There's more to vegan food than tofu and hummus. Chefs today are creating inspired dishes that not only replicate traditional recipes, they often surpass them in flavor and creativity. As veganism steadily gains popularity, more and more establishments are starting to feature vegan items on their menus, and we are lucky to have some great local businesses who make stellar vegan dishes. Some of the most impressive of these vegan offerings are the cookies, cakes, and pastries made fresh in local bakeries.
Eating a vegan diet, and, thus, being labeled “a vegan,” brings with it a certain level of scrutiny and misunderstanding. But vegans are people too, and that’s the message I want to convey today. To this end, I’d like to start by debunking a few vegan myths. First off, not all people who eat a vegan diet like to be labeled “vegan.” For some people, it’s merely a lifestyle and dietary choice, not an identity or a way of life. Secondly, choosing to eat vegan food doesn’t mean you automatically swear off meat and cheese for life. It’s possible to eat something vegan, then something else that isn’t vegan, and the world won’t stop spinning. Another myth is vegan food tastes horrible. Simply not true. There are many wonderful vegan recipes that would satisfy the harshest critic, but a lot of people can’t get over the stigma that comes with it. People also assume vegan food has to be healthy, which can be a turn-off for some reason. I can assure you, not all vegan food is healthy. Oreos are vegan. Enough said. But I prefer to eat something made from scratch with fresh ingredients, as opposed to overprocessed chemical garbage. Luckily, Champaign-Urbana has some fantastic places to buy locally made vegan sweets.
The first place I’d like to highlight is Strawberry Fields Café. They feature an in-house vegan baker who has been there for the past few years; she has carried the torch from former employees who worked under different ownership, to continue the tradition of serving up some amazing vegan treats. Strawberry Fields Café shares a location with World Harvest International and Gourmet Foods. This is a great marriage of two local favorites, continuing Strawberry Fields' tradition of providing wonderful natural and organic foods and merging it with the eclectic, diverse offerings from World Harvest.
The café serves up some delicious salads and sandwiches, along with a great breakfast; they also feature some freshly made items from their magnificent bakery, which produces some of the most artistic and decadent treats around, most of which happen to be vegan. I defy anyone who tries one of their cupcakes to tell me it’s not as good as, or better than, anything they’ve tried before. Each one is a small work of art, like the crème brulee cupcake with caramelized sugar topping, or the strawberry coconut cream vanilla cupcake topped with slices of fresh strawberries (all cupcakes $3.99).
On my first visit, it was too difficult to choose from all of the amazing looking sweets, so I asked the baker her favorite and she replied, “Chocolate. Simple, but I like simple.” I took her suggestion and was not disappointed. These cupcakes should be illegal. The frosting and chocolate chips were rich and sweet, and lent the perfect balance to the amazingly moist chocolate cake. This wasn’t just the best vegan chocolate cupcake I’ve ever tasted, it was the best chocolate cupcake of any kind I’ve ever had, period. Vegan or not, this cupcake was perfect. The fact that is was prepared from only plant-based ingredients was an added bonus, and I would recommend to anyone with a sweet tooth that they visit Strawberry Fields and try one for themselves.
The cupcake was so good, I returned the next day to try something else. I treated myself to a peanut butter cookie sandwich filled with chocolate cream ($1.75), and a ginger molasses cookie ($.99). Both items were a real bargain. The chocolate peanut butter sandwich was extremely rich and satisfying; the salty, crumbly cookies gave just the right amount of resistance when biten into so as not to force the delicious, creamy chocolate filling out from within. This was an amazing treat, truly a meal in itself. And the ginger molasses cookie was absolutely outstanding, crispy and caramelized on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside. This cookie was the epitome of simple elegance. I learned from the friendly staff that the bakery takes special requests and loves a good challenge; they can recreate any cake recipe and turn it into a vegan delicacy. If you are in the mood for some delicious, beautifully prepared sweets (that also happen to be vegan), I suggest you make the trip and check out all that they have to offer in their cafe, bakery, and vast international, gourmet, and natural foods grocery store.
The next must-visit place for vegan sweets is Dancing Dog. If you haven’t been to Dancing Dog yet, what are you waiting for?! The food is exquisite, the atmosphere is cozy and relaxed, and the staff is super friendly and accommodating. Their fresh cut fries and homemade ketchup are to die for…but I’m here to discuss desserts, and theirs are simply out of this world. The cakes are my favorite, because they feature unique flavor combinations, artistically presented, for only $5.50 per slice. (Whole cakes can be ordered two days in advance for $46.) The offerings rotate, which makes each visit a bit of a surprise; the vanilla lavender cake is a house staple, regularly featured, and it’s divine, but I am partial to the Memphis Mafia cake, which is what I sampled on my most recent visit. This is a masterpiece, like nothing I’ve ever had before, vegan or otherwise. It’s a double tier banana cake with peanut butter frosting on top and between the cake layers, and chocolate frosting on the outside of the cake. The kicker is it’s topped with coconut bacon. Yes, that’s right, coconut bacon. It tastes even more amazing than it sounds. The salty, smoky, chewy coconut bacon lends an amazing contrast to the perfectly creamy, chocolate frosting and the sweet, moist banana cake. The delicious peanut butter frosting is filled with crunchy peanut chunks, a wonderful compliment to the sweet, delicate banana cake and the rich chocolate frosting. But the added texture and flavor of the salty/smokey coconut bacon on top brings this cake to an astronomical level of amazingness. Besides their wonderful cakes, Dancing Dog also features a wide range of vegan desserts, like cupcakes, oatmeal sandwich cookies, and wheat-free chocloate brownies made from black beans. All of their baked goods are truly unique and well worth the price.
Another fantastic place for vegan desserts is Common Ground Food Co-op. They have a pastry case jam packed with different vegan treats, ranging from scones, to cookies, to muffins, all of which are baked fresh in-house. Many of the items are wheat-free, and some are both vegan and wheat-free. Everything at Common Ground is clearly labeled as to its contents, which I really appreciate. Across from the pastry case is a cooler filled with salads and side dishes that also features some refrigerated vegan sweets, like chocolate mousse, rice pudding, assorted pies, and cakes. On my recent visit, I picked up a piece of chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, which was sold by weight ($7.99/lb.). My generously sized piece of cake only cost $2.50, and it was a very good dessert. The frosting was creamy and buttery tasting, with just a hint of vanilla, and the cake was tender and crumbly. I also treated myself to a double chocolate cookie ($1.99), one of my favorite items in the pastry case. The chocolate chip filled chocolate cookie tastes almost like a brownie, soft and chewy throughout. I absolutely love their vegan oatmeal raisin cookies, too. No matter what you choose from this huge selection of freshly prepared vegan sweets, you will not be disappointed.
One of the more difficult to find local vegan delicacies comes from Pandamonium Doughnuts. They feature a revolving menu, which changes daily. For now, you have to hunt down their colorfully decorated food truck to sample their fares, but soon they will be opening a storefront location at the Windsor Galleria, off of Windsor Road in Champaign. They list their daily menus and truck locations on social media, which is nice, but I’m old and crotchety and don’t like to use those app thingies, so I usually just leave it to chance. I also enjoy the challenge and surprise that comes from hunting them down and seeing what they have left.
As far as vegan offerings, they usually feature a vegan cake doughnut every other day or so, and they almost always have one available at the farmers' market in Urbana, which is where I hunted them down most recently. Their doughnuts are priced according to their ingredients, ranging between $2 to $3 each. The vegan cake doughnut I sampled was Earl Grey Meyer Lemon ($2.25), and it was exquisite. The cake was soft and crumbly, without being dry, and it had a delicate hint of Earl Grey tea flavor. The sugary icing was flecked with bits of slightly tart Meyer lemon, which paired wonderfully with the subtle flavor of the cake doughnut. No flavor was too overwhelming, and each bite seemed to highlight a different aspect of the doughnut. It’s easy to see why Panda always has a huge line at the farmers' market. These are no ordinary doughnuts, that’s for sure, and they are very reasonably priced. For only $4 I got a satisfying cup of hot coffee and an unforgettably good vegan doughnut.
Espresso Royale is the standout coffee shop in Champaign-Urbana for vegan treats, and they have seven different locations to choose from. At each of their cafés they feature a vegan cranberry-banana-walnut muffin and vegan zucchini bread. Both of these items are made locally at their bake-house adjacent to the Neil Street location. I frequent a number of the Espresso Royale locations, but the southwest Champaign locale (2409 Village Green PL, Champaign), is my go-to coffee shop. This is a great coffeehouse, and they proudly display and label the vegan items. From my visits to a couple of the campus locations, however, I noticed they carry these items but do not mark them specifically as vegan. Puzzled by this, I asked a couple baristas their take on it, and got a similar response from each of them. Basically, the vegan label scares more people than it attracts, which is a shame. But, this also speaks to the quality of these two items. Each of these sweets is good enough that people will not notice they were made without eggs, butter, or milk.
The zucchini bread is an absolute treat; hidden within the unbelievably moist, cinnamon and nutmeg flavored cake are small pieces of walnuts. The result is fantastic contrast of flavors and textures. The outer edge of the zucchini bread has an almost creamy crust that sticks slightly to my fingers when I hold it. I absolutely love this zucchini bread. I was told by one barista that she thinks the bakers use applesauce as an egg substitute and to retain moisture. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I can say it is easily one of my favorite vegan treats around. The cranberry-banana-walnut muffins are also spectacular. The tart cranberries explode in my mouth and serve as a wonderful counterpoint to the sweet banana bread and crunchy walnuts. The top of the muffin has a chewy texture and a nutty, toasted flavor from the walnuts that makes this muffin nearly impossible to resist. I always try to decide between the two treats when I visit Espresso, and end up buying both, telling myself I will save some for later, which I never do.
Sadly, many of the locally owned cafés and coffee shops, especially in the downtown Champaign area, have not caught on yet, and they do not offer freshly prepared vegan sweets to go along with their coffee selection. I applaud Aroma Café for offering a selection of Alternative Baking Company vegan cookies and some vegan fruit and nut bars, which they purchase from outside distributors, to appease customers who want something vegan. Other than this wonderful coffee shop, I was unable to find any vegan desserts at all in the downtown Champaign area. Why is that? Do vegans only live in Urbana? I would normally not discuss national chains like Starbucks or Panera, since our reviews focus on local businesses, but I think it’s worth noting that neither of those two coffeehouse juggernauts offer vegan sweets either; aside from bagels and coffee drinks, they hardly offer anything vegan all.
Even though veganism is rising in popularity, there still exists a stigma associated with vegan food. I think this is slowly changing, as more people open up to the wonderful possibilites of plant-based foods. We are extremely fortunate to have the aforementioned local businesses who recognize the value in offering vegan alternatives. Whether you are vegan or not, stop in and enjoy some wonderfully unique, expertly crafted, delicious (vegan) sweets.
All photos by Jim Singer.