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It's rare that I bake for pleasure at home; the nature of my work has me in the kitchen more than 20 hours a week, so firing up my oven isn't exactly how I choose to unwind. But a late-night chocolate chip cookie craving recently took me by surprise, sending me back to "work," where I discovered the unthinkable had happened—I'd run out of butter.
Of course, a little thing like that isn't enough to stop me, so I soldiered on with refined coconut oil and malted milk powder, a combo I've used as a stand-in for the flavor and richness of brown butter in the past (the most recent example being my homemade brownie mix).
Twenty minutes later, I was back on the couch with a warm chocolate chip cookie, pleased as punch that it turned out almost identical to my old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies.
Ultimately, that's my approach to "alternative" baking. I love finding new routes to the same place, so temporary road blocks never keep me from my destination (i.e., nothing can stop me from getting dessert when I want it). The more I go "off-roading," the more I learn about baking as a whole, which makes me a stronger pastry chef, a better recipe developer, and a more effective troubleshooter because it shows me the range of ways in which a recipe can be adapted.
So, after realizing how easy it was to nail a (mostly) non-dairy chocolate chip cookie, I began to wonder if I was just a few steps away from a truly phenomenal vegan cookie. The malted milk powder would be easy to replace with dry malt extract (which is the primary ingredient in malted milk powder anyway), but what about that egg?
From a previous deep dive on the role eggs play in cookies, I knew that simply omitting the egg would be a disaster, but that omitting the yolk had little effect. A plain sugar cookie made with a single egg white will look and taste almost exactly like a regular sugar cookie; the only problem is that it can be more difficult to emulsify the egg white into the sugar and fat. By the time the whites are fully incorporated, all the air cells developed by the creaming method will be deflated, resulting in a denser dough that's more inclined to spread.
In other words, an egg white's primary role in a cookie is to provide water and protein to bind everything together, while the yolk primarily serves to facilitate emulsification. A good replacement would need to play those roles equally well, without contributing any wonky flavors or aromas to the dough (a decision that ruled out everything from applesauce to aquafaba).
At any rate, I had something else in mind. Based on from my early attempts at homemade oat milk, I knew that rolled oats puréed with water can produce an alarmingly viscous sludge, with a texture closer to an egg white than milk if the ratio of oats to water is especially high. I hoped that such a slurry would be thick enough to emulsify into the coconut oil and sugar with ease, preventing the loss of air cells while infusing the dough with enough water and protein to hold the cookies together.
So I made a two-to-one combination of water and rolled oats by weight, and puréed it with an immersion blender. After straining, the oat slurry had a consistency not unlike a beaten egg, with a faint "cereal" flavor that was as unobtrusive as the taste of all-purpose flour.
Using that oat slurry as a one-to-one substitution for a whole egg by weight, I was stoked to discover it seamlessly blended in with the refined coconut oil and sugar.
From there, I added the dry malt extract and flour, followed by plenty of dark chocolate.
Because coconut oil is solid at room temperature, the dough had a dry and crumbly texture, but I knew that wasn't an indication of how it would behave in the oven, even if it made the cookies tricky to shape by hand. So I grabbed a two-tablespoon cookie scoop and used the edge of my bowl to really pack the dough in, compressing it into a cohesive ball.
As I would with my "regular" chocolate chip cookies, I arranged the dough on a parchment-lined half-sheet pan, then gave each piece a gentle boop. Not to help the cookies spread (they'll do that plenty on their own, thanks to the coconut oil), but to create a little landing pad for a final sprinkling of chocolate.
Because the dough doesn't contain any butter or egg, it didn't need quite as much time in the oven as a traditional cookie dough, nor did it have the same visual cues for doneness. The cookies are done when the edges are firm to the touch, with a pale golden color all over, and centers that still seem a bit puffy and raw; about 12 minutes at 350°F.
A combination of carryover cooking plus hot coconut oil cooling to a solid state continued to transform the cookies even after they baked, so I made sure to let their crumb set before digging in. The results were everything I could want in a chocolate chip cookie: butterscotchy and rich, with chewy, fudgy middles and a crispy ring around the edges.
Of course, a recipe can only be as vegan as the ingredients involved, and strict vegans will need to seek out white and brown sugar made from beets rather than cane, or else use organic sugars (which are, by definition, processed without bone char). Likewise, whether or not a dark chocolate is truly vegan will depend on the type of sugar involved and the nature of the manufacturing facility (i.e., the possibility of cross contamination from production lines that handle milk and white chocolates), but a number of my favorite supermarket dark chocolates claim to be vegan, including Theo 70%, Equal Exchange 71%, and Endangered Species 72%.
Strict vegans will want to investigate to determine whether those claims live up to their own standards. What I can say is that vegan white and milk chocolate bars (typically made from powdered rice milk) do not work well in this recipe due to their unusual melting point, so take care when baking with alternatives that have nonstandard formulations. Otherwise, to diversify the chocolate profile, choosing a few different bars in the 60 to 75% range will go a long way toward creating a greater depth of flavor in the cookie as a whole.
So far as I'm concerned, it's the perfect chocolate chip cookie: equal parts chewy and rich, crispy and fudgy, bitter and sweet, with the sort of dark, toasty notes that call to mind brown butter (even when it's not there). As I made them time and again in testing, they proved to be the sort of cookies I could bring to a party or give to a friend without any disclaimer; cookies that everyone can love. Not because they're really good for a vegan cookie, but because they're just really good.
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