A Talk with Vegan Baking Queen Fran Costigan
From baking boot camp to the perfect cupcake recipe, the queen of vegan baking shares her pastry secrets with VegNews' Colleen Holland.
Fran Costigan knows a thing or two about chocolate. She can tell you the best leavener for the perfect vegan torte, or a replacement for eggs that will transform your dairy-free mousse. After eschewing butter, cream, and eggs for vegan versions in the ‘80s, Costigan has shaped the art of vegan baking like no other. In fact, many say that Costigan is the country's first-ever vegan pastry chef, and her flawless cakes, cookies, and tarts will make you a believer. Now leading an always-sold-out vegan baking boot camp in New York City, Costigan is teaching students from around the world how to make perfect vegan pastry.
VegNews: How did you become a vegan baker?
Fran Costigan: After completing the professional program at New York Restaurant School, I was hired as a pastry chef at a high-end New York City café to make all the desserts and baked goods. My desserts were popular and my work was interesting, but I didn't feel well. I had to stop working to try to deal with my exhaustion, moods swings, and general malaise. During my time out, I read Annemarie Colbin's Food and Healing and had my first "aha, it's the food" moment. I became a whole-foods vegan overnight, shunning all sweets, and felt great virtually immediately.
VN: Shunning all sweets? We can't imagine Fran Costigan saying those words. How did you parlay your new lifestyle back into your passion for baking?
FC: I know! Well, not long after my epiphany, I remembered that sweet treats are celebratory and an important part of a balanced life. I investigated the vegan desserts on the market, and they were mediocre to awful. The last straw for me was when my mainstream colleagues decided that vegan and the pastry arts were antithetical, so I hit the stores for ingredients and sequestered myself in my kitchen. While I was madly testing, I enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute Chef's Training Program and worked as a pastry chef in a vegetarian restaurant. When I perfected my first chocolate cake, I knew I had cracked the code!
VN: What is your favorite dessert to prepare?
FC: That's like asking me to pick my favorite child! But when I am in the mood for true dessert artistry, I make my L'Opera cake. My version is true to the French original: four layers of almond genoise cake, two cream fillings, two icings, coffee syrup, chocolate designs, and gold dusted nuts.
VN: Tell us what one will experience in baking boot camp.
FC: It's a five-day, eight-hours-per-day intensive program that will give you the tools and confidence to make excellent, reliable vegan desserts. This course is on par with other professional pastry course intensives—it just happens to be vegan. Students learn how to work with quality ingredients integral to vegan baking and how to bake categories of desserts using the proper technique. We practice plating every night, and finish up the class with a dessert buffet party.
VN: When you want a terrific vegan dessert and don't want to make it at home, where do you go?
FC: I adore Lula's Sweet Apothecary for sundaes or a vegan macaroon by Sweet & Sara. And the cannoli at Candle 79—don't get me started! For a raw dessert, I hit Pure Food and Wine, and I love the atmosphere at the new all-vegan chocolatier, Cocoa V.
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