Thursday, April 14, 2011

Vegan Cookbook Review: Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World

Okay, I know, this is a very well known cookbook in vegan circles, but I thought I’d add my two cents anyway.  I’ve made quite a few recipes from this book, some of them different from the ones typically reviewed, so I decided to share my thoughts on individual recipes as well as my general impressions of the book.  I am an unrepentant fiddler when it comes to recipes, so I will also share the various modifications I have made.

Here is a list of the recipes I have tried and my impressions of their pros and cons:

Crimson Velveteen Cupcakes:  I had these unfrosted. These had a nice mellow, pleasant flavor that worked perfectly well with carob in place of chocolate.  The color was a bit too strong in my opinion—it looked a little unappetizing and could be tasted slightly too.  That is a general characteristic of all red velvet cakes, though, not something specific to this recipe. Over all, I would make it again, possibly reducing the coloring. 

Peanut Butter Cupcakes: I glazed these with berry jelly instead of ganache for PB&J cupcakes.  They tasted pretty good that way.  The peanut flavor was not bad, but I’ve tasted stronger.  They were a good mellow choice for a kid’s party.

Maple Cupcakes with Sugared Walnuts:  I’ve eaten these, but not made them myself.  The cupcake itself and the walnuts are excellent, one of my favorites.  They are better with the Cinnamon Icing recommended for the Pumpkin Cupcakes than with the maple frosting recommended in the book.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cupcakes:  These have an excellent deep chocolate flavor (even with carob!) due to a slightly higher than typical cocoa to flour ratio, and a pleasant hint of spice and heat. The texture is a little off though—almond meal and corn flour added to make it “pleasantly gritty” reduce the structural integrity quite a bit.  If these are replaced with more flour you get a cupcake that tastes just as good but holds up much better.

Coconut Lime Cupcakes:  I admit it; I have never made this one exactly as written.  Before I even tried it I decided to reduce its saturated fat content with deliberate substitutions, and made one accidental substitution through the chaos of making several different types of cupcakes at once.  It tasted good nonetheless.  I ended up making it for an important event and refined the recipe even further during practice runs, to the point where fully half the ingredients had been changed in one way or another.  The fact that the texture remained constant—and consistently good—throughout shows it to be a very robust recipe.

Apple Cider Cupcakes:  Very nice apple-spice flavor, with a slightly shiny top that looks pretty without frosting.  I must say, though, the boiling and reducing and cooling steps make this recipe a bit of a pain to make.  It seems like there should be an easier way to do it—like replacing part of the juice with concentrate or something.  The agar would still have to be activated, though, so who knows.  There is something very soothing and winter-y about these, so I’ll probably end up making them again sometime anyway.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip (carob chip for me) Cupcakes:  Another one that I have tasted but not made.  It was pretty good, the combination unusual but surprisingly harmonious. Nice and moist, too.

Margarita Cupcakes: I made these without tequila and had them unfrosted.  They had a nice bright citrus flavor, although I made them at the same time as the coconut lime cupcakes and the general consensus was that those were better.

Frostings and Glazes
The basic buttercream works well enough as a base.  I went through a phase last year of doing a lot of experimenting with comparing and refining a lot of white/vanilla frosting recipes, including this one, with a goal of finding the best for a big project.  I ended up with a final product fairly similar in texture to this one but with quite a few extra flavoring elements to round out the slightly bland sweetness common to many frostings.

The ganaches work well with carob chips, and so does the chocolate mousse filling.

My favorite frosting in the book is the cinnamon icing. It has 1/8 of the fat and 1/7 of the sugar of the buttercream, but manages to exceed it in flavor.  That’s one of the challenges I found when I was being the Frankenstein of Frosting.  The pounds of sugar in typical frostings are not only expensive and caloric, but can have a diluting effect on any added flavors.

Why I tried these recipes, and not some of the others that are better known from this book:
Well, first of all, I have some personal dietary restrictions, including caffeine.  So cupcakes strongly emphasizing coffee or tea are more or less out.

Also some recipes called for ingredients that I find difficult to find or annoying to work with, chief among these being soy yogurt and soy milk powder.  I don’t care for soy yogurt in baked goods because baking is a science that requires a degree of consistency. Non-dairy yogurts vary considerably in sugar content, acidity and viscosity from brand to brand and flavor to flavor and that means your results will vary too.  Its availability also remains limited in a lot of areas (I’d have to drive a few towns over for it).  Soy milk powder is also inconsistent, particularly its sugar content, and most importantly, how readily it dissolves.  By which I mean that many powders do not in fact dissolve adequately and remain gritty and clumpy no matter what you do, and give pretty unappetizing results.  Sometimes there’s a bit of an off taste too. Other bakers may have access to better versions of these ingredients and not have any problems, though, so make your own decisions and don’t let me put you off automatically.

Other recipes I decided against trying simply because I already had a good recipe and didn’t need a new one.  I have an amazingly reliable and easy vanilla cake recipe that I got off the net years ago that hasn’t failed me yet, so I didn’t try the book’s version, which looked both more difficult and less healthy.  I didn’t try the low fat version either, because it has the dreaded soy yogurt and also it only manages to save about 2 TBSP of oil total.

Formatting Notes:
There are quite a few pictures in this book, all of them well lit and clear.  They make quite an impression.  So much so that I was rather surprised when I counted up and found less than half of the recipes were actually illustrated.  Apparently a number of the pictures are artistic shots of sprinkles, muffin liners etc.  That’s still quite a lot of pictures compared to cookbooks with only a few pages of them in the middle of the book. I would like to see more intermediate steps illustrated though, particularly on the more complex assembly methods.

The font is a bit small.  I’m not overly bothered by it because I’m nearsighted anyway but I know people who’ve complained about it.  I’d estimate it goes as low as 7 pt at times, and half that, of course, whenever there’s fraction notation (as in ½ tsp).

The tone is friendly and funny without being ribald enough to put people off, and lively enough to get you through the longer information sections.

Although this review may seem full of quibbles and criticisms*, I do actually like this book and use it regularly. There are some very good recipes in it, as well as a lot of good ideas about decorating, embellishing, and modifying the cupcakes to create a wide variety of options.
It’s also an excellent jumping off point for learning how to use a solid recipe base to develop your own ideas into creative variations.

*That’s just my personality ;)


  1. The vanilla recipe in this cookbook is actually also not my favorite (and I did bake it). I also have a tried and true vanilla that I go to, in How it all Vegan, which is better. Ditto on the font size too - although that's common to all cookbooks lately. It's crazy that the only time I think I need reading glasses is when I try to read a fraction for a measurement in a recipe! Also -- the recipes in this book work very well substituting whole wheat pastry flour for flour 1:1, increasing the fiber & nutrition without sacrificing taste. Great review! I too highly recommend this cookbook.

  2. Also -- the ganache recipe is wonderful, but do not double it. Make it one batch at a time or it won't work properly. Mmmmm....chocolate. I haven't tried it with carob, but have used it a lot with chocolate, specifically, ghiardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips.