Jess van der Walt, from Madhatter's Cupcakes.
Jess van der Walt, from Madhatter's Cupcakes. Photo: Danielle Smith

Anne Lin

To the naysayers predicting the end of the global cupcake craze, the future has never looked brighter for self-taught vegan cupcake-maker Jessica van der Walt.

Her Madhatter's Cupcakes business launched last August, first as stalls at the Glebe and Newtown markets, growing to pop-up stores in shopping centres and now a patisserie cafe in Darlinghurst, to open later this year. Not a bad result for someone who took up baking as a hobby two years ago.

Jess van der Walt's Vanilla chai cupcakes.
Jess van der Walt's vanilla chai cupcakes. Photo: Danielle Smith

So confident is van der Walt that she quit her corporate job as an insurance recruiter in January.

“We try and say 'plant-based' cupcakes or 'plant-based' patisserie, because there's a huge stigma when it comes to vegan foods, let alone vegan cupcakes," she says.

“The term vegan can be far-fetched for some people and have the stigma of being hippy or distasteful, and the reality is it's not, it's just about thinking creatively and using ingredients which are super tasty and healthy, and end up producing a product that's just as high quality as other cupcakes out there.”

A few of the Madhatter Cupcakes creations.
A few of the Madhatter's Cupcakes creations. Photo: Danielle Smith

Madhatter's Cupcakes use a custom-made margarine and canola oil as substitutes for animal fats. These keep the cakes moist. Eggs are replaced with rice milk or soy milk and baking soda and vinegar used as a binding agent.

“And because they're dairy-free, egg-free, and don't have any animal products, my cupcakes have kind of hit a niche market for people who have allergies and intolerances, or those with religious reasons as well,” she says.

Van der Walt says she draws most of her inspiration from blogs and Instagram. Not one to follow recipes, most of her flavours are just experimental “random accidents”.

“There's a vegan chef in America, her name's Chloe Coscarelli, she actually went on [the television show] Cupcake Wars. I saw her a few years back and I think she kind of inspired me, to give me confidence that normal people can accept vegan cupcakes," she says.

“I probably gave it a good two months of testing, because it is a delicate type of situation with baking vegan, because you don't have a lot of those elements and you have to watch the ratio and what's happening. I was testing a whole lot of recipes. Some flopped, some were really dense, some didn't rise, they toppled over, and so it took me a while to get the right ratio.”

Some of her more traditional flavours include salted caramel popcorn and red velvet. More unexpected creations include rhubarb and guava.

“I just had guava juice and some rhubarb jam and I put that weird mix together [and] it kind of was a hit with people who like tart-y sweet flavours like lemon meringue.”

She credits her husband and business partner for encouraging her to grow but is also thankful for her “amazing team” of bakers and retail staff in helping her turn what she loved into a career.

"My short corporate career was in finance and HR. The scary thing was I wasn't made redundant, I left my job in pursuit of a dream. Luckily it paid off."

“There's been stressful points as well, especially since it was such a big toll on my husband, who is studying medicine, but a lot of the time he's encouraged me to keep going. We just have to work smarter, not harder, so it's rewarding to see your passion turn into something that's actually a sustainable business.”

Madhatter's Cupcakes pop-up store can be found at the MetCentre on the ground floor near Woolworths. Details: madhattercupcakery.com

Chai cupcakes

Makes 12 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups of plain flour

1 cup caster sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup boiling water

20g finely ground chai tea (van der Walt uses a mortar and pestle)

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/4 soy milk

2 tablespoons vinegar

Vanilla frosting

1 cup dairy free margarine

1/3 - 1/2 cup icing sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

6 tablespoons soy milk

Method

The cupcakes

1. Pre-heat your oven to 170C and prepare one tray of 12 medium cupcakes with liners.

2. In a bowl or measuring jug, add 1 cup of boiling water to the ground chai and leave it to infuse for five minutes.

4. In a medium-sized bowl, sieve the flour, caster sugar, baking soda and salt, mixing until combined.

5. Once the tea has brewed, pour in the oil and soy milk, mixing until combined. Add the vinegar and give it one last mix.

6. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined, do not over-beat.

7. Scoop the batter into the pre-prepared liners filling 2/3 of the way up.

8. Cook in pre-heated oven for approximately 17 minutes or until a toothpick or skewer comes out clean.

The frosting

1. Combine the soy milk and vanilla extract and set aside.

2. Beat the dairy free margarine in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Turn it down to a lower speed, adding the icing sugar and liquids in small quantities alternatively. Beat again at high speed until light and fluffy. Adjust with powdered sugar or soy milk until reaching the desired frosting consistency.

3. Once the cupcakes have cooled, use your piping bag to frost the cupcakes and sprinkle with a little cinnamon to finish.