BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Miyoko’s Kitchen, Part Two: Cutting the Cheese

Before embarking on a cheese-tasting journey, one must will themselves to forget everything previously assumed about the essential experience of vegan cheese. Erase those early memories of eating yellow-colored wax back in the early 90’s, concocting funky wallpaper paste in home kitchens during fits of DIY determination, and even the reasonably melted shreds smothering dairy-free pizzas today. Even as a cheese-lover in a previous life, the flavors contained in these small, simple packages are a step up from anything I had enjoyed as a child. With or without that frame of reference, I’ll spoil the suspense right here; anyone with taste buds would be impressed by these offerings.

As mentioned briefly in part one, the whole line of Miyoko’s Kitchen cheeses are cashew-based, seasoned, inoculated, and aged in different ways to create a whole rainbow of flavors. Most wheels are firm, sliceable numbers ideal for fancy cheese platters (or midnight snacking, if your late night cravings are so decadent,) while a solid handful of spreadable options round out the savory portfolio.

Kicking this cheese party off right, I went straight for the High Aged English Sharp Farmhouse first. Posed as Miyoko’s take on the ubiquitous cheddar cheese, this is a lightly tanned, dense, and firm round of cashew goodness. Although there are certain bites that are reminiscent of nutritional yeast, the overall impact is distinctly cheddar-like, landing very close to the promised target. Pleasantly sharp indeed, a subtle vinegary, acidic aftertaste follows each taste, rounding out this nutty study in umami.

The High Sierra Rustic Alpine proved to be a more mild cheese, leading with the salty twang of white miso. Very agreeable and easily paired with just about anything, its neutral base makes it particularly nice with sweeter, fruity accompaniments. If there was ever a “dessert cheese,” this attractive option would fit the bill perfectly. When all was said and done, I came back to this flavor to find that it was the simple, basic, and straight-forward option of the full lineup.

Thoroughly encrusted in herbs, not a spare millimeter of naked rind can be seen peering out from the Country Style Herbes De Provence. Redolent of rosemary and thyme and rounded out with notes of sage, oregano, and lavender, this is one heady bouquet of earthy flavors. Every bite is slightly different thanks to the random distribution of seasonings, but each one guarantees an incredibly well-balanced blend of herbaceous, subtly floral tastes. A very sophisticated offering that speaks for itself, it may very well be best paired with nothing more than a glass of dry red wine.

One of my personal top picks and something of a sleeper hit, Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf certainly made for a stunning presentation. Wrapped in a tender fresh fig leaf, it’s sure to steal the spotlight at any party. Featuring a very fruity, floral aroma, the complex interplay between the savory, creamy cheese and fresh fig leaf is amazing, elevating vegan cheese to a whole new level. If you could only pick one option to show off to all your friends, this is the wheel that I’d pull out to impress eaters of all stripes, omnivorous or not.

Aged English Smoked Farmhouse is described as a substitute for smoked cheddar, but to my palate, it was a dead ringer for smoked Gouda, a beloved cheesy snack from my childhood. The rich, smoked aroma is the real deal; nothing like the shallow flavor of liquid smoke, the pungent savory perfume is seriously strong without being overpowering. Salty, punchy, and bold, I found it impossible to resist as simple, unadorned slices. Shamefully, I must admit that I horded this delicious umami bomb all to myself, unwilling to share even a sliver.

The Mt. Vesuvius Black Ash is a truly unique, innovative wheel that has no equal. A distinctive inky black rind, dark as night, gives way to a creamy beige interior. The taste of ash is surprisingly subtle, considering its striking appearance, lending a faintly bitter and smoky edge to this miso-flavored cheese. Definitely a conversation starter and impressive centerpiece, it’s also one of the harder slicing options to add some textural variety to a well-rounded cheese board.

Turning my attention temporarily to the softer, spreadable options, the pale reddish-orange color gives away the flavor concealed within the Double Cream Sundried Tomato Garlic at first glance. Smoky tomato flavor leaps forth immediately; assertive, with a bold acidic piquancy and subtle peppery notes, even though no pepper is listed in the ingredients. Strong enough to hold its own as a solo topping or sauce, Miyoko’s suggestion of tossing it with pasta is right on point. It needs only a vehicle for enjoyment, nothing else.

Double Cream Chive boasts a strong onion flavor, sharp and assertive, that will play second fiddle to no one. Slather a wedge onto anything, be it a cracker or a rubber tire, and it will dominate the palate. Its flavors blossom on your tongue, becoming more pungent as it warms and melts, revealing buttery, grassy notes almost as an afterthought. A soft, rich wheel with real character, it’s best paired with simple crackers to allow those distinctive flavors to to shine without competition.

Faced with such an embarrassment of riches, the only reasonable thing I could think to do with my treasure was to take it into the kitchen, creating a seriously indulgent and perfectly cheesy dish for the holidays. Brussels sprouts, already enjoying a renaissance in the food world, are made even more irresistible with the addition of Miyoko’s dangerously delicious French Style Winter Truffle Cheese. Very soft, super funky, earthy, and slightly grassy, the buttery notes make it ideal for recipe enhancement. Almost too rich to eat by itself, the truffle essence still shines after light cooking, adding that addictively savory taste to everything it touches.

Shatteringly crisp fried leeks, peppery almonds, and the sweet and sour syrup of balsamic glaze truly gild the lily here, each one used sparingly to allow the creamy gratins to shine. A dish designed for special occasions, the essence of black truffle truly takes it over the top. That said, the basic preparation is so simple that it could easily be paired down as an everyday side. I can imagine that your garden-variety vegan cream cheese could suffice in a pinch… But don’t expect the same deeply satisfying, almost overwhelmingly umami impact as the original.

SPECIAL OFFER! For a limited time, Miyoko is offering BitterSweet readers a rare discount on her unique, cheesy wares. Enter the code “Hannah2015” at checkout for $5 off your order, only until April 1st. Trust me, this deal is no joke, and you’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.

Truffled Brussels Sprouts Gratins

1/2 Cup (4 Ounces) Plain Mashed Potatoes
2 Ounces (About 1/3 of a Wheel) Miyoko’s Kitchen French Style Winter Truffle Cheese
3/4 Pound Brussels Sprouts, Blanched and Halved
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 – 2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Roughly Chopped
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Grains of Paradise or Black Pepper

Toppings, To Serve (Optional):

Frizzled Leeks
Salt and Pepper Sliced Almonds
Balsamic Glaze

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 6 small ramekins; set aside.

While still warm, mash the potatoes with the truffle cheese, mixing well so that the cheese melts in smoothly, but not so well that you create wallpaper paste (it will become progressively stickier as you stir, so take it easy!) Fold in the blanched brussels sprouts, followed by the oil, scallions, parsley, miso, and arrowroot, making sure that all of the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk while continuing to stir, and finally season to taste with grains of paradise or black pepper.

Equally distribute the mixture between your prepared ramekins and bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until lightly browned on top. They should still jiggle slightly when tapped, much like a cheesecake, as they will continue to set as they cool. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before topping with leeks, almonds, and balsamic glaze as desired and serving hot. The gratins can be made ahead of time and will keep nicely in the fridge, tightly covered and unadorned, for up to 4 days.

Makes 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Behind the Scenes at Miyoko’s Cheese Factory

Never underestimate the power of one industrious nut… And all of the cashews that she employs, too! All jokes aside, vegan author, entrepreneur, and luminary Miyoko Schinner has a genuinely tenacious work ethic, working tirelessly to bring her creative visions to life. There are plenty of dreamers with bold ideas that never see the light of day, but Ms. Schinner wouldn’t back down in the face of impossible odds, launching the only cheese factory of its kind in the San Francisco bay area. Nut cheeses of all colors and stripes are now emerging on the market, but I can’t find a single competitor that painstakingly ages their offerings for weeks, or even months, after inoculating them with genuine cheese-making strains of bacteria. One could no doubt take this opportunity to tout the nutritional benefits sure to come from those healthy microorganisms, but for the connoisseur, these ingredients are simply the key to authentic funky flavors that are found nowhere else.

Luck (and Miyoko’s unending good graces and generosity) were on my side one cool fall afternoon, when I happened to find myself in town for a flash-in-the-pan photo shoot. With only a day’s notice, I found myself with the rare chance to peek behind the curtain in Miyoko’s Kitchen to see the cashews in action.

If you’ve ever made nut cheese at home, you already know how much raw material it takes to churn out one creamy wheel; multiply that by about 10,000, and you might have some idea of the scale of this operation. Huge, 25-pound bags of cashews are soaked and chewed up every day of production. To put it in perspective these things are the size and weight of a typical adult Beagle, requiring nearly as much love and attention, to boot. Unlike the options in her ground-breaking cookbook, these young rounds are not set with agar to expedite the process. After churning through an industrial-sized turbine of a blender and cooling down, the average cheese is aged for four weeks, tucked away on cozy refrigerated trays until the batch is fully ripened.

Initially struggling to keep up with demand, each prized wheel was as rare and rigorously guarded as solid bricks of gold. Spreading the wealth near and far, Miyoko’s cheeses are now readily available in most bay area Whole Foods and specialty markets, expanding outward across the country at a rapid pace. Roughly 5,000 pounds of glorious cashew cheese leave those factory doors every month, so it shouldn’t be long before they hit store shelves near you. In the meantime, you can order directly from the source, and yes, Miyoko can ship these creamy beauties all the way to Australia, too! For orders abroad, I would suggest you contact the cheese maven herself to secure personalized shipping info.

To be continued in Part Two. Next up is the good stuff, what you’ve no doubt been waiting for… The tasting notes, plus a perfectly cheesy recipe. Stay tuned!


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Come On, Get Happea

Incorporating vegetables into dessert has long drawn the ire and skepticism of food enthusiasts across all boundaries- And for good reason. Aside from the untouchable legacy of the carrot cake, most attempts to enter into this arena have never been about enhancing flavor, but decreasing guilt. Red flags should immediately arise anytime food is not created with the taste being of foremost importance. Largely perpetrated by health food gurus trying to “hide” a bit of added nutrition into everyday cookies and cakes, such efforts have only been to their detriment. It’s no wonder that something like Green Pea Cookies would warrant further explanation to wary Americans still haunted by childhood demands to eat their peas and carrots before getting dessert. Turns out that this concoction is far from avant-garde in Singapore, where this simple snack was born.

Despite the vibrant coloring, there isn’t the least bit of “green” or vegetative flavor to be found. Instead, each delicate if slightly crumbly dome imparts a strikingly nutty impression, not dissimilar from classic tea cookies. The difference here is that without a cloak of confectioner’s sugar shrouding the outside, a much more nuanced, balanced taste is able to come through. Plenty sweet but offset by a notable punch of salt, the overall experience is something far more impressive than the humble appearance suggests. Crunchy pieces of dried peas speckle the insides throughout, keeping the texture enjoyably varied from start to finish.

Providing celiac sufferers with a gluten-free alternative was certainly a thoughtful brand extension, but I’m afraid that this version falls a bit short of the mark set by the originals. Vastly drier, there was more powder than cookie in my sample package, and the slightly bitter cereal note of rice flour was immediately obvious. That said, they would no doubt have fared much more favorably if I didn’t have the gluten-full treats to compare them to.

Also available for the sweet pea connoisseur is a growing family of pea cookie flavors. While I didn’t have the opportunity to sample the cranberry cookie, the chocolate-dipped variation successfully brought these green nuggets up to the next level of dessert decadence. The sturdy sheath of dark chocolate coating does have a tendency to slide off like an over-sized slipper, but tailoring be darned, it’s still a perfect fit in my eyes.

If you’d like to see vegetables treated with more respect come the final course of a meal, look no further than Green Pea Cookies. Help support their mission (and get in on the pea cookie action for yourself) by contributing to their KickerStarter campaign, going on now.

Samples were provided by the Green Pea Cookie company but I was not compensated for my time. All opinions, photos, and recipes are solely my own.


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Soya with Aloha

Commonly regarded as merely a casual greeting, “Aloha” takes on an entirely different tone when spoken in Hawaii. The Aloha Spirit goes much deeper than surface pleasantries, and isn’t something that can be faked. It has to do with honesty, patience, and sharing, just for starters, which is why I can think of no company more aptly named than Aloha Tofu. Churning out soybean curds since 1950, the operation has always been a family business, focused on using high-quality ingredients while keeping the process as simple as possible. No added preservatives mean that none of the products are exported, meaning that they will always be solely local treasures. Luckily, these gems are easy to plunder, found in any grocery store worth its square footage on the island and of course, directly from their factory in Kalihi.

That’s where I met up with some of the most stunningly kind tofu-tamers imaginable. Although I happened to pick the one weekday where no production was actively taking place, they generously showed me around the storage room and gave me a good lay of the land. After refusing to take my money, I was loaded up with an embarrassment of soybean riches and sent back on my merry way.

Don’t let the brand name fool you- They make much more than just bean curd cakes in that unassuming downtown factory. In addition to okara, soymilk, and konnyaku, their natto could be considered something of a game changer, since almost all commercial varieties are frustratingly pre-seasoned with bonito dashi. Long ago I had given up on enjoying this admittedly polarizing pleasure, but Aloha Tofu’s delightfully slimy little number is 100% vegan, through and through. For the uninitiated, it’s generally a love or hate experience, with little space for ambiguity, although one of the best ways to ease into natto appreciation is with the aid of piping hot miso soup. The warm broth helps dissolve the stringy stickiness, while the miso paste pairs harmoniously with the funky, fermented whole soybean flavor. Even if you’ve found it hard to swallow before, a better brand can make all the difference in the world.

The classic dish recommended by the tofu masters themselves, however, is tofu poke. Their rendition adheres very closely to the traditional fish-based formula, substituting fried tofu cubes for the raw fish; a move that should appease those who can appreciate tofu well enough, but not so much that they care to eat it raw. The finished dish is sold in their brand new eatery, but since I didn’t have a chance to scope out that scene as well, I’m grateful that the full recipe is published on their website. No strings attached, no gimmicks or marketing ploys; just the desire to share their tofu and new ways to enjoy it. Now that’s the Aloha Spirit in action.

Tofu Poke
Recipe Ever So Slightly Adapted from Aloha Tofu

1 (12-Ounce Package) Deep Fried Tofu, Cut into Bite-Sized Cubes
1 Tomato, Diced
1/4 Cup Coarsely Chopped Ogo Limu*
1 – 2 Scallions, Chopped
1/4 Cup Low Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Teaspoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
Pinch Crushed Red Pepper Flakes, to Taste

*Substitute with cooked hijiki if unavailable.

Like some of the best dishes, this one couldn’t be simpler to prepare. There’s no big secret here; simply toss the tofu, all of the chopped vegetables, and seasonings together in a large bowl to thoroughly distribute all of the ingredients and coat them with the marinade. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving, or up to a day. Enjoy cold.

Makes 4 – 6 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe


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B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Like it or not, modern Honolulu is a rapidly changing world city, adapting local traditions to incoming waves of global inspiration. Although most are quick to take issue with bigger construction projects that are literally transforming and modifying the landscape as we know it, it’s a more positive and exciting proposition from a culinary standpoint. Every return visit turns up fresh eateries, new businesses, and inspiring young entrepreneurs eager to strike out on their own in paradise. It was pure luck that I caught wind of Banán, a tiny operation serving simple, sweet treats out of a stationary food truck, having opened right smack in the middle of my Oahu itinerary.

Quite simply, Banán is bananas. 100% banana soft serve treats in a variety of flavors, to be precise, and plenty of toppings to complement your fruity treats. The only things added to this refreshing base are either additional fruits or herbs for taste; no sugar nor dairy need apply. On a hot January day, there’s no better reward after a brisk hike up Diamond Head, which makes their nearby location on Monsarrat Ave. and accommodating hours ideal.

Unfalteringly generous with samples, the patient and kind scooper on duty successfully convinced me to order a flavor different from my intended pick- A considerable feat indeed. Basil sounds like a dubious pairing with banana, which is why I initially wrote it off as a trendy gimmick while perusing the options in advance. In reality though, this bright green blend sparkles with fresh, herbaceous flavor not unlike mint, regarded as a more conventional dessert addition.

Toppings are 50 cents each or 3 for $1.00, so go for broke and pile them on. The puffed quinoa in particular is a must, introducing both a satisfying crunch and nutty, toasted flavor to the mix. A study in contrasts, just a small sprinkle on top balances out any of the creamy concoctions with ease.

But perhaps I ordered too quickly. Hastily making my selection out of hunger and impatience, my companions quickly trumped my conventional order with custom requests. Combining two flavors in one bowl turned out to be no trouble at all, creating an even wider range of flavor sensations. Luckily, good friends that they are, everyone was more than happy to share the bounty. Ginger-Mint came in as a close second when I took stock of my favorites, but the berry notes of the Acai blend were quite appealing as well.

Upgrade your frozen confection further by trading in the classic cardboard waffle cone or cup for juicy, ripe papaya. Yes, another papaya boat worthy of your time, especially because these fruits are grown locally, and Banán takes the model of sustainability one step further by composting the discarded skins.

Banán sets itself apart from the pack by offering a genuinely healthy treat where few alternatives exist, but even more importantly, by fostering a sense of community by being so keenly aware of their impact. It’s the kind of small business we could truly use everywhere, but no matter how you slice it, this one is distinctly Hawaii grown, through and through.


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Smart Sweets

Though self-prescribed with good intentions, a striking majority of New Year’s resolutions are imagined in a world of extremes. Everything is painted in black and white; there is success and failure, productivity and laziness, good or bad foods. The temptation to simplify the complex “rules” of the road is great for those most desperate for change, especially when so much mainstream advice points in that very direction. What excitement is there in moderation? How could you sell anything based on common sense?

Quite frankly, I’m sick of this all-or-nothing approach. Resolutions themselves are not the problem, but the way society holds us to them. Friends, I’m not expert on the matter, but if you want my advice, I think we should make a bit more room in this renewed healthy eating regimen for chocolate.

As with all healthy eating choices, quality is absolutely essential for success, which is exactly what Vega has built their reputation on. Though best known for their powdered protein and meal-replacement shakes, I was naturally drawn more to their enticing array of snacking selections. Given the opportunity to investigate these unsung heroes further, I knew from the start that it would somehow end in a deceptively decadent dessert. Maca Chocolate Bars provided the real inspiration, with their gently earthy, mineral-y quality and slightly bitter edge calling out for a touch more sweetness to round out the deep cacao flavors. Lovers of deep, dark, serious chocolate would love them as is, but for someone coming off of a holiday sugar high, I must admit that my palate calls for something a bit less intense.

Incorporating the brilliantly “Karamelized” SaviSeed, roasted and sugar-coated Inca peanuts, for a satisfying crunch, Nava Atlas’ fool-proof recipe for unbaked brownies seemed custom made for just these ingredients. A few easy substitutions yielded the tastiest, yet healthiest, raw brownie that has ever passed my lips. As the original formula proves, however, no specialty ingredients need apply; switch up the fruits, nuts, and chocolate for equally delicious treats that will help keep your resolutions on track. I’ve successfully used raisins instead of prunes, almonds instead of cashews, and regular dark chocolate, in additional to Nava’s suggestions, all to the same enthusiastic reception. You have my sweet-toothed word that they don’t taste the least bit like “health food,” and you will never regret savoring that one extra square.

Mega Maca Brownies
Adapted from Nava Atlas’ Unbaked Fudgy Brownies from Plant Power

1 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Pitted Prunes
3 Tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
4 (1.4 Ounce) Maca Chocolate Bars, Finely Chopped, Divided
1/4 Cup Sacha Inchi, Roughly Chopped

Place the cashews in your food processor and pulse until ground to a fine powder. Add in the prunes, cocoa powder, vanilla, salt, and half of the chopped chocolate. Pulse once more to incorporate, processing until the mixture holds together when pressed. Be patient, as this may take a few minutes.

Add the remaining chocolate along with the sacha inchi and pulse just briefly to distribute the goodies throughout the mixture. These final additions should be roughly chopped but still easily visible. You don’t want to puree the whole thing, since it’s much more satisfying with a bit of texture left in it.

Transfer the mixture to a lightly greased 8 x 8-inch square pan. Use a wide spatula to press it evenly into the bottom before stashing it in the fridge. Chill for at least an hour before slicing and serving. Keep leftovers covered and stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week, or in the freezer for up to a month.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Tools of the Trade

From the whimsical to the downright frivolous, no matter how well-intentioned, holiday gifts all too often stray into the realm of triviality. Rounding out my unplanned posting week of festive shopping suggestions, I’d like to remedy that dilemma with a battery of truly useful toys, all crafted for the avid cook, baker, and gadget geek at heart. Thermoworks has long been serving professionals in the culinary industry with better methods of temperature measurement, and that very same attention to detail, quality, and durability has been applied to all of their consumer offerings. The beauty of their myriad thermometers is that they’re simply designed, and they simply work.

Whereas the handyman might have his arsenal of home improvement tools, I now have my very own formidable array of food improvement tools. A rainbow of color options draws these diverse offerings out of purely utilitarian territory, injecting a bit of personality into each one. From oven probes to pocket thermometers and everything in between, even I hadn’t realized how many different ways one could take a basic reading for heat. Best of all, each and every model is lighting-fast, delivering the numerical verdict within seconds; a true luxury compared to traditional mercury- or alcohol-filled thermometers that move at a snail’s pace.

If I had to pick just one stand-out kitchen wizard, I’d have to say that the ChefAlarm is my tried-and-true workhorse thermometer. It comes complete with a timer to indicate when your desired temperature is reached, and easily clips to the side of a pot for flawless candy making. Plus, it folds up into a neat little travel case complete with space for the included probe, making it ideal for travel. Perhaps it wouldn’t be at the top of the list for most people planning their vacations, but I already know what I’m packing away into my suitcase for upcoming adventures.

While the precision implied for a recipe requiring a thermometer scares away a good number of cooks, it really shouldn’t be any more cumbersome than breaking out a set of measuring cups and spoons. Thermoworks takes the hassle out of getting an accurate reading, at price points to fit every budget. Now there’s no more excuse for soft-set jellies or burnt hard candies!

These products were all furnished by Thermoworks over the course of a number of years, but all opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.

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