Vegan Baking: Q & A with Expert Baker Jacqui Okum

If you live in Ottawa you’ve undoubtedly heard of Strawberry Blonde Bakery. Known primarily for delicious desserts, savoury snacks, and breads, behind the scenes Strawberry Blonde has been blazing the trails in plant-based and allergy free baking. A designated nut free, dairy free, gluten free bakery, Strawberry Blonde has become a fixture for those with food allergies or dietary restrictions, but since they also produce delicious baked goods, they are a unanimous favourite throughout the city.

 Jacqui Okum, outside of her bakery, Strawberry Blonde, in Ottawa.

Jacqui Okum, outside of her bakery, Strawberry Blonde, in Ottawa.

Jacqui Okum is the mastermind behind this award winning bakery. She has years of experience with baking and is a pro when it comes to swapping and substituting ingredients. She has been successful in “veganizing” pretty much every classic recipe. Since the holidays are synonymous with baking (baking, and more baking!) and many of you are likely planning to adapt classic recipes to make them plant-based, I hope to ease this process by learning from one of the best bakers around. Below Jacqui shares her story about starting a vegan bakery, gives us insider tips, tricks and swaps for plant-based baking, and also shares her recipe for Magic Cookie Bars. Yum! Scroll down to learn more.

Amy: Strawberry Blonde is one of Ottawa's most beloved bakeries. Were you always into baking?
Jacqui:
I was definitely always into eating baked goods! Haha! I originally went to University for Film Production and worked in the TV industry for a number of years. I eventually decided it wasn't the right work environment for me and around the same time I went vegan. The transition to being vegan was easy, but boy oh boy did I miss pastries and sweets. Vegan pastries were hard to find then (about 12 years ago now) so I just ended up baking all the time for myself. I found I really liked it. And although I knew I didn't want to work in Film/TV, I didn't know what else I wanted to do. I did know that I wanted to be my own boss. One day my boyfriend made an offhand comment about how I should open up my own vegan bakery since I was just baking all the time anyway, and when he said that, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I decided that if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right so I enrolled in George Brown College's Baking & Pastry Arts Program, where I learned all the tips and tricks of the trade and applied them at home to vegan baking.

Amy: When did you open the bakery?  And what inspired you to offer vegan, gluten free, & nut free baked goods? 
Jacqui:
The storefront on Grange Ave opened just over 5 years ago now. But we were baking for wholesale customers (Rainbow Foods on Richmond Road and Herb & Spice on Bank street) for a number of months before that. And before that even I was selling my baked goods at the Lansdowne Farmer's Market. My treats were always vegan, but it was my experience at the market that made me decide to switch to doing everything gluten free and nut free. I really listened to my customers and the majority of them were asking for gluten free or nut free on top of it being from from dairy and eggs. For allergy concerns, I thought it would be best to just eliminate these ingredients completely, to avoid risk of cross contamination. But also, being vegan, I really sympathized with them, knowing how disappointing it can be to not be able to enjoy a pastry or a treat. I quickly became determined to create a space where vegans, or those with allergies, could go and feel normal and have the ability to get excited the way most people do when treating themselves. 

Amy: Many of my readers are interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet and looking for tips, swaps and alternatives for baked goods. Can you share a list of swaps/alternatives that you use in creating your famous desserts?
Jacqui:
Okay, here are some of the most common swaps…
Butter:
-I find Earth Balance to be the best and most consistent brand for replacing butter. It can easily be used as a 1:1 ratio when subbing in any recipe.
-There is a soy-free brand of butter replacement called Melt that is good for some things, but it is more expensive than Earth Balance and the ratio needs to be played with a little bit. But if you're looking for soy free, this is a good alternative, especially for making icings.
-Coconut oil can sometimes work, but be careful as it melts quickly so it won't cream as well as traditional butter would (especially important when making cookies!)

Milk:
-There are so many milk alternatives out there and they all work fairly well with a 1:1 ratio. I find soy milk to be the creamiest and works best in most situations. Coconut milk is also good, but the fat content is higher so it sometimes separates or makes products a little greasier.
-For butter milk, simply add 1 tsp of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of milk and whisk. Let it sit for a couple minutes then it's turned into buttermilk.

Eggs:
This really depends on what it is you're baking. There are lots of options! These are the ones we use at the bakery:
-Flax seeds
-Chia seeds
-Apple sauce
-Silken tofu
-Ener-g brand egg replacer

Cream Cheese:
-The tofutti brand is by far the best for baking!

Amy: Finally, we're getting into the holiday season. Would you mind sharing one of your favourite seasonal recipes? 
Jacqui:
Sure thing! The Strawberry Blonde Magic Cookie Bars are a serious Christmas favourite for both our customers and staff alike!

magic cookie bars2.jpg

MAGIC COOKIE BARS

*Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Ingredients:

Base:
3 cups vegan graham cracker crumbs
3/4 cup Earth Balance Buttery Spread
3 tablespoons sugar

Filling:

For the condensed coconut milk:
1.5 cans coconut milk
1 cup brown sugar

Other:
2 cups chocolate chips
3 cups shredded, unsweetened coconut
3/4 cup pumpkin seeds

Directions:

Base:

Line a 9"x 13" pan with parchment paper.

Melt the Earth Balance and combine with graham cracker crumbs and sugar.

Press firmly and evenly into pan.

Filling:

To make condensed coconut milk: Combine canned coconut milk and brown sugar in a pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for 8-10 minutes, ensuring all the sugar has dissolved and mixture has thickened slightly

Pour chocolate chips evenly over base, making sure to cover the corners.

Pour hot coconut milk/sugar mixture evenly over the top of chocolate chips, followed by an even layer of coconut and pumpkin seeds.

Press ingredients down with your hands or a spatula.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until set and top browns slightly.

Let cool completely, then put in fridge for at least 2 hours to make cutting easier. Enjoy!

For more information about Strawberry Blonde Bakery, visit their website,  Facebook page, or Instagram account.