Thirty-year-old Deanna Hitchcock, of Wilkinsburg, works as a secretary, pursues women's studies part time and rocks out in the all-girl pop band Flotilla Way (after one of Pittsburgh's charmingly named alleys). Yet she still finds time to make cookies. Lately, the call of the oven has been most persistent, as Hitchcock hopes to translate her vegan baking skills into a vocation. We talked tofu while I ate chocolate not-quite-cheesecake and rum-splashed piña colada cupcakes.
Vegan means eating no animal or animal-derived products, like eggs or milk. What made you go vegan?
It was the environmental impact, just knowing how intensive it is to process those foods, and what it's like on dairy farms or for chickens -- it's not pretty. It takes a lot of land and resources. I try to buy local, but I think that's countered by how much I eat out, which I love to do. And I'm not totally vegan now --I eat fish occasionally.
Did you start baking when you went vegan?
No, I've baked my whole life. My mom was a really big baker, and I learned a lot from her. When I went vegan in college, I did a lot of experimenting, trying to substitute what I knew from my mom's recipes. Sugar cookies were big in our house, and black-bottom cupcakes, which are chocolate, walnuts and cream cheese. I would make vegan versions of her recipes, and they tasted just the same.
So you had this rich, creamy, sugary all-American dessert past, and you said, "I still want to eat these yummy things."
Cheesecake was easy -- and cakes. For instance, there are cake recipes from the World War I era when there were restrictions on dairy and eggs. For those war cakes, they'd use baking soda and vinegar instead. So that's vegan -- yet they're rich, and you'd never guess that there was no butter or eggs.
A war cake is cheaper, too.
The ingredients make a big difference, so I use the best sugar, the best margarine. But most things you can get locally. None of the ingredients are too esoteric or expensive.
If somebody tells me my cake tastes vegan, then I feel like I've failed.
What are the crimes of tasting vegan?
Texture matters, and if it tastes "healthy." Or if it's got some exotic ingredient that you can't find in Giant Eagle, like flaxseed-cranberry-something.
I'm not afraid of icing. I like it to look good, so people will want to eat it. And people think vegan means healthy, which isn't always true. Some cakes have a lot of sugar and oil, and that's why they taste good.
In the realm of cooking, baking is about sharing: You can't really make three dozen cupcakes just for yourself.
Definitely. When I first moved to Pittsburgh and attended a lot of social-justice and political meetings, I would always bring some cake, pies, cookies or brownies. Then everyone came to expect that, and that was my contribution to the community.
I feel my strong suit is baking, and I'd like to open a vegan bakery sometime soon. I definitely want to be able to share the things that I make, and in a way that I could live on it. I never thought when applying to colleges -- I have a degree in geology -- that I would end up doing vegan baking.
Just one more cupcake for me ... what's been your worst baking experience?
When I first started baking vegan, I made the worst cake of anything I've ever made in my life. It was supposed to be a fluffy white cake. Instead, it was as hard as a rock and the texture was horrible. Everything bad that you can think of, that's what it was. And I felt bad, because it was a birthday cake for somebody.
But it did open my eyes to the importance of following a recipe to a T: Do everything it says, and use the best possible ingredients.