. Press the dough into the chopped pistachios and place on cookie tray, nut side up. Bake for 13 minutes; cookies will still be very soft but will firm up as they cool.

Remove from oven. Allow to cool on cookie sheets for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely and store in airtight cookie tin or container.

Adapted from “Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook,” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero (Da Capo Press/Lifelong Books, $27.50)

Per serving: 205 calories (percent of calories from fat, 39), 2 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 9 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 98 milligrams sodium.