Smoke and Mirrors

Cascading down the hills and clouding city streets, this was not the usual fog rolling in from the bay. This was smoke, thick and acrid, obscuring our vision, tearing at our throats. Fires burned just beyond eye shot, but the devastation knew no bounds. We all felt the pain of a hundred thousand trees incinerated in an afternoon, reduced to ash and deposited without ceremony upon cars and buildings miles away, like a deathly snow in the summertime blaze.

Escape from this unseen monster is impossible; it hunts you, haunts you through homes and offices. It lingers in the stale air underground across BART tracks. It condenses inside closed windows. It stays within your lungs long after you exhale. It suffocates from the outside in, and the inside out.

This is not a dystopian vision of the future. This living hell is the new normal.

2018 California Wildfires

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Not Half Bad

Any chance to celebrate is one worth taking, as is evident by the profusion of often dubious national holidays. Adding a touch of whimsy to the monotonous daily routine, marking a date as something special to anticipate, the reason to rejoice is not actually important. Those moving targets simply provide a convenient excuse and a general focus for unscheduled merriment. As silly as National Splurge Day sounds, I still can’t be too mad at it for the joy it must bring a select few. If you have the means and the inclination, why not?

While I’m probably the worst person to consult about commemorating a real momentous date on the calendar, such as my own birthday, I can fully appreciate the potential it holds. It somehow figures that my half-birthday, a real non-event if there ever was one, tends to get more attention.

No matter how many years and months I tack onto my own age, certain things never get old, such as the love of chocolate chip cookies and brownies. Since it’s my half-birthday, I had half a mind to make something special which resulted in this half-and-half mashup of the two. Baked brownies that emerged from the oven with an impossibly lustrous, glossy, crackled crust seemed almost too beautiful to cover up, but it was too late to pull back on the reins by then. Buttery raw cookie dough smothers the entire sheet pan, more decadent that plain whipped frosting yet not nearly as tooth-achingly sweet.

I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I have to admit, these exceeded expectations. First of all, they’re completely gluten-free, which is not my strong suit when it comes to baking, and secondly, there’s no refined sugar. Rather, these decadent treats employ coconut sugar to evoke the nostalgic flavor of earthy molasses, further enhanced by the roasted notes of coffee in the brownie batter. In fact, if you can’t make it past that base and just call it a day with the Best Vegan Brownies Ever©, I won’t blame you one bit. When you want to pull out all the stops and really celebrate life, no matter the real occasion, this dessert is for you.

Half-Baked Bars

Best Vegan Brownies Ever:

1/2 Cup (3 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/2 Cup Hot Coffee
2 Cups Coconut Sugar
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
2 Cups Oat Flour
1 Cup Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Chopped Walnuts

Cookie Dough Topping:

2 Cups Vegan Butter
1 1/2 Cups Coconut Sugar
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
3 1/4 Cups Oat Flour
1 Cup (6 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a 13 x 9-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a good length overhanging the edges to form a sling. This will make for easier removal later on. Lightly grease and set aside.

For the brownie base, place the chocolate chips in a large bowl and pour the hot, freshly brewed coffee on top. Let sit for a minute to begin melting the chocolate before stirring. Stir vigorously before introducing the coconut sugar. Continue mixing until smooth, dissolving the sugar and fully melting the chocolate. Pour in the oil and blend until homogeneous.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the oat flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Ensure that there are no lumps before adding the dry goods into the bowl of wet. Add the vanilla and nuts last, and mix thoroughly until there are no remaining pockets of flour or cocoa. Don’t worry about over-mixing because there’s no gluten here, so go crazy!

Transfer the batter to your prepared pan and bake for 24 – 26 minutes, until the top is crackled and glossy, and the interior is still just slightly moist when a toothpick is inserted into the center. Cool completely before proceeding.

To make the cookie dough topping, cut the butter into small cubes before placing them in your food processor. Add the sugar and pulse to combine, pausing to scrape down the sides as needed. Add the vanilla and salt next, blending thoroughly to incorporate. Introduce half of the flour to begin with, allowing the machine to run until its fully integrated. Add the remaining measure of flour and puree once more.

If you’d like to keep your chips on the chunkier side, stir them in by hand. I like mine a bit more broken down and random in size, so I toss mine in last and pulse until the pieces are more or less evenly distributed throughout the mixture. It will be very soft, like frosting, at this point.

Spread the cookie dough topping over the cooled brownies in a smooth, even layer. Refrigerate the whole pan for 2 hours for more even, clean slices, or cut and serve right away if you simply can’t wait.

Makes 24 – 36 Cookie Bars

Printable Recipe

Spring Things

Cherry blossoms. Butterflies. Misted, dewy mornings. Song bird serenades.

These are the things that spring is made of.

Fava beans. Asparagus. Rhubarb. Soft green herbs. Morel mushrooms.

These are the things that spring tastes like.

The promise of these things are what make winter worth enduring, no matter how brutal or seemingly interminable those frigid, forbidding days of darkness become. Slowly but surely, that veil of frost will be lifted to reveal to reveal tender green shoots emerging from quickly thawing earth, revitalized after such fitful slumber.

At long last, all signs point to spring here on the west coast, although that’s not quite the case nationwide. It’s hard to imagine blizzard conditions elsewhere while strapping on sandals to greet the day.

Should these early days of April fall short of expectations, don’t despair. One particular taste of spring is still easily accessible even if your local farmers market remains barren. Fresh peas are an exquisite treat, verdant and shockingly sweet straight out of the pod, but frozen are no terrible sacrifice in a pinch. Roughly mashed into a chunky spread with bright mint and lemon accents, the simple combination is enough to make any residual memories of winter melt away, even if the snow refuses to follow suit.

This combination of rich almond-based ricotta and bright pea puree on a slab of hearty, seeded bread is actually a limited-edition menu item on offer at Nourish Cafe right now. In case you can’t hustle in before the season comes to a close, it’s an easy recipe to make at home for a taste of spring that everyone can enjoy year-round, worldwide.

Spring Pea Toast

Minted Pea Pistou:

1/2 Cup Fresh Mint, Lightly Packed
1 Cup Fresh Spinach, Lightly Packed
3 Tablespoons Garlic Oil
2 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Pound (3 Cups) Fresh, Blanched or Frozen, Thawed Green Peas
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

For Assembly:

4 Thick Slices Toast
1 Cup Vegan Ricotta
1/2 Cup Fresh Peas
Pea Shoots or Sprouts (Optional)
Edible Flowers (Optional)

Place the mint, spinach, garlic oil, and lemon juice in your food processor and blend until the leaves are all broken down and the mixture is fairly smooth. Pause to scrape down the sides of the container as needed to make sure everything gets incorporated. Add in the peas, salt, and pepper, and pulse until spreadable but still slightly coarse.

The pea pistou can be prepared in advance and stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 – 4 days.

To assemble the toast, layer on a thick schmear of vegan ricotta on each slice of bread, followed by the pea pistou and topped with fresh peas, pea shoots, and edible flowers if desired. Savor a taste of spring, no matter the weather outside!

Makes 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

Poached Trade

At their bare essentials, all holidays are based around eating and drinking to some degree, but none more so than Thanksgiving. In fact, it’s the main event! Without the gluttonous, butter-soaked spread, it would be just another family meal. Our excuse is that we’re merely celebrating the great bounty we’re so fortunate to receive, but somewhere along the line, it becomes a battle between man and sweatpants, seeing which will give under the pressure first.

Today, I would like to offer you the antidote to that over-the-top indulgence, in the form of a persimmon. Elegant simplicity defines this plate; more of a procedure than a full recipe, the most essential step is one not written in the instructions. Start with only the very best fruit, or don’t bother starting at all.

I would never suggest that such a humble dessert, delicious as it may be, could ever replace the traditional slab of pumpkin or pecan pie. Rather, consider each one a sweet little snack that’s something extra special for the occasion. Serve these dainty orange orbs midday to stave off that familiar, gnawing hunger while dinner slowly roasts to prevent the inevitable frenzied binge. Alternatively, save them for the following day when those sticky, crumbly, half-eaten pies aren’t nearly so appealing.

Poached Persimmons

5 Fuyu Persimmons, Stemmed and Peeled
3 Cups Pineapple Juice
2 Tablespoons Dark Rum
2 Inches Fresh Ginger, Sliced
1 Vanilla Bean, Split
Zest of 1 Orange, Peeled Off in Strips
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch

Whipped Ginger Fluff:

1/4 Cup Aquafaba
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

5 Tablespoons Toasted Pistachios, for Garnish

Core out the persimmons, removing the calyxes, and peel. Place them in a medium saucepan along with the pineapple juice, rum, fresh ginger, vanilla bean, and orange zest. Bring the liquid up to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and gently cook for 20 – 30 minutes, until the fruits are fork-tender.

Remove the persimmons with a slotted spoon, leaving the excess poaching liquid behind in the pan. Remove and discard the ginger pieces, spent vanilla bean, and orange peel. Whisk in the cornstarch and return it to the heat. Bring the mixture back to a boil, whisking periodically, until thickened. Set aside.

When you’re ready to make the fluff, begin whipping the aquafaba in your stand mixer on low. Gradually increase the speed all the way to the highest setting and slowly begin adding the sugar and ginger together. Once incorporated, add in the vanilla. Continue whipping for about 10 minutes, until light and fluffy.

To serve, spoon a dollop of the ginger fluff on top of each persimmon and top with a tablespoon of the pistachios. Divide the sauce equally between the plates and enjoy warm.

Makes 5 Servings

Printable Recipe

A Sweet and Sour Valentine

True love isn’t just pure sweetness, contrary to popular belief. To take such an overly simplified view would miss the whole point of any affair worth having. Like a story without conflict, a relationship that doesn’t face adversity at some point is unlikely to survive. It’s the nuances, the bitter moments and surprising twists, that enhance and further strengthen the attraction. The same should be said of desserts; if one is based purely on sugar and no true substance, it’s not worth eating in the first place. That’s why my Valentine’s Day contribution is quite simple on the surface, but surprisingly complex and perhaps controversial once you dig in deeper.

Lightened with cool, fluffy CocoWhip from So Delicious, this charming frozen souffle is effortless to make. Unlike the traditional baked rendition, there’s no fear of deflation before the lofty treats reach the table, leading to premature heartbreak. Strawberries lend a pretty pink hue, but the first bite proves that this treat is far from child’s play. Tangy balsamic vinegar smacks with acidity and brightness, jarring at first but an unexpectedly satisfying contrast to the fruity jam. The combined flavors linger, hauntingly, temptingly, long after dessert spoons have been licked clean.

Prepare to fall in love- Deep, unforgettable, true love. Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples, but for those seeking a bit of bitter-sweet complexity in their lives, too. After experiencing it once for yourself, it’s hard to imagine being satisfied with anything else.

This post is sponsored by So Delicious Dairy Free, inspired by their 21-Day Dairy-free Challenge and is part of the Dairy-Free Menu Plan event hosted by Go Dairy Free. Stay tuned for a full week menu plan coming to Go Dairy Free at the end of the challenge, crafted by a dozen creative bloggers ditching dairy.

Frozen Strawberry-Balsamic Souffle

1/2 Cup Seedless Strawberry Jam
1/4 Cup So Delicious Coconut Milk Strawberry Yogurt
1/4 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
2 Teaspoons Balsamic Glaze or Reduction
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Original So Delicious CocoWhip

To Serve:

Original So Delicious CocoWhip
Fresh Strawberries, Sliced

Set out three 4-Ounce ramekins on a small tray to more easily maneuver them in and out of the freezer. Cut three strips of aluminum foil or parchment to fit comfortably inside each ramekin, extending a above the rim by about 2 inches. Tape the strips to ensure that they stay in place. Lightly grease and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together the jam, yogurt, sugar, balsamic glaze, and salt. Once smooth, add about half of the CocoWhip, mixing to incorporate. Fold in the remaining half more gently, keeping it as light and fluffy as possible.

Spoon the mixture into your prepared ramekins, dividing it equally between the three and smoothing out the tops. Place the ramekins into the freezer on a level surface, and allow them to rest, undisturbed, for at least three hours or until set.

Remove from freezer 10 minutes before serving. Remove parchment collars and garnish with additional CocoWhip sliced strawberries, if desired.

Makes 3 Servings

Printable Recipe

The Eleventh Hour

Staring at a blank screen, the thin cursor blinking steadily, patiently back at me, it’s hard to know just where to begin. That was the case eleven years ago, and is still the case today. Beyond mere numbers, wildly improbable, previously impossible changes have come to pass since then; it’s a far different world now than I imagined back then, or could possibly conjure up in the most outlandish of dreams. Through the good and the bad, this little corner of the internet has been here, a welcoming space for all that may come to pass. Even when I begin a new post without a clue as to what to say, almost 1,500 published pieces prove that there’s a surprising wealth of untold stories left to share.

If BitterSweet was a child, it might be officially be considered a tween now. It would be in the 5th or 6th grade at this point, a miniature adult with real opinions, passions, and friends. It might even be going through puberty, experiencing growing pains or questioning itself as it changes and attempts to find its place in the world. Maybe I’m taking the personification a bit too far, but it’s hard to deny that it all sounds pretty accurate.

Raising and nurturing BitterSweet has been an interesting journey, to say the least. It wasn’t always a conscious decision that guided my parental strategies, and yet in spite of my oversights or misguided judgements, I’d like to think that my baby has turned out pretty darned well. I can’t take all the credit though; it truly does take a village. Without you, my lovely, dearest readers, this space would have become neglected and gone silent long ago. I wish there was something more to add, something I can give back in return, but no small token would ever amount to the gratitude I hold for all your comments, views, likes, and emails have meant to me over all this time. Eleven years may be an impossibly long lifespan for the average blog, but in human years, we’re just getting started.

Thank you for being there, whether it was from the beginning or from just this post today, to help bring BitterSweet into the world and make it what it is. I couldn’t have done it without you- ALL of you. As long as you keep reading, I’ll keep on writing, cooking, crafting, photographing, and sharing… for another eleven years, at least, but hopefully more.