Tag Archives: vegan

Footloose and Dairy-Free: I Was an Official Vegan Cupcake Judge

Cupcake duo | Canon 5D, 105mm, 1/160, f4, ISO 400

On June 11, 2011, Rock Paper Scissors, an art collective in Oakland, hosted its 3rd Annual Vegan Cupcake Bake-Off. It’s pretty awesome that it was vegan and they’d already had the bake-off two other times. But even better? Anyone could be a judge for $5.

Official cupcake judge | Canon 5D, 105mm, 1/250, f4, ISO 400

I learned about the shindig just hours before it commenced and instantly knew I’d be there. Allie (of White Wires, Peach Kelli Pop) was in town and equally intrigued by the chance to 1) sample an undetermined number of cupcakes for a fiver and 2) decide the fate of one lucky baker.

I don’t know about her, but in the last year or so, I’ve become addicted to reality cooking shows: Top Chef, Master Chef and Master Chef Australia (which is basically a long, drawn-out Dr. Phil with aprons and spatulas, unlike its ridiculously cruel American counterpart), Chopped, The Great Food Truck Race, and even Top Chef Canada. Considering my sweet tooth, you’d also expect me to be a big fan of competitive baking shows such as Cupcake Wars and Ace of Cakes, but I’m not. They bore me, probably because I’m hopeless as a baker and don’t care to change the fact.

In any case, the judging on these shows always seems pretty straightforward: 1. Taste all the entries. 2. Pick the best one.

As it turned out, judging food is way harder than it looks.

This bake-off featured seven cupcakes:

Lime raspberry-inthemiddle cupcake

Cardamom cupcake with strawberry jam and basil buttercream

Pastel de tres leches cupcake

Peach melba

Rhubarb-apple cupcake with burnt sugar drizzle

Blueberry surprise cupcake

Inlaw cupcake

Two contenders (lime raspberry-inthemiddle, blueberry surprise) made mini cupcakes; the rest quartered their full-sized versions to distribute to us judges. Receiving clumps of cupcake presented an unexpected challenge: Once I got all the entries on one plate, I had trouble visually distinguishing between several of them (rhubarb-apple, peach melba, cardamom); comparing them to the uncut cupcakes was not necessarily enlightening. Even more troubling, I still wasn’t entirely sure which was which after tasting them. But as an official judge, I had to soldier on and pick my favorite from the batch. My method? Process of elimination, weighing in flavor as well as technique.

Here are my comments, from least to most favorite:

7. Peach melba: dry cake; the raspberry sauce overwhelmed any peach essence the cake might’ve had.

6. Blueberry surprise: double blueberry action was darling but the cake was a bit dry and lacked flavor.

5. Rhubarb-apple cupcake with burnt sugar drizzle: tangy and moist but a little too pedestrian; did they forget the burnt sugar drizzle?

4. Lime raspberry-inthemiddle: topped with lime “cream cheese” frosting and garnished with a handmade lime and raspberry, this was truly a work of art. The raspberry in the middle of the cake helped maintain moistness, but overall the sweetness of the cupcake made my jaw hurt.

3. Cardamom cupcake with strawberry jam and basil buttercream: well-spiced, moist. Had the next two not been in the running, I could’ve stopped here.

2. Pastel de tres leches (cake of three milks) by Hella Vegan Eats: amazingly moist and rich, with a delicious, complex flavor profile due to the cake being soaked in coconut milk, rice milk, and almond milk. Accompanied by a grapefruit/lemon/mint cleanser.

1. Inlaw cupcake by Tastes Like Yum: chocolate/coffee decadence, with dark chocolate chunks, coffee buttercream, and chocolate coffee ganache. A definite buzz and everything I look for in a chocolate treat. It was so incredible I went back to the cupcake station and asked if I could buy one. Christina, the creator, wouldn’t take my money and gave me a whole one, much to my delight. It was then I noticed her Bake and Destroy shirt. (Funnily, Natalie, who runs the site, was in San Francisco that weekend but wasn’t able to make it across the bay in time.)

My first choice: The inlaw cupcake.

I managed to arrive at my personal favorite, but not without a heap of agony. Frankly, had this been a function with free cupcakes for the taking, I would’ve made the rounds and happily inhaled at least two of each. I’m not necessarily a chocoholic—I’ve often been torn between ordering, say, a chocolate lava cake, a fresh-fruit galette, a carrot cake, and a crème brûlée, and requested a non-chocolatey option. But I will say that whenever I do that, I usually pine over the chocolate dessert for a day or two afterward (that is, if I didn’t end up ordering it, too).

Yes, I have a problem. But the first step to recovery is recognizing it, right?

So how do professional judges put their personal biases aside? Or do they?

In the end, the pastel de tres leches took first prize. Allie and I weren’t able to stick around for the results, but I believe the inlaw got third place, which surprised me. How did the sole chocolate entry not get one of the first two spots? The mind boggles.

(By the way, I just discovered that Whole Foods carries vegan cupcakes in their bakery. The chocolate one is as gratifying as their non-vegan option, and far better than the crumbly slices of vegan cake they have.

Wait. Didn’t I say I wasn’t a chocoholic? Right. Like I’d ever buy vanilla cake.)

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Five on Friday: Meat-Free Hong Kong Dim Sum

Steamed vegetarian buns, Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

Whenever I think of Hong Kong, I immediately start salivating like a Labrador that has spotted a clumsy toddler clutching a handful of Goldfish crackers. C & I only spent three days there in February 2009, but we managed to stuff ourselves with an exquisite selection of vegetarian dim sum, which is a rarity everywhere but in NYC and–oddly–Sydney, Australia.

It’s astounding to me that the Bay Area, with its healthy and demanding population of vegetarians and vegans, doesn’t have a single restaurant dedicated to meat-free dim sum. Certainly, places like Yank Sing (SF), Big Lantern (SF), and May Flower (2156 University Avenue, Berkeley–sticky rice with veggie chicken wrapped in lotus leaf!) have a good number of vegetarian items on their dim sum menu, but you either have to hunt for them among traditional dishes like chicken’s feet and beef tripe, double-check that they aren’t peppered with pork or dried shrimp “for flavor,” or hope that they retained their delicate texture after a stint in the freezer. Hey, if the Bay Area can support vegetarian restaurants specializing in Filipino cuisine, Southern comfort food, and sushi (Cha-Ya: 1686 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 762 Valencia Street, SF), there’s no reason it can’t have just one vegetarian dim sum parlor. Any enterprising restaurateurs or dim sum masters out there willing to take on this no-brainer?

Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (7th floor, 1 Peking Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon) was our first introduction to what Hong Kong has to offer. Located on the seventh floor of a building overlooking Victoria Harbour and its famous (albeit fog-enveloped) skyline, it featured several dozen freshly made dishes, among them pan-fried spinach and porcini mushroom buns; rice rolls filled with your choice of golden mushrooms and pumpkin or vegetarian abalone and shredded chicken; BBQ “pork” buns; eight treasure sweet rice pudding. Dishes made with egg white were obviously marked. We ordered eight dishes and hoovered up every last crumb, yet were able to waddle out of there with clear heads and invigorated bodies–look, ma! No dim sum hangover and no need to sprawl out under the table for a nap! Since we couldn’t bear the thought of not trying everything on the menu, we came back on our last day. It was a wonderful (but sad) end to our first Hong Kong visit.

Vegetable wontons in supreme soup, Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

I can’t tell you much about dim sum culture, but I do know that the Cantonese term dim sum (or dian xin in Mandarin) literally means “little hearts,” referring to the bite-sized morsels served at dim sum. I’ve also heard the term yum cha (Cantonese for “eat tea”) bandied about in conjunction with dim sum. So we headed to Lock Cha Tea House in surreal Hong Kong Park (think Sea World sans dolphins, penguins, and orcas) to “eat tea.” The tea house doubles as a tea shop, or vice versa, and you select tea from a boggling menu. The tea is then prepared at your table with a multistep ceremony featuring several tea pots, cups, and bowls and a dextrous server. C got organic black tea; I got yellow tea. I wish I could tell you more, but the notes I took at the time were embarrassingly spare, no doubt because I’m not a tea connoisseur.

Tea ceremony, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

I can tell you that we ordered an array of dim sum that was tasty but less-refined than that of Kung Tak Lam, perhaps because they were mostly on the heavy, fried side. By the end of the meal, we were barely able to finish everything, but we soldiered on and did. The highlight was glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste in a heady jasmine tea broth. I loved them so much I tried recreating them at home on multiple occasions–but failed each time. This just means I’ll have to go back. I suppose there are worse things in life to do.

Vegan dim sum, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

Glutinous rice ball filled with black sesame paste in jasmine tea broth, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

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