BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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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Citrus, Spice, and Everything Nice

Rather than just talk and tease about delicious homemade cookies, how about we get down to the knitty gritty, bust out the flour and sugar, and get serious about this holiday baking business?

To be frank, I hate doing what’s expected of me, so it would only follow suit that I can’t stand to give the same old Christmas cookies every year. Biscotti are classics, tried and true, so perfect for shipping thanks to their sturdy structure. Not in a million years would I whip up a batch that was merely almond, or chocolate chip, or another standard (albeit delightful!) flavor, however. This year, the dreary weather has me searching out some citrus sunshine, with an invigorating punch of spice.

Bright, bold flavors help to combat the slowly advancing grey days of winter. In a time when fewer fruits are ripe and fresh inspiration is harder to come by, a well stocked spice rack is key. Transforming the traditionally savory spices of the kitchen into something sweeter, black pepper and cayenne liven up these crisp biscotti, ideal for dunking in tea or coffee. Adding a bold hit of lemon zest to finish it off is guaranteed to wake anyone up and out of hibernation.

Lemon-Pepper Biscotti

2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
Zest of 2 Medium-Sized Lemons (About 3 Tablespoons)
1/2 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
Pinch Dried Red Pepper Flakes
1 6-Ounce Container (3/4 Cup) Plain Soy or Coconut “Yogurt”
2 Tablespoons Smooth Almond Butter
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
2 Tablespoons Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt just to combine. Zest the lemons directly into the dry goods and toss to distribute, along with the black pepper and cayenne. Follow that with the vegan yogurt, almond butter, and vanilla. Use a wide spatula to incorporate the wet ingredients thoroughly. The mixture will still be rather dry, but it should start to come together into a cohesive ball of dough. Drizzle in one tablespoon of non-dairy milk at a time, until the dough is no longer dry but not quite sticky.

Divide the dough in half and shape each piece on your prepared baking sheet. Form the dough into equally sized logs, 2 inches apart from each other and about an 1 1/2 wide by 8 or 9 inches long. The exact measurements aren’t critical, but make sure that the logs are rather skinny and long, and not mounded up higher than an inch or so. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, until lightly golden brown and top. Remove the biscotti logs from the oven on but leave the heat on. Let the loaves cool for at least 15 minutes.

Using a serrated knife, cut the biscotti into 1/2 – 3/4 inch slices and lay them with the cut side down on a fresh piece of parchment or cleaned silpat. Return them to the oven and bake for another 10 – 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Flip the biscotti over the other cut side and repeat. Let cool completely before removing them from the baking sheet.

Makes 2 – 3 Dozen Biscotti

Printable Recipe


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Cookies, Cookies Everywhere…

But not a bite to eat. At least, that’s how it can feel like for someone with multiple food restrictions. Holiday parties bring with them countless treats, always including scores of baked morsels of all imaginable colors, sizes, and flavors. Being vegan no longer poses the same sort of dilemma to the savvy guest or host, but a vegan with allergies? Those can be treacherous waters to navigate, especially at a time of excess. While others feel free to indulge, that relaxed stance can make it even trickier to find foods unrefined or uncontaminated. Happily, every year brings new and increasingly delicious options, as awareness of alternative diets increases and bakers grow more experimental in the kitchen. For anyone still lacking in inspiration, the winter edition of Allergic Living comes in the nick of time, featuring two treats in particular that will wow eaters of all persuasions.

It’s always a pleasure to photograph Alisa Fleming‘s recipes, but her Hot Chocolate Cookies seemed to be made especially with me in mind. Throw marshmallows on top of anything and I’m all over it, but that deeply fudgy, chewy base that they sit upon has a lot to offer all by itself.

For a more dainty delight, the Vanilla-Chai Sandwich Cookies are just the ticket. With a shortbread-like texture so impossibly tender that each bite seems to melt in your mouth, few pairings of cookie and filling have been so successful in my experience. Each layer blends effortlessly into the next, while still providing enough textural contrast to keep things interesting. A handful of chai sandwiches would be the perfect ending to a big holiday feast, or wrapped up in pretty cellophane bags as gifts.

Whoever still says there aren’t delicious options for those with allergies just isn’t looking hard enough!


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Feed Your Hungryface

It’s a small world after all. The blogosphere brings together people from the furthest pockets of the Earth, and yet somehow the perception of an immense distance remains between even “real life” friends. After lurking about on Vanessa’s blog and admiring her tasty recipes for a good number of years, it would never in my wildest dreams have occurred to me that she might be closer much than I thought. Upon learning about her latest sweet venture, Hungryface Bakery, that imagined gap was compressed down to nothing when she suddenly arrived at my doorstep bearing boxes of incredible treats. Rather than ship them, it was easier and faster for her to cross a few town lines and meet me face to face. I’m still reeling at how dangerously close such a talented source of delicious baked goods is to my home!

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Vanessa takes the same stance on baking vegan as I do, which means that the fruits of her labor are just damned good eats that happen to be vegan. No more qualifiers, no more excuses. Vegan desserts aught to be held to the same standard as any others, so it’s heartening to see this point of view in those who really can spread the word- And sweetness. Her current selection ranges from cookies to tea cakes, all available to ship anywhere in the US, even if you aren’t as lucky to be practically neighbors with the baker herself.

Heart of Darkness Brownies are the most visually arresting of the group; Bars that are this dark and dense are guaranteed to be a rich chocolate experience. Living up to their outward appearance, each bite packed a punch of full-frontal fudge goodness, offset by deep, dark notes of roasted espresso. A minefield of chocolate chips, hidden by the pitch black surroundings they’re buried in, just a few bites would satisfy even the most voracious chocoholic.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Moon & Stars Shortbread glittered with a topping of snowy white granulated sugar, covering a dense yet delicate, buttery cookie. Slightly bitter thanks to the smattering of toasted black sesame seeds woven throughout that soft yet crisp crumb, a restrained dose sweetness balanced out the whole equation perfectly. Periodic bites of chocolate were also a surprising delight to discover within. A subtle aroma of coconut lends a slightly exotic undertone, making it reminiscent of an Asian chocolate chip cookie.

Another standout was the Earl Grey Tea Cake. Straddling that fine line between muffin and cupcake, it’s certainly sweet enough to be right at home on a dessert platter, but has a more sturdy, substantial crumb, and of course no superfluous frosting to cover up the delicate flavors of tea. Whole tea leaves impart a floral and slightly citrus flavor throughout the moist miniature cakes, accented with a bright spike of sea salt to really draw out the full intensity of typically demure earl grey. Though packed with tea already, they would indeed make an excellent accompaniment to a cup of one, too.

Pistachio Cherry Shortbread stays true to its name and tastes like actually pistachios, which is a subtle and difficult flavor to convey in any baked good. Seemingly sweeter than the previous offerings, for some odd reason these reminded me of strawberry marshmallows, of all things. Though plenty delicious, they seemed out of place amongst the other more adventurous pairings. By comparison, it was simply a bit too tame.

Building up expectations pretty high with a name like The Sugar Cookie to End All Sugar Cookies, these flat, monstrous frisbees of cookie dough have a classically homey appearance that implores you to dive right in. Perfectly chewy, through and through, Vanessa nails the texture, which is arguably the single most important aspect of a solid sugar cookie. Subtle hint of brown sugar adds complexity, but these are really straight-forward, simple sugar cookies, sure to please younger palates as well.

My very first whiff of the Drunken Shortbread tells me that these will be a doozy. Thankfully, the cookie’s aren’t as powerfully alcoholic as they first threaten, but a comfortable undercurrent of bourbon is constantly present from the first bite to the last. Chocolate chips lined up neatly on top like the buttons on a double-breasted jacket add just enough interest to keep the cookie from becoming monotonous. These melt-in-your-mouth tender bars are sophisticated with a touch of whimsy; not too sweet, and just a little bit naughty.

The creative flavor pairings matched up in Hungryface Bakery are what set them apart from the pack, but the superb execution of each individual offering is what will keep the curious coming back. Even if you’re a passionate baker, it’s nice to take a break and let someone else fire up the oven to satisfy your sweet cravings every now and then. Rather than give in to the siren song of stale, store-bought biscuits, take the time to order online. These cookies tastes about a hundred time better and fresher because they’re all still handmade.


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The Ultimate Ice-Breaker

You may not yet find the VegNews July/August 2012 issue on newsstands or in your mailbox, but because advance issues are now available online, I see that as free rein to start talking about it. Honestly, I can’t help myself- The summer edition is always a joy to work on, now that fresh fruits and vegetables are flooding back into stores, and every recipe sounds equally compelling. Best of all, it means I can bust out the frozen and chilled treats like there’s no tomorrow, better suited to tempering the summer sun than any blast of artificial air conditioning. Returning triumphantly with my thrice annual column, this sweet idea is one grand finale that will beat the pants off of picnic fruit salads and watery popsicles.

Key Lime Icebox Cake, complete with dozens of crunchy macadamia-flecked cookies and a tropical coconut and citrus creme. A single towering cake feeds a crowd with ease, and is best after sitting in the chill chest for at least a day, so advance prep makes it an ideal party guest. It’s the dessert that friends and family will be talking about long after the crowds go home and the summer sun goes back into hibernation. Yes, it’s that good.

It shouldn’t be long now before the issue officially lands, so you may as well start clearing space for this cake in your fridge right now!


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A Recipe is a Terrible Thing to Waste

New cookbooks are born every day and the internet is flooded in a sea of recipes, free and for profit, good and bad, garnering raves and rants alike. Still, it seems that the hunger for more can never be satisfied, and the quest to continue creating is never ending. For as many recipes as I make, some get lost in the shuffle, or forgotten in the archives like that lone jar of mustard pushed to the back of the fridge. Luckily, in this case at least, these things don’t go bad. No matter when they’re rediscovered, they taste as fresh as the day they were made. When it comes time to clean out the shelves, or the digital file cabinet, there can be all sort of delightful surprises.

However, I might argue that these dead-easy cookie bars are better than finding a half-used jar of old mustard. Both creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty, and chocolatey all over, the combination of these few ingredients tastes something like a cross between peanut butter cups and party mix. Invented on one cold day in the college dorms when few ingredients could be scrounged up, these humble pantry staples were all I had to work with, but did they ever exceed expectations. Sliced into generous chunks and left on the kitchen table to share, not a crumb remained by nightfall. I like to think that these crowd-pleasing treats won me a couple more friends that day.

Rediscovered and revamped to better suit my current baking style, this seemed like the perfect time to bring these sweet squares back to life and into the public eye. What might have spurred on their overdue reveal? Why, the Earth Balance Spring to Life Contest! Made with their creamy peanut butter, I can’t imagine a more rich, nutty topping to crown these jewels. Though the competition is already underway, the entry period for desserts will be opening on Monday, April 30th, and now I’m ready to join the fray with this stunningly simple recipe. Bake up a storm this weekend and join me- Of course I’d love to win, but moreover, I want new winning recipes to add to my collection!

Peanut Butter Fudge Pretzel Bars

Pretzel Crust:

3/4 Cup White Whole Wheat or All Purpose Flour
3/4 Cup Coarsely Ground Pretzels
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/2 Cup Earth Balance Buttery Spread
2 – 4 Tablespoons Water

Peanut Butter Fudge Topping:

12 Ounces (2 Cups) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips or Chunks
1/4 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1 Cup Earth Balance Creamy Peanut Butter
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Cup Roughly Crushed Pretzel Twists

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 8 x 8 inch square baking pan.

Mix together the flour, ground pretzels, and sugar in a medium mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter or a fork, cut in the margarine until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Drizzle in the water, one tablespoon at a time, until the crumbs come together into a cohesive dough. Transfer to your prepared pan, and press the dough firmly and evenly into the bottom. Bake for 20 – 24 minutes until golden brown all over. Allow to cool for at least ten minutes before proceeding.

Place the chocolate pieces and agave in a microwave-safe container. Heat on full power for one minute. Stir vigorously, and add the peanut butter. Heat once more for about 30 seconds and stir again thoroughly, until completely smooth. If the chocolate hasn’t all melted yet, continue heating in 30-second increments on half power until the mixture is perfectly smooth. Mix in the vanilla, and quickly pour over the cooled crust. Sprinkle the crushed pretzels evenly over the top, and be generous! It may seem like a lot, but you want to almost completely cover the fudge layer. Use the palms of your hands to gently press the pieces in so that they adhere.

Refrigerate for about 1 hour, until firm. Slice into bars or squares, and let come back up to room temperature before serving. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature, in one layer. Though the fudge is firm enough, stacking squares is a bad idea because they’re likely to smear and become extremely messy.

Makes 12 – 16 Bar Cookies

Printable Recipe


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In [Lemon] Mint Condition

Years ago, back when a trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house really was a trek through the woods, and quite a few miles, I would spend the long car ride anticipating all of the goodies to come. Nothing less than the perfect grandparents, they kept their home stocked with the foods that my young, underdeveloped palate adored, and often was denied in most circumstances. It was as if they went grocery shopping with just us kids in mind. Cabinets stacked high with dried pasta, we could have chosen a new shape each visit and still have never run out of new whimsical noodles to try. Candy dishes decorated every spare flat surface, and I recall on more than one occasion slipping away to “play piano” in order to get dibs on the mint chocolates stashed on the glossy wooden lid.

Best of all, though, was the spare fridge in the basement. That’s where the real treasure was hidden: the cookies.

Perhaps they had a penchant for buying in bulk, but it seemed as though there were never fewer than a half-dozen open packages to pick at. Eaten right away, with the refrigerator’s cool breath still clinging to them, chilling each morsel to the core, it was a unique experience that made even mundane, store-bought baked goods seem somehow special. My absolute favorites were the big, crisp cookies covered in so much powdered sugar that you couldn’t help but spray some of the white sweetness all over your clothes, and the surrounding furniture, as you ate. I never learned the name of those cookies and haven’t seen the exact ones since, but they sound a whole lot like the discontinued lemon coolers, a classic Girl Scouts offering.

With the annual Girl Scouts’ harassment in full-swing, these sweets immediately came to mind, and I couldn’t resist a little trip down memory lane. A bit more grown up than those original cookies, my version adds a bright splash of peppermint to the party, replicating that cooling sensation I enjoyed so much. For the full experience, you’ve simply got to store them in the fridge… Although considering how easy they are to eat, I can’t promise that will allow them to last any longer!

Lemon-Mint Cooler Cookies

1/2 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
Zest of 1 Lemon
2 – 4 Drops Peppermint Oil, or 1/4 – 1/2 Teaspoons Peppermint Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/4 Teaspoon Baking Soda
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla

1/2 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar

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

In the bowl of your stand mixer, thoroughly cream together the margarine and granulated sugar using the paddle attachment. Pause periodically to scrape down the side of the bowl as necessary. Once the mixture is homogeneous and fluffy, add in the lemon zest, peppermint, and salt, and mix to combine. Introduce the flour and baking soda next, starting the mixer on a slow speed until the flour is mostly incorporated, to prevent the dry goods from flying out and re-decorating the kitchen. Finally, add the lemon juice and vanilla. It may seem as though the mixture is too dry to come together, but be patient and keep mixing; it will eventually form cohesive dough. Resist the urge to add more liquid!

Scoop out walnut-sized balls and roll them between your palms to achieve smooth spheres. Place them at least 1-inch apart on your prepared baking sheets, and flatten them out slightly. Bake for 12 – 15 minutes, or until the bottom edges just begin to brown. Carefully pull the cookie-topped silpats or baking sheets off of the hot sheet pans, and let rest for 5 minutes before tossing them in the confectioner’s sugar. Let cool completely before enjoying. Better yet, store them in the fridge for an even more cooling treat!

Makes 2 Dozen Cookies

Printable Recipe

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