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Marla interviews Fran Costigan – the queen of vegan desserts
I first met Fran Costigan
at Vegetarian Summerfest in the late 1990s. I was immediately impressed
by her youthful, unpretentious, dynamic spirit. She could be doing
cooking demos all day and still be a lively conversationalist. I became
reacquainted with Fran through Facebook and because we had her come out
to do a cooking demo at our second Chicago VeganMania. Once again, I
was impressed by Fran’s unflagging warmth and “show much go on” spirit
despite having started coming down with a cold the day before. In
short, she’s an inspiration and she just came out with Vegan Chocolate, an amazing new cookbook (see our review). If you are at all interested in getting
involved in the world of vegan pastry and chocolates, Fran Costigan is
your hook up. Please enjoy this interview with a true vegan pioneer and
all around goddess.
Marla Rose: How long have you been vegan?
Fran Costigan: I have been vegan for about 22 years. I didn’t pay attention to the exact date.
know that you originally went vegan for health reasons. How has your
consciousness about animals shifted along with your diet?
said to me early on, "This change in your diet [to one that is
plant-based] will completely change your life." I didn’t get it
at the time, but in fact, what started as a dietary change was the
catalyst for enormous change. I learned very quickly about the
horrors of animal abuse for food, clothes, testing meds and more.
It is impossible to ignore or compartmentalize. I learned about other
issues too; chemicals on our food that harm growers, consumers, and the
earth, and that slavery, including children as slaves, shamefully still
exists today in the production of sugar and chocolate, and much more.
MR: What changes have you noticed in the vegan landscape since you first went vegan?
the vegan population continues to grow exponentially, everything has
changed. Sales of plant milks (and now they taste good) are surpassing
those of dairy milks. Vegan restaurants were few when I eliminated
animal foods, and I don’t remember any that were upscale or appealing
to both vegan and omnivores. Vegan in a cookbook title is now a
positive marketing term actively sought by publishers, and there is
really are vegan cookbooks for everyone from absolute beginners to
You’ve been traveling a lot over the years as someone who does cooking
demos, public speaking and book tours. What community has surprised you
the most with its vegan offerings?
I still pack my own food snacks when I travel but traveling and eating
as a vegan is infinitely easier. In Paris, I ate a perfect meal at
Krishna Bhavan, and picked up grilled veggie box and hummus at Charles
de Gaulle Airport, and London’s many ethnic restaurants kept me
satisfied. I’m just back from Atlanta, GA, where I taught a packed
class at a non-veg cooking school (the Cooks Warehouse in Decatur), and
did a demo at the Atlanta VegFest. My family was in Atlanta, too, for a
party and we all ate together: tofu scramble at Highland Cafe and very
good collard wrap at Souper Jenny. There is almost always good vegan
food to be found. And if not, ask for it. You may need to do some
‘teaching’- “No fish isn’t actually vegan” - but I find most of the
time, I’ve been fed, while doing some gentle outreach.
MR: If you could tell your students one main message about creating vegan desserts, what would it be?
absolutely delicious and beautiful desserts that happen to be vegan and
make them without compromise. Use quality, real food ingredients;
seasonal, ethical and organic, and measure carefully. Let the desserts
speak for themselves first, before announcing that they’re vegan. Then
do so proudly.
baked goods have gone through some growing pains from the early days.
What do you think were the mistakes 15 years ago, and what do you think
are the strengths today? How about in your own baking?
and cooks were using not considering the different flavor profiles or
properties of sweeteners, and in some cases, not even differentiating
between liquid and dry sweeteners. It is no wonder cakes were dry or
gummy. Whole wheat flour, which makes tough cakes, was often used
instead of the lower-gluten whole wheat pastry flour.
I was served a so-called chocolate cake early on. It was brown, but
there was no hint of chocolate in this cake, and that’s because it was
a carob cake. Now, there is nothing wrong with carob, but it is not
chocolate. Today we have a vast choice in sweeteners and flours and
premium ingredients, including high percentage chocolates and good
cocoa powders are readily available. (Chocolate was always a bean!) I
don’t use anything fake. I tool the foundational technique I learned
from the omni pastry kitchen to the vegan pastry kitchen and applied it
to developing excellent, reliable desserts that can be made by and
enjoyed by everyone. Bake happy using quality ingredients. (I’m saying
this a lot but it is important. Ask my Vegan Baking Boot Camp Intensive® **
MR: Are there any trends in vegan cuisine that are intriguing to you?
is hearing vegan named as a cuisine - like Italian or French or Indian,
etc. - that intrigues me the most. I welcome themed dinners like the
very special ones Lagusta Umami does in the summer.
I’ve also seen more vegan menus that do not list any tofu or tempeh
options, and the astonishing vegan cheese plates made with nondairy
cheese, which are cultured just like dairy cheese.
MR: If you were going to create a meal for anyone (living or dead), who would they be and what would you cook?
make a meal for my mother-in-law, Wini, who encouraged my love of
cooking and cheered me on when I decided to go to restaurant school.
I’d make her a creamy creamless squash soup with a drizzle of cashew
cream. I’d never even seen a squash before Wini served it to me, but to
this day I remember wishing I could have more for desserts. (I’d grown
up eating canned peas and carrots.) My vegan cornbread would be on the
menu, as would the Brooklyn Blackout Cake a la mode. These were foods
that Wini served frequently. She was an early follower of Adelle Davis
and believed that food and health were linked. I was recently given a
dozen or so of her handwritten recipe cards and realized that she was
using oils instead of butter or margarine, some of the time, and using
some whole grain flours.
MR: Time for the proverbial last meal question: what do you hope it will be?
FC: Marla, I hope it'll be a very long time from now. I could not eat all this food, but I’d like to taste the following.
The Lobster Mushroom Cocktail at Crossroads in LA
The BBQ Tempeh plate served at Candle 79 or Candle Café West.
A raw kale salad and a very small slice of both The Chocolate Cake to
Live For (the cake that cracked the code) and The Brooklyn Blackout
Cake, which reminds me of happy days with my grandparents- I’d make the
cakes if I could. But now with the publication of Vegan Chocolate, I
could ask friends and family.
A glass of a good bold red wine––vegan versions are definitely available.
you, Fran! We’re so lucky to have you and are sending you the best for
you and all of your culinary adventures, current and future. Thanks for
all you do.
2013, 2014, Vegan Street