One solution for all egg-free baking needs

Vegan cake-makers are going gonzo for garbanzos

fveg03F1200
Aquafaba-based Vegan Vanilla Cake with aquafaba-based Strawberry Buttercream.

PLANNING holiday baking? Then you're probably all too aware that many people (family members?) are ditching eggs for various reasons.

For some it's allergies, for some the massive cholesterol, for others the massive cruelty, for still others the government/industry dirty tricks to squelch egg-free competition. And let's not forget the increased costs from bird flu, or the fact that a surprising number of folks just don't like the taste of eggs.

Yet, eggless baking options have been less than perfect, with different substitutions for different functions. If only there were one solution that was animal-free, gluten-free, cholesterol-free, worry-free and, well . . . free!

There is: It's the slimy water in a can of chickpeas.

You read right: The "food waste" that you're about to pour down the drain when you use the garbanzos (or any other kind of bean) is aquafaba. It's taking the eggless baking world by storm, and whatever you're planning to bake, it can help you pull it off with zero eggs.

Outside of a couple of isolated one-shots, this "new" food technology is just one year old. French tenor and gourmet Joël Roessel came up with the idea of whipping chickpea "jus" as a foundation (along with other ingredients) for chocolate mousse and similar desserts, and published his results in December 2014 on his site, Révolution Végétale. A couple of months later, two French vegan hipsters presented an eerily similar process on their YouTube show, and a Seattle software engineer named Goose Wohlt saw it.

Wohlt had already been experimenting to create a vegan meringue and was intrigued by the chickpea-juice concept. As a true methodical engineer, "I started with only granulated sugar & well-strained chickpea liquid to see how just those two ingredients would interact," he told me, via email, "and it just worked." After all these years and tears, all you needed was chickpea juice, sugar and some serious whipping action.

Wohlt posted his discovery on Facebook, where Rebecca August, an animal-care worker from Michigan, saw it and suggested that they launch "another [Facebook] group dedicated to this miracle liquid," she told me, adding that "Goose was very intent on making it an open-sharing development group, so that is the way it was set up from the beginning." A veteran forum admin, August has kept the "Vegan Meringue - Hits and Misses" discussion focused on vegan foods, spurning larger animal-free philosophy discussions.

As the group got going, Wohlt coined the term "aquafaba" for the chickpea juice and its associated culinary realm. Over the course of the year, amateur chefs and bakers joined and shared both success stories and, well, misses, when the results didn't pan out, with the group pitching in to try to figure out which tweaks would make it work the next time. As of this writing, the group has 31,000 members.

Meanwhile, it turns out that aquafaba does way more than meringues. August said that after mastering them, "I went pretty quickly into baking cakes with it," finding, as many have, that it helps baked goods rise and hold together while remaining light, moist and fluffy. August added that "after about the first two months of experimenting, I think I'd eaten about 10 pounds of sugar, and backed off pretty strongly after that."

Fortunately, the Facebook community took over the heavy lifting and by now there are well over 100 recipes collected on the group's page - not just for mousse and lemon-meringue pies but muffins, doughnuts, brownies, Yorkshire pudding, challah, nougat, cookies (dozens of varieties), cakes (from mud to sponge to carrot - see a recipe for aquafaba cake with aquafaba frosting here), custard, mayonnaise, quiche and even butter and cheese. The list of "aquafabized" foods keeps growing, with the holy grail of angel-food cake finally looking like it may be conquered this month.

The fun isn't limited to baking: One high-profile group member, Vegan Street's Marla Rose, used an aquafaba wash to add a lustrous golden brown finish to her phyllo-based Thanksgiving centerpiece (soft-pretzel vendors, take note!). Other innovations and improvements continue to show up daily.

In Philadelphia the word is just getting around, with some vegan bakers reporting initial efforts and others saying "aqua-whuzzah?"

Vegan doyenne Christina Pirello has achieved "spectacular results" in a cake-"I used 1/3-cup for every egg. No odd flavor, and the cake really rose." Since she uses coconut sugar, though, she said her meringue came out runny. Meanwhile, over at NaturallySweet Desserts, Sherimane Johnson likes it for whipped cream: "After 15 minutes of whipping garbanzo bean brine with cream of tartar and sugar you get a gorgeous, shiny, marshmallow-fluff-type product." She warns that if it sits out too long "it begins to return to liquid."

I know one vegan baker who made two batches of peanut-butter cookies a week apart, the second with aquafaba, and said the latter cookies held together distinctly better than those made with traditional starch-based egg replacer. My wife, Cynthia, made some delicious, moist gingerbread using an old recipe with the standard substitution of 3 tablespoons to replace one egg. I made some tasty oil-free chocolate-chip cookies (from Goose Wohlt's recipe) that use both the aquafaba and the chickpeas themselves - and it occurred to me that the delicious cookies I just made using dough from Hungryroot, a vegan-friendly delivery service, also were made with chickpeas, so who knows how far this trend is spreading?

Wohlt's site, aquafaba.com, has a donate button for the lab tests that will nail down the chemical constituency of aquafaba (at a "nutrition facts" level) and further research will pinpoint exactly what is going on chemically with this "magic" ingredient. A cookbook may also be in the works, but Wohlt says his priority is to update aquafaba.com with a recipe-search tool and individual recipe commenting to spread the word beyond Facebook, and also because "the FB 'Files and Posts' interface is severely limited."

The takeaway from all this is that another longtime pillar of animal-based food, with all its associated liabilities, turns out to be totally unnecessary, easily replaced in rarefied confections by a whole-food plant product that you were going to throw away. And that's great news for anyone who wants to make treats everyone can enjoy, while truly celebrating peace on earth.

V for Vegan Convenience

Will Philly get a corner store that's all-vegan? There's now a kickstarter for V Marks the Shop, with potential locations including Fishtown, Newbold, University City and Point Breeze. Check out the details at twitter.com/vmarkstheshop.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 15-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @V4Veg.

NOTE: This column has been updated to restore a missing list item (allergies) erroneously cut from the final version.