I vividly remember the first time I brought homemade cupcakes to the office. They were vanilla, filled with homemade caramelized pineapple compote (with lots of butter and brown sugar), and topped with maraschino cherry buttercream. I was nervous. Would people like them?
Cienna Madrid bit into one and cried out, through a mouthful of cake, "Oh my god, you can taste the butter!"
I felt so accomplished! As a baker, I want people to taste each element of whatever I make. Cupcakes shouldn't taste like buttercream-topped sugar bombs, they should have layers of flavors—pineapple, cherry, brown sugar, egg, vanilla, salt, and, of course, butter.
Butter—obviously delicious, and celebrated at borderline obnoxious levels—is a crucial part of the science behind many different pastries. Because it's about 80 percent fat to 20 percent water (many butter replacements like shortening are 100 percent fat), baking with butter can put fat into a pastry without making it too greasy. And how integral is fat in baking? Very. Have you ever had a low-fat cookie or piecrust? They're generally textural nightmares. Blech. Butter is the best!
You can really taste the butter in the shortbread made at Violet Sweet Shoppe, a very small, very adorable bakery in the University District that has been open since May. The golden cookies, flavored with things like lemon, vanilla bean, rose water, lavender, and pistachio (my favorite), are perfectly crispy and some of the best shortbread cookies I've ever had. They're not too dry, not too sandy—they're just right.
The thing is, there is no butter in Violet Sweet Shoppe's shortbread. Everything in the store is vegan, totally free of dairy and eggs. (They're right next door to Bill the Butcher.)
Violet's snickerdoodle cookies are textural marvels, too—and I really, really love snickerdoodles. I'm kind of a snickerdoodle snob, in fact. The best snickerdoodles, made with generous portions of both eggs and cinnamon, taste like rice custard in cookie form. The cookies should be flat, with crispy outsides and tender insides, not at all cakey, and that's just how Violet's snickerdoodles are! But they're egg-free? HOW DO THEY DO IT?
I tried a pumpkin cupcake, too, topped with a perfect swirl of cinnamon frosting. Because vegan bakers often replace butter with flavorless shortening, frostings can feel heavy and greasy and taste flat. But Violet Sweet Shoppe's frosting isn't at all greasy—it's fluffy, even. I tasted it over and over, melting tiny bites against my tongue, trying to figure out how it got to be so light and smooth without butter.
I talked to baker Crystal Rice, who runs the shop with her husband, Michael Chinn. They moved to Seattle a couple of years ago after running a bakery in San Francisco, and they're both incredibly friendly and incredibly tattooed, and usually listening to pretty great music in Violet's small kitchen (Billy Idol, the Cure, etc.). She said their frosting is a simple mixture of vegan margarine, shortening, and powdered sugar, mixed and mixed until airy in a 300-pound industrial mixer. No wonder I can't achieve that texture at home.
I brought a box full of Violet's baked goods to a recent editorial meeting, telling no one they were vegan (their to-go boxes allow for such deception, too, saying only "Violet Sweet Shoppe" on the front, and everything they make is just gorgeous—no lumpy, hippie-looking stuff here). The assortment included a few flavors of shortbread, a mini pumpkin bundt cake with cinnamon frosting, a brown-sugar scone, a couple chocolate peanut-butter cups, and a few other treats.
I was sure someone would take a bite and scream out, "THESE ARE VEGAN!" ruining the entire experiment. But no one did.
The mini pumpkin bundt cake was the biggest hit—Dominic Holden went back for seconds, and Paul Constant said, "It was just about the perfect moistness for me, and the cream-cheese frosting was an awesome kick at the end."
The peanut-butter cups—the richest, most decadent peanut-butter cup I've ever eaten—went quickly, too. "The flavors don't merge together the way they do with peanut-butter cups made with inferior ingredients. I could taste every component in every bite," noted Paul.
The only complaint about the shortbread was that both the vanilla and lemon could've had stronger flavors (I agree—more lemon, please!), but the lavender was a hit. Emily Nokes, a vegan baker herself, declared it "Super!" She couldn't tell it was vegan.
No one complained about the texture of the pastries; vegan baking has a bad reputation because of its problem with texture. Cakes can be heavy and dry, cookies can be as hard as wood. But Cienna said, after praising the pumpkin hazelnut muffin for being wonderfully nutty and not too sweet, "I think that place has cornered the market on perfect pastry texture."
"What would you say if I told you it was vegan?" I asked.
"Holy shit—they were outstanding. I never would've expected that."