Hold your horses! No, I did not wake up this morning and suddenly decide to become a vegan. I've already tried it, and I learned almost immediately that the 100% dairy free-meat free-animal free lifestyle just isn't for me.
If I could be 80% vegan, then that would be perfect. The fact of the matter is that, as a healthy eater, many of my meals are vegetable, grain, and soy-based to begin with. Here's where I ran into vegan commitment issues:
- I love my lattes. I mean, I looooovvvvveeee them. You pretty much don't want to speak to me in the morning until I've had my 1% extra-strong latte with massive amounts of froth on top. Now, you might be inclined to suggest that I can still enjoy said latte with another form of dairy free milk, such as soy, almond, coconut, or hemp. Wrong. Tried it. Remember the oh-so-important mound o' froth? Well, there wasn't any. That's a deal-breaker in my book. Plus, the taste was just "off" from what I was used to. I'm more that willing to use these milk alternatives in my morning smoothie and baking.....just not coffee.
- Every once in awhile, a girl needs a peppercorn-crusted steak. Or tandoori chicken. Or my favorite seared halibut salad from Table 34. Or ______ (insert your favorite meat dish here.) I realize that this doesn't apply to everyone, but for me, my body knows when it's time for some red meat, and it's sure to let me know. Although I probably only have meat 2-3 times during the week, there's no way that I could eliminate it from my diet altogether. I'd miss it waaaayy too much.
- As far as I can tell, vegan cheese is gross. And while I don't consume mountains of cheese, when I do consume cheese, I want it to be yummy.
Alicia Silverstone would refer to me as someone who "flirts" with veganism. In case you aren't aware, in recent years Ms. Silverstone has progressed from being famous for Aerosmith videos to becoming quite the authority on the vegan lifestyle. She was actually the first person who sparked my interest in the vegan diet, after I saw her promoting her cookbook, "The Kind Diet", on (what else?) Oprah.
I own two vegan cookbooks, one being Alicia's and the other being "The Conscious Cook" by Tal Ronnen. Where did I learn about the latter? Embarrassingly, while watching Ellen. I really don't sit around all day watching talk shows (sure you don't, Julie). This was just a coincidence. I swear.
Anyhow, I really like both books because while they contain 100% vegan recipes, they offer flexibility for those of us who only want to flirt. The recipes are incredibly creative, and most of the time you won't even miss the non-vegan ingredients (except of course where cheese is concerned.)
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a vegan luncheon at the Wynn Resort as part of Bon Appetit's Vegas Uncork'd food festival. This was the first year that a vegan event was included, and luckily I was able to get my friend Veronica to attend with me (you can imagine Eric's reaction when I asked if he wanted to come along too.) Tal Ronnen himself was cooking at the luncheon as well as almost all of the Wynn property's chefs. I was curious, and almost apprehensive, to see what dishes would be prepared. Would there be platters of tempeh and tofu? Cashew cheese sandwiches? Should I have eaten beforehand just in case?
It turns out that the turnout for this event was huge, and all but one of the dishes that we tried were pretty darn fantastic. Eggless pasta dishes, "chicken" scallopini, "crab" cakes (vegans use lots of "" in their recipes) -- it's amazing what the talented chefs were able to recreate, and recreate deliciously. Because we were talking just as much as we were tasting, Veronica and I barely made it to the dessert station before it was shut down. On the menu was a vegan carrot cake with a walnut tuile and a tofu cream cheese icing. I was able to get in one quick bite before we left, but it was a big enough bite to make me want to recreate a similar recipe at home.
I love it when an experiment turns out well, don't you? Instead of creating a vegan carrot cake, I thought that I would try the recipe using sweet potatoes and zucchini. I already make a yummy, non-vegan sweet potato zucchini bread, so why not cake (or in this case, cupcakes)? The cupcakes are dense due to the amount of vegetables, but they are also very moist. You could also easily serve them as muffins. For the vegan buttercream, I opted to not use to not go the cream cheese route, simply because I don't like cream cheese, so I used only Earth Balance butter instead. Earth Balance can be found at many grocery stores and, to me, it's the closest non-butter butter that I have yet to find. The result was surprisingly light and fluffy.
Here are my extra tips for creating these dairy-free delights:
- You might notice that the baking time for these cupcakes is longer than that of your standard cupcake. The addition of the sweet potatoes and the zucchini gives these cupcakes a dense and moist texture, so they take closer to 24-28 minutes to bake. Be sure to test them with a toothpick before removing from the oven. The same applies for the smaller cupcakes.
- The buttercream recipe below makes a generous amount for those who like to pipe a swirl onto their cupcakes. The recipe can easily be halved for a smaller portion. You can also simply finish the cupcakes off with a dusting of confectioner's sugar (or turn them into mini muffins!)
- I found that this vegan buttercream tends to soften much faster than a traditional buttercream, so if you are not planning to served these soon after decorating, keep them chilled.
- The baked cupcakes can be stored at room temperature, covered, for 2 days. They can also be frozen, tightly wrapped, for 1 week. Defrost at room temperature several hours before decorating.
Vegan Sweet Potato Zucchini Cupcakes
Makes 18 regular or 36 mini cupcakes
½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
¾ cup golden raisins, roughly chopped
2 ¼ cups flour
1 ¼ cups dark brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 /2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¾ cup canola or safflower oil
Zest from one orange
1 tablespoon rum or vanilla extract
1 ½ cups shredded orange sweet potatoes
1 cup shredded raw zucchini
½ cup chopped pecans (optional)
For the vanilla-rum "butter"cream
1 cup vegan stick butter (such as Earth Balance), softened
6 cups confectioner's sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons rum (depending on desired taste)
1-2 tablespoons coconut, almond, or soy milk
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Line two cupcake tins with liners or, alternatively, spray them with nonstick baking spray.
In a small saucepan, combine the orange juice and the raisins. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium low heat, and then turn the heat off, allowing the raisins to soak up the orange juice.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg; whisk until well blended.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add the safflower oil, orange zest, rum or vanilla, and the orange juice/raisins. Stir the mixture until thoroughly combined (mixture will be thick.) Add both the shredded sweet potatoes and the zucchini to the bowl, and stir until evenly incorporated into the batter. Stir in the pecans.
Divide the batter among the prepared cupcake tins, filling each cup about ¾ full. Bake the cupcakes until a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, 24-28 minutes for larger cupcakes and about 15 minutes for smaller cupcakes. Allow the cupcakes to cool in the tins for a few minutes, and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Prepare the "butter"cream: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the Earth Balance with the confectioner's sugar on low speed until well combined. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes more. Beat in the salt and the rum. Add enough of the coconut/soy/almond milk to reach your desired consistency, and beat at medium speed for 2-3 minutes more, until very light and fluffy.