BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Photo Friday: Sweeping Landscapes

As I find myself with more photos than I know what to do with these days, I thought it might be fun to institute a weekly round-up of a few favorites, sans commentary. The theme will change depending on what caught my eye in the previous days. Let me know what you think of the concept, and if you’d like to see more Photo Fridays in the future!


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In Good Spirits

Infused with a generous pour of Cabernet from the start and doused with an additional slug of brown sugar-enriched syrup, soaking each nook and cranny with a strong dose of sweet red wine, this cake knows how to party. Perhaps the holidays would have been easier to manage had we all been so thoroughly sloshed.

Studded with large pieces of roasted chestnuts, it’s a limited time treat ideal for these winter months. Though the jubilant days of Christmas and New Year’s feel like a lifetime ago already, surely there are plenty of other occasions worth celebrating. Even a good old fashioned snow day could be an excellent excuse to batten down the hatches and drown your sorrows not in a stiff drink, but a strong slice of this tender cake. It’s perfectly acceptable to disregard the notion of “happy hour” if it’s just a snack, midday, mid-morning, or whenever the craving strikes- Right?

Plus, purely by accident, the formula became much leaner than intended by the clumsy omission of any added fat, so you can absolutely pass this off as resolution-friendly diet fare. Happily, the texture doesn’t suffer one bit without the oil; I would have never realized my mistake if not for my recipe notes. I guess it’s obvious that not all of the wine made it into the cake first.

Tipsy Chestnut Cake

2 Cups All Purpose Flour
3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Five-Spice Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups (10 Ounces) Very Coarsely Chopped Roasted Chestnuts
3/4 Cup Dry Red Wine (Such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Pinot Noir)
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Crimson Wine Syrup:

1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/3 Cup Dry Red Wine
Pinch Salt

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and lightly grease and flour an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, five-spice powder, baking powder and soda, and salt. Make sure all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined and distributed throughout before adding in the chopped chestnuts. Toss to coat with the flour to prevent the pieces from sinking to the bottom of you cake while baking, and set aside.

Mix the red wine, applesauce, and vanilla in a separate bowl before introducing those wet goods into the bowl of dry goods. Use a wide spatula to bring the two together, stirring just enough to combine without over-mixing. It’s perfectly fine to leave a few lumps remaining.

Transfer the batter to your prepared loaf pan and smooth out the top before sliding it into the center of your oven. Bake for 55 – 60 minutes, until deeply browned on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, prepare the red wine syrup by simply adding the wine, brown sugar, and salt into a small saucepan set over medium heat. Cook just until the sugar has dissolved if you’d like the wine to retain a bit of its alcoholic bite, or allow it to simmer for 5 – 10 minutes to lessen its boozy punch.

Once the cake is baked but still warm, poke it numerous times with a skewer to allow the syrup to penetrate deep into the crumb, and pour the hot syrup all over. Let cool completely before removing from the pan. Although the cake tastes best the next day after soaking a bit, it’s quite delicious to slice and serve as soon as it’s cool.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe


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The Pouch Principle

No matter what the actual dish in question is, prepared, shelf-stable meals are often labeled  across the board as unhealthy, or even worse, unpalatable. To cast such a wide net across this vast category of edibles only does a disservice to the eater, putting scores of undiscovered flavors firmly out of reach. Sure, fresh is indisputably best whenever possible, but between busy schedules, budgetary constraints, and unreliable kitchens, this alternative becomes a prime option. Especially for the traveler with little more than a microwave at best, such handy shortcut meals are an absolute godsend.

One company producing pouches of higher quality than most is Tasty Bite, a staple in the vegan and vegetarian marketplace for almost a decade. Offering East Asian delights across countless country borders, it’s an easy introduction to the unique palate of spices that perfumes these unique cuisines, without needing to hunt down a restaurant willing to go without their ghee. Although there’s typically a package or two stashed away in my pantry in case of emergencies, I had no idea that Tasty Bite made more than just entrees until they landed on my doorstep. Now delving into the world of sides, there are scores of flavorful starchy options to pair with your punjab, if you so wish.

One of my favorites has always been the Channa Masala, a mildly spiced chickpea stew found on any Indian menu that’s worth reading through. This particular rendition bears incredibly tender, creamy chickpeas in a lightly tangy tomato sauce. More flavorful than hot, the pepper is played down while the sweeter, warmer spices perfume the dish. Whole spices lend occasional pops of flavor; toasted cumin or coriander seeds add concentrated bursts of flavor into different bites, keeping the eating experience exciting.

Plated on a bed of Thai Lime Rice, I was taken aback by just how delicious those unassuming grains were. A focal point in its own right, the rice leads with a strong punch of lemongrass, enhanced by the richness of coconut milk. Granted, the texture fell a bit more on the side of mushy than I would prefer, but for a dish that’s merely nuked for a minute and ready to go, you can’t beat that complex flavor.

Punjab Eggplant, another common stable of Indian cooking, tortures me to no end. Though I long to dig in with abandon, eggplant does still make my throat burn, so I passed the torch over to my mom for this taste test. She noted that the spice level was high enough to make her nose run, although there was still a notable sweetness about the sauce. The greatest failing here was the largely homogenous, pulpy texture, perhaps something that could be remedied with a pairing of crunchy crackers or flatbread instead of rice.

Of course, I just had to go the more traditional route and add Ginger Lentil Rice into the mix. Though this rice has the same soft qualities as before, the lentils poses a pleasantly surprising firm bite. Dyed a brilliant yellow thanks to the turmeric-imbued curry powder, aromatic ginger essence does take the lead, just as promised. Much more interesting than your average “bean and rice” side dish, I would venture to say that it could even be considered a full meal in itself, thanks to the effortless combination of nutritious proteins and starches.

Previous unbeknownst to me, Tasty Bite has also begun serving up Asian noodles in their iconic pouches. Sampling the Kung Pao Asian Noodles with high hopes, I’m sad to report that the noodles themselves proved predictably overcooked, well past the stage of aldente. Painted in a tangy, punchy sauce, toothsome peanuts and water chestnuts do introduce a bit more character to the combination, if not quite the structure I so craved. Balancing sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness, it’s nothing too complicated or challenging; easy comfort food for the harried eater. However, I can’t say I would readily venture into the realm of noodle pouches again in the near future. There’s still a way for the technology to go to prevent the texture downfalls inherent in the pasta.

Sharing a world of flavors that will satisfy hunger pangs in a minute flat, it doesn’t get any easier than a quick meal whipped up courtesy of Tasty Bite. Just fire up the microwave and dig in.


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Adjusting to Island Time

What do you call a trip that’s not quite a vacation, not entirely business, and lasts for a whole month? No, this isn’t a riddle, this is what I’m trying to figure out! I’ve made the leap over to Hawaii in hopes of weathering the worst of winter in a tropical paradise, and it’s wonderful, disorienting, dizzying, and exciting all at once. Never fear; regular posting will resume shortly, as soon as I adjust to island time.


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Oh, My Darling Clementines

Like clockwork, I’m right back at my usual tricks again, infusing every morsel that crosses my path with a bit of edible sunshine while the real thing plays hard to get. Grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and limes are always close at hand, spilling out of the refrigerated fruit bin and lining the kitchen counters, decorating these dark spaces with a cheerful spray of neon colors. Their natural luminescence does wonders to lift spirits through the most gloomy of days, but it’s truly the bold, bright, astringent flavors that sustain me through winter. This year, I’ve added a new comer to that line-up of faithful fruity regulars: The petite yet powerful clementine.

Luck was on my side this season, as the kind folks representing Cuties Clementines were generous enough to ship an entire crate full of these glowing orange orbs straight to my door. Not to be overly dramatic, but what a revelation! Gone are the days of meticulously picking at the stringy pith of oranges before the segments become edible. The skin practically falls off of these juicy half-moons, nary a seed in sight. No muss, no fuss, they’re the ultimate winter pick-me-up. Naturally, they’re a boon to desserts and other treats as well.

Citrus supremes are a beautiful addition to all sorts of desserts, but they’re such a pain to prepare. Thanks to a combination of dull knifes and insufficient handiwork, mine always end up ragged, sad little slivers of their former selves; certainly nothing to crown a grand finale with. Clementines, on the other hand, pop out of their peels ready to use, unblemished and the ideal size to toss into just about any dish. Simply layering them with plain old soy yogurt, sliced almonds, and berries elevated my boring lunchtime routine into something worth remembering.

Bursting with flavor, sweeter and more mellow than an orange but still plenty punchy, clementines sounded like the ideal pairing with matcha. Cutting through the bitter powdered tea and balancing out the whole dessert, segments top chewy tapioca pearls, cradled in the easiest mini tart shell you’ll ever slap together. No need to break out the rolling pin, this crust is merely pressed into the pans and won’t slip or slide under the heat of the oven, standing tall without the need for pie weights.

Winter, you have officially met your match; the bright taste of these Cuties makes a day without sunshine no big deal. In case you’re suffering from the winter blues as well, I have good news! Furnished by Cuties Clementines, I have a coupon for one free 5-pound crate of these tiny fruits that one lucky commenter can redeem at their local grocery store. Recipients must be located in the US as a result. To enter, leave me a comment before January 18th at midnight EST, and tell me about your favorite citrus fix. What would you do with all of those clementines, if you can resist merely eating them out of hand? Trust me, five pounds sounds like a lot, but they won’t last long with any citrus enthusiast!

UPDATE: After consulting with my very favorite random number generator, together, we determined the winner of this sweet prize to be…

Commenter #12, Harvest + Honey! You will be hearing from me shortly, and for everyone else, stay tuned… Not to give away the surprise, but there may just be more clementines to share very soon.

Clementine and Matcha Tapioca Tartlets

Press-In-Pan Olive Oil Pastry Crust:

1 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 – 2 Tablespoons Water

Matcha Tapioca:

1/2 Cup Small Tapioca Pearls
2 1/2 Cups Vanilla Coconut Milk Beverage or Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
2Teaspoons Matcha Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

To Finish:

4 – 5 Clementines, Peeled and Segmented
Fresh Mint Leaves (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease 10 – 12 (3-inch) mini tart molds.

To make the crust, mix together the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add in the olive oil and lemon juice, stirring thoroughly to incorporate. Drizzle in the water very slowly, adding just enough to bring the dough together without making it wet or sticky. Break off about 2 – 3 tablespoons of dough for each mini tart mold and press it evenly across the bottoms and up the sides of the forms. Make sure there aren’t especially thick edges left around the base so that it all cooks at the same rate.

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, turning the pan around halfway through the process to ensure even baking, until golden brown all over. Let cool completely before popping the shells out of their metal molds.

For the tapioca, begin by pouring 2 cups of very hot water over the pearls and allowing them to soak for at least 2 – 3 hours. This will soften them and prevent the centers from remaining after cooking. Rinse with cold water and thoroughly drain.

Place the soaked pearls in a medium saucepan along with the non-dairy milk. Whisk together the sugar, matcha, cornstarch, and arrowroot in a separate bowl to break up any and all clumps of the tea powder before adding it into the pot as well. Set over medium heat on the stove and allow the mixture to come up to a boil, whisking periodically and being sure to scrape along the sides and bottom to prevent anything from sticking and burning. Once it comes bubbles vigorously for a full minute, turn off the heat before throwing in the margarine and vanilla extract. Stir until the margarine has completely melted and distribute the hot pudding between the baked mini tart shells, filling them to the top.

Allow the tapioca to fully cool before topping with clementine segments and a few mint leaves, if desired. Serve at room temperature or chill for 2 hours to enjoy them cold.

Makes 10 – 12 Tartlets

Printable Recipe

This recipe is also my entry for the So Delicious 3 Course Recipe Contest. Wish me luck!


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Earthly Delights at Dirt Candy

No larger than a modest walk-in closet, this unassuming storefront in the East Village is lined not with clothing racks but compact tables, hungry customers flanking all available sides. You don’t eat at Dirt Candy for the ambiance, but if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation in the first place, it’s hardly a distraction once the game of human Tetris has been played and all are snugly seated. An open view of the matchbox kitchen provides a unique sort of dinner theater, a glimpse behind the scenes, but also transfers a frenetic, chaotic energy to the whole meal. As the action spills out into the main floor, service does suffer; plates are hastily deposited without announcement or expansion, and questions are brushed off with unsatisfying half-answers. But ah well, these are reasonable compromises to be made in a chef-driven restaurant, provided that the food itself is capable of making up to these perceived slights.

And it does, for the most part, outshine the otherwise less than ideal conditions. An ambitious menu set on exploring new flavors and textures of vegetables, the entire list of dishes can be ordered in vegan format if they aren’t already free of animal products. Short and sweet, it reads like an excitable gardening catalog. Endearingly enthusiastic, that energy is contagious, making the anticipation for each coming course ever greater.

Cucumber! was my first pick of the evening, a hot and sour roasted cucumber soup poured tableside over shredded wood ear mushrooms and crispy fried rice sticks. For a clear liquid, that steaming broth was stunningly rich, enhanced with the toasted, nutty flavor of sesame oil. Fiery spices build quickly and linger through each subsequent slurp, unfortunately overshadowing the more delicate namesake vegetable. Though warm cucumbers don’t sound the least bit appealing on paper, somehow this curious combination really worked. The round sheets of cucumber gel were the stars of this show, combining a fresh cucumber flavor with a soft, jelly-like texture that seemed to melt delicately into the surrounding liquid.

A perennial favorite, mushroom! is a must order for anyone unfamiliar with the Dirt Candy perspective. So deeply and intensely savory that you can smell the umami coming at you from three feet away, the aroma of pure mushroom will reach you before the plate even emerges from the pass. Portobello mousse is the obvious star of the show, commanding your undivided attention with its impossibly dense, silky texture and deeply earthy, almost smoky flavor. Distilling the pure essence of portobello into this 1-inch cube must be some feat of alchemy, as it creates something that tastes more of the mushroom than any unadulterated fungus I’ve ever encountered. A seasonal fruit compote lends a stabilizing hit of sweetness to this umami powerhouse, the toast is a perfectly crisp vehicle for the decadent spread, but those secondary components can’t hope to rise beyond their supporting positions in the wake of that heavy-hitting mousse.

Though topped by a tempura-fried egg by default, corn! is happily veganized by request with tempura-fried watercress instead. While it doesn’t strike me as an equivalent swap, I can hardly argue with the results. Shatteringly crisp and delightfully salty, I could have happily gone to town on a plate of those battered greens for dinner. Moreover, their crunchy texture offset the luxurious pool of creamy polenta beneath. A buttery porridge of coarse cornmeal with the surprising twang of pickled shiitake peppered throughout, the whole dish screamed out “comfort food.” The promise of the highly elusive huitlacoche was a big selling point for me, so it’s regrettable that I walked away from that meal still unable to say what they taste like. Meted out in tiny dots around the periphery of the plate, it was more about the idea of eating rare corn fungus than the actual act of eating it.

When I think of beans, piles of beige chickpeas and navy beans come to mind, so the appearance of beans! was a bit of an initial shock. Towering above the other dishes in one carefully balanced stack, the beans came in the form of soybeans (tofu,) sea beans, and wax beans. Taste aside, you must know that this is the most flawless execution of tofu cookery I’ve come across to date; seared to an impossibly crunchy finish on both long sides of the white slab, it’s what every block of tofu dreams to become. The flavor is no slouch either, powered by a heavy-handed sprinkle of cayenne across the top, at times overwhelming the senses with heat. Such a blatant lack of finesse is startling at this level, preventing such a promising entree from becoming a clear winner. What really stands out in my mind was the unexpected inclusion of “savory oreos” hidden alongside the main stack. The “cookies” consisted of crispy black rice, and the filling was nothing more than yellow wax bean puree. Playful and creative, those two small bites really exemplified the mission statement at Dirty Candy.

Hands down, the best part of the meal was saved for last. I was certain that the famed Sweet Pea and Mint Nanaimo Bar wouldn’t translate into a dairy-free rendition, but it was my lucky day. Although comfortably full at this point in the meal, I’m so glad I made room for dessert, because the mint ice cream was just the light, refreshing finish to cap off a fairly decadent round of savories. Regrettably, the pea flavor was nowhere to be found, but that disappointment was short-lived. With such bright, herbaceous mint at the helm, who could complain? If only there were enough seats to squeeze in for a quick late night snack, I’d be sorely tempted to drop in for just another layered bar of ice cream delight.

Leaving the restaurant with mixed feelings but an undeniably satisfied stomach, it’s clear that the dining experience at Dirt Candy can’t be compared to any other in all fairness. A truly cerebral affair meant to inspire, challenge, and perhaps even provoke the diner at times, the food isn’t just the end product of the chef’s efforts; it’s the beginning of a whole new conversation about vegetables.


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Mochi Madness

Standing outside on the first cold, crisp day of 2014, I could have sworn I heard the distinctive “don…don…don” of a kine (wooden mallet) striking an usu (stone mortar), far off in the distance. Though unlikely, the tradition of making mochi for oshogatsu is so ubiquitous in Japanese culture, it would be unthinkable for anyone immersed in the culture to ignore it. Pounding sweet glutenous rice into submission is no simple task, typically requiring a whole village to pitch in and churn out enough mochi to ring in the new year. Celebrations are based around the ritual and everyone gets something delicious as their reward. Though ozoni soup is the most authentic way to commemorate the turning of the calendar, ensuring good luck and prosperity for the coming months, mochi is the perfect blank canvas for any flavors sweet or savory. Naturally, my inclination is to play up its capacity for creating unique sweet treats.

Forget pounding stubborn grains of rice until your arms ache and your hands throb. This is mochi for the modern baker, dressed up in a rich cloak of chocolate, no less. Mochiko, otherwise known as finely powdered sweet rice flour, makes the process move along much more smoothly- literally. Crossing cultural boundaries and incorporating some unconventional ingredients, the resulting brownies are a curious hybrid of Japanese and American tastes. Shockingly decadent in comparison to the plain white spheres produced from typical methods, these mahogany brown squares are a definite indulgence, which strikes me as a fitting way to kick off a joyful new year. For anyone expecting a standard brownie though, the texture may come as a shock. Chewy with a delightfully bouncy, sticky texture between the teeth, it makes no secret of its glutenous rice foundation. To some who struggles with anything that isn’t either crispy-crunchy or pudding-soft, these may not be the most winning recipe.

For the rest of you adventurous eaters and bakers though, it’s a stunningly simple mash-up that’s long overdue. Have your mochi and enjoy it too, without any of the hard labor (or choking hazards) associated with the original. As a side bonus, these rice flour-based treats are “accidentally” gluten-free, so everyone can start their year on a sweet note!

Mochi Brownies

2 Cups Mochiko
1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
9 Ounces (1 1/2 Cups) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, Divided
1 1/2 Cups Plain Vegan Creamer
1 14-Ounce Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Plain or Vanilla Vegan Yogurt
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 9 x 13-inch rectangular baking pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the mochiko, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and powder, and salt. Stir until all the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the mixture and set aside.

Place the margarine and 6 ounces (1 cup) of the chocolate chips in a large, microwave-safe container along with half of the creamer. Microwave for a minute, stir well, and then continue heating at 30-second intervals, mixing thoroughly in between each new cycle, until the chocolate has completely melted. Add in the remaining measure of creamer plus the coconut milk, yogurt, and vanilla. Stir until smooth.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the bowl of dry and stir thoroughly with a wide spatula. Don’t worry about over-mixing, since there’s no gluten here that might form. Go ahead and beat the tar out of that batter! Toss in the remaining 3 ounces (1/2 cup) of chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed throughout the mixture. Once there are no lumps remaining, transfer it into your prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 55 – 60 minutes, until dry and slightly crackled on top. The toothpick test won’t be particularly helpful for this brownie, so just trust your intuition when it appears to be done on the surface.

Let cool completely before slicing into bars.

Makes 16 – 24 Brownies

Printable Recipe

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