Writing a book is no small feat. Now imagine doing it while still in your teens. LAIKA’s one-time cover star Clara Polito has accomplished just that. Her first cookbook, Clara Cakes: Delicious and Simple Vegan Desserts for Everyone! was just published by powerHouse Books. It’s chock full of recipes for a dizzying array of creative desserts, with an entire chapter dedicated to frosting, plus sage business advice, a super handy guide to kitchen gear and egg substitutes, even a spread about why she’s vegan.
Polito is a serious pro with a heart of gold, but she’s no overnight sensation. She’s been running her LA-based company Clara Cakes since the age of 12, selling her creations at stores, restaurants and countless events across the city, as well as doing many brunch and dinner pop-ups. Her hard work has rightfully earned her treats a loyal following. The artist and skateboarder Ed Templeton says it best in his introduction to Polito’s cookbook, “Clara is the kind of girl that gives me hope for future generations. She didn’t wait for anything happen to her, she made it happen for herself.” Indeed.
Polito shares her S’mores Bar recipe with LAIKA, followed immediately by our Q&A with her.
“I rarely ate traditional s’mores growing up because: 1) Marshmallows have gelatin, and 2) I’ve never been camping in my life. What I can remember of these sweet snacks is that the marshmallow always swallowed up all the other flavors. It was too sweet to be able to enjoy the perfect graham cracker and melty chocolate combo. These s’mores bars give you a balanced ratio of a lot of graham-cookie-bar crust, just enough chocolate chips, and a bit of melty marshmallow to tuck it in. I honestly don’t have much of a desire to ever go camping since I can just make these bars in my oven…”
1 cup crushed Nabisco plain graham cracker crumbs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 cup Dandies Marshmallows,* torn in half
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup v. butter, melted
1 tablespoon coconut vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
* Specialty ingredient, buy ahead
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9×9 baking pan with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar and baking soda with a fork. The baking soda will dissolve. Set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, stir together the graham cracker crumbs, flour, and baking powder.
4. Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy.
5. Add the vinegar and baking soda mixture to the butter and beat on high until the vinegar is fully incorporated, about two minutes.
6. Slowly add in the dry ingredients on medium speed and beat until it looks like cookie dough.
7. Reserve 1/4 of the dough and set aside, you’ll use this later for the topping. Press the remaining dough into the baking pan.
8. Sprinkle chocolate chips and marshmallows evenly onto the cookie dough layer.
9. Take the cookie dough you set aside and scatter grape-sized pieces over the marshmallows and chocolate chips.
10. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Place on cooling rack, serve warm.
LAIKA: Veganism has become a lot less stigmatized in recent years. Do you even still feel the need to explain that you’re a “vegan” baker?
Clara Polito: It depends on who I’m talking to, or where I’m selling. Most of the time, I like to let my cooking speak for itself and win people over, and then tell them afterwards that it’s vegan which is always very much to their surprise! I think because being vegan is second nature to me, and such a part of my inner moral compass, I don’t have to work too hard on integrating it into my identity. Changing the way people eat is ultimately why I do what I do.
LAIKA: It’s a pretty crazy time, with this country’s government trying to escalate the oppression of both human and nonhuman animals. How does all this affect your craft and your sense of urgency to make the world better?
Clara Polito: I feel that being vegan is so important, especially now, as a way to express compassion. Our country is so accustomed to feeling disconnected to cruelty, corruption, etc. I think being vegan is the simplest, everyday activism you can do that touches on so many different issues beyond animal cruelty. I think it motivates me to make my recipes accessible. It makes me want to hold tight onto my craft and work harder.
LAIKA: The cookbook is so impressive. It must’ve been a ton of work to put together.
Clara Polito: Other than jotting down recipes, I had no prior cookbook experience. I think I needed someone to say, “Let’s do this, here’s what I need from you,” and from there it was a blast. The problem I run into is narrowing down recipe ideas, so coming up with new ones was fast. I took most of the dessert photos (Logan White took some as well), so there would be nights where I’d have four different cakes in my fridge calling my name.
LAIKA: The design of the book is also very eye-catching. Did you collaborate with the publisher and designer on it?
Clara Polito: My publisher was really open to my ideas for the book design. They’d send over different versions of possible designs and really listened to my feedback. The designer asked me to send over different tablecloths and aprons I use, and that’s where the flowers throughout the book come from. The handwritten old English was a tribute to the first business cards I made, and I love how modern it feels in the book. I love how much the book design represents myself and my baking.
LAIKA: And your best friend is a part of the book too, is that right?
Clara Polito: Sophia [Longo] is an extremely talented writer, and about a year ago she wrote a zine called Dessert Haikus. She wrote several different haikus having to do with desserts and then we put them together with photos of my baked goods. A couple months later when I started working on the book, it seemed like the perfect addition to it! She’s been a part of this adventure since I started baking, so it makes the book even more special and meaningful.
LAIKA: That’s so cool, and such a great example of young women’s camaraderie. So, people new to vegan baking are sometimes intimidated by the lack of eggs. What’s your take on that?
Clara Polito: My favorite egg substitutes are applesauce, coconut vinegar, and Mori-Nu silken tofu. I think texture and taste both taste more fresh when not using eggs. Isn’t it weird how non-vegan cake is technically chocolate eggs?!
LAIKA: Yep! What’s the top advice would you give young women your age who have a hobby or passion and yearn to turn into a career?
Clara Polito: I would say to embrace your passion and know your self-worth. People might offer you advice, which is nice, but you don’t have to take it. Do what you want to do.
LAIKA: Ok, final question — what’s inspiring you these days, and what are your must-eat vegan dishes around LA?
Clara Polito: Stella McCartney’s latest collection, both womenswear and menswear. I keep going back to the lookbook for inspiration! And specific dishes at particular places are: Organic Puff Pastry Tart with Market Green Salad at Elf Cafe (Elf is vegetarian, request this dish vegan); the Sweet Potato Falafel at Fala Bar; Spicy Sweet Potatoes at Azla; Masa Echo Park’s vegan Deep Dish Pizza (request vegan); the vegan pupusa combo that comes with fried plantains and black beans at Delmy’s Pupusas (request vegan); and the Jackfruit Taco with Chipotle Mayo and Tomatillo Salsa at Plant Food For People.
Clara Cakes’ latest pop-up dinner is in Detroit this weekend, and the NYC book launch is on March 23. Get to know this inspiring young woman even better in our Issue Two cover story. Pick up her stunning new cookbook online or at stores nationwide.
Interview by Julie Gueraseva