BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Puff Piece

When Earth Balance, a company once known only for producing vegan buttery spreads, announced that it was expanding its product line into the unlikely realm of snack food, it was impossible not to be curious. How would expertise in spreadable condiments (and now non-dairy milks) translate to munchable morsels? Hunting down these new offerings has been hit and miss, so I’m thankful that company representatives kindly stepped in and sent me a complete collection.

What really caught my attention and appetite were the Vegan Aged White Cheddar Flavor Puffs. Above all else, this sounded like (and later proved to be) a snack worth seeking out. To my knowledge the only other vegan puffs on the market are Tings, which don’t compare to this new cheesy doodle. While Tings taste like nutritional yeast, the Earth Balance Puffs, taste like… Wait for it… Cheese! Yes indeed, subtle nutty, tangy, savory, and funky notes combine to create something startlingly delicious, and undeniably cheesy. Though they may look like large, furry cashews, their flavor is enough to prompt proclamations of “I can’t believe it’s vegan!” from eaters young and old. Bearing a much denser, more substantial crunch than the classic doodle, they’re more filling than the averaged puffed junk food, but it’s still dangerously effortless to plow through an entire bag in one sitting. Just the right amount of salt keeps you reaching for one more, and as a bonus, there will be no tell-tale dayglow orange “cheez” fingers afterward.

After such a positive initial experience, I was clamoring to tear into the next bag in the set: Vegan Buttery Flavor Popcorn. First impressions were not as positive, as opening the bag released a plume of artificial “butter” scent. Off-putting and chemical in nature, it could be compared generously to Molly McButter. Mercifully, that aroma doesn’t carry through to the flavor. The crisp, fresh kernels are in stark contrast to traditional movie theater popcorn, typically a greasy lard bucket with a bit of popcorn on the side. No slick fingers here, but a distinctly buttery flavor can be found throughout. Applied with finesse, it doesn’t beat you over the head with “BUTTER!”, and bears the perfect hit of salt on each tender kernel. I should never have doubted that Earth Balance, forefathers of all things buttery and vegan, would nail this flavor with ease.

As for the Vegan Aged White Cheddar Flavor Popcorn, just imagine that same crisp, corny base coated in the previously described cheesy powder. The harmonious blend produces my favorite snack of them all, which I would consider the ultimate movie munch. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t enjoy this, and if it were possible, I wouldn’t want to meet them.

Finally, taking a sharp departure from the previous light and fluffy nibbles, P.B. Popps stands out from the crowd in both flavor and appearance. Described as “popcorn cuddled in peanut butter and a bustle of oats,” I’m not sure my own tasting notes can really compare to that statement. Employing round mushroom kernels as opposed to the butterfly popcorn kernels in the previous savory offerings, each dense sphere is a veritable peanut butter bomb. The somewhat soft, creamy exterior gives way to a solid crunch, with whole roasted peanuts and oats intermingling throughout. Reminiscent of decadent granola clusters, the popcorn loses its characteristic corny flavor underneath the heavy coating, acting more as a vehicle for the sweet and salty nut butter. Peanut butter lovers will surely adore the stuff, but I’m not quite sure it has a place in my own snack food lineup.

While the buttery and peanut-y popcorn offerings are perfectly worthy of a midday snack attack, it’s the cheese flavors that mark a big leap forward for vegankind. It’s a brave new world out there, and the food is only getting better (and cheesier.)


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An Earth-Balanced Diet

Having nearly cornered the market on vegan butters, both nut- and soy-based, Earth Balance now seeks to conquer the whole buttery world. Expanding their empire exponentially in one fell swoop, those who eschew dairy can now spread it on thick with no less than three types of Mindful Mayo, plus a Coconut Spread. Specifically trumpeting the lack of soy in half of these new products, it’s clear that Earth Balance seeks to provide a little something for everyone, vegan and allergic alike.

Most groundbreaking of the bunch is the Coconut Spread. Claiming to be “perfect for baking and cooking instead of butter!” a challenge has been clearly declared and battle lines drawn. Tall promises for a humble ingredient, it does fill a niche left yawning wide open for decades, providing a soy-free option for those wary of the maligned bean. Pure white and somewhat waxy in appearance, it has no discernible scent out of the container. Solid straight out of the fridge but fast to melt, it smooths easily over a slice of hot toast, fresh from the broiler. Subtly sweet in the way that coconut naturally is, with a decent hit of salt to round out the fresh coconut flavor, a faux-butter, this is not. Don’t expect a straight butter replacement in the flavor department, as the Coconut Spread is true to its ingredients, tasting for all the world like a more spreadable coconut oil. Whether you like the flavor of coconut or not should be the deciding factor of your preference for this product.

The real question, however, was how would it bake up compared to Earth Balance’s more buttery offerings? Though I generally do not recommend using spreadable, tub-based margarines for baking, as they contain a greater percentage of water than stick-based “butters,” I gave the coconut spread the benefit of the doubt. Whipping up a simple chocolate-chocolate chip cookie, made many times over, I noticed a difference in the consistency of the dough right away. Far softer than usual, even a brief chill in the fridge did little to firm it up. Though they baked up just fine and were quite tasty, there was a marked variation in texture from the norm. Cakey rather than chewy, I would have to say that the coconut spread is not a viable direct substitute in baking, if you’re hoping to achieve exactly the same results. It will certainly work, and for those with no other option, fire up that oven by all means. I’m just not about to trade in my buttery sticks just yet.

Once my culinary nemesis but now a guilty pleasure, the Mindful Mayo couldn’t have been released at a better time. Now primed for a tasting, I was still reluctant to sample the spread in such a naked format, but I did it for you, my dear readers. Short of plunging in a spoon and eating it straight, it seemed that including it in a classic BLT would be an acceptable format for getting a good read on the flavor. Using tempeh bacon for the “B” portion of the sandwich, I made sure to really slather it on thick, as much as common sense told me not to. Thank goodness, my fears were unfounded, and it was a genuinely delicious sandwich! Thick and flawlessly creamy, you could easily stand a spoon straight up in the jar, which meant that it held up beautifully to the more hefty filling ingredients. Tangy, with a strong flavor of lemon and mustard than Vegenaise, it’s incredibly well balanced and adds serious “umph” to an ordinary bread and veggie assemblage.

Available in three varieties, I found the Organic and Original to be indistinguishable in flavor, unsurprisingly, but the Olive Oil mayo did mix things up a bit. Soy-free, whereas the aforementioned spreads are not, it’s a solid option, and one of the few available for those avoiding dairy, eggs, and soy all at once. However, I did find it a touch looser than the previous, and tangier, with a more fruity flavor as you would expect from decent olive oil. Lighter on the palate and perhaps a bit less rich, it’s a nice light option for those not as crazy about the traditional taste of mayonnaise.

Now fully stocked with three full jars of vegan mayonnaise, I had to do something to work down my excess. A simply green garlic dip easily filled that need, providing an excellent accompaniment to any party platter of crackers, veggies, or chips. Thanks to a serendipitous find of frozen garlic scapes, it took just a push of the “blend” button to churn out a gloriously emerald-hued and garlic-imbued dip.

Green Garlic Dip

6 Ounces (1/2 Package) Extra-Firm Silken Tofu
1/2 Cup Frozen Chopped Garlic Scapes, Thawed
1 Cup Fresh Spinach, Packed
1/2 Cup Vegan Mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons Fresh Lemon Juice
2 Teaspoons White Miso Paste
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Simply toss everything into your food processor or blender, and blitz until perfectly smooth. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, to ensure that everything gets incorporated. Season to taste, and chill thoroughly before serving.

Makes About 1 Cup

Printable Recipe

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