I couldn’t find my pastry bag.
Somewhere in between a parallel universe of unused kitchen toys and the random displacement of things courtesy of my weekly housekeeper, a trip to Sur La Table was necessary to frost the pumpkin spice vegan cupcakes baking in the oven.
When it comes to baked goods, pretty is not an option. It’s a necessity.
Cake diva Jody Stevens, Houston celeb and pro-baker known as Jodycakes for her custom work including organic, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and eggless varieties, was in the midst of giving me a tutorial on vegan holiday baking.
I thought I was a good student, but slightly unprepared.
“I’ll drive,” I suggested.
Nothing like an impromptu shopping field trip to kitchen nirvana for an opportunity to get acquainted. Though I was taking my lesson seriously, it was her kind and good-natured disposition that made me want to get to know her better. We had just met that morning.
I was first teased by Jody’s creations through Twitter. Sending alluring and tantalizing descriptions of her weekly cupcake-wine pairing at 13 Celsius, it was the chocolate nutella, pear ginger and red velvet that made me question: Who are you?
“My mom taught me to bake,” Jody told me while perusing random bakeware.
“I have been in the kitchen since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My mom used to put me to work, although I did get to lick the spoons a lot. She made lots of cookies and cakes that were from my nana.”
It is very easy to get distracted at Sur La Table. A recent store redesign made honing in on the task-at-hand take even longer as I am distracted easily by all things shiny.
What should have been a straight path to the baking and decorating aisle turned into more of a scan and grab everything in sight accompanied by an “ooh” and “ah” followed by criticism and a slight chuckle.
Jody grabbed a rather robust piping bag and decorating tip. I guess this means I’ll be increasing my cupcake output.
Remembering that we had cupcakes in the oven, we bolted and returned home.
“You know, it was a rather naughty fondant cake I saw in college that encouraged me to start baking,” Jody explained.
“Naughty?” I questioned.
“In college, my roommate took me to a birthday party that I'll never forget. There was quite the whimsical cake. Like nothing I had ever seen before in my life. It was a fondant cake and well before all the Ace of Cakes stuff. This thing was so cool. It blew me away.”
“Whimsical?” I knew there was more to the story but Jody needed a little encouragement to tell me the specifics.
“It was a daddy bear leather theme, full with leather cap and studs. I swore right there and then that I would do that for a living one day!"
I wasn’t expecting that. But I loved it.
“And vegan baking?” I inquired.
“Sean Niles, my roommate at the time and now best friend of 25 years, introduced me to veganism, so I wanted to learn how to bake for him. I found it to be fascinating. And all of the vegetarian and vegan stuff we were finding was terrible, like cardboard."
Vegan baking is not as enigmatic as mainstream foodies think. The trick is to learn the animal substitutions by understanding their function. Is the butter added for texture, are the eggs used as a binding agent or to create volume? Once we understand that tradition and convention is the only thing holding bakers back, indulgent deliciousness exists beyond butter, eggs and cream.
"In the beginning, I had dubious expectations about how Jody's vegan cakes would turn out," Sean recalled, "I was pleasantly surprised and almost shocked at how quickly and exquisitely she perfected them! It was hard to believe she used neither eggs nor butter nor lard to arrive at such a lusciously rich and deeply satisfying dessert."
For Jody (and myself), there is nothing more satisfying than duping someone into devouring a vegan cake (or anything vegan for that matter), only to reveal in a somewhat dramatic fashion the nature of the food.
“People get up in arms about veganism, claiming they are not eating the real stuff,” Jody said. “It makes me laugh when they have no idea. What is the ‘real stuff’ anyway?”
Well, perhaps there’s one thing more satisfying than messing with people’s perception of food.
“There are many children who have never been able to have cake because allergies or illness,” Jody confided. “Being able to see them have a slice of cake is very emotional for me.”
Arriving back home just in time, a few minutes before the oven timer chimed, the smell of fall and holiday spice had gently drenched and warmed-up the kitchen. An earthy uplifting melange of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and vanilla combined with the scent of pumpkin and apple encouraged me to introspectively ponder: When are we frosting these little suckers?
“You have to be patient,” Jody explained with Yoda-like wisdom.
With baking, one has to listen to the needs to the cake. Respect the cake. Be a slave to the cake. Be the cake.
“I had a cake split in half once,” Jody laughed. “Although I had previously warned the client about her request — an overzealous amount of fresh fruit, a strawberries and cream cake with a photograph on top — the cake split in half due to 100 degree weather.
“The split was right down the edible photograph through her face. I was able to do a quick repair with a blast chiller and a little piping work. No one noticed. By the time the cake came out, everyone was well into their night of partying.”
Patience, diligence and attention to detail is something that comes natural for Jody. But some of those character traits may have been developed during her time in the United States Air Force.
“I just wanted to serve my country,” Jody explained. “I wanted to fly but my eyesight wasn’t good enough. I still got to work in a flight squadron as an air defense controller. I was responsible for intelligence and to make sure unfriendlies were not in our air space.
“While I was stationed in Keflavík, Iceland, I dealt with many things, but the thing I was most proud of was to be part of a major search and rescue mission one night. The weather was dreadful with icy rain. We had to bring a commercial plane down on a roadway because the airstrip was closed. The passengers had started to get decompression sickness. We used tow trucks to make a runway strip and we were able to get them down safely.
"It was pretty scary, but also very cool. I became the first and youngest female to receive a Commendation Medal at that base."
Somehow, the cupcakes became a little less important, especially since we had this conversation on Veterans Day.
That’s until I ate one. OK, I ate two. Fine. Three.
Pumpkin Spice Vegan Cupcakes
1/4 cup soy milk
1 teaspoon. vinegar, preferably apple cider
1 cup all purpose flour, preferably unbleached
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup each vegan sugar and packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each ginger, nutmeg and salt
1/8 teaspoon cardamom (optional)
Dash of ground cloves and allspice
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 and line 12 count muffin tin with cupcake papers.
In large measuring cup, combine milk & vinegar to create soy "buttermilk. Allow to sit and curdle while preparing all the other ingredients.
In a large mixing bowl, combine sugars and whisk until smooth. Sift together all additional dry ingredients, including the spices and salt into the sugars. Whisk to combine.
In small bowl, stir together pumpkin, applesauce, oil and vanilla.
Pour wet ingredients into dry, adding soy "buttermilk" last. Combine all ingredients until smooth and pour into the prepared pan, filling cups about halfway.
Bake for 18-22 minutes or until the tops spring back to a light touch.
Vegan Cream Cheese Frosting
6 tablespoons Vegan Cream Cheese, such as Tofutti brand
2 tablespoons Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
2-4 tablespoons soy milk (as needed)
Cream together the cream cheese and butter and add vanilla. Add the sugar one cup at a time. If frosting is too thick, you may slowly add soy milk to loosen up to reach the desired consistency.
Joel Luks offers vegan recipes, reviews and opinions at www.vegangoodeats.com
Watch Jody Stevens teach Joel Luks how to make these Pumpkin Spice Vegan Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting