Vegans are not alone in being baffled at the array of baking ingredients on offer in French supermarkets. I often see a plea on social media groups seeking advice about the best type of flour to use for cakes, or where to track down baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. In fact, if you’re a keen baker you might want to check out the Facebook group ‘Baking in France Together’. Although you will have to contend with a few carnists, it’s a good forum to subtly spread the vegan message and show off photos of your baking triumphs.
Buying the basics: flour, sugar and fat
Maybe you’ve had the urge to knock up a batch of scones or banish the winter blues with a decadent coffee and walnut cake. Where to start? The basic components of a traditional cake are flour, sugar and fat. I’ve covered all of these in previous articles, so just follow the links. Personally, I use plain T55 supermarket flour for all types of cakes – the cheaper, the better. Sieve it first if you wish. (And for US friends, neither flour nor sugar is bleached with bone char in Europe.) If you’re baking gluten-free or looking for special flours, there’s more info here.
How do you get vegan cakes to rise?
That’s a question often posed to me by non-vegans, especially when I’m running a cake stall at a Twilight event. If you’re new to the vegan way of cooking then this may have puzzled you, too. There’s a whole host of alternatives to eggs. Just Google ‘egg replacers’ and you’ll find plenty of advice and some handy memes you can save. I haven’t found any of the commercial egg replacers, either powdered or liquid, in any supermarkets or bio shops here. If these are your preference, then you can certainly order them online from places like The Vegan Shop. I’ve never had much success with commercial egg substitutes in cakes, so I prefer to stick to one or more of the simple everyday ingredients that you can find in the supermarkets. Yes, in your local Intermarche or Carrefour. My four go-to raising agents are: French levure chimique, flax or chia seed ‘eggs’, soya boisson (aka soya non-dairy milk) curdled with lemon juice or cider vinegar and aquafaba.
Replacing baking powder and bicarbonate of soda
First, yes, you can get bicarb here; just make sure it is ‘alimentaire’ quality. If you’re from the UK, then you are probably used to plain flour and self-raising flour. Most UK-origin cake recipes will be based on self-raising flour. You can buy a similar type of flour here in France, with a manufacturer’s added raising agent. It’s called Farine de Gateaux. This is something that you might need to experiment with. Some people swear by it, whereas I’d recommend sticking to plain flour, and adding a sachet of levure chimique. Plain flour is pretty much everything except Farine de Gateaux and bread flour. Levure means yeast. Levure chimique is simply a sachet of chemical raising agent, just like mixing baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. The proportions recommended are one 11g sachet of levure for each 500g of flour (that’s half a bag). Though, if you’ve downloaded the VV Baking Survival Guide PDF you’ll see I sometimes suggest slightly higher ratios as some vegan recipes may need an extra boost.
If you’ve grown tired of the French baguette (don’t worry they are vegan), then you might fancy having a go at making your own bread. You’ll need to look for flours in the higher rating range – T65 to T110. Unless the flour is marked ‘machine a pain’ then you’ll need to add yeast. Bread machine flour comes ready-to-use with the yeast mixed in. If you are using an electric bread machine, then this is the type of flour you should select. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy some yeast. Here, you’ve got two choices. Instant yeast is available in small 7g sachets, just like in the UK. It’s called levure boulangere. Alternatively, for purists, you can buy fresh yeast. Look for this in the chilled cabinets where the cakes, tarts and gateaux reside (hands off! Most of them aren’t vegan). Or, if you’re feeling daring you can ask your local boulangerie to sell you some. I’ve never tried this.
Other raising agents
In most of my tried-and-tested traditional vegan cake recipes levure chimique is used in combination with another mechanism. Baking, in its simplest form, is really akin to a science experiment. The various ingredients react with each other and with heat to create the cake: light, fluffy and delicious. The main protagonists I use in my recipes are soya boisson with either lemon juice or cider vinegar. The addition of an acid curdles the soya liquid, so it becomes like buttermilk. Note: you must use soya as it contains the appropriate enzymes to enable this.
Flax and chia seed eggs
Next up is a flax or chia seed ‘egg’. Here, you just need to mix one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds (graine de lin) with three tablespoons of water, leave it to thicken for a little while and then add to the mix. You can find graine de lin in the ‘en vrac’ bins (loose) of most supermarkets, usually near the fruit and vegetables. For chia seeds, check out the bio aisle, your local Aldi Bon et Bio range or Action.
Using chickpea juice and other tricks
The fourth raising agent commonly used in vegan baking is aquafaba. This is just the liquid drained from tinned chickpeas. I’ve seen reports that Aldi and Lidl’s brands are the best, but I’ve never put this to the test. I usually combine an aquafaba-based recipe with making a batch of hummus, or vice versa. However, aquafaba does freeze. Other egg substitutes are mashed banana, soya yoghurt and applesauce. Look for this latter product near to the breakfast cereals or jam, or if you only need a small amount you can buy little 150g pots in the baby food aisle. Applesauce is very popular here, so there’s a wide range from Top Budget to Bio.
Download the VV Baking Survival Guide
If you’ve not yet turned your hand to vegan cake making before, now is the time to have a go. You can track down all the ingredients you need in the average supermarket. Then, download you a copy of the Vivez Vegan Baking Survival Guide PDF – it’s totally free, no sign-up required. All the recipes are based on French ingredients and were painstakingly tried and tested at VV HQ