August 20, 2020


The Little Vegan Dessert Cookbook. By Laura Crotty. Lincoln Square Books. $19.99.

     Packaged as something between a must-have kitchen tome for vegans and an offbeat gift book for a vegan friend, Laura Crotty’s The Little Vegan Dessert Cookbook is a clever concept for a self-limited audience. Packed with old-fashioned, mostly 1950s illustrations reflective of the original recipes on which Crotty’s vegan variations are based, the book is designed to give vegans a way to conform to their dietary choices and beliefs while still enjoying well-known, old-fashioned desserts such as Toll House cookies, Linzer tortes, s’mores, coffee cake, cranberry loaf, and more.

     Crotty, a collector of old cookbooks, uses recipes from a selection of them as the foundation of the items here, essentially looking for standard vegan substitutions for the absolute necessities of baking, such as eggs and butter. No dedicated vegan will actually know whether these desserts approximate the taste of the originals – that would require trying the non-vegan versions and comparing the two types. So the question for anyone interested in Crotty’s approach is not “do these taste like the originals?” but “do these approximate the originals in appearance and also taste good?”

     On the appearance issue, Crotty is generally successful: the unbaked batters often look different from those using traditional ingredients, but the finished products appear more or less the same – especially in light of the fact that different people’s versions of the same recipe, vegan or not, tend to look different. The doughnuts and some of the cookies have perhaps more variation from those made with traditional ingredients than the bars and cakes, but everything looks fine and nothing proclaims “vegan!” through appearance alone.

     As for taste – well, it is a matter of taste. Dedicated vegans will have nothing with which to compare these recipes, and vegan bakers will find nothing particularly unusual in employing ingredients such as coconut sugar (which is dark-colored and not very sweet) and aquafaba (the cooking liquid that remains when beans and other legumes are prepared). Non-dairy butter tastes virtually identical to traditional butter, and when recipes call for chocolate, Crotty simply uses Baker’s brand semi-sweet chocolate bars – whose appeal transcends the vegan lifestyle. On the other hand, although oat milk is often a good substitute for cow’s milk, it does change the consistency and taste of some foods; and the egg substitutions here can have a significant impact on the mouth feel and consistency of the finished products – for example, Crotty says it is possible to use mashed banana or a mixture of vegetable oil with water and baking powder, but these two alternatives produce very different results from each other and from using real eggs.

     Generally, the recipes here with the fewest ingredients tend to be the most satisfying, and for non-vegans who want to try some vegan treats, are likely to taste most familiar. Shortbread cookies, for example, simply include all-purpose flour, semi-sweet baking chocolate, non-dairy butter, and coconut sugar – the first three ingredients being nearly identical to ones non-vegans would use. Pineapple cake, on the other hand, requires a dozen elements, including aquafaba, whole-wheat pastry flour, coconut oil and coconut sugar. And soda bread requires coconut sugar, ground flaxseed and cashew milk. The soda-bread recipe also contains an error, asking for “2 tablespoons butter, melted,” not specifying “non-dairy,” but vegans will undoubtedly correct for this – and all readers will presumably be unfazed by the other occasional mistakes in the book, such as “course” grain rather than “coarse.” It is also worth noting that this is not strictly a dessert cookbook: Crotty herself suggests using the doughnuts for breakfast, and that is a good idea for the breads, too.

     Ultimately, the test of any cookbook is not the cleverness of its premise but the quality of the food resulting from following its recipes. Vegans will be quite satisfied with Crotty’s ideas and will not generally find the recipes difficult to follow or the ingredients particularly exotic (by vegan standards). For non-vegans, especially ones who may already know and enjoy the original baked goods that Crotty modifies for the vegan palate, The Little Vegan Dessert Cookbook will be less satisfactory, because they will have something with which to compare these recipes and may not enjoy the result of that comparison. Or perhaps they will – certainly anyone wanting to experiment with vegan preparations can manage to do baking at this level without much difficulty. It is likeliest, though, that Crotty’s book, which at 84 pages is indeed little, will be useful strictly for those already committed to vegan eating; non-vegans will more likely want it as a gift for a vegan friend than for their own kitchens.

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