Is vegan baking as easy as Pinterest makes it look? Stylist’s Alex Jones decided to experiment…
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m sober – which is an absolute miracle, when you consider that I usually wake up of a weekend still pissed and really, truly regretting every choice I’ve ever made (if not in my life, then certainly in my 20s).
But I’m 30 now. 30. And what do 30-year-olds do? They stay sober and bake vegan cakes, apparently – which, admittedly makes 30 sound bleak. It’s not that I dislike baking, it’s more that I prefer drinking, and eating things that other people have baked.
Still, while I can count on one hand the cake recipes I’ve whisked up in my life, I’ve always doubted that baking is rocket science (surely if you can follow instructions, you can bake?). So, when stylist.co.uk challenged me to try-out Pinterest’s five most popular vegan cake recipes, my immediate response was: “yeah, hand me a spatula” (or wooden spoon or whatever).
Disclaimer: I’m not vegan and, to reiterate, I don’t bake. Bring on the Great British Bake Off-inspired experiment!
Prep actually begins on Saturday night when, instead of popping out to Number 90 (my local, where, unlike Cheers, literally nobody knows your name, let alone cares that you exist), I pop out to Tesco (same vibe, to be honest). I’ve written a list of the ingredients that I need but, helpfully, not the quantities that I need them in. Still, I crack on.
Weird things I don’t expect to buy: apple cider vinegar, cornstarch, applesauce.
Questions (I consider calling my mum, who’s an excellent baker, but she’s on a salsa weekend in Berlin): is ‘all purpose flour’ the same as plain flour? I assume yes and buy 2kg. Is castor sugar just normal, granulated sugar? And if so, is that different to golden granulated sugar… because, at 9pm on a Saturday night, that’s all I can find in Tesco. I buy 2kgs. And while we’re on the subject of the great white killer (sugar, not Moby Dick), is powdered sugar the same as icing sugar? I am angry that bakers can’t just decide on a standardised naming system, and I buy 2kg.
The total cost for my ingredients is £50.78 and I manage to get it all from one shop. I thought I’d end-up traipsing around, on the hunt for niche products, but I’m fully stocked within the hour. Even the cost doesn’t seem too outlandish, given that I have to buy all those ‘store cupboard essentials’ (like flour) from scratch. (NB: the last time I kept flour, my house at the time got infested with mice – they chewed through plastic and paper and lived off that self-raising for months. Another reason that I don’t bake).
Recipe 1: vegan lemon drizzle cake
On Sunday, I spring out of bed and… no, obviously I’m joking. What really happens is this: I watch Netflix, drink about five coffees and finally vibrate into the kitchen at 11am. Time to bake.
Or, at least, so I assume. Unfortunately, this is the very first instruction of my vegan lemon drizzle cake recipe: line a loaf tin.
Brilliant. What I didn’t factor into last night’s big shop is baking equipment. I don’t actually own any. No loaf tins, no cake tins, no whisk, no scales… alongside plates and cutlery, I own two plastic punch bowls, a wok and a wooden spoon (by this age my mum owned a fully equipped, 3-bedroom semi-detached and had a 10-year-old child). I put on my coat and head to Waitrose, where I spend another £27 on tins and measuring cups. By the time I’m back, it’s 1pm and I’d quite like a wine.
Anyway. Here I go! I melt coconut oil in the wok and pour in the sugar. I don’t have an electric whisk, so I just move it all around with a fork, which seems fine. I haven’t read ahead (where’s the fun in that), so only now realise that I should have zested and juiced two lemons. I leave the coconut oil and sugar on a low heat (so it doesn’t re-solidify) and get to work grating some lemons.
Next hurdle: I also don’t own a sieve. I decide to use the colander instead. After all, I reason, a pan with holes, by any other name, will still sieve my dry ingredients. And it works fine, which proves that sieve-makers have been exploiting poor, idiot bakers for centuries.
Top baking tip #1: JUST USE A COLANDER.
The measuring cups, on the other hand, turn out to be a complete godsend and make weighing everything incredibly easy. (I almost didn’t buy them in the shop because they were a tenner and I thought ‘I have mugs at home!’, but I didn’t want this to be a complete farce.) As soon as I start working they become indispensable.
Top baking tip #2: invest in measuring cups.
I fold all the wet and dry ingredients together (still in the wok) and tbh, it looks pretty cake-y to me. I pour it all into the greased loaf tin and put in the oven. This entire process is meant to take 20 minutes. It took me an hour. I literally don’t know where the time went.
I over-excitedly take my drizzle cake out of the oven too early. And then I can’t figure out how to get it out of the tin (I never bought that baking paper, with which, I imagine, you’re supposed to lever it out). I tip it onto a plate, and one edge quickly crumbles.
HOWEVER, it tastes great. The syrup has a lovely hint of rosemary, and if you don’t mind your cakes on the stodgy side, it’s pretty much a winner. Alright, fine, it’s not exactly a looker, but I’m not planning to enter it into any modelling competitions so, who cares really?
Both my housemates, and the boyfriend greatly approve. This is an unmitigated success.
Recipe 2: vegan vanilla birthday cake
This seems like the least exciting bake. Honestly, who would ever want this gross, insipid-looking cake for their birthday? Plus, there’s a ‘troubleshooting’ section ahead of the recipe, which implies that, as well as being insipid, this cake has an attitude problem.
Obviously I didn’t buy three small cake tins (as required to make the layers), so this will be one big cake, which I’ll cut in half and fill like a normal bloody birthday cake.
It’s all fairly straight forward: slosh around the wet ingredients, sieve (colander) together the dry ones, and combine until it looks like cake batter. Then pour into the tin and put into the pre-heated oven. I heed the ‘troubleshooting’ advice about not opening the oven for the first 15 minutes.
I know I said baking isn’t rocket science, but I think, given that these cakes don’t contain any eggs (to act as a raising agent), the reaction between the vinegar and baking soda is what causes them to have a light, fluffy texture. (It’s also the mix you need to make a super-cool DIY rocket). The heat makes the reaction work more quickly and opening the oven can, I assume, somehow disrupt it. I think.
Top baking tip #3, then, is this: probably best to leave the oven closed right to the last few mins.
Unfortunately, because I’ve made one big cake with the mixture, instead of three smaller layers, it takes much longer to bake. In the end it’s in the oven for… I don’t even know. About an hour and a half?
This means that I keep having to open the oven to check whether it’s done, and so…
It’s pretty flat.
The one thing I couldn’t find in my big shop is ‘shortening’ (needed for the ‘frosting’), because a) what even is that? And b) literally cba.
I decide that, as I don’t have the right ingredients for the ‘frosting’ anyway, I will just turn this into a big Victoria sponge-style cake. Which means, yeah, a fresh berry filling and more powdered/icing sugar sprinkled all over the top.
Quite pleased with the result, really. Yes, it’s a big, flat, pancake of a Victoria sponge. Yes, it is possibly a bit raw underneath. But I’ll count this as a success, too.
Recipe 3: vegan carrot cake
I rinse out my loaf tin, but my heart isn’t in this one from the start. I don’t mean to sound like a moaner, but I also don’t really like carrot cake. It seems like the most boring of all the cakes (fruit cake is my favourite, for anyone wondering. A controversial choice, I know).
Nothing particularly interesting happens with this bake. I grate the carrots. I soak the nuts. I do everything right, and the batter still looks like sick. But the finished product comes out looking so much better than the others, likely because I don’t faff around and get it straight in the oven (top baking tip #4: if you leave the batter sitting around, the baking soda-vinegar reaction will calm and the mixture won’t be as aerated, so your cake won’t be as light - which leads to the disaster that is my final bake. More on this later…)
They look pretty good, I reckon. The topping is made from soaked cashews and macadamia nuts and is tastes great. It’s not as spicy as you’d expect from a carrot cake. And it’s dense, like some of the others, but it’s also not a compete pig (like some of the others).
A success? I THINK SO.
Recipe 4: vegan Biscoff cupcakes
I’ve been looking forward to this one the most, mainly because I keep seeing people posting on Instagram about the joy of Biscoff spread.
In principle, it’s disgusting: it reminds me of when I was a child and used to mash biscuits into my hot chocolate and eat the resulting slop with a spoon.
In practice, it’s exactly like that and I feel gross eating it. It’s also so sweet that it makes my teeth itch, and leaves me with a weird, chemical, sugar-high (who said veganism was healthy?). Last January I ate an entire kilo of almond butter in a few weeks, so I’m no stranger to gluttony, but this is something else.
This is the easiest of the bakes, and the cakes come out looking nice and springy. However, when I poke the hole in the middle so that I can add the Biscoff filling, I realise that they’re pretty underbaked. I briefly wonder whether I might poison someone, but decide that no, without eggs, milk and all that other goodness, they surely can’t be poisonous. (I’ve also been eating loads of batter along the way, so I really do hope that’s the case).
The next bit is made somewhat trickier by my lack of piping bag and piping skills and, as it’s 7:15 and I’ve been baking for over six hours now, my lack of will to live. Still, I give it my best shot. I artfully position the biscuits I haven’t eaten on top of the frosting. And…
They look good, don’t they? Really good.
Too bad, then, that they are so gross and sweet. Plus the topping is basically just margarine and sugar, which I whizzed-up using my housemate’s blender and scooped onto the cupcakes with a tablespoon. It isn’t light and fluffy, but rather limp and drippy. And it makes for a very sad cupcake indeed.
Update: I just ate one and can feel my teeth decaying.
Recipe 5: The vegan red velvet cake
I was quite excited about this one. I love a red velvet cake. But, as I’ve now fully lost the will to live, I just need this day to be over.
I throw all the ingredients into a bowl and mix. It looks fine. I then get a text from a PR who reminds me that I’m supposed to be interviewing the owner of a nearby bar right about…now. Oops. I shove the batter in the fridge and head out with flour handprints on my leggings and the sweaty, hollow-eyed look of a master baker after an extra-long shift.
By the time I’m back, the batter has been in the fridge for about an hour and a half. It looks like red slop, with no air bubbles whatsoever. I dutifully put it in the oven, but I’m no fool: this cake is caput.
And when I take it out, it’s… oh dear.
Yup, it’s basically a pancake.
Look. Who cares? It’s dark outside. I’m tired. I feel like I’ve been baking for the entirety of my life. The kitchen’s a tip. I’m not decorating this piece of crap. I’m out.
Vegan baking is probably best left to vegans. Or bakers. Or GBBO contestants. If you must have a go, don’t try and bake five cakes in a single day. And that’s my final top baking tip. I feel sick.
Images: provided by author