BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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For the Love of Chocolate

Chocolate is a gift that is always in style, matches with everything you already own, and always fits. It should come as no surprise that it’s the Valentine’s Day token of choice, ranking well above the typical flowers, cards, and unintentionally tragic stuffed animals. Let’s keep it that way, and let’s keep it classy, folks. No dollar store mockolate to show your sweetheart how bad you are at planning ahead, please. Considering the explosion of high-quality options now on the market, there’s no excuse not to go the extra mile to seek out something special. Those efforts to find a truly transcendent box of cacao decadence will be repaid in full with just one bite.

Amore di Mona is part of the new wave of contemporary chocolatiers that stands apart from the rest. Committed to producing exceptional treats that can be enjoyed by all, every exquisite morsel they produce is vegan and gluten-free.

Even the gold wrapping and immaculate box of the Connoisseur Collection exudes opulence and indulgence. It’s clear from square one (no pun intended) that these are no average candies. Impeccably molded, dipped, and decorated, each piece glistens in the sunlight and snaps firmly under pressure. Seven entirely unique flavors are included in the assortment, ranging from solid chocolate hearts with various accouterments to dipped and drizzled caramels. Unsurprisingly, the chocolate itself is exceptional: Dry, smooth, intense dark chocolate, but not the least bit harsh, it’s very easy to eat without risking either palate fatigue or a sugar coma.

Finding good vegan caramels can still be challenging at best, but this box may very well end the search. Each “caramela,” as they are called, possesses a firm bite, soft chew, and subtly nutty, toasted sweet flavor. Although I must admit that I found myself craving a tiny extra pinch of salt at times, there’s really little to fault about the final execution. Favorites will only be a matter of preference, because you can do no wrong with any of the options. Pieces containing cranberries shine with tartness from the dried fruits, bitterness of the chocolate, and just the right amount of sugar to smooth out any hard edges. Meanwhile, those that incorporate whole coffee beans are predictably bold, in all the right ways; the coffee flavor never overwhelms, only delights with an extra crunchy texture.

Each morsel is a handcrafted work of edible art. Beautiful to look at, and even more enjoyable to eat. Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to spoil someone you love or simply yourself, but don’t forget that chocolate is always in season.


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Blender Bender

To anyone who’s ever eyed their rapidly growing collection of kitchen equipment and shrinking counter space with dismay, there comes a point when only the most essential tools can still make the cut. A blender will always be at the top of that list, but even so, are you really making the most of it? Wonder no more, because The Blender Girl Cookbook by Tess Masters will keep you happily spinning away from breakfast to dinner, and everything in between. Tess is the unrivaled guru of all things blended, blitzed, and pureed as far as I’m concerned, which makes it all the more shameful that I’ve withheld a proper review of this book for nearly two years. Her blog is an invaluable resource for eaters of all tastes and cooks of all skill levels. She understands the zen of a spinning blade like no one else I’ve met, combining her expert knowledge with a trained palate and penchant for crafting unique recipes. I never feel as though I could do proper justice to all her skills, but instead of sitting this review for another year or worse, I hope this small sample of my experiences might inspire others to go out and try more for themselves.

When my enthusiasm for a mango sale left me with a considerable surplus, I turned to Tess for some suggestions. A smoothie would have been too obvious, too ordinary, so the Magic Mango Massage salad immediately caught my eye as an intriguing approach to managing this embarrassing excess. Though it didn’t strike me as a necessarily harmonious pairing on paper, the fruits’ naturally sour edge matches the gentle bitterness of the dark leafy greens beautifully. Light, sprightly herbal notes add freshness while the tangy, spicy dressing, tempered by the sweet mango chunks and creamy avocado, completes the picture with a flourish. Simple but so well balanced, the whole assembly is a shining example of what ordinary ingredients can do when combined in just the right proportions.

Goma Dofu, a study in subtlety and a delicacy when correctly executed, is done proper justice by this easy recipe. It ultimately comes down to only 3 main ingredients when all told: tahini, vegetable stock, and kuzu starch. Wobbling like a softly set custard, its unassuming appearance belies rich sesame flavor. Nuances of umami whisper gently throughout, leaving the lucky eater with a surprisingly rich impression. Creamy, cool, and refreshing, it would be an ideal appetizer to enjoy on a hot day.

Though the juicing trend has failed to spark my interest, to say the least, I can still fully appreciate a tall glass of vegetable juice when the mood strikes. Thus I found myself drawn to the Spicy Gazpacho Grab, which is really more of a sippable soup than a thin, unfulfilling drink. This ruby red elixir sparkles with just the right accent of spice, reminiscent of V-8, only so much brighter and bolder. Both thirst-quenching and satisfying, I would even be tempted to leave the blend slightly chunky next time around, serving just as I would for the traditional chilled tomato soup.

If The Blender Girl Cookbook doesn’t restore your blender to a place of honor in your kitchen, nothing will. Since publication, Tess hasn’t stopped dreaming up new recipes for even a minute, unleashing a full book focused on smoothies and a companion app as well, with no sign of slowing down. Rumor has it that another cookbook is in the pipeline as we speak. In the meantime though, this wealth of fool-proof formulas will keep me blending smoothly for months, if not years, to come.


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Down and Dirty with Clean Eating

Holiday indulgences still weighing heavily on the minds (and hips) of many winter revelers, the added stress of New Year’s resolutions brings out the worst in some people. I’m not talking about those determined to follow the gospel of the latest diet fad or exercise craze- They’re only trying to do what’s right, what society expects of them for all their gustatory sins. No, I’m pointing straight to those spreading this propaganda, pushing the miracle cures and instant detoxes, complete with catchy slogans so obtuse that it’s hard to find any true meaning behind them. “New Year, New You” is undoubtedly one of the most prevalent, springing up again year after year, the elastic of its tenor just as punchy in 2016 as it was in 2006, and perhaps even 1996. It’s a good thing most consumers can’t remember the marketing pitches from these forgotten eras, or else we’d all be bored to tears for the redundancy of it all.

As a food obsessive and enthusiast, the saying that really gets to me above all others is the call to “Eat Clean.” Tell me, when was the last time you got a plate of food at a restaurant and thought, Oh, I’m so hungry, but this meal just came out much too dirty for me. What would that even look like? A plate full of soil, wriggling earthworms and all? Would it constitute a reasonable excuse for sending the dish back, an offense on par with receiving a carbonized, unforgivably burnt pancake? My own personal mantra has become a reactive “Keep Your Laundry Clean and Your Food Dirty.” Yes, I want to buy my kale with ladybugs still clinging to the leaves. Yes, I will actively seek out potatoes that are in dire need of a good scrub. I want my food to be that dirty, because to me, “dirty” should be synonymous with “fresh.”

Rant aside, there are still some redeeming side effects to the annual revitalization of healthy eating. While I may not be a fan of the label, I do love a hearty meal that doesn’t contain the same amount of oil required to power a snow blower through a foot of icy slush. Thus, titles notwithstanding, I’ve found some real edible gems in Terry Walters’ work. A prolific recipe writer, I’ve been enjoying her food for years now, and this brief feature itself is long overdue. Eat Clean, Live Well was released well over a year ago, but has proven to be a real catch in a sea of nutritionally-oriented cooking tomes.

Pictured above, the red lentil patties in particular have become an indispensable staple for quick meals, perfect for preparing in batches, freezing, and reviving on the fly. The crisp exterior allows them the fortitude to withstand the burger treatment, standing strong without crumbling on the bun yet yielding to a downright creamy interior texture. For a more elegant meal, they function beautifully atop roasted or sauteed vegetables, drizzled with delicate herb-infused sauces and garnished with tender micro greens. Or, as is most often the case, they’re downright dreamy paired simply with tahini or a pungent, garlicky aioli sauce for dipping.

Don’t fall for the hype; eat as dirty as you like. Just make sure you wash your hands before sitting down at the table.

Red Lentil Patties with Garlic and Fresh Herbs

Reprinted with permission from Eat Clean Live Well © 2014 by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

1 cup red lentils
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped roasted red pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, cilantro or any combination)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup gluten-free bread or rice crumbs

Rinse and drain lentils and place in pot with vegetable stock or water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer covered 15 minutes until lentils are mushy and all liquid is absorbed (you may want to leave lid cracked open slightly to prevent pot from boiling over). Remove from heat and set aside.

In large cast iron skillet, sauté garlic and onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil until soft (about 3 minutes). Add roasted red pepper and sauté 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and transfer mixture to a bowl. Add lentils, fold in herbs and sea salt, and season to taste with pepper. Gradually fold in breadcrumbs until batter is thick (you may not need all depending on how dry your lentils are) and set aside for 2–3 minutes to allow batter to thicken.

Drizzle cast iron skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Scoop batter and roll into 1 1/2 -inch balls. Place in skillet and flatten into patties 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Cook until crispy (4–5 minutes per side), transfer to baking sheet and cover to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter until ingredients are used up and serve.

SERVES 6 (makes twelve 2 1/2-inch patties)

Printable Recipe


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Smart Cookies

Baking burn-out is a real danger, especially as the annual holiday demand for festive cakes, sweet presents, and spirited pastries ramps up to a fever pitch. Smart scheduling is the key to success, and maintaining, sanity, but sometimes it’s downright impossible to account for last-minute additions to the baking agenda. By the time it’s all said and done, I’ll be predictably exhausted, and without a morsel of sweetness left for myself.

That’s why it was truly a gift to receive a bundle of NoMoo Cookies in the mail. These are not your standard mail order biscuits, formulated to withstand harsh shipping conditions and remain equally impervious to gnashing teeth. Every last variety is as soft and chewy as if it had just come out of the oven hours ago, only long enough to cool.

Formulated primarily as a dairy-free option for allergy sufferers, NoMoo has recently launched an entirely vegan line of treats to accommodate a wider range of cookie lovers. Short but truly sweet, there’s not a single dud on this tempting menu.

Despite my penchant for unusual flavors and wild combinations, I must admit that my very favorite morsels brought me right back to the simpler days of my childhood preferences: Chocolate and vanilla. Glittering flecks of crushed vanilla bean pods and seeds rest right on the surface of the Vanilla Bean Dream, genuinely celebrating the aromatic bean instead of relegating it to the bottom of the ingredient list. A deeply fragrant, floral vanilla cookie with buttery undertones, the quality of each note places it firmly in the realm of high-end bakery goods, far superior to the average sugar cookie. Similarly, the Loco for Coco boasts an impossibly deep, dark chocolate flavor, like a thick, fudgy brownie wrapped up in cookie form. Visible shards of flaky salt dance across the surface, enhancing without overwhelming the flavors within. Pardon the hyperbole, but I believe this may be one of the best cookies I’ve eaten all year. I truly wish I could steal this recipe.

The remaining palate of dessert delights won’t disappoint either. Chocolate Chills adds a hint of mint to the original chocolate format, rendering a bright, cool, and refreshing peppermint essence throughout. Sugah Cinnayum offers a gourmet update to the classic snickerdoodle, coated in crunchy coarse sugar and earthy, subtly smoky cinnamon spice. Raspberry Bliss is a colorful curiosity; adorned with a red dot matrix of freeze-dried raspberry dust, the dough itself appears a bit blue, thanks to the mingling of acidic berries and baking soda in the oven. Though lacking the tart bite of fresh raspberries, it’s certainly no slouch when it comes to fresh flavor, which is a truly impressive feat for any average cookie dough. Finally, the Classic Chipper and Oatmeal Choco-Chip stay close to their roots, providing nostalgic comforts for cookie purists near and far.

Based out of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, NoMoo Cookies can be delivered to a majority of the country in one to two business days, which means that it’s not too late to order up a batch as holiday gifts. Whether those presents are for friends and family, or just for you, they’re a guaranteed hit across even the pickiest panel of tasters.


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In the Zone

In this day and age, it’s stunning that there are still any lingering concerns about where vegans get their protein from. That said, not all sources are created equal, and I’m still a big fan of protein shakes for quick nutrition infusions on the go. The field is littered with failed attempts at appealing only to health nuts, and not necessarily their taste buds, so it’s with great trepidation that I would tempt fate and deviate from my tried-and-true rotation of powdered options.

Thank goodness I gave Pro(Zero) by HPN Supplements a try. Blending pea and rice protein with lou han guo and stevia for strength and sweetness, the label itself was unarguably impressive. Immediately dispelling my biggest textural fears, each shake mixed up beautifully in just a standard sports bottle. Silky smooth, not a lump nor clump in sight, it was ready to go with only water and a bit of elbow grease. Quite substantial without any sort of extras necessary, I found that one scoop easily kept me satisfied for hours, even through the most drawn out, late night classes.

Granted, it’s not a miracle mix. It continues to thicken as it sits, so it shouldn’t be blended in advance. Plus, it’s best served icy-cold; at room temperature, there are some vaguely fruity notes, a strained sweetness, and very slightly bitter aftertaste that come to the fore. The takeaway here is that as long as your shakes don’t sit around, you’ll still be sitting pretty!

Excited by this new protein-packed ingredient, I wanted to see what else it could do to supercharge some other snacks. With an eye to the holidays, it seemed like the perfect thing to turn into a festive, yet healthy indulgence.

Does anything say “indulgence” better than a vanilla bean-flecked bark, covered with toasted pistachios and sweetened dried cranberries?

Well, what about a thick slab of chocolate, dotted with crunchy crushed cacao nibs and a smattering of flaky sea salt?

Just because it’s classified as candy doesn’t mean it has to be unhealthy. I’d like to think that protein bark is the new protein bar, with an extra dose of holiday whimsy mixed in. Whether it’s a gift you give to friends and family or simply to yourself, it’s guaranteed to be in good taste!

Not all protein powders react the same when used in various recipes, so I would highly recommend stocking up on Pro(Zero) specifically this time around. Just for you, my sweet readers, order directly from HPN Supplements and get 10% off by using the coupon code “bittersweet”.

Protein Holiday Bark

Peppermint Cacao Bark:

6 Ounces (1 Cup) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/4 Cup Pro(Zero) Natural Whipped Vanilla Protein Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Peppermint Extract
1/4 Cup Cacao Nibs
Coarse or Flaky Sea Salt

Cranberry-Pistachio Bark:

1/2 Cup Refined Coconut Oil
1/2 Cup Pro(Zero) Natural Whipped Vanilla Protein Powder
3 Tablespoons Confectioners’ Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Bean Paste or Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Toasted, Unsalted Pistachios
1/2 Cup Dried Cranberries

For the Peppermint Cacao Bark, place the chocolate chips in a microwave-safe dish and heat at 30 second intervals, stirring thoroughly between each cycle, until completely melted. Add in the protein powder and peppermint extract, mixing thoroughly. Once the powder is completely incorporated, spread the mixture out on a piece of parchment paper or a silpat. Smooth it out as thinly as possible with a wide spatula; exact dimensions aren’t important.

Sprinkle the cacao nibs and a pinch of sea salt over the top, gently pressing the goodies into the surface so that they adhere. Place in the fridge for at least 20 minutes for the bark to solidify before breaking into pieces and enjoying.

For the Cranberry-Pistachio Bark, place the coconut oil in a microwave-safe dish and heat until liquefied. Add in the protein powder, confectioner’s sugar, vanilla paste or powder, and salt, stirring until the mixture is homogeneous. Allow it to sit in a cool place for about 15 minutes, stirring periodically, until it begins to thicken and solidify again. If you house is very warm, place it in the fridge for only 5 – 10 minutes, stirring every minute or so for the same effect.

Spread the mixture out on a piece of parchment paper or a silpat as thinly as possible with a wide spatula; exact dimensions aren’t important. Once smooth, sprinkle the pistachios and cranberries evenly over the top, gently pressing the goodies into the surface so that they adhere. Place in the fridge for at least 20 minutes for the bark to solidify before breaking into pieces and enjoying.

Store either rendition in an airtight container in the fridge or a cool place for up to a week.

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by HPN Supplements, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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From Blog to Book

No longer is it a rare feat to see talented bloggers bridging the gap between online text and printed, published prose, but it still takes an incredible amount of determination to successfully make the leap. Considering the wealth of creativity that exists out there in the blogosphere, I can’t imagine a better place to start scouting new authors. Among all of those young hopefuls, Richa Hingle of Vegan Richa always struck me as particularly deserving, so much so that I recall pestering her many years ago about creating her own cookbook already! Pulling from a seemingly inexhaustible trove of inspiration, her recipes stood out as being both familiar, with delicious reference points that were easy to understand, while simultaneously forging a new culinary path. Buffalo Chickpea Pizza? Cauliflower Sandwich Bread? Why didn’t I think of that?

Now showcasing her unique flare for the Indian cooking that began her passion for food, Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen is a breath of fresh air on the crowded bookshelf of new cookbook releases. Humbly claiming to have no formal culinary training, this very approach is what makes Richa’s recipes so compelling. They don’t put an on airs or devolve into confusing procedures with unknown ingredients. While Indian food is still somewhat intimidating to the casual cook, Richa does wonders to demystify the complex flavors of myriad curries, easily guiding the willing reader to all new edible delights.

Kicking things off with a hearty breakfast offering, the Savory Oat Hash (Kanda Poha) on page 27 was just my speed. Oats always make an appearance at day break around here, regardless of seasons or holidays. There’s no reason why the whole grain staple needs to be plain and dull, though. Richa’s approach kicks up the classic to a whole new level; spicy, savory flavors reinvent the old fashioned oat. Textural issues can be one of the biggest pitfalls to preparing this temperamental grain, but none of that struggle was evident here. Comforting, easy to eat, but not the least bit mushy, it was an invigorating change of pace to the typical morning routine.

Seeking ways to use up a considerable stockpile of quinoa, the Potato Quinoa Patties (Aloo Tikki) on page 40 immediately leapt out as a “must make.” Employing red quinoa rather than white, the results were as visually impressive as they were crave-worthy. The spud-based batter was surprisingly easy to work with, holding together beautifully all through the process of pan frying and effortlessly developing a crisp, golden crust around the edges. An incredibly moist, tender interior lurked just beneath the surface, boasting a nuanced, harmonious blend of spices, much more complex than I would have managed solo with my default mix. Paired with a simple chickpea curry, I had myself a complete meal in no time at all. This recipe is a definite keeper, to be made again many times over.

Intrigued by the unconventional blend of curry and puff pastry, I simply couldn’t resist giving the Makhani Vegetable Pot Pie on page 132 a try. Though I feared that the filling appeared impossibly soupy at first, a terrible miscalculation of liquid additions, it thickened beautifully after cooling. For anyone with a more timid palate, or those still uneasy about exotic flavors, this should be the gateway to Indian cooking. Mild overall and subtly sweet, the melange of spices, rich coconut gravy, and fresh vegetables should make this an easy crowd-pleaser, no matter the audience. Plus, when using frozen puff pastry to crown the dish, you’d be hard-pressed to craft a quicker, more impressive meal.

Granted, perhaps you should take my words with a grain of salt, and a big pinch of cumin while you’re at it. Richa has been a dear blog buddy for longer than I can recall, and her cookbook was offered to me free of charge. Why should you take my words of praise at face value? Quite frankly, if you missed out on the opportunity to taste even a single dish from Richa’s Vegan Kitchen, you would be doing yourself, and your taste buds, a terrible disservice.


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More Mac and Cheese, Please

Like countless other American children, I had an unshakable affinity for mac and cheese even before I could properly pronounce the words to request it. Elbows, twists, ambiguous character shapes that would better be described as pasta amoeba; they were all greeted with enthusiasm, as long as they came from that magical blue box. I had never even heard of such a thing as baked macaroni and cheese until I hit high school, and by then it was much too late to swap allegiances. Soft noodles slowly drowning in a pool of neon yellow cheese sauce were the only thing for me, and no bread crumbs, vegetables, or fancy seasonings need apply.

Happily, my palate has considerably improved since my formative years, allowing me to discover the joys of homemade mac, spruced up with a brave new world of different flavors. That said, the love of that ubiquitous blue box will always be embedded deep within my psyche, drawing comparisons to each new mac and cheese contender, for better or worse. Now that there are genuinely cheesy vegan options appearing in every aisle of the supermarket, there’s a new blue box on the market, seeking to dethrone the old mac monarch.

Earth Balance first made waves when it unleashed vegan cheddar and white cheddar mac and cheese options about a year ago. Casting aside all preconceived notions of how a classic mac should be constructed, they’ve fearlessly unleashed a revised box that is not only dairy-free, but also gluten-free. Even I have to say that this is a pretty risky move, considering past hits and misses for non-allergenic noodles alone.

The cooking procedure is identical to every past mac I’ve known and loved; boil the pasta until tender, drain, mix with “cheese” powder, “milk”, and “butter”, and shovel into your mouth as fast as you can. Okay, that last part isn’t specifically written into the instructions, but just like any other cheesy macaroni mixture, this one doesn’t sit around well, and reheats rather miserably.

However, when hot and fresh, the rich, subtly starchy sauce has an undeniably cheesy, savory flavor. The initial flavor is somewhat delicate, but builds with subsequent bites. Though the dense, toothsome noodles are impressive for gluten-free pasta, they still clearly lack the distinctive springy texture granted by traditional wheat flour. As a certified gluten-lover, I probably wouldn’t pick these over the original, but they’re easily one of the better options for those already accustomed to celiac options.

As my omnivorous sister could attest, they certainly wouldn’t fool someone who’s more familiar with the old fashioned blue box, but even she admitted that they were “not bad.” High praise from someone who balks at the sight of anything remotely green on her dinner plate. Overall, Earth Balance has created an impressive offering for an instant, out-of-the-box dinner that can accommodate eaters of all stripes.