Have your cake and eat it, too

Plant-based desserts have their day.

The spotlight is finding its way onto plant-based desserts as the standards that define stellar pastries can be accomplished without eggs or butter. That means light and flaky croissants, spongy cakes with a tender crumb and smooth and creamy custards – attributes that the industry would have never associated with vegan pastries.

Chefs say it’s been years in the making but has only recently reached an inflection point. Dietary demand from diners along with improved fat and nondairy products (thanks to venture capitalists for fueling development) and a better understanding of the science behind vegan baking are producing results that rival classic European-based desserts. For the unaware, Dominique Ansel’s introduction of the first vegan cronut in September 2023 could be viewed as the proverbial stake in the ground.

The changing mindset among chefs – culinary rules that once kept cuisines in their proverbial lane – is shifting to an “anything goes” approach, resulting in equally indulgent and crave-worthy plant-based options.

All About Quality Ingredients

Few would argue that vegan pastry’s bad rap comes from not-so-great replacement ingredients. The answer for some chefs led to, making their own nondairy alternatives and experimenting with ingredients that could mimic the job required of fat and eggs in baked goods. Those unable to take the same route simply didn’t offer vegan options until the landscape changed with new and better products.

In 2021, Rian Finnegan and Colleen Orlando opened Little Loaf Bakeshop in New York’s Hudson Valley. The co-owners of the all-vegan bakery shop in Poughkeepsie pride themselves as having a transparent business, from the ingredients on the menu to the safe and supportive working environment.

A commercial plant-based butter made with sustainably sourced palm oil produces all the attributes of a quality croissant in renditions such as chocolate, double chocolate- and almond. Liquid and powdered egg replacements give chocolate and pumpkin-filled morning buns their characteristic layers and lift, as well as the indulgence behind a dessert that features chocolate frangipane, praline pastry cream, caramel, toasted hazelnuts and crunchy salt that the bakery calls a “hazel-nutty Snickers.”

This is Vegan?

Some chefs won’t call out a vegan dessert to avoid the connotation that eggs and butter make a superior product. At Superiority Burger in New York City, the Pearl Pie is “accidentally vegan.” Translation: Pastry Chefs Darcy Spence and Katie Toles weren’t trying to make a dupe to fit the vegetarian, often vegan concept, focusing instead on the goal of an incredible dessert. It features a Ritz cracker crust filled with a tangy passion fruit custard and topped with a passion fruit glaze and boba pearls that burst with a complementary flavor. Other versions include a coconut-mango custard as the filling but always with the bursting tapioca. The desserts move on and off the menu, often returning in revised iterations. Another version features thick layers of mousse and chocolate cake covered by shimmery caramel and studded with candy-coated crunchies for texture.

Justine Hernanez of Just What I Kneaded in Los Angeles is also proving that plant-based cakes can be just as indulgent as versions made with eggs and butter – and with a fun and playful vibe. She offers traditional flavors such as chocolate and vanilla but also carrot, Funfetti, olive oil and pink cake, all customizable – from 6-inches to 12-inches – on her website. Lemon cake, for example, showcases layers of cake with lemon curd and lemon-zested cream cheese frosting that can be garnished with fresh flowers or colorful sprinkles. The fun and flavors are also reflected in cupcakes.

Like many chefs, Hernandez is also expanding her brand by offering additional ways of enjoying her products, such as cookie tins and bake-at-home vegan cinnamon rolls.

The Riff on Rustic

With improved fat and egg replacements, pastry chefs can take a limited ingredient approach to building plant-based desserts. At Planta, a growing vegan multiunit concept expanding across the country, the desserts are simple and rustic but updated to reflect its modern persona. There’s a Peach Sundae that brings together sweet corn ice cream, corn flake granola and pecan praline for contrasting flavors and textures, as well as a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream that gets just a nudge of playfulness with amareno cherries and peanuts.

At all-plant-based bakery Pie Pie My Darling in Chicago, cake slices sold at its retail storefront and at wholesale to restaurants are offered in traditional flavors but surprises can be found. The banana split cake features banana cake with layers of chocolate and strawberry buttercream, drizzled with ganache and topped with sprinkles and peanuts.

Classics are also getting the vegan treatment at Adriano Paganini’s Wildseed in San Francisco. Panna cotta has a vanilla coconut base served with blackberry jam and pistachios while Meyer lemon cashew cheesecake with whipped coconut cream and coconut shavings leave diners wondering if it's vegan or made with eggs and butter. As long as the desserts impress, it won’t matter.