Nowadays, you’re cool if you’re vegan. I’ve seen people getting asked whether they eat meat instead of whether they have special dietary preferences. The curious thing is that both the wording and recipes many vegans use are still largely based on the experiences of non-vegan eaters. But before I get to that: If you have started reading this page expecting a recipe, then feel free to jump directly to it at the end of this post. But this ‘vegan cheesecake’ issue is no laughing matter-and if you stay with me, I will tell you why.
Vegan pride and why it should not stop at the wording
Veganism is good for animals, good for the climate and arguably the healthiest diet-arguably because there are situations where it is more beneficial to add other components to your diet (such as for pregnant women and toddlers) and also because most vegans have spent a lot of time on health matters prior to their decision on a plant-based diet. So very likely, it is not the diet per se that makes you healthy, but rather a holistic approach and a generally healthy way of living. I could write about the benefits of going 80/20 here (like 80% vegan Lina, kudos to her!), but that is not the main topic of this post.
Due to the obvious benefits not only for oneself, but also our environment, I must say I sometimes encounter a certain ‘holier than thou’ attitude in some vegans. Despite that, the wording those very same people use in recipes and in descriptions of food remind me very little of a plant-based diet, starting with ‘vegan burger’ and ending with-yes, here it comes-’vegan cheesecake’. There are a few more or less obvious reasons for this. First of all, vegans are still a small minority. We know best what we have already encountered, so we prefer to use words that we believe the majority of people will understand. This is further emphasised by the fact that most vegans don’t start their lives vegan, so they take familiar terms into their new diet, looking for plant-based equivalents. And then, there may be reasons as simple as the following: Commonly known words simply click better. If you want to have higher reach, you need the right keywords. If you want to get readers hooked, you need to call food the way it will most likely invoke tasty memories.
Putting all that aside, however, there often seems to be another reason, an underlying wish to combine the health benefits of a plant-based diet with the familiar taste of animal-based foods. What are we proud of again? Are we saying we should be vegans only because of health benefits and sustainability? Do vegan options not work if they don’t simulate animal-based foods? All vegans should take pride in the flavours only their plant-based recipes offer, enriching our gustatory experience and widen our versatility. Plant-based meals do not taste ‘like’ something else, because they usually don’t and do not need to. After all, it should be no surprise that different ingredients taste differently. That is not to say some dishes can’t taste extremely similar, as people have been trying for ages to simulate the taste of meat and seafood, but is this really what we’re aiming for-a simulation of animal-based dishes? Veganism is so much more than that.
Three tips on how to get rid of animal-based terms
A good friend of mine invited me to a vegan brunch ages ago when veganism was still raising eyebrows. As you will discover in my various posts about nutrition, I am practically open to any diet and any types of food, so I happily obliged. My friend assured me that meat eaters would barely notice a difference since she was offering good vegan alternatives to animal-based foods, including ‘vegan meat balls’ and ‘vegan cream cheese’ among many other delicacies. Everything was delicious, enough for me to take one of those ‘vegan meat balls’ home for my significant other to taste. He gulped down the first bite with much difficulty and had an incredulous look on his face when he said, “I’m not sure what this is, but it tastes nothing like meat!”
See, that’s where my friend and I had both been mistaken. I liked the taste because I took the foods as they were. But raising expectations in others that cannot be met will most certainly result in disappointment and in putting the tasty food in a negative light instead. The ‘vegan meat balls’ tasted like chickpeas, not meat-because they were made of chickpeas, not meat. Duh. It was yummy chickpea ball that tasted awful if you were expecting meat. And ‘cheese’, for that matter, is also animal-based, through coagulation of the milk protein casein. ‘Vegan cheese’ won’t taste like cheese because it simply isn’t. We need to give vegan products their own names and establish a vegan culture that is not built on the foundation of animal-based foods. Let us widen our vocabulary instead of trying to squeeze in new meanings (read: flavours) to already established words. Let us get rid of animal-based terms.
- Correct names raise correct expectations. For the vast majority of foods, you will find the right terms fairly easily. A yoghurt made of soy is a soy yoghurt, so why should a ball made of chickpeas not be called chickpea ball? Yes, ‘vegan’ plus animal-based, well-known food is good for clicks, good for understanding what you’re aiming for, but it’s little more than a lie about the most important characteristic of food: its taste. Start right and you will help establish real vegan foods with the right expectations.
- Celebrate the difference in flavour and make vegan foods strong on their own. Tweak your message. People should not try out a vegan recipe because they want to eat an animal-based dish with plant-based ingredients. Rather, vegan dishes open up a new world of taste and creative ways of using known ingredients. If I choose an almond drink instead of cow’s milk, it’s because I want that almond flavour, not because I need ‘vegan milk’.
- If there are similarities, name them-and only them. This is another way of expectation management, but with a gentle way to connect to familiar foods if you so wish. If your ‘vegan cheesecake’ has a similar texture to the product you derived this name from, you might want to say that your ‘vegan cream cake’ is just as creamy as a real New York Cheesecake (and you will still get to put in your well-clicking keywords, too). That’s totally fine because it’s true. Just don’t claim it will taste like one, because it won’t. And that, too, is also fine and should be celebrated!
Since I am concluding with a cheesecake example, it’s about time we move on to the recipe, right? I will be more than happy to discuss and elaborate on the above points if you leave a comment below this post.
Recipe: 80/20 New York Cheesecake
Why is this recipe 80/20? Because my recipes always allow some freedom in the selection of ingredients and the preparation steps. Also, I reduce the steps to the most important ones-think of only 20% effort. This cake is meant to be very tasty, but not perfect, though I will add notes on how to further tweak the recipes. Most people will not even notice the difference and be happy enough with this 80% variant.
Having read ‘vegan’ in the title of this post, you might also want to know how to make this recipe vegan, so I have included alternative plant-based ingredients for a ‘vegan cream cake’. Actually, once you got the hang of it, you can adapt any recipe to your dietary preferences.
Therefore, this recipe will be
- Gluten-free if you use gluten-free cookies
- Vegan if you use dairy-free alternatives
- Egg-free if you simply leave out the eggs
…but please forget about ‘sugar-free’. Fluid sweeteners tend to mess up the creamy texture. Fruit-based sweeteners like dates, bananas and apple puree mess up both texture and taste. That’s fine if you like it, but then you’ll have a different product altogether.
For the crust:
- 200 g / 7 oz of buttery cookies (substitutable with: gluten-free, full grain, cocoa or any other cookies)
- 90 g / 3 oz of butter (substitutable with: vegan alternatives like margarine or any oil of your choice)
For the cream:
- 600 g / 21 oz of cream cheese (substitutable with: ‘vegan cream cheese’, e.g. based on almonds, or canned coconut cream)
- 200 g / 7 oz of sour cream (any kind around 20% fat, can also be substituted with any vegan alternative)
- 150 g / 5 oz of (raw cane) sugar (or regular granulated sugar if you want your cream to be pure white)
- 1 tbsp. of vanilla essence (or vanillin sugar; can be left out if you’re not into vanilla)
- 2 eggs (can be left out, but gives the cream stability)
- 2 tbsp. of cornstarch (substitutable with: full grain, gluten-free or regular flour)
- 1 tsp. of lemon zest (can be left out, but really adds to the taste)
- 1 tbsp. of lemon juice (can be left out, but really adds to the taste and also the texture of the cream)
- For the crust, you can use a few seconds of a mixer or simply your hands to mix the cookies in crumbs with the butter or oil and press the homogenous mass into a 26 cm or 10 inch springform pan, lined with parchment paper.
Note: If you substituted the cookies, the taste will naturally be different. Some gluten-free variants are little or not sweetened and might need some added sweetener. Melted butter and oils are fluid and will make the crust too soft, you may try adding a smaller amount first. And last but not least, you can increase the amounts to make the crust thicker.
- For the cream, simply mix up all the other ingredients until creamy and slightly foamy. In 80/20 baking, the order of ingredients won’t make any substantial difference. If you do want to surpass those 80%, mix the cream cheese first until fluffy, then add sugar, one egg after another, the aromas and the cornstarch last; each ingredient very well mixed in before moving to the next. This is for extra creaminess.
Note: If you left out the eggs, the cream will come out wobbly and unstable and needs extra time in the fridge; you might want to increase the amount of cornstarch for added stability, but not too much lest you lose the creaminess. Vanilla and lemon add to the taste and you can freely experiment with other aromas, such as some alcohol of your choice if that’s your thing. Lemon juice also helps with the creamy texture, so consider putting in a small amount even if you don’t care for its taste.
- Pre-heat the oven to 360 F (180 C). Pour the cream into your springform pan and shake it a little bit to even out the surface. Bake the cake for 40 minutes and leave the oven closed for another 10–15 minutes afterwards. This is to prevent the cake from cracking.
Note: This is the most important difference in 80/20. If you really want to prevent those cracks and make the cheesecake extra creamy, you will have to put the springform pan into a water bath (cover the bottom of the pan with aluminium foil if necessary to keep the water from getting in) or add a tray of water below the springform pan before the oven is heated. Humidity is the key. Pouring some water into the oven when heated is also a small help.
- With both eggs and cornstarch, you can have a slice when the cheesecake is fresh out of the oven. Most will prefer more stability, though, so let the cake cool down for about 15 minutes before putting it into the fridge for a few hours. If you protect it with cling film, put it directly on the surface to keep out humidity. The wobblier your cream is, the longer it should stay in the fridge-up to 18 hours.
Pimp your recipe
I can gulp down a lot of pastry, trust me, but even I can’t eat too much cheesecake. It’s simply too heavy on proteins and fats. Still, a lot of people like to add a topping or an additional layer on top. It’s certainly good for photos (no wonder I see toppings most often on blogs and in books), but I personally only bother with it if I serve guests.
- Add different aromas: I have mentioned this in the steps above. Your cheesecake can be an Irish cream cake, a chocolate cheesecake or any other variant you can think of. Taste and texture change so try out small amounts first. For vegans, extra vanilla and lemon zest both work well as enhancements, but also the right selection of your cream cheese substitute: an almond-based variant or perhaps coconut cream.
- Sour cream topping: Use a generous amount of sour cream and mix in a few tablespoons of sugar. Vegans can use coconut cream here again. Have a small taste to check if it’s sweet enough for you, but also still sour enough to balance out the rest of the cake. Then pour onto the cooled cheesecake and put it in the fridge for another few hours.
- Chocolate topping: Heat up chocolate and whipped cream in the microwave until melted (perfectionists use a water bath), then stir well and pour the fluid mass onto the cooled cheesecake. Amounts depend on how hard and how thick you want this layer to be. As a rule of thumb, use the same amount of dark chocolate as whipped cream, less if it’s milk chocolate and even less if it’s white chocolate. Alternatively, if you prefer a raw or vegan variant, you can mix cocoa, powdered sugar and a dash of water OR cocoa, maple syrup and a bit of coconut oil. Both won’t taste like true chocolate, but both are less unhealthy and also faster to make.
- Fruit topping: Personally, I find that heating up a good amount of berries, mangos or another fruit of your choice and then pouring it as a puree onto the cheesecake more than sufficient and stable enough if cooled well. If you used sour fruits, you can also add some sugar, but I personally like how the sour taste evens out the heaviness of the cream. And finally, if you want the layer to be firmer, make sure the stove is off, then mix a bit of cornstarch with a dash of water and stir it into the puree, boiling it up for a second before cooling it down again. Oh, and: This is vegan. Obviously!
Last but not least, you can also top off your cheesecake or vegan cream cake with lemon curd. The taste of lemon fits so wonderfully and the only reason I am not including a quick recipe is that it would not be as quick and 80/20-friendly as the above variants, and not as easily substituted with plant-based alternatives.
Go on, then, and try out your favourite creamy cake!