Dessert for vegans
While the vegetarian cooking I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks may have required a certain amount of exclusion of favourite ingredients, this isn’t particularly true of dessert (unless you’re the kind of person that makes ice cream out of meat, which I am, in fact given it’s use of rennet that parmesan ice cream wasn’t veggie either, but never mind). For vegans, however, it’s another matter. Veganism’s lack of any commodity made from animal products means that neither the cheese nor the cream element of that ice cream would be acceptable, nor would the six eggs that were in it. In fact, it’s pretty tricky to come up with a dessert that doesn’t use any eggs, milk, cream or butter in any way. So, for the dessert portion of Vegetarian Month, I decided to go fully vegan and see if I could make a vegan dessert just as tasty as a dairy-filled one.
While, when I was talking about the early history of the British vegetarian movement a few weeks ago, I made an egg-free omelette, the Reverend Cowherd, the Brothertons and the other early British vegetarians did not tend to view the non-eating of dairy products as a priority in their religious and social programme of vegetarianism. Veganism, as an offshoot of the Vegetarian Society, did not really start to become a reality until the vegetarianism debate shifted its focus primarily to matters of animal welfare during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From around 1909 onwards there was a lot of debate within the Vegetarian Society around the ethics of eating milk and eggs and, in 1910, Rupert H. Wheldon’s No Animal Food: Two Essays and 100 Recipes, generally considered the first vegan cookbook, was published.
Naturally the First World War got in the way of any serious food debate that wasn’t concerned with the war effort specifically, so veganism as a concept had to wait until the 1930s before it’s arguments became more significant amongst Britain’s vegetarians. With the Vegetarian Society not proving sufficiently radical in their views on animal rights, vegans considered forming their own breakaway group.
Most significant amongst these non-dairy eaters was Donald Watson, the son of a Yorkshire teacher and himself a woodwork teacher who had become vegetarian on seeing the way that animals were exploited on his uncle’s farm. Watson and his brother and sister became vegan, teetotal, non-smokers and, when the war came round, conscientious objectors (his mother said that: “I felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs”). Watson, who only ever used a fork and not a spade in his garden for fear of harming worms, died just nine years ago at the age of 95, outliving many who had said his choice of diet would prove unhealthy. “At 93 and having never taken medicines, orthodox or fringe,” he is quoted as saying in The Guardian, “I am proof that, after a weak childhood in a meat-eating family, veganism works. Are there any other nonogenarians who have never taken medicine.”
Watson, along with 25 members of the Vegetarian Society, formed the breakaway Vegan Society in 1944. The Vegan Society continues to this day, now with around 5000 members. At the same time, he also began producing the society’s newsletter, The Vegan News, the first issue of which was determined with, amongst other things, Watson’s suggestion that his new word “vegan” was the perfect term for non-animal product eaters.
For a start, Watson dismissed such terms as “non-dairy” as being negative, he wanted his kind to be known for what they did eat, not what they didn’t (which is odd, given that they are essentially being defined in all other ways by what they won’t eat). He also resented that: “‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits'(!) of cows and fowls”. His suggestion of vegan, essentially a contraction of “vegatarian”, was put forward largely because it would be easier to write: “ The virtue of having a short title is best known to those of us who, as secretaries of vegetarian societies have to type or write the word vegetarian thousands of times a year!” As somebody typing the word vegan repeatedly in this article, I salute Watson for this forward thinking short 5 letter word, even if I can’t get on board fully with the rest of his ideals.
Having steadily grown in popularity throughout the 20th century, there are now anything up to 600,000 vegans in Britain (up from around 100,000 in the 1990s). It has now reached enough popularity for a “tough love” diet book, Skinny Bitch, essentially a piece of vegan propaganda, to become a much discussed New York Times Bestseller in 2007, a couple of years after its first publication to muted initial success.
So, how do we go about making the steps towards a vegan diet? Well, according to Watson cheese should be the first to go (as I mentioned above, the use of rennet in some cheeses renders them non-vegetarian anyway, and this is partly Watson’s argument). “Our friend and fellow member Dugald Semple tells us he has never tasted cheese, therefore it cannot be considered as an essential ‘binding agent’ for body and soul!” Watson assured his readers, worried that their soul might somehow die without cheese. So, no cheesecakes for my vegan dessert, then.
As for eggs and milk, Watson and his early vegans were at an advantage with the former, the war and rationing having done away with most eggs anyway they wouldn’t really notice the absence of them from their diet. Milk, he admitted, was the hardest thing to give up, what with the British need to have it in tea constantly: “Nut milk is a good substitute, but it does not go well in tea (therefore cut out the tea and add yet another ten years to your life!)”, Watson wrote, characteristically piling on the ascetic attitude beyond even his vegan beliefs.
Like last week’s soy based tofu, then, milk extracted from plants gives us an opportunity to have something that fulfills the function of milk without an animal ever having been involved. Coconut is not a nut, despite the name, it’s a drupe (mind you, a coconut tree isn’t technically a tree either, so what do people who name stuff know, anyway?), but it is a plant that produces milk, which makes it perfect for my purposes. On top of that, it’s a flavour that, while it might not go in Watson’s tea, goes great with chocolate.
It should come as no surprise to anybody who’s read any previous entries that I chose to make a chocolate dessert. I did, after all, devote an entire month just to the products of that bean. However, all of the chocolate desserts that I made that month had either eggs, butter or milk, so I would have to produce something different here.
Of course, the first element of vegan cooking with chocolate is to use a chocolate that doesn’t have milk. I chose Green & Black’s 70% cocoa dark cooking chocolate. According to the packaging, as well as this cocoa mass, the chocolate contains cane sugar, cocoa butter, soya lecithin and vanilla extract. The label declares it “suitable for vegetarians” rather than mentioning vegans as it comes with a “may contain milk and nuts” warning. However, I felt that the vague possibility of some cross contamination was a constant with any chocolate maker that also produces milk chocolate and a slight chance of traces of milk doesn’t really make something non-vegan or else any chocolate would be (and there are plenty of vegan recipes that use chocolate).
So, I had chocolate and coconut cream, which meant that I decided to make a ganache by heating the coconut cream until it became smooth and consistent and then stirring in the chocolate to melt, along with some salt to bring out the best in the chocolate flavour. This ganache I wanted to use as the filling for a chocolate tart and, thus, have a go at a vegan pastry. Typically if making a pastry for a tart like this I would use a whole lot of butter. As an alternative, then, I had to use a non-dairy fat, for which I opted for a vegetable spread. I added this to a mix of flour, sugar and ground almonds. Using the vegetable spread was quite different from using butter and the pastry proved a lot harder to work with. I had to roll it out two or three times before I could get it into the right shape. Because of this, I probably overworked the pastry more than I should before baking it.
Nevertheless, after adding the ganache filling and topping it with flaked almonds, I ended up with something that seemed pretty similar to the sort of dessert you could make with the kind of cream and butter that comes from cows. At the end of the day, though, that was very much what I’d made, a decent approximation of a dish that could be made better using dairy products. It tasted pretty good, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that a bit of butter and it would have been better. Even if I could live to 95 eating a vegan diet, I don’t really know if it would be worth it.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I was a bit wary of this one to start with; I like coconut in curries, but it’s not a flavour I like in sweet dishes. I was pleasantly surprised to find it barely noticeable here 🙂 The ganache is really good, and not just in a “you wouldn’t know it wasn’t dairy” way. But the pastry wasn’t. Very dry and hard, you can see why vegan diets aren’t pie-heavy. I suspect with a bit more experimentation (different oils presumably affecting the texture differently) you could probably make something closer to normal pastry, but at the end of the day you can’t beat that buttery taste of a really good shortcrust.