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Is it better with butter?

Can parev cakes ever be as delicious as their dairy counterparts

    Nothing ruins a good pudding so much as making it parev. The question of whether dairy or meat-friendly desserts taste better comes up time and again in kosher circles and it is a debate almost as polarising as how to pronounce “bagel”.
    Yes, margarine is lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than butter. But for many, its ingredients balance out this health benefit. It is also cheaper — you will have change from £1 when buying foil-wrapped Tomor, which you are unlikely to do with butter, although parev chocolate will set you back a fair bit more than most dairy bars. But, in truth, it is not about what is good for you — or you’d avoid dessert entirely — or even about cost. It is about whether a substitute can ever be as delicious as the real thing.
    The community’s top chefs have found solutions to the alleged inferiority of parev puddings, developing gourmet milk-free ice creams and creamy concoctions that belie the absence of any substance that has so much as gone near a cow.
    “We are spoilt for choice and they are improving all the time,” says cook Denise Phillips, who adds that while soya products invariably taste revolting, as we cannot eat milk and meat together, we have to learn to deal
    with it.
    “Always mix and season,” she says. “That’s where the magic comes in.”
    Amy Beilin, who runs the Kosher Roast catering company, admits that in most cases, “commercially available parev desserts have a terribly synthetic taste across each component — the sugar, the sponge, the sauce”.
    Her approach is to steer clear of cream-based recipes “rather than ride the ‘it’s not really dairy but we’re kosher so we’ll lump it’ wave”.
    As an amateur baker, finding a solution is more challenging. I decided to instigate my own taste test, asking friends to evaluate three staple cakes when made with milky ingredients and not.
    The verdict on my lemon drizzle cake was almost unanimously pro-butter. Butter yielded a fuller flavour and a moister more citrusy cake. My panel observed: “It’s more more-ish” and that “non-parev has the edge in terms of taste, texture and flavour”. The non-dairy cake was drier, with the fresh lemon harder to detect.
    The difference was even more marked when it came to fairy cakes. “I prefer that one,” said my friend, pointing to the parev iced fairy cake. “But then, I really like the taste of Tomor.”
    Nonetheless, milky was the clear victor. “Fairy cakes are a teatime treat,” said one critic. “They shouldn’t be made without milk.”
    I added a few drops of orange essence as a disguise, but the icing still tasted unmistakably of margarine. In contrast, the butter-based topping was creamy and fluffy. “Like it should be — you can tell when it’s artificial,” said one.
    The biggest surprise was my chocolate biscuit cake. I have always felt that when parev, this concoction of chocolate and digestives mixed with fat and golden syrup, then solidified in the fridge, is a poor imitation.
    Some agreed. The milky version had a “melt in your mouth” quality, they explained, a cleaner, less greasy flavour that lingered after they had taken a bite. It was more “chocolatey”. But others felt the milky option too heavy, even sickly after prolonged consumption. “If you like dark chocolate, the parev one is great. It’s not as rich, so you can just keep eating it, which is a problem.”
    What is clear is that there are more options today than in the past, due largely to the growing trend for dairy-free diets and our awareness of intolerances. After my experiment I still believe parev puddings are no match for milk. I am not alone — perhaps the most damning verdict was that I had quite a few pieces of parev cake left over, whereas only scraps remained of their milky cousins.

    Amy Beilin’s parev baking tips

    1. Adding vegetables such as beetroot to chocolate cakes makes them super moist
    2. Use duck eggs when making fruit curds (parev or milky) for a richer, silky finish
    3. Experiment with dairy-free milks other than soya, such as almond and oat milk
    4. Strong flavours like lemon and chocolate mask the fat-content flavour. For lemon cakes, increase the quantities used and ensure you use the biggest and freshest lemons you can find.
    5. Make your own pastry for tarts, pies, etc — the fresher they are, the better.

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