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Lemon Cupcakes They'll Never Know Are Vegan

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We worked with Gena Hamshaw, Food52 contributor and author of the cookbook Vegan, to develop a vegan recipe with Earth Balance in celebration of springtime desserts.

A couple of years before I went vegan, I was in a coffee shop with a friend, and I spotted a countertop offering of vegan oatmeal raisin cookies. “Huh,” I said. “Those look good.”

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“Really?” she countered. “I just sort of assume that ‘vegan’ or ‘gluten-free’ or whatever is just code for ‘less delicious.’”

Vegan Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Frosting
Vegan Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Frosting

I chuckled, but the cookie looked every bit as delicious as any oatmeal raisin cookie I’d seen, and I ordered it. It was perfect: just the right combination of tender and crispy, buttery, and sweet. I remember wondering how the flavor of butter had been evoked without butter, and feeling curious about what had been used in place of eggs. But I decided not to ask too many questions.

That cookie was my first introduction to vegan baking, and it was an experience I would remember years later, when I actually made the transition to a vegan diet. I was able to counter my friends’ incredulity about how I’d live without muffins, cookies, or desserts with rock hard certainty that yes, vegan baking was possible, and no, it didn’t have to taste “healthy.”

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Of course, perfecting my own vegan baked creations took time, patience, and a lot of baking disasters. There were quick breads that collapsed inward on themselves, cookies that emerged from the oven hard as hockey pucks, cupcakes that never seemed to set, not even as the edges turned black. Over time, though, I came to realize that vegan baking can be really easy, and in fact, the more you tinker and fuss, the more it can suffer. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not always necessary to use an egg replacement (these cupcakes are proof). And it’s pretty easy to swap vegetable oil or shortening for butter much of the time.

Frost, frost baby.
Frost, frost baby. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Vegan lemon vanilla cupcakes with lemon buttercream frosting are a perfect example of how painless vegan baking can be. Don’t worry about using a flax or chia egg; they’ll rise and bind just right without it. And don’t worry about creating perfectly authentic buttercream without a smidge of dairy, because vegan margarine or shortening does the heavy lifting. No one—seriously, no one—will know that these are vegan unless you decide to tell them. You can choose to let the skeptics remain skeptical, or you can blow their minds when you announce that the cupcakes are entirely dairy- and egg-free.

The lemon flavor in the cupcakes and frosting is light and subtle, which makes the recipe perfect for spring. Bring a batch to your Easter celebration or serve them as dessert at a Mother’s Day brunch. You can also omit the lemon juice and zest from the cupcakes and incorporate cocoa powder, chai spice, pumpkin pie spice, or other favorite flavors as the seasons (and your mood) change. I love how the shredded coconut picks up the buttery flavor of the muffins and balances the slight tartness of lemon in the frosting, but if coconut’s not your thing, leave it out. The icing is plenty flavorful on its own, and if you’re eager for some color, you’ll be happy to know that most organic sprinkles are vegan.

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Vegan Lemon Vanilla Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Frosting

C04d249c ce6c 4b53 a221 55abd824bca0  gena hamshaw by james ransom Gena Hamshaw
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Serves 12

For the cupcakes

  • 1 1/4 cups almond or soy milk
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (or a gluten free all purpose flour blend, such as King Arthur's gluten free multi-purpose flour)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup organic cane sugar
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) vegan margarine or shortening
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest

For the lemon buttercream frosting

  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) vegan margarine or shortening
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar
  • pinches salt
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut

Earth Balance is one of Gena Hamshaw's go-tos for vegan baking. She developed these lemon vegan cupcakes for their springtime contest—submit your recipe, or vote for a favorite, here.