BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap

Who hasn’t landed on a lavishly curated new blog, garnished with extravagant photos tucked between every mouthwatering paragraph, and cursed the fact that the potential for smell-o-vision technology has not been fully realized yet? Better yet, where are those edible 3-D printer inks when you need them? It’s the best and worst aspects of the blogosphere that are inseparable: Inspiring recipes from all corners of the globe can be instantly beamed into your home, but the ferocious hunger that they incite cannot be be satisfied by mere visuals alone. Although this far-flung community is closer than many social groups in real life, it’s hard to bridge that physical gap when you can’t just reach out and share a cookie with your friends.

Thus, the annual Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap is nothing short of a holiday miracle. Started in 2011, I only regret jumping onto this bandwagon so late in the game. Imagining the joy that my own homemade cookies might spread, the moments that their sweetness might brighten, kept my oven churning even through the stress of work deadlines. Finally having like-minded recipients for my sugared creations was a singular thrill, but admittedly, it wasn’t my only motivation. Tired of winter dinner parties where all meals ended with a cacophony of eggs and butter, I wanted some special holiday cookies for myself, gosh darn it!

Sending out three carefully wrapped parcels and anticipating three others in return, my already lofty expectations were far exceeded by the sweetness soon to arrive.

The Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies from Happy To Be a Table of Two were the first guests to check in at this sugar-fueled gathering. The brilliant aroma of chocolate and cinnamon mingled in the air before the zip-lock bag was even unsealed, and I knew I would be in for a treat. Tender, soft, and supple, each generous round was the perfect texture, made even more impressive due to the time and travel involved. Every bite packs in an ideal amount of chips to add bursts of rich chocolate flavor without dominating the whole cookie. A delightful combination of flavors that seems well suited for all seasons, this is one recipe I’m definitely adding into my collection.

The next, truly outstanding creation came courtesy of Loose Leaf Vegan. Her impeccable Chai Thumbprint Cookies rang with a measured balance of salt and spices, culminating in luscious pools of toothsome fudge on top. Supported by a pillow-y yet satisfyingly dense base, the rich chocolate filling absolutely put these morsels over the top. I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it though, since I selfishly horded, and have since eaten, every last cookie by myself. The baked beauties are just too good to share.

Unfortunately, the final package didn’t fare as well in the hands of our good old postal system. Delivered with a resounding thud at the front door, it’s no surprise that the contents were crumbled to almost indistinguishable grains of sand. At least two or three good bites survived intact, and I was still able to savor the Orange Almond Cookies and Chocolate Vanilla Swirl Cookies baked by Not So Cheesy Kitchen. Of the two buttery shortbread cookies, I was particularly fond of the subtle citrus notes in the former. Though I could have eaten a boxful in that one sitting, I was happy to get a fine sampling all the same.

As for my own contribution to this grand exchange, I shared a few dozen Speculoos (AKA Cookie Butter) Pinwheel Cookies. Rolled with a stripe of chocolate dough, the trendy brown sugar and cinnamon spread sings with harmonious contrasting tastes. That recipe is one I’ve shared with Go Dairy Free, so please pop on over there to grab the details.

This was my very first cookie swap of any sort, and I can tell you without hesitation that it certainly won’t be my last.


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Mastering the Art of Curry

Ever the skeptic, expectations remained firmly at ground-level right up until the sturdy packing tape was sliced open, revealing a true gem of a holiday gift, securely wrapped in that unassuming cardboard box. Sure, I knew more or less what I was getting when I agreed to investigate the lavish assortment of spices included in the Kitchen Master Curry Kit, but that’s all I had pictured: Loose, uninspiring ingredients, assembled for convenience. Never have I been more pleased to admit being wrong. Complete with a full compliment of pungent, piquant, and bold seasonings, the inclusion of a gleaming stainless steel masala dabba and curry cookbook transform the set into something special. Admiring those exotic flavorings tucked neatly inside their metal compartments, it’s impossible not to feel a growing hunger for some new kitchen experimentation.

Lifting the lid yields a fresh cascade of intoxicating spice aromas, shifting and mingling in different ways with every breath. Even without the colorfully illustrated cookbook, packed with more tempting suggestions than your average Indian takeout menu, any curious cook would be powerless to resist this savory siren song. Granted, the cookbook is not vegan nor does it make any allusions of being so, but it does include helpful notations for those conscious of gluten, plus an indication of spice levels to better suit individual preferences. What it succeeds in beautifully is simplifying essential Indian dishes that are all too often misinterpreted with generic “curry powder,” rather than the nuanced blend of spices that provide their true character.

For the first time ever, my biryani rice (otherwise referred to as “Spicy Rice“) actually tasted like something I might get from a restaurant. The secret ingredient seems to be whole fenugreek seed, an addition that had never before graced my spice pantry. For the true novice, online video tutorials are there to hold your hand, ensuring success for cooks of all skill levels.

Discovering the foundation of classical curry seasonings unlocks a whole world of flavor, no matter what sort of diet the guidebook is written for. Easily adapting the recipe for kefta kebabs (“ground beef or lamb kebabs“) to employ homemade seitan rather than meat, those bold spices shone as brightly as ever in my veganized rendition. Paired with a quick and easy tahini sauce, it could have rivaled any restaurant offerings, if I do say so myself. They may not be the most beautiful of kebabs, but they sure do make up for their lacking visual impressions with an abundance of fragrant, spicy flavors that positively dance on the tongue.

Since it’s the season of giving, consider the Kitchen Master Curry Kit a prime option for any food lover on your list. In case you need further convincing, the whole bundle is currently on sale in the official online store, and I have an additional discount to share with you, my spicy readers. Enter the code “Q5GBI6501A5B” for an extra $11.50 off; enough to easily justify a purchase for someone you love, and perhaps for yourself, too.


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Uncommon Excellence

‘Tis the season of giving, although in this modern age it may be more accurate to say that it’s the season of shopping. Judging by the influx of gift guides already lining the pages of blogs both big and small, I’d have to assume that everyone already has more ideas for their holiday handouts than they know what to do with. If you’re anything like me though, these lists serve not to inspire better offerings to share with loved ones, but to capture my own desires. No matter if I’m looking at suggestions geared towards photographers or lumberjacks, I promise you I’ll find at least one purchase to add to my personal wish list, coming up empty handed yet again for my family and friends. Am I just easy to please, or has it become more difficult to shop for others, with all of their particular preferences? Nothing ever seems like just the right kind of gift, balancing gracefully between the grey areas of useless junk and utilitarian items for work. How can I inject a bit of whimsy into the everyday, and where on earth can I find such a rarity?

The internet holds the key to solving this conundrum, of course. Online shopping has become an increasingly popular pursuit, if not a genuine sport at this point. Questions of quality still remain, and sketchy merchants can ruin the most thoughtfully planned out gifting procedure, so the real question isn’t “what should I buy” for the holidays, but “where should I buy from?” Well, allow me to introduce one of the most fun stores on the web: Uncommon Goods. Perhaps you’ve heard of it before, and rightly so. They’ve been in the biz for over 15 years and feature some of the most unique, charming offerings I’ve seen all in one place. They truly live up to their title, working with small artists to furnish their catalog with handmade, one-of-a-kind items along with fun gadgets and toys that you may not have seen before. They too have many gift suggestions built in for the well-meaning but clueless shopper, although of course I was immediately drawn to the dishware section instead.

Given a generous stipend to test out their services and report back on the results, I certainly did take away an incredible haul. Shipping out with speeds that rival the gold standard set by Amazon, I’d wager to say that their packing is even more secure. Despite the weight and fragility of my items, not a single piece was dinged, scratched, or anything less than ideal. So, what presents did I give myself for the holidays this year? Primarily, lots of rocks.

Stone slabs in the form of cheeseboards, to be more precise. The granite cheese board with spreader was my real trophy gift, a luxurious hunk of glossy granite complete with a charming wooden knife. The dark coloring was in sharp contrast to the photo featured online, but that variability only added to the appeal. Even if you’re ordering for yourself, you may be in for a happy surprise!

Another excellent pick for the host or hostess with everything would be the slate cheese board with soapstone chalk (chalk not pictured.) That rich burgundy stone is absolutely stunning, and such an unusual shade to find in the typically drab category of grey slate serving pieces. This is one versatile plate that will no doubt make many more appearances in my photos for years to come. Best of all, it provides a spacious 10×16-inches for all of your appetizer needs, making it a genuinely excellent value, especially compared to what you might find in comparable houseware boutiques.

Moving deeper into the pages of dishes and utensils, the udon noodle bowls captivated me at first sight. Beautifully crafted and a true pleasure to use, this is one of the rare pieces that enjoys a place both in my prop closet and on the dinner table. It’s a perfect example of form and function working together, creating a vessel that holds an ideal amount of noodle-y goodness with an ergonomic handle and built-in chopstick rest. My only regret is not purchasing one in every color.

Finally, as a fun little toy to play around with in the kitchen, my final choice is one that my loved ones will actually benefit from as well. Churning out dozens of holiday cookies for annual swaps and parties alike, mine are guaranteed to stand out from the pack this year thanks to my brand new customizable cookie stamp. Infinitely adaptable to all holidays an occasions, the edible messages that it creates are sure to impress- Yes, pun intended. My fool-proof gingerbread cut-out cookies have never looked better, and there’s certainly no mistaking who made these sweets, even amongst a mountain of homemade holiday desserts.

Rather than give you more lists to look up or my own favorite holiday selections, I just want to give you this entire website for inspiration. Better yet, I want to give you a bit of holiday cheer in the form of a $50 gift certificate to spend however you please in this wonderland of shopping. To enter, hop on over to Uncommon Goods and browse about. Tell me what you would order, and who you’re ordering for (I’ll admit, I’m just nosy and want to know!) Make sure you include your name and email in the appropriate boxes and log your response before midnight EST on December 15th. Sorry to my international friends, but you must be a resident of the US to enter.

Treat yourself, spoil your friends, indulge however you want just as long as you enjoy!

UPDATE: The entry period has ended and the good old random number generator has smiled upon one lucky reader. That person happens to be the owner of comment #24…

Panya! You’ve won the giveaway and will be hearing from the folks at Uncommon Goods shortly. For everyone else, don’t despair; the next opportunity to take home a fun or tasty prize package is never too far away, so stay tuned.

This post and giveaway was made possible by the kind folks at Uncommon Goods. All opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.


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Planting the Seed to Sweet Success

Milk candy, milk jam, dulce de leche, or just plain caramel: Comparisons are easily made, but thick and creamy cajeta is truly a step above all the other simple burnt sugar toppings out there.

Inspired by Brian Huston, my take on this classic milk confection is a modern departure from the typical goat milk base. He is a BlueStar All-Star chef, so I knew this basic formula would be the best place to start my recipe experiment. (In case you don’t know about BlueStar, they are makers of restaurant-quality kitchen appliances for the home chef. They are based in the U.S. and can offer lots of great customization options! Click here for more information.)

Rather than just swap out the milk for a standard non-dairy alternative, I wanted to start from scratch with whole sunflower seeds. Why sunflower, of all things? I’ve found them to be fairly neutral in flavor when raw, and by using the whole seed, the resulting blend would be plenty rich from those natural fats- No need to add any oils to compensate for a leaner dairy-free drink.

Cajeta takes a bit of patience to perfect, but very little actual work. It’s kitchen alchemy at its best, seeing that pale, unexciting liquid transform into a thick, decadent, caramelized topping. In fact, mine became substantial enough to even use as a spread once fully cooled. Although it was highly tempting to use this golden milk jam as an indulgent new peanut butter sandwich filling, I took Mr. Huston’s suggestion in making a sweet cajeta sundae instead.

Of course, I substituted additional sunflower seeds for the recommended peanuts, since it only seemed right to match. It may be tough to see the pool of cajeta at the bottom of the glass here, but the beauty of this caramel accompaniment is that a little bit really does go a long way! No matter how you drizzle or slather it on, it’s hard to go wrong with such a versatile dessert topping.

Girasol Cajeta (Sunflower Caramel Sauce)

4 Cups Warm Water
1 Cup Raw Sunflower Seeds
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Combine the water and sunflower seeds well in advance, and allow the seeds to soak for about 4 hours. This will soften them and allow them to blend much more easily than if they were simply raw. Transfer the mixture to your blender, and thoroughly puree until perfectly smooth. If you’re using a lower-powered machine, pass the resulting sunflower milk through a sieve to catch any remaining grit, discarding the solids.

Pour the fresh sunflower seed milk into a large stock pot and introduce the sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate before setting the pot over medium heat on the stove. Slowly bring the mixture up to a boil, whisking periodically. Keep a close eye on the mixture at this point, because it can go from inactive to an overflowing bubbly mess in two seconds flat!

Reduce the heat to medium low and continue cooking at a gentle simmer, whisking frequently, as the milk cooks down and gradually darkens in color. After about 30 minutes, it will be especially important to keep stirring so the milk doesn’t burn on the bottom. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent anything from sticking. Add in the vanilla extract at this point.

After another 30 – 40 minutes, the mixture should be a deep amber brown and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the pan from the heat and cool for at least 5 minutes before serving, or let cool completely before storing in an air-tight container. Stashed in the fridge, the cajeta will keep for up to 2 weeks.

Makes About 1 Cup

Printable Recipe

This post was sponsored by BlueStar. All opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.


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A Working Holiday

It’s been quite a few years now since my last Thanksgiving on the line, but I can still feel it in my bones; a physical memory that persists like a scar, emblazoned deep within. The crushing heat of the oven, pumping out roasted vegetables and tofu steaks; the furiously boiling pots of thickening roux, destined to become bases for a dozen different gratins; the reverberations of the knife on the cutting board, mowing down everything from beets to scallions seemingly of its own free will. These sensations return in flashbulb moments, random and unexpected glimpses into the past. Every Thanksgiving wasn’t just Doomsday, but Doomsweek. Manageable lists of orders quickly swelled into a wild mass of demands, nimble hands always turned out in short supply, and yet the shoebox kitchen still couldn’t accommodate the number of bodies toiling away, jockeying for a place at the tiny four-top burner. It was a violent dance, or perhaps a dark comedy, but it was certainly a show for all to see. The utilitarian rubber mats became our stage- No, red carpet- As we all starred in our insular performance. Though anyone outside of the industry could only consider this affair a pre-show for the great event, this was our time to shine.

Time continues to put more distance between this memory and the present, as the cafe has been closed and darkened since the ravages of Hurricane Sandy took their toll. For as long, painful, and exhausting as those long days leading up to Thanksgiving were, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else. Fierce loyalty to the business and the team behind it drove me forward; that sense of comradery kept us afloat. No matter how much I dreaded those days, I secretly adored them and looked forward to them just as much, if not more. While it’s a luxury to finally enjoy Thanksgiving like most other people do- with their families, partaking in the festive meal, and cooking only enough for a dozen rather than half the town- I miss the maddening Thanksgiving catering rush dearly. Nothing made me more grateful than completing a successful day-long shift, bidding farewell to my cooking compatriots with hugs and long goodbyes, and quietly departing into the dark, cold autumn night once more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate, whether you’re working, cooking, or just lucky enough to be amongst family and friends.


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Earthy Elegance

As an avid baker and dessert-lover, it may come as a surprise that the greatest indulgence I can think of is eating something sweet that I didn’t make myself. While I enjoy the process and crave the creative control that starting from scratch always brings, a truly decadent experience is one that doesn’t require any work. Although I always get exactly what I want when I make my own birthday cake, I must admit that there are times when I wish I could just sit back and relax, leaving the heavy whisking to someone else. That’s precisely where Earth Cafe comes in, online purveyors of fully prepared, ready-to-eat, raw, vegan cheesecakes. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, especially for a vegan eater who grew up in the days of cardboard bran muffins being peddled as “dessert,” for lack of better options. Balancing out wholesome ingredients with decadent flavors, the result promises to impress all palates. There truly is a taste for everyone, and I was lucky enough to snag a bite of four popular flavors.

Impeccable, perfectly applied ultramarine stripes adorn the top of the Find Your Thrill on Blueberry Hill Cheesecake. Whole berries rest near the bottom, adding a punch of fresh, full-bodied berry flavor while the cheesecake base remains fairly plain. Lacking in typical cheesecake tang, I might describe it more as a somewhat firmer cream pie instead. It may be the most visually striking of the bunch, but I felt it left the most to be desired in tasting.

Pale, dusty pink and redolent of vanilla and berries, Strawberry Fields Forever Cheesecake bears a strikingly bright, fresh flavor, just as promised. More of a custard consistency than traditional cheesecake, the soft bite was perfectly silky-smooth and creamy. Incredibly rich, even I could only manage half a slice at most before reaching my limit, and I don’t mess around when it comes to the last course of a meal. Most regrettably though, it was stunningly, almost stupefyingly sweet. It comes as an initial shock to the system, tasting almost like a wedge of berry frosting at first taste, especially after a savory supper. For those who would rather a candy than a cake, this might just deliver exactly that sensation.

Things got much better from here on out. Adorned with graceful decorative swirls, Rockin’ Raspberry Cheesecake definitely had a rhythm and jive all its own. Super sweet raspberry flavor infused this slice, much like homemade jam. The intact raspberry seeds are actually a nice touch here, adding some textural interest and reinforcing the fresh, raw concept, all while managing to make themselves sparse enough to resist sticking in your teeth.

For me, the sleeper hit of the batch was the unassuming Who’s Your Daddy? Carob Mousse Pie. Slightly firmer in texture than the other slices, it isn’t some sad attempt at replacing chocolate, but a whole new world of flavor, complex and delicious in its own right. Tasting primarily of dates and caramel, with warm, woodsy notes reminiscent of chicory to round the whole slice out, it could convert a carob-hater with ease. All it needs is a light sprinkle of flaky sea salt to really take this treat over the top.

Since I do work with dessert so often and have developed some strong opinions on the matter, I would definitely suggest that these assessments be taken with a pinch of salt (perhaps literally, too.) Your mileage may vary, especially when it comes to your level of preferred sweetness. The only way to find out for sure is to give Earth Cafe a taste for yourself! Enter the coupon code “SAVE15” at checkout to snag- You guessed it- a 15% discount off your order.

From one baker to many others, there is no shame in indulging in a prepared dessert, especially when it’s as good as any one of these luxurious slices.

These product were provided by the manufacturer free of charge for the sake of this review, but I was not paid for my time or opinions.


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Prepare for the Worst, Expect the Best

As the holidays grow closer by the minute, everyday meals can sometimes take a backseat to party planning. Thankfully, Nava Atlas is here to save the day, or at least the dinner, with a guest post sharing some handy tips on meal planning. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the breadth and depth of the kitchen wisdom packed into Plant Power. For more advice, and of course, more delicious recipes than a hungry eater could imagine, you simply must check out the book for yourself.

As an early holiday gift, Nava and her publishers have kindly offered a copy to give away to one lucky reader. To log your bid, all you need to do is read through these prime tips below and add your own meal planning pointers, or perhaps your favorite meal to prep in advance, in the comment section. As per usual, make sure you leave your name and email in the appropriate boxes. This giveaway is only open to those with US addresses. You have until Friday, November 28th at midnight EST to enter.

And now, without further ado, take it away, Nava!

7 Simple Meal-Planning Strategies for the Plant-Based Kitchen

Here are some of my tried-and-true meal-planning tips for making cooked-from-scratch meals a daily reality, even after the most exhausting days. You’ll find much more detail on how to accomplish all of these strategies, plus lots more of these kinds of tips in Plant Power: Transform Your Kitchen, Plate, and Life with More Than 150 Fresh and Flavorful Vegan Recipes by Nava Atlas, from which this was adapted (©2014, published by HarperOne, reprinted by permission). Photos by Hannah Kaminsky. Back when my kids were growing up and I still was in the midst of the classic juggling act, I was a lot more disciplined about meal planning. I found that it really did buy me time and sanity. For our family of four, I planned three meals per week. If I made ample quantities, I could count on leftovers for three more dinners. And leftovers can always be tweaked so that they’re slightly different the next day. For example, today’s salad can be tomorrow’s wrap; tonight’s soup-and-wrap dinner can become tomorrow’s soup-and-vegan-quesadilla dinner. What do you see as your ideal meal-making style? Decide whether you want to make different meals every night or most nights and rotate them through the season or whether you want to try the three-meals-with-leftovers strategy. If you want to be a seat-of-the-pants cook, more power to you. For that kind of spontaneity, you’ve got to have an especially well-stocked pantry and fridge as well as the imagination to look at a bunch of ingredients and envision what they can become.

  1. Plan three full meals for each week. From those meals, you can plan two nights of leftovers, which makes life easier—though this is challenging if you have hungry teens or athletes at home. Don’t think of leftovers as boring. They can be repurposed in ways that might not make it into the culinary hall of fame, but with a few tweaks they can be as tasty as the original preparation. For instance, leftover chili can become Cincinnati chili mac.
  1. Plan meals before going shopping. Planning your meals before you go food shopping will ensure that you don’t waste time, money, and energy running back and forth to the store all week. A mere twenty to thirty minutes of meal planning per week will simplify your life immeasurably, especially if you have a tight schedule, young children, or both.
  1. Plan meals after going shopping. What? Didn’t I just say to plan meals before going shopping? Sometimes it’s good to think outside the box. When farm market or CSA season is in full swing—or during the summer and fall harvest season in general—and you’re getting basket loads of fresh produce, it may be wiser to retrofit your meal plans to your fresh food finds.
  1. Prepare a few basics for the week ahead. On whatever day or evening is the most home- centered, prepare a few basics for the days ahead. Sunday afternoons and evenings are ideal as you’re looking to the coming week, but do whatever is good for your schedule. Even the simplest things can ease weeknight meal preparation immeasurably.
  1. At least once a week, prepare a big one-pot or one-pan meal. This kind of meal can stretch to cover at least two nights. Such meals include hearty soups and stews, bean dishes, abundant pastas, and casseroles. You’ll find many such recipes later on in this book. Double the quantities if you need to, especially if you have a large family. Then you need little more than salad and fresh whole-grain bread to accompany the meal.
  1. Develop a weekly repertoire. Make slight variations on your standard recipes each week so that meals don’t get boring. For example, Friday dinner has long been a pizza and salad meal, but within this basic framework, there are endless variations!
  1. Create a seasonal repertoire. An alternative to a weekly repertoire is a seasonal repertoire, consisting of ten or fifteen basic meals that you like best. These ten tasty meals— one for each weeknight for two weeks—are repeated as needed throughout the season. Weekends can bring a heavenly leftovers buffet. That doesn’t sound too daunting, right?

UPDATE: The entry period has now ended and with the help of my favorite random number generator, a winner has been chosen…

Lucky commenter number 6 happens to be Terri Cole! Congratulations Terri, and thank you so much to everyone else who shared their smart, thoughtful, and helpful meal planning tips. Stay tuned for the next big giveaway, coming up soon!

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