Vegan and Valentine's Day might not seem like a culinary marriage made in heaven, but in the hands of the ‘Diva of Dairy-free Desserts', Fran Costigan, it's a no-brainer. Using whole and organic ingredients -- and a lot of high quality dark chocolate (which is vegan!), your sweetie will thank you with out even knowing what they're missing!
Some of Fran's recipes:
SLOANE MILLER: What's your professional background?
FRAN COSTIGAN: After completing the professional program at New York Restaurant School, I worked as the pastry chef in a busy gourmet food shop. My desserts were very popular, but I was feeling progressively more tired, moody, weak and generally unwell, so I left my job. I was crushed because pastry was my passion.
By chance, I picked up Annmarie Colbin's landmark book, Food and Healing. The idea that food and health are linked made sense to me. I decided to eliminate all sugar, dairy, eggs -- in fact all animal foods -- and resolved to eat only seasonal, whole foods.
Within a few months of eating a balanced diet, I started to feel much better. Well enough that I went back to work as a pastry chef. However, I had became a member of the dreadful food police and pronounced all sweets the devil.
I faced a professional and personal conundrum, and began to consider the idea that a healthful diet could include desserts made with good ingredients.
SM: Is that what led you to become a vegan pastry chef?
FC: Yes! When I changed my diet for health reasons, I had to learn to make desserts using different ingredients.
I went into the marketplace to see what naturally sweetened vegan desserts were available, and tasted them. Most were brown, dry, heavy and altogether unsatisfying.
My intention was to create excellent versions of traditional desserts using only wholesome, real ingredients, all without dairy, eggs or white sugar, and I wanted to write clear and reliable recipes. First, I had to learn about the properties of whole grain flours, natural sweeteners and other ingredients new to me. After many misses, I found that when I married foundation pastry technique with the properties of natural ingredients, I was successful. Certainly my tasters thought so, and the need for good tasting, good quality vegan treats seemed huge.
SM: You encourage using whole, "honest" and organic ingredients in your baking. Why?
FC: I encourage using "honest and organic" foods because they taste better and will yield better tasting desserts, and because they are better for us and for the planet.
As a mainstream pastry chef, I was aware of quality and used the best ingredients possible. I used pure butter, not fake fats such as margarine or solid vegetable shortening. Now as a pastry chef who makes vegan desserts, why would I use soy margarine, which I feel contributes an off-taste, and is hydrogenated? You can taste freshness and you can taste fake. Pure vanilla extract tastes better than artificial vanillin. Try pancake syrup, then try maple syrup and you'll know what I mean. A peach or strawberry in its season is not the same fruit as one that has been developed for shipping across the country, and I simply cannot fathom ingesting pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.
When I was asked to develop my Organic Vegan Twinkie, for instance, it was never my intention to replicate a packaged Twinkie, although with organic shortening and margarine so widely available, it would've been easy. Instead, I created a healthy and delicious cream filled "version" of a Twinkie.
And since I am able to have my cake and eat it too by using whole, honest, ingredients, I am staying there.
SM: Many of your desserts are chocolate-based. Is chocolate vegan, or, dare I say, healthy?
FC: I am a card-carrying chocoholic. I freely admit that nearly every day I eat a reasonable serving of a high quality, fair-traded organic chocolate-based dessert.
Chocolate is vegan when it does not contain any milk or milk products and if the sugar used is vegan sugar (that is, not filtered through bone char, aka "animal charcoal". See this website for more info about sugar.). However, I have been surprised to see that some dark chocolates contain milk powder, so please read those labels.
I believe that chocolate is the food of the gods; but is it healthy? Well, chocolate is a bean, and that sounds healthy to me, unless you have allergies, sensitivity or other medically based reasons to avoid eating chocolate! Commercially produced chocolate bars contain fat and sugar; however, unsweetened cocoa powder is much lower in fat than bar chocolate so it is a low-fat baker's secret, and you can add your own sweetener. Dark chocolate bars with high-cocoa content contain epicatechin, which is an active member of a group of compounds called plant flavoniods. Flavoniods keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reduce the risk of blood clots, and slow down the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries. Further, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, which acts as a mood enhancer. This is very good news indeed, but I cannot bring myself to say, eat a chocolate bar a day and keep the doctor away.
There is another benefit to eating high quality chocolate, if it is fair-traded chocolate. A number of manufacturers now offer chocolate bars and other products that are more environmentally friendly and socially responsible. These products contain cocoa that comes from farms that conserve forest, that don't use child labor, or are organic. Some examples: Equal Exchange;
SM: What are your top 5 baking tips?
FC: My top 5 tips are, without a doubt:
1. Read the recipe all the way through and make sure you understand it. If something seems wrong, it might well be. Do a little homework.
2. Position the oven racks properly depending upon the recipe (i.e.: center for cakes and cookies, bottom of oven for pies). Preheat the oven and check the temperature using a good-quality oven thermometer. Adjust your temperature control if needed.
3. Prepare a proper mis en place. That means before you begin working, you gather all your ingredients, and do the preparations as needed: toast and cool nuts, chop chocolate, blanche the tofu and prepare the baking pan.
4. Measure carefully with the proper measuring utensils (different for liquid and dry) and use the correct size pans. Set a timer.
5. Use quality ingredients: a watery pumpkin will never yield a good pie, a tasteless peach cannot make a good cobbler, and the taste of inferior chocolate will dominate your ganache.
SM: What are your top 5 baking secrets and/or surprising ingredients as a vegan pastry chef?
FC: Miso, avocado puree, apple cider vinegar, apple-plum baby food, and coarse sea salt for finishing desserts are among the more unexpected ingredients I use.
Store your whole grain flours, and nuts, seeds, flakes and oils, in the refrigerator or freezer to protect against rancidity.
Above all, have fun, bake with love and be creative. If your cake tastes yummy but the center is gooey, cut it out and call it a bundt. If it breaks, cut it up and make a trifle. Your pie filling did not set? Don't tell - serve a fruit crumble!
SM: What dessert recommendations do you have for a delicious vegan Valentines Day?
FC: Think textures, smooth, silky, and taste, not too sweet or heavy -- you do not want to be overfed. I would recommend a fudgy brownie with a bittersweet chocolate sauce. (See Fran's recipe for Super Fudge Low Fat Brownies).
Or my newest dessert recipe, elegant, rich and no baking needed: Flourless Chocolate Desire Cake.
SM: Where can I get your book, take your class or find you?
FC: My book is available at the Natural Gourmet Institute, The Institute of Culinary Education, and bookstores and from Amazon.com and other on-line sellers. If your local bookstore does not carry my book, you can order directly from my website. You can also check the site for a list of my classes, cooking demonstrations and other appearances. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fran Costigan is a nationally recognized culinary instructor, author, consultant, recipe developer and innovative pastry chef who marries healthy eating with sumptuous tastes. Fran's new book, More Great Good Dairy Free Desserts Naturally, offers a complete course in exceptional desserts that are vegan by design, not by taste! Fran's recipes use organic minimally processed ingredients to make rich, moist cakes, flaky piecrusts, delightful cookies, puddings and more. All are trans fat and cholesterol free and absolutely delicious.
A graduate of the New York Restaurant School and the Natural Gourmet Institute, Fran was a pastry chef in both traditional and vegan kitchens. Today Fran teaches her distinctive courses (including her Vegan Baking Boot Camp) in NYC at the Institute of Culinary Education and at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and she presents demonstration classes and lectures at venues throughout the US and Canada.
Fran was recently featured making her celebrated "Chocolate Cake to Live For" on the Discovery Health Channel's show, "Get Fresh With Sara Snow." Professional affiliations include the New York Women's Culinary Alliance (NYWCA), International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR), and she is proud to work with the New York Coalition for Healthy School Foods.