Fran Costigan’s Chocolate Chip Almond Biscotti (Photo: Kate Lewis)
On a recent visit with Fran Costigan in her recently adopted home city of Philadelphia, we were trying to recall how long we’ve known one another and how we met. Neither of us could remember exactly, which means that it has been a while! What I do know is that I feel lucky to count the woman affectionately (and accurately) known as “the queen of vegan desserts” as a dear friend.
Fran is a true vegan trailblazer, as you’ll learn in the Q & A ahead. According to her website:
“Fran Costigan, culinary instructor, cookbook author, pastry chef, consultant, and the director of Vegan Pastry at Rouxbe Culinary School, is internationally renowned as the authority on vegan desserts. Professionally trained, Fran was a chef in both traditional and vegan pastry kitchens before moving into teaching over 25 years ago.
Her unapologetically luscious confections lack nothing — except dairy, eggs, white sugar, and cholesterol. Fran’s vegan desserts are appropriate for everyone who loves dessert, whether or not dietary restrictions are an issue. She developed and leads the 90-day Essential Vegan Desserts Course at Rouxbe, the world’s leading online Culinary School, where she mentors international students of all skill levels, from beginners to professionals.”
Fran’s most recent book, Vegan Chocolate Dessert: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts, has been translated to German, French, and Italian editions, and is considered a definitive work on the subject.
Fran is an active member of several professional culinary organizations and is a regular speaker and instructor on the art and technique of vegan desserts. As the subtitle of Vegan Chocolates suggests, her desserts are unapologetically luscious. I’ve personally sampled a number of them and can attest to that!
On her website, Fran’s recipes demonstrate her attention to detail in creating delectable treats. Explore them at your leisure. And now, here’s our recent Q & A:
You’ve told me the story of how you transitioned from your training as a traditional pastry chef to a vegan pastry chef and chocolate expert. Can you share that story with my readers?
After completing my traditional training at New York Restaurant School, I got what I considered to be a dream first job. This was over 30 years ago, before I was vegan. I was responsible for the daily baked items, plus one special a week, all made with lots of dairy, eggs, white sugar. I did very little tasting but it adds up. The stomach aches that had plagued me my entire life got worse and I left my job.
A trip to California found me in a bookstore, looking for a beach read type book, but somehow I was drawn to Food & Healing by Dr. Annemarie Colbin, the founder of the Natural Gourmet School in NYC. I read the book and understood immediately that dairy was causing my distress. I called from California, and registered for her months-long Food and Healing Course, wondering how as a New Yorker, I had not know of the school.
At the same time, I gave up all dairy, and all animal foods, in fact. My stomach upsets were gone in a matter of days, and I felt other benefits immediately too. More energy, better moods, stabilization of my weight, although I felt I was eating more than before.
While there was not a single vegan I knew — in fact, I don’t know that I even knew the term— I never felt deprived. For me, there was more of a variety of foods in my diet. I suppose I was eating a healthy fully plant-based macrobiotic diet.
I was not going to eat or make desserts but when my teenage son said, “Mom, you can’t put a candle in a sweet potato and tell me that is my birthday cake,” I knew he had a point. We all need celebration desserts. I set out to invent the modern vegan pastry kitchen and a year later, had what I consider to this day to be my breakthrough cake: The Chocolate Cake To Live For.
No commercial egg replacers or variety of plant milks were available 25 years ago, so my baked goods are quite straightforward. Still, today the wide variety of quality plant milks, sweeteners, and chocolates, fats too, and aquafaba for meringues astonishes and delights me. Baked Alaska and Pavlova, ice creams, oh my!
Magic Vegan Chocolate Ice Cream Shell from Vegan Chocolate
You’ve been vegan for a long time, before it was even “cool.” There’s a basic triumvirate of reasons to go vegan — health, environment, and ethics (not necessarily in that order). Is there one or another that resonates most with you, or are you driven by all of these factors?
Ethics, health and the environment, as you said the triumvirate of reasons, all resonate with me. When I transitioned quickly to the vegan diet, it was for health reasons. Then I learned about the animals. You cannot unlearn what you know. I will add that I care deeply about the ethics or more accurately the non-ethics of using child and adult slaves in the production of sugar and chocolate. I use slavery-free chocolates and avoid palm oil.
Find Fran Costigan’s books on Amazon*
You’ve written More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally and Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts. As a cookbook writer myself (and a lazy baker), I appreciate how much more challenging it is to produce books about baked goods and chocolate. The recipes have to be very precise. What do you find is the most challenging aspect of producing a cookbook?
Recipe testing is challenging. When something is very off, it does go into a didn’t work folder — but when a dish is almost right, but not quite, one ingredient or technique, and it might be oven temperature or oven rack placement has to be changed, but only one at a time.
Keeping precise notes is hard for me and I cannot abide waste. I have devised some good techniques for using pretty good but not-ready-to-be-written-up tests. I tell my students in the Rouxbe Essential Vegan Desserts Course to make a half or even quarter recipe when doing R&D, aka, recipe development.
As my cookbooks focus on desserts, I make sure to eat extra greens (your Wild About Greens book is invaluable) during intensive testing.
When you bake or make sweets for family and friends, what are your favorite things to make?
I love to “take orders.” People in my life have favorites. In heavy rotation: my original breakthrough cake: the Chocolate Cake to Live For in 3 versions: original, no-oil added (AKA Rip Esselstyn’s wedding cake) and a gluten free version, my favorite the Brooklyn Blackout Cake, truffles, and simple slumps and other fruit desserts.
You and I have chatted about how much the vegan movement has progressed in the last handful of years, after a long period of slow, slow changes. What do you think is driving this accelerated interest?
I believe that the public is waking up to the detrimental impact of animal agriculture on health of humans, the environment, and the cruelty of animal agriculture.
The readily available vegan foods available in the markets and restaurants has made eating plant based a piece of cake. Think about all of the quality vegan products — butter, cheese, plant milks, burgers, and ground plant based meats, even fish. You and I know our longtime friends have contributed to this abundance.
Fran Costigan’s Vegan and Gluten-Free Chocolate Almond Cake
(photo: Hannah Kaminsky)
Of your many accomplishments, becoming the Director of Vegan Baking and Pastry at Rouxbe Culinary School is one of your most recent. Can you tell us a bit about how that works, and how The Vegan Atlas’s readers can sign up for your courses?
I am so proud of the 90-day Vegan Essential Desserts Course at Rouxbe and thrilled to be part of the Rouxbe family.
Rouxbe is the leading online culinary school in the world. As a 25+ year cooking teacher, I wondered how online teaching could work, but was blown away by my friend Chad Sarno’s Rouxbe 6 -month Plant Based Professional Program, their Culinary RX and Forks Over Knives courses. My twice yearly 4 1/2 days Vegan Baking Boot Camp in NYC was limited to 14 students — the wait list was insane and the cost of coming to NYC, a limiting factor. too.
I saw the need for a self paced, complete course in foundational technique for Vegan Baking and Pastry and with the awesome team at Rouxbe we created Essential Vegan Desserts.
This 90-day online self-paced course focuses on essential techniques and recipes so you can create quality vegan desserts with confidence. The course starts with an explanation of key equipment, ingredient selection and function, and foundational techniques for creating desserts without the use of eggs and dairy.
As students progress, learning activities and practice recipes will showcase their ability to prepare and finish an array of vegan desserts ranging from pies, cakes, tarts and cookies to aquafaba, mousses, gels, trifles and sauces.
Included are my monthly Live Events and a private Facebook group. This course is unique in the world and recognized by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation as a quality program. It is available from anywhere, on any device, at any time.
A certificate of completion is granted upon graduation.The next two start dates are November 19, 2019 and January 2, 2020. Your readers can get further information and view the syllabus here.
Related to the question above, do you see an increased interest in and demand for vegan culinary education like what you provide with Rouxbe? If so, what are the factors driving that demand, and what are students looking to do once they’re trained?
There is without question increased interest in and demand for vegan culinary education. I am getting ever more frequent requests from the non-vegan culinary world to do vegan dessert demos and trainings.
Non-vegans know they have to offer vegan dishes on their menus, or they are leaving money on the table. Plant based, plant forward, vegan— whatever the label, it’s suitable for a diverse population, including:
- Ethical Vegans
- Eco Conscious
- Lactose intolerant- Egg Allergic
- Kosher (Parve)
Today’s vegan desserts are not good for what they are, but as good as and often better tasting than the traditional counterparts.
Where can The Vegan Atlas’s readers learn more about you, follow you, and find out where you’ll be teaching and appearing?
Here you go:
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