Q&A with Camilla Saulsbury

There are few women I would call expert bakers, but Camilla Saulsbury is one of them. Her bio is endless: she is a professional recipe developer, cooking instructor, winner of several top cooking competitions and the face behind 11 cookbooks. Her new book, 750 Best Muffin Recipes, includes an entire chapter on vegan muffins (see my review of the book here). I recently spoke with Camilla to get her thoughts on vegan baking, why we need to convince vegan bakers that we all have to follow the same basic rules (baking is a science, after all!), and what she is planning for her next book.

Nicole: When did you start experimenting with vegan baking?

Camilla: I began experimenting with vegan baking about 10 years ago while in graduate school. I have never been a vegetarian, or vegan, but I eat a mostly vegetarian diet (I consider myself a flexitarian—not my word, but it really fits my approach to eating). Anyway, my first venture was a result of circumstance: I wanted to bake and, in true graduate student fashion I had no eggs on hand, and only a dribble of milk. Then I remembered a vegan muffin recipe from a back issue of one of my Vegetarian Times magazines. I was skeptical how they would turn out (this was long before vegan baked goods started appearing in coffeehouses, so I had never tried a vegan muffin or any other vegan baked good). But the recipe called for chopped bittersweet chocolate in the batter, and, because I do seem to always have chocolate on hand, I gave them a go. I was blown away. Not just because they were so delicious—tender, moist, and flavourful, everything I expect in a muffin—but also because it was like having a door opened to a new world of baking.

I should note that I have been an avid baker most of my life, and had a baking catering business pre-graduate school. I loved the idea that I could throw away some of the rules that bakers have been taught to adhere to (I suppose it is the rabble-rouser in me), so I set to trying my hand at a range of vegan baked goods—muffins, cookies, cakes and breads, mostly. Being able to share what I baked with all of my friends—vegans, carnivores, lactose-intolerant alike—was and is a sweet bonus. But I think the moment that crystallized it all was when I made a vegan wedding cake for a good friend. This was nine years ago, before any such thing was available. I did a tiered deep, dark chocolate cake with coconut not-buttercream. Both the bride and groom cried (with delight!) at the reception when they saw it, then again when they tasted it. It is one of the sweetest food memories I have!

N: What do you find are the advantages and disadvantages of baking muffins that are vegan?

C: I think the biggest problem is convincing people that they still need to adhere to the recipe. That may sound silly, but hear me out. Most of my vegan friends, and some of the vegan clients for whom I do some personal chef work, have had to “fiddle” with recipes since they became vegan, so swapping out ingredients, changing ratios in recipes becomes, understandably, an almost automatic response—far more so than non-vegans. But that can wreak havoc on vegan baking recipes (just like it can for non-vegan baking recipes).

For example, one of my good friends (who is vegan) taste-tested a lot of my vegan muffins, and she particularly adored the chocolate chip coffeecake muffins, so much so that she wanted to make a batch for herself. I gave her the recipe, and later that week, I asked her how they turned out. She said they were pretty terrible—I think tough and gummy were the primary adjectives. Worried (or, more accurately, freaked out) that I had made some egregious errors in the recipe, I asked her if she had followed all of the steps. It turns out she had made a few tweaks, which, upon further probing, were major alterations: she had (1) cut the amount of sugar in half (sugar helps tenderize baked goods as well as sweeten them), (2) replaced most of the oil with applesauce (you just can’t do this without going gummy), and (3) used regular whole wheat flour in place of the whole wheat pastry flour. The result was tough, tasteless muffins.

I realize that was a long-winded response, but honestly, that is the biggest issue. Other than that, vegan muffin baking is as easy as baking with eggs and dairy, and follows the same basic rules (e.g. not over-mixing the batter, checking the muffins at the minimum baking time, etc.).

N: Do you have a favourite recipe in the book?

C: Yes! The fresh plum muffins with walnut sugar tops. They remind me of home in California, where we had a plum tree in the back yard. There is nothing like a fresh plum, straight off of the tree. But what’s wonderful about baking plums is that even the most rock-hard, slightly sour plums from the supermarket are transformed by the oven’s heat rendering them lush and concentrating their sweetness. And I am a sucker for any muffin with a topping of any kind.

N: You now have 11 recipe books under your belt. Is there a possibility of an all-vegan book in your future?

C: I would *LOVE* to. I think a cookbook on protein-rich vegan entrees that are really delicious, quick and simple to make, with a broad range of flavour influences (e.g. from around the world to across town from the farmer’s market) would have a lot of appeal. Hmm…30 Minute Vegan Meals? I’ll be sure to keep you posted, Nicole! In the meantime, my next book is a superfoods cookbook, focusing on quick and easy flexitarian recipes (i.e. a great majority of the recipes are vegetarian and vegan).

N: Your personal food blog, Enlightened Cooking, is described as “flexitarian fare with superfood flair.” Can you describe your food philosophy?

C: Yes! It is the subject of my next book (mentioned above). My philosophy can be boiled down to five essential ideas:

1. Choose whole, minimally processed foods
• Choose foods that are real, fresh, natural, organic, local, seasonal and unprocessed
• Eliminate the consumption of refined, highly processed foods and foods void of nutrients, such as artificial flavours, colours, preservatives, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats

2. Eat mostly plant-based foods
• No matter if chicken/meat/fish makes it onto the menu twice a week or twice a year—eat mostly plants (raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains) and plant-based foods (e.g. whole grain pasta, whole grain bread).
• Eat a colourful variety of plants to ensure you’re getting the best nutrients for your body, which leads to feeling satiated

3. Opt for healthy (mostly plant-based) fats and proteins
• Get your healthy fats from plant sources, such as nuts and avocados
• Minimize extracted oils and processed fats
• If eating a diet that includes animal products, choose leaner meats and seafood as well as low-fat dairy products

4. Select superfoods (nutrient-dense foods)
• Choose foods that are rich in nutrients when compared to their total caloric content; also known as foods with a high nutrient density
• Move meat away from the center of the plate (or off the plate entirely) and build your menus around plant-based foods to ensure highly nutrient-dense meals
• Choose foods with a wide spectrum of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants
• Look for the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) scoring system to guide you on healthier choices

5. Eat more whole grains
• This is one of the biggest shortfalls in Western diets
• Compared to refined grains, whole grains are superior sources of fibre and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. So whenever you can, choose whole grains over refined grains.

N: Thank you so much for your time, Camilla!

C: Thank you, Nicole!

750 Best Muffin Recipes by Camilla Saulsbury © Robert Rose Inc. www.robertrose.ca Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

      

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2 Responses to “Q&A with Camilla Saulsbury”

  1. corrina darling — November 5, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    Great interview! I completely agree with Camilla that sometimes vegans get a little bold when it comes to altering recipes (which I still think is a good thing until they start blaming the recipe when things go wrong).

  2. Nicole — November 5, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    Corrina: I completely agree, too! I'm glad Camilla brought up that point.

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