I regret to tell you: Vegan cake used to be awful.

Also, vegan cupcakes, cookies, pies, brownies, doughnuts, you name it. Sure there were exceptions here and there. But 20 years ago, if a baked good was vegan, chances are taste wasn’t its top feature.

Oh, how times have changed.

Just the other weekend I overheard a close family member, someone who’d suffered through many a vegan cake for me over the decades, remark with surprise at a birthday party where the bakery-made cake was vegan that “vegan cake is actually good now.”

I agree.

Today’s vegan baking is aided by a wealth of plant-based substitutions stocked on supermarket shelves along with years of work by professionals, cookbook authors and bloggers who’ve figured out how to make vegan cakes that everyone wants to eat.

For those new to vegan eating, baking can seem impossible since traditional recipes rely on eggs, butter and milk. Must Grandma’s cookbook be tossed?

To answer this question and to learn what it takes to make appealing plant-based treats, I turned to three vegan bakers from the Pine Tree State and asked for their secrets. I can’t say whether or not they divulged all their techniques and substitutions, but I did find areas of agreement as well as preferences that distinguish each baker’s style.

Missy Christy Maidana, a former executive pastry chef at Pure Food & Wine in New York City and now the owner of Sol Food, a personal chef business in Arundel, said that baking vegan doesn’t have to mean ditching Grandma’s recipes.

“My grandmother was a really great baker,” Maidana said. “I enjoy taking her recipes and veganizing them. There are so many substitutions now.”

Her grandmother’s banana bread originally called for butter and eggs. “I simply swapped them out with Earth Balance and potato starch,” Maidana said. (See recipe.) She also switched to organic sugar, which is vegan while conventional sugar is sometimes processed with animal bones.

Private chef Missy Christy Maidana veganized her grandmother’s banana bread recipe. Photo by Missy Christy Maidana

Maidana developed raw vegan desserts for Pure Food & Wine – a high profile restaurant that is now closed – through trial and error. But for more traditional baked goods, she prefers taking existing recipes and subbing in plant-based ingredients.

Today plant-based milks can stand in for cow’s milk in cold cereal and baked goods alike, and they come in a cornucopia of varieties including almond, coconut, cashew, hemp and flax. Soy milk and pea protein milk have the highest protein contents, while oat milk has the highest sugar content, an appealing quality to bakers.

Maidana uses oat milk (made by soaking oats in water, blending and then straining the liquid) for baking because of its flavor. Laura Cabot, who owns a catering company by the same name in Waldoboro, also likes oat milk for baking.

“Cakes made with oat milk look better, and the crumb is nice and moist,” said Cabot, who ran Pine Cone Cafe in Waldoboro for 23 years. “Those are the things I’m looking for.”

It also “helps baked goods brown,” according to testing conducted by America’s Test Kitchen for its vegan cookbook, “Vegan for Everybody,” which was released last year.

Any plant-based milk can be swapped one-for-one with cow’s milk in baking recipes.

Amy Alward, who owns Love Kupcakes in Portland, said the bakery prefers to use coconut milk in its vegan cakes, cupcakes and whoopie pies – that last is a new addition.

“We like how it bakes off,” Alward said. “You won’t taste the coconut in something you bake with coconut milk.”

The coconut milk that Love Kupcakes uses is the kind sold in the dairy cooler or plant-based milk aisle, not the thicker coconut milk sold in cans, which is common in curries and Southeast Asian soups.

Like Maidana, Alward and her staff often veganize traditional recipes.

“It’s very easy substituting out butter and eggs,” Alward said. “We have a lot of the basic knowledge in-house. If we need to, we do a Google search and look at vegan substitutes.”

The go-to butter replacement at Love Kupcakes is Earth Balance, a brand of vegan butter substitute made from vegetable oil and thickeners. Cabot favors Earth Balance, too.

Maidana’s preferred swap for butter varies. For buttercream frostings, she uses Earth Balance. For a batter, she uses refined coconut oil with a pinch of salt.

In her 2017 cookbook “Veganize It!”, Robin Robertson includes a recipe for Easy Vegan Butter that includes both refined coconut oil and salt, alongside other ingredients.

All can be substituted without adjustment in place of butter.

Substitutes for eggs vary depending on what role the egg plays in the recipe, such as binding, leavening or both.

“For a banana muffin, I use bananas” as a substitute for eggs, Cabot said. “For something more savory, I’d go with flax or chia or soy (protein powder). I use agar agar or arrowroot for a gelatin-like finish on a fruit tart or pie. Agar agar is better for uncooked dishes and arrowroot is better for cooked.”

Alward said she doesn’t have a standard one-for-one swap for eggs. Instead Love Kupcakes’ vegan recipes use a combination of cornstarch, baking soda and vinegar to replace the binding and leavening properties of eggs. (Recipes for cakes that use baking soda and vinegar in place of eggs are thought to originate during the food rationing of World War II or possibly the Depression; a famous chocolate version is known both as Crazy Cake or Wacky Cake.

At Sol Food, Maidana substitutes 1 1/2 teaspoons of potato starch mixed with 2 tablespoons warm water for each egg called for in a traditional recipe. If she’s out of potato starch, she makes a standard vegan flax egg. (See fact box for instructions.)

“Some people like to use applesauce or bananas or sweet potatoes in place of eggs,” Maidana said, “but I feel they change the flavor and consistency.”

In the classic “Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar,” authors Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero use cornstarch or arrowroot powder in “more delicate cookies” and ground flaxseeds in “dense cookie dough loaded with whole grains, nuts, or chips.”

To replace cream cheese in a raw cheesecake, Maidana uses soaked cashews mixed with nutritional yeast, acidophilus and lemon.

Similarly, Cabot makes cheesecake from homemade cultured cashew cheese. To make sour cream, Cabot blends silken tofu with an acid component, such a lemon juice. She uses blended avocado to create a creamy chocolate mousse.

These days, it seems bakers have figured out how to reproduce almost any baked good or treat in a delicious vegan version. With one exception.

At Love Kupcakes, vegan blueberry-maple cupcakes are a customer favorite. Photo by Taylor Witham

At Love Kupcakes, Alward said the bakery is struggling to perfect its vegan caramel.

“The problem when you’re making caramel and using coconut milk and coconut sugar and things like Earth Balance, is the tremendous costs,” Alward said. “Making a quart of that vegan costs five to six times as much” as a dairy-based version.

Home cooks may be able to afford the occasional splurge, but such costs can swiftly subtract from the bottom line of a commercial kitchen. Alward, who is committed to using top quality ingredients, remains hopeful the cost will eventually come down.

“I want to deliver something everyone can try,” Alward said.

The high price of vegan caramel aside, those looking to make vegan baked goods will find today’s ingredients and techniques make for plant-based desserts both vegans and non-vegans will enjoy. And for any vegan baked good skeptics faced with a vegan treat at a restaurant or party, Maidana offers simple advice: “Be brave and just try it.”

Because – I am happy to tell you – vegan cake is actually good now.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

twitter.com/AveryYaleKamila

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