I catered a luncheon before my defense because it gave me something to pour my nervous energy into. Also, I like feeding people. Also also, doing the cooking myself enabled me to make sure there were options for people who prefer vegan or gluten-free food.*
First up: dessert.
Challenge #1: Vegan White Chocolate
Vegan white chocolate is hard to come by. You can get vegan white baking chips, but they’re usually made with hydrogenated oil rather than cocoa butter, just like the white candy coating that was often labeled “white chocolate” before 2004. Since then, only products consisting of at least 20% cocoa butter can be sold as “white chocolate” in the U.S. and the only other fat can come from milk—none of that hydrogenated oil nonsense. Many premium brands have 40%+ cocoa butter, so they’re basically just like premium milk chocolate without the chocolate liquor.
I’m not a fan of white candy coating, and I suspect that white chocolate’s lousy reputation owes primarily to a residual association with the flavorless, waxy, oil-based, pre-2004 “white chocolate.” The difference between oil-based white candy coating and cocoa butter-based white chocolate is as stark as the difference between chocolate-flavored hydrogenated palm and soybean oil (like the coating on candy bars like Whatchamacalit) and real chocolate made with cocoa butter (like Ghirardelli squares).
If I had to pick one kind of chocolate to eat for the rest of my life, gun to my head, it would be dark and bitter—something like 70% cacao, barely sweet. But especially when I’m making homemade candies, I’m deeply grateful for the unique properties of white chocolate. It’s softer, creamier, and has a much more delicate chocolate flavor. It really lets the vanilla in chocolate shine, which I love. It also pairs beautifully with flavors that tend to get overwhelmed by chocolatlier chocolates, like green tea, blueberry, jasmine, and any citrus other than orange.
I’ve only found one company with national distribution making vegan white chocolate: Organic Nectars in Hudson Valley, New York. They use cashew and coconut milk in place of the dairy. However, one of the Amazon reviews said it was excessively sweet, possibly because there’s more sugar than cocoa butter in the final product. Also, it’s expensive: 1.4 oz bars are normally 3 for $17 (though currently discounted to $10.27). Cocoa butter itself is far less expensive (you can get a pound for just under $10 and organic for $16)** and the other ingredients—sugar and milk powder—are even cheaper. Bittersweet blog implied that making your own at home was pretty easy—just melt some cocoa butter and whisk in powdered sugar and milk. So I decided to try it.
Failure: White Chocolate with Raw Sugar
I decided I should use raw sugar, whizzed in a food processor until very fine, to avoid any non-vegan sugar bleaching agents in regular powdered sugar. I knew that would make it less white, but “golden chocolate” didn’t sound like such a bad thing. I was so wrong. Even though I processed it as fine as I could, the sugar wouldn’t dissolve, no matter how much I stirred it. I put the mixture back on the heat, hoping to melt the sugar, and ended up scorching the chocolate. Even before that, the mixture seemed to be breaking, like melted butter, so I doubt it would have set up smooth and hard like chocolate is supposed to (commercial manufacturers often add lecithin as an emulsifier for exactly that reason).
I wasn’t sure if the problem was the fineness of the sugar, the lack of cornstarch (added to powdered sugar to prevent clumping), or something else entirely, so I decided to do a few, small experimental batches:
Test #1: 1 oz cocoa butter melted and mixed with .33 oz soy milk powder, .88 oz powdered sugar, and 1/3 vanilla bean (the original Bittersweet blog recipe).
Result: Looked similar to tempered white chocolate, but the texture was a little grainy. Seems like the milk powder doesn’t dissolve fully in the cocoa butter.
Test #2: .88 oz raw sugar cooked with 1 oz water and .33 oz soy milk powder until melted and removed from the heat, 1 oz cocoa butter added and allowed to melt, and a pinch of powdered soy lecithin granules and vanilla bean whisked in (based on a recipe from Vegsource)
Result: Texture was smooth, but it never set up. Apparently 1:1 cocoa butter: water is too much. Good flavor, though.
Test #3: .88 oz raw sugar cooked with 1/2 oz water until dissolved and just beginning to caramelize, removed from the heat, 1 oz cocoa butter added and allowed to melt, .33 oz dry milk powder and a pinch of soy lecithin whisked in at the end.
Result: Good flavor, but grainy and a little greasy to the touch. Graininess seems to be from sugar re-crystallizing, not from milk powder.
None of them were great, honestly. I thought about abandoning the project at this point and finding some other small, portable, vegan sweet to make. But I’d sunk too much time and cocoa butter into this project to abandon it. So I decided to use a variation on the Test #2 method for the ganache, which wouldn’t need to set up firmly anyway. And I used the Test #1 method for the coating chocolate. But if you really want a smooth, hard vegan white chocolate, I suggest ordering it from Organic Nectars.
Challenge #2: Vegan Ganache
Ganache is usually made by heating cream just until it simmers and then melting chocolate in it, with liquor or flavoring optional. I decided to sub cashew cream for the dairy cream—made by soaking cashews overnight, blending them with some water, and straining them through a fine mesh sieve. I whisked the vegan milk powder, powdered sugar, and vanilla bean seeds into the cream over medium heat until they dissolved. Then, I removed the mixture from the heat and added the plain cocoa butter, stirring until it was melted. That worked beautifully: totally smooth, creamy, vegan white chocolate ganache.
Putting It All Together:
I flavored half of the ganache with 1 teaspoon of almond extract and 1 teaspoon orange extract and the other half with 1 1/2 tablespoons of matcha (green tea powder).
I made another batch of white chocolate using the Test #1 method and rather than letting it set, I used it to fill candy molds 1/3 full, and then used a small candy brush to paint the sides of the molds. This took a little trial and error: immediately after filling the mold, the chocolate was too runny to coat the sides, but if I waited too long it would harden at the bottom and be difficult to spread. What worked best for me was to fill 4-5 molds with the liquid chocolate, and then go back and paint the sides of each one in the order filled. I put them in the refrigerator for about 5 minutes to harden fully. Then, using a pastry bag, I filled each shell 2/3 of the way with ganache. I let that chill for 15-30 minutes, and then piped more white chocolate on top, using the brush to push it to the edges to seal the filling.
I repeated that with dark chocolate, which I melted in a double boiler. Rather than worrying about tempering it perfectly, I added a tablespoon of vegan shortening, which really doesn’t affect the taste or texture much but does ensure a smooth, dark coating with a good snap to it. Again with the painting, chilling, filling, sealing, and more chilling. When they were done, I inverted the molds onto a towel—some of them took a little twisting and shaking to come free.
All in all, I think using the molds was easier than hand-shaping and dipping each one, which I’ve done in the past. I’m actually not sure the white ganache would have set up enough to roll by hand—the matcha helped firm up the green tea ganache, but the extracts made the other one quite soft. If you want to make these and plan on shaping them by hand, it might be a good idea to cook the cashew cream down a little before adding the chocolate and avoid liquid flavorings.
*I decided not to try to accommodate low-carb/paleo dieters because no one I know here is on that particular bandwagon, and trying to do vegan + low-carb makes my head hurt.
**For the failed batch and the test batches, I used the kind you can buy in 1-oz tubes at most pharmacies. For the truffles, I used a pricier “fair trade organic” brand from Whole Foods. Both said “for external use only,” but also claimed to be “100% cocoa butter with no additives,” which is a 100% edible substance. I have eaten at least two truffles-worth on multiple consecutive days with no ill effects. Ochef thinks the “food grade” business re: cocoa butter is just marketing, as it invariably costs more and they’ve also had fine results with the typical pharmacy brands. If you’re worried, buy the “food grade” stuff.
Recipe: Vegan Chocolate Truffles
(makes approximately six dozen truffles. consider halving recipe.)
- 1 cup whole raw cashews
- 1 cup water, plus more for soaking
- 16 oz. vegan chocolate for filling (see recipe below for white chocolate)
- 10-12 oz. vegan chocolate for coating (any kind you like)
- 1/4 cup cognac, brandy, or liqueur (optional; recommended for dark but not white/milk chocolate especially if shaping by hand as it will make the ganache very soft)
- flavoring (optional): 2 teaspoons flavor extract, 1/2 teaspoon food-grade essential oil, 2 Tablespoons herbs, dried flowers, tea, or citrus zest (infused in the cream), 1 1/2 Tablespoons flavored powder like matcha
1. Cover the cashews in cold water and let soak overnight. Roasted cashews will have a stronger flavor—if you want the truffles to taste like cashew, use them instead. Raw cashews will make a rich, neutral cream.
2. Drain the cashews and place in a blender or food processor. Add just enough fresh water to cover. Blend until very smooth.
3. Strain through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth.
4. Heat the cashew cream in a medium saucepan.
Optional step: If you want to flavor the truffles with any herbs, flowers, or teas, add them to the cream. Bring to a simmer, remove from the heat and let steep for 10-15 minutes. Strain out the herbs/flowers/tea/zest if using, and bring to a simmer again.
5. Remove the cream from the heat, add the chocolate and stir until melted and very smooth.
6. Add the liquor or liqueur and any other liquid or powdered flavorings, if using. Taste and adjust if necessary.
For hand-shaped truffles: Chill the ganache in the fridge for 30 minutes or until firm enough to scoop. Using a mellon-baller or two teaspoons, make balls approximately 1” in diameter and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or waxed paper. Chill those for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the coating chocolate in a microwave or double boiler. Either follow careful tempering temperature guidelines and reserve some of the chocolate to use as “seed” crystals or add a tablespoon of shortening. Let cool slightly. Remove the ganache balls from the fridge and roll gently between your hands to make them smooth (using gloves if desired). Using two spoons or a dipping fork, quickly roll each one in the cooled, melted chocolate and transfer them to parchment or waxed paper to set.
For molded truffles: Melt the coating chocolate in a microwave or double boiler. Either follow careful tempering temperature guidelines or add a tablespoon of shortening. Fill molds 1/3 of the way with melted chocolate. Paint the sides. Chill for 5 minutes, or until hard. Fill the hardene shells 1/3 of the way with ganache and chill for 30 minutes. Either paint or pipe more melted chocolate on top to seal the filling.
Recipe: Vegan White Chocolate
(45% cocoa butter)
- 7.2 oz cocoa butter
- 2.4 oz vegan milk powder (like Better than Milk)
- 6.4 oz vegan powdered sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
For ~36 oz:
- 16 oz cocoa butter
- 5.3 oz vegan milk powder
- 14.2 oz vegan powdered sugar
- 2 vanilla beans
1. Gently melt the cocoa butter in a microwave in 10 second bursts or in a double boiler. Cocoa butter will melt at 90F and burns at a much lower temperature than completed chocolate, so watch it carefully and stir frequently. Once about half the butter is melted, you can remove it from the heat and just wait for the rest of it to melt.
3. Add the powdered sugar, milk powder, and vanilla bean seeds and stir until smooth and combined.
4. Pour into a mold or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and let sit until hardened (approximately two hours at room temperature, or 15-30 minutes in the fridge).