BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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A Happy, Healthy Surprise

‘Tis the season… For a much warmer version of the holiday experience. Today marks the midway point in our frenzied trip through the calendar pages, as Christmas sits only five full months away. While most would rejoice that there’s still plenty of time to make plans, assemble gifts, and get into the proper spirit, that does leave a huge gap in festivities all through the remainder of summer. Truth be told, Christmas in July is more about the “presents” than the merriment, as sales attempt to draw shoppers back during this brief buying lull. For once though, I don’t mind the motives one bit, since they’re not disguised or covered with the shiny veneer of tradition. Nope, it’s all about the gifts, and there’s nothing wrong with taking the opportunity to simply spoil someone you love, or go ahead and treat yourself.

That’s where the Healthy Surprise Box comes in. Like a goodie bag for grownups, it bundles together a mystery package of delicious snacks, all vegan and always with a wholesome slant.

For anyone who has a terrible time deciding what to buy while standing in the snack aisle, or just wants to break out of their munching rut and try something new, this is the ideal way to branch out a bit. For serial snackers, there are subscription options as well, providing a steady stream of different edibles every month. Even in the smallest box available, you’ll never be left wanting mid-month, because they really pack in the good stuff.

The box that arrived on my doorstep appeared diminutive in size, but little did I know that the contents were carefully wedged within, like a complex game of real-life Tetris. The full contents of my delightful present are as follows…

Alive & Radiant Foods: Kale Krunch (The Original Quite Cheesy)
Myrna’s Skinny Crisps (Cinnamon Crisps)
(4) Living Intentions: Gone Nuts! (Thai Lemon Curry, Lemon Pepper Cajun, Spinach Pesto, Cacao Clusters)
(2) Mrs. May’s Freeze Dried Fruit Chips (Pear)
Home Free: Mini Crunchy Vanilla Cookies
Two Moms in the Raw: Gluten-Free Cranberry Nut Bar
Oskiri: Coconut Bar Cherry
Stretch Island: Fruit Strip (Apricot)
(2) Hail Merry Nuts (Vanilla Maple Almonds, Rosemary Orange Pecans)
Go Raw: Pizza Flax Snacks
Happy Hemp

Even the most serious snacker would have to pace themselves to work through all of these treats! The good news is that for an indulgent gift, there’s nothing to feel guilty about afterward. Many raw and whole foods are included, and you certainly won’t find any junk hidden in here.

Because I love giving treats even more than receiving them, I’m thrilled to share a $5 discount off of every Healthy Surprise purchase! Just enter the code “BITTERSWEET” when ordering. Whether it’s for yourself or someone else, these mystery packages do not disappoint. Best of all, they’re built for sharing, so you may just benefit from someone else’s boon as well. Merry Christmas!


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Sweets for the Sweet Tooth

Extreme sweet teeth are a dominant trait in my family, but it tends to manifest itself in different ways. For example, both my mom and I are happier with carefully composed desserts and baked goods, complex with layers of cake, creamy fillings, and perhaps a bit of a crunch hidden somewhere, but neither my sister nor my dad would likely be as pleased. They have straight-up sugar teeth; the sort of teeth that crave pure, unadulterated sweetness, and are much more likely to drift towards a candy shop than a bakery come dessert time.

While I will admit that I tend to cater to my own tastes when dreaming up new recipes, I do aim to please, so this little sugar-bomb was developed with the other half of my family in mind.

Simple and super-sweet, just a tiny square of this maple fudge should satisfy even the most intense sugar cravings. Homemade candies in general are always a favorite for gift-giving, and this decadent option would certainly fit the bill. Throw in a pinch of spices to shake things up a bit if you’d like, but the unique and irreplaceable flavor of maple is a treat enough to me.

Maple Fudge

2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1 1/4 Cups Grade B Maple Syrup
1/3 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
2 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Cup Chopped and Toasted Walnuts
Pinch Salt

Lightly grease an 8 x 8 inch square pan and set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, combine the sugar, maple syrup, and non-dairy milk, and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Once the mixture comes to a full boil, stop stirring, and insert your candy thermometer. Continue to cook, swirling the pan instead of stirring if necessary, until it comes to about 238 – 240 degrees (soft ball stage). Remove the pan from the heat, and let it sit until it has cooled to 145 degrees. At that point, the top of the candy may have crystallized, and the whole mixture should be somewhat thicker, albeit grainy. Incorporate the margarine and continue to beat it vigorously with a wooden spoon for about 10 full minutes- You’ll know that you’re doing it right when it feels like your arm is about to fall off. The mixture should become thicker, lighter in color, and less glossy. Beat in the nuts and salt, and spread it into your prepared pan, pressing it into the corners and smoothing down the top with a spatula. Let sit for at least 3 hours before cutting into very, very small squares. Just a bite will satisfy!

Never refrigerate, or the fudge will become damp and mushy. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Makes 36 – 45 Small Squares

Printable Recipe


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Baking a Difference

You’d think that someone so immersed in baking as myself, whipping up various sugared confections nearly everyday, could care less about similar sweet gifts. Well allow me put that misconception to rest; You’d think wrong. Though there’s no shortage of sweetness in this particular kitchen, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the craftsmanship and careful pastry art of other bakers. Enjoying a dessert that wasn’t created by me is truly a rare treat now. As the resident baker of the family, it’s up to me to “surprise” myself with my own birthday cake, or plan to go without.

That’s why, so many years ago, when an unassuming but delicately wrapped purple box by Allison’s Gourmet landed on my doorstep, I could barely contain my joy. An unexpected gift, which is always a delight by itself, little did I know that the contents of that package would open my eyes to a whole new option for handmade vegan sweets. Not made by my own hands, but assembled and baked with as much attention to detail as I could muster myself.

Butterscotch Pecan Fudge. More beautiful words were never strung together and attached to something edible. Finding something delicious in the mail was still such a novel concept, and to get something that seemed impossible to make without dairy, it was easily one of my favorite holiday presents that year. Though the packages are all very well wrapped and provide explicit instructions on freezing to make your treasures last, I’m afraid that whole pan of fudge disappeared at warp speed, without any help from hungry gawkers.

Another year, one of my favorite indulgences to date showed up at the party unannounced; Those Peppermint Brownies were legendary. One of my top 5 favorite combinations, chocolate and mint, I already knew it was love at first sight. Taking that initial bite merely sealed the deal. Deeply chocolate-flavored and fudgy to a fault, the sprinkling of crunchy candy cane pieces on top created the most irresistible textural contrast. It’s a shame this offering isn’t for sale this year, because I would recommend it to anyone who likes dessert, period.

My most recent opportunity to sample Allison’s incredible creations was a crazy stroke of luck. Another serendipitous gift, out of the blue, that coincided with the talented baker’s need for a promotional photo. Truly, it just happened that way! A good business deal is one that ends with a rich brownie sundae, peppered with chopped chocolate-covered toffee, a mouth-watering photo, and a new friendship. I can tell you with absolute certainty now that Allison is every bit as thoughtful and kind as her baked goods are irresistible.

My brief sampling doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the goodies on offer at Allison’s Gourmet. There are chocolates, cookies, and candies beyond any vegan’s wildest dreams, and I trust that they’re every bit as delicious. Now, lucky for you, Allison has generously offered a very sweet holiday gift indeed- The opportunity to win a $25 gift certificate for anything in her online bakery! Just imagine the possibilities!

To enter, leave me a comment before Midnight EST on Friday, December 9th, telling me what you would buy with your winnings. For extra entries, follow Allison’s Gourmet on Facebook and/or Twitter, and leave separate comments saying as much for each.


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Fool-Proof

If ever there was one homemade holiday gift that I would recommend above the rest, it would undoubtedly be some form of nut brittle. Barring allergies, I have yet to meet a soul who didn’t enjoy the salty-sweet dichotomy of roasted nuts and crunchy homemade candy. Versatile to a fault, every year could bring a new variety of brittle, between the numerous choices of nuts and additional flavorful accompaniments. Best of all, it’s so simple, it’s one of the few edible treats I might venture to call “fool-proof.” Easy enough to be made in the microwave, for crying out loud, even the mostly kitchen incompetent should be able to master this rewarding recipe.

Classic but a bit played out, quiet flavors like plain old peanut brittle don’t quite light my fire anymore. Flaming Hot Peanut Brittle, though, sure adds a bit of excitement to a deceptively homely candy. Pistachio Chai Brittle remains one of my favorite variations, a beautiful hue of green that fits in so nicely with a Christmas color scheme.

This year, I’m pushing the boundaries between sweet and savory food just a little bit further. Curry strikes me as the perfect ingredient to add some interest into this simple candy, especially when paired with equally exotic coconut and cashews. A welcome change of pace that reminds me of tropical climates, far from the chilly winds that blow right outside, it’s a sweet little escape that is sure to disappear almost as quickly as it’s made.

Curried Cashew and Coconut Brittle

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Light Corn Syrup or Agave Nectar
1/4 Cup Water
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1 1/2 Cups Roasted or Toasted Cashew Pieces
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Flakes
1 1/4 Teaspoons Madras Curry Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

In a large saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil; blend in butter. Swirl the pan ocassionally rather than stirring, to prevent the sugar from boiling over. Cook until the syrup hits 300 – 310 degrees (the hard crack stage) according to a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, lay out a silpat on a baking sheet nearby. Combine the cashews, coconut, curry powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and have at the ready.

Once the hot sugar syrup hits the proper temperature, immediately turn off the heat and very quickly stir in the dry ingredients. Add the vanilla extract last, and mix thoroughly to incorporate. Without pausing, scrape the hot candy out of the pan and onto your prepared baking sheet, pressing it out with a spatula to achieve a flat, thin shape as needed.

Let cool completely before breaking into pieces and either eating right away, or storing in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Makes About 1 Pound of Brittle

Printable Recipe


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Back to the Earth

“There’s fungus growing in our kitchen… and it’s a good thing,” she said falteringly. Posed more as a question than a statement, it was clear that my mom didn’t exactly welcome my latest addition with open arms. Truth be told, it freaked me out just a little bit, too.

The fungus in question were oyster mushrooms to be precise, a much sought-after wild variety that fetch a fair price at market, but still rank below the luxurious porcini and chantarelle. A self-professed mushroom lover, it seemed to crime to have never cooked with oyster mushrooms before, but the grocery budget can only accommodate the common button or cremini on a regular basis. As prices skyrocket, even portobellos have become a special occasion purchase. Thus, when Back to the Roots contacted me about giving one of their mushroom kits a test drive, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

Grown on a rectangular cake of recycled coffee grounds, the spores are shipped with everything you need to start a mini mushroom farm in your home. Even though the instructions couldn’t be simpler, they also spell everything out in great detail through online videos, in case a serious mushroom novice lacks confidence. So, guaranteed to be a breeze, I slowly became concerned as the days passed and my moldy dirt looked unchanged, especially considering the fact that the box so boldly declares that a first harvest may be possible in only 10 days. On day 6, at long last, my little mushrooms appeared to awaken…

And from that point on, there was no turning back.

The rate at which they grew was borderline disturbing, and on many trips to the kitchen, they would literally have grown since last glance – We’re talking centimeters per hour at their height of their growth. The monster mushrooms simply exploded out of their flimsy plastic packaging. I had never seen anything like this. Both fascinating and alarming, I was now more enchanted with the growing process than the idea of eating them.

Still mourning the end of growing season, this unexpected thrill helped ease the transition, and seems like the perfect alternative to gardening in the colder months. The downside is that you can only start the mushrooms twice (once from each side of the box) and then it’s all over. Don’t think that you’ll achieve incredible yields and be rolling in mushrooms, either- Though it claims to produce 1 1/2 pounds of edibles, I would be hard pressed to say that I got even 1/2 pound out of mine. However, the novelty factor and environmentally friendly approach justifies the price tag, and it strikes me as the perfect gift for the foodie with everything.

[For a limited time, you can enter the discount code "mushrooms4me10" when ordering online for 10% off and free shipping.]

Unable to make a grand feast of mushrooms with my small harvest, I chose instead to feature the oyster mushrooms prominently, using them as the base of a fun hors d’oeuvre, ideal for the impending holiday parties.

Just like their inspiration, Oysters Rockefeller, these gorgeous fungus are loaded with an herbaceous puree of garlic, parsley, scallions, and a bit of spinach for color. Enriched with a buttery finish, the bright flavors of the herbs combined with the savory, earthy flavor of the mushrooms is unforgettable. Why anyone would ever create this dish with slimy sea creatures instead is beyond me.

Oyster Mushrooms Rockefeller

12 Large Oysters Mushrooms

Olive Oil, to Coat

1 Cup Fresh Spinach, Firmly Packed
1 Stalk Celery, Roughly Chopped
2 Large Scallions, Green Parts Only, Chopped
1/4 Cup Chopped Parsley
1 Small Clove Garlic
2 Teaspoons Capers, Drained
1 Tablespoon Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
Dash Tabasco Sauce
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Fennel Seed
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Fresh Lemon Juice (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lay out your mushrooms on the sheet, spaced evenly, and lightly brush with oil. Set aside.

In your food processor or blender, combine the spinach, celery, scallions, parsley, garlic, and capers. Blend thoroughly, until mostly smooth but still slightly coarse. No need to go crazy here, a bit of texture is a welcome thing.

Meanwhile, set a medium saute pan over moderate heat, and melt down the margarine along with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once, liquefied, quickly whisk in the flour to fully moisten, and cook for 5 – 8 minutes until very lightly browned, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk while whisking, and cook for just another minute or so until thickened. Turn off the heat, and whisk in the Tabasco sauce, nutritional yeast, and ground fennel. Transfer the green contents of the blender or food processor, and add them into your roux. Stir well to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pile the filling on top of your mushrooms; about 1 – 2 tablespoons, depending on the size of the mushroom. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, until the mushrooms are tender. Serve hot, with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice if desired.

Makes 12 Appetizer Servings

Printable Recipe

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