BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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More Mac and Cheese, Please

Like countless other American children, I had an unshakable affinity for mac and cheese even before I could properly pronounce the words to request it. Elbows, twists, ambiguous character shapes that would better be described as pasta amoeba; they were all greeted with enthusiasm, as long as they came from that magical blue box. I had never even heard of such a thing as baked macaroni and cheese until I hit high school, and by then it was much too late to swap allegiances. Soft noodles slowly drowning in a pool of neon yellow cheese sauce were the only thing for me, and no bread crumbs, vegetables, or fancy seasonings need apply.

Happily, my palate has considerably improved since my formative years, allowing me to discover the joys of homemade mac, spruced up with a brave new world of different flavors. That said, the love of that ubiquitous blue box will always be embedded deep within my psyche, drawing comparisons to each new mac and cheese contender, for better or worse. Now that there are genuinely cheesy vegan options appearing in every aisle of the supermarket, there’s a new blue box on the market, seeking to dethrone the old mac monarch.

Earth Balance first made waves when it unleashed vegan cheddar and white cheddar mac and cheese options about a year ago. Casting aside all preconceived notions of how a classic mac should be constructed, they’ve fearlessly unleashed a revised box that is not only dairy-free, but also gluten-free. Even I have to say that this is a pretty risky move, considering past hits and misses for non-allergenic noodles alone.

The cooking procedure is identical to every past mac I’ve known and loved; boil the pasta until tender, drain, mix with “cheese” powder, “milk”, and “butter”, and shovel into your mouth as fast as you can. Okay, that last part isn’t specifically written into the instructions, but just like any other cheesy macaroni mixture, this one doesn’t sit around well, and reheats rather miserably.

However, when hot and fresh, the rich, subtly starchy sauce has an undeniably cheesy, savory flavor. The initial flavor is somewhat delicate, but builds with subsequent bites. Though the dense, toothsome noodles are impressive for gluten-free pasta, they still clearly lack the distinctive springy texture granted by traditional wheat flour. As a certified gluten-lover, I probably wouldn’t pick these over the original, but they’re easily one of the better options for those already accustomed to celiac options.

As my omnivorous sister could attest, they certainly wouldn’t fool someone who’s more familiar with the old fashioned blue box, but even she admitted that they were “not bad.” High praise from someone who balks at the sight of anything remotely green on her dinner plate. Overall, Earth Balance has created an impressive offering for an instant, out-of-the-box dinner that can accommodate eaters of all stripes.


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Sharp Relief

Ask any chef about the most important tool in their arsenal, and despite constant influx of new cooking technology, their response is invariably the same: The chef’s knife. It’s not the only ingredient in a properly equipped kitchen, but without it, nothing is possible. It’s a shame then that it’s so frequently taken for granted. Used every day without a second thought, abused on hard coconut shells and allowed to grow pitifully dull, I’m just as guilty as anyone. My Global knife has served me well for years, but when I was approached by Ergo Chef with the opportunity to try a new blade, I quickly realized that even at the same price point, all knives are not created equal.

The Crimson Series, so named for the rich red fiberglass handles, boasts a truly beautiful 8-inch chef’s knife that is nothing short of a delight to hold. Living up to the promise of an ergonomic design, it feels as though it was made for my hand, comfortable enough to slice and dice for hours on end. The whole piece is incredibly well balanced too, bearing down with a solid heft without actually feeling heavy. Perhaps most importantly, that blade is sharp as a razor, effortlessly slicing through any foodstuffs in its path without any drag to speak of.

When the most mundane of tasks like chopping vegetables can become a genuine pleasure, it revolutionizes the whole cooking experience. A simple knife upgrade can do that, and this is definitely one worth investing in.


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Veni, Vidi, Videri

Why do people save the best for last? As one of those people, I’m not sure I can fully explain the compulsion to leave the very best bite for the end of the meal, or my favorite song for the end of a playlist. This very same impulse to delay gratification seems to get me in trouble at times, particularly when the end is not something clearly defined. Such is the case for many product reviews, languishing on my to-do list simply because the item in question was so good, I want to reserve it as a final reward. In realistic terms though, this just means that the post never gets written because an active blog never ends. That’s the only excuse I can come up with for explaining why these stellar chocolates remained without a proper feature for over two years.

Packaged lovingly with handwritten, individual numbers, one could easily mistake these for jewelry boxes rather than containers for edible treats. Crafted in small batches in Raleigh, North Carolina, Videri is one of the few American bean-to-bar operations. Not all of the offerings are vegan, but the dairy-free options will not leave you wanting. Defined by a clean, crisp snap and smooth melting texture, even a small square promises to satisfy the most voracious chocoholic.

Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt is an instant winner. Large flakes of salt are easily visible on the underside of each bar, immediately hitting the tongue with a strong saline hit. This serves to balance out the overall sweetness beautifully, while eliminating any bitter notes typically associated with dark chocolate.

Classic Dark Chocolate with 70% cacao is the everyday sort of treat that goes well with everything. Slightly woodsy with notes of raisin, the complexity packed into this little bar reminded me of tasting a fine wine.

90% Ecuadorian Dark Chocolate is a seasonal special, and one that you’ll definitely want to take advantage of while you still can. Dry, with a pleasantly bitter edge and slightly tannic aftertaste, this bold bar is not for the timid. Crushing sugar cravings without piling on the sweetness, these powerful chocolates became my secret weapon for vanquishing a snack attack.

Gifted with this wealth of cacao goodness, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take them into the kitchen for a bit of sweet experimentation. Especially in the heat of summer, peppermint patties are one of my favorite treats. Best stashed in the freezer for full cooling effect, I love the way the chocolate shell shatters upon impact, revealing a soft, creamy center with minty fresh flavor. The only thing that could be improved is perhaps the ratio of chocolate to peppermint, which is why I decided to flip the classic patty inside-out. Now, a solid chocolate center is graced by a blanket of white peppermint coating, allowing the chocolate to truly shine.

Inside-Out Peppermint Patties

Chocolate Centers:

6 Ounces 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Light Corn Syrup

Mint Coating:

1/2 Cup (4 Ounces) 100% Cocoa Butter
1/2 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1/8 Teaspoon Peppermint Oil

To form the centers, place the chopped chocolate and corns syrup in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 60 seconds. Stir vigorously, and continue to heat at intervals of 30 seconds, stirring well each time, until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Transfer the mixture to a silpat or piece of parchment paper, and refrigerate until set; about 1 hour.

Roll the chocolate disk out to about 1/4-inch thick and use 1-inch round cookie cutters to punch out the candy pieces. Should the chocolate dough become too soft or difficult to work with, just toss it back in the fridge for another 15 – 30 minutes before proceeding. Once all of the center are cut, stash them in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before getting to work on the coating.

Place your cocoa butter in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 1 – 3 minutes, so that it completely liquefies. Whisk in the confectioner’s sugar and mint oil, stirring vigorously to make sure that everything is completely dissolved.

Pull out your semi-frozen patties and dip each into the mint coating, one at a time. Place them back on the silpat, allowing the coating to set. This top coat is thinner than the standard pure chocolate shell, so you may wish to double-dip once the first layer has solidified.

Makes 30 – 34 Patties

Printable Recipe


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A Better Bistro

“Elevated cuisine” is not the bill of fare one might expect to come out of a shoe-box of a food trailer parked in the outskirts of east Austin, and yet Bistro Vonish seems determined to defy such preconceived notions. Redefining the category of fine dining through the lens of a classically trained vegan chef, Craig Vanis isn’t your ordinary line cook either. Propelled by a basic desire to feed others and express his creativity, his true inspirations are diverse, interwoven into the tangle of modern food politics and nutrition. “Food touches everyone, more than just micro nutrients,” he explained to me over a plate of three sisters ragu, a vibrant melange of summer vegetables crowning crispy seared polenta cakes. Clearly, none of this philosophy clouds the flavors in world-class dishes like this one, presented with equal flare on the ever-changing menu.

In sharp contrast to his current surroundings, Chef Craig first found himself in Texas to pursue a career as a mechanical engineer in the oil fields. Laid off after the 2009 economy collapse, that marked a turning point that began in Houston kitchens and ultimately led him back for professional training at the Natural Epicurean School in Austin. This complex path is perhaps what gives the food at Bistro Vonish such a clear and unique voice; there’s no one else with the same formative experiences, and certainly none quite so fervently determined to pursue their passions in the food industry.

Showcasing more than just impeccable cooking skills, the local, organic, seasonal produce dictates the daily offerings. Weekend brunches are a distinct treat, featuring pillowy french toast with homemade fruit syrups, and savory tofu scrambles that would put a plate of eggs to shame.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg, and only the start of greater aspirations for Bistro Vonish. Chef Craig plans to expand into a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant as soon as possible, enlivened with tempting menus that echo the successes of supper clubs past. While it will be difficult to wait for this upcoming new chapter in the Bistro Vonish saga, Chef Craig was generous enough to share his recipe for Grapefruit Panna Cotta; a sweet finale to tide us over until the next meal.


Photo by Craig Vanis

Grapefruit Panna Cotta
by Chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish

1 (13.5-Ounce) Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 1/2 Teaspoons Agar Powder
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
Zest of 1/2 Grapefruit
1/2 Cup Grapefruit Juice
1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
6 Ounces Silken Tofu
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Simmer the coconut milk with the agar powder and sugar for approximately 10 – 15 minutes, to thoroughly cook and dissolve the agar. Blend the simmered liquid with the rest of the ingredients until creamy and smooth. Pour into lightly greased molds or ramekins to set; at least three hours or until firm. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Gently remove from molds and serve with the accompaniments of your choice. Suggestions include candied and fried sage, orange liqueur syrup, and tuile cookies.

Printable Recipe


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Cashew is King

Dense, silky smooth, capable of melting so slowly and seductively across the palate that it seems to linger far beyond the average taste; cashew ice cream has certainly come a long way. Once a mere glimmer in the eye of the mad kitchen scientist who dared venture outside the standard arsenal of readily available dairy alternatives, cashew ice cream has finally hit the mainstream, and in a big way thanks to So Delicious. Textural superiority provides the unshakable foundation for all of these nutty frozen desserts, unburdened by excessive gums or stabilizers like so many commercial options. This attention to ingredient detail allows the most basic of flavors, the vanilla-infused Creamy Cashew, to shine without any adulteration. Similarly, the unfussy Cappuccino boasts a perfectly balanced coffee flavor, deepened by a subtle hint of cinnamon in the afterglow of each frosty bite. What truly sets this line of nut-based pints apart from the pack in the freezer aisle, however, are their bolder, unabashedly indulgent flavor combinations.

Turtle Trails from the original Purely Decadent label has been my top pick for countless years, but now that I’ve tasted the sweet extravagance of Salted Caramel Cluster, I may just have a new favorite treat. So packed full of chunks that it’s difficult to scoop, this pint of cashew goodness is not messing around. Whole, full-sized, plump cashews smothered in crisp shells of dark chocolate litter the landscape, flanked by rivulets of flowing caramel sauce. Notes of browned, burnt sugar define the custard base, spiked with just the right amount of salt to propel the flavor into crave-worthy territory.

Dark Chocolate Truffle succeeds in delivering an equally intense dessert experience as well, clearly formulated with the unreformed, unapologetic chocoholic in mind. Strong chocolate ice cream with devilishly bitter edges cradles thin shards of shaved chocolate that shatter effortlessly between the teeth. Truly an “adult” chocolate ice cream, it would be a disservice to compare it to the average cocoa concoction. The plentiful truffles are even better than those found in the average box of chocolate, especially since you’ll always know exactly what you’re going to get; every scoop is delicious, just as promised.

If simple sugar cookies and cinnamon spice hold more allure when a sugar craving hits, then the Snickerdoodle would be just your speed. Reminiscent of a thick, icy glass of horchata, this comforting blend has the upper hand on the original beverage thanks to the abundant smattering of gluten-free cookie dough pieces found throughout. Each bite maintains a soft, supple chew, no matter how deeply the pint has been wedged into the back of the icebox. I couldn’t help but further the cookie theme by serving up a few scoops as ice cream sandwiches, but the beauty of this variety is each spoonful provides the full compliment of these childhood treats, without the hand-held mess.

Even in the increasingly crowded category of vegan ice creams, So Delicious manages to continue innovating, reinventing itself, and staying ahead of trends while still remaining genuinely delicious. These cashew ice creams deserve a place in your freezer- But I can promise that they won’t stay there very long.


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The Revolution Will Not Be Carnivorized

There’s a tremendous, unfathomable difference between barbeque sauce and real-deal barbeque, period. Having been repulsed by the sticky sugar syrups laced with all manner of offending spices and artificial flavors, I had written off the entire genre for the better part of my young life. BBQ Revolution, a humble trailer based on Manor Road, is most definitely serving up the genuine article, and has changed the way I think about barbeque altogether.

Possessing intense smoke flavors completely unlike those found bottled and stored in your local mega-mart, each bite of protein is a transportive experience. You can taste the full depth of the fire, the kiss of the flames caressing the blend of mesquite and pecans responsible for the resulting rich nuances, infusing their essence into those toothsome meatless morsels. The whole campfire might as well be roaring right at the table, and I swear it’s even possible to taste the glow of the embers as the sauces linger and slowly burn down. Sweetness is the most subtle seasoning of all, applied as a careful finishing touch much like one might regard salt, to balance out those rich nuances built over so many hours of smoking.

Side dishes undeniably play second fiddle to these stellar attractions, as well they should, but that’s not to say that any are left wanting. Creamy, not gooey nor particularly saucy, the subtly peppered mac and cheese is another revelation. Soft noodles readily surrender themselves into the comforting melange. Potato salad is delivered in the form of a slightly chunky mash, bearing the light twang of vinegar. Attention has clearly been paid even to the lowly, pale slivers of white onion. Appearing for all the world to be merely sad bits of garnish, they are in fact fabulously crunchy accompaniments, surprisingly not the least bit sharp or harsh. They were almost overlooked and left behind in all my excitement- what a terrible mistake that would have been.

If there was just one opportunity to eat out in Austin, I would have to recommend that BBQ Revolution be the destination of choice. No one else, near or far, is creating vegan food of any similar sort. The only difficulty is getting there before the hungry hordes descend; it’s not uncommon to arrive well within their narrow window of open hours, only to find that dreaded “sold out” sign already plastered over the menu board. Come early and come often; your perseverance will be rewarded, because there’s no other way to get these essential Texan eats.


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Gems That Rock the House

Inspiration comes in many forms, often unpredictable and unexpected, without any apparent relation to the innovations it may produce. Broadening one’s horizons is the most effective way to home in a completely different creative venture. This is the best explanation I can provide for why I ended up in a metal shop, torch blazing away, for the better part of my spring semester. General craftiness and a penchant for beading runs in my blood, so it seemed criminal to overlook the burgeoning jewelry and metal arts program offered while on campus. With no prior experience, it was exhilarating to literally forge a new path, turning scrap metal into something to treasure. While my wearable work is still quite amateur at best, I found that subtle touches of color can make a world of difference. Thus, it was a stroke of pure luck that House of Gems reached out to me prior to my first class and offered me an opportunity to sample their wares.

Beads and findings of all materials, shapes, and sizes glitter even from the glow of the computer screen on the immense online catalog. Choosing would have been impossible if not for the basic guidelines of JEM 110- Only natural stones or gems would do, as plastics would certainly melt under the temperatures that soldering demands. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my selections would prove to influence a sizable portion of the work to come in the following weeks.

Dubbed “The Crimson Cloud” due to its deep red carnelian rain drops, those stunning faceted beads were the cherries on top of this patina-ed brass sundae. Though time constraints prevented me from completing the pin back as I had envisioned, the possibilities now remain open for turning this midterm submission into a magnet or pendant instead.

Just a simple whimsy made to blow off some steam, silly little side projects like this tube ring were welcome distractions when more complicated techniques eluded me. Admittedly, these beads here are merely glued in place and then lacquered over for security, but I simply couldn’t resist incorporating those brilliant purple sugilite in any way possible. Besides, the copper ring band would need some sort of veneer to become truly wearable, I reasoned.

Making samples of various new concepts as they were taught was an essential component of the class, and I must admit that I went a bit overboard at times. All that was required in this case was a basic example of any functional earring wire, capable of being fabricated in about two minutes, but I couldn’t leave those bare sterling silver strands alone. Very simple textured nu-gold teardrops gleam in the sunlight with the addition of a few smoky, pearlescent labradorite beads. As far as everyday jewelry goes, these unassuming earrings may quite possibly be my favorite creation of the semester.

While I may not have access to the same equipment anymore, I do still have a wealth of stunning stones to spur new jewelry inspirations. This is only the beginning of my metal crafting experiments. With the help of House of Gems, I would love to spur that same drive and ability to create some something beautiful in all of you! All orders over $25 automatically qualify for free shipping in the US, for anything that captures your crafty imagination amongst their vast selection of wares.

No matter what you create, you can’t go wrong with such a vast selection of impeccable craft and jewelry-making supplies to draw inspiration from!

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