ST. PETERSBURG — I had to know: How could buttercream frosting free of any actual butter taste so good?
The question came to mind every time I visited Valhalla Bakery, first at its flagship spot in Orlando and more recently at St. Petersburg's Baum Ave Market, a mini food hall in the EDGE District. The all-vegan bakery was one of the hall's original tenants. In September, Valhalla is expanding, moving into the former Nitally's space at 25th Street and Central Avenue.
But back to that frosting. It sits atop vanilla cupcakes, garnishes rose pistachio bars, covers slices of rainbow cake. It has a solid flavor, but the consistency is what got me: light and airy, creamy without being oily, really indistinguishable from a standard frosting made with butter and sugar.
How do they do it?
I spent a recent afternoon with Valhalla owner Celine Duvoisin and her crew finding out.
At a small prep station behind the glass case full of vegan baked goods — Death Bars made with brownie, peanut butter and candied Oreos; Strawberry Lemonade Bars; Lavender Cookie Sandwiches; Lemon and Rosemary Olive Oil Mini Bundts — decorator Alanna Frayne pulled out a giant tub of the frosting.
It was in its earliest form, a combination of powdered sugar and a couple of dairy-free fats.
Duvoisin preferred not to reveal which fats exactly, but what you need to know is that it contains more than one, a concoction that sets this frosting apart from the start.
Noncrusting buttercreams are common in vegan baking, Duvoisin said. That's when you use a single fat and then add water, which creates a firmer frosting that tends to not adhere to cakes as well.
"We use two fats so it emulsifies, and makes the frosting smoother," Duvoisin said.
Then she leaned in.
"You want to know my secret? I was a Publix bakery manager for 10 years."
She drew inspiration for her vegan frosting from some of the grocery store's techniques for making its buttercream, surely one of the most popular frostings in Florida.
"A lot of the ways we scale our ingredients comes from them too," she said. "Plus, I can make a cake in seven minutes."
Frayne scooped some frosting out of that large tub and into a KitchenAid mixer. It was white and kind of fluffy, but still a little sticky. She added vanilla extract for flavor and organic plain soy milk for consistency.
Then came perhaps the most important step: letting it churn for a bit.
It's important to mix this frosting at every step of the process, Frayne said: when the ingredients are first combined, when adding flavoring and then just before frosting a cake to make sure it's a desired consistency.
For cakes, that consistency needs to be smoother, so it spends more time in the mixer. For other things, like piping flower shapes, the frosting should be a little stiffer.
Flavor-wise, "it's pretty much endless," Frayne said. They've done mocha, berry, peanut butter, hazelnut.
She turned her attention to red, orange, yellow, green and blue cake layers, carefully cutting off the domed tops of the cakes to create a flat surface. These would get covered in the frosting and then stacked to become a rainbow Pride cake the bakery has created for Pride Month, and St. Pete Pride this weekend.
The mixer was still going, working air into that buttercream to fluff it up and also smooth it out. Frayne turned the mixer down to low and let it work a little more, to make sure there weren't any air bubbles in the frosting.
Then she frosted the cake, the bright white frosting spreading like, well, butter.
One more crucial step: refrigeration.
"You've got to refrigerate a cake like this so the frosting can firm up and the cake doesn't slouch," Duvoisin said. "Cake shouldn't have swagger."
When some of your family members are vegan, it's not easy to dream up a dessert that will please everyone.
For birthdays and other celebrations, I've tried a couple vegan cake or cake adjacent recipes over the years.
This one is my favorite. You hardly miss the eggs or butter in this cake, which uses coconut oil (and coconut milk!) for the fat and lots of ground nuts for texture and flavor. Plus, a simple chocolate ganache stands in for frosting.
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
⅔ cup hazelnuts or almonds, toasted and finely ground
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
⅔ cup maple syrup
⅓ cup coconut oil, melted but not hot
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅔ cup full-fat coconut milk
For the ganache:
¾ cup chocolate chips
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 tablespoon coconut milk
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Crushed toasted nuts and sprinkles, optional, for decorating
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin and set it aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, hazelnuts, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a separate, medium-sized bowl, whisk together the syrup, coconut oil, vanilla and coconut milk.
Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and then pour into the muffin tins.
Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; begin checking for doneness at 16 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely.
To make the ganache, place the chocolate chips and coconut oil in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second increments, stirring after each, until the chocolate is fully melted. Stir in the coconut milk and syrup and continue stirring for a few minutes until the ganache cools slightly.
To decorate, pour the ganache over the cakes so that it drips down the sides. Top with nuts and sprinkles as desired.
Serves about 12.
Source: Adapted from Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh