The Quinoa Chronicles: Vegan Baking, Portobellos and the Best Cupcake I’ve Ever Eaten

Let’s talk desserts.

Many people treat vegan desserts like they’re infected, as if being vegan is a contagious disease and by eating our baked goods you’re going to contract a fatal case of veganism. Almost every time I’ve offered someone part of a vegan cupcake or brownie, they’ve almost all smiled like it was ridiculous for such a food to exist and have given the same “No, no,” reaction that I find both adorable and outrageous.

Here’s the skinny, people. This cupcake I had last Friday, a vegan stout chocolate cupcake from Gypsy Den in Costa Mesa, was the best cupcake I’ve ever had. Period. End of discussion. Best cupcake of my entire life. And it was vegan. The cupcake didn’t suffer from the conversion, and it was so good that it actually had me in doubt as to whether it was really vegan. Rich icing topped a fluffy cake imbued not only with chocolate but touched with a mellow but noticeable (and quite welcome!) beer flavor, and it wasn’t cloyingly sweet even with the icing. It was absolute heaven, start to finish.

How could this be? How could vegan cupcakes surpass those of their eggy, buttery brethren? It’s simple, and it goes back to what I said in the first week of this column. Vegan = more thoughtful = better food, and that’s just how it works. I am by no means a cupcake connoisseur, but I know good food when I eat it. This’ll blow any chocolate frosting standard model out of the water, trust me.

It’s actually exceedingly easy to convert baking recipes to be vegan. I once made vegan cookies, which were both easy and extremely delicious. Replace every egg you would use with 1/4 cup applesauce, and use shortening instead of butter. (I said it was vegan, I didn’t say it was healthy.) Make sure you use sugar that isn’t refined with animal char and you’ve got yourself a vegan recipe. Voila.

Cooking at home is also pretty easy, and even though for some it seems painful to eat a meal without some kind of meat in it, there’s a ton you can do to curb those cravings. Portobello mushrooms are an excellent meat replacement for those who want something meaty and are squeamish about soy meat substitutes.

Try this on for size: this past week I sliced portobellos and seasoned them with some nooch, sautéed them in olive oil and garlic before adding in some arugula. After the arugula wilted, I mixed my garlic portobello and arugula mixture into some whole grain pasta and topped with vegan parmesan. Delicious, vegan, healthy.

As for a status report on my thirty days, nothing much has changed. I still have the regretful tinge every time I’m really craving something and I can’t just go for it. I feel like the Domino’s delivery guy misses me.

I have noticed, however, that whenever I actually can satisfy a craving, I get really, ridiculously, unreasonably excited about it. Fried tofu? Amazing. Celery sticks and hummus? Best snack food in the universe. Being essentially deprived of meat has made me so much more grateful about what I can actually eat. It’s gratifying and humbling. I love potatoes, though. I think I’ve upped my consumption of potatoes by at least three times in the past weeks. While it’s not healthy, it’s realistic. I probably couldn’t complete this month if potatoes, coffee and beer weren’t vegan.

At the time of this writing, I am 16 days into my adventure, as it were. Over halfway completed, and I feel like I could go for longer than a month. I won’t, but only because I don’t want my body to start completely losing focus of what it is to process meat. If I had to, I could do this forever. But I don’t think I will, only because it’s a bit easier and a bit cheaper to not have to eat at vegan restaurants. I’m starting to get tired of people’s reactions at non-vegan establishments when I ask if certain menu items are vegan. I feel like I’d fit into that “Portlandia” sketch where the couple keeps asking their waitress really intimate details about the chicken they’re about to eat. Sometimes I think “Do you know if this is prepared with butter?” is a ludicrously invasive question to ask someone.

What’s made this worth it, despite all of the looks and the nonplussed waiters, is the culinary discovery. I’ve missed out on some great non-vegan foods, but if I weren’t vegan I would be like all of those who would have shuddered to think of having to eat that vegan cupcake. So if anything, I can say this: veganism brought me the best cupcake I ever ate.