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Holiday Guide Feature

Sweet Success

A Local Baker Proves That Vegan Doesn't Necessarily Mean Bland

Frank Klein

Holiday Guide 2008

Present Tense City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

Craft Work Local Crafters Prepare For The Holiday Buying Season | By Martin L. Johnson

Love Letters A Hampden Letterpress Makes An Impression | By Wendy Ward

Sweet Success A Local Baker Proves That Vegan Doesn't Necessarily Mean Bland | By Anna Ditkoff

Oy to The World Decorating a Chanukah Bush Is Prickly Business | By Charles Cohen

Mix Master Making a Music Mix in The Digital Age | By Michael Byrne

Ms. Flake's Guide to Last Minute Holiday Preparations | By Emily Flake

Nice Package City Paper's Annual Gift Guide

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/19/2008

The earthily sweet smell of baked goods hangs in the air outside Tamara Gabai's house this autumn evening. You can smell the spices before you even step in the door. Inside a table practically bends under the weight of desserts: sweet potato, pecan, and pumpkin pies, pumpkin bread, rum cake, fruitcake, truffles, and Christmas cookies. It's a sweet tooth's dream, or a dieter's nightmare. Gabai has assembled this smorgasbord to show a reporter what Brunie's Bakery will offer this holiday season.

Brunie's isn't your average bakery, it's a vegan bakery. And contrary to everything that title suggests, Brunie's baked goods are delicious. Not delicious for a vegan dessert--a consolation prize that usual means the medicinal aftertaste isn't too overwhelming and the texture isn't unforgivably mealy-- Brunie's creations are seriously freaking fantastic. And that's the point. It's hard enough being vegan in a world of omnivores without having to choke down punishment food.

That's the philosophy behind Gabai's one-woman operation, a business she named after her dog because "she's sweet and she's bad," she explains, breaking into her infectious laugh, just like the decadent treats Gabai bakes. "I didn't want to put vegan in the name because I'd rather be known as just being a really good bakery [rather] than just being a really good vegan bakery."

Deciding to become vegan wasn't a difficult decision. Gabai grew up in Asheville, N.C., which topped PETA's list of most vegetarian-friendly small cities in 2006, and was raised on Middle Eastern food, much of which was vegan by default. So when she became interested in animal rights and environmentalism in her teens and decided to stop eating animal products altogether, it wasn't a big change. She started baking soon afterward because, "it was impossible to find vegan desserts and I really like desserts," she says.

Baking was nothing more than a hobby, something she did for herself and her friends. At least until last spring when Gabai went to a neighborhood Easter party and brought some little cakes she had made. "And people there were like, 'I can't believe these are vegan! No way! Holy shit!'" she says. It was then that she realized baking might be more of a calling then a hobby.

She started out making doughnuts, which are sold at local cafes Red Emma's and Patterson Perk, thinking it might expand into a doughnut-making empire. But she quickly got bored making only doughnuts and started branching out. Now, she makes all kinds of cakes, pies, tarts, brownies, cookies, and other baked goods, and sells them at festivals and community events, as well as taking special orders. (You can also still get her doughnuts at the above locations.)

It's tough balancing a baking business with her day job as a high-school literature teacher, but she says the long hours and hectic schedule is worth it. "This is a way for me to be creative," she says. "One of my favorite things is to take traditional recipes and veganize them myself."

The key, she says, is understanding not just how ingredients taste, but what properties they have. She uses the pecan pie on the table as an example. "Eggs are the traditional ingredient in pecan pie," she says. "They're used as a thickener. So you have to go, 'Oh, what could I use in place as a thickener?'"

The process involves a lot of trial and error, but the experimentation is her favorite part--that, and playing around with different flavor combinations. Her web site, bruniesbakery.com--warning: just looking at this site adds 10 pounds and 2 cavities--lists offerings such as the Grasshopper (chocolate mousse and mint buttercream between layers of chocolate cake) and Hummingbird Cake (pineapple-banana-pecan cake with cream-cheese frosting.) And there's no lack of variety. She offers two dozen kinds of cake, more than 20 pies and tarts, as well as doughnuts, bars, and raw sweets.

Her secret to making this menagerie of vegan treats absurdly delicious is surprising. "I actually try not to use that much soy," she confides. "A lot of people use tofu in pumpkin or sweet potato pie if it's vegan or if they're trying to make it without dairy or eggs and I don't because I don't want it to have that taste," she says, referring to the aftertaste soy can leave behind.

Having not eaten animal products herself in more than 15 years, Gabai gets her non-vegan friends and relatives to act as tasters, making sure she has gotten the right flavors and textures. "I think that a lot of what I make, people wouldn't know that it was vegan and that's what I want," Gabai says. Though when she perfects a recipe and wants to get it out of the house, lest she eat it all herself, she calls her vegan friends. "I feel like they deserve it," she says.

Her clients aren't all vegan. "I have plenty of people who aren't vegan who order my stuff because they want something that's natural," Gabai says. Almost all the ingredients she uses are organic. And while she admits that her treats probably aren't that much less fattening than their animal product-based brethren--which probably explains why they taste so damn good--they are cholesterol and trans-fat free. She can also make most of her recipes without soy or gluten for people with allergies.

Now, Gabai is preparing for what she hopes will be a holiday rush while planning her next move. Eventually, she wants to have an actual physical bakery and bake full time. She's even thinking of selling her house and buying a storefront with an apartment upstairs, even though the current depressed economy makes opening a shop a scary proposition. "I have confidence in myself though," she says. "I think that what I make is really good--if I bake it, they will come."

And she hopes her business and eventual store will help dispel some of the preconceived notions about vegans and animal-product free food. "A lot of vegetarian joints are kind of like earthy or a little bit grimy and I have no interest in making my business like that," she says. "There's not going to be a dirty couch."

In the meantime, she continues spreading the gospel of animal-product free deliciousness one pie, cake, and cookie at a time. "I absolutely see the purpose of demonstrating and boycotting" for animal rights and environmentalism, she says. "But it's more fun to influence people with tasty treats."

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Holiday Guide Feature archives

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Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

More from Anna Ditkoff

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