Concord, N.H. This time of year the baking instinct is almost primal.
It starts innocently enough with Thanksgiving's pumpkin pies and rolls, but by December becomes an all-consuming need for sweet and doughy treats hot from the oven.
The trouble for vegetarians who don't do dairy is that most of the best treats call for heaps of eggs, cream and butter.
However, baked treats don't need dairy or odd substitutions of pureed tofu and prunes to be good. Vegan baking can be good in its own right, and one need not be a pastry chef to enjoy splendid results.
The trick with treats, as with all vegetarian cooking, is to stick with recipes that require few substitutions. The fewer the changes, the better and more authentic the result.
Understanding the role of the ingredient being substituted (here's where the science of baking comes in) also helps.
For example, there are several wonderful substitutes for eggs in baking, including powdered replacements made from potato and tapioca starch. The powder works well in recipes calling for one or two eggs, which bind together the other ingredients. Most cakes and cookies do fine with the powder.
However, in recipes where eggs provide more than just structural value, such as egg white-dependent angel food cake, vegan substitutes are hopeless. Nor do they make good "egg" glazes; for that, try a sugar syrup.
On the other hand, pie shells are an easy fix. Flaky pie crusts typically rely on chilled butter being cut into the dough.
For a crisp crust, try corn or canola oil instead. The dough will be more delicate to work with, but bakes up fine.
To replicate flaky butter-based crusts, try soy margarine, which in baked goods looks, acts and tastes like butter. Also try vegan shortenings, which are made from tropical oils and are not hydrogenated.
Milk can be another easy substitute. The wide variety of rice-, soy- and almond-based "milks" on the market often can be used interchangeably with the real thing.
Even cream can be worked around. Several soy milk manufacturers now produce dairy-free coffee creamers, which have the heft and taste of the real thing.
But don't push your luck. While vegan milks do well in recipes looking for flavor or texture, don't expect them to perform like whipped cream or creme brulee.
For a wonderful Christmas cookie that requires no substitutions try vin santo rings from Michele Scicolone's "Italian Holiday Cooking" (William Morrow, $35). These cookies get their fat from olive oil and their flavor from vin santo, a sweet Italian dessert wine.
Both tender and crisp, these cookies are great for dipping in coffee or liqueurs, and make a nice change from biscotti.
For something a little richer, go for chocolate chip brownies from Peter Berley's "The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen" (Harper Collins, $35). The only substitute in this recipe is soy milk, and it produces the most chocolatey and sinful brownies I ever have tasted, with or without dairy.
Vin Santo Rings
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup vin santo
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Add the oil and wine and stir until thoroughly blended and smooth.
Pinch off a piece of the dough about 1 inch in diameter. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 4-inch rope, about 1/2-inch thick. Pinch the ends together to form a ring.
Place the ring on an ungreased baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, placing rings about 1 inch apart.
Bake the rings for 20 minutes, or until very lightly browned. Transfer to cooling racks. Stored in an airtight container, these cookies keep for quite a while.
Makes 48 cookies.
Chocolate Chip Brownies
1 cup canola oil
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup soy milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup cane sugar
1/2 cup sucanat (an all-natural sugar; regular sugar can be substituted)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup walnuts, lightly chopped (optional)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 12-by-17 1/2-inch jellyroll pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, maple syrup, soy milk and vanilla. In another bowl, sift together the flours, cocoa, sugar, sucanat, baking powder and salt.
Fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture with a rubber spatula. Be careful not to overmix. Fold in the nuts (if using) and chocolate chips.
Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top with a moistened spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until surface cracks appear and the brownies are not quite set. Do not overbake; the brownies will set as they cool.
Transfer the pan to a cooling rack, then cut into bars.
Makes 20 brownies.