All About That Base

Cake mixes get a bad rap- in most cases, rightly so. Little more than overpriced packages of flour, the advantage they offer to conventional baking is slim to none. Hapless bakers end up investing their precious time and money on treats that taste no better than a processed, packaged dessert straight off the grocery store shelf. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the concept. I’ve always railed against such purported “conveniences” that merely cut out the step of measuring ingredients already ready and waiting in the pantry.

To every rule, however, there is an exception. PastryBase is that rare unicorn that makes the cut, quite literally in the case of their adorable Unicorn Cupcake Baking Kit. What sets this apart from the pack is that you get so much more than just a bag of dusty white flour.

One box contains everything you need to hit the ground baking, which is exceptionally helpful if you’re not a regularly keep the pantry fully stocked. That includes rainbow cupcake papers, a disposable piping bag, two types of sprinkles, those highly Instagrammable unicorn toothpick toppers, and of course, both cake and frosting mix. All you need to supply is a splash of non-dairy milk, oil, and some vegan butter.

Did I mention yet that it’s gluten-free? It’s an important feature, but the least of my concerns when I’m savoring the fruits of my scant labor. This is one of those rare baked goods that dessert devotees would flock to, expressing genuine shock and disbelief that they are, in fact, gluten-free. Moist and tender all the way through, there’s not a dry crumb to be found. Of course, there’s not a crumb left by the time you finish licking the paper clean, either.

Just as importantly, they’re not bound so tightly with gums or thickeners that they’re more dense than osmium. For all the conventional ingredients omitted in this mix, these little cakes truly lack nothing.

Whipping up in mere minutes, the soft, gooey frosting comes together like a standard American buttercream. Though I held back on the liquid, adding only 1 of 3 suggested tablespoons, mine came out far less fluffy than that pictured. Regardless, I certainly can’t complain about the taste. Bearing a subtle hint of marshmallow and notes of vanilla, it crowns those golden cakes with a gentle kiss of sweetness.

Enjoyed altogether, these treats deliver a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth experience. Plus, that coarse colored sugar isn’t just for show; it adds a crunchy, satisfyingly granular texture for welcome contrast.

Easy enough for a child but too much fun to let them enjoy all the glory alone, PastryBase is the only mix I will allow in my kitchen. PastryBase is passionate about changing the notion that baking is too difficult, arduous, and time-consuming for the home cook. Their mission is to encourage everyone, from beginners to pastry mavens, to bake more often, with higher-quality ingredients, and no worries. Now that is something I can happily sink my teeth into.

This post was made possible as a collaboration with PastryBase. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!

Watch the World Burn

It’s the contrarian in me, but I must admit, I love a recipe that’s meant to go wrong. Flawed by design, it tells you right in the title that it won’t turn out according to standard procedure. Burnt Basque Cheesecake has been high on my list for just that reason. Baking to golden brown perfection is not the goal here: You want to push it further, right over the edge of the cliff into dark, smoldering, ashes.

Okay, the results aren’t that dire, but the top is definitely edging into “blackened” territory, which I usually take as a euphemism for being exceedingly overcooked. It’s a good thing, in this case, to stand back and watch the world burn- Or at least, the contents of your springform pan. That darkly lacquered surface contains volumes of flavor, intense and arresting, like the slightly bitter edge to properly caramelized sugar. It takes the bite out of strong sweetness, creating harmonious balance throughout the dessert.

Inside lies soft, tender custard, gently tangy like any proper cheesecake filling. If anything, the extreme external heat keeps the center even more pillow-like, cooking it to the bare minimum necessary to set and slice. It’s not a classic beauty, but quite possibly the best kind of cheesecake, for those who care more about flavor than shallow aesthetics.

Don’t be afraid to turn up the heat and immolate your hard work in that fiery oven. This particular baptism by fire isn’t a painful lesson to learn.

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More Matzo? Say It’s Not So!

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, we must ask ourselves why on Earth we bought so much darned matzo meal.

Don’t tell me I’m alone here. Year after year, as Passover draws nearer, I have an inexplicable fear of running out of matzo meal. Surely, THAT will be the one thing that the stores run out of right in the moment of need. Not toilet paper, not water, but matzo meal. It’s even more incomprehensible because I don’t even like the stuff. Truth be told, I hate matzo! Made into balls or drowned in toffee is the only way I’ll accept it. Otherwise… What the heck do you do with all this dry, flavorless sawdust?

You turn it into a fruit crumble topping, that’s what! Thanks to the magic of nature’s candy, there’s plenty of rich, sweet flavor in the filling to make up for any of matzo’s shortcomings. Bolstered by the warmth of ground cinnamon and dark brown sugar, it turns into a crisp, downright buttery struesel to cap off the tender berry jumble. Served warm with perhaps a scoop of ice cream melting luxuriously into all the crevasses, or a soft dollop of whipped coconut cream melding into each layer, there are few desserts more comforting.

You’d never even know that this formula included the plague of my pantry, that ever-present matzo meal, perpetually purchased in bulk for no good reason. At least, now it has a good purpose, even beyond the Passover Seder. For both its crowd-pleasing taste and effortless assembly, this dessert is a definite keeper.

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Gefilte? Go Fish!

“Passover is right around the corner, so I was thinking about making a vegan gefilte fish this year.

Silence. The line went dead. After a few beats, I wondered if the call had dropped altogether, until my mom hesitantly, quietly responded, “…Why?”

My mother herself is a fair weather gefilte fish supporter, serving it dutifully every time tradition mandates. I get the impression that it’s more about ritual, symbolism, and classic Jewish guilt than genuine enjoyment, but for all that, her tolerance for the processed white fish dumpling is far greater than most. Even she couldn’t fathom why I’d want to revisit the reviled appetizer, and at such great effort.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s the challenge of creating something that is otherwise unattainable, of trying something new and novel, or my general propensity towards all things bizarre.

Let’s be honest, gefilte fish is an outlandish dish. They’re like poached pescaterian meatballs, spiked with the sharp bite of horseradish and bitter herbs. You can generally find them packed in shelf-stable glass bottles, which seem to live indefinitely in the back of your bubbe‘s pantry, like a long-forgotten science experiment gone awry. To make matters worse, because cooking is verboten on the Sabbath for strictly kosher households, it’s typically served cold.

Starting from scratch with plants, we can resuscitate this Franken-fish with just a bit of patience and perseverance. Potato and cauliflower provide the substance and texture with a fairly neutral taste, bolstered by caper brine for a subtly oceanic, saline essence. Olive brine or simply very salty water could do in a pinch, but something about the faintly lemony, pleasingly metallic taste of capers really suits the original inspiration.

There are plenty of similar interpretations on the internet, but what sets my fish-free gefilte apart is the genuine coating in aspic, reminiscent of the gelatinous goop that comes within the jar. Slicked with the sheen of agar, this extra layer locks in moisture, freshness, and an added veneer of savory flavor.

No one would be fooled by my finless imposters, even amidst the cacophony of colors on the average Seder plate; these gefilte are far and away the superior option. Banish those fetid, mummified monstrosities in the closet, and try something better than merely edible this year.

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Sunny Side Up

How is it possible for a city that got its name by “keeping it weird,” that celebrates craft beer, and hosts an above average percentage of plant-based denizens hasn’t yet found a way to combine these factors into one harmonious outpost? At least, it hadn’t, up until now. Sunny’s Backyard is the first 100% vegan bar, or pub, as they call themselves, to hit Austin. Still open softly, the interior of the building is still closed, but they’re slinging food fast and furious from the trailer parked out front.

While it’s not exactly a drinking destination yet, until they get their liquor license, the beer is FREE! That said, the food itself is reason enough to trek out to the east side. We’re talking about wonton cheese sticks served with sriracha aioli, giant soft pretzels, and crispy fried banana peppers, just to get you started.

While you’re loading up on all the comfort food your stomach can handle, don’t be misled by the healthy-sounding Brussels sprout salad. They’re actually fried to crispy, cravable perfection, drenched in a sweet and sour ponzu sauce, drizzled with spicy, creamy aioli, and finish with pickled vegetables. It’s brilliantly balanced, and also an impressive pile of food. You definitely get your money’s worth here.

If you can only order one thing, though, make it the street dog. It’s not just a meatless frank; it’s dipped in beer batter, covered in French fries, and slathered in more of that godly creamy sauce. Highly Instagrammable, yes, but also a culinary feat well worth the calories.

Even without all systems go, I’m already smitten with this new watering hole. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine it getting even better, but you can bet I’ll come back to see it happen.

Sunny’s Backyard
3526 E 7th St.
Austin, TX 78702