Dairy-Free Decadence 

Vegan doesn't have to be boring.

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A week or so after his fateful visit, Zellhoefer returned with a few blocks of Follow Your Heart "cheese" — a tofu-based cheese alternative. Ahmed tried it out on a pie — and it melted — along with his original menu plan. Soon after, he added a couple vegan items to his menu, and then a few more, until he phased out the meat altogether.

"I slowly stopped offering meat pizzas when I realized that I could make enough to support myself making just vegan and vegetarian pizzas," Ahmed said. Thus, a new restaurant was born. Zellhoefer, Hall, and a troop of their vegan friends (including Hall's band mates) began frequenting the spot, which had suddenly become a cheese-less haven.

"I felt real support from them," Ahmed said. "Dustin's band carried a message about veganism. I felt like I was making something that they, and all supporters of veganism, could relate to." As a nod to his friends, Ahmed offers a "Gather Band Deal" — two pizzas with three toppings each and vegan cheese sticks. The shop also has a magazine rack filled with pamphlets on veganism.

Pizza Plaza may be the only East Bay pizzeria that's exclusively vegan, but Lanesplitter, the popular pizza place and pub with spots in Albany, Berkeley and North Oakland, makes its own cheese substitute, dubbed "Notta Ricotta," out of soy-based ingredients. Fellini, an Italian restaurant in Berkeley, also offers a soy-based cheese along with tofu and other vegan "meat" toppings.

Some people criticize diets based largely on imitation foods. Dr. John McDougall, a nutritionist and vociferous proponent of the virtues of low-fat vegetarian or vegan diets, published a newsletter, called "The Fat Vegan," in which he decries the practice of substituting dairy and meat products, item for item, with processed vegan versions.

"People who have declared themselves 'vegan,' have said 'no' to eating all animal-derived foods," he wrote. "At extraordinary personal costs, many of these guardians labor tirelessly to protect the welfare of all animals. Fat vegans, however, have failed one important animal: themselves."

McDougall added, "Instead of animal fats and proteins, fuel becomes vegetable oils and isolated soy proteins. Calorie for calorie, in terms of nutrition, the fake food is no better, and in some ways worse, than the real thing."

The isolated soy protein that McDougall frowns on is commonly used in imitation meats, including the "pepperoni" at Pizza Plaza, to add protein. According to the Soyfoods Association of North America, the isolate, which is derived from de-fatted soybeans, is high in amino acids, low in fat, and free of cholesterol, which qualifies it as an acceptable replacement for meat protein under the FDA's standards.

Other imitation meats, like the Tofurkey sausages used by Pizza Plaza, contain tofu as a protein source. Actually, one serving of Tofurkey's "Sweet Italian Sausage" has 29 grams of protein, or four grams more than is needed in a day.

For vegans who've eliminated many of the foods that were once staples or indulgences, the forbidden foods can become very alluring. Mel Chang, who blogs about her adventures with cooking and eating vegan food (veglicious.blogspot.com), acknowledged the fixation that some vegans develop over foods they no longer eat. "I think it's easy for vegans to become obsessed with finding replacements for junk food because our whole society is obsessed with junk food," she said. "When you're suddenly not able to go down to the corner market and buy a hyper-processed, beef fat-filled snack cake, it becomes a welcomed challenge to recreate those foods that are comforting to us."

The Emeryville chocolate maker Coracao Confections is another company that strives to meet that challenge. Coracao's organic chocolates are not just vegan candy, but vegan candy that's also free of refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, wheat, gluten, and even the soy that is prevalent in so many dairy-free snacks. Oh, and they're raw — so absolutely no stoves are harmed in the process.

The chocolatiers behind Coracao Confections, Daniel Korson and Matthew Rogers, met while working as pastry chefs at raw foods restaurant Cafe Gratitude, where they also ran the chocolate department. The restaurant's nut-based, naturally sweetened raw desserts helped inspire Coracao Confections' similar approach to sweets.

Korson said he and his business partner were both big junk food eaters when they were younger, but both cut out the foods to focus on healthier eating. "But on some level I think we both missed them," Korson said, "Compare that to some crunchy, raw, vegan date ball with flax seeds and somehow it just doesn't have that same deep level of satisfaction or fun."

The result of the chefs' shared junk food deprivation: A collection of chocolates made with what they call "superfoods," such as "antioxidant-rich" goji berries and acai. Another ingredient is raw cacao, which, according to Korson, is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods ever tested. The beans contain nutrients like magnesium, which contributes to bone and immune support. Zinc, iron, and chromium also crowd inside the uncooked beans.

Because the chocolates are uncooked, Korson says the vitamins present in their ingredients stay intact. Compared with the nullifying effect of the fryer, nothing in raw foods is broken down. "Think about it in terms of an apple," Korson said. "An apple is a very healthy food. What happens if you roast that apple? All that vibrancy, flavor, and raw nutrition in its pure state has been lost."

The sizable list of nutrients in Coracao Chocolates reads more like the label on a vitamin bottle than a candy bar wrapper. Until doctors start prescribing the chocolates as medicine, though, they still qualify on some level as sweets. After all, they are sweetened — albeit with agave nectar and coconut sugar, which are comparatively lower on the glycemic index than sweeteners like corn syrup and refined sugar.

And Coracao chocolates still contain calories, but while conventional chocolates get their fat from dairy ingredients like butter and cream, a variety of nuts constitute part of Coracao's fat source. It's clear by names like "almond coconut dream," "brazil nut maca-malt cup," and "macadamia coconut dream" that the candies are particularly nutty.

Nuts are an important source of unsaturated fat and protein for vegans. According to the North American Vegetarian Society, nutrient-rich calories in nuts can also effectively satiate someone's appetite, so smaller amounts of food (like a piece of chocolate) are more likely to satisfy someone's sweet tooth.

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