BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes

When it comes to the divide between sweet and savory, the line that separates the two is becoming thinner and more difficult to distinguish with every passing year. Palates are opening up, eaters from all walks of life are growing more adventurous, and chefs are gleefully pursuing their wildest culinary dreams. Such reckless innovation inevitably comes at a price, paid in disappointing or sometimes downright repulsive new tastes (I’m looking at you, cappuccino potato chips) but it’s a gamble well worth taking. In a world with such a vast array of flavors, there must still be countless winning combinations merely waiting to be discovered.

In my eyes, this one wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination. Tomato soup cakes have been around since the turn of the century as a thrifty way of making something sweet in the times of rationing. Originally dubbed “mystery cake” as a way of concealing the secret ingredient, perhaps acknowledging that unwitting diners might be scared off by the novel concept, the processed tomato product was merely an extender, filling in the bulk of the cake without using eggs, only to be covered up in heavy gingerbread-like spices. You’d never know there was ever a tomato present in the tender crumb, which is both the beauty and tragedy of this classic recipe.

Taking inspiration from these humble origins but with the desire to celebrate the bold, beautiful tomatoes now in season rather than bury them in an avalanche of sugar, it seemed high time to revisit the idea of a tomato cake. Now with 100% more tomato flavor! I can just picture the vintage advertisements and their hyperactive proclamations now.

Indeed, you can truly taste the tomato in these fiery red cupcakes. Not only that, but the unassuming beige frosting holds yet another surprise taste sensation: A tangy punch of balsamic vinegar, tempered by the sweetness of the rich and fluffy matrix that contains it. Trust me, it’s one of those crazy things that you’ve just got to taste to believe. Although it may sound like an edible acid burn, that small splash is just enough to brighten up the whole dessert.

While tomatoes are still at their peak, sweet as ever and available in abundance, now is the time to experiment and try something new. Don’t call it a secret ingredient this time around and finally let them shine when the dessert course rolls around.

Tomato Cakes with Balsamic Frosting

Tomato Cupcakes:

2 Cups Diced Fresh Tomatoes, Roughly Blended, or 1 14-Ounce Can Crushed Tomatoes
1/3 Cup Olive Oil
1/3 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed

1 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Balsamic Frosting:

1/2 Cup Vegan Margarine
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Reduction
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
Up to 1 Tablespoon Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line 15 – 16 cupcake tins with papers.

Combine the blended (but not completely pureed) tomatoes, olive oil, and brown sugar in a medium bowl. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and set aside.

In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and soda, salt, and spices. Make sure that all the dry goods are thoroughly distributed before adding in the wet ingredients. Mix everything together with a wide spatula, stirring just enough to bring the batter together and beat out any pockets of unincorporated dry ingredients. A few remaining lumps are just fine.

Distribute the batter between your prepared cupcake pans, filling them about 3/4 of the way to the top. Bake for 17 – 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centers pulls out cleanly, with perhaps just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Do not wait for the tops to brown, because the centers will be thoroughly overcooked by then. Let cool completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, place the margarine in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat briefly to soften before adding in the confectioner’s sugar, balsamic glaze, and vanilla. Begin mixing on low speed until the sugar is mostly incorporated, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Turn the mixer up to high and slowly drizzle in non-dairy milk as needed to bring the whole mixture together. Continue whipping for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Apply to cupcakes as desired.

Makes 15 – 16 Cupcakes

Printable Recipe


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Home Grown Tomatoes


“A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
Lewis Grizzard

“A cooked tomato is like a cooked oyster: ruined.”
Andre Simon, The Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy

“Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What would life be like without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”
John Denver, Home Grown Tomatoes

(Photos taken at the first annual tomato tasting at Ambler Farm.)


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Summer’s Sweet Bounty

Much has been said of California cuisine, and as it remains a nebulous and often contentious concept at best, I won’t even begin to add my two cents to that short-changed conversation. Rather, I can’t help but marvel at the availability and variety of raw ingredients that make it all happen. It’s easy to see how a chef could be inspired to try anything once, maybe twice, when the basic components are all so accessible, to say nothing of their inherent flavor or beauty. Each trip to one of the many farmers markets is guaranteed to yield a cornucopia of edible inspiration. Where else can you find locally grown pistachios, two or three dozen distinctive varieties of peaches, and rainier cherries for an unbelievable price of $2 per pound, all in one place? San Francisco has developed a reputation as being a farm-to-table foodie’s paradise, and it sure is working hard to keep that title.

Of course, I took this opportunity to positively gorge myself on ripe seasonal fruits. The siren song of those soft, explosively juicy nectarines was impossible to resist, no matter how messy they were to eat. Apricots came home with me in aromatic, golden heaps, piled so high on the kitchen counter that it seemed impossible to eat them without aid. Somehow, I always managed.

That’s to say nothing of the berries. Despite missing out on the prime berry bounty, it was still a real treat to enjoy locally grown options, and at such bargain basement prices. As a little ode to my Californian summer, it was only fitting to gather up a small sampling of what I had on hand, along with the famed sourdough that beckons irresistibly in every reputable bakery’s store front. Fresh mint plucked straight from the tiny windowsill garden completed this little love note to my temporary, adoptive home state.

Light, fresh, fast, it’s the kind of recipe that depends entirely on the quality of your ingredients. Consider it as a serving suggestion; more of an idea than a specific schematic, to be tailored to whatever fruits are fresh and in season in your neck of the woods.

California Dreamin’ Panzanella

5 Cups Cubed Sourdough Bread
2 Cups Pitted and Halved Cherries
2 Cups Seedless Grapes
1 Cup Blackberries
1/4 Cup Zulka Sugar or Light Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Cup Roughly Chopped Walnuts
Fresh Mint Leaves, Thinly Sliced

To Serve:

Coconut Whipped Cream (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread your cubes of sourdough bread out on a baking sheet in one even layer and bake them for about 15 minutes, until golden and lightly toasted all over. Let cool completely before proceeding.

In a large bowl, toss together all of the fruits and remaining ingredients. Toss in the toasted bread, right before serving, last to ensure that it stays crisp. Mix thoroughly so that everything is well distributed and entirely coated with the sugar mixture. Enjoy immediately with a dollop of whipped coconut cream, if desired.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Thai It, You’ll Like It

Despite growing up so close to the hustle and bustle of New York City, I spent the majority of my formative years in the safety of small towns. These modest, insular neighborhoods are the perfect place to foster a care-free childhood, complete with tight-knit communities, safe neighborhoods, and sleepy streets that go quiet at 9 PM, even on a Saturday. Many cherished memories were made around the babbling brook a short walk from my home, collecting the Queen Anne’s lace that grew in abundance on either side of the stream. Although I’d consider myself more of a city slicker these days, I wouldn’t change those early years for the world. There’s no better place to develop a sense of identity, since there are fewer distractions or outside forces telling you what to be. What small towns are not so great for is cultivating a finely tuned palate. For the first dozen years of my life, I can easily count the number of world cuisines that had passed my lips on just one hand. Oh, but wait, do hot dogs count as a particular national specialty of any sort? Shamefully, my final count could end up being far less.

Thai food was entirely foreign to me, in every sense, pretty much right up until the prior year. It’s not the most rare or exotic culinary find, as globalism has brought so many worldly edibles closer to home than ever, but solid examples of these flavors had eluded me in sleepy coastal Connecticut. Only when I went to Hawaii did I find the immersive experience that I was craving. The landscape is ripe with stellar, dare I say, authentic offerings from just about every part of the world, with particularly strong offerings from Asian countries. It was there that I found Opal Thai, and my hunger for the cuisine has never been greater.

Nothing that I could fabricate at home would reach anywhere near those gustatory heights, but hunger drives one to gamble a bit in the kitchen. Som Tum, otherwise known as green papaya salad, is easily my favorite way to begin a meal. Served chilled, the tender yet crisp strands of unripe papaya are cooling, yet still popping with bursts of heat from abundant flecks of chili peppers. Brightly acidic, tangy, and slightly salty, with just a touch of sweetness to take the edge off, every component must be in perfect balance to achieve a successful, harmonious dish. The most challenging part of the composition is preparing vegan fish sauce, but once you make up a single batch of the funky stuff, it will last in your fridge for ages, facilitating almost instant salad satisfaction.

Of course, the key ingredient, green papaya, eluded me in my limited hometown grocery stores, which is why I took a page from the ever-popular zucchini noodles that proliferate as summer brings an abundance of the green squashes. They don’t stay crisp as long as papaya, so just make sure you leave them undressed until the minute you’re ready to serve. It may not be the genuine article, but it transports me to a delicious new world of flavor with every single bite.

Thai-Style Zucchini Ribbon Salad (Based on Som Tum)

1/4 Cup Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Coconut Sugar, or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
3 – 4 Ounces (A Big Handful) Skinny Green Beans, Lightly Blanched
2 Medium Zucchini, Spiralized or Julienned
1/2 Cup Halved Grape or Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 – 1 Red Thai Chile, Thinly Sliced
Handful Skinny Chives or Scallions, Thinly Sliced
2 Tablespoons Roasted and Salted Peanuts, Coarsely Chopped

This dish comes together very quickly, so prep all of your vegetables first and you’ll zip right through the rest of the preparation. For the dressing, whisk together the lime juice, coconut sugar, vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. It will seem like a lot of liquid, but don’t worry, that’s exactly what you want! This isn’t like a traditional salad dressing; it should soak into the noodles a bit, and you will have a bit of a pool at the bottom when it’s in proper proportion.

In a medium bowl, place the green beans, zucchini ribbons, and tomatoes. Pour the dressing on top and toss to coat. Add in the chili, just a little bit at a time, until it’s spicy enough for your personal tastes. Give it one more good toss to mix everything around and evenly distribute the ingredients before transferring everything to a serving dish. Top with a generous handful of sliced chives and chopped peanuts.

Don’t waste time chit-chatting; Eat immediately!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Summer Loving

Dear fellow food bloggers, hear me out. Put the pumpkin down, step away from the cinnamon, ginger, and clove, and stash those cranberries back in the fridge for a little while longer. It’s still summer, for crying out loud! Sure, there are more brisk mornings and fewer sweltering afternoons, but even the calendar agrees that summer hasn’t given up the ghost just yet. Rather than rush head-long into the colder part of the year, I’m relishing every remaining minute of sun, and yes, even the humidity that it sometimes brings. While so much of the blogosphere seems to have moved on, casting aside the brilliant berries, tomatoes, and corn still at the market, the move seems painfully premature. Those root vegetables will still be there next month- For the next 5 months, at that- So I hope you’ll at least indulge me while I share a brief overview of a few things I’ve been loving all season long. It’s not too late to enjoy them for yourself!

Essentially an enhanced water drink, Bai5 was initially an impulse buy that turned into something of an obsession. It’s definitely a treat, considering the expense, but I can’t get enough of the intense yet natural fruit flavors. Congo Pear is my all-time favorite, granted I haven’t tried any that I wasn’t fond of. For hot summer days, there were few drinks more refreshing that I found to stock my fridge with, although that stash never lasted long.

Homegrown tomatoes. ‘Nuff said.

Up the ante a bit with heirloom tomatoes and juicy peaches together, namely in a bold salad with corn, tofu feta, and fresh basil. Eat it chilled or stuff it into some puff pastry and you’ve got yourself one killer appetizer. Get the recipe at Go Dairy Free.

Not one to shy away from sugar, I was reluctant to taste the No Sugar Added Coconut Ice Creams recently release by So Delicious. They aren’t without flaws, as they carry a faint stevia aftertaste that detracts somewhat from the overall experience, but the texture doesn’t suffer one bit. An incredible feat considering how essential sugar is to the prevention of ice crystals in traditional scoops. I would heartily recommend the Butter Pecan in particular to anyone watching their intake of sweets.

Rich, highly spiced Ethiopian food at Lalibela in New Haven, CT. Okay, so this one isn’t actually seasonal at all, and may in fact be better suited for colder weather, but I can’t resist listing this gem of a restaurant. It just so happens that a recent trip stands out as one particular high point of my summer dining experiences. A whole vegan section of the menu ensures a wealth of choices for eaters of all persuasions, and that delightfully spongy injera can’t be beat when paired with absolutely any dish on offer. Although my visits are few and far between, it always exceeds my expectations, seeming to improve upon each subsequent visit. If you’re local, or semi-local, it’s definitely worth a trip from a hundred miles away.

That’s all for now, but by no means an exhaustive list of all the edible and drinkable delights that have crossed my path this season. For those, you’ll have to stay tuned for more in-depth reviews to come!


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True Blue Summer

As the summer growing period reaches a crescendo, the sheer abundance is enough to make me giddy, tearing through mile-high stacks of tomatoes with abandon. Fresh produce flooding markets near and far, a riot of colors and shapes adorn farm stand shelves as far as the eye can see, and everything looks good enough to eat. It feels silly to crave more in light of such abundance, yet I can’t help but yearn for the local specialties so precious and so fragile that they never see mainstream distribution. Though less exotic than some prime picks, the Frozen Wild Blueberries from Maine are the first things that come to mind. It’s harvest time up north, and the good news is that everyone, not just New Englanders, can enjoy those tiny blue jewels because much of the crop is flash frozen within 24 hours of picking, locking in both taste and nutrients at the peak of perfection.

Uncompromising standards of production mean that Frozen Wild Blueberries are some of the rare treats available all year long in any grocery store’s freezer case. Don’t let that luxury lure you into a false sense of complacency, though- Now is the time to act! Make the most of prime seasonal pairings to bring out the best flavors nature can create. Perhaps not the most obvious couple in the culinary spectrum, blueberries and corn are truly a match made in summertime heaven. Starting with ingredients so perfect to begin with, it doesn’t take much to draw out their best qualities in any recipe. Especially when it comes to Frozen Wild Blueberries, there’s no gamble as far as quality is concerned; every bag contains the same sweetness and complexity as you would get right off the bush, no matter where or when you eat them.

Built upon a tender crumb containing both blue cornmeal and whole, roasted corn kernels pureed to a silky-smooth consistency, this cake isn’t any old cornbread with frosting. Softer, sweeter, and infinitely more luscious, even the most hesitant taste testers were won over after a single bite. Truth be told, I only managed to sneak in a few forkfuls myself, fighting for a taste before the entire assembly was devoured before my very eyes. Frozen Wild Blueberries really pack in the flavor in both the jammy compote filling and creamy frosting, managing an intensity that larger, watery berries could only dream of.

There has never been a better time to indulge than right now. Whether it’s the cake that all the neighbors will buzz about for the Labor Day block party, or just a treat that brightened up the back-to-school blues, I can think of no greater grand finale to celebrate the end of summer.

Summer Blues Layer Cake

Blue Corn Cake:

2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Cup Blue Cornmeal
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Cup Roasted or Grilled Sweet Corn Kernels (From About 2 Ears)
3/4 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1/2 Cup Olive Oil

Wild Blueberry Compote Filling:

10 Ounces (About 2 Cups) Frozen Wild Blueberries
3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch

Cooked Wild Blueberry Frosting:

5 Ounces (About 1 Cup) Frozen Wild Blueberries
About 1/2 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
1 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
Zest of 1/2 Lemon
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and lightly grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and soda, salt, and pepper. Whisk lightly to aerate and combine.

Pull out your blender or food processor and place the shucked corn kernels in the canister, along with the coconut milk. Blend on high speed, pausing to scrape down the sides as needed, until the corn is completely pureed and perfectly smooth. Add in the non-dairy milk, vinegar, and oil, and pulse to combine.

Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry, mixing with a wide spatula just until the batter comes together. It’s fine to leave a few lumps, as long as there are no big pockets of flour remaining. Divide the resulting batter equally between your prepared cake pans, smoothing out the tops with your spatula before sliding them onto the middle rack in your oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the centers cake comes out clean.

Cool completely before assembling the cake.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling by combining the Frozen Wild Blueberries, sugar, and lemon juice in small saucepan over medium heat. Allow the Frozen Wild Blueberries to thaw and become juicy, bringing the liquid to boil and stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil steadily until the berries have burst and the mixture is thickened, stirring occasionally and mashing berries roughly with fork, for about 8 – 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool, and chill thoroughly before using; at least 30 minutes.

For the frosting, toss the Frozen Wild Blueberries into your blender or food processor and thoroughly puree. Pass the smooth puree through a fine mesh strainer to catch any remaining pieces, pressing hard to extract all of the liquid, and discard the solids. Measure the resulting seedless puree and add enough non-dairy milk to equal 1 cup total. Place the mixture in a medium sauce pan, along with the cornstarch and salt. Whisk vigorously to dissipate any lumps of starch before turning on the heat to medium. Continue whisking gently until the mixture thickens and large bubbles begin to break on the surface. This won’t take very long since it’s a small amount of liquid, so don’t walk away! It takes mere seconds for it to scorch miserably on the bottom. Let cool to room temperature, and then place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface. Move the whole pot into your fridge to chill thoroughly- This should take about 1 – 2 hours.

Once the thickened blueberry mixture is completely chilled, place the margarine and sugar (yes, granulated! Do not try using confectioner’s here) in the bowl of your stand mixer, and cream together until homogenous. Don’t rush this step, as thorough creaming ensures that the sugar granules actually dissolve into the frosting; Allow a solid 3 – 5 minutes here, depending on how cold the margarine is. Finally, add the cooled blueberry mix into the bowl, along with the lemon zest and vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, and whip on high speed until the frosting is smooth, creamy, and fluffy. Again, patience is key, so give it time and you will be rewarded!

To assemble, level off the tops of your cake layers by slicing off any domed humps with a serrated knife. Once flat, place one layer on your serving plate or pedestal of choice. Evenly smooth the cooked blueberry compote all over, leaving about 1 cm of cake uncovered around the borders. When you place the next layer on top, it will likely push some of the jammy filling outwards, so you want to prevent it from running over the sides. After the second layer is secured in place, apply your frosting liberally to the top, smearing it outwards and down the sides. Pipe decorative borders and garnish with additional blueberries, if desired.

Makes 14 – 20 Servings

Printable Recipe

This post was written for and is sponsored by Wild Blueberries, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.

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