Full disclosure: I’m not a vegan. I respect what people who follow the vegan diet doing by omitting animal products from their diets, but it’s not a diet I choose to follow. I am interested in baking and cooking vegan, however. Many of the people who take my cooking classes follow vegan as well as gluten-free diets and they ask me about adjusting my recipes to make them vegan. I usually explain that since I don’t cook or bake vegan I’m not sure how my recipes would work with vegan substitutions. A few months ago I decided that I can do a better service to my clients if I learn how to bake vegan (cooking vegan is not as complicated as baking vegan). After a few trial and error mishaps, and hours spent reading the science behind vegan baking to identify the most common mistakes vegan bakers make, I finally have down a successful vegan cupcake recipe! It’s full-proof! It doesn’t require any egg substitute (egg substitutes, I read, are the reason for many vegan cupcake / cake failures). It requires only a few ingredients instead of the overwhelming number of ingredients vegan (and gluten-free) recipes often require. Best of all, it results in a cupcake rich in flavor and pleasing in texture.
I use a combination of unhydrogenated palm oil and culinary grade cocoa butter for the fat in the cupcake batter. Palm oil is a controversial ingredient, though. Although this oil from the oil palm tree is a healthy oil, and the form I use is for the batter and frosting is unhydrated (for its texture), some people believe that the increase of demand for palm oil as a replacement for unhealthy transfats in processed foods is leading to the deforestation of the planet. If that is an issue that concerns you, you may want to use a combination of cocoa butter and coconut oil for the batter. At this time I don’t have a suggestion for a fat substitution for the frosting. I avoid Earth Balance because I avoid canola and soy oils, but if you’re ok with those oils then you may substitute Earth Balance for the unhydrogenated palm oil in the frosting. Crisco is vegan, too, and may be used to make vegan frosting. This shortening, however, also contains soy oil; moreover it’s a partially hydrogenated product that contains unnecessary ingredients.
Gluten-free cupcakes are more tricky to make vegan than wheat flour cupcakes; vegan wheat flour cupcakes take advantage of the gluten in the flour to help develop structure. Gluten-free cupcakes lack gluten, and so depend upon eggs to help develop structure. Vegan cupcakes don’t contain gluten, so the structure is formed with the use of egg substitutes. An egg substitute should help the cake or cupcakes to rise; most egg substitutes used in vegan baking help bind the ingredients, but don’t help the batter rise. In gluten-free vegan baking, xanthan gum acts as the binder. To help the batter rise I use vinegar and baking soda as an egg substitute. The reaction between the vinegar and the baking soda causes the formation of carbon dioxide which bubbles and foams. This reaction in vegan cake better helps the cake or cupcakes to rise. One tablespoon of white or apple cider vinegar and one teaspoon of baking soda equals about one egg. Be careful not to use too much vinegar and baking soda; if the batter rises too much the cupcakes or cake will sink in the middle from lack of structure to hold it up.
Vegan cake batter will be thicker than non-vegan cake batter. Resist the temptation to add more liquid to the batter when it’s thick after being completely mixed.
Plant milk alternatives to dairy are in every store now, and thankfully easy to use in vegan baking. Alcoholic beverages can be easily substituted for the plant milk. For the frosting recipe I include in this blog post I used Crown Royal mesquite smoked whiskey (because I LOVE boozy desserts). The frosting requires just enough whiskey to be flavorful, but not enough to be overwhelming. The frosting is a nice consistency, and even though I really LOVE butter and the buttery notes of buttercream frosting I have to admit this vegan frosting is definitely lick-the-beater tasty. I’m not sure people would know these cupcakes are gluten-free and vegan if I didn’t tell them!
If you’re new to vegan baking and you decide to make a boozy dessert, you’ll want to check to make sure the alcoholic beverage you want to use is vegan. You’ll also want to make sure the sugar you use is vegan; some brands of sugar are not.
Just a note about baking with cocoa powder in general: adding boiling liquid (water, coffee, etc) to powdered cocoa and letting it sit (to bloom) a little bit before adding it to the other ingredients intensifies the flavor in the cocoa. I always bloom my cocoa powder when I use it in a cake or brownie recipe. I also always add instant espresso (or occasionally, if I’m out of instant espresso, a package of Via, instant Starbucks coffee) to the cocoa before I add the boiling water. A little coffee added to the cocoa also enhances the cocoa’s flavor.
Gluten-Free Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes with Vegan Mesquite Smoked Whiskey Frosting
Adding a little instant coffee and blooming the cocoa before adding it to the batter gives these gluten-free, vegan a delectable rich chocolate flavor.
- 60 grams Dutch-process powdered cocoa
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- 1/4 cup food-grade cocoa butter finely chopped
- 1/4 cup unhydrogenated palm oil
- 200 grams vegan sugar See blog post for link to vegan sugar brands
- 100 grams purity protocol oat flour
- 20 grams tapioca flour
- 20 grams arrowroot flour
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar (or apple vinegar)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 3 cups vegan powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup unhydrogenated palm oil
- 1/4 cup Crown Royal Texas mesquite smoked whiskey
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
For The Cupcake Batter: Preheat oven to 350F. Place 12 cupcake liners in a 12 cup muffin pan. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the Dutch-processed powdered cocoa and the teaspoon instant espresso. Add the 3/4 boiling water to the cocoa powder mixture and blend until the unsweetened cocoa is dissolved and smooth. Set aside to cool.
Place the 1/4 finely chopped cocoa butter and the 1/4 cup unhyrdrogenated palm oil in a small microwave safe dish. Using 20 minute blasts of the microwave, melt the cocoa butter and palm oil, stirring after every 20 second blast, until only a few small pieces of the cocoa butter are visible. Stir the mixture vigorously until the rest of the cocoa butter is completely melted.
Place the sugar in a mixing bowl. Pour the melted cocoa butter mixture over the sugar. Using a mixer, cream the sugar and cocoa butter until light and fluffy.
Whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed sugar mixture. Add the 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the Dutch cocoa mixture. Add all at once to the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Mix on low speed until well-blended.
Add the 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the Dutch cocoa mixture. Add all at once to the dry ingredients to the batter in the mixing bowl and mix until the cocoa mixture is just blended into the batter.
Using a 1/4 cup measure, fill the cupcake cups with equal amounts of the batter. Bake at 350F until a tooth pick inserted into the center comes out with only a few crumbs on it. Remove from oven, cool in pan for five minutes, then removed the cupcakes from the pan to a wire rack to cool.
For The Frosting: Place the 1/2 cup of unhydrogenated palm oil and three cups sifted powdered sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the 1/4 cup mesquite smoked whiskey and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Mix on low speed until the ingredients start to come together, then on medium speed until the frosting is of piping consistency. Add more powdered sugar, if necessary. The frosting is the right consistency when peaks form in the frosting when the beaters are lifted up.
Spoon the frosting in a pastry bag fitted with a Wilton 1M, 2D, or 2A piping tip to pipe frosting swirls on the cupcakes. Sprinkle the frosting swirls with chocolate sprinkles.