Amazing plants

I just finished Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, which tells multiple intersecting stories of people and their relationship with trees. We meet a biologist, an artist, a day laborer on a tree farm, a sociologist, an engineer, a videogame designer - an unlikely assortment of Americans whose lives are changed when they start to consider what trees give to the world and what they need from us. The book powerfully asks: Does human life have to be driven by the urge to grow and consume and dominate? Or is it possible that we could make room for other forms of life - and save ourselves in the process?

My personal answer is this question is to reduce suffering and use fewer resources by eating a plant-based diet.

This is only a beginning, I know. What I eat is not going to make a noticeable difference in the earth’s temperature. We need much larger actions, on a much larger political scale, to have any hope of withstanding climate change.

What a vegan diet does is to remind me every day of who I am and what I value. At every meal, I have a new opportunity to choose the lives of other beings over my own pleasure and convenience. And that identity helps guide me when it’s time to make the next decisions, whether about my own use of fossil fuels or about larger policies in our nation and our world.

Cooking vegan has also been a wonderful new adventure. I love discovering the amazing things that plants can do. Last week I taught a group of MIT students how to make vegan lemon meringue cupcakes. Traditional baking depends on the elastic properties of egg proteins to create structure and lightness. In one recipe, we got to see three different plants in action. Oats naturally coagulate to create a thick pastry cream. The cooking water from a can of chickpeas can whip into peaks so firm that you can turn the bowl upside without them budging. And if you cook flax seeds, they create a thick, sticky substance with a texture remarkably like an egg white. I’m including the recipe so you can have your own plant-based adventure.




Adapted from Gretchen Price, Modern Vegan Baking




(12 cupcakes)

Flax meal

2 Tablespoons


½ cup

Vegan margarine

½ cup

If not salted, add ¼ tsp salt


1 cup

All-purpose flour

1 ½ cup

Baking powder

1 ½ teaspoons

Lemon zest, chopped fine

2 teaspoons

Lemon juice,

freshly squeezed

¼ cup

Lemon extract

1 teaspoon

Yellow food coloring

2 drops

Lemon Pastry Cream


Aquafaba Meringue




  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cupcake tin with paper liners.

  2. Combine flax meal with water and whisk until smooth. Let stand.

  3. Cream the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy.

  4. Sift the flour with the baking powder in a separate bowl.

  5. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, lemon extract, and food coloring to the flax meal mixture.

  6. Add ⅓ of the flour mixture, stir, add ½ of the lemon/flax mixture, stir, add ⅓ of the flour mixture, stir, add ½ of the lemon/flax mixture, stir, add the rest of the flour, stir.

  7. Scoop into cupcake liners, filling each one ⅔ full.

  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until centers spring back when pressed.

  9. Cool cupcakes. Cut a small cylindrical section out of the center, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter and 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep, and fill with about tablespoon of lemon pastry cream.

  10. Top with aquafaba meringue and toast slightly under a broiler or with a blowtorch, until peaks turn golden brown.




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