ABOUT EIGHT YEARS AGO, a national food company asked me to critique a line of plant-based meat substitutes they were developing, to see if a chef thought restaurants and home cooks might like them. I was a novice at veganism, but I wanted to gain some experience and knowledge. The next week, a big refrigerated box landed on my doorstep. I felt like a pirate opening a sealed treasure chest, hoping for pearl necklaces and gold bullion. My first look at the faux chicken, pork, beef, and sausage made me think more about the kennel than the kitchen. But I forged ahead.
My conclusion? The textures were unpleasant, and any flavor was oddly missing. I hope the feedback they received from me helped them stay in the laboratory longer to refine their products and eventually enjoy what’s grown from a niche food trend to a $23 billion global industry.
This past summer, a group of investors in Palm Desert, California, hired me to consult on a menu for a burger, steak, and ribs restaurant that would include a hefty dose of New Mexico chiles. The lead investor and creative guy turned out to be vegan, so while developing and sampling the dishes, I was urged to explore vegan options. At every one of our many tasting sessions, I included a plate or two of plant-based samples. Happily, chile doesn’t need meat to shine.
The funny thing was that throughout the process, the investor would text me inspirational photos and video clips of burgers oozing with juices, topped with bacon, and dripping with cheese, along with hefty steaks and chops sizzling on a grill. I decided he was suffering from “carnivore envy,” perhaps wishing he could trade his Impossible Burger for one that had more delicious possibilities.
I could understand that. As a chef and a fan of butter, I discovered that swapping out dairy was a flavor challenge. I was happy to learn of a bakery in Albuquerque that offers goodies that are not only vegan but gluten-free to boot. Although Planty Sweet doesn’t have a storefront, owner and chef Karina Cake does a brisk business offering her cakes and other baked goods to a fast-growing online fan base. It helps that the goodies’ appearance alone would make Paul Hollywood reach for a handshake.
Growing up in Hong Kong and going through college as a vegetarian prepped Cake for her career. She incorporates seasonal ingredients and edible flowers into her lovely creations. Asian influences such as sesame and red bean paste play a role in flavoring up these goodies. Fans of her Bundt cakes and cheesecakes don’t seem to mind the substitutions, which to me is the litmus test for success as a chef. Within parameters that other chefs might find daunting, she delivers delicious desserts.
Cake also shares her knowledge in online courses, offered through Matthew Kenney Cuisine, that all vegans should check out. I caught up with her right before she headed to Mexico for a well-earned winter vacation.
Chef Johnny Vee: Is Cake your real last name?
Karina Cake: It is not my legal last name, but it is as real as I want it to be.
JV: I love your company name, too. How did you come up with it?
KC: Thank you! I think I was playing around with a bunch of names one night and it just came together.
JV: Your baking is gluten-free and vegan. Do you live a gluten-free lifestyle as well?
KC: Mostly I do because my husband has celiac disease. But I love a good loaf of local sourdough, so sometimes I’ll eat it in my car so that I don’t contaminate our home or the Planty Sweet space.
JV: Any nonvegan ingredients you miss using in your baking?
KC: Honestly, not at all. It is so easy to make delicious plant-based food once you understand the basic science behind a dish—focusing on how to bring flavor and textures together. There are so many plant-based ingredients that are rich not only in mouthfeel and flavor but also in nutrition. Coconut oil and coconut cream are the obvious ones. Cacao butter can create richness, while also adding fragrance and flavor. You can also utilize so many different types of nuts and seeds. Our most popular chocolate ganache is based on cacao and coconut cream, and it is so delicious. Our cheesecakes are incredibly creamy and rich, and they’re made of just cashews, maple syrup, coconut cream, and oil.
JV: Are there any non-vegan dishes you miss?
KC: Not these days. It used to be croissants, but you can get amazing vegan croissants in most big cities now. In Albuquerque, Burque Bakehouse makes delicious vegan-butter croissants and almond croissants.
JV: What’s the hardest part about converting recipes to be vegan?
KC: I haven’t found it hard to achieve the results I want for the vegan recipes. Gluten-free is definitely trickier, though. I think making really soft and fluffy vegan and gluten-free bread is something I’ve yet to master.
JV: Was your mom a good cook?
KC: Yes! My grandpa was a Chinese chef, so my mom really took after him.
JV: Which of your desserts is your favorite?
KC: Tarts. I love contrasting textures of crunchy, flaky, and creamy.
JV: Is the vegan lifestyle healthy for everyone, children included?
KC: Eating a balanced, whole-food, plant-based diet can only be good for you. However, I understand not everyone is built the same genetically. Different people have different needs. Personally, I thrive when I eat a variety of locally grown vegetables balanced with fats, grains or legumes, fruits, and fermented goods. There is so much more to nutrition than what’s recommended for the “standard American diet.” Almost everything has some protein, even seaweed. But since I’m from Hong Kong, I do eat a lot of tofu.
JV: What is your favorite benefit derived from a vegan lifestyle?
KC: People always tell me I have nice skin. But honestly, vegetables are so good! My love and need for vegetables make me whole.
JV: Are there many vegans in Hong Kong?
KC: Not really, but because of Buddhism, vegetarianism is very common, and because Cantonese food doesn’t really use any dairy, vegetarian food is basically vegan if it doesn’t contain eggs.
JV: What would you want your last meal on earth to be?
KC: Vegan waffles with salted maple syrup!
Cake was delighted to share two of her recipes with me, and I developed a savory one that will satisfy your desire for New Mexico flavors without the pork or cheese. Give them a try. You might find yourself a convert.
New Mexican cuisine is certainly pork-centric, but I created this vegan adovada that still boasts all the spicy flavors we love, while swapping smoky grilled eggplant for the traditional protein. Try it on a warm corn tortilla and you won’t mind that this little piggy stayed home!
Serve Planty Sweet’s gluten-free vegan dessert to anyone who loves chocolate. It’s especially nice on Valentine’s Day! Don’t even bother to mention the substitutions; I bet they will never notice.
This amazingly buttery but butter-free icing can be flavored in myriad ways. At Planty Sweet, chef Karina Cake offers chocolate, lemon, and lemon-lavender versions, along with this simple vanilla one.