Last year in December a friend of mine, Anna called for a “vegastromania month“, where she invited everyone to cook at least one vegetarian or even vegan meal during the Christmas preparations. The main goal of this project was to make people think about vegetarian dishes and what they are eating everyday – which is usually far too much meat. The participants were allowed to submit any kind of recipe except for desserts, because they are mostly naturally vegetarian, less healthy and we already have more than enough of sweet recipes. Anna also assembled some famous Hungarian vegetarians, who picked their favorite recipe. The winner was invited to a very special vegetarian dinner at Anna’s home and also recieved a voucher for an ayurvedic massage. Fortunately, I got picked by the jury, so this January I had a wonderful dinner with Anna, Ági and Noémi. One of the dishes Anna served at this dinner was Mrs. Myrtleberry’s nutcake, which was quite an extraordinary and surprising experience. First, it’s absolutely delicious. But its texture was even more interesting, because it tasted just like minced meat – although there was no meat in the cake at all.
We asked Anna to explain the recipe to us in detail, so we can reproduce this fabulous piece of cake at home too. While recounting the recipe, Anna mentioned that she used eggs and cheese to hold the cake together. Because currently I’m researching the possibilities of vegan cooking – which seem pretty endless if you can bring yourself to totally forget the existence of meats, fish, dairy and eggs – I was wondering whether it’s possible to dismiss the eggs and cheese without the cake falling apart.
For the last several centuries mankind adapted eggs into its diet so well, that nowadays eggs seem kind of irreplaceable. Well, in some cases – such as bonding agents in cakes – eggs can be replaced by several other natural ingredients. From a very simplistic point of view eggs are made up of proteins. In the case of doughs or pastries these proteins are mixed together with other ingredients to form a crumby, smooth or elastic mass, which is then denaturated by physical work or heat and solidifies as a result. Flours and starches mixed with liquids and plant proteins behave very similarly to eggs. They too unfold, coagulate and thicken or solidify due to heat. You could also call the process ‘gelatinization’, although of course there’s no animal gelatin involved.
Most vegan egg replacements are a combination of flours, starches and plant proteins. I found two very good references subsuming egg replacements: the Rabbit Food Cookbook and a short article on a German website. Some egg replacements are based on a combination of tapioca and potato starches or soy and wheat flours. Both need to be dissolved in water or any other liquid. Other options are fruit purees (such as banana or apple puree), soy yoghurt or silken tofu. Because the nutcake contains nuts mainly, I used freshly ground flax seeds. First they sound pretty awkward, but flax seeds indeed do work really well as egg replacements and add a nice nutty flavor as well. Its application is very simple: for replacing 1 egg, use 1-2 tbsp freshly ground flax seeds and about 3 tbsp warm water. Anna usually removes the seeds and drains the tomatoes to remove any unnecessary liquid. Because I needed a small amount of liquid to activate the ground flax seeds, my idea was to use this tomato juice instead of plain water. It worked great and thanks to the tomato juice I was able to add even more taste to the nutcake.
The other question from the perspective of turning the nutcake into a vegan version was about somehow replacing the cheese. Because cheese melts due to heat, I was thinking in purees as a replacement. I ended up with a kind of hummus made of chick peas, tahini (sesame paste) and nutritional yeast. The latter one added the cheesy aroma, while the first two worked as bonding agents.
I was very curious about how the final result of this veganized nutcake would turn out and whether it would fall apart or how big the difference would be to the vegetarian version. In the end, all my calculations were correct and all replacements worked perfectly. The texture of the vegan nutcake was exactly the same as in the vegetarian version with cheese and eggs. Although I found a small difference in taste, which didn’t result from my egg and cheese replacements, but the way I roasted the nuts. Anna likes to roast the various nuts for the cake in a small pan or skillet, while I prefer to roast nuts in the oven. In the oven the nuts can fully roast through, while in the pan they tend to get only some small burnt spots and remain halfway raw. In the final nutcake my kind of oven-roasting resulted in too much roasting aroma, so to my taste I’d prefer the pan-roasting of the nuts. In the end, it’s a choice everyone has to make for him- or herself.