Challah at Me

Everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose.

Woven into the smooth, elastic strands of dough that compose a loaf of lovingly braided challah bread is a taste of history. Surviving centuries of strife, passed down by word of mouth like folklore, it’s more than mere sustenance, yet hardly given a second thought beyond the customary blessing, if that. Even I was surprised to learn that the term “challah” isn’t necessarily defined by the rich, eggy, soft, and sweet crumb that immediately comes to mind. Any bread that’s sanctified for Jewish observances, from high holidays to regular old week days, can be challah.

That’s only the beginning of my true challah education. Visiting the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley prior to Shabbat one day, I was greeted by the sight of overflowing bowls of dough, the smell of yeast and flour wafting through the windows, perfuming the whole neighborhood.

Traditionally, seven essential ingredients compose the tender crumb we all know and love: water, yeast, sugar, oil, flour, and salt. Eggs, though frequently included to represent renewal, are not actually a necessary staple. That’s right; I wandered into this enclave of busy bakers to find about a hundred pounds of “accidentally” vegan challah dough at my disposal.

As explained by den mamma Bracha Sara Leeds, all while deftly kneading and twisting strands of the soft dough into elaborate braids, each ingredient can be linked back to the tenants of Judaism itself.

Water, the single most important, omnipresent component, represents the Torah. Just as we cannot live without water, we also cannot live without this guiding scripture. Bringing life and nourishment to all, it represents generosity and kindness. Like water, we want kindness to be infinitely abundant, flowing freely through our lives.

Flour is sustenance, the foundation to build a life on, physically and emotionally through our relationships with family, friends, and the community at large. We must feed these relationships as we must feed ourselves to maintain a healthy, happy, stable existence.

Oil is included to represent anointing, or sanctifying, to signify this loaf as being special, holier than your average daily bread. Oil enriches our lives, making particular moments, or meals, a bit more special.

Sugar stands in for all the sweetness in our lives, of course, but in this case also represents faith. With faith (in the future, in ourselves) comes sweet rewards. Fear not the sugar! Though challah is certainly classified as a sweet bread, it’s always well-balanced, to be served with equal enjoyment with toppings as diverse as jam or hummus, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Yeast provides leavening, of course, allowing the dough to rise, grow, and expand. Whether that means growing in terms of our character, rising up above challenges, or expanding to reach our full potential, it only takes a small push to get started. Yeast is only a tiny piece of the recipe, yet completely transforms the finished loaves.

Salt, used sparingly but in fair measure, represents discipline or criticism. As difficult as it can be to accept, it’s necessary for contrast and proper perspective. Salt can also signify purification, removing toxins from the body, and anything that is toxic in our lives or minds.

Arguably the most ingredient is one absent from any written recipe. Patience, while kneading, waiting for the dough to rise once, rise twice, and again while baking, is indispensable. Have patience for yourself; don’t rush the process to reap the greatest rewards.

It’s my pleasure to share this simple, yet deeply nuanced, meaningful approach to challah for World Bread Day. As my 13th contribution to the effort, I wouldn’t miss this event for anything. Though I wish I could break bread in person with everyone in the blogosphere, I hope that sharing this little morsel of history might provide a bit of virtual nourishment, at least.

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Sweet Success

Tuesdays don’t get much love. They don’t mark the beginning or end of the week. They rarely host holidays or days off. Aside from Taco Tuesdays, who looks forward to the day after Monday with any sort of enthusiasm?

Book authors, that’s who! For reasons still unknown, Tuesdays are when new releases hit shelves, both physical and digital, for all the world to see. Theories abound but still no consensus for the origin of this weekly book birthday. I’m not about to enlighten you with a brilliant new explanation, but I do want to light a few candles for this particular upcoming Tuesday… Especially if they’re on top of a Lemon-Lime Sunshine Bundt Cake.

Sweet Vegan Treats, my sixth cookbook baby, will officially be born tomorrow! Pre-orders have already started shipping, but now you’ll be able to find copies in brick-and-mortar stores, and maybe even your local libraries, if you ask nicely enough. Every book has been a labor of love, but this particular collection of recipes has been a long time coming. To anyone craving a bit of sweetness in their lives, for breakfast or dessert, quick or complex, this one goes out to you.

Put on your party hats and and cut yourself a thick slice, because I’m getting ready to take these treats to the streets! Join me in real life for the grand release party at my favorite cafe, Timeless Coffee in Oakland, CA, Friday October 18th from 5 – 7pm. Get a taste of the treats within while raising a glass (of iced oat milk latte) to even great delights soon to fill your own kitchen.

The fun doesn’t end after those morsels are devoured, though. For the next few months, you can catch me all around San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley sharing demos for various tricks and tips to make your time in the kitchen even sweeter. Not in the bay area? Never fear! I love any excuse to travel and would love to bring some pastry appreciation to you, too. Let’s bake something great together! Where should I go next?

Dogged Ambition

Dogs are more than just man’s best friends. Dogs are family members, every bit as precious and vital as the small creatures with two legs. Some recoil at the comparison, loathe to grant a “fur baby” the same sort of allowances, but the bottom line is that we need dogs just as much as they need us. Beyond basic care and feeding, your most valuable resource costs nothing to invest: Compassion. So many hundreds, thousands, and yes, millions of dogs out there are changing lives, yet find little to no love in return. Today is the time to celebrate these canine companions, big and small, mixed breed and pure, because it’s National Dog Day.

Yes, so many national “holidays” are silly, baseless non-events schemed up by corporations looking to make a quick buck or steal the social media spotlight for a minute. This day, however, was founded in 2004 with a far more noble objective. The goal was to not only show appreciation for dogs, but to bring attention to the plight of abused dogs, to end puppy mills and to bring an end to breed-specific legislation that regulates, or outright bans, certain breeds in the hope of minimizing dog attacks. Every day should be dog day, whether or not you’re a proud puppy parent.

I’d like to raise a glass to all the hard working canines out there, as well as the simply doggedly adorable fluff balls. The only thing fitting here would be a salty dog cocktail; classically composed of grapefruit juice and gin, with a salted rim, the origin of the name is a bit murky, but the bright, punchy flavor profile is clear. Tangy citrus, herbaceous spirits, and a salty kick to accentuate the two leaves nothing left to be desired. Well, okay, a bit of sweetness might be nice… and on that note, how about a dessert while we’re at it?

My take on the salty dog involves cake, because what’s a celebration without cake?

If the dog bone shape strikes you as a bit over-the-top, or you’re baking to suit a different theme, it’s even easier to simply cut the cake into squares instead. Better yet, bake the batter into cupcakes and no cutting will be necessary.

These treats are for adult humans only, as they do include a decent splash of alcohol that doesn’t cook or bake out. Each morsel is glazed with a poured fondant icing spiked with gin that sets up as a crisp, sugary shell for the tender grapefruit cake within. Don’t forget the pinch of flaky salt on top to complete the experience. While such garnishes are often listed as “optional,” it’s utterly essential here- it’s in the name, after all. It’s a bold change of pace, bright and refreshing, just like the original inspiration.

Let’s all raise a glass, or a piece of cake, to all the canines in our lives. Whether you have one, two, three, or none, there’s never a bad time to adopt

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Keyed Up

Meeting new people is awkward; that’s just a fact of life. Young or old, it really doesn’t get much easier to break the ice in a room full of strangers. Everyone nervously clutches paper cups of water or cola, as if they were irreplaceable heirlooms, carefully examining the contents of the room to avoid making eye contact. Sometimes it feels like just assembling any random sampling of humanity would be an impossible feat, if not for the promise of free snacks. The lure of food, no matter the type nor quality, is irresistible. That’s why an ingenuous move to incorporate that shared interest into the meet-and-greet itself, as I experienced at a recent gathering.

He sat alone in a quiet corner of the room, pushing hummus around his paper plate with a few limp sticks of celery. Pulling up an empty chair, I plopped down my similar medley of vegetables and chickpea puree, introducing myself with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Bright smiles, elevator pitch, small talk about the weather. Check, check, check. Soon, the conversation stalls, dribbling down to long pauses and uncomfortable forced eye contact. Grasping at straws, I remembered to check his name tag…

The organizers had cleverly left a space here, prompting us to write down a recent or memorable food experience. “Zucchini muffins,” I read aloud, taking the cue from his haphazardly scribbled notation. “Tell me about these zucchini muffins of yours.”

Not your average sweet breakfast treats, it turns out that the zucchini muffins that this young man makes are savory, flecked with dill and topped by a crust of sharp, salty parmesan. Interesting, but far from innovative, what really captured my imagination was their origin. His not-so-secret recipe goes back many years to the days when he worked at the historic Baldpate Inn in Colorado, where they were actually called “zu-key-ni” muffins.

The title pays subtle homage to the massive collection of antique, unconventional keys donated by guests spanning their 100 years of operation. The tradition began after World War I, when the price of metal made it impossible to give away room keys as they once had so freely. In response, regulars began bringing new keys with every subsequent visit. Now, there are over 20,000 unique keys on display… But still only one zu-key-ni recipe.

Naturally, my head was filled with visions of summer vegetables and muffins for the remainder of the event. Instead of socializing, I was completely preoccupied by the mission of hunting down the fabled recipe, veganizing it, and sharing its story.

It didn’t take long to uncover the full rundown, just as promised, reprinted for all to see in the Taste of Home June/July 2001 issue. Still, I can’t leave well enough alone, and made a few of my own tweaks. Most notably, the zucchini factor is more than doubled here, because if you’re gonna put it in the name, it should really be the star of the show.

Soft, tender, and rich, they’re the kind of muffins that need no additional toppings or spreads to shine. Enjoy warm for maximum effect, ideally toasted to get those perfectly crisp edges, especially a day or two after baking. Some keys are made of metal, but others, of vegetable, apparently. Shared with the right person, this one unlocks hearts, rather than doors.

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Bar None

May I introduce you to your new sweet obsession?

Every baker dreams of instantly whipping up sure-fire hits every time they turn on the oven, and eaters, no matter how adventurous, always crave certain comforting staples. While the internet hardly needs another plain old blondie recipe, it DOES need this one. It’s the one I always turn to for potlucks, for presents, and for random sweet tooth satisfaction, year in and year out. Something with enough staying power to see that many repeat performances in my kitchen deserves greater attention.

Super chewy, surprisingly buttery, and singing with sweet vanilla essence, they’re simply the best rendition of the classic bar cookie that everyone should have in their repertoire. There’s nothing crazy going on here; no complicated preparation, drawn out chilling or baking times, crazy ingredients, or any other shenanigans. Just tender slabs of caramelized brown sugar sweetness, filled with rich chocolate morsels, ready to be devoured in under an hour.

The only element that may give you pause is the cassava flour, but it’s not so scary as it may sound. It’s made from the yucca root, like tapioca starch, but comes from the entire tuber, thus affording it more fiber and nutrition than the later. If you can’t find it, don’t want to hunt it down, or don’t care about making your treats gluten-free, make it even easier by swapping in good old fashioned all-purpose flour.

In closing, I must apologize for making this introduction. If you had any attachments to particular blondie recipes previously, I’m afraid this fresh suitor will prove irresistible, leading to quite the sordid affair. I’m not sorry, however, for the joy it will create once you surrender to such an inevitability.

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Now Schmear This

Turn any day into a special occasion with little bite-sized cheesecakes, every bit as rich and luscious as a thick slice but quicker, easier, and ideal for a more intimate gathering. In fact, with these beauties on tap, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw a party for one.

I was lucky enough to snag an early sample of Treeline’s new cream cheese and it was love at first schmear. The cashew-based spread is very creamy and smooth, with a finish that tastes clean, buttery, and definitely rich. The flavor is on point; mild, delicately nuanced, both subtly savory and sweet at once. Easily one of the best options on the market so far, no matter your dietary preferences.

It’s not a dead-ringer for dairy, but quite possibly even better. Beyond slathering it on bagels and toast, it works perfectly in recipes. In fact, it excels in baking since there aren’t any additives, stabilizers or gums. Nothing but pure creamy indulgence here in these mini cheesecakes, from crust to cream topping.

Even if you can’t track down the brand, don’t sleep on these tried-and-true classic treats. Get the recipe details over at GoDairyFree.org and celebrate the everyday, any day.