Some peoples’ idea of “heaven on Earth” involve such lofty concepts as peace on earth, an end to poverty and starvation, and so forth- Worthwhile goals indeed. Others, however, dream simply of a chocolate-covered dessert paradise, and I’m here to say that at least this sort of utopia is achievable immediately, and from the comfort of your own kitchen. Sweet Utopia by Sharon Valencik is just the ticket to take you away to this sugar-coated place, boasting over 130 widely varied vegan recipes, running the gamut from cakes and custards to pies, cookies, and everything in between.
Unlike so many cookbooks that are purely lists of recipes, what really appealed to me about Sweet Utopia was the extensive explanation of ingredients, conversions, and pan sizes in the front of the book. For a newbie vegan baker, or just one that wants to learn more about the process, this information is invaluable. It helps to build a basic understanding that could empower a young vegan to take desserts into their own hands, and create or modify recipes to achieve new baked feats. Even if one isn’t so adventurous, I loved the fact that many recipes included numerous suggestions for adaptation, with other flavor combinations that may appeal, or ideas for simplifying should time be of the essence.
Featured by Book Publishing Co. as part of their Luscious Vegan Desserts Campaign, I was happy to secure myself a copy for review. Since almost every recipe has a tempting color photo included, my mouth was watering as I flipped through this modest collection, trying to decide what to make. Ultimately, it was a craving for a simple comfort that drew me first to the cake section.
Baking up easily and without incident, the Chocolate Chip and Nut Streusel Coffee Cake was practically instant gratification. With a moist and tender crumb gently yielding to slightly gooey chocolate chips, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that might object to such a cake. Spotted with just enough chocolate to keep the flavor present throughout, but not so much that it overwhelms the whole dessert, it manages to maintain a fine balance between opposing elements. I do, however, have a few qualms about calling this a “streusel” or “coffee cake,” since the streusel is composed merely of sugar, cinnamon, and nuts. In my eyes, a streusel must be of the crumb-variety, preferably layered on thick, and with much more heft than this light sugar sprinkle. Overall a tasty treat that gets a solid B grade, but by no means the best coffee cake I’ve tasted.
Turning next to a cookie that sounded like it was made with me in mind, I could hardly resist the siren song of the Minty Green Tea Stars. Combining two of my favorite flavors, matcha and mint, it sounded like a match made in heaven. Shaping mine to like leaves to harken back to these star ingredients, I was happy to see that they didn’t spread too much in the oven, holding even their delicate veins nicely. Staying beautifully green in the oven as promised, they were truly lovely little morsels, the perfect sort of thing to liven up a cookie platter, and one I will definitely keep in mind when the holidays roll around. However, the flavor may need a bit of tweaking next time around, because I didn’t taste even a hint of that illustrious and expensive matcha powder. Intensely and downright aggressively minty, the extract could probably stand to be dialed down a bit, because it’s a shame to use matcha powder merely as a coloring agent. For someone seeking just a soft mint sugar cookie, however, simply omit the green tea, and you have a perfectly refreshing peppermint treat on your hands!
Finally, I couldn’t resist the intrigue of a Carrot-Ginger Pudding. They may look like pumpkin or butterscotch, but the flavor sings with bright ginger flavor, and a comforting carrot cake-sort of undertone. Very softly set, I was disappointed at the grittiness of the carrot, but that may just be an execution error on my part. Brimming with bites of sharp crystallized ginger, you’ve gotta love the spice to enjoy this dessert, but I definitely did. Even better yet, I decided to top it off with the Cashew Creme, and it unexpectedly stole the show. I wouldn’t make this pudding without it; Complimenting that spicy flavor with a cool, creamy, and rich topping, it brought the whole dessert together harmoniously. Finally, a nut-based whipped creme that doesn’t just taste like… Well… Nuts! This is one that I will definitely default back to time and again.
Overall, Sweet Utopia is an inspiring cookbook for any dessert lover who’s looking to expand their vegan repertoire, or any vegan seeking to delve into the sweet paradise that is home baking.