BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Vegan Holiday Kitchen

Cooking for a crowd can be daunting even for the seasoned pro, especially when there are specific holiday traditions to uphold. Bound by expectations of great feasts, in addition to the dietary restrictions of every last guest, how is one supposed to plan a festive vegan meal when times of celebration come about? Before demurring and declaring it a potluck affair, do yourself a favor and pick up Nava Atlas‘ new cookbook, Vegan Holiday Kitchen. Encompassing occasions from numerous religions and all throughout the year, it’s sure to guide you out of many sticky situations in any season. Trouble coming up with a hearty main dish for unenthusiastic omnivores, who still think that vegans subsist on lawn clippings and twigs? Or maybe you’re already preaching to the choir, but have trouble with menu planning? Whatever the case, Nava’s got you covered. Attractively photographed by the talented Susan Voisin, the pages sparkle with delicious inspiration and appetite-awakening ideas.

Gravitating first towards the more wintry fare, I can see how the Hearty Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie (page 98) could become the talk of a Christmas party. A mercifully healthy respite from the heavy, rich foods synonymous with the season, the incredibly savory flavor carries this dish far. Opting to make individual servings since I wasn’t actually hosting a great number of guests, and wanting to easily freeze and defrost portions at will, the conversion was painless. Lots of mashed potatoes were leftover after topping my personal pies, although I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. Next time around, I might skip the breadcrumbs at the bottom which didn’t really add much to the dish. (Edit: Nava has explained to me that the breadcrumbs are meant to make slicing and serving a whole shepherd’s pie neater and easier, which is actually pretty clever. So, definitely keep them for a complete, family-style dish, but feel free to omit them for single servings like I made.) Otherwise, it was all you could ask for from a main dish meant to impress- Highly satisfying, well-balanced with both protein and greens, and deeply flavored with umami mushrooms, soy sauce, and aromatic herbs.

Seeking a more complete sample of the recipes on offer, and wanting a simple side to whip together without much fuss, the Pasta and Red Quinoa Salad (page 236) caught my eye early on. Red quinoa eluded me at the grocery store, but the regular old white variety was a fine stand-in. Bright, fresh flavors highlighted by the creamy yet tangy dressing make this disarmingly easy salad irresistible. A delightful combination of textures, between the tender quinoa, al dente pasta (I went with adorable mini bow ties), and crisp veggies, it would be an excellent option for a spring or summer gathering. Of course, you needn’t wait that long- I enjoyed it just fine even in the freezing days of December.

All the previous success was nothing, however, compared to what I believe is the crowning jewel of this collection: The Matzoh Ball Soup (page 115). A simple but surprisingly difficult staple that both bubbies and their babies adore, it’s one dish that I’ve been missing since becoming vegan. Passover would come and go, and I could only look longingly at those pillowy spheres floating in golden broth being devoured. Previous attempts had been spectacular failures, ranging from cannon ball dumplings to magically dissolving and disappearing matzo balls, so I was pretty much convinced that I would never eat anything nearly as good as the original.

Well, I think you know where this is all going by now. I want to state, for the record, that these are the best damn matzoh balls ever. No, perhaps they’re not “fluffy” in the truest sense of the word, but they’re so ethereally light, the simple soup, so perfectly rich and comforting, that the first spoonful brought me right back to my childhood. This is what I had been missing, and will never again go without. For this recipe alone, the cookbook is worth its sticker price, and then some. (The key to absolute soup perfection, by the way, is a truly delicious no-chicken broth, so don’t skimp!)

I’m typically not one to host lavish dinner parties, but the Holiday Vegan Kitchen may slowly convince me to change my tune.


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Start Spreading the News

Ordinarily a stellar candidate for keeping a secret, I’ve been a regular blabbermouth when it comes to my own.  After practically shouting it from the roof tops around town, spilling the details to anyone who sees me and stops to say “Hi,” it’s about time the rest of the world (or at least, the internet) knows…

I’m writing a third cookbook, about vegan ice cream! Tentatively titled “Vegan À La Mode,” you can expect plenty of wild and crazy flavors, alongside decadent classics reinvented. I’m only about 40 recipes in thus far, and there’s so much more left to churn up… You just wait, because this one is gonna be sweet!


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Naturally Sweet and Savory Treats

Sharing a similar seasonable sensibility to my own style of baking, I was attracted to the Green Market Baking Book immediately. As soon as I caught wind of the release, I was entranced; that whimsical yet earthy illustrated cover, charming fabric ribbon, bookmark, and the comforting heft of a hard cover all had me sold. Though not a vegan cookbook, it is one of the few mainstream baking resources that actually provides clearly marked vegan options, a serious plus by me. Less positive was the fact that some recipes actually weren’t labeled as vegan, but in fact were, although such omissions are rather easy to figure out right away. Other options can be converted to use vegan ingredients in a snap, so don’t let those classifications prevent you from enjoying the full scope of this book.

Not only seasonally organized, but also devoid of refined white sugars and flours, those with healthy leanings are sure to appreciate the more wholesome bent to this collection. Rounded out by a guide to seasonal produce and tips for healthier baking, you won’t find outrageous, crazy flavors here, but very down-to-earth recipes. Classics that everyone can appreciate, and gentle twists on standard staples.

Jumping around a bit to get a better taste of its complete offerings, I will admit that I didn’t approach this book entirely in the correct order. Diving straight into the summer section at the lure of a yeasted Tomato Bread, it proved to be a very tasty decision indeed.

Brilliant orange and rust hues embolden this otherwise plain loaf, merely hinting at the flavor contained within. Subtle sweetness and acidity brightens the soft, even crumb, allowing the gentle but clear tomato essence to shine. Deviating slightly from the text and throwing in some chopped sun-dried tomatoes, those rich pieces of concentrated tomato goodness were the perfect addition. Smelling like a full pizza while baking away, all I could think about was grilling up two slices, filled with a handful of vegan cheese… And yet, I found the longest my patience would hold me was to simply slather it with a whisper-thin smear of buttery spread, and eat it straight. Possibly the most tender loaf I’ve made at home, this is absolutely one to revisit in the height of tomato harvest, and perhaps introduce some fresh basil or oregano next time.

Briefly stymied about where to turn next, it was simply a matter of having everything on hand to make the Peanut Butter and Jelly Power Muffins to spur another round of baking. Though I didn’t expect much of them, these simple treats blew me away. Intense peanut and maple flavor sets them apart from other PB+J baked goods, making them a bit sweeter than my average breakfast nosh, but perfect for an addictive after school snack. The combination of textures is what really lends such an addictive quality; That chewy top, fluffy crumb, crunchy nuts strewn throughout, and generous dollop of gooey jam all combine to create a sum greater than their parts. Finished with a good amount of salt for contrast, these simple muffins had a surprisingly mature and complex flavor profile.

Spying the simple formula for Thumbprint Cookies tucked away in the summer section, I easily veganized them by swapping out the butter for non-dairy margarine, and honey for agave. A small pet-peeve but worth noting is the fact that the ingredient list neglects to include any jam, and thus no measurements or even estimates at amounts are given. It turned out that I did not, in fact, have enough jam on hand, and thus had to resort to filling my cookies with chocolate ganache. Oh, what a terrible fate.

Happily, the cookies did not suffer in the least, and perhaps where improved by this chocolatey addition. A bit on the delicate, crumbly side, the texture is similar to a shortbread cookie. Without a filling to hold it all together, I might not go back for seconds, but as a complete assembly, these strike me as a lovely offering to serve with coffee or tea.

While they might not be the most inventive, exciting options on the market, so far each recipe I’ve tried has been a home run. If you’re seeking reliable recipes for sweets that you can feed to your kids (or family, or yourself!) without feeling guilty, the Green Market Baking Book is your new best friend.

Generously provided by the publishers, I have a second cookbook to give away to one lucky reader, too! If these recipes sound like your style, then leave me a comment before midnight on Friday, June 10th, telling me how you’ve made your baking healthier. Do you substitute whole wheat flour? Reduce the sugar? Replace excessive oil with apple sauce? Give me you secrets to wholesome desserts, and you’ll be in the running! Just one comment per person, please, and unfortunately this giveaway is open to residents of the continental US only.


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Uncheese, Uncomplicated

17 years later and still in mainstream circulation, it’s clear that the The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook by Jo Stepaniak has serious staying power, and pearls of wisdom still ripe for the picking. Even in this modern day and age of easily available store-bought non-dairy cheese substitutes, found in a vast array of flavors, with many that even melt and taste good, there is still room in the kitchen for homemade renditions. For the avid DIY-er or frugal cooking enthusiast, The Uncheese Book remains the unchallenged authority on the subject. Reprinted and updated in 2003, it remains largely unchanged since its initial 1994 release, and considering how drastically the face of veganism has morphed since then, that fact should speak volumes by itself.

Not to say that this tome of cheesy concepts is entirely infallible, however. After a few trials of my own, it became startlingly clear that the recipes within could be very much hit-or-miss affairs. Most intrigued by the idea of making block cheeses at home that could be sliced and grated at will, I started near the back of the book rather than the beginning.

After all, the possibility of homemade vegan “Gooda” was just too tempting to resist. An old childhood favorite, small wheels of smoked gouda almost always found their way onto the hors d’oeuvre table at many family functions, and had me hooked for most of my preteen years. Firm but easily sliced, the consistency of the milk-less cheese surpassed my expectations from the moment it cooled and solidified. However, eaten straight away that same day, it struck me as having a pungent mustard flavor. Having utilized smoked paprika and hickory-smoked sea salt to impart a subtle undertone, it had just the right lightly smoke-y nuance… But was far from any smoked gouda I could recall. With confirmation from my cheese-eating mother, I was initially disappointed in this wild experiment, and tossed my unloved wheel into the fridge. Forgotten for two days, it managed to mature considerably, and was quite agreeably improved upon second taste. I still can’t claim it will calm any authentic gouda cravings, but I would not be ashamed to serve this up at any party.

Moving on to the Muenster, or what I used to refer to as “monster” cheese, once upon a time, it was a lovely little number, all dressed up in ruby red paprika and begging to be shown off to friends and family. This is the “cheese” that stole my heart, my favorite of the book thus far and a savory treat so good, I don’t think I shared even a sliver. Mild but creamy, with an addictive umami-sort of whisper throughout, I would argue that this one might be able to fake it as “real” cheese. Perfectly complimented by the paprika coating, lending the pale block both a pop of color and sweetly spicy flavor, it was a delight to behold both with the eye and palate. This recipe alone is worth the full cover price of the book, and then some.

Less successfully, I also tried the Almond Cream Cheez… Let’s just say, this one should get a pass, or perhaps a severe edit. The main issue likely stems from the use of arrowroot, which gives the so-called spread a texture more akin to gooey pond scum than any edible item. There is hope for this misguided shmear, however, as the flavor itself was shockingly spot-on for cream cheese. Even dressed up as cute little cucumber and olive canapes, there was no saving that slime. Lightly tangy and with just the right balance of salt, I continued attempting to eating it time and again since the taste was so perfect, but the textural issues were simply unforgivable. With perhaps a bit of love and a new thickener, it could certainly become a winning option as well.

Branching out a bit into composed dishes, I found the suggestion of a vegan Blintzes wholly intriguing, and highly worthwhile. Made of gluten-free, chickpea flour-based crepe and mashed tofu filling, the recipe was deceptively simple. My own sad crepe-making skills may be largely to blame, but truth be told, I couldn’t get one whole crepe out of this mix as written. Only after adding a good measure of glutenous white flour was I able to turn out a feeble three or four flat pancakes. Tasted alone, the assembly was admittedly rather bland, but paired with a basic blueberry sauce, deemed not at all bad by all eaters present. The labor may not be worth such a lukewarm review, but once more, I feel that there is immense potential given a few more flavorful tweaks.

Considering the overwhelming list of options, I would hardly consider my review to be exhaustive, though, and would strongly urge anyone interested to give it a gander for yourself. Whole sections of appealing savories such as stews, casseroles, and other main dishes went entirely untouched, so I have no doubt that the potential to find more stellar recipes is a 100% likelihood. All things considered, I think that this is still a cookbook that every vegan or otherwise lactose-intolerant person should own.


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Read/Eat All About It!

Have you received the March/April edition of VegNews Magazine yet? Well, you’ve got a lot to look forward to- After a brief hiatus, my column is back! Don’t miss my recipe for Tea Cake Sandwiches, perfect for dessert and tea parties alike. The brown sugar sponge cake especially turned out to be a runaway success, and has become my go-to dacquoise for all sorts of plated desserts, layer cakes, and everything in between. In this case, just add a layer of vanilla creme, ripe strawberries, and a few leaves of fresh mint, and you have yourself a sweet sandwich worth coveting.

I also had the pleasure of photographing Jesse Miner’s BBQ Lentil and Mushroom Tacos in this issue as well. Let me tell you, these things are crazy good! I have a serious distaste for all barbecue sauce in general, so that’s really saying a lot.

Lest I leave you without a recipe, don’t miss out on the Peanut Butter Ginger Muffins I shared with Leela at The Kitchn! Shockingly, I actually forgot to get a photo of these beauties, so you’ll just have to hop on over and checkout Leela’s lovely images. Now get to it, there’s plenty of food to make!


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The Secret is Out!

…And despite the fact that this is the first official announcement, it has long been out, since it’s near impossible to hide an Amazon.com listing.

Well, there’s no turning back now- My second cookbook, Vegan Desserts, will soon be on its way to a bookstore near you! Get your sweet tooth in gear, because this one will be jam-packed with well over 100 brand new, never before seen recipes, each and every one accompanied by a full-color photo. Arranged by season and drawing inspiration from fresh ingredients, holidays, and innovative flavor combinations, this is not just another classic baking book.

As if that all wasn’t exciting enough yet, brace yourself, because the much sought-after recipes for vegan meringues and macarons will be included!

Three years in the making, this book came precipitously close to being tossed out altogether. Sitting on my computer, growing older and less attractive by the day, I eventually realized that a final decision was necessary: Forget the whole mess ever existed and move on, or painstakingly fix all of the blemishes, large and small. This meant rephotographing everything, rewriting everything, and revamping the recipes. It was the equivalent of ripping 250 pages out of their binding, shredding 200, and starting again from there. But for that precise reason, because I couldn’t just speed this text along to the printer without a second thought, I am truly grateful. That initial rejection gave me time to grow as a baker and photographer, to vastly improve this final collection of recipes and images as a whole. Vegan Desserts is so much more than just another cookbook to me; it’s my baby, and I couldn’t be more proud of how it’s grown up. Now, I can only hope that everyone else feels the same way, too.

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