BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Like it or not, modern Honolulu is a rapidly changing world city, adapting local traditions to incoming waves of global inspiration. Although most are quick to take issue with bigger construction projects that are literally transforming and modifying the landscape as we know it, it’s a more positive and exciting proposition from a culinary standpoint. Every return visit turns up fresh eateries, new businesses, and inspiring young entrepreneurs eager to strike out on their own in paradise. It was pure luck that I caught wind of Banán, a tiny operation serving simple, sweet treats out of a stationary food truck, having opened right smack in the middle of my Oahu itinerary.

Quite simply, Banán is bananas. 100% banana soft serve treats in a variety of flavors, to be precise, and plenty of toppings to complement your fruity treats. The only things added to this refreshing base are either additional fruits or herbs for taste; no sugar nor dairy need apply. On a hot January day, there’s no better reward after a brisk hike up Diamond Head, which makes their nearby location on Monsarrat Ave. and accommodating hours ideal.

Unfalteringly generous with samples, the patient and kind scooper on duty successfully convinced me to order a flavor different from my intended pick- A considerable feat indeed. Basil sounds like a dubious pairing with banana, which is why I initially wrote it off as a trendy gimmick while perusing the options in advance. In reality though, this bright green blend sparkles with fresh, herbaceous flavor not unlike mint, regarded as a more conventional dessert addition.

Toppings are 50 cents each or 3 for $1.00, so go for broke and pile them on. The puffed quinoa in particular is a must, introducing both a satisfying crunch and nutty, toasted flavor to the mix. A study in contrasts, just a small sprinkle on top balances out any of the creamy concoctions with ease.

But perhaps I ordered too quickly. Hastily making my selection out of hunger and impatience, my companions quickly trumped my conventional order with custom requests. Combining two flavors in one bowl turned out to be no trouble at all, creating an even wider range of flavor sensations. Luckily, good friends that they are, everyone was more than happy to share the bounty. Ginger-Mint came in as a close second when I took stock of my favorites, but the berry notes of the Acai blend were quite appealing as well.

Upgrade your frozen confection further by trading in the classic cardboard waffle cone or cup for juicy, ripe papaya. Yes, another papaya boat worthy of your time, especially because these fruits are grown locally, and Banán takes the model of sustainability one step further by composting the discarded skins.

Banán sets itself apart from the pack by offering a genuinely healthy treat where few alternatives exist, but even more importantly, by fostering a sense of community by being so keenly aware of their impact. It’s the kind of small business we could truly use everywhere, but no matter how you slice it, this one is distinctly Hawaii grown, through and through.


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Smart Sweets

Though self-prescribed with good intentions, a striking majority of New Year’s resolutions are imagined in a world of extremes. Everything is painted in black and white; there is success and failure, productivity and laziness, good or bad foods. The temptation to simplify the complex “rules” of the road is great for those most desperate for change, especially when so much mainstream advice points in that very direction. What excitement is there in moderation? How could you sell anything based on common sense?

Quite frankly, I’m sick of this all-or-nothing approach. Resolutions themselves are not the problem, but the way society holds us to them. Friends, I’m not expert on the matter, but if you want my advice, I think we should make a bit more room in this renewed healthy eating regimen for chocolate.

As with all healthy eating choices, quality is absolutely essential for success, which is exactly what Vega has built their reputation on. Though best known for their powdered protein and meal-replacement shakes, I was naturally drawn more to their enticing array of snacking selections. Given the opportunity to investigate these unsung heroes further, I knew from the start that it would somehow end in a deceptively decadent dessert. Maca Chocolate Bars provided the real inspiration, with their gently earthy, mineral-y quality and slightly bitter edge calling out for a touch more sweetness to round out the deep cacao flavors. Lovers of deep, dark, serious chocolate would love them as is, but for someone coming off of a holiday sugar high, I must admit that my palate calls for something a bit less intense.

Incorporating the brilliantly “Karamelized” SaviSeed, roasted and sugar-coated Inca peanuts, for a satisfying crunch, Nava Atlas’ fool-proof recipe for unbaked brownies seemed custom made for just these ingredients. A few easy substitutions yielded the tastiest, yet healthiest, raw brownie that has ever passed my lips. As the original formula proves, however, no specialty ingredients need apply; switch up the fruits, nuts, and chocolate for equally delicious treats that will help keep your resolutions on track. I’ve successfully used raisins instead of prunes, almonds instead of cashews, and regular dark chocolate, in additional to Nava’s suggestions, all to the same enthusiastic reception. You have my sweet-toothed word that they don’t taste the least bit like “health food,” and you will never regret savoring that one extra square.

Mega Maca Brownies
Adapted from Nava Atlas’ Unbaked Fudgy Brownies from Plant Power

1 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Pitted Prunes
3 Tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
4 (1.4 Ounce) Maca Chocolate Bars, Finely Chopped, Divided
1/4 Cup Sacha Inchi, Roughly Chopped

Place the cashews in your food processor and pulse until ground to a fine powder. Add in the prunes, cocoa powder, vanilla, salt, and half of the chopped chocolate. Pulse once more to incorporate, processing until the mixture holds together when pressed. Be patient, as this may take a few minutes.

Add the remaining chocolate along with the sacha inchi and pulse just briefly to distribute the goodies throughout the mixture. These final additions should be roughly chopped but still easily visible. You don’t want to puree the whole thing, since it’s much more satisfying with a bit of texture left in it.

Transfer the mixture to a lightly greased 8 x 8-inch square pan. Use a wide spatula to press it evenly into the bottom before stashing it in the fridge. Chill for at least an hour before slicing and serving. Keep leftovers covered and stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week, or in the freezer for up to a month.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Having a Ball

Talk about a whirl-wind holiday! Is it just me, or did this whole festive day seem to be eclipsed by the madness leading up to it? So much fuss for such a little event, Christmas already feels like a thing of the past, long gone and mostly forgotten. Of course, a few strong drinks no doubt enhances that sensation, and I must claim at least partial responsibility for that this year. While I remain a staunch non-drinker, I have admittedly developed a penchant for alcoholic additions to sweets. This curious dissonance grew more pronounced when my grandma generously gifted me with the better part of her liquor cabinet, previously languishing amongst the bulk wrapping paper and excess Tupperware in the cellar. Glistening bottles of Cassis, Grand Marnier, Framboise, and so many more all beckoned, splashing about beguilingly in the most innocent way a potential poison can manage. Carrying armloads of the ornate glass containers up the stairs and cramming them greedily into an overstuffed bag, little did I know just how these colorful liquids would soon paint my holiday season.

Oh, did I ever have a ball- And I made sure that everyone else had at least a dozen of their own, too! It started simply with my “famous” Pecan Pie Truffles, but all pretense of moderation quickly devolved from there. For friends, family, and anyone who happened to cross my path for the next few weeks, I crafted boozy peppermint mocha bites, chocolatey little numbers enriched with both Kahlúa and Creme de Mènthe. Next there were drunken apple jacks, living up to their names with a generous splash of Applejack to round out a cinnamon-spiced graham cracker base. By far, though, my favorite ball of the bunch were the Speculoos Rum Balls, sticking with the traditional addition of rum, but shaking things up with ground speculoos cookies, a touch of cocoa, and a creamy smear of speculoos spread. The combination of rum and brown sugar biscuits was positively intoxicating, and I swear that’s not just the alcohol’s doing.

There must have been at least 200 balls all told. Nonetheless, every last one was gleefully gobbled up before I realized what a gem I had inadvertently created for New Year’s celebrations as well. Only when it came time to edit the photos did I realize that my pick of the litter, decorated with sparkling pearlized sugar, looked just like the Times Square Ball due to drop at midnight in a scant few days from now. Although I’m quite excited to attend my very first Pineapple Drop this year instead, I don’t see why another round of speculoos balls wouldn’t be a welcome way to celebrate 2015 all the same.

Speculoos Rum Balls

1 7-Ounce Box (About 1 3/4 Cups) Finely Ground Speculoos Cookie Crumbs
1 3/4 Cups Cashew Meal or Almond Meal
1 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1/4 Cup Natural Cocoa Powder
1/2 Cup Smooth Speculoos Spread
1/2 Cup Dark Rum

1/3 – 1/2 Cup Pearlized Silver Sugar, Sprinkles, or Additional Cookie Crumbs for Rolling

It’s flat-out impossible to ruin rum balls, so let’s keep this tutorial brief, shall we? Simply combine the ground cookies, nut meal of choice, sugar, and cocoa powder in a large bowl. Add in the speculoos spread and rum, and stir thoroughly to incorporate. The resulting mixture will be very thick; you may want to get in there and use your hands to make sure that there are no remaining pockets of dry ingredients. Once fully mixed, use a small cookie scoop or standard spoon to dole out tablespoon-sized pieces. Roll them into balls and then toss them in the sugar or sprinkles, until fully coated.

Store in an air-tight container at room temperature for about a week, or in the fridge for up to a month.

Makes 40 – 50 Balls

Printable Recipe


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The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap

Who hasn’t landed on a lavishly curated new blog, garnished with extravagant photos tucked between every mouthwatering paragraph, and cursed the fact that the potential for smell-o-vision technology has not been fully realized yet? Better yet, where are those edible 3-D printer inks when you need them? It’s the best and worst aspects of the blogosphere that are inseparable: Inspiring recipes from all corners of the globe can be instantly beamed into your home, but the ferocious hunger that they incite cannot be be satisfied by mere visuals alone. Although this far-flung community is closer than many social groups in real life, it’s hard to bridge that physical gap when you can’t just reach out and share a cookie with your friends.

Thus, the annual Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap is nothing short of a holiday miracle. Started in 2011, I only regret jumping onto this bandwagon so late in the game. Imagining the joy that my own homemade cookies might spread, the moments that their sweetness might brighten, kept my oven churning even through the stress of work deadlines. Finally having like-minded recipients for my sugared creations was a singular thrill, but admittedly, it wasn’t my only motivation. Tired of winter dinner parties where all meals ended with a cacophony of eggs and butter, I wanted some special holiday cookies for myself, gosh darn it!

Sending out three carefully wrapped parcels and anticipating three others in return, my already lofty expectations were far exceeded by the sweetness soon to arrive.

The Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies from Happy To Be a Table of Two were the first guests to check in at this sugar-fueled gathering. The brilliant aroma of chocolate and cinnamon mingled in the air before the zip-lock bag was even unsealed, and I knew I would be in for a treat. Tender, soft, and supple, each generous round was the perfect texture, made even more impressive due to the time and travel involved. Every bite packs in an ideal amount of chips to add bursts of rich chocolate flavor without dominating the whole cookie. A delightful combination of flavors that seems well suited for all seasons, this is one recipe I’m definitely adding into my collection.

The next, truly outstanding creation came courtesy of Loose Leaf Vegan. Her impeccable Chai Thumbprint Cookies rang with a measured balance of salt and spices, culminating in luscious pools of toothsome fudge on top. Supported by a pillow-y yet satisfyingly dense base, the rich chocolate filling absolutely put these morsels over the top. I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it though, since I selfishly horded, and have since eaten, every last cookie by myself. The baked beauties are just too good to share.

Unfortunately, the final package didn’t fare as well in the hands of our good old postal system. Delivered with a resounding thud at the front door, it’s no surprise that the contents were crumbled to almost indistinguishable grains of sand. At least two or three good bites survived intact, and I was still able to savor the Orange Almond Cookies and Chocolate Vanilla Swirl Cookies baked by Not So Cheesy Kitchen. Of the two buttery shortbread cookies, I was particularly fond of the subtle citrus notes in the former. Though I could have eaten a boxful in that one sitting, I was happy to get a fine sampling all the same.

As for my own contribution to this grand exchange, I shared a few dozen Speculoos (AKA Cookie Butter) Pinwheel Cookies. Rolled with a stripe of chocolate dough, the trendy brown sugar and cinnamon spread sings with harmonious contrasting tastes. That recipe is one I’ve shared with Go Dairy Free, so please pop on over there to grab the details.

This was my very first cookie swap of any sort, and I can tell you without hesitation that it certainly won’t be my last.


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Planting the Seed to Sweet Success

Milk candy, milk jam, dulce de leche, or just plain caramel: Comparisons are easily made, but thick and creamy cajeta is truly a step above all the other simple burnt sugar toppings out there.

Inspired by Brian Huston, my take on this classic milk confection is a modern departure from the typical goat milk base. He is a BlueStar All-Star chef, so I knew this basic formula would be the best place to start my recipe experiment. (In case you don’t know about BlueStar, they are makers of restaurant-quality kitchen appliances for the home chef. They are based in the U.S. and can offer lots of great customization options! Click here for more information.)

Rather than just swap out the milk for a standard non-dairy alternative, I wanted to start from scratch with whole sunflower seeds. Why sunflower, of all things? I’ve found them to be fairly neutral in flavor when raw, and by using the whole seed, the resulting blend would be plenty rich from those natural fats- No need to add any oils to compensate for a leaner dairy-free drink.

Cajeta takes a bit of patience to perfect, but very little actual work. It’s kitchen alchemy at its best, seeing that pale, unexciting liquid transform into a thick, decadent, caramelized topping. In fact, mine became substantial enough to even use as a spread once fully cooled. Although it was highly tempting to use this golden milk jam as an indulgent new peanut butter sandwich filling, I took Mr. Huston’s suggestion in making a sweet cajeta sundae instead.

Of course, I substituted additional sunflower seeds for the recommended peanuts, since it only seemed right to match. It may be tough to see the pool of cajeta at the bottom of the glass here, but the beauty of this caramel accompaniment is that a little bit really does go a long way! No matter how you drizzle or slather it on, it’s hard to go wrong with such a versatile dessert topping.

Girasol Cajeta (Sunflower Caramel Sauce)

4 Cups Warm Water
1 Cup Raw Sunflower Seeds
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

Combine the water and sunflower seeds well in advance, and allow the seeds to soak for about 4 hours. This will soften them and allow them to blend much more easily than if they were simply raw. Transfer the mixture to your blender, and thoroughly puree until perfectly smooth. If you’re using a lower-powered machine, pass the resulting sunflower milk through a sieve to catch any remaining grit, discarding the solids.

Pour the fresh sunflower seed milk into a large stock pot and introduce the sugar, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate before setting the pot over medium heat on the stove. Slowly bring the mixture up to a boil, whisking periodically. Keep a close eye on the mixture at this point, because it can go from inactive to an overflowing bubbly mess in two seconds flat!

Reduce the heat to medium low and continue cooking at a gentle simmer, whisking frequently, as the milk cooks down and gradually darkens in color. After about 30 minutes, it will be especially important to keep stirring so the milk doesn’t burn on the bottom. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent anything from sticking. Add in the vanilla extract at this point.

After another 30 – 40 minutes, the mixture should be a deep amber brown and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the pan from the heat and cool for at least 5 minutes before serving, or let cool completely before storing in an air-tight container. Stashed in the fridge, the cajeta will keep for up to 2 weeks.

Makes About 1 Cup

Printable Recipe

This post was sponsored by BlueStar. All opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.


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Earthy Elegance

As an avid baker and dessert-lover, it may come as a surprise that the greatest indulgence I can think of is eating something sweet that I didn’t make myself. While I enjoy the process and crave the creative control that starting from scratch always brings, a truly decadent experience is one that doesn’t require any work. Although I always get exactly what I want when I make my own birthday cake, I must admit that there are times when I wish I could just sit back and relax, leaving the heavy whisking to someone else. That’s precisely where Earth Cafe comes in, online purveyors of fully prepared, ready-to-eat, raw, vegan cheesecakes. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, especially for a vegan eater who grew up in the days of cardboard bran muffins being peddled as “dessert,” for lack of better options. Balancing out wholesome ingredients with decadent flavors, the result promises to impress all palates. There truly is a taste for everyone, and I was lucky enough to snag a bite of four popular flavors.

Impeccable, perfectly applied ultramarine stripes adorn the top of the Find Your Thrill on Blueberry Hill Cheesecake. Whole berries rest near the bottom, adding a punch of fresh, full-bodied berry flavor while the cheesecake base remains fairly plain. Lacking in typical cheesecake tang, I might describe it more as a somewhat firmer cream pie instead. It may be the most visually striking of the bunch, but I felt it left the most to be desired in tasting.

Pale, dusty pink and redolent of vanilla and berries, Strawberry Fields Forever Cheesecake bears a strikingly bright, fresh flavor, just as promised. More of a custard consistency than traditional cheesecake, the soft bite was perfectly silky-smooth and creamy. Incredibly rich, even I could only manage half a slice at most before reaching my limit, and I don’t mess around when it comes to the last course of a meal. Most regrettably though, it was stunningly, almost stupefyingly sweet. It comes as an initial shock to the system, tasting almost like a wedge of berry frosting at first taste, especially after a savory supper. For those who would rather a candy than a cake, this might just deliver exactly that sensation.

Things got much better from here on out. Adorned with graceful decorative swirls, Rockin’ Raspberry Cheesecake definitely had a rhythm and jive all its own. Super sweet raspberry flavor infused this slice, much like homemade jam. The intact raspberry seeds are actually a nice touch here, adding some textural interest and reinforcing the fresh, raw concept, all while managing to make themselves sparse enough to resist sticking in your teeth.

For me, the sleeper hit of the batch was the unassuming Who’s Your Daddy? Carob Mousse Pie. Slightly firmer in texture than the other slices, it isn’t some sad attempt at replacing chocolate, but a whole new world of flavor, complex and delicious in its own right. Tasting primarily of dates and caramel, with warm, woodsy notes reminiscent of chicory to round the whole slice out, it could convert a carob-hater with ease. All it needs is a light sprinkle of flaky sea salt to really take this treat over the top.

Since I do work with dessert so often and have developed some strong opinions on the matter, I would definitely suggest that these assessments be taken with a pinch of salt (perhaps literally, too.) Your mileage may vary, especially when it comes to your level of preferred sweetness. The only way to find out for sure is to give Earth Cafe a taste for yourself! Enter the coupon code “SAVE15” at checkout to snag- You guessed it- a 15% discount off your order.

From one baker to many others, there is no shame in indulging in a prepared dessert, especially when it’s as good as any one of these luxurious slices.

These product were provided by the manufacturer free of charge for the sake of this review, but I was not paid for my time or opinions.


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Whipped Into Shape

So Delicious is on a tear lately, introducing greater innovations faster than grocery stores can stock them all. In the midst of this dairy-free influx, the much-loved seasonal beverages have returned once more, but that’s not all. My tall, frosty glasses of Pumpkin Spice Beverage will all be sporting stately white coiffures this year…

CocoWhip, the very first commercial analog to Cool Whip, beats the fluffy white pants off the competition in every way imaginable. Taste is pretty much a given at this point; based on prior So Delicious creations, I would expect nothing less than each bite to live up to its namesake. Subtle hints of coconut remind the lucky eater that they’re eating an actual food item, rather than some chemical concoction of unknown origin. Bearing a distinct cooling sensation on the tongue, it does, in fact, stay true to the Cool Whip theme, clearly distinguishing it from homemade coconut whipped cream. A lighter, airier but not insubstantial texture defines this brave new entry into the world of dairy-free delights.

Offered in both an Original and Light rendition, I found the original to be the perfect ready-to-use dessert topping of my dreams. Maintaining perky peaks on top of every dollop, it stood the test of time, refusing to melt under pressure. The light version was a bit less robust, approximating softly whipped cream or perhaps clotted cream more closely. Though initially disappointing, I realized quickly that this looser CocoWhip was a prime ingredient, waiting to be turning into something much greater than it could become as merely a dessert topper.

A beauty to behold and a treat to partake in, the real secret to this fluffy frozen pie is how laughably easy it is to whip up. If you’ve ever stood in a kitchen, even once in your life, I think you could manage this recipe with aplomb. Plus, since it’s based on yogurt and jam with no additional sweeteners to speak of, I would feel entirely justified slicing off a generous wedge for breakfast, lunch, or dessert alike.

As the seasons change, this same formula can be adapted to any flavor variations your cravings demand. For example, opt for plain vanilla yogurt in the base while swirling in pumpkin or apple butter to effortlessly compliment any Thanksgiving or Christmas table. That’s only scratching the surface of what’s possible with this versatile, innovative ingredient.

Berry Froyo Chiffon Pie

Graham Cracker Crust:

1 1/2 Cup Graham Cracker Crumbs (About 12 Full Rectangle Sheets)
6 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine, Melted

Berry Froyo Filling:

1 9-Ounce Container Light CocoWhip, Thawed
1 6-Ounce Container Almond, Coconut or Soy Strawberry Yogurt
1 6-Ounce Container Almond, Coconut or Soy Blueberry Yogurt
1/2 Cup Raspberry Jam or Preserves

To Garnish (Optional):

Original CocoWhip, Thawed
Fresh Berries

To make the crust, break up the graham crackers into smaller pieces before pulsing in a food processor until very finely ground. The resulting crumbs should be about the consistency of coarse almond meal. Pick out any larger pieces and re-process as needed.

Drizzle the melted margarine into the crumbs, and stir thoroughly to moisten the ground cookies. The mixture should be capable of sticking together when pressed.

Transfer the mix to a 9-inch round pie pan, and use lightly moistened fingers to firmly press it down on the bottom and along the sides. Use the bottom of a flat measuring cup or drinking glass for smoother edges.

In medium bowl, combine the CocoWhip and both yogurts, folding gently with a large spatula until well-blended. Be careful to stir gently so as not to knock all of the bubbles out of the airy, whipped mixture. stir with whisk until blended. Spoon into crust. Add in the jam or preserves last, mixing just enough to incorporate but leaving it slightly marbled throughout the filling. Transfer to your prepared crust, smooth over the top, and move the whole pie into a flat surface in your freezer. Let rest until solidified; at least 4 – 6 hours.

To serve, simply slice the pie into wedges and top with additional dollops of CocoWhip and fresh berries, if desired.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

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