Wordless Wednesday: A Gracious Plenty

Cafe Umami Uptown – Oakland, California

TLV Israeli Street Food – Austin, Texas

Seabirds Kitchen – Los Angeles, California

Frea – Berlin, Germany

Cosmos Kitchen – Austin, Texas

Bouldin Creek Cafe – Austin, Texas

Czech Mate

How did such a humble, unassuming Czech pastry become so deeply intertwined with Texan foodways that it became an inextricable part of southern culture itself? While it remains largely unknown just beyond state borders, kolaches are serious business to any conscious eater. I had never heard of such a thing before visiting the Lone Star State, but kolaches are as essential to the local cuisine as barbecue. Arriving along with European immigrants in the late 1800s, central Texas became the nexus of kolache creation.

Technically, the savory version most popular in my immediate area are klobasneks, NOT kolache. Both employ a lightly sweetened, buttery yeasted dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings, but genuine kolaches are sweet breakfast treats, employing fruit preserves, cream cheese, or poppy seeds for flavor. Klobasneks are arguably more popular in these parts, calling for any sort of meat, from sausage links to ground beef to shredded chicken, cheese, jalapenos, and sometimes even egg and potatoes. Truth be told, any sort of stuffing might reside within these baked buns. For the sake of simplicity, they all get wrapped up under the kolache moniker. Those wise enough to tell the difference are also smart enough not to pick a fight.

Terminology aside, what makes for the best kolaches? It’s all in the dough. Supple, pillowy soft, catching the light with a subtle buttery shine, the tender bread should practically melt in your mouth. Impossibly light for such a rich mixture, it’s a delicate balance of art and science to achieve the perfect crumb. Years of experience with tireless practice are the secret ingredients; otherwise, the standard recipe is largely unexceptional. Flour, sugar, yeast, butter, and all the other usual suspects are present.

The key is all in quantity. Speaking with chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish, his carefully honed formula makes liberal use of butter, both in and brushed on the rich dough. Coming from a long line of Czech bakers, his recipe reflects that heritage to create the best version around, vegan or not.

“When I said I wanted to open my own place, one of the first things I did was make and sell kolaches at various events in an effort to get my name and face out there,” chef Vanis explained through email.

“Before that, when I lived in Houston, I would occasionally pick up work at a bakery that made kolaches. Even though grandma always had kolaches made and on hand, I was never a part of making them, like I sometimes was with cinnamon rolls. I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy them so much now. My grandparents passed away many years ago, but as I think about the baking and enjoyment of kolaches, there’s an opportunity to create new memories that are connected to grandma’s house. I don’t feel like I missed out on a chance to bake them as a child. I do feel grateful that I have those fond memories attached to them now.”

According to Craig, poppyseed or plum are the most traditional fruit fillings, but the sky is the limit. Any jam or preserves will bake in beautifully to make sweet pastries, and any sort of savory meatless or vegetable stuffing can create a hearty stuffed bun.

What remains a mystery is why the art of the kolache has stayed contained within the Texas Czech Belt, when the base formula is infinitely adaptable, and its appeal so universal. If you’ve never been so lucky to see them in local bakeries, do yourself a favor and start your own family tradition, baking from scratch.

Continue reading “Czech Mate”

Well Butter My Biscuit

Like clockwork, come mid-November, one particular recipe on BitterSweet starts getting a flurry of fresh page views. Thanksgiving revives long-forgotten cravings for tried-and-true, classic comfort foods, so I would expect any of the pumpkin pie variants to attract new attention, or perhaps the more adventurous Cheeseburger Stuffing, but no. That would be too obvious.

Of all things, it’s the Garden Herb Biscuits that go viral. Created without any holiday in mind, and still not one I would necessarily associate with a traditional Thanksgiving feast, there’s apparently a spot at the festive table for them in many homes out there. If you ask me, we can do better.

By no means am I suggesting you go biscuit-less (heaven forbid), but let’s make something special this time around, fit for the occasion.

Soft as butter itself, with equally tender yet flaky layers and a subtly sweet flavor, these alluring magenta biscuits are the perfect fusion of southern comfort and southeast Asian flair. Purple sweet potato could do in a pinch, or even the average orange-fleshed yam, but part of the appeal is definitely the gem-like periwinkle hue.

Accented with the tropical aroma of coconut milk, each bite, each crisp but supple crumb melts away in a pool of nostalgia on the tongue. Memories of happy childhood meals and celebratory dinners bubble up to the surface, buoyed by an undercurrent of wanderlust, satisfying the need for new and novel experiences.

Who knew such a simple biscuit could contain these complex, seemingly conflicting characteristics, all with incredible grace and always, great taste? Apparently all the people searching for them in years past; I’m the one late to finally get the message.

Don’t let the holiday season pass you by without a batch or two of these brilliant biscuits gracing your plate. They’re not just for dinner, after all. Leftovers make for some of the best breakfasts one could dream about… If you can resist their lure fresh out of the oven, that is.

Continue reading “Well Butter My Biscuit”

Bundles of Joy

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always,the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

Pandemic or not, the holidays must go on. They may look a bit different, but the sentiment is all the same. We’ll spend time together, even if we’re physically far apart, spreading joy, creating memories, and of course, giving gifts. The beauty of online shopping is that your selections can arrive on your loved ones’ doorsteps with contact-free, hassle-free delivery. What can you send that will satisfy the foodies in your life, and where can you find it all? Consider iHerb your personal Secret Santa, or perhaps, Mystery Maccabee.

Delivering holiday cheer to over 180 countries across the globe, iHerb boasts over 30,000 natural products, from supplements to pantry staples, guaranteed at the highest quality and lowest prices possible. Free or discounted shipping ensures that your presents will arrive on time for the big event; no excuses, no empty stockings. If you ever need help, you can talk to customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in 10 different languages. Plus, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, happily ensconced in fuzzy slippers and warm pajamas? That’s a big present you’re giving to yourself right there.

After almost a full year under varying degrees of quarantine, we’re all getting a bit restless. Anyone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen is undoubtedly clamoring for a new project. After you’ve made your hundredth batch of banana bread and thousandth dalgona coffee, what’s left to try? Here are some fun foodie bundles to kick start brand new edible adventures.

Sourdough is almost too obvious to include, but still, too good to ignore. There’s a reason why this once uncommon approach to bread baking has risen to mainstream fame in recent months. The satisfaction of cultivating wild yeast, kneading dough by hand, watching it slowly come to life and rise of its own accord; the whole process is incredibly soothing, gratifying, and of course delicious in the end. Sometimes it’s not easy to create your own starter though, which is where the handy Cultures for Health Sourdough packets come in. They have options for Whole Wheat, San Francisco-style, and even a Gluten-Free blend! Pair that with some fun flours for your budding baker to experiment with, like rustic spelt or rye from Arrowhead Mills. Don’t forget to include primo sourdough food, since these yeasty beasts thrive on sugar. Consider Madhava agave nectar to develop a greater depth of flavor while fueling that starter the right way. Accessory options are endless, from nice bread knives to cutting boards, but you can never go wrong with a nice pack of colorful Full Circle dish cloths to both cover the growing dough and clean up after. Bonus points if you can rustle up a proper banneton bead proofing basket for fun and functional packaging.

Cheese making may not be the first activity to have crossed your mind, especially if you too have vegan leanings, but fear not! The handy Real Cheese Kits from Cultures of Health can be made with dairy-free milk, too! Take your pick from Paneer & Queso, or Mozzarella & Ricotta, or both, because you can never be too cheesy. Make the process foolproof by including Now Foods Soy Milk Powder, so your lucky recipient doesn’t need to worry about schlepping home a few gallons of liquid before getting started. Soy is also a great option for this kind of application, since it has more protein to better mimic that of cow’s milk, creating better curds. Add in a lovely cheeseboard or slate along with a cheese knife to really fancy up the package, along with snacks to pair with the completed cheeses. I happen to love the contrast of sweet, chewy dried fruits, particularly Made in Nature Dried Apricots, but do cater to your beneficiary’s tastes. All-fruit preserves could be a nice alternative, as would a bottle of tangy pomegranate nectar for a bolder acidic hit. Crackers are mandatory; Simple Mills makes a variety of flavors, but I happen to love the basic Sea Salt variety to let the cheeses themselves shine. Now that’s a [small, outdoor, socially distanced] party waiting to happen!

Kombucha is also bubbling up to greater acclaim lately. Every state can boast local, micro-batch brewers, and your lucky friend could soon be one of them! Procuring a proper scoby is more than half the battle. Happily, Cultures of Health has got this one covered too, with a Kombucha Start Culture to begin the process from scratch. Every bit as easy as making pickles, it doesn’t take much to kick off a bubbling batch of fermented tea, though there are certainly some particular additions that can make the process even easier. Simple cane sugar is essential; no fancy alternative sweeteners need apply. Go for Wholesome’s Organic Sucanat to take advantage of the rich molasses flavor and trace minerals to bolster the brew. The options for tea are truly limitless, so it’s nice to include a variety of options to provide a range of different tastes to try. The Fruit Tea Sampler from Celestial Seasonings is a great place to start, offering five distinctive herbal teas to chose from. Contain your excitement, and presents, in a handy Now Foods Sprouting Jar, which is ideal for housing the budding beneficial bacteria, too. The mesh top will allow the scoby to breathe while keeping bugs out, so there’s no risk of infestation.

Make a list, check it twice, and then visit iHerb. Shop now to get 5% of your purchase, no minimum order. Spread joy, not germs, and give a gift that everyone will happily stay at home to enjoy.

Stuffed to the Gills

Some vegetables were made to be stuffed. Open, empty cups, yearning to be filled, they’re more than just an anonymous vehicle for egregious amounts of dip. Meaty caps to really sink your teeth into, even simple little button mushrooms can transform the average appetizer into an elegant canape.

Popularized around the mid 20th century, these fun guys have a relatively short gastronomic history, but have been the life of the party ever since. No matter what savory delights you find packed into the center, a warm, roasted mushroom with concentrated umami flavor can do no wrong. Bonus points for being a naturally compact finger food, self-contained and perfectly portioned.

Lightening the load of what tends to be a very rich heap of cheese, cream, breadcrumbs, and/or sausage, these baby bellas are filled with everyone’s favorite culinary chameleon: Cauliflower! Simmered until meltingly tender, a quick mashing makes them indistinguishable from less healthy fare. Redolent of vibrant lemongrass and basil, it’s hard to resist eating straight out of the pan by the forkful. Truth be told, you could easily serve this stuffing in place of mashed potatoes, but mushrooms really do take it to the next level.

This recipe was inspired by Kevin’s Natural Foods Lemongrass Basil Sauce and is my entry into the “Eat Clean. Live Happy. Blogger Recipe Challenge.” Like all of these products, my recipe is proudly paleo, keto, gluten-free, and sugar-free. You can get more information and inspiration on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Don’t wait for a special occasion to make stuffed mushrooms. Even if you’re just throwing a party for one, the small amount of extra effort will really make your taste buds dance.

Continue reading “Stuffed to the Gills”

Solo Celebration

Thanksgiving, a time of abundance, celebration, and above all else, togetherness, looks considerably different this year. Global pandemics really put a damper on group festivities, traveling, and essentially all the annual rituals we tend to associate with the holiday. The writing has been on the walls for months, but it’s only just starting to hit home now. No endless buffets of home cooked excess, no tight, endless hugs with mom or dad, no laughing over a dwindling fire about our embarrassing childhood stories. Instead, I’ll walk in the door to an echoing, empty home. A vacant dinner table. A cold kitchen.

Although I’m alone physically, I know my situation isn’t special. Everyone’s in the same emotional boat, flailing about, rowing frantically just to avoid capsizing. It’s hard, it’s awful, but it would be so much worse to get sick, or make someone else sick. Fighting the very human nature that calls us together as a community goes against everything instilled in us since birth. This Thanksgiving will be a test of endurance, though it doesn’t have to mean days, or weeks, of self-imposed suffering.

Let’s do this thing together, separately. What does that look like in practice? For me, it means paring down the bountiful feast to just the essentials. At bare minimum, it’s simply not Thanksgiving without:

Don’t go crazy. Don’t make enough for an army. Don’t even turn on the oven if it’s too much. You can easily fill out this menu with delivery or prepared dishes from the grocery store, at a fraction of the cost of the typical, enormous spread.

That’s all it takes. More importantly, don’t forget to invite everyone you know and love! No, don’t actually have them over, but get them on the line with Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook, WHATEVER. Throw their faces up on the big screen TV if you’ve got it, put the monitor right on the table with you, and pull up a chair.

It’s hard to be thankful when so many obstacles have been thrown in our path this year. Not a single person on this planet has gotten off easy. No one can claim to be unaffected. There’s still so much in life to be grateful for, and I know I’m going to make the most of it, no matter what. There’s nothing stopping me from enjoying the traditional foods I love for the holidays, or enjoying time spent with the people I cherish. Cheers, to brighter days ahead; let’s eat!