Vegan Gluten-Free Millionaire’s Shortbread

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So, if you’ve been following this blog, you might have guessed that millionaire’s shortbread is one of my favorite recipes. (Thank you again Doug for suggesting I make them in the first place.) I’m writing about them again, but not out of some desire to drive you into a coma (boredom or sugar induced). Rather, I learned how to make them available to a whole new range of people, and got to do something nice for someone all at the same time. If you like yummy desserts, if you like yummy vegan and/or gluten-free desserts, or if you just like fun stories, read on!

When we last left our intrepid baker (me), I made some millionaire’s shortbread and brought them along on a wedding road trip. Everyone in the car really enjoyed them. Everyone but one. One of our trip mates was vegan and sadly could not partake. For those not familiar with the recipe, there’s some a decent amount of a lot of butter. And when I say a lot, I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the recipe was originally secretly conceived by a dairy association to promote sales. There’s also some sweetened condensed milk. And, at least in the version I normally make, milk chocolate.

I wondered aloud with my vegan friend if there was a way to make them vegan. Not right there on the spot, obviously, because I don’t have superpowers, but in the future. She quickly thought of a vegan butter substitute, and I copied down the name. Dark chocolate could easily be substituted for milk chocolate, as I’ve seen them made with both. Harder to deal with, I thought, would be the sweetened condensed milk. Coconut milk, she quickly mentioned. Perfect, I thought. But will it work?

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I mentioned I could try to make it work. She seemed interested, but I don’t think she took me all that seriously seeing as how she didn’t really know me at all. (She’s a work colleague of my wife’s and we had just met an hour or two before.) But it sounded like a fun challenge. And the version of me that does nice things for people is the version of me that I like the best.

The next week I had to go grocery shopping anyway, and I was pleasantly surprised to not have to make an extra trip anywhere special to get the ingredients I needed. (It is Brooklyn after all.) Through a confluence of events I also had an abundance of gluten-free flour, so I figured as long as I was eliminating dairy from the recipe, why not eliminate gluten as well. That would make them accessible to even more people. (If you don’t want to make them gluten-free, you can just use regular flour.)

In searching for how the substitutions might work, I came across a vegan millionaire’s shortbread recipe. It looked good, but I thought I would go with my original recipe and just modify it as necessary. My reasoning was this: it would be fun to make a millionaire’s shortbread vegan, but I wanted to make my millionaire’s shortbread vegan. The recipes were close anyway.

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The recipe I normally use is here. The changes I made were as follows: I used a vegan butter substitute (Earth Balance) instead of the butter, coconut milk instead of the sweetened condensed milk, and dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. And since I figured coconut milk would behave differently than sweetened condensed milk, I decided to follow the instructions for making the caramel that I found in the vegan recipe. They were pretty similar anyway.

Going into it, I only had a couple concerns. The shortbread I wasn’t worried about, because it’s always pretty easy to make. I also wasn’t worried about the chocolate, because, well, it’s just chocolate. But I was concerned about the caramel, because that’s the most delicate part of the recipe. In this instance, I wasn’t sure if the coconut milk would make the caramel taste or smell like coconut. I also didn’t know if the caramel would end up being any good at all, because I had never done it this way before.

So now you’re probably wondering: how did they turn out? Well, I was right to be concerned. But it turns out that I wasn’t concerned about the right things.

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At this point, I want to interject and reiterate how much I love having a scale. If you’re using sticks of butter, it’s easy to measure. But if you’re dealing with a tub of butter (or margarine or spread), a scale is your best friend.

So is reading the fine print. (I imagine that living in world where your best friends are a scale and reading the fine print would be kinda weird. I mean, what would your dinner parties look like? But I digress.)

The shortbread was too buttery. It looked okay coming out of the oven. But it ended up being mushy and crumbly and kinda fell apart a bit once all was said and done. I should have realized that it was too buttery when I was putting it together. I’ve made it enough times. I guess I just thought that the consistency was different because it wasn’t actually butter. Once I saw how the cookies turned out, I guessed it was because the spread is less dense and I ended up with more than I needed based on measuring by mass. But measuring by volume (using measuring cups) would likely not have worked either.

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Only after the fact (much, much after the fact) did I decide to do some reasearch on Earth Balance’s website. Their FAQ clearly states that “because the whipping process adds volume [it] will not measure precisely”. They make other products that are better for baking. It’s just the one I happened to pick up isn’t a one-to-one replacement for butter. Reading that ahead of time would have made a big difference.

So, shortbread done, I moved onto the caramel. While I followed “my” directions for making everything else, I followed the vegan recipe for cooking the caramel. I substituted coconut milk from the vegan recipe for the sweetened condensed milk, but otherwise used “my” recipe. They were pretty close in any case. By volume there was a lot more coconut milk, but my guess is that’s because it had to boil down a bit. (Although I have seen recipes that use a lot more sweetened condensed milk to begin with.)

With my usual recipe, making the caramel takes just a few minutes. This time it took forever. Not literally forever, or else I would still be making it, but it felt like forever. The vegan recipe was not very specific about how long it would take, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It ended up taking about 50 minutes mostly around medium heat. I tried cooking it a little hotter, but it kept foaming up a lot so I had to turn the heat back down. I’m not sure it should have taken quite that long. But I won’t know unless I try it again. Even though it took a while to make, the caramel turned out nice. It had a good texture. And it didn’t taste like coconut.

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Step three: the chocolate. I used dark chocolate, and I specifically checked to make sure it was vegan. It turned out well. But it seemed to melt more easily, perhaps too easily, especially as I was cutting it. Maybe it’s because it was hot out. (For those of you also in the northeast US who are experiencing cold weather right now and are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, I made this recipe a few months ago.) Maybe it’s because it just took longer to cut. (See below.)

It chilled in the fridge, without any fuss, as one might expect it to do. I didn’t time it exactly, but it didn’t seem to take any longer than normal. It was, however, a little hard to cut. I wish I could blame someone else for that, like a cookie gremlin or something, but there’s no one else to blame but me.

The bottom layer was mushy, crumbly shortbread, which was very easy to cut through, but hard to keep together. On top of that was the caramel, which just coming out of the fridge was solid and much stronger than the shortbread it was on top of. The caramel was topped by the chocolate which was easy to cut through but melted a little too easily, while I was trying to cut through the stronger caramel and at the same time make sure the shortbread underneath it didn’t fall apart. So the bottom would pull away, the middle would stay put, and the top would melt a little and slide away. Fun!

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Eventually I got it all cut. After trying a few pieces I put it back in the fridge, hoping it would stick together better. It was worth a shot, but I don’t think it really helped.

So now the important part: how did they taste? They tasted great! I thought they were on par with any other ones I’ve made. Had I not known, I would have had no idea that they were vegan or gluten-free. I would say the caramel was good (and in fact better than in the previous batch I made), the chocolate was good, and the shortbread was okay, just crumbly as previously mentioned.

How did they go over with others? Well, everyone seemed to enjoy them, flaws and all. (I guess when cookies taste good, people can be forgiving of crumbly shortbread.) I’ll also note here that while I didn’t really notice it, others mentioned that with all the “butter”, they had a slightly salty taste which went well with the caramel and the overall sweetness.

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And what did my new vegan friend think? She was kinda blown away. My wife said that I made quite the impression on her. Sure, they were good cookies, but I think it was more the fact that I experimented with making cookies specially for her, after researching and buying special ingredients. And the fact that she was effectively a complete stranger.

Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal to me. In fact, it was a fun challenge. And it makes me happy to do nice things for others.

So, things to keep in mind if I make it again: less (or different) butter substitute to make sure the consistency of the shortbread is better. Seeing if I can cook the caramel a little quicker by cooking it a little hotter. I think I would also try omitting the corn syrup to see if that makes any difference with the caramel. If you try it, please let me know how it goes for you, especially how long the caramel took to make and what you used to substitute for the butter.

Normally, this is the part where I’d link to the original recipe and instructions, but I made enough changes that I think I need to spell it all out here. The recipe is kind of a frankenstein between this recipe from Allrecipes.com which is the basis for my regular millionaire’s shortbread and this recipe from The Every Day Veggie.

Ingredients:

For the shortbread:

2/3 cup butter substitute (I used Earth Balance.)

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/4 cup gluten-free flour (I used Trader Joe’s.)

For the caramel:

1/2 cup butter substitute (Earth Balance again)

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons corn syrup

2 cups coconut milk

For the chocolate topping:

190 grams dark chocolate

Instructions:

To make the shortbread, mix together butter substitute, sugar, and gluten-free flour. Line an 8 x 8 square baking dish with parchment paper. Spread evenly into the bottom of the dish. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes.

To make the caramel, add the butter substitute, brown sugar, corn syrup, and coconut milk into a saucepan. Cook until it’s boiling. Then reduce heat to medium and stir. Keep stirring till it thickens into caramel. (For me that was about 50 minutes. YMMV.) Pour over the shortbread and spread evenly.

To make the chocolate topping, break the chocolate into small pieces and put into a microwave safe dish. Microwave for 1 minute and stir. If it’s not a smooth consistency yet, you might have to microwave it a little bit longer (15-20 seconds more should do it). Once it’s smooth, pour over the caramel, and spread evenly.

Chill until firm. Remove from dish, peel away parchment paper, and cut into squares. Enjoy!

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