I’ve long been a plant-forward cook at home, but when I opened a café called the Farmer’s Hand in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit in 2016, I brought that sensibility to my work as well. Determined to support the local farming community at every turn, I let the seasons dictate the menu and drew a loyal following of vegan and nonvegan diners alike who showed up for items such as quinoa burgers and avocado toast with beet hummus.
So when Cook’s Illustrated approached me to develop a vegan chocolate mousse that anyone would love, it felt right in my wheelhouse, and I knew it would be a fun challenge. Dairy and eggs are core to the dessert, and when you take them out, all that’s left is the chocolate and sugar. Once upon a time, that might have meant relying on products such as commercial egg replacers that nonvegans wouldn’t necessarily have in their kitchens. But plant-based cooking has come a long way, making use of everyday ingredients in innovative ways. And even dishes modeled on conventional classics can be so pleasing in their own right that you don’t miss the traditional components.
It would take some teasing out, but I was confident that I could produce a showstopping mousse to rival the original—plush and billowy, with profound chocolate flavor—and thrill diners of all stripes.
Looking for Lift
A traditional chocolate mousse works like this: Solid chocolate provides flavor as well as structure from the cocoa butter, egg yolks and butter contribute more structure as well as richness, and whipped egg whites and/or whipped cream sweetened with sugar add lift. Typically you melt the chocolate, whisk in the yolks and butter, fold in the aerator(s), and then chill the mousse until it’s set.
I struck out with vegan approaches that replaced the eggs and butter with either tofu or avocado, simply buzzing one or the other in a blender with the chocolate and sugar. Silken tofu made a smoothie‑like mixture that never fully set up, and firm tofu produced a dense concoction that wasn’t remotely airy. Avocado was the worst, leaving me with a thick chocolate paste that tasted unmistakably vegetal.
Far more promising were the methods that called for aquafaba, the cooking liquid in a can of chickpeas that has a keen ability to whip to a stiff, snowy‑white foam. (For more information about this ingredient, see “Aquafaba: The Egg‑Free Miracle Whip.”) These recipes also included fat in the form of coconut oil or coconut cream—go-tos in vegan baking and dessert making for their ability to mimic butter’s richness. I gave a version with coconut cream a whirl first, melting it with bittersweet chocolate and folding in aquafaba that I’d whipped to soft peaks with sugar. To my delight, the mousse was gossamer light—even airier than the conventional kind since there were no eggs providing bulk. Aquafaba was definitely in. But I wasn’t wild about the way the coconut cream’s tropical notes muted the chocolate flavor, and strangely, the dessert was marred by a faint but distinct graininess. I’d save the coconut cream to whip into a topping, where it wouldn’t directly interfere with the chocolate, and go with neutral‑tasting refined coconut oil, figuring out the graininess issue as I went along.
Aquafaba: The Egg-Free Miracle Whip
The discovery that an ethereal foam can be created by simply whipping the viscous liquid from a can of chickpeas wasn’t made by a food scientist or even a professional chef. Instead, credit goes to an American software engineer named Goose Wohlt. In 2015, inspired by the experiments other scrappy vegan home cooks had shared online, Wohlt successfully turned the whipped cooking water into meringue. He promptly dubbed the liquid “aquafaba” (“aqua” is Latin for “water”; “faba,” “bean”) and began posting about its properties on Facebook. The magic is in the viscous liquid’s proteins and soluble fiber, which, when beaten, link together to trap air bubbles and form a foam, just as egg whites do. Word spread like wildfire, and soon vegans around the globe were using it in all sorts of applications, from angel food cake to mayonnaise to mousse. –Amanda Agee
Smoothing Out the Bumps
It was time to home in on the chocolate. For a vegan recipe, I’d need to use a vegan chocolate, but many bars fall short of that classification because they contain small amounts of dairy and/or they’re sweetened with conventional granulated sugar, which is sometimes processed with bone char to bleach the crystals white (see “Don’t Assume All Dark Chocolate Is Vegan”). I chose a bittersweet vegan chocolate with 70 percent cacao (a nonvegan chocolate with 60 to 70 percent cacao will also work), which would give me rich, well-rounded chocolate flavor. For a recipe serving four, I chopped 4 ounces of the chocolate and measured out 3 tablespoons of coconut oil—enough to ensure that I had plenty of liquefied base for folding the foam into. I melted both ingredients in the microwave, and as the mixture cooled, I whipped ½ cup of chickpea liquid with sugar, a pinch of salt, and cream of tartar (acidic ingredients improve aquafaba’s whipping ability). I then folded the aquafaba gently into the chocolate mixture. The mousse was so light that it was like spooning up clouds of chocolate, and without dairy (or coconut cream) dulling flavor, I could taste every nuance. But the dessert still had that mysterious subtle graininess.
Don’t Assume All Dark Chocolate Is Vegan
You may not realize it without examining the label, but some dark chocolates contain small amounts of milk products such as whey, casein, or milk solids. Furthermore, they may be sweetened with conventional granulated sugar, which is sometimes processed with bone char. To be sure that a dark chocolate is truly plant-based, look for “vegan” on the label.
I realized the problem: My mousse had two forms of saturated fat—the coconut oil as well as the cocoa butter in the chocolate. When chilled, these fats formed tiny solid flecks detectable on the tongue. In traditional mousse, the cream and eggs minimize the formation of these solid fat crystals so that they aren’t noticeable.
The obvious solution was to replace the bar chocolate with cocoa powder, which contains minimal cocoa butter, and swap the coconut oil for vegetable oil.
Ultralight, Ultrachocolaty Mousse in Minutes
With no eggs to separate or heavy cream to whip, this vegan mousse comes together in 20 minutes from pantry ingredients. The absence of dairy allows its chocolate flavor to shine, and its minimal added fat (just ¼ cup of vegetable oil) means that the treat isn’t overly filling.
Building Body and Flavor
These adjustments did the trick, and my mousse was now silky smooth. But I had a new problem: Since vegetable oil remains a liquid even when it’s chilled, it couldn’t shore up the structure, and the dessert was prone to slumping.
It occurred to me that if I added back a modest amount of solid chocolate, it might have just enough cocoa butter to bolster the mousse’s structure but not enough to impact texture, and its rounder flavor would bring even more chocolaty dimension to the mousse. Keeping the amount of cocoa powder at ¼ cup, I was able to incorporate 1½ ounces of bittersweet chocolate without reintroducing graininess.
The final results, if I may say so, were magnificent. With two forms of chocolate and none of the dulling effects of dairy, the mousse boasted seriously bold, complex chocolate flavor. And with its velvety, ethereal texture, each spoonful tasted luxe but not cloyingly decadent. It was truly a mousse in a class of its own.