BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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No Use Crying Over Melted Ice Cream

What initially looked like a terrible tragedy, a loss of incomprehensible proportions, turned out to be happy accident in the end. It was an average day, punctuated by various chores and assignments, with a considerable grocery shopping expedition in between. Distracted by all the to-dos and a rapidly shrinking timeline, something was bound to get overlooked. It’s just a sad shame that it had to be the ice cream.

Tucked haphazardly into the fridge and not the freezer, hidden slightly behind a bushy clump of kale, there it remained for a full day before my grave error had been realized. By then it was far too late, the previously frozen dessert fully liquified into a pale white puddle, sloshing around freely within the container. Re-churning the mess in my ice cream maker did cross my mind, but no doubt the texture would never be quite the same. Immediately searching for a solution, loath to think that such a precious treat would be wasted because of a careless mistake, my thoughts turned to the possibilities of a little kitchen alchemy. Melted ice cream is no more than non-dairy milk, sweetener, and some sort of thickener, so why couldn’t it function as such in another application?

Proving that the sum is so often greater than its parts, this humble pie requires a mere seven ingredients, from crust to filling, thanks to the convenient combination neatly packed up in the form of vegan ice cream. Strawberries and cream are a classic duo in the first place, and they truly shine together in this brilliantly simple ode to spring. The only baking required is a brief flash in the oven to set the crust, but this can be further simplified with a ready-made rendition if you’re especially pressed for time. Even more impressive than this recipe’s effortlessly delicious outcome is its versatility, easily adaptable for any season. Swap out the berries for just about any fresh fruit that’s ripe and ready, such as peaches or apricots in the summer, pumpkin puree in the fall, baked apples or pears in the winter; the potential for different flavors is practically endless.

But for now, I’m sticking with strawberry since spring is in the air and berries are on the table. Another serendipitous opportunity to come out of this initial disaster is that it became an ideal entry to the Spring Fling Dairy-Free Recipe Contest hosted by So Delicious and Go Dairy Free. Even if it doesn’t win any prizes, this quick save is definitely a winner by me. With this foolproof formula under my belt, next time, I might even let the ice cream melt on purpose.

Strawberry-Cream Pie

Vanilla Cookie Crust:

5 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine or Coconut Oil, Melted
1 1/2 Cups Finely Ground Vanilla Wafer Cookie Crumbs

Strawberry Cream Filling:

1 Pound Fresh Strawberries
1 1/2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1 1/2 Teaspoons Agar Powder
1 Pint So Delicious Vanilla Coconut, Almond, or Soy Ice Cream, Melted

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the melted margarine or coconut oil with the cookies in a large bowl, stirring thoroughly to completely moisten every last crumb. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch pie pan and use your hands to press it evenly across the bottom and up the sides. If it’s too sticky to handle with ease, lightly moisten your hands before proceeding. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool while you move on to the filling.

Wash, hull, and roughly slice the strawberries before tossing them into your blender along with all of the remaining ingredients. Puree until mostly but not entirely smooth, leaving a few small chunks of berries intact. If you’d prefer a silkier texture, continue blending until no lumps remain, and pass the pink mixture through a fine mesh sieve, discarding the seeds. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and set over moderate heat. Whisk frequently as it warms up, cooking until it comes to a full boil. Continue stirring vigorously for a full two minutes and then pour the hot filling into your prepared crust.

Tap the pan lightly on the counter to release any air bubbles, and let cool to room temperature. Only then is it safe to transfer to the fridge to continue cooling. Don’t rush this process, since an agar gel that’s cooled too quickly will weep and become watery later on.

Once fully chilled and solidified, slice and serve with additional fresh berries if desired- Or, additional scoops of ice cream!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Freekeh Friday

What’s ancient is new again, at least when it comes to whole grains. Freekeh, the latest superfood darling, has made a splash in the culinary scene, appearing on diverse menus that span cuisines to suit all tastes. It’s been around since biblical times, rooted in traditional Middle Eastern and North African cooking, but has recently reinvented itself as the latest nutritional superstar of North America. Even those immune to food trends should take note of this vital ingredient, bearing volumes of flavor and potential to enliven just about any grain dish.

Also referred to as “green wheat” or “young wheat,” it may come as a surprise that this distinctive grain is really the same old cereal we know and love, but treated in a different way. Harvested early while still moist and plump, the kernels are then roasted and frequently cracked, giving them the appearance of bulgur. The similarities end there, made obvious at first bite. Toothsome and chewy, the texture alone is utterly crave-worthy, but the woodsy, nutty, toasted taste and aroma truly seal the deal. Does that sound ordinary to you, pedestrian even, in the face of so many exotic grain options? It did to me, for years resonating as little more than a silly name, but all that will change with your first spoonful. Trust me, eating is believing; I don’t usually cook up big batches of plain grains, but even without a single pinch of salt or pepper, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Despite devouring a heaping helping of plain freekeh all by its lonesome, I knew there was even more hidden potential locked within those broken kernels. Starting with such a perfect blank canvas, it didn’t take much to coax that untapped inspiration out of hiding.

Of course, I couldn’t resist a good pun, either. With a name like “freekeh,” the possibilities are ripe with witty opportunities. Dirty freekeh, a riff on standard dirty rice, brings so much more than another boring side dish to the party. It sings with spices, bursts with fresh vegetables at every turn, and supports a healthy dose of vegan protein within a hearty grain base. If anything, it’s more like a clean rendition of dirty rice, forgoing the livers and gibbets in favor of tempeh, a swap that even staunch omnivores might appreciate.

If not for the fine folks at Village Harvest, I may have never made the leap to investigate this “new” ancient ingredient. Now that I’m hooked though, it pains me that it’s not more widely available, restricted to a limited release only in select south-east Costco stores. Though slightly heartbroken, I’m still happy to have access to dozens of their other grainy offerings, found nationwide. That sort of everyday luxury is one that everyone should have, which is why I want to share two freebie coupons with two hungry readers, good for any Village Harvest product of your choice. As an added bonus, you’ll even take away a large “Grainivore” t-shirt to boast your love of grains to the world, loud and proud. Interested in entering? Talk to me about freekeh- Have you eaten it before? What’s your favorite preparation? Does the name make you giggle, too? Just be sure to leave me a comment with your name and email in the appropriate boxes before April 30th at midnight EST. This post will be updated shortly thereafter with the announcement of the two selected winners.

UPDATE: The entry period is over and a winner has been selected by the trusty random number generator. The two lucky commenters who are about to get their freekeh on are…

Commenters #6 and #3; Gabby @ the Veggie Nook and sustainabilitea! Congrats, you’ll be hearing from me shortly about how to collect your prizes.

Even if you can’t get your hands on those rarefied bags of cracked freekeh, any grain can be made dirty, so to speak. Just substitute 3 cups of your favorite cooked and cooled whole grains, such as quinoa, barley, farro, or of course, rice.

Dirty Freekeh

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1 8-Ounce Package Tempeh, Diced
1/2 Cup Minced Button Mushrooms
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Finely Chopped
3 Large Garlic Cloves, Minced
2 Celery Stalks, Diced
1 Jalapeño Pepper, Seeded and Finely Chopped
1/2 Medium Red Bell Pepper
1 Cup Mushroom Broth
3 Cups Cooked Cracked Freekeh (From 1 Cup Raw)
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
6 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
3 Tablespoon Fresh Parsley, Minced
1 – 1 1/2 Teaspoons Salt

Place 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and wait until it start shimmering. Add in the tempeh and saute, searing the outsides to a crispy golden brown. Stir gently so that you don’t break the cubes into smaller pieces. Once evenly browned on all sides, transfer to a plate and return the pan to the stove.

Pour in the remaining tablespoon of oil, turn down the heat to medium, and toss in the mushrooms, onion, and garlic. Cook for 6 – 8 minutes, until aromatic, before introducing the celery, Jalapeño, and bell pepper as well. Stir frequently, sauteing until all the vegetables have softened and are just beginning to lightly brown around the edges. Quickly deglaze with the mushroom broth, scraping the bottom of the pan thoroughly to dislodge anything that might have stuck, preventing the goodies from burning. Introduce the cooked freekeh along with all the spices. Stir well to incorporate and distribute the vegetables throughout.

Turn down the heat to medium-low, allowing the mixture to cook gently until all of the broth has been absorbed. It should still be moist, but not soupy. Turn off the heat, add the cooked, crispy tempeh and fresh herbs into the freekeh. Finally, season to taste, and don’t be afraid to get a bit aggressive with the salt to bring out the most flavor. It may look like a lot on paper, but it’s a whole lot of freekeh we’re talking about!

Serve hot, or let cool, chill thoroughly, and enjoy as a cold grain salad later.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Eats, Shoots and Leaves

A delicacy in many cuisines across the globe and a harbinger of spring, bamboo shoots certainly don’t get a fair shake in western kitchens. Commonly and erroneously considered woody, bland, or worse yet, bitter, these traits apply only to the canned variety, which is the only sort that most people have ever tasted in this part of the world. Available for only a short window as the earth thaws out from winter, fresh bamboo are nothing like the sad slivers found in your average Chinese takeout. Subtly nutty, tender yet toothsome, these pale young plant growths boast a unique nuanced flavor that gets lost in translation once any preservation methods enter the picture.

Now is the time to hunt through specialty produce stores and Asian markets, while bamboo shoots are still available in their natural form. Seek out smooth, unblemished specimen, and always check expiration dates. Even if they’re vital enough to be sold, older shoots should be avoided, as they become progressively harder and more fibrous with every passing day. Considering their scarcity and perishability, it’s not hard to understand why this seasonal treasure is so fleeting. Though I had no intention of buying any nor the vaguest idea of how to cook them, I couldn’t possibly just walk away when I discovered a few saran-wrapped shoots nestled in little Styrofoam boats at the grocery store.

For reasons unknown, it struck me that diced bamboo might make an unconventional yet tasty addition to the classic vegan staple: The humble but ever-popular bean burger. Mild white beans and Asian-inspired flavorings harmonize with the mild vegetable addition without overpowering the whole assembly. Veggie burgers for people who truly appreciate vegetables, these simple patties don’t pretend to be meat and aren’t afraid to show what they’re really made of.

No average white bread buns would do to contain such a special prize. Further accentuating the theme with edible bookends that have more in common with yaki onigiri than dinner rolls, ordinary rice is out of the question. Bamboo rice, infused with the very essence of green bamboo juice, is a perfectly matched pairing, adding another layer of the starring vegetable’s inherent flavor. Floral, reminiscent of jasmine tea with gently grassy, earthy undertones, it may just be my new favorite sort of rice, even without such a fanciful preparation.

Such a hearty yet gracefully composed stack of grains, vegetables, and beans celebrates fresh spring produce through a whole new lens. You don’t have to leave them inside when the weather turns warm, though; carefully packed, unassembled patties, buns, and condiments would make for ideal picnic fodder.

Bamboo Burgers:

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Cup Diced Fresh Bamboo Shoots
1/2 Cup Finely Diced Button Mushrooms
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cups Cooked) White Beans, Drained
5 – 6 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
3/4 – 1 Cup All Purpose Flour

Rice Buns:

1 1/2 Cups Water
1 Cup Bamboo Rice
Pinch Salt
2 – 3 Tablespoons Sesame Oil

To Finish:

Sliced Tomatoes
Lettuce
Mustard and/or Vegan Mayonnaise
Fresh Parsley or Cilantro

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Heat the sesame oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. When shimmering, add in the garlic, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms, and saute until aromatic. This should take no more than 5 – 6 minutes; be careful not to overdo it and burn the garlic. Deglaze the pan with the soy sauce, turn off the heat, and let cool for at least 10 minutes minutes.

In a separate bowl, roughly mash the beans with a fork or potato masher. You want to keep the texture fairly coarse so that the burger maintains a satisfying bite. Add in the scallions and spices, mixing well to incorporate. Once cool enough to handle, introduce the sauteed vegetables and stir once more. Begin mixing in the first 3/4 cup of flour, making sure that there are no pockets of dry ingredients remaining before assessing the consistency. It should be soft but manageable; something you can fairly easily mold into patties that will hold their shape. Add up to 1/4 cup more flour if necessary.

Measure out between 1/3 – 1/2 cup of the burger mixture for each patty, and form them into round, flat pucks with slightly moistened hands. Space them out evenly on the sheet at least 1 inch apart. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for 10 – 15 minutes before removing from the sheet.

Meanwhile, prepare the rice “buns.” (This can also be done well ahead of time, to streamline the serving process.) Bring the water up to a boil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat before adding in the rice and salt. Stir once, turn down the heat to low, and cover. Cook gently for 15 – 20 minutes, undisturbed, until the water has been fully absorbed. Turn off the heat and cool for at least 20 – 30 minutes, until you can comfortably handle it.

Transfer the rice to a non-stick baking dish and press it out into an even layer of about 1/4-inch in thickness. Use a lightly greased glass round cookie cutter to punch out circles to form the bun shape. Make sure that the rounds are large enough to contain your patties, without having a lot of overhang, either. Place the shaped rice buns on a sheet pan and move the whole thing into your freezer to chill rapidly. It’s easier to fry them when they’re very cold, or even partially frozen.

Heat a thin layer of sesame oil in a pan over medium-high heat and fry no more than 2 buns at a time. Cook each side until the exteriors are nicely crisped and amber brown. Transfer to a cooling rack and repeat with the remaining rice, adding more oil to the pan as needed to prevent the buns from sticking.

To assemble your bamboo burgers, spread a dollop of mustard or mayo on one rice bun. Top with sliced tomato, lettuce, a bamboo patty, and fresh herbs, as desired. The burgers are best enjoyed hot, but are still quite tasty cooled, packed in a lunchbox, and eaten at room temperature.

Makes 6 – 8 Burgers

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When Life Gives You Long Peppers…

The inability to simply say “no” or even “maybe not this time” has gotten me into a number of tricky situations, typically ending with an overload of extra work to contend with. This past weekend, however, was the first time that those missing words ended with an overload of hot long peppers.

Valley VegFest was winding down, my pie demo completed and the exhibitor’s hall quickly emptying out, when I chanced by a farm stand display of fresh produce. Picking through the remnants, two shiny, green peppers and three slightly bruised finger bananas satisfied my hunger for new ingredients. Already a dozen steps away, the proprietor flagged me down, practically foisting the whole box of perhaps 2 pounds of fresh, spicy capsicum into my arms. Okay, I’ll admit- That’s a gross exaggeration, but when asked to take the rest, I instantly felt compelled to oblige. Why would I accept such a dubious “gift,” knowing full well that I barely have a taste for spicy food beyond the most tame scoville level? That’s one I can’t begin to explain or understand, but here I was, saddled with more peppers than one person could ever consume.

Half of the bounty went towards making green sriracha, still fermenting quietly on the counter. Meanwhile, I had grander plans for the other half.

Pepper jam instantly came to mind, but most recipes called for a paltry two or three jalapenos at most, floating in a sea of food coloring. Packing the firepower of a full pound of hot long peppers, this rendition doesn’t mess around. Tempered by a good dose of sugar, it manages to balance the burn with grace, all while combining the nuanced notes of lemongrass, garlic, and ginger. Thai green curry inspired the blend, which means that it works beautifully in the place of traditional green curry paste. Softly set, the jam could be further thickened with the addition of a second pouch of pectin, but the slightly runny consistency is dynamite for drizzling over crostini or fine vegan cheeses. For the more adventurous palate, a sweet and spicy peanut butter and curry jam sandwich might be just the thing to shake off the weekday malaise. Once you start thinking about all the new possibilities, an extra pound or two of hot peppers may not seem like enough.

Sweet Green Curry Jam

1 Pound Shallots
1 Pound Hot Long Green Peppers
1.5 Ounces (About 3 Inches) Peeled Fresh Ginger
4 Large Cloves Garlic
1/2 Cup Sliced Fresh Lemongrass
4 Kaffir Lime Leaves
1 Tablespoon Salt
3 Teaspoons Ground Coriander
1 1/2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Cup Lime Juice
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
4 Cups Granulated Sugar
3/4 Teaspoon Spirulina Powder (Optional, for Color)
1* (3-Ounce) Pouch Liquid Pectin (*2 Pouches for a firmer, more spreadable jam)

For proper canning instructions, see the recommendations made by this very helpful .PDF right here. Otherwise, proceed as written to make a quick jam which will need to be kept refrigerated and last for no more than a month or two.

Roughly chop the shallots and toss them into your food processor or blender. A high-speed blender would be best for achieving the smoothest consistency, but a coarser blend can be quite delicious, too. Stem the peppers, remove the seeds, and chop them into smaller pieces before adding them into the machine as well. Follow that with the ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. Pulse the machine a number of times to break down the vegetables into a coarse paste. Pause to introduce the salt and dry spices along with the lemon and lime juice, and then thoroughly puree, until the mixture is as smooth as desired. If you’re using a smaller food processor, plan to process the mixture in two batches, blending everything together in a larger vessel at the end.

Have your jam jars out on the counter and ready to go. You’ll want enough containers to hold approximately 8 cups of jam total.

Begin heating the sesame oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it begins to shimmer, pour in the green curry puree, stirring constantly but gently. Add in the sugar and spirulina (if using), and allow the mixture to come to a full boil. All the while, be sure to continuously run your spatula along the sides and bottom of the pan to prevent anything from burning. When the curry has reached a rapid bubble, pour in the liquid pectin and continue to cook for a full 10 minutes. It should significantly thicken in this time.

Pour the hot, liquid jam into your prepared jars and quickly seal them or otherwise process for longer term storage. Let cool completely before refrigerating.

Makes 7 – 8 Cups

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Lox of Love

Old Man Winter sure doesn’t fight fair, unafraid to hit below the belt and then kick you when you’re down. Dirty tricks are just half of the relentless assault, adding in mind games that could soften anyone’s resolve to the consistency of over-boiled ramen noodles. Surely, one would think that by the last day of March, spring would have been able to fend off this attack, but the snow currently accumulating on top of the delicate, freshly sprouted crocuses would say otherwise. The month is going out like a lion, indeed.

Beaten and bruised, I officially accept defeat. Winter can continue its reign of terror as long as it doesn’t stop me from dreaming about spring. Let’s forget about the weather, planning instead for the garden parties and spring celebrations that are sure to come. Demanding lighter fare, fresher flavors, and easy offerings to share with any number of hungry guests, the classic brunch spread is where my thoughts wander first. Bagels, cream cheese, and lox are the anchor of this idyllic vision, a taste preference that could arguably have been genetically inherited from both of my Jewish parents. Despite the great advances in vegan food technology, fish have remained largely out of reach, residing only in fantasies… and sometimes a kelp-infused tofu patty that tastes of little more than soybeans and sadness.

Until now.

Sophie’s Kitchen, innovators of numerous frozen fishless delights, has the answer to every pescatarian’s dilemma. As soon as I caught wind of this unrivaled smoked salmon offering, I scoured the stores, only to turn up nothing for months on end. It still eludes me in the open marketplace, but I was lucky enough to score a few packages through my mother’s co-op. Despite being so pricy and difficult to find, the positives far outweigh the negatives, beginning with the high fiber content and soy-free ingredients.

What really matters though is the taste, and let me assure you that it doesn’t fall short. Incredibly, unbelievably, it could truly pass for fish, at least by my inexperienced palate. Woodsy, smoky overtones define these thin sheets, with subtle oceanic notes adding in a touch of realism. Lovely striations embellish the peachy rectangles, presenting beautifully to even the most discerning artistic eye. I’d like to believe that it could almost fool one into believing it came from a new breed of square fish. Satisfyingly rich, with a realistic oily sheen, this salmon substitute has the same bouncy, slippery texture as Sophie’s Kichen’s other konjac creations; not quite authentic, but more than passable, especially when eaten in other recipes or loaded onto a toasted bagel with the works.

Though I would have happily scarfed down my entire cache of smoky, savory slices in the aforementioned bagel assembly, such a rare treasure demanded further experimentation. Harkening back to the classic fish spreads of yore, a creamy base proves to be the perfect foil for these alternative smoky, salty strips as well. Load up a platter with chips and cut vegetables, and I promise that it will be the first thing to go, no matter how discerning the crowd. Beyond the party setting, it’s truly stellar in sandwiches, running circles around the tired old tuna salad.

On the other hand, this dip is a versatile ally, capable of dressing up with great aplomb should the situation demand. Pipe that salmon spread into neatly carved cucumber cups and top with vegan caviar, and no one will be able to contain their awe. Trust me: If you need a recipe to impress, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Fish-Free Smoked Salmon Dip

1 12-Ounce Package Extra-Firm Silken Tofu
3 Tablespoons Tahini
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
1 4-Ounce Package Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Smoked Salmon
2 Tablespoons Fresh Chopped Dill
1 – 2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Thoroughly drain the tofu before tossing it into your food processor along with the tahini, vinegar, oil, miso, and nutritional yeast. Puree until completely smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula to ensure to all the ingredients get incorporated. Make sure that there are no chunks of tofu hiding below the blade before proceeding.

Separate the smoked salmon slices and add them to the mixture, pulsing the machine to break the pieces down but not entirely blend them. You want to leave some texture here, keeping the pieces about the same size as grains of rice. Finally, introduce the fresh herbs, zest, and pepper, stirring them in by hand. The salmon slices are fairly salty as it is, so you shouldn’t need to add extra salt.

Transfer the spread to an air-tight container and chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Refrigerated, it should keep for up to a week.

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Dazed and Infused

After making a list and checking it thrice, there was nothing left to chance for my extended stay in Hawaii. Everything was accounted for, from sunscreen to snacks to strobe lights, with a dozen backup batteries in between. Even so, that sneaking suspicion that something had been forgotten stayed with me, like a single dark rain cloud in an otherwise pristine blue sky. Some people worry about leaving the lights on, neglecting to take out the trash, or forgetting to lock the doors, but me? It was only when I decided to extend my stay for a second month that I realized I forgot about something very precious in the fridge.

Climoncello. Yes, you read that right: Limoncello‘s clementine cousin, a byproduct of enthusiastic citrus consumption and an inability to throw any viable foodstuffs away. Tearing through my immense stash in record time left countless peels in my wake. Compost seemed like a cop-out for these highly aromatic remnants, especially when they still had so much flavor left to give.

All it took was a bottle of inexpensive vodka to set the creative wheels in motion. Elevating some undrinkable swill and making the most of my citrus windfall in one fell swoop, it was a perfectly elegant solution. Let the concoction steep for a few days, perhaps a week, and my work would be done.

But there it sat, in the darkened corner of the fridge, while I was living it up in a tropical paradise thousands of miles away. Only when one month became two did I realize my oversight, but little could be done at that point. At worst I would return to a rotting, revolting mess of liquid garbage, so I prepared myself for a potentially unpleasant cleanup effort.

Eternally forgetful but incredibly lucky, it turned out the the extra time didn’t hurt my orange-y brew one bit! Preserved by the alcohol and sugar, those scraps looked as good as new, entirely intact yet spent of their fragrant essential oils. Even if the Pacific Ocean wasn’t standing in between this project and me, I wouldn’t dream of letting it stew for a shorter time now.

Climoncello

14 – 15 Clementine Peels
3 1/2 Cups Water
2 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1 (750-ml) Bottle Vodka*

*Don’t waste the good stuff on this, since you’ll be covering up any unsavory notes with your citrus infusion. Just stay away from firewater like Everclear, and you should be golden. I used Popov, for what it’s worth.

Place your peels, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and cook just until the sugar has fully dissolved. Turn off the heat, cover with a lid, and let cool to room temperature. Use a pestle (or any other blunt instrument, really) to mash the rinds around a bit, bruising them to release more of the essential oils. Pour in the vodka, give it a good stir and transfer the whole mixture, peels and all, into a large glass jar. Seal the lid tightly and stash it in a cold, dark place for about three months. Don’t rush it! If anything, you’re likely to get even greater flavors if you let it steep for an extra month or so.

When the climoncello is ready, the liquid should be a golden orange color and smell of sweet oranges. Strain out and discard the peels, and transfer the liqueur to an attractive glass bottle. Store in a cool, dark place for however long you can make it last. It should keep indefinitely, but you’ll no doubt want to enjoy it before too long.

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The Life of Pie

Not all brilliant ideas start out that way. Anyone that’s spent a decent amount of time tinkering with recipes can attest to that, often chalking up more failures than successes despite any amount of experience at the stove. Case in point: This stubborn crusted wonder known fondly as a Caramel Corn Pie, which should have graced the pages of Easy as Vegan Pie.

Conceptually sound yet more temperamental than a 5-year old crashing from a sugar high, it was my problem child of the bunch. After sending it through the ringer with over a half-dozen different trials, completely revamping the base and rendering it unrecognizable from the original approach, sweet relief seemed to be in sight. Handing over the results to my unsuspecting recipe testers, I stood back with a smug sense of pride, awaiting the flood of enthusiastic feedback sure to return in no time.

Needless to say, that was not the case. Still baking unevenly, working in fits and starts, there was no rhyme nor reason to why it would work for some but flop spectacularly for others. Endless last minute tweaks caused it to miss the final deadline for joining the other perfect pies in the book, but finally, a gem I’ve been saving up to celebrate Pi Day (3.14!) the right way, its time has finally come.

For all the love that popcorn wins as a stand-alone snack, you’d think that more treats would seek to share in its reflected glory, utilizing the humble kernel for all that it’s worth. It strikes me as a huge failure of creativity that there aren’t more attempts at popcorn cupcakes, popcorn cookies, or popcorn pies. Luckily, with a bit of custard and caramel, this is a problem we can fix. Notes of burnt sugar compliment a buttery undertone, accented with a good pinch of salt. If you’re craving popcorn, it might be a wise idea to think inside the crust.

Caramel Corn Pie

1 Unbaked Classic Crust (page 36 of Easy as Vegan Pie)

Crunchy Caramel Corn Topping:

4 Cups Freshly Popped Popcorn* (From about 1/4 Cup Kernels)
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda

Caramel Corn Custard:

4 Cups Freshly Popped Popcorn* (From about 1/4 Cup Kernels)
2 1/4 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce
1/3 Cup Cornstarch
1/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1 Tablespoon Whole Flaxseeds, Ground
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine, Melted

*To pop your corn, place the popcorn kernels in a medium-size brown paper bag (if you’re not sure if it’s big enough, err on the side of caution and pop the corn in two separate batches). Use scotch or masking tape to seal the bag shut, and put it in the microwave. Use the “popcorn” setting if possible, or set the timer for 3 ½ minutes at full power. When the popping slows to about once every 5 seconds, remove the bag, and open it very carefully, making sure your hands and face are out of the way- The steam can be quite painful! Sift out any unpopped kernels.

The caramel corn topping takes a bit longer to bake than the pie itself, so your best bet is to prepare it in advance. Preheat your oven to 225 degrees and line a jellyroll pan with a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

Place the first four cups of popped corn in a large bowl near the stove. In a medium saucepan over moderate heat, combine the brown sugar, non-dairy margarine, agave, and salt, stir well and bring to a boil. Cook at a vigorous bubble while stirring continuously for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the baking soda. It will foam and bubble angrily, but don’t just stand around and watch it- Make haste and pour the mixture all over the popcorn. Toss to coat each and every kernel, and spread the syrupy corn out in an even layer on your prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. It will become perfectly crisp once cool, so despite the tempting aroma, resist the urge to take a bite until it reaches room temperature.

Once the topping is baked and out of the oven, increase the temperature to 325 degrees.

Bring together the custard filling by combining the second measure of popped corn and non-dairy milk in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Let sit for 1 hour for the corn to soften and infuse into the liquid.

Transfer the popcorn milk to your blender or food processor and thoroughly puree. Give it at least 5 full minutes at high speed to break down the kernels as much as possible, and longer if necessary. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, pressing to get all the liquid out. Discard the solids.

Pour the popcorn milk back into the medium saucepan, and vigorously whisk in all the remaining ingredients for the filling. When perfectly smooth, turn on the heat to medium, and bring to a boil while stirring continuously, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent the mixture from burning. Once the mixture has thickened to the point that the bottom of the pan remains visible when you stir, without the filling immediately flowing back over the surface, turn off the heat and quickly transfer it to your unbaked pie shell.

Bake until custard is set and browned on top, about 45 – 50 minutes. The center should still be a bit jiggly when tapped, much like a cheesecake. Let cool completely and top with a generous mound of the crunchy caramel corn topping before serving at room temperature.

Makes 8 – 12 Servings

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