Munch Madness

Considering the fervor surrounding Superbowl festivities and all associated opportunities for eating and drinking, it’s surprising that little of that enthusiasm seems to carry over for March Madness. Speaking as an uninformed observer, it strikes me as an even more promising excuse to indulge, being spread out over a number of weeks with numerous chances to try new celebratory snacks. It’s hard to resist the classics, especially when you have limited time to pull out all the stops, but when you can dabble with different recipes for each match, even fair-weather sports fans can get into the spirit. That’s where I come in.

Top picks for any appetizer bracket will always include dips. Guacamole is the reigning champ these days, but hummus, queso, artichoke and spinach, and good old salsa are definitely contenders. That said, my bet is going to the underdog this round, the old-school favorite that doesn’t get its fair due these days. Sour cream and onion has proven its worth in all variety of savory bites, though its influence usually ends at the dusty bag of potato chip crumbs.

More substantial than those thin crisps and less messy than any dipping situation, sour cream and onion arancini elevate the proven allium medley into a self-contained appetizer worthy of a special occasion. Whether or not that happens to include hollering at the TV while baskets are made or missed is entire up to you.

Jasmine rice, tender and aromatic, is my unconventional selection in this particular baked rice ball. Mahatma Rice sources the very best grains from Thailand; a commitment to quality that’s evident in every bite. Naturally, it pairs brilliantly with Asian flavors, like the subtle nuances of lemongrass, cilantro, chilies, citrus, basil, and coconut milk, but is versatile enough to support any seasonings. Find Mahatma Jasmine Rice using their store locator, and your efforts will be paid off in spades of flavor.

Crisp on the outside, creamy and rich on the inside, you could be fooled into thinking that this was every bit as decadent as the original inspiration. Believe it or not, these arancini are actually baked, not fried, and pack a powerful punch of protein thanks to the addition of homemade tofu sour cream. Dehydrated onion flakes take the place of a breadcrumb coating, enhancing the allium aroma and lending a deeply toasted taste at the same time. You’ll even score some bonus points for having a naturally gluten-free option, too!

Whether or not you’re into basketball, you can’t lose with such delicious savory morsels on your team.

This post is sponsored by Mahatma Rice, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.

Sour Cream and Onion Arancini

1 1/4 Cups Mahatma Jasmine Rice
2 1/2 Cups Reduced Sodium Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Large Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Nutritional Yeast
1 Tablespoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
1/3 Cup Pureed Silken Tofu*
1/4 Cup Mochiko (Glutinous Rice Flour)
3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Mochiko (Glutinous Rice Flour)
1/2 Cup Dehydrated Onion Flakes

*Depending on preference and availability, you could substitute Greek-style vegan yogurt instead.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with a silpat or parchment paper.

Combine the rice and vegetable stock in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Cover and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook for 15 – 18 minutes, until all the liquid has absorbed and the rice is tender. Keep covered to finish steaming and set aside.

Meanwhile, place a medium skillet over moderate heat on the stove and begin the warm the olive oil. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, stirring periodically. Season with salt and continue to saute for another 10 – 15 minutes, until aromatic and lightly golden brown. Transfer to the pot of rice.

Mix in the nutritional yeast, onion powder, black pepper, lemon juice, mustard, silken tofu, and scallions next, stirring thoroughly to make sure that the seasonings are evenly distributed throughout. Add in the mochiko last.

When the rice is cool enough to handle, use an ice cream scoop and lightly moistened hands to roll out approximately 1/4 cup of the mixture for each arancini. Toss gently in the onion flakes, pressing lightly to adhere and completely coat the outsides. Place the finished arancini on the sheet pan and lightly spray all over with oil.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

Makes 16 – 18 Arancini

Printable Recipe

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Pie-Eyed

The only class I’ve ever failed was math. Though typically a dedicated student and overachiever, this devastating low mark hardly came as a surprise. If the theory is true that the left brain is meant to handle more abstract, creative thought and the right is in charge of practical analytics, it’s not entirely farfetched to imagine a complete absence of the latter in my skull. I’m still lost beyond the most basic arithmetic required for scaling recipes up or down and thank my lucky stars that somehow, for reasons unbeknownst to me, they still let me graduate on such shaky algebraic footing.

Despite the fact that pi is a formula I would rarely consider applying in real life, it’s a concept I’m only too happy to celebrate every March 14th, otherwise known as 3/14 on the calendar. Though a mathematical novice, I’d like to consider myself a pie expert with a lifetime of experience both eating and baking the crusted wonders. Evidence of that mild obsession is easily found in Easy as Vegan Pie, a trove of both sweet and savory recipes that could make any day a Pi/Pie Day.

Don’t know where to start? Take a gander at the cheat sheet I’ve assembled here with some of my best baking blueprints, which don’t need any sort of higher degree to decode.

The sleeper hit that no one expected, the Frankenstorm Pie (AKA Banana Ganache Pie) has become one of my most popular pies to date. Not so shabby for a recipe created under such dire circumstances, and it almost went unwritten altogether. It’s a crazy story that you’ve gotta read, and a flavor you must taste to believe.

Roasted Strawberry-Tomato Galette brings out the best in each fruit for this sweet slice. Just as comfortable together in a salad as in this free-form pie, the savory, gently acidic bite of the tomatoes serves to accentuate the sweetness of the berries.

Pumpkin pie is one of the time-honored classics, but I’m never one to go the traditional route. My best take on the concept is one with a fluffy filling, soft, simple, and full of spice. Marshmallow Chiffon Pumpkin Pie is a natural fit for autumnal holidays, but light and cool enough to hit the sweet spot in warmer weather.

Speaking of nontraditional, chipotle mashed sweet potatoes were the inspiration for my Chocolate Chipotle Sweet Potato Pie. Dialing in the heat so the chilies provided just the slightest tingle on the tongue, their intensity is further tempered by the soothing contrast of brown sugar and rich coconut milk. Better yet, a thin base of dark chocolate adds depth to the dessert, and adds appeal for those who aren’t big on starchy squash pies.

Ending on a whimsical note, caramel and custard elevate the humble popcorn kernel in this Caramel Corn Pie. Notes of burnt sugar compliment a buttery undertone, accented with a good pinch of salt. If you’re craving popcorn, it might be a wise idea to think inside the crust.

What’s your Pi Day pick for this year? Don’t let the numbers trip you up. It doesn’t take a mathematician to know good food when you taste it.

Calculating the Perfect Pie

Be it custard or fruit, mousse or chiffon, a pie is only as good as its crust. Drawing as much passion as it does ire, the art of crafting the perfect pastry is a contentious subject among bakers and eaters alike. Everyone has an opinion about this essential dessert foundation, ranging from the most minimalist approaches inspired by the sage advice of grandmothers the world over, to high-end culinary graduate specifications that require a firm grasp of the scientific intricacies of baking to appreciate. There’s more than one way to go about the circumference of the dough, but there is one important rule that must be obeyed: Never let the hype go to your head.

When you find a solid formula, stick with it. There will always be new suggestions to explore, such as the substitution of vodka instead of water, or coconut oil as the primary fat, but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Since Pi Day, March 14th, is right around the corner, now has never been a better time to strengthen your pie making prowess. That all begins with the crust.

What follows is the crust that’s seen me through the stickiest of fillings, the most temperamental of ovens, and the hottest of summers. This “Old Reliable” is a baker’s best friend, capable of standing and delivering anything loaded into it. The ingredients are nothing noteworthy; it’s all a matter of how they’re combined for the magic to happen. Keep everything, including bowls and utensils, as cold as possible so as not to melt the fat. Though a point of contention, I do adhere firmly to the belief that an all-“butter” crust is best. You may lose a little bit of flakiness, but the added flavor and crisp texture is worth that small sacrifice. For a lighter texture, feel free to sub out half of the butter for pure vegetable shortening, and proceed as written otherwise. Do not be tempted to play around with coconut oil or any liquid oils in this one, as the structure simply isn’t built for that kind of tinkering.

Even when I’m planning to make a single-crusted pie, I always use the double-crust proportions, to make the most of my time. The extra disk of dough can be frozen for up to 6 months with no harm, as long as it’s thawed gradually in the fridge before use. That way, you’re always prepared to whip up a pie at a moment’s notice.

Classic Pie Crust
From Easy as Vegan Pie: One-of-a-Kind Sweet and Savory Slices by Hannah Kaminsky

Two Crusts (For a Double-Crust):

2 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
3/4 Cup Vegan Butter, Chilled, Cut into Small Pieces
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2–4 Tablespoons Ice-Cold Water

OR

Single Crust:

1 1/4 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
6 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Chilled, Cut into Small Pieces
1 1/2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1–2 Tablespoons Ice-Cold Water

The easiest, quickest way to make a traditional pie crust is to get a helping hand from your food processor. Some say this approach sacrifices flakiness in favor of convenience, but I don’t believe that any of my pies have suffered as a result. If you have the equipment, my advice is to use it! Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of your food processor and pulse to combine. Add the margarine and pulse 6–8 times, until the mixture resembles very coarsely ground almond meal. A few small chunks of margarine should remain visible, but nothing larger than the size of peas. Sprinkle lemon juice and the first tablespoon of water in while pulsing a few times to incorporate. If the dough holds together when squeezed, you’re good to go. If it remains crumbly, keep adding water while pulsing, just a teaspoon at a time, until the dough is cohesive.

In case you don’t have a food processor or just don’t want to clean the darn thing afterward, the old-fashioned method is just as effective, if a bit more labor-intensive. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut in the pieces of margarine. A few small chunks of margarine should remain visible, but nothing larger than the size of peas. Sprinkle lemon juice and one tablespoon of water into the bowl and stir well with a wide spatula. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the liquids properly incorporated, so it may be helpful to drop the formalities and just get in there to mix with your hands. If the dough holds together when squeezed, you’re set. If it remains crumbly, keep adding water and mixing thoroughly, just a teaspoon at a time, until the dough is cohesive. Do your best not to over-mix or over-handle the dough, as this will make it tough when baked.

If making a double crust, divide the dough into two equal portions. Regardless of how many portions you now have, shape them into rough rounds and flatten them into disks about 1/2 inch in thickness. Wrap each tightly with plastic wrap and stash them in the fridge. Let chill for at least an hour, or up to a week. To save the unbaked dough even longer, store the pieces in your freezer for up to 6 months. (Don’t forget to label them clearly!)

When you’re ready to roll, lightly dust a clean, flat surface with an even coating of flour. Work on one disk of dough at a time, and coat both sides lightly with additional flour. Starting at the center of the disk, use your rolling pin to apply light pressure while rolling outwards to the edges. Try to maintain the round shape as best you can, turning the dough as needed. It may be helpful to periodically lift the dough to ensure that it’s not adhering to the counter. Keep rolling until the dough extends at least 2 inches beyond the size of your pie pan all around.

Carefully transfer the dough to your desired pie pan, and crimp the edges or decorate to your heart’s content. See page 24 of Easy as Vegan Pie for ideas. At the very least, trim away the excess dough so that only 1/2 inch is overhanging the lip of the pan. Tuck the extra dough underneath itself along the edge so that it’s smooth.

For an unbaked crust, you’re done here! Let the crust rest in the fridge while you prepare the filling. To blind-bake, see page 24 of Easy as Vegan Pie for the procedure.

If you’re making pie with a top crust, roll out the second disk of dough in the same fashion as before, reapplying flour to the counter if need. Use cookie cutters to cut out decorative vents before moving the dough, or simply cut six vents with a sharp knife. Gently place the flattened dough onto the filled pie, centering it as best you can. Use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to trim the overhang to an inch. Tuck the excess from the top crust under the edge of the bottom piece of dough, pressing together firmly but gently to seal. Bake according to the recipe for the filling.

Makes 1 or 2 Crusts

*Chocolate Pastry Crust: Reduce the flour to 2 1/3 cups and add 1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Printable Recipe

Weather or Not

Mentally battered by an assault of inclement weather warnings, you’d think the general public would have staged a revolt against all forecasters at this point. The anxiety and stress piles up faster than the foretold falling flakes, thanks to the added hype that always comes with incessant social media repetition. Nine times out of ten, expectations don’t match the reality of the climate outside, but the hysteria is sure real. So much as suggest that there might be anything less than blue skies and people will turn out from all corners of the earth to wrestle that last roll of toilet paper out of your hands at the grocery store. It’s like a battle of life and death, to secure a stockpile before the world ends, regardless of the pitifully low probability of even flurries.

This is a phenomenon I’ve become somewhat immune to in the generally mild atmosphere of the bay area, but that same illogical impulse still grips me when I’m least expecting it. Rain is the new snow around here, since it appears so rarely and thus cripples unsteady drivers and fragile public transit systems that don’t know how to cope. I still feel the pain of all those back east, hunkering down for a brutal nor’easter right now, undoubtedly hurtling through their local markets as if their shopping carts were assault weapons.

As darkening skies approach, what’s going into your basket? What are the staples that immediately make the cut as sustenance to hold you through those difficult times (maybe even hours!) when the roads are too intimidating to traverse? Practicality is not my strong suit, and so the parade of groceries marching down the conveyor belt at checkout is typically laughable. Peanut butter, bread, frozen peas; sure, those are wise investments. But the random assortment of chocolates, half-priced hummus, and impulse buy mini gnocchi? Those are perhaps a bit less crucial for long-term survival. I would not fare well if ever faced with a real lock-down emergency.

Luckily, my unreasonable yet well-meaning instincts have led me to create some incredible combinations out of those curiously assembled ingredients. Those mini gnocchi, for example, caught my eye as ideal comfort food when the going got rough, and they didn’t disappoint even when the forecast did. There’s never been a better time to indulge in such a recipe, although I can’t say that there would ever come a bad time, either.

Lavished with a buttery cream sauce made of typical pantry staples, it could very well be the new face of emergency rations, despite its less urgent origins. Dauphinoise potatoes typically layers thinly sliced spuds in a casserole concoction, but since pasta keeps longer and is almost always on hand, gnocchi struck me as a natural extension of the concept. In more dire times, or healthier mindsets, I realized that swapping out the dumplings for simple legumes like chickpeas could make for an equally satisfying, comforting side dish, too. It’s all the same starchy, savory, subtly salty flavors which meld into an effortless indulgence in the end.

If you haven’t already gone through the throes of panic-induced grocery shopping, may I make three quick suggestions? 1) Make a list. 2) Avoid the candy aisle. 3) Write in mini gnocchi as a necessity, no matter how silly it may appear at first glance. You’ll thank me for this later.

Gnocchi Dauphinoise

1 Pound Mini Potato Gnocchi
1/3 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/3 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

Gently separate the mini gnocchi and toss them into a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. They’re so small that they don’t need to be parboiled before baking.

Toss all of the remaining ingredients into a high-speed blender and pulverize on the highest setting until perfectly silky smooth. If you’re using a machine that has a bit less torque, soak the cashews for at least 4 hours in advance before blender, to make them a bit softer and easier to emulsify. Blend for a full 6 – 8 minutes, until the mixture is steaming hot.

Pour the cashew cream all over the waiting gnocchi before easing the dish into the oven. Bake for 1 – 1 1/2 hours, until the gnocchi are fork-tender and the liquid is thick and rich. Top with freshly chopped parsley, if desired, and serve bubbling hot.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings as a Side; 2 – 3 Servings as an Entree with Salad

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Crumby, Not Crummy

I love coffee cake, but I take issue with the false promises it makes right from the start. It strikes me as disingenuous to lure in the under-caffeinated with such a title, only to deliver a cinnamon-infused experience. I’ve heard the old argument that it’s simply suggesting how well it pairs with a cup of Joe, but that sounds like a poor excuse for deceptive branding, like “juice” that’s never seen a fruit in its short squeezed life. Coffee cake was an evolution, not an invention, derived from many other styles of baked confections in the early days of sugar cravings all across Europe, which can partially explain the indistinct, ambiguous definition of the form.

Some coffee cakes had fruits, others nuts, some were fashioned as loaves while others rose into towering rings and bundts; the one common factor that united them was the uncanny ability to eat them during a coffee break. Bearing out that logic, there would be some fresh hell to pay if we started calling all types of cookies “snack biscuits.” Can you imagine the anger and confusion that would result from the hangry sweet-toothed eaters receiving dry wafers when they were expecting rich, decadent brownies? That’s not a world I want to live in, quite frankly.

Steering clear of the controversy all together, I much prefer a more accurate headline. for my coffee complement: Crumb cake or struesel cake are equally appropriate. No one can deny that coarse, buttery topping, no matter the flavor nor format, for lack or abundance of additional mix-ins. The issue is far from black and white, contrary to this unconventional expression of the concept.

Inspired by the jar of black tahini remaining in my fridge after a fortuitous visit to the Living Tree Community Foods offices, this particular coffee-free spin on the classic fully embraces and celebrates the very best part of its namesake. Living up to its moniker, unlike so many cakes of yore, the struesel topping is thick, bold and unmistakable.

While we’re disrupting the usual routine anyway, why should cinnamon have all the crumb fun? A touch of cardamom and a hint of lemon complement the nutty notes of sesame throughout, subtle yet unmistakable nuances against the tender crumb.

A strong cup of spiced Turkish coffee would certainly be a welcome accompaniment, but as we’ve established, far from mandatory for maximum enjoyment. Whether you serve your slices with tea, lemonade, or nothing else at all, they will always make good on the promise of a delicious sweet treat.

Black and White Sesame Streusel Cake

Black Sesame Streusel:

1/2 Cup Black Sesame Tahini
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/2 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Black Sesame Seeds
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

White Sesame Cake:

1/2 Cup Raw Sesame Tahini
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter, at Room Temperature
3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cup Plain Vegan Yogurt
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a square 8 x 8-inch baking pan; set aside.

Begin by preparing the streusel topping. In a large bowl, stir together the black tahini, melted vegan butter, and brown sugar until smooth. Add in the flour, sesame seeds, and salt, mixing with a fork to create coarse, chunky crumbs. Set in the refrigerator to chill while focusing on the cake batter next.

Place the raw tahini, vegan butter, sugar, and yogurt into the bowl of your stand mixer and thoroughly cream everything together using the paddle attachment. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, making sure that all the ingredients are incorporated into a homogeneous blend before proceeding.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and cinnamon together into a separate bowl, whisking to combine. In a small pitcher, stir the non-dairy milk, lemon juice, and vanilla together as well. Add about half of the dry goods into the stand mixer, blending until mostly incorporated. Introduce half of the liquids, continuing to mix at a low speed. Repeat the procedure until both are smoothly blended in. Be careful not to over-beat the batter though; a few errant lumps are perfectly fine.

Smooth the batter into your prepared baking dish. Break up the crumbs with a fork and sprinkle them evenly all over. It may seem like a lot, but you want full coverage here, so don’t hold back.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan before slicing and serving.

Makes 9 – 12 Servings

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A Flurry of Inspiration

Winter is in full force, or at least, so I’m told. Forecasts filled with snow and ice threaten large swaths of the US, while records show that this year’s Superbowl was the coldest on record, crushing previous predictions with an icy flourish. Temperatures ranking just above negative numbers boggle my mind; a sensation so unthinkable, so impossible, it’s almost painful to imagine. That’s because beautiful California remains a shining beacon of eternal summer, setting records pushing the mercury up in the opposite direction. Basking in the sunshine on a brilliant 75-degree day, I have to remind myself that this is still February. Somehow, this is still winter.

Although that does make it less appealing to crank up the oven, those longer days of bright natural light inspire an endless stream of photo shoots, and with them, new recipes galore. In homage to the flurries still blanketing the rest of the northern hemisphere with frozen white fluff, my mind went to memories of clean, pure, white snow, freshly fallen and immaculate. So delicate were those perfectly formed crystals, which I examined closely on gloved hands as they landed, that they seemed as if they were formed individually by some master craftsman in the sky.

These particular snowflakes are cut from the same cloth, but as a handmade treat, still retain personalities all their own. Celebrating simplicity, they’re merely the best vanilla cookie you’ve ever tasted. Boldly infused with powder from the whole bean, they’re not shy about shouting this warm, classic flavor from the rooftops- Or wherever else they may settle. Mochiko is the secret to keeping each bite soft and tender, while remaining firm enough to resist spreading in the oven. Do not confuse this with regular rice flour, as the texture is very different.

Whether your snow day involves making snowmen or spending an unseasonably sweltering afternoon in the kitchen, may the end results always be as sweet!

Ultimate Vanilla Bean Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

1 Cup Vegan Butter
1 1/4 Cups Granulated Sugar
2 3/4 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Cup Mochiko
1/4 Cup Arrowroot Powder
1 1/2 Teaspoons Vanilla Bean Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/3 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Use your stand mixer to thoroughly cream the butter and sugar together. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, mochiko, arrowroot, vanilla powder, salt, and baking powder, stirring well to combine. Add about half of these dry ingredients into the mixing bowl, processing it until fully incorporated. Pour in the non-dairy milk along with the remaining flour mixture. Continue to mix until it forms into a smooth, homogeneous dough. Form the dough into two balls, flatten them out a bit, wrap separately in plastic and chill for at least one hour before proceeding.

After the dough has had time to rest in the refrigerator, start heating your oven to 350 degrees.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the first ball of dough to about 1/8th of an inch in thickness. Use your favorite cookie cutters to shape the cookies, and place them on baking sheets lined with silpats or parchment paper. Brush any excess flour off the cookies, but don’t go crazy if it still has a light coating; most of it will bake in seamlessly.

Bake for about 8 – 14 minutes, depending on the size of your cookies, until no longer shiny and the edges are firm. Don’t wait for them to brown because they will become overcooked and dry by the time they cool.

Cool completely on a wire rack before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.

Yield is variable, depending on size of cookie cutter

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