Imagine the perfect cupcake. Moist, rich, chocolate cake slathered with buttercream frosting comes to mind almost certainly. Buttercream frosting whipped together from butter, sugar and cream, most likely. But, try the same image with a frosted cupcake made of coconut oil, margarine, vinegar, rice milk and flaxseed. Delicious?
For vegans, it is. Vegan bakeries and restaurants are popping up around Brooklyn, offering tasty treats of all flavors, but with one caveat: no meat, no milk, no eggs, no honey— no animal byproduct of any kind. According to the team at supervegan.com, which lists all the vegan-friendly options available in the city, Brooklyn has 168 restaurants that are vegan-friendly, 35 of which are 100 percent vegan or vegetarian. The other four boroughs combined have 431 vegan-friendly establishments: Staten Island with 10, Bronx has 11, Queens has 37, and Manhattan has 373.
Many Brooklyn vegans say that go-to vegan foods—quinoa, soy milk, margarine, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables— can also be found in just about any grocery store or corner bodega in the borough. These choices don’t necessarily have non-vegans smacking their lips and many do not equate a vegan diet to delicious food—more often, cardboard is the closest descriptive word. But, Brooklyn vegans are working hard to change that misconception.
“If you cook food correctly with any ingredients, it is going to taste good,” said Thomas Joseph Perone, a non-vegan who owns Thomas Joseph Catering and judged a vegan bake-off at Boulevard Books and Café in Dyker Heights, a traditionally Italian neighborhood that prides itself on cheesy pastas and pizza, on Tuesday.
Tatiana Nicoli, 34, owner of Boulevard Books and Café, realized the rising popularity of vegan cuisine and on Tuesday Feb. 19 hosted a vegan bake-off in her shop. The event corresponded to the release of a new book, Chloe’s Vegan Desserts, by Chloe Coscarelli, who won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2010 with her vegan cupcakes. Coscarelli was one of the three judges. The other two judges were non-vegan Brooklynites, Felicia O’Brien, 38, from Cupcake Bar NYC, and Perone from Thomas Joseph Catering.
“A couple of friends are vegan and live in this neighborhood, so I figured if they’re vegan, then there must be a lot of other vegans in the neighborhood,” Nicoli said.
Coscarelli, a lifelong vegetarian who has been a vegan for eight years, said vegan cuisine does not have to taste bad to non-vegans and the best way to change someone’s mind about vegan food is to just give him or her a well-prepared vegan dish— like a cupcake.
Or a doughnut. DunWell Doughnuts, which opened in Williamsburg in 2011, offers 100 percent vegan doughnuts. Dan Dunbar, 29, co-owner of the shop has been vegan for 10 years. He and his business partner, Christopher Hollowell, wanted to open a vegan shop that could appeal to everyone. They did not want their doughnuts to be good “for being vegan,” they wanted them to be a good doughnut first.
“We don’t advertise that we are vegan because we want people to experience the doughnut without bias,” he said. “We don’t want the fact that the doughnut is vegan to be a qualifier…they are doughnuts that happen to be vegan.”
Other vegan spots in Williamsburg include the Bliss Grand, which opened last year and serves up natural and organic vegan meals, and Champs Family Bakery, a vegan diner and bakery that opened on Ainslie Street in 2010. Foodswings, a fast food vegan restaurant opened in early 2000, and Loving Hut, an international vegan chain, will be opening in Williamsburg later this year.
Williamsburg doesn’t have a monopoly on vegan eateries though. Sun in Bloom calls Park Slope home, the Pine Box Rock Shop bar is located in Bushwick, Wild Ginger is in Cobble Hill and Vegetarian Ginger is in Greenpoint.
“Living in Brooklyn, I’m spoiled,” said Diane Corsones, a vegan waitress at Champs in Williamsburg. “The fact that I can get vegan food at a bodega says a lot.”
Owner of a Leal Cakes, Emily Aumiller, 27, started her custom vegan and gluten-free cake business in Brooklyn two years ago as an option for Brooklynites with different allergies and intolerances.
Aumiller struggled with food intolerances and allergies for many years before switching to a vegan and partially gluten-free diet. She spent a year creating her recipes and experimenting with ingredients, using flaxseed for eggs, palm or coconut oil for butter, vanilla rice milk for cow’s milk, evaporated cane sugar for powdered sugar and a gluten-free pastry flour made up of mostly millet, tapioca and rice flowers.
Another Park Slope vegan Sarah Gross, 27, went beyond simply not eating animal byproducts, and started a business called Rescue Chocolate, which sells seven kinds of vegan chocolates bars with names such as: Peanut Butter Pit Bull, The Fix and Foster-iffic Peppermint. , All the proceeds are donated to animal rescue organizations around the country.
“I started being vegetarian for my love of animals,” Gross said. “Now there are a lot of other reasons that I have learned over the years – health reasons and environmental reasons – but for me, at first it was always about the animals.”
Meanwhile, back at the bookstore in Dyker Heights, Jennifer Long an occupational therapist student in New Jersey who used Coscarelli’s recipe for Mojito Chocolate Chip Cookies, but turned it into a cupcake recipe, won Tuesday night’s bake-off.
Before Nicoli announced the winner, Perone, the non-vegan caterer, declared himself a vegan dessert believer and said deciding between the five entrants was difficult because they were all so delicious.
In the end, the mint-filled, rum flavored chocolate cake topped with a ‘buttercream’ frosting, outshined the chocolate orange cupcakes, and the cookie versions of both of those recipes.
“These desserts have never tasted so good than when someone else has baked them,” Coscarelli said. “I loved the twists on the different forms and the different flavors.”
Coscarelli goes over many of the tricks to create mouth-watering, easy-to-make vegan dessert in her new cookbook, but the two key points are using vinegar and baking soda to get cupcakes to bind together and rise correctly without eggs, and to use vegan margarine and non-animal oils instead of butter to whip with sugar into frosting.
With those tricks, and the use of natural ingredients such as mint, chocolate and vanilla bean, the sweet flavors and creaminess that most people want in desserts are still easily mastered, she said. Vegan cupcake anyone?