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Vegan Valentine: Healthier Sweets for Everyone

My adventures in vegan baking all started with my dad.

Even though he kept to a low-fat diet and swam a mile-and-a-half several times a week, hereditary high cholesterol forced him to give up his favorite buttery treats — and his sweet tooth suffered.

I decided to do something about it.

Once relegated to a dusty rack by the health food store checkout counter, vegan baked goods have acquired a bit of cool lately. Cookbooks such as Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz of public television's Post Punk Kitchen, and a general turn toward healthful eating, have helped make animal-free more appealing.

Today's vegan sweets bear little resemblance to the heavy, fruit-and-nut-filled offerings I remember from my college co-op — and thank goodness for that. As more people are diagnosed with food allergies or have to limit their fat intake due to cholesterol or other issues, vegan options are cropping up at coffee shops and even some non-vegetarian restaurants. In short, vegan has become more hip than fringe.

Not to mention that it's kind of fun to put a twist on classic recipes and adapt them to suit new needs and tastes.

But really I started baking vegan cookies and cakes for one simple reason: I love to spoil people, and the main way I do it is through food. As I met more people who were going the vegan route, I became even more determined none of them should miss out on delicious baked goods just because they no longer ate animal products.

When I began my exploration, I first took down my battered Fannie Farmer cookbook. I turned to some of my previous tried-and true recipes — a chocolate cake, gingersnaps, banana bread — and then took out the butter and eggs.

Sometimes I swapped in margarine and sometimes applesauce; sometimes my cookies turned out perfectly and sometimes they were perfectly inedible. But through some strange trick of alchemy — and a lot of trial and error — I managed to hit on combinations that were almost better than their cookbook counterparts.

In the early days, my dad ate pretty much everything I put in front of him. Once I made carrot cake studded with juicy raisins and walnuts and topped with a faux cream cheese frosting that was quite passable. The shredded carrots kept the cake moist and sweet, so we hardly noticed it lacked butter.

The oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, however, were less successful. When I used a combination of cornstarch and water in lieu of eggs, and substituted vegetable oil for margarine, the cookies ended up too dry for my finicky taste. Dad, though, still ate them up.

As time went on, I got bolder. I learned that a particular combination of vinegar and baking soda made my favorite cake bake up high and light, with a tender crumb. I sometimes added a little more cocoa powder for extra richness, and served the cake sprinkled with slivered almonds. Butter? Who needed it?

Now, my standards reach even higher. I'm not content merely to create something that tastes OK; it must be memorable and delicious. I strive to create cupcakes that are gobbled up just because they are so tasty. I take pride in presenting guests with slices of rich lemon cake piled with sliced strawberries, and silently wait until they scrape their plates to inform them it was made sans animal products. I love the element of surprise, and disbelief: "This is vegan?" they all say. "But it's good!"

An added bonus is that the recipes often are easier to prepare — usually just a whisk or spoon will do to mix up the batter — and the results are very good without being too cloying. (We've all had that regretful feeling after devouring a particularly rich butter cream.)

As Valentine's Day approaches, I'm plotting what vegan treats I'll make for the sweeties in my life. This year, I think a batch of sugar cookies with a kick of ginger will do nicely, along with a luscious apple-pear galette with a crust so crisp and shattery they'll never miss the butter. And of course there must be chocolate — specifically, rich chocolate cupcakes with a decadent chocolate "butter cream."

What better way to spoil those you love than by whipping up something sweet that also respects their dietary restrictions? And who said tasty desserts can't also be healthy? Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of experimentation — and a reckless abandonment of butter.

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Nicole Spiridakis