BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Blissfully Delicious

For such a highly-regarded and lauded brand, you’d think it would be a snap to launch new flavors to an existing, successful line of products, to have them gobbled up by an eagerly waiting and hungry fan base. Well, at least half of that statement is true… Coconut Bliss ice creams have always been an easy sell, boasting organic, fair trade, and generally wholesome ingredients, but finding those frozen pints can be another matter entirely. Just as four exciting new flavors were scheduled to launch, disaster struck, and a coconut shortage meant that there wasn’t much Bliss to go around. After waiting for nearly a year and only being able to secure one of those new offerings, I decided to focus on the existing, available flavors instead of only those latest additions. Surely, there was still plenty of delicious ice cream to discover beyond those freshest flavors! Especially considering my latest cookbook venture, it seemed only fair that I get a good taste of the commercially available competition, after all.

Caramel Ginger Cookie, the one new ice cream offering I managed to get my hands on, promises great things even with a merely casual glance. An abundance of cookie pieces are swirled into each easily scooped spoonful, with a thin ribbon of caramel not far behind. Though the base is unmistakably coconut flavored, the addition was not unwelcome here, adding depth and complexity to the light vanilla essence. Rather than providing a crunch, the cookie pieces had softened to an almost cake-like consistency through their trip to the deep freeze, but the rich molasses flavor and gentle warming spices still brought a delightful contrast to the ice cream overall. If only that gooey stripe of caramel was slightly darker, tasting just slightly more burnt, it would be practically perfect.

Failing to find the Mocha Maca Crunch I so desperately craved, I turned instead to another favorite combination, found in the Mint Chip Galactica. Tiny shards of delicate chocolate flakes are strewn throughout the snowy white pint, looking for all the world like a negative photo of a galaxy of chocolate stars, instantly explaining the creative title. Cool, refreshing mint flavor carries this ice cream, tasting like fresh mint leaves without veering into more grassy notes or toothpaste territory. Bright and curiously light considering the rich coconut base, it strikes me as the perfect snack to beat the heat on a summer’s day. The chocolate stracciatella is key to the success of this ice cream, lending a subtle bitter edge that makes the combination all the more satisfying. Sweetened just enough to balance out the pint, it’s like my childhood mint chocolate chip, but all grown up.

Finally, I needed a full-fledged chocolate experience, so I dove into the Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge ice cream with abandon. Sweetened once again with a light hand, this is a strong, slightly bitter chocolate offering for mature palates. Not exactly a full-bodied, rounded chocolate flavor but a really intense cocoa instead, it still covers up the coconut flavor more thoroughly than the previous two pints, making it a more attractive option to those not so crazy about coconuts. Small pieces of hazelnut are hidden within, adding good crunch but seeming to lack in that deep, toasted flavor I craved. However, hands down, the fudge swirl makes this flavor worth a second scoop, adding a delightful gooey texture, and an extra punch of flavor every now and then. Perhaps it’s not one for the kids, but who says you would want to part with even a spoonful in the first place?

Far richer than most vegan ice creams found in the mainstream marketplace, tasting Coconut Bliss for the first time is like discovering super-premium ice cream when you’re accustomed to bulk economy quarts. Though notably pricier than many other options out there, a smaller scoop is likely sufficient to satisfy even the most voracious sweet tooth, so it all evens out with careful portioning. That is, if you can resist the strong temptation to indulge in just a bit more Bliss.


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Nog-Off!

Eggnog: Beaten eggs and cream whisked together into a frothy amalgamation of dairy, sweetened with a heavy hand, spiked with nearly equal parts hard liquor and perhaps brightened with a pinch of nutmeg. Now doesn’t that just sound delicious? Like some bizarre protein shake for alcoholics, it sounds like a beverage created to cause as much pain as the intoxicating additions might be intended to ease. The butt of many jokes and great animosity from detractors, it’s hard to imagine how it was first created, and furthermore, deemed edible. Having felt no compulsion to imbibe for the first 20 years of my life, I will say upfront right now, I have never had “real” eggnog. However, it took going vegan for me to try it at all, and that’s what started the love affair.

Subtract all those nasty bits, remove the alcohol, and you have a whole different beverage, quite literally. Without the fangs, it’s really a sweet, cuddly creature that’s easy to enjoy and hard to feel guilty about. Zero cholesterol and lower calorie counts are a factor luring many non-vegans to the eggless nog party, too. However what counts more than the numbers is the taste, if you ask me. This year, we have more options than ever to fulfill our noggy needs, and after years of plotting a grand show-down, I’m proud to announce the first ever unofficial Vegan Nog-Off! A head-to-head battle between the non-dairy nogs on the market, fighting to the death until the strongest nog is revealed. Okay, nothing quite so dramatic, but just image how exciting that could be!

To understand this sudden 180 degree turn from disgust to adoration, we must first go back in time a bit. Back to the days when Vitasoy still distributed soy milk in the US, and produced the most irresistible seasonal beverage of all, Holly Nog (scroll down to see nog info). I was hooked, no turning back, and couldn’t slurp that sweet nectar down fast enough. My stock pile would hit at least a dozen cartons by the end of December, but would hardly survive January. When Vitasoy pulled back from the US market, I was devastated, but simultaneously inspired to find an equally satisfying replacement. Thus began my eggless nog journey to find the best alternate option.

[If you live in Canada though, you're in luck- Holly Nog is still available in your neck of the woods! The nog pictured above was smuggled over the border thanks to the lovely, generous, and incredibly thoughtful Marika; I couldn't have dreamed of a sweeter holiday gift!]

For American folk like myself, we currently have a grand total of four vegan nog options for this year of 2011; two soy, one coconut, and one rice. The question is, which one is best? The completely unscientific breakdown is as follows, starting with my least favorite and ending with the top nog.

Rice Nog by Rice Dream. This nog is no newcomer to the marketplace, so unfortunately, I already knew I hated it. However, it seems I had forgotten just how much I hated it. Pouring weakly from the carton as a pale shade of pepto-bismal-pink, it’s readily apparent that the consistency is the thinnest of the bunch. Slightly dusty at first taste, with a nice touch of grit at the bottom and an undeniable cereal flavor, this is an option only to reinforce negative nog stereotypes. Avoid at all costs.

Soy Nog by Earth Balance. Upon first whiff, I could have sworn I detected a hint of lemon drink mix powder. Confused but undeterred, I came to enjoy the smooth texture, ranking just a hair thicker than standard soy milk. Appropriately sweet but without much of a spice flavor anywhere to be found, it was quite alright… Until I stopped drinking. At first, I wrote it off as being a bad batch, but 3 cartons later (yes, I am a glutton for punishment, or perhaps, just a glutton), the strange aftertaste of dirt remained. Very subtle, easy to overlook when spiked with some potent spirits, but something I found a bit off-putting.

Silk Nog by Silk. A classic that’s been around the block and back, this staple still endures and ranks highly among the dairy-free and eggless crowds. Sweet enough to be considered dessert, it’s a mild but highly drinkable treat. Thick enough to coat the palate briefly but resist a cloying stickiness, it’s something you don’t need to hide behind other drinks on the holiday party buffet table. I personally wish it had a better punch of spice, but such a complaint can easily be corrected with just a pinch of nutmeg upon serving. Not a bad option at all, with the bonus of being the most widely distributed and easily attainable vegan nog in the US.

Coconut Nog by So Delicious. The winner of the round. It may not be for everyone though, due to the subtle but easily recognizable hint of coconut flavor that hits you initially. That impression does fade as you continue to imbibe, and by then, you’ll find yourself hooked by the sweet, custard-like flavor. Thick like a melted milkshake, this nog has a certain richness that the others lack, bringing it closer to the original decadent inspiration. Granted, it does have a more tropical, almost banana-like flavor, which may horrify true nog drinkers, but for this vegan who’s never had the original, it simply tastes like the holiday spirit, if it were condensed into a drinkable format.

Making your own eggless nog is generally recommended over any store-bought options, due to the ability to adapt and adjust flavors to your own tastes, but we finally have a few strong offerings for the lazy, rushed, or merely curious vegans among us. Congratulations, So Delicious- It really is the year of the coconut!


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It’s All Greek to Me

Nipping at the heels of the latest food trends yet again, Turtle Mountain has managed to combine two powerful buzzwords in one fell swoop: “Coconut” and “Greek yogurt.” As if their plain coconut yogurt, a boon to the dairy-avoidant and soy-intolerant all at once, wasn’t enough, this latest creation manages to up the ante further. So new that I have yet to spot it on grocery store shelves, I was lucky enough to get advanced warning for this latest coconut invention and a box of three unmarked and label-less white containers in the mail. Slated to include 6 flavors in all for this line, I’m still dying to get a taste of the chocolate, strawberry, and plain varieties not included in my small sample package.

What’s most important here, however, is the texture. Without that critical viscosity, there’s little separating this latest offering from their pre-existing line of standard coconut yogurt. Achieving entirely different results from such a small change in the formula could be difficult to believe, but the promises do hold up to scrutiny- Across the board, these Greek yogurts are quite thick, somewhere along the lines of a sour cream consistency. Completely smooth even without stirring, no lumps or chunks to speak of, the richness that each spoonful brings is incredible, especially considering the substantial nutritional content. Insane amounts of fiber mean that one container plus perhaps a side of veggies or a piece of fruit makes for an entirely satisfying meal, which still feels slightly decadent.

Pale purplish-pink in color, the Raspberry Greek yogurt carries not only the seeds of its namesake, but even the tiny raspberry hairs (ie, remnants of the pistals; the female portion of the flower) as well. Much more tangy than sweet, it’s balanced by just enough cane syrup to resist bitterness, but may not be for those expecting a dessert or pudding-like experience. All the better, if you ask me! I for one don’t want to eat candy for lunch, and this option actually offers a complexity of flavors beyond pure sugary sweetness. However, fair-weather coconut friends beware: this yogurt doesn’t attempt to hide its roots, and definitely has a bit of tropical twang.

Blueberry fell a bit short for me, considering my high expectations. Very tangy but low on actual blueberry taste, it seemed to have more color than flavor. Chunks of fruit would have helped, but alas, all that can be found throughout this plastic tub are merely a few scattered seeds, merely proof that perhaps there were once berries involved. Sure, it’s fine, certainly not bad, but boring at best.

Ending on a high note, the Vanilla was the expected redemption to the whole tasting experience. A creamy off-white that reminded me of mayonnaise, I didn’t have very high hopes. Surprisingly, it carried only a slight aftertaste of coconut, and allowed the vanilla flavor space to breathe and be tasted, with a very modest amount of sweetness as well. Not terribly tangy, but mellow and agreeable, it works beautifully as a pairing to countless other treats. Dressed up in a fruit and granola parfait, I had an impressive yet simple and healthy treat in a matter of seconds. Such versatility is really the winning aspect of the Greek yogurt angle, since it’s thickness can stand up to more demanding applications than the typically runny plain yogurt.

Though there wasn’t enough of any flavor to spare for recipe experiments, rest assured that those won’t be far behind… Especially when I can get my hands on some plain Greek yogurt, there are endless possibilities for both sweet and savory baking!


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Oldie but Goodie

Recipes come and go as the years pass, but coconuts are forever. At least, the latest coconut craze seems like its a trend that could last until the end of eternity. Looking back on older posts where I declared 2009 the “year of the coconut,” I have to wonder what that made 2010, and now 2011, too, because that tropical fruit was still king of the health food castle last time I checked.

Not everything is the same since that original review though. Branding has become more dangerous, a fine line between enticing and deceiving customer, and wording on packages more careful. You’ll no longer find coconut kefir in the marketplace, but “cultured coconut beverages” instead. Same thing, new name. Perhaps it was deemed a more accurate description of the opaque bottles’ contents, or just a more approachable label for those intimidated by fermented edibles, but I can’t say for sure. All I do know is that it can still make a mean stack of pancakes.

Though these pancakes originally showed up around the same time as that review post, I never shared the recipe. Unsurprisingly, the no-bake “kefir” cheesecake stole the spotlight at the time. It’s a damn shame, because these are some of the fluffiest pancakes to escape my frying pan, and the added nuance of subtle coconut flavor adds an irresistible element of salty, savory goodness. Their naturally tropical flavor makes them the perfect fit for a summer breakfast or brunch, but still every bit as tasty served up in any season.

If you can’t find the cultured coconut beverage in your area, you could very happily substitute 1 cup of plain coconut yogurt plus 1/2 cup of plain coconut beverage (or any non-dairy milk) instead. To really bump up the coconut flavor if you want more than a gentle hint, add a splash of coconut extract.

Fluffy Coconut Pancakes

1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Coconut Flour
1 Tablespoon Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
Pinch Salt
1 1/2 Cups Original (Plain) Cultured Coconut Beverage
1/3 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Canola Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Like most pancakes, these couldn’t be easier to whip up. Just combine both flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl, and whisk to distribute all of the dry goods. Separately, stir together the coconut beverage, water, oil, and vanilla, and then pour these liquids into the large bowl as well. Whisk just to combine; a few lumps are just fine here, so don’t over-mix.

Place a large (preferably non-stick) skillet over medium heat, and very lightly grease. Use about 3 – 4 tablespoons of batter for each pancake, and cook on the first side for 4 – 6 minutes, until bubbles burst on the top and they feel sturdy enough to flip. Flip, and cook on the second side for an additional 2 – 5 minutes, until golden and fully cooked through in the center. Serve immediately, or keep warm in an oven preheated on the “warm” setting.

PS, for a treat that combines the best of breakfast and dessert, try a short stack of these babies with a generous scoop of coconut ice cream on top!

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Coconut Oil Craze

No longer seen as the evil cholesterol killer it was once billed as, coconut oil has been practically reborn within the span of a year, now sitting proudly in health food stores right along with the other miracle cures and potions. Though I don’t quite buy into the whole craze, it always struck me as being every bit as worthy of the limelight as any other plant-based cooking fat, so congratulations to the coconut for its sudden redemption. The real difference for me comes not in the perception, but in the choices. Once upon a time, few sources for a high quality, food grade option existed, and now the marketplace has been flooded by a veritable downpour of tropical cooking fats, each one touting at least one or two of the latest buzz words: “Unrefined,” “Organic,” and “Fresh-Pressed” are popular slogans, each bottle chanting nearly the same health mantra at exactly the same volume. So, what’s a curious cook to do? Start tasting, of course.

Kelapo is a new brand to me, but when they offered me a sample, I was very much intrigued to see how it would compare to my standby, Tropical Traditions, which can conveniently be ordered in bulk, at very reasonable prices. Unassuming at first glace and looking very much like all of the other solid, white bricks available these days, I wasn’t expecting any revolutionary discoveries within the rotund twist-top jar. And yet, that first spoonful surprised me- Instead of scraping off shards of completely hardened oil, that flimsy wooden spoon slipped right in, yielding a dollop of creamy oil as soft as (non-dairy) butter. Already, I could see the new possibilities.

Slathered on toast and unadorned, this could be the new breakfast staple everyone will be talking about. No kidding, that subtle but sweet nuttiness adds richness beyond just fat, and amazingly, it actually spreads at room temperature with no muss or fuss. Though the flavor is admittedly comparable to most other coconut oils, it’s the consistency that really sets it apart.

Craving a classic movie-theater style tub of popcorn, it’s practically a matter of luck that most theaters have been popping their kernels in the tropical stuff for decades, and that same flavor is so readily available at home now. With a light sprinkle of fine sea salt, a handful of coconut oil-popped corn is quite a treat, movie night or not.

Not content to leave such a versatile ingredient alone, it struck me as the perfect start to a rich caramel sauce, ideal for topping everything from ice cream to cake to waffles. The experimentation certainly won’t end right here, but for now, I think I have a naked stack of pancakes and a big jar of this golden elixir to attend to…

Coconut Caramel Sauce

1 1/4 Cups Granulated Sugar
5 Tablespoons Light Agave Nectar
2 Tablespoons Water
1 Cup Coconut Milk
1/3 Cup Coconut Oil
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

In a medium sauce pan with high sides, combine the sugar, agave and water, and set over moderate heat. Allow the sugar to dissolve completely and continue cooking gently without stirring. Swirl the pan gently to keep the contents moving, as necessary.

Meanwhile, heat the coconut milk, oil, ginger, and salt together in a separate pot, just until the mixture comes to the brink of boiling. Set aside.

Now is the time to pay full attention to the pot of sugar. You should see caramelization starting to occur slowly, and at that point, you should keep swirling the contents of the pot fairly steadily to get even browning and prevent burning. Continue cooking until the liquid sugar is a deep amber brown just barely beginning to smoke, and very quickly pour all of the hot coconut milk in to stop the caramelization. Stand back slightly when you do this and make sure your face is not right over the pot, as this can sputter and spit quite severely- Be careful!

Once the bubbling subsides, stir gently and cook for a minute or so longer, as the sugar on the bottom may briefly solidify. Stir just until the mixture is fully combined and liquified, and turn off the heat. Incorporate the vanilla, and let cool briefly before serving, or transferring to glass jars for storage.

Make About 2 Cups

Printable Recipe


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A Breath of Fresh Air

Going through the motions of the daily grind, beginning with the same flavors and same approaches everyday, everything starts to taste the same after a while. It’s simply so easy to get lost in the same cycle of cookies and cakes, cookies and cakes, that all the other options slowly fade from memory. Plated desserts? Part of another life time, from a whole different skill set. That so much time has elapsed without something more spectacular on these virtual pages is a downright shame, and now awoken by spring and craving a positive change, something that I plan to correct.

Starting slow, this fairly humble panna cotta, composed of rich coconut milk and complimented by thai-inspired aromatics such as lemongrass and galangal is an easy composition with complex flavors. Though mine was garnished with excess matcha coating leftover from my peppermint patties, molded into leaf shapes, it was ultimately agreed that a plain fresh mint leaf would have made for a more pleasing, light finish.  Successful plated desserts don’t have to call for the most complicated preparation possible, after all!

Topped off with pineapple cubes sauteed lightly in brown sugar and surrounded by a generous pool of raspberry sauce, each plate remains very light and refreshing, while nicely satisfying the craving for a sweet ending. Perfect for serving after a heavier meal, this would be ideal to whip out after any spring brunch, or either Easter or Passover (yes, it is “accidentally” pasedich!)

Lemongrass Panna Cotta:

1 13.5-Ounce Can Coconut Milk
2 Cups Water
2 Stalks Fresh Lemongrass
1/2 Cup Fresh Mint Leaves, Loosely Packed
Zest of 1/2 Lemon
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Agar Agar Powder

Sautéed Pineapple:

1 Cup Chopped Pineapple, Fresh or Frozen and Thawed
1 Tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Galangal or Ginger
Pinch Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Raspberry Sauce
Fresh Mint Leaves, for Garnish (Optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine the coconut milk and water, and set over medium-low heat. Whisk well, and set aside.

To extract the most flavor out of your lemongrass, you’re going to have to get rough with it; Don’t be afraid to show it who’s in charge. Take the flat of your knife to the side of each stalk, and bash the living daylights out of them. Then, chop them up into pieces as small as you can manage- But don’t drive yourself crazy. They’re very fibrous, so it will be difficult to get the stalks very fine. Next, lightly mince the mint leaves, and slice of the lemon zest in long strips. Add all of these aromatic ingredients into the coconut milk mixture. Bring the liquid up to a boil, clamp on the lid, and then turn off the heat. Allow your flavorings to infuse for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour.

Set out 6 – 8 4-ounce custard cups or ramekins to prepare for the finished dessert. If you wish to unmold them and serve your panna cottas as photographed above, lightly grease the insides, or leave them alone if you plan to serve the panna cotta right out the dishes.

Once properly infused, strain the mixture through a fine cheesecloth, and return the liquid to the pot. Mix together the sugar and agar in a separate dish first to make sure that the agar is fully dispersed throughout the sweetener, before pouring both into the pot. Whisk thoroughly, and turn the heat up to medium. Stir occasionally until the liquid comes up to a boil, and then cook, stirring vigorously, for another minute.

Pour the hot, liquid panna cotta into your prepared dishes. Let cool out at room temperature for a full 2 hours before transferring them into the fridge, to prevent syneresis. Wait until fully chilled before serving.

For the pineapple topping, simply combine all of the ingredients in a small sauté pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring often but gently so as not to break up the pineapple pieces. They should take just 5 – 10 minutes on the heat, simply to dissolve the sugar and soften up the fruit a bit. Let cool, and either serve on top of the panna cottas while still warm, or chilled.

To complete the plated dessert, tip out on panna cotta onto a plate, and top with a spoonful of sautéed pineapple. Pour a ladleful of raspberry sauce around the base, and finish it off with a sprig of mint on top. Repeat with the remaining desserts.

Serves 6 – 8

Printable Recipe

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