BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Well-Traveled Treats

Time was not on my side. Mere days before departing for my two month stint in Hawaii, a generous package from Dear Coco landed on my doorstep, over a half dozen glossy chocolate bars embellished with huge chunks of amber brown toffee. These were no ordinary candies, boasting flavors as wild as curry and wasabi, each one inspired by various cuisines across the globe. Despite my voracious sweet tooth, I couldn’t have possibly eaten them all before jetting off, but there was no way I could leave them behind. Somehow it seemed fitting that such a worldly collection of chocolates should accompany me on this exciting adventure. After ejecting shoes and shampoo from my overstuffed suitcase (you know, the less important things) I miraculously made enough space to squeeze in the whole range of treats. Sure, I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt for a full day or two, but any cosmetic sacrifice was worth it.

Boasting eight unique varieties, there truly is something to suit all tastes in this powerful lineup. A brief overview of the creative flavor options wouldn’t truly do these innovative chocolate creations justice. Sharing a peek at my tasting notes is the only way to properly explain these treats, since complete sentences seem to fail me when faced with such intense chocolate treasures.

Sidama (coffee toffee with Buunni Ethiopian coffee beans and sea salt):

  • Whole coffee beans! Not fooling around here
  • Aroma of freshly brewed coffee erupts from the package as soon as the seal is broken
  • A must for mocha-lovers
  • Dark, smoky chocolate is a match made in heaven with those warm, roasted coffee notes
  • Sweet, crunchy toffee makes the perfect counter point
  • Caramel incorporates a symphony of burnt sugar flavor to round the whole bar out
  • Utterly addictive, not to mention highly caffeinated
  • I feared that the whole beans would be off-putting, but they meld beautifully- Not at all gritty like ground beans can become

Savanah (pie spiced toffee with roasted pecans and sea salt):

  • The toffee is absolutely divine! I would gladly eat that alone, and by the handful
  • Delicately balanced yet warmly spiced, the salt is really bumps the flavor up to a whole new level
  • Toffee really is the star here, with pecans lending their nutty essence and crisp bite
  • The chocolate, while snappy, rich, and deep, is really the backup singer to this melody, emerging with a smooth baritone once the high notes have melted away

Barcelona (roasted almond toffee and sea salt):

  • The most tame, traditional of all offerings
  • Not really sure what makes it so distinctly “Barcelona”
  • Solid rendition of the classic chocolate/toffee combination
  • Toffee really holds its own against the dark chocolate, both share about equal time in the spotlight
  • Nicely snappy, crisp and crunchy throughout
  • Liberal use of salt makes flavors pop
  • Something that everyone would enjoy, very agreeable; no doubt a crowd pleaser

Shanghai (chinese five spice toffee with roasted white sesame seeds and sea salt):

  • Especially thick, crunchy slabs of toffee chunks
  • Lovely licorice-driven spice; gentle yet persistent
  • Sesame seeds really do get lost in the mix
  • Seeds look nice and are conceptually sound, but don’t contribute discernible flavor or texture
  • Very good, just not exceptional like the others

Oaxaca (Mexican cinnamon and smoky hot pepper toffee with roasted pepitas and sea salt):

  • Toffee has taken on a distinctly red hue from the pepper
  • Gentle warmth from the cinnamon lures you in, but the fiery aftertaste of cayenne bites back with a vengeance
  • Definitely has a kick, but isn’t overly aggressive
  • Spice adds flavor without so much heat that it would make me hesitate to break off a second (or third, or fourth) piece
  • May take you by surprise, but there are no alarm bells going off here
  • Pepitas are overshadowed by the bold toffee
  • One for you thrill-seekers and hot sauce-lovers out there

Madras (sweet curry toffee with roasted sunflower seeds and sea salt):

  • Golden-yellow colored toffee chunks
  • Notes of coriander and cumin come through most clearly, but are soft and subdued
  • Not the least bit hot; Spice adds a certain je ne sais quoi, an undefinable complexity
  • Doesn’t ring quite true as the madras curry powder I know and love, but it’s certainly a tasty riff on the flavor.
  • Love the addition of sunflower seeds. An unexpected addition that really pulls the bar together with a nutty, toasted undercurrent

Istanbul (cinnamon toffee with rosewater, roasted walnuts and sea salt):

  • Sings with sweet cinnamon!
  • Brighter pops of clove follow, adding excitement and energy to each bite.
  • Rosewater is an intriguing addition, but is sadly smothered by the stronger spices
  • Occasionally, if you’re really looking for it, you might get the faintest hint of something floral… But that might also be imagined
  • If rosewater hadn’t been listed on the label, I would have never guessed

Tokyo (ginger toffee with crispy rice and sea salt):

  • Definite zing to the toffee
  • Bright, almost floral/citrus-y ginger
  • Very vibrant and fresh
  • Deep dark chocolate balances out the high notes
  • Rice crisps lighten the toffee just a touch, but are barely noticeable
  • All you taste is ginger and crunch, but there could be far worse things of course
  • A fairly straight-forward combination that’s still a nice change of pace
  • Any easy leap for anyone looking for something slightly different

No matter your location or destination, any one of these stellar confections can instantly transport you to a whole new world of flavor. There isn’t a single dud in the whole bunch, but don’t just take my word for it. There’s good reason why all eight are available as a neatly bundled gift pack!


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The Last Last-Minute Gift

Browse around the web for five minutes or more and you’ll undoubtedly run across at least a dozen “last-minute gift guides,” all touting effortless tokens for the people you forgot you should care about. Heartwarming stuff to consider right before Christmas, isn’t it? Since Chanukah has been long over for weeks now, it’s strange to watch it all unfold from the sidelines, without getting swept up in the madness as I usually do each year.

Of course, I do still have one suggestion here at the eleventh hour, but I’ll level with you: This post is more for my benefit, but you might just enjoy the results, too. Why sit on this fabulous candy recipe for another full calendar cycle, holding it back through the austere days of the New Year while everyone suffers a collective sugar hangover? While your sweet tooth is still in gear, set aside a few extra minutes for this simple yet transcendent treat. I had merely wanted to play around with the gold-tinted crystals of Zulka sugar that the company had been kind enough to send my way, but the toffee that came of my kitchen capers was anything but ordinary.

My dad, a man who knows his way around all things candy and an avowed sugar-supporter if I ever did meet one, claimed that this was some of the best toffee he ever had. No small compliment coming from such a knowledgeable source! So, if you find even one inch of space remaining on your cookie plate, in your candy baskets, or simply in your stomach, take that last-minute before the holidays all blow over to make yourself a batch. If one crisp, golden, nutty morsel of toffee is the last sugary taste on your lips for the rest of 2013, it would leave you with a sweet memory of the season indeed.

Golden Macadamia Toffee

1 Cup Toasted, Lightly Chopped Macadamia Nuts
2/3 Cup Vegan White Chocolate Chips
1 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Cup Zulka Sugar
1 Tablespoon Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, lightly grease, and sprinkle the macadamia nuts and white chocolate chips as evenly over the bottom as possible. Set aside.

Combine the margarine, sugar, maple syrup, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and set over moderate heat. Stir just to moisten all of the sugar, and then keep your spatula out of the mixture until the very end. Instead, swirl the pan gently to mix the contents, which will help prevent premature crystal formation.

Allow the margarine to melt and sugar to dissolve before clipping a thermometer to the side of the pan. You’ll want to bring the sugar to a steady boil, until it turns a deep amber brown color and reaches 300 degrees, which is also known as the “hard crack stage” of candy making.

Turn off the heat, carefully stir in the vanilla as it may sputter angrily, and immediately pour the mixture into your prepared pan. Try to pour it evenly over the goodies within, because the more you spread it around with your spatula, the more you’ll smear the melting white chocolate. Don’t worry if it doesn’t reach all the way to the edges of the pan.

Let cool completely before snapping into more manageable pieces. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Printable Recipe


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Scare Up Some Berry Good Sweets

BOO!

Okay, so I’m not the most fearsome creature you’ll meet this Halloween, but I do have a terrible tale that should strike fear in the heart of any sensible human being. I may be sugar-coated, but this story is not. Just imagine: A world that progressively grows colder, harsher, inhospitable to life itself. The ground freezes solid, impenetrable as steel, strangling off all the plant roots and shoots within. Nary a weed can grow, let alone the delicate and highly perishable foodstuffs we’ve come to depend on. Sun shines but thermometers remain unmoved, staunchly refusing to thaw. As a result of the harsh shift in climate, there are no more blueberries; not here, not anywhere.

Positively terrifying, right? Mercifully, that tragedy is only based on real life, more fiction than fact. Though we are swiftly moving past the prime growing season with winter soon to come, there’s no end in sight to the supply of Frozen Wild Blueberries. Whether it’s 100 degrees or -10 degrees outside, they’ll still be waiting for happy homes and hungry mouths, just as plump, ripe, and sweet as ever in the freezer aisle. That consistency and predictably high quality standards make them the ideal addition to any fruit candy formula, demanding precision to turn out.

That’s where my batty family and I come into the picture. Try finding decent fresh berries now and you’d be straight out of luck, yielding nothing but bland blue marbles unsuitable for consumption. Spare yourself the horror and hit the chill chest instead, where Wild Frozen Blueberries remain every bit as flavorful and vital all year round. By introducing such a powerful superfood, touted for its antioxidants and nutrients the world over, you can reason that indulging in a sweet wild blueberry pate de fruit instead of any commercial candy out there is by far a lesser evil.

I don’t mind if you or your little goblins are clamoring to take a bite out of me- I’m completely irresistible, after all! My crunchy sugared exterior gives way to a soft, jam-like center, each bite a balance of bold, fruity sweetness. Mysterious and dark, black cocoa contributes to my fetching hue while adding a rich, smoky, earthy sort of flavor. Blend that with a tiny pinch of cinnamon and a splash of lime for an unexpected, yet completely complementary twist, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t scare up some sweet treats out of Frozen Wild Blueberries sooner.

Boo-Berry Bats

2 1/2 Cups Frozen Wild Blueberries, Thawed
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce
1/4 Cup Black Cocoa Powder
3 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
2 (3-Ounce) Packages Liquid Pectin

About 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar, to Coat

Place both the Wild Blueberries and applesauce in your blender or food processor, and thoroughly puree.  Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl every now and then, until the mixture is completely smooth. Add in the cocoa powder and blend briefly to combine.

Transfer the puree into a medium pot with high sides, along with sugar, lime juice, and cinnamon.  Though it may seem like a lot of sugar, don’t forget that this is candy we’re talking about, and the pectin requires a certain amount of sugar to set properly.  Whatever you do, do not attempt to reduce the amount or swap it for a different sweetener!

Stir well and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. While that comes up to temperature, line a 9 × 9–inch square baking pan and lightly grease it in preparation for the finished candy.

Once boiling, add in the pectin, mix thoroughly to incorporate, and stir while the mixture boils for a full 10 minutes.  Continue scraping the bottom and sides of the pot with your spatula to make sure that nothing is sticking and burning.  Remove from the heat and pour the liquid candy into your prepared pan.  Allow that to come to room temperature before moving the pan into the fridge.  Let chill until set, at least 2–3 hours, before cutting into bat shapes using a small cookie cutter.

Toss the bats in granulated sugar and store in an airtight container. Kept away from moisture and in a cool place, the bats should last for 1 – 2 weeks, if they aren’t devoured before then.

Makes about 35 – 40 (2-Inch Long) Bats

Printable Recipe

This post was written for and is sponsored by Wild Blueberries, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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Hanging with My Peeps

Come March 1st, grocery store shelves are already fully stocked with enough Easter paraphernalia to power non-stop spring fetes lasting a full month, regardless of when Easter Sunday is actually observed. For all the pastel glitter and sugar on offer, they still lack what is arguably the single most important element to a proper holiday celebration: Vegan marshmallow peeps. Peeps may have gotten a life outside of the spring season, but they will forever be inextricably linked with Easter in my mind, and vice versa. Since there was little understanding of what Easter really was in my formative years, all that in my eyes were those colorful, sugar-encrusted chicks and bunnies, staring out of their cardboard sleeves with emotionless dots for eyes.

Sweet & Sara has taken up the task of providing this essential Easter staple, easily surpassing that original standard. This isn’t the first time I’ve shared about these seasonal treats, but I’m happy to say that they’ve only improved over time. Now they too come dusted in a light coat of colored sugar, matching my fond childhood memories, but with real dark chocolate adorning each adorable shape. You won’t find them in stores any time soon, but they’re worth seeking out during this limited window of availability. Spring just wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without them.


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Sucré: A Sweet Boutique

When words fail and sweeping gestures go unnoticed, a little square of chocolate can warm the iciest of hearts. Not just any chocolate will have this same miraculous effect; quality truly counts here. To deliver a single perfect bite, the ideal snap and melt, that flood of unadulterated cacao bliss, you must know how to pick and choose your chocolate ally. Even for the unromantic and Valentine-immune, it’s no secret that the gift of chocolate can score serious brownie points, no matter who is the recipient.

Based in New Orleans, Sucré takes the guess work out of selecting sumptuous treats. Available both locally and through mail order, all of their tempting offerings are just a few clicks and a few days away. Some might say there are slim pickings for vegans here, offering only two options in total that are free of dairy and eggs, but those two are more than enough to sate the discerning sweet tooth.

Though taste will always trump all fanciful facades, it’s impossible not to be wooed by the beautiful packaging surrounding the Coconut and Toasted Almond Bar. A cut-out window provides glimpse of the bar within its turquoise box, teasing with a flawlessly tempered surface and a hint of the goodies sprinkled on top. The bottom is really the top in this case, revealing a slightly scuffed break-away design on the opposite side, but such an imperfection is barely worth noting. The easily snapped squares will hardly stick around long enough to be examined that thoroughly. Melting readily over the tongue, this bar packs a serious cacao punch, coating the whole mouth with deep, woodsy, and slightly smoky dark chocolate flavor. Fresh, crisp almonds and shredded coconut add a bit of crunch and interest to the party, but are overwhelmed by the strength of the chocolate. Although they get top billing in the title, they’re bit players at best. At the end of the day, it’s just all about the chocolate.

Utilizing that same rich chocolate, the Dark Chocolate Bark is also worth a taste (or five.) Each generous shard is positively stuffed with goodies; a varied mix of roasted cashews, whole almonds, pistachios, pecans, and dried cherries litter the cacao landscape. It’s the pinch of salt over the top that really allow all those flavors to pop, lending a brightness that the plainer bars might have lacked. For better or for worse, this only leads to creating an even more addictive sweet snack, and I could barely stop myself from popping piece after piece. Incredibly well balanced for containing so many disparate ingredients, sweet chewy fruits perfectly contrast with the gently bitter edge of cacao, while the crunchy nuts lend a nutty, toasted essence to the mix.

I’m typically not one to sit down and snack on straight chocolate, but Sucré‘s confections are a completely different story. Valentine’s Day is not a big event on my radar, but I would certainly give it more attention if it always involved this kind of instant gratification.


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Run, Run, as Fast as You Can…

…But you’ll never escape my ravenous sweet tooth, Mr. Gingerbread Man.

Fully embracing the temptations of excess, especially abundant in this celebratory season, all I want to make and eat is candy. Typically, just a bite or two of concentrated sweetness will do me, but reaching a sugar coma has seemed to be the end goal recently. At least, that’s how the revelry tends to end, with my poor throbbing head so much the worse for wear. Must the desire for a few extra comforting confections always carry such a terrible price tag? Turns out that raw nuts help quite a bit to satiate the inner sweet-toothed monster, and a handful of whole grains give even tiny morsels far greater staying power.

When Hodgson Mill originally sent a box of pro bono flours and baking mixes, I found myself stumped by the pre-measured mixtures. They’re simply not something I stock my pantry with or employ, so straight away, it was a curious puzzle: What can be made with cake mix, that isn’t cake? Perhaps it’s fudging the boundaries of definition a bit, but how about cake truffles?

With a half-empty jar of speculoos spread just begging to be finished off, the pairing was inevitable, and a delicious match indeed. Enrobed in dark chocolate, the tender cake centers have just enough spice and sweetness to disguise the whole wheat and flax within. Each bite yields nothing but candy bliss, without the sugar hangover afterward.

Better yet, these adorable treats can be dressed up as cake pops. Adorable hand-held gifts or party favors, not a single one of these gingerbread men will escape the mouths of delighted guests.

Naturally, you can just as well whip up a little over one pound of gingerbread cake from any recipe you desire, boxed or fully homemade. Just be mindful of the amount of sugar, because the frosting itself is quite sweet. In the end, though, it’s all good when it’s dipped in chocolate.

Speculoos Gingerbread Cake Truffles

Gingerbread Cake:

1 15-Ounce Package Hodgson Mills Whole Wheat Gingerbread Mix
1 1/2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Tablespoon Whole Flaxseeds, Ground
2 Tablespoons Water
1/2 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Canola Oil

Speculoos Frosting:

3/4 Cup Speculoos Spread
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine, at Room Temperature
1 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1/2 – 1 Tablespoon Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Chocolate Coating:

12 Ounces (2 Cups) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil or 100% Cocoa Butter

Optional Additions and Garnishes:

Small Lollipop Sticks
Colored Nonpareil Sprinkles
Chocolate Jimmies*

*Before dipping the truffles, go through the bottle of sprinkles and pick out any that have a slight curve to them. The majority will be straight, but if you look closely enough, you will find plenty that are “smiling.” You may also want to apply your sprinkles with a pair of tweezers for the most precision.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8 x 8 square pan.

In a large bowl, whisk all of the cake ingredients together until thoroughly combined, with no pockets of dry ingredients remaining. Bake for 28 – 32 minutes, until set around the edges and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake pulls out cleanly, without any slick of raw batter. Let cool completely before breaking up the cake and crumbling it into small, even pieces.

The frosting is equally effortless and speedy: Place the speculoos spread, margarine, and confectioner’s sugar in the bowl of your stand mixer, and start the machine on a low speed. Once the powder has been incorporated and is no longer at risk of flying out, turn up the speed to high, and slowly drizzle in the “milk,” until the frosting is smooth, homogenous, and a spreadable consistency.

Add a modest dollop into the bowl of cake crumbs and mix it all around. This is a messy job, as the best way to combine the two components is to get in there with your hands. Don’t be shy! It could be a fun job for the kids to help out with, too. Add in more frosting as needed, until the mixture just comes together when squeezed. You will likely have extra frosting, so don’t be tempted to add all of it, lest you want mushy truffles.

Dump the cake mixture out onto a silpat or piece of parchment paper, and flatten it out to about 1/2 – 3/4 inch in thickness. Use a small gingerbread man cookie cutter to cut out the shapes, pulling away the excess. Recombine the extra “dough”, flatten out once more, and cut more figures until the cake is all used up. Insert sticks now if using, and carefully move the silpat or parchment onto a baking sheet. Place the whole thing in the freezer on a flat surface, and let freeze for at least 3 hours, until solid.

To coat the truffles, combine the chocolate and coconut oil or cocoa butter in a microwave-safe dish, and heat for 60 seconds. Stir very well until the mixture is smooth. If there are still a few stubborn chips that refuse to melt, continue heating the coating at 30 second intervals, stirring thoroughly between each, until entirely lump-free.

Dip each truffle center, one at a time, into the melted chocolate. Use a fork to pull individual truffles out of the mixture and allow the excess coating to drip free. Be especially careful with any truffles on sticks, because they are particularly delicate. Move each piece back onto the silpat or piece of parchment paper, and quickly add sprinkles for the eyes and mouth before the coating solidifies. Repeat with the remaining truffles. Store in the fridge in an air-tight container.

Makes 30 – 40 Truffles

Printable Recipe


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Holly, Jolly, Nog-gy

Thank goodness Christmas is still ahead of us. Winding down one winter holiday so early in the season turns out to be a brilliant stroke of good luck, because now the celebrations can go on twice as long. Eggnog is hands-down my favorite flavor of the upcoming fete, despite the fact that I’ve never had a nog with egg in it. An rich and frothy beverage combining all the best sweet, savory, and salty elements that could possibly mingle in one glass, it doesn’t have to be “authentic” to be utterly delicious. As long as there’s a light splash of rum and a generous sprinkle of nutmeg, it’s all nog to me.

Converting those essential essences into a bite-sized sweet treat was a must for gift giving and snacking this year. A truffle of a different color, these would be beautiful mixed into an assortment of various spiced, mint, or dark and candies as well. In fewer words, they play well with others.

Nog Truffles

1 Cup Raw Whole Cashews, Soaked for 2 – 3 Hours and Thoroughly Drained
1/4 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Cup (2 Ounces) 100% Pure Cocoa Butter, Melted
1 Tablespoon Dark Rum
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
1 1/2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Kala Namak (Black Salt)

White Chocolate Coating:

2/3 Cup Vegan White Chocolate Chips
1 Tablespoon 100% Pure Cocoa Butter
Ground Nutmeg, to Garnish

Place the soaked and drained cashews in your blender or food processor, along with all of the remaining ingredients that make up the centers. Blend until completely and perfectly smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the work bowl as needed to ensure that all small nut fragments are incorporated. Transfer the sweet puree to a heat-safe bowl and let rest in the freezer until firm; at least 1 hour.

Retrieve the truffle centers from the freezer and use a small cookie scoop or 2 spoons to scoop out about 1 tablespoon of the mixture at a time, rolling the chunks into smooth balls between the palms of your hands. Place the rounded centers onto a silpat or piece of parchment paper on top of a sheet pan, and repeat until the mixture is used up. Work quickly to prevent the filling from becoming too soft and unworkable. Move the whole sheet of naked truffles back into the freezer on a flat surface, and chill until solid; at least another hour.

When you’re ready to finish off the candies, combine the white chocolate chips and cocoa butter in a microwave-safe dish, and heat for 60 seconds. Stir very well until the mixture is smooth. If there are still a few stubborn chips that refuse to melt, continue heating the coating at 30 second intervals, stirring thoroughly between each, until entirely lump-free.

Dip each truffle center, one at a time, into the melted white chocolate. Use a fork to pull them out of the mixture and allow the excess coating to drip free. Move each piece back onto the silpat or piece of parchment paper, and quickly sprinkle lightly with additional ground nutmeg before the coating solidifies. Repeat with the remaining truffles. Store at room temperature in an air-tight container.

Makes 12 – 18 Truffles

Printable Recipe

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