BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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The “F” Word

Just when you thought it was safe to open up your home to visitors once again, now that the tinsel dust and artificial pine scent has settled, I’ve come to ruin your day. More of a curse than a gift, it’s a dubious “treat” that has gained (and quite frankly earned) little respect over centuries of unsavory history. Not to be rude or anything, but it’s time that I dropped the F-bomb.

Fruitcake. Pardon my language.

Yes, I know, head for the hills and don’t accept packages from strangers; I’m offering you a genuine fruitcake, of all things! Trust me, I’ve been a very vocal naysayer of this brick-like food substance, never having seen the benefit to preserving mysteriously colored fruits in a metric ton of sugar before binding them all up into an impenetrable, flavorless batter. Better employed as entertaining projectiles than food stuffs, I would gladly get out there on the field with all the other unlucky fruitcake recipients as well. But, not with this new spin on the concept.

Rummaging through a pantry overstuffed with odd ingredients, I discovered an abundance of so-called “superfoods” that had no clear destination, and little use outside of random nibbles. Instead of simply frittering them away through impulse snacking, such special ingredients deserved a greater end. Baked up into a lighter cake than the traditional take, the crumb stays impossibly moist and does indeed only get better with age. Enhanced with the complex, caramel nuances of coconut sugar, volumes of flavor can shine through without the sticky veil of syrupy sweetness. Kombucha, with its very faintly alcoholic buzz, takes the place of harder liquor or rum here, so even teetotalers can indulge with abandon.

Of course, consider the exact superfruits and nuts listed here merely suggestions. As long as you throw in 1 1/2 – 2 cups of dried mix-ins in addition to the pomegranate arils, your cake will be golden… Literally, once baked.

Super-Fruitcake

1/2 Cup Fresh Pomegranate Arils
1/2 Cup Goji Berries
1/2 Cup Dried Mulberries
1/4 Cup Dried Goldenberries
1/4 Cup Chopped Walnuts
1/4 Cup Cacao Nibs
1 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
3/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/2 Teaspoon Orange Zest
1/2 Cup Kombucha, Divided
1/3 Cup Coconut Oil, Melted
2/3 Cup Coconut Sugar
2 Tablespoons Molasses
1 (3.5-Ounce) Packet Frozen Acai Puree, Thawed (or Applesauce, in a Pinch)

Confectioner’s Sugar, To Serve (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 6-inch round, 3-inch high cake pan.

In a large bowl, mix together the pomegranate arils, all of the dried superfruits, walnuts and cacao nibs. Add in the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cardamom, and zest, tossing to coat all of the goodies.

Remove 2 tablespoons of the kombucha and set aside for later. Separately, whisk together the remaining kombucha, coconut oil, coconut sugar, molasses, and acai puree until fairly smooth. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry, and stir with a wide spatula just until the batter comes together. A few lumps are fine, especially since it’s a fairly coarse mixture to begin with.

Transfer the batter to your prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 40 – 50 minutes, until golden brown all over and a toothpick inserted into the center pulls out mostly clean, with just a few moist crumbs clinging to the sides. Immediately pour the reserved kombucha evenly over the hot cake so that it can soak in as it cools. After cooling completely, the cake sit covered at room temperature, for at least 24 hours for the best results.

If you’d like a little pinch of additional sweetness, top with a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar right before serving.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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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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Traditional Takeout

As young children across the country feverishly unwrap mounds of tinsel-clad packages, parents tending a huge roast with all the fixings for dinner, an entirely different tradition marks my Christmas day. The classic Jewish Christmas, otherwise known as seeing a movie and getting Chinese food takeout, seems to be growing in popularity. Who knew it was even a thing 5, 10 years ago? Suddenly everyone knows about this once obscure and occasionally controversial plan. In fact, quite a few families that still lovingly string up Christmas trees and sing carols every year also join in on the fun, too. It’s the ultimate secular holiday that everyone can enjoy.

Options may be limited for fellow meatless eaters, but no matter how many times I get plain old broccoli and tofu, it just never gets old. Maybe the MSG makes it particularly addictive, but there are few things quite as satisfying as the instant gratification of savory, salty brown sauce smothering cubes of crispy fried bean curd and tender green florets. Venturing to recreate this endlessly versatile sauce, suddenly the sky is the limit for protein alternatives. As an extra-special treat this year, a rare package of Konjac-based vegan shrimp remained on ice, tucked away in the back of the freezer for just such an opportunity.

Disarmingly similar in coloring and surprisingly bouncy, their chewy texture was disconcertingly similar to actual seafood, according to the omnivores at the table. They imparted relatively little flavor though, for better or for worse, so while novel, I think I’d still prefer my tofu standby. Next time, I’ll gladly fire up the oil and toss in a few cubes instead, although you can’t go too far wrong with a solid brown sauce.

“Shrimp” and Broccoli

1/2 Pound (1 Package) Frozen Vegan Shrimp, or 1 Pound Fried Tofu
1 Pound Fresh Broccoli, Cut into Florets

Brown Sauce:

1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Tablespoon Fresh Ginger, Grated
1/3 Cup Soy Sauce
1 Cup Vegetable Stock
1/3 Cup Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch

Sesame Seeds, to Garnish (Optional)
Cooked White Rice, to Serve

Thaw out the frozen shrimp if using, or prepare your tofu. Place the broccoli florets in a microwave-safe dish with a splash of water, and steam for 2 – 4 minutes, until fork-tender. Drain and blanch in ice water to stop the cooking and keep the broccoli bright green. Set aside.

To prepare the brown sauce, begin by heating the sesame oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add in the garlic and ginger, and cook briefly, until aromatic. Meanwhile, whisk together all of the remaining ingredient in a separate bowl, being sure to beat out any clumps of starch so that the mixture is completely smooth. Carefully pour the liquids into the hot pan, standing away from the stove in case of any splashback. Whisk gently as the sauce comes up to temperature, until it reaches a full boil and has visible thickened. Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool for a minute or two.

Place the broccoli and shrimp (or tofu) in a large bowl, and toss with a sizable dollop of brown sauce. There will likely be extra sauce, so apply it sparingly. Continue drizzling in sauce until the goodies are coated to your liking. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with a light sprinkling of sesame seeds. Enjoy with a mound of hot rice, and have a very Happy Holiday!

Serves 3 – 4

Printable Recipe


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Popping Up Everywhere

The connection between Christmas and popcorn is tenuous at best, and yet is deeply rooted in the traditions of so many families. Whether it appears in ball format or strings adorning the annual evergreen tree, there is no escaping, nor explaining, those exploded edible kernels around the holiday season. Even as an outsider, I can’t help but associate this otherwise innocuous snack food with the frenzy of festive treats, weaving them into various gifts more often than not. Not even the all-knowing Google can provide a satisfying explanation to the centuries-old affiliation, and yet it remains, as relevant and convincing as ever.

And so come December, the popcorn comes out in force once again. This year, I opted to skip all the fussy individual balls, pressing the whole sticky mixture into one square baking dish instead. Easily yielding neat rectangular bars, they now fit seamlessly onto a cookie platter, amongst other sweet options or featured by themselves. Taking one more short cut by employing popcorn cereal rather than freshly popped maize may seem like a poor choice, but the corny essence still shines through loud and clear. Without the sharp hulls, they pose fewer potential hazards for sticking in between teeth, and there’s no risk of including unpopped kernels. An emergency trip to the dentist is not my idea of a Merry Christmas.

Perfectly festive red and green mix-ins add the excitement here, but if cranberries and pistachios are not your favorites, don’t be afraid to stray into more diverse ingredient pools. Dried cherries, strawberries, or raspberries would be alternatives that still keep the color theme, and of course the options are endless for other hues.

Christmas Popcorn Bars

6 Cups Puffed Corn Cereal
1 Cup Dried Cranberries
3/4 Cup Shelled, Unsalted Pistachios, Toasted
1/2 Cup Vegan White Chocolate Chips, Divided
1 Tablespoon Non-Dairy Margarine or Coconut Oil, Melted
1 Cup Light Corn Syrup or Light Agave Nectar
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Pour the cereal, cranberries, pistachios, and half of the white chocolate chips into a very large bowl and set it aside, but keep it near the stove for easy access.

Lightly grease an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan. Set a saucepan over medium heat and add in the margarine or coconut oil, along with the corn syrup or agave, sugar, and salt stirring just to moisten all of the dry sweetener. From this point on, resist the temptation to stir the mixture, but swirl the pan gently instead to mix. This will prevent large sugar crystals from forming.

Allow the syrup to cook until it bubbles up vigorously and becomes frothy. Reduce the heat slightly so that it’s at a steady but low boil and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn off the stove
and stir in the vanilla. Pour the hot sugar mixture over your waiting cereal and mix-ins, carefully but quickly fold it in using a wide spatula. Transfer the sticky cereal into your prepared pan, and press gently using the spatula so that it evenly fills the space. Sprinkle the remaining white chocolate chips over the top, pressing them in gently so they adhere.

Let cool completely before turning the whole sweet block out and slicing into bars.

Makes 12 – 16 Bars

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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Dreaming of a Sweet Christmas

No amount of planning ever seems to leave me properly prepared for the holidays, despite mustering all the enthusiasm possible and diligently keeping an eye on the calendar. Days mysteriously grow shorter, schedules fuller, and to further complicate matters, those originally simple plans of mine curiously evolve to become more and more complicated. Getting a head start usually means laying out a detailed list of presents to make, recipes to try, and fun activities to participate in… Which is lost or completely disregarded by the time December actually rolls around. After spending one too many of the last mailing days before Christmas stuck in line at the post office, fighting off the other hordes of procrastinators frantic to make the final cut off, it became clear that my approach wasn’t working.

This year, the plan is to plan less. Stick to simple but nice holiday cards, rather than elaborate gifts with complicated shipping requirements and deadlines. Make whatever recipes strike my fancy, whenever that might happen. Enjoy the holidays whenever they allow, without forcing artificial merriment at every turn. “Low-key” is the mantra of the season- No pressure, no anxiety, no self-flagellation when things don’t work out perfectly. Sounds like a much more enjoyable way to pass the next few weeks, don’t you think?

And just like that, I find myself almost on top of the key points that constantly evaded my grasp the previous year. Greeting cards are done and printing, and the first set of festive sweets has already sprung forth from the oven, seemingly without effort. It may be a push to fit that pending manuscript into the festivities, but at least it doesn’t seem like such a great burden to squeeze into the jam-packed holiday game plan.

It needn’t be a grand holiday, or one to remember above others, even. It just needs to be less than torturous, and adding in a bit of sweetness and good company would be a nice touch, too.

Pistachio Praline Linzer Cookies

Pistachio Praline Paste:

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cup Water
2 Cups Shelled, Skinned and Toasted Pistachios
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

Place the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Allow the sugar to cook until it caramelizes to a deep amber color; about 10 – 15 minutes. Quickly add in the pistachios, stir to coat with the hot sugar, and immediately transfer everything out to a silpat or piece of parchment paper. Let cool completely before breaking it into chunks, and tossing the pieces into your food processor, along with the salt and oil. Pulse to break down the brittle to a coarse consistency, and then let the motor run until very smooth. It may take as long as 10 minutes, so be patient. Let cool before using, or store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Linzer Cookies:

1 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Almond Meal
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
Zest of 1 Orange
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/3 Cup Plain Vegan Greek-Style “Yogurt” or “Sour Cream”
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line three baking sheets with silpats or parchment paper. Set aside.

Cream together the margarine and both sugars until homogeneous and fluffy pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the flour, almond meal, baking powder, salt, zest, and ginger, starting the mixer slowly to prevent the dry goods from flying out. Mix briefly before introducing the “yogurt” and vanilla as well. Mix just until a cohesive, smooth dough is formed, and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Press the dough into an even round and roll it out to 1/8th of an inch in thickness.

Use a 2 1/2 inch round cookie cutter to cut out the shapes. Cut out the centers of half of the rounds with a smaller shape of your choice. Transfer the cookies to your prepared sheets, and chill them for 15 minutes before moving them right into the oven. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, until just barely golden around the edges. Let cool.

Assemble the linzer cookies by spreading 1 teaspoon of the praline paste on a whole cookie, and topping it with a cut-out cookie. Repeat with remaining cookies, and enjoy.

Makes 52 – 60 Cookies; 26 – 30 Sandwiches

Printable Recipe

Bonus! For a gift that keeps on giving, nothing beats a delicious, tried-and-true recipe from a friend. To share this recipe with someone you love, snatch up the free printable recipe card below. Just set your printer to “scale to fit” your paper, trim the excess as needed, fold down the center, and doodle something on the cover, or paste a photo if you prefer.

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