Chicago vegans know where to go when they need some sugar – take the Damen bus to Belmont and stop when you see the giant neon sign: The Bleeding Heart Bakery. Since 2005, owner and executive pastry chef Michelle Garcia, along with her husband Vinnie and a staff of punky young bakers have been baking up local, sustainable and organic treats for vegans and dairy-eaters alike. I asked Michelle about her experiences both as a former vegan and as a professional chef catering to vegan customers. Her answers proved a point I already knew was true in my heart- vegans are hungry, they have money, and they want to buy your delicious vegan treats. So bakery owners, listen up: get yourself a great vegan recipe book pronto.
Do you remember the first vegan dessert you ever tasted?
That would be the German chocolate cake from Chicago Diner.
If so, what did you think about it?
At the time, I was so excited to be able to have a birthday cake that I didn’t care about how it tasted, so I guess I don’t even remember.
If not, do you think it’s better that you don’t remember it?
*I’m pretty sure the answer is yes, definitely.
Your original location on Chicago Ave was a hit with vegans from day one- what made you decide to offer vegan treats right off the bat?
I had spent half of my life at that point as a vegan, and I knew that the type of bakery we were would attract a lot of vegans. Also, I know that a lot of children are born with egg and milk allergies; I wanted to be sure that all children could have an amazing birthday cake no matter what.
Have you ever had a vegan baker working in one of your shops?
I’ve had several vegan bakers. However, I feel as though most of them were inhibited by old school beliefs about baking vegan.
Did mainly work on your vegan goods, or were they OK with making your non-vegan stuff as well?
Most seemed to turn there noses up at non-vegan goods, which was really frustrating as I was vegan for so long and saw everything as education and knowledge whether I personally believed in it or not.
Would it be difficult for a vegan to properly prepare your other treats without tasting them?
Our basic recipes are very simple and east to follow, if you understand the basic principles behind baking techniques, you should be able to make anything. Also, no one at the bakery minds tasting anything, so there are no excuses.
What do you think the biggest misconception about vegan desserts is?
Most people automatically think vegan means dry, flavorless cardboard and granola-ish.
What do you do with your vegan yummies to de-bunk the misconceptions?
I believe our approach is much different than most. All vegan recipes start as conventional and get tweeked to be vegan. We try very hard not to use traditional flavorless substitutes. When we have to make a substitute, we want it to add something- like bananas.
Is it any more difficult to find vegan organic ingredients than it is to find non-vegan organic ingredients?
Honestly, now a days, it is much easier. But when we first started we had to buy everything retail.
What’s your most popular vegan dessert?
That would be between the banana fudge brownie and the Slash Cupcake. (Devils food cupcake, chocolate frosting and curly chocolate shavings)
Does it seem like the demand for vegan baked goods has increased over the years?
For sure, mostly with little children.
I always hear people say that vegan cakes are dry, what are people doing wrong when they bake?
They are using substitutes such as Ener-G that act as a drying agent. Any kind of starch will do that. Try using a banana or possibly just leaving out the substitutes all together! You could also substitute oil for margarine or Earth Balance.
If Joe Blow off the street were blindfolded and asked to taste two of your chocolate cupcakes- one vegan and one conventional, do you think he could tell the difference?
I know he wouldn’t. We’ve actually done this! The vegan cupcake won every time, so now that’s all we offer!
Do you find that non-vegans are open to trying vegan desserts, or are they scared?
Most seemed to be scared, but love them when they try them accidentally, that happens almost every day – especially with the cupcake.
Do you think it’s important for a modern bakery to offer at least one vegan option?
It’s incredibly important, why alienate people? Were always trying to offer product that spans the board for allergies, we just started offering vegan sugar free options and believe it is so important.
Have you thought about making vegan versions of any of your famous bacon-infused treats, with vegan bacon?
We tried; it’s just not the same. As a vegan I never enjoyed fake meat and I guess that just followed me.
What’s the hardest thing about baking without dairy?
Running out of soymilk! It happens all the time! Even when I double the order. I think we have little vegan gnomes drinking it all.
What about pastry- can you make a vegan croissant?
You can, but margarine gets soft really fast and all the fat leaks out. We did, however, just start making vegan brioche, which rocks!
Is it harder to make dairy-free pastry than it is to bake vegan cakes and cookies?
Not really harder physically- harder mentally, it requires a lot of thought.
Were you ever vegan?
Yes, 7 years straight ad a few others here and there.
What made you go vegan?
I was raised vegetarian for the most part and became an extremist at a very young age. I don’t believe in doing something half way.
Finally, how many vegan cupcakes do you think you sell in a week?
Well, we have recently counted this, it’s 800 I’m the shop and another 200-300 in special orders.
Photos by Bill Lambert
*For the record, Chicago Diner did used to have kind of a gnarly vegan bakery- it has since improved by leaps and bounds.