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Bakeries experiment with alternative ingredients for vegan treats

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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Emily Houvener, 36, of Friendship, takes cookies out of the oven in the kitchen of Gluten-Free Goat in Garfield on Feb. 6, 2017.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Heidi Perron, 27, of the South Side Slopes and lead morning baker at Gluuteny Bakery in Squirrel Hill mixes up cookie batter, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2016.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Erin Sefzik, 35, of Brooklin carries a gluten free cake at Gluuteny Bakery in Squirrel Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2016.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Chocolate covered strawberries are a featured item at Gluuteny Bakery in Squirrel Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2016.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Toasted Almond Cupcakes are a featured item at Gluuteny Bakery in Squirrel Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2016.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Gluten-Free Goat owner, Jeanette Harris, glazes donuts in raspberry frosting inside of her kitchen in Garfield on Feb. 6, 2017.

Jeanette Harris opened Gluten Free Goat Bakery & Cafe in Garfield to cater to folks with food sensitivities — like the celiac disease she struggled with — not realizing that vegan treats also would be in demand.

But egg- and dairy-free desserts, ranging from cupcakes to cookies, have become a big component of her business, as part of a growing trend that other shops such as Millennial Cupcake and Parfait Bar in Oakland and Gluuteny in Squirrel Hill are noticing, too.

“I know what it's like to have dietary restrictions, whether it's allergies or you're into animal rights, and how nice it is to be able go somewhere and order something that is delicious,” says Harris, who supplies 20 area coffee shops with alternative sweets. Although she is not vegetarian, she says there is a large community in Pittsburgh, mostly of 20- to 40-year-olds “who choose to be vegan and want good things to eat.”

Heidi Serena, Gluuteny's general manager and baker, has seen a 23 percent surge in vegan doughnut sales in just the past year. “Vegan has become more of a thing,” says Serena, who supplies coffee shops, grocery stores, and the Peace, Love, Little Donuts chain with vegan chocolate and vanilla doughnuts glazed and coated with toasted almonds, cinnamon sugar or sprinkles.

Shelly Witkowski also recognized the demand for vegan treats soon after opening Millennial Cupcake and Parfait Bar last fall. Although she specializes in filled and layered gourmet cupcakes, a surprising number of customers — many of whom are folks affiliated with nearby universities — were asking her to make them egg- and dairy-free.

“I didn't do vegan at first, but the requests for them grew, and they're very popular,” says Witkowski, who developed a repertoire of recipes that include chocolate salted-caramel, chocolate raspberry and a “to die for” almond cherry, all with faux buttercream frosting. She features vegan fare on Tuesdays and in March will begin to offer vegan layer cakes.

Like Harris, Witkowski did a lot of research and experimentation that involved replacing conventional ingredients with alternatives. “Nut milks substitute nicely for cow's milk, and ground flaxseed becomes thick when mixed with water so it works like a binder in cakes,” says Witkowski, who found that chickpea liquid can be whipped into egg-white-free merengue, and a soy-free fat substitute makes for a tasty “pipe-able” frosting.

Harris uses Earth Balance brand soy-free fat or coconut oil in her frostings.

The fat in her doughnuts, which are baked, not fried, is safflower oil and it is used sparingly — about one-third cup per dozen doughnuts. Flavors include top-selling cinnamon-sugar-coated apple cider, lavender-lemon made with organic, edible flowers, chocolate-orange cardamom, raspberry-lemon and matcha rosewater doughnuts.

“Foodies like them, but even people who think they might be turned off to a lemon-lavender doughnut say they're good once they try them,” she says.

The starch base for most of Harris' baked goods is organic brown rice flour to which she adds other starches, such as garbanzo bean flour and potato starch, depending on the recipe. “Tapioca starch and sorghum flour give my cookies more depth of flavor and a chewy texture,” she says, of her staple chocolate chip, cherry almond and pistachio lemon varieties.

One of the biggest challenges in dairy-free baking is to replicate the rich taste of butter. “Adding a little more sea salt tricks your brain into thinking it's eating butter,” Harris says.

Harris makes her own baking powder out of arrowroot, cream of tartar and baking soda because her kitchen is corn- and soy-free.

Coloring agents for tinted frostings or red velvet cake are derived from beets or other vegetables or matcha tea. “There are no artificial colors or dyes in any of my products,” Harris says.

Gluuteny is one of the area's original alternative bakeries, having opened in 2007.

Although it initially focused on gluten-free treats, the menu has been expanded to include many vegan offerings, according to Serena, who typically uses white rice flour with a potato, tapioca and corn-starch blend, a little xanthan gum, and a product called Egg Replacer instead of eggs for structure and leavening.

Her vegan layer-cake batters get their moistness from applesauce, not butter, and margarine is used in the buttercream frosting. A graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy for Culinary Arts, Serena wasn't schooled in alternative baking, and develops most of the recipes on her own. “You have to be a bit of a chemist,” she says.

With a ban on trans-fats set to take effect in 2018, Serena says she already has begun to create sweets that don't involve margarine. Peanut butter cookies are a good option, she says, since the peanut butter holds the dough together.

Gluuteny also sells vegan pies, special-order breads, bear claws, pop-overs and dairy-free pita pockets featuring a tapioca-based alternative to cheese. They are one of the few savory items on the menu and one of Serena's personal favorites.

“I'm not gluten-sensitive or vegan,” she says. “But I love them.”

Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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