Sweeter by the Dozen

They say it’s your birthday
It’s my birthday too, yeah

As I struggle to stitch together the right combination of words on yet another post, I find that The Beatles sum up the general premise quite nicely in just a few simple words. My biological birthday was last month, but today is the day that BitterSweet turns twelve years old, an implausible, unbelievable milestone that I find myself celebrating with an even greater fervor. This humble little corner of virtual space has become so inextricably linked with my identity over the years, growing and contracting, morphing and evolving, persisting against all odds, that it really is my own birthday, too.

Let’s not get too mushy here, but there is a deep debt of gratitude that I do owe to you, every last one of you, that has dropped by to comment, like, pin, tweet, re-gram or re-post. That encouragement, reassuring me that I wasn’t just blogging in a vacuum, that there genuinely was interest in my crazy experiments and rambling thoughts- That is what allowed BitterSweet to not only survive, but thrive. It’s because of you that I found my true passion in life, made a career out of it, and continue striving to create and circulate all those adventures (and misadventures) along the way.

It’s given me the opportunity to make friends all across the globe, to connect with people I would otherwise never meet, to share some of my favorite things and find many more. It’s on that note that I’d like to introduce you to one more incredible small business poised to make a big splash…

Noosh turned out to be the sleeper hit on my list of new brands showcasing their wares at the Winter Fancy Foods Show last month. Hidden in a small enclave off to the side of the main floor, wedged into a tiny booth among many, I almost walked right on by without a second glance. How many different types of almond butter do we really need, after all? Just like granola bars and protein powders, isn’t the market already saturated with more options than we know what to do with? Yet somehow I was charmed, drawn in by the slick packaging and straightforward ingredient list. It’s pure, creamy almond butter, but so silky smooth and naturally sweet that you could almost call it almond nectar. In fact, I’ve taken to drizzling it liberally over my morning oatmeal instead of using maple syrup. Since that fateful encounter, I’ve grown increasingly smitten with the stuff, packing my bags with the single serving pouches in case of almond butter emergencies on the go.

As marvelous as the original and chocolate are, this is just the start. Not yet on the market but previewed at the show, I’m not kidding when I say that the Birthday Cake Almond Butter might just be life-changing. Yes, it is THAT good. It’s a challenge to slowly ration out my current supply until it officially hits the market, opening up the flood gates to unimpeded nut butter-based cake indulgence. Whereas many snacks promise a cake-like flavor, doomed to fall terribly short by comparison to the real thing, Noosh actually delivers. I don’t know how they do it, and quite frankly, I don’t want to. There’s a certain magic in that delicious mystery.

Inspired by that fresh-baked flavor and determined to stretch my limited stock just a little bit further, I couldn’t help but turn it into another cake facsimile. Rich, soft, melt-in-your-mouth bites of fudge both look and taste so much like the genuine article, you could easily get away with serving these at your next big party. Comprised of little more than almonds, coconut, and maple syrup, these adorable miniatures will satisfy your sweet tooth without inciting a sugar coma, even if you do indulge in seconds- or thirds.

Mercifully, the tortuous wait for a fresh supply of that ambrosial almond elixir is almost over. After much needling and prodding, I’ve been assured that this incredible flavor will finally be ready for purchase within the coming month. Best of all, so cheered by my irrepressible enthusiasm, Noosh has offered to send three readers a package of their very own, as soon as it’s available. What better way to celebrate a blog birthday than with presents, and of course, cake?

To enter, all you need to do is leave me a comment. If you’re a longtime subscriber, tell me how long you’ve been along for this wild ride. Have you tried any recipes over the years, or do you remember way back when BitterSweet was primarily about the knitty gritty of more crafty ventures? If you’re new to these parts, introduce yourself, say hi! What brought you here, what got your attention?

Log this and additional entries to improve your odds on the official giveaway page until Wednesday, February 14th at midnight PST. Win or lose, don’t forget to come back for the recipe which you’ll want to celebrate all year, every year.

Cupcake Fudge

Cupcake Fudge Base:

1/2 Cup Noosh Birthday Cake Almond Butter
1/4 Cup Melted Coconut Butter
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Chocolate Fudge Frosting:

1/2 Cup Noosh Chocolate Almond Butter
3 Tablespoons Melted Coconut Butter
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1 Tablespoon Cocoa Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Garnish (Optional):

Edible Glitter and/or Shimmer Spray

Begin with the cupcake fudge base: Simply mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl until smooth. Spoon the liquid fudge into small fluted cup silicone truffle molds. Let sit for at least 30 – 45 minutes, until completely solidified. Pop them out of the molds and keep them in the freezer.

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting by going through the same process of blending together all the ingredients, spooning the mixture into spiral (as pictured) or small dome silicone truffle molds and place on a flat surface in the freezer. Let rest for 10 – 15 minutes until they begin to set but are not yet entirely firm.

Take the finished cupcake fudge bases and gently pressure them into the soft frosting fudge. Return the molds to the freezer to allow them to finish solidifying. After 30 – 60, they should be ready to pop out all in one cohesive piece.

Garnish with edible glitter(s) if desired. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to a month… If you can manage to stay away from them that long, that is.

Makes 20 – 22 Cupcake Fudge Truffles

Printable Recipe

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Choc-A-Lot

Valentine’s Day might as well be called Chocolate Day. At least, that’s the primary significance it holds in my life. Through relationships both good and bad but primarily experienced as a single lady, the date has held little real significance in my life, other than as an opportunity to indulge my inner chocoholic.

Debate the merits of this consumer-driven “holiday” all you want, but as long as I can sink my teeth into some dark, decadent truffles, that’s the next best thing to true love, if you ask me. Thankfully, indulgent options abound for the discerning palate, transcending the boundaries between plant-based and mainstream artisan products. If you’re inclined to lose your temper or have a meltdown over the DIY approach, there are endless options available for purchase, guaranteed to steal your heart.

Emphasizing quality ingredients hasn’t necessarily correlated to healthier products nor whole foods in the past, but the newest wave of master chocolatiers seem to be just as concerned with nutrition as they are with flavor. Though it may sound like a concept incongruous to truly luxurious chocolate experiences, Nicobella will be the first to prove that misconception wrong. Crafting their confections with coconut oil and sourcing flavor infusions from whole fruits, herbs, and spices rather than extracts, each morsel sings with a bold, clean taste. Some combinations can be a bit unconventional, such as the sunflower butter banana, but you won’t find a single bad bite in any assortment. Snappy dark chocolate gives way to creamy soft centers for each distinctive truffle, all softening to liquid cocoa bliss on the tongue. You can’t help but become instantly smitten.

Finding a true edible gem right under my nose, I was stunned to discover Coracao for the first time at my local farmers market. Sweetened with coconut sugar and bolstered by superfoods like maca and lucuma, these are treats with benefits that could still rival the finest of gourmet selections. Salted caramel sparkles with the crunch of flaky salt, striking a perfect balance between sweet and savory, hitting all the pleasurable high notes of this classic combination right on target. The most famous confection, however, is the Berkeley Bar, and for good reason. A layered composition of nutty caramel and a soft, malty nougat, all enrobed in their dark bittersweet chocolate, it’s truly something special.

Valentine’s Day makes for a convenient excuse to splurge a bit when it comes to dessert, but these incredible chocolates shouldn’t be saved just for special occasions. Treat yourself well, and often, with quality cacao.

Treat Yourself Well

Highly skeptical, but equally ravenous, I tore into the tiny package with abandon. Crunchy cookies never get as much love as the giant, soft and chewy sort popularized by American bakeries; a bias that I too am guilty of possessing. That said, despite being dubious of the format, there seemed to be a lot of potential locked away in these single-serve packages of Zemas Madhouse Wholegrain Cookies.

Placing an emphasis on wholesome ingredients and nutritionally sound snacks, these are not just empty sugar bombs to throw down when cravings strike. Rather, they’re designed to satiate and energize, and all in good taste, of course. Sorry to spoil the surprise; each variety wildly exceeded all expectations on that front.

Sweet Potato Spice impresses with a flavor profile that actually tastes like yam, as promised! Tossed in not just for color, but genuine flavor, it’s subtly spiced bite pock marked with equally crisp pepitas for an added nutty undertone. Oatmeal Cranberry follows up with a strong encore of millet, quinoa, and amaranth as well as the aforementioned featured grain. Comforting, cozy, and easy to eat, the addition of chewy cranberries adds nice textural contrast, softening the cookies overall and bringing to mind the warmth of a bowl of hot oatmeal.

Chocolate Chip starts with a creamy vanilla base, but that rich chocolate flavor sure does carry! A snack that could transcend all boundaries, this timeless treat would be an easy hit with any crowd. This tastes like childhood but with wisdom beyond its years. Double Chocolate Chip follows up that stellar performance with a slightly softer bite with a pure cocoa base that provides less contrast than the previous option, but supports the chips with a more serious, slightly bitter edge. The overall impact is surprisingly sophisticated for such an unassuming little package.

Did I mention that all of these mini cookies, for all their benefits, are also certified gluten-free, non-GMO, vegan, top 8 allergen-free, and kosher? That’s quite a mouthful of dietary designations, which is perhaps fitting for these bold little snacks. Despite my initial misgivings about crunchy cookies, these diminutive treats from Zemas break the mold, offering something that defies the category as beneficial to both the body and soul.

In Loving Memory

Talk about a turbulent year. 2017 has generated more sensational headlines than the past decade altogether, and even with mere hours left on the clock, I wouldn’t count it out for churning up some new controversy yet. Eager to move ahead straight into the new year without looking back, leaving those lackluster memories far in the past, it’s essential to hit pause, resisting the relentless push forward, to reflect on just those low points. For perspective, we can better appreciate when things are genuinely good, and for knowledge, to prevent those same mistakes from being repeated once again.

In this case, I wanted to take a moment and say a final farewell to some of the dearly departed vegan establishments that we’ve lost in San Francisco in the short span of 12 months. While it’s a grueling industry where failure is much more common that success, especially in the long term, it feels particularly poignant to see so many personal favorites close their doors, despite the immense talent, support, and passion in the kitchen.

Encuentro is the establishment I find hardest to let go of. If you had asked me before, I would have easily placed it on my list of top three restaurants in the bay area, if not first place to begin with. Few fine dining establishments exist for those that eschew meat, dairy, and eggs, but you would never even consider what wasn’t present on the plate here. Execution was on par with that of any Michelin-starred restaurant, in my opinion, but without the pretension that goes along with such a lofty award. Fancy but not fussy, I can’t recall a single bad meal here. Generous platters of tender sweet potato gnocchi and dark, devilish chocolate cake will forever haunt my memory. The dream is not yet dead, though, as the otherwise vacant store front still plays host to periodic pop-up events.

No No Burger shocked fans when they announced the end of their glorious but shockingly brief run. After transitioning from an infrequent pop-up to a daily staple at the SoMa StrEat Food Park, the future seemed bright, especially considering the nearly universal rave reviews for their juicy meatless patties and decadent toppings, deeply savory and indulgent enough to satisfy the cravings of even the most staunch omnivores. Many considered their burger to be the bright spot in a dark, murky landscape of mediocre vegetable-based hockey pucks, leaving a gaping hole in the dining scene between the ultra meaty Impossible Burger and old-school bean burgers.

Photo from Elyse T. via Yelp

RAW – A Juice Company was so much more than just juice, contrary to the name. Offering a rainbow of produce painstakingly crafted into living cuisine, you couldn’t go wrong with a plate of raw lasagna or an abundant acai bowl. Judging by the active Facebook page, though, we may just see the next chapter to this story taking place in the topical islands of Hawaii. Only time will tell when, or if, these fresh finds will resurface.

Seed + Salt had a whole lot of heart for such a tiny place. Wedged into a storefront the size of a bread box in the Marina, not even the limited seating could detract from the experience of eating in. Fully gluten-free in addition to being vegan, eaters of all stripes could find sweet and savory treats to enjoy. The chickpea frittata, served solo, in a breakfast sandwich, or sliced atop a bountiful plant-based Cobb salad, was always hard for me to resist. It’s a simple yet satisfying entree that has inspired many attempts at replication by myself and others in the know.

The Plant Cafe, while still an apparently thriving business with no less than six bustling outposts under its belt, including one in the highly desirable SFO Terminal 2 space, has shuttered both the Burlingame and waterfront Embarcadero establishments. Citing the usual battery of labor shortages and skyrocketing rents, it’s just a relief that their light, healthy fare will still be available for visitors and locals alike. Their impeccably well-balanced grapefruit and avocado salad remains the highlight of any trip that necessitates a stop at the airport. If you find yourself at any of other sit-down cafes that offer a full menu of brunch choices on the weekends, you can’t go wrong with the pesto tofu scramble, either.

Photo by Celiac Community

3 Potato 4, once a small franchise with three locations scattered about the bay, has slowly been shuttering those outposts one by one. The last holdout was in the Pleasanton Stoneridge Shopping Center, but without any warning or confirmation, that store seems to have gone dark mere weeks ago. Dedicated to spreading the spud love, their simple menu offered an array of baked fries and sauce, with seasonal soups, plus soft serve to finish on a sweet note. For comfort food without all the grease and guilt, it was hard to beat this accessible, affordable option. Here’s hoping that the tides turn and this outage is but a brief blip in business as usual.

To these fallen friends that we leave behind in 2017, I’d like to raise a toast- Piled high with avocado, of course- And wish their proprietors all the best on their next big idea. May they find this fork in the road ultimately as fulfilling as the meals they once shared.

The Other Wheat Meat

Living “High on the Hog” has always meant enjoying the finer things in life, originally in reference to the choicest cuts of meat found on the upper half of the animal, which almost always meant one thing: ham. For many, a holiday just isn’t a proper celebration without a lavish roast on the table to both flaunt and share their prosperity. Such deeply ingrained customs are slowly evolving right alongside the shifting landscape of food preferences, so it was only a matter of time before someone was bold enough to take this tradition to task. I can’t think of any company more qualified to do so than Tofurky.

Makers of the original alternative roast, touting veganism before it was cool, Tofurky hasn’t stopped innovating since that fateful first product launch over 30 years ago. Trussed in genuine butcher’s twine and accordingly crosshatched by the pressure, the Vegetarian Ham Roast plays along to fit the bill, albeit on a much smaller scale. This beige football is said to feed five, but presumably a full feast with additional side dishes could stretch that number if need be.

Sharing many qualities with the classic turkey substitute, this porkless roast thaws out from a frozen state to meet a toasty preheated oven for about 1 1/2 hours of cooking. The biggest difference is that this rendition has no stuffing inside, but exterior embellishment instead. Included in the box is an “Extra Special Beer Glaze;” a thick syrup featuring Hopworks Velvet ESB, with a slightly granular texture owing to the inclusion of coarse, stone ground mustard. Make no mistake, it’s very sweet, first and foremost, but ultimately a good contrast to the saltiness of the roast.

That said, I had other plans for my roast and decided against the glaze, in favor of a more nuanced, herbaceous root beer brine, playing off the complex spices from the soda and contrasting with the savory heft of the roast. Dense, chewy, and quite solid, the texture is best when sliced thinly. No one would mistake it for meat, no doubt about that, but it’s a welcome departure from the standard faux-fowl or straight soybean fare for more festive occasions. Additionally, leftovers are brilliant additions to typically porky dishes, like a simple pot of creamy white beans or split pea soup. Since ham isn’t an entree that I encountered frequently as a child, it resonates more as a flavorful, protein-packed new ingredient than a whole entree for me.

That’s why I was especially excited to play around with the extra slices to make mock chashu, a Japanese form of marinated pork belly. Fanned out atop a bowlful of hot, steaming ramen, the visual and flavorful impact was quite stunning. Even with my otherwise humble assortment of vegetables cobbled together out of the pantry, this meal became an instant, unforgettable hit thanks to that exceptional meatless inclusion.

As further recipe experimentation has proven, this new plant-based ham roast provides more than just an annual comestible experience, but a promising year-round addition to anyone’s daily menu.

Root Beer Brined Ham

1 12-Ounce Bottle (1 1/2 Cups) Sugar-Sweetened Root Beer
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Black Peppercorns
1 Teaspoon Brown Mustard Seeds
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Allspice Berries
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Bay Leaf
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or even 48 if you can bare the wait.

To cook, bake the roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 75 – 90 minutes, until golden brown on the outside and hot all the way through. Meanwhile, set the leftover brine back on the stove and simmer until reduced to a thick, syrupy sauce.

Slice thinly and serve with the root beer reduction on the side.

Makes 5 Servings

Printable Recipe

Chashu

3/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Red Miso Paste
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Mirin
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Just like the previous preparation, this procedure couldn’t be simpler. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 8 hours.

Slice thinly and add to your favorite bowl of ramen noodles to serve. The warmth of the soup should reheat the slices without any additional cooking necessary.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

Top Nog

What is it about the holiday season that incites us to cast all common sense aside and engage in otherwise inadvisable behavior, with childlike glee, no less? Whether that means racing outside into giant piles of freezing snow, risking frostbite to all appendages without a second thought, or racking up credit card bills for the sake of tree dressings and silly ornamentation used only once a year, we all write off these aberrations as all part of a collective Christmas madness shared throughout society. What causes you to throw out the rule book and deviate from standard operations? What touch of insanity do you entertain to make it really feel like the holidays are here? For me, that would be buying every single vegan nog option available across three towns for the sake of comparison.

Yes indeed, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The great Nog-Off of 2017, pitting past industry heavy weights against startups and newbies to determine which eggless nog reigns supreme. This round was the most impressive yet, bringing in no less that nine different beverages vying for the title of Top Nog.

Time is of the essence, with each of these elusive elixirs produced for a very limited time during the most festive of days, so let’s pour a glass and get started, shall we?

It was an extremely difficult, close race to judge, but last place was obvious right away. Sorry, not sorry, but Rice Dream Rice Nog will never be welcome at my holiday party. Inexplicably pink and quite watery, it utilizes aggressive sweetness to compensate for a distinct lack of flavor. Granted, it’s not outright dreadful, but not even close to “authentic” nog. On the plus side, the rice base will appeal to those with severe allergies, and the aseptic, shelf-stable carton means it will keep well… Possibly for years… Much like an unwanted fruitcake.

That said, this came as no surprise. My greatest disappointment was actually the second to last place finisher, the highly esteemed MALK Pecan MALK Nog. Tawny brown, it stood out with a distinctive darkness in a sea of pastel hues, owing to a unique blend of maple syrup and whole pecans as a base. The bottle isn’t kidding when it admonishes the drinker to shake “super” well; no stabilizers or fillers means that this stuff separates, which I can certainly appreciate from a stance of ingredient integrity and a commitment to quality. Scented strongly of cinnamon, the overall impression was surprisingly light, dangerously drinkable- Smooth and sweet, but not particularly thick or rich. Sadly, this made it more reminiscent of horchata than eggnog. It just couldn’t cut the mustard for that full-bodied eggless experience.

From there, things improve drastically. Luckily, you can’t go too far wrong with most selections available Nationwide, and in fact a number of these cartons could be interchanged without any guests being being the wiser.

Califia Holiday Nog and Silk Nog Original pull in the next rank up, tied for their close flavor profiles and consistencies. Silk is perhaps a touch sweeter, if anything. Though the former is almond-based and the later soy, both have a smooth, creamy pour equivalent to the average, slightly richer non-dairy milk. There’s a distinctive brightness at first sip that defies definition; almost like undefinable spice or burst of acidity, but without warmth or sharpness. Fine as an everyday, everyman sort of nog, a hit of bourbon or brandy would be a welcome addition to make things a bit more festive. Fairly neutral, without explicit nutmeg nor eggy notes, either would be inoffensive, if undistinguished, offerings on the drink buffet.

Fresh on the market, Trader Joe’s Almond Nog has already taken Instagram by storm, right along with the impressive array of new vegan options that seem to crop up on each new trip to the store. Smooth and mellow, creamy, and boasting a balanced sweetness, this blend presents a harmonious middle of the road option that should please all who imbibe. Satisfingly in thick, not overbearing nor weighed down by gums, a light hand on the spicing and very subtle nutty undertone explains why dairy-free drinkers are delighted by this new choice. No one would mistake it for the traditional brew, but no one would complain about the substitution, either.

Moving on up, it’s with sadness and joy that I must report that previous grand champion So Delicious Seasonal Coconut Holiday Nog has been dethroned! It’s a sad blow to the superlative brand, but a boon to veganism that there are even greater choices to pick from now. Still a genuinely delicious selection, true to the name, the coconut base is definitely rich, decadent, and bold. That said, it was all love and sweetness on the first sip, and then… A startling aftertaste of old latex bandaids came to the fore. Off-putting, upsetting, to say the least, this mysterious sour note almost put it on the naught list this year. Such missteps would certainly be forgiven with a splash of booze to smooth things over, but otherwise it was fabulous!

Another fresh face on the scene is making a big splash, pulling in a top spot with an unconventional flaxseed fixation. Good Karma Holiday Nog is the one and only flax nog on earth, to my knowledge. Glowing with the palest complexion of pastel yellow, the flavor profile is defined by a restrained sweetness, a bare hint of spice, and a subtle nutty, pleasantly grassy aftertaste. Smooth and creamy, but slightly sticky, it lingers on the palate in an indulgent sort of way that belies its impressively light calorie load.

In a big upset, my mainstream market nog of choice this year turned out to be Classic Almond Breeze Almondmilk Nog. Curiously absent from the official brand website and difficult to track down, it was a sleeper hit. So easy to drink, creamy and cool, it makes no bones about the almond base with an attempt to cover up the nutty influence, incorporating it harmoniously within the overall beverage instead. Vanilla plays a more prominent role in this blend, and although I do wish there was more nutmeg sparkling throughout the mix, this was the bottle I ultimately wanted more of when all were drained.

But that’s not the end of the story. There was one clear, standout winner here, rising far above the ranks of these more attainable options. The crown is well deserved, for its genuinely egg-like richness, sheer decadence, and clear holiday spirit. Though you may need to special-order it online, the efforts would be worthwhile for a true nog lover. The Urban Remedy No Egg Nog is in a class all its own. Rich and filling, with a clean finish, it has a very different texture from the rest of the pack, without gums or stabilizers. Though easily the most indulgent option available, it’s arguably the most healthy, owing to its simple, natural ingredients; whole almonds, cashews, and dates join forces in this nutmeg-centric and boldly spiced beverage that drinks like a meal. A considerable sprinkle of salt boosts the flavor up to eleven, making it entirely crave-worthy on a whole new level. This is what the holiday season is all about: a rare, special treat that breaks through the typical structure of one’s daily life, or daily diet, as it were. You wouldn’t drink it everyday, but you’ll miss it dearly when it’s gone.

To all those unfortunately out of driving or delivery range, the sweet folks at Urban Remedy have a generous holiday present to share. You can actually scope out their unique recipe, posted for all to enjoy and freely imbibe.

If all that noggin’ around doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will.

So, how did your favorites stack up? Do you agree with the 2017 Nog-Off results, or are you willing to pick a fight for your own personal winner? More importantly though, did I miss any other contenders for the next round?