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

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A Very Merry Unbirthday to You!

Birthdays come and birthdays go. Some are occasions to rejoice, some are best forgotten. Ready or not, they happen to the best of us, and we find a way to struggle through, as it sure beats the alternative. For the remaining 364 days a year, we tend to gloss over the fact that we’re still getting older, still surviving to see another morning; why shouldn’t we celebrate that too? Treat yourself to a nice dinner because it’s Monday. Splurge on some fancy olive oil because you answered all your emails. Throw yourself a party because you damn well feel like it. Most importantly of all, eat cake simply because it’s delicious.

Birthday cake is the first thing that came to mind upon cracking open a bottle of baker’s extract, my new favorite secret ingredient. Primarily vanilla but so much more, Rodelle describes it as having notes of chocolate, caramel, cream and oak mingling within the dark emulsion. If you ask me, it’s like vanilla with the dial turned up to 11. Robust and smooth, just a few drops add incredible richness and complexity to any sweet treat, which is why I’ve been reaching for this bottle more often than not. Blend it into pancakes for legitimate cakes made in a pan. Add a splash to a protein drink transform it into a cake batter milkshake. In the case of today’s recipe, mix things up with simple cereal bars, and create an everyday birthday treat.

The much beloved childhood cereal bar morphs into a convincing cookie and cake hybrid with just a few small tweaks. Crunchy, chewy squares of crisp rice are bound together with a simple sticky syrup, bolstered by that extraordinary baker’s extract and just a touch of cake flour to really cement the theme. White chocolate stands in for frosting, keeping these snacks packable, portable, and perfectly suited for whipping up on every unbirthday you please. Speaking of which, don’t you have one coming up soon, too? Maybe you should start planning your next batch right now.

Though technically optional, I would argue that it’s really not a birthday without sprinkles, so err on the side of whimsy and let it rain. If you really insist on being an adult about it, chopped nuts could be an acceptable topping as well… Albeit considerably less fancy-free.

This post was made possible thanks to Rodelle and their sweet contributions.

Birthday Cake Crispy Rice Treats

5 Cups Crispy Brown Rice Cereal
3 Tablespoons Cake Flour
1 Tablespoon Vegan Butter
1/2 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Teaspoon Rodelle Baker’s Extract

6 Ounces (About 1 Cup) Chopped Vegan White Chocolate, Homemade or Store-Bought
1 – 3 Tablespoons Assorted Sprinkles

Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease. Combine the cereal and flour in a large bowl; set aside.

Set a medium saucepan over low heat and begin by melting the butter. Once liquefied, add in the agave, sugar, and salt, stirring as needed until the sugar crystals dissolve. Bring the mixture to a steady boil and then cook for an additional 3 – 5 minutes, until it appears to have thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the both extracts.

Pour the contents of your saucepan over the dry mix and fold it in carefully but briskly with a wide non-stick spatula, being careful not to crush the cereal.

Transfer the sticky mixture into your prepared pan and gently press it out into an even layer. It’s easiest if you grease the bottom of a flat measuring cup and use that to smooth it down, applying firm downward strokes across the full pan of cereal.

Seal the deal by melting down the white chocolate and pouring it on top. Distribute the sprinkles equally across the top, and let the chocolate cool until set. Slice and celebrate!

Makes 10 – 12 Bars

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Cut and Dried

Populated by little more than starchy potatoes and papery onions mere weeks ago, market stalls are suddenly bursting with a rainbow of fresh produce. Giant, plump blueberries the size of grapes; gnarled heirloom tomatoes as unique and delicate as snowflakes; peaches fragrant enough to double as air fresheners; I want them all, and I want them in volume. I’m that hungry shopper tasting one of each sample, even when I know exactly what I’m going home with that day. I’m the one buying three pounds of strawberries for a recipe that only calls for two. The lure of summertime produce is one that I’m powerless against, buying in bulk despite cooking for one. I’ll eat cherries one after another, no matter how many are piled up high, until all my clothing is hopelessly stained red.

Still, endlessly voracious for that taste of sunshine, I can never get my fill. There’s only so much space in my freezer to save that seasonal bounty, and the laborious process of proper canning still eludes me. Options for preservation beyond a day at best have been severely lacking, until I stumbled upon the world of dehydration.

Embraced by the raw food movement for its ability to “cook” while preserving more nutrients than conventional heating methods, the concept itself is as old as time. Leave something edible out in the sun, keep away the bugs and prevent it from getting moldy, and slowly draw out the moisture until it can be stored for leaner times. Humidity, fluctuating temperatures, and the open air itself present serious barriers to upholding this time-honored tradition. Modern technology has gotten into the game, reviving the dehydration concept as more than just a utilitarian function, but also a doorway to more creative cuisine.

Given the opportunity to investigate the power of the Tribest Sedona Express, I jumped at the offer. Though I had dabbled in dehydration with a dinky little toy of a machine salvaged from a yard sale, my experience was limited, not to mention, unsatisfying. Now, after a year and a half of use, I can’t claim that it’s the first contraption I break out when developing new recipes, but it’s proven its value many times over.

This thing is a food drying powerhouse, bearing 1430 square inches of space across 11 trays to accommodate all the produce your heart desires. It heats up quickly and holds temperature reliably, unless you’d like to specify the intensity yourself at anywhere between 75 – 170 degrees. Long processing times are par for the course still, but no trouble with a 99-hour timer.

My studio is spatially challenged, to put it lightly, so I was reasonably concerned about adding the inherent noise that comes with such a hulking piece of machinery into the mix, working away through all hours of the night. Mercifully, my fears were unfounded; no louder than a modest propeller-driven table fan even on high, I slept soundly while the dehydrator powered through the AM hours.

That’s all well and good for basic pantry stockpiles, but what about the more important issue… Could it keep up with my snacking demands? Happily having munched my way through countless rounds of zucchini chips, coconut macaroons, and assorted fruit leathers, I can confidently report nothing but delicious experiences. One particular favorite that emerged through these trials was a buttery, cheesy vegetable in disguise that I like to call “CauliPop.” Cauliflower all dressed up like movie theater popcorn, it’s a compulsively edible nosh. While it would be a struggle to plow through a full heat of the stuff raw, it seems to disappear instantly once kissed by the warmth of the dehydrator. It’s the kind of deceptively simple formula that you’ll soon find yourself doubling and tripling to keep up with demand.

Emulating one of my favorite snack bar options, I knew it would be easy to cut the crap to fabricate an even simpler dupe. Only three ingredients are needed for these soft, chewy, and super sweet Banana-Nut Chia Bars, all of which are readily apparent from the title alone. In fact, you probably already have what it takes to make them right now! That trusty dehydrator was running nonstop when I finally hit upon the perfect ratio, handily replacing those packaged bars at a fraction of the cost.

Well into my 20th month with this beast on my side, I’m still finding new and delicious ways to use the Tribest Sedona Express. The manufacturer was kind enough to provide one for review, but no amount of fancy equipment could ever buy my praise. I can honestly say that if you’re serious about preservation, healthy snacking, or just playing around with your food, this is the model you want to harness.

CauliPop

1 Medium Head Cauliflower
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil, Melted
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 Teaspoon Coarse Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Turmeric

Chop the cauliflower into approximately 1-inch florets, as consistent as possible to ensure they dry at an equal rate. Blanch them by plunging them into boiling water for 3 minutes, until fork-tender but still firm. Drop them into an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process and drain thoroughly. Transfer to a large bowl.

Drizzle in the coconut oil and toss with the remaining seasonings until evenly coated. Place the florets directly on a wire rack, allowing ample space for air circulation, and set the dehydrator to 115 degrees. The “cooking” process will take anywhere from 12 – 24 hours, depending on your preferences. Pull the cauliflower earlier for a softer interior, or let it the machine run for the full cycle to get a crunchier bite throughout.

Makes 1 – 3 Servings

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Banana-Nut Chia Bars

2 Large, Ripe Bananas
1/4 Cup Chia Seeds
2 Tablespoons Walnuts, Chopped

Mash the bananas and stir in the chia and walnuts. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes for the chia seeds to gel. Spread the mixture evenly over a non-stick drying sheet approximately 1/4-inch thick. Dehydrate at 145 degrees for 4 – 6 hours, or until dry to the touch, firm, and sliceable. Cut into squares or bars as desired.

Makes 6 – 8 Bars

Printable Recipe

Coffee Flour Brew Haha

Think outside the cup. For every scalding-hot carafe of coffee, how often have you stopped to consider what didn’t make it into that brew? Precious as they are, those beans are but a small part of a bigger plant, celebrated yet simultaneously, curiously ignored. Nutritious, perfect viable fruit is stripped away from these kernels, left to rot in the fields without a second thought. Considering just how much coffee the average office drone will down in a given day, you can only imagine the staggering amount of food going to waste.

Slowly but surely, a steady buzz is growing around turning this by-product into a worthy crop in its own right. Dried and milled, the resulting coffee flour contains only as much caffeine as chocolate (which is negligible at most), but can boast a much more measured energy boost in the form of abundant protein and fiber. Although it’s been an esoteric ingredient on the fringes of mainstream food ways, considering the fact that it’s now available at Trader Joe’s, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of it from here on out.

Preserving personal health and the environment at large are both admirable goals, clearly within the cross hairs for those singing the praises of this power flour. Whether or not they’re attainable depends entirely upon more hedonistic perspectives: Taste. Leftover husks and skins don’t sound particularly delicious, and the flavor is one you might not expect based on the label. Fruity, floral, with notes of lemon and (of course) cherries, the dark brown powder tastes nothing like a cup of mud. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Just a thing to consider?

If you ask me, that unique essence just proves how much more the coffee cherry has to offer. Functioning much like cocoa powder in baked goods, it can generally take the place of 30 – 40% of the standard all-purpose flour in a given recipe, or blended into smoothies for a whole new sweet sensation.

Of course, given the comparison to cocoa, I couldn’t resist trying it first in a batch of fudgy, gluten-free brownies.

Held together by the magic of aquafaba and crowned by a perfect crackled crust, these are pretty much my ideal cookie bars. The impulse to add a bit of coffee essence was too strong to deny, but you could just as happily omit the instant coffee powder if you’re not a natural coffee fanatic. Accenting with a pinch of cinnamon, or playing up the subtle citrus notes of the flour with a hint of orange zest, would be equally delightful.

Coffee Flour Brownies

1/2 Cup Vegan Butter, Melted
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Aquafaba
3/4 Cup (4.5 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, Divided
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Coffee Flour
1/2 Cup Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
1 Teaspoon Instant Coffee Powder (Optional)
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Cup Toasted and Chopped Pecans

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8 x 8-inch square pan.

Place the vegan butter, sugar, aquafaba, and 1/4 cup of the chocolate chips in a small saucepan over low heat. Gently warm, stirring constantly, until the chocolate and butter have melted, and the sugar has dissolved. It should be smooth and silky. Turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla. Let cool for 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the coffee flour, cocoa powder, instant coffee (if using), salt, baking powder, chopped pecans, and remaining chocolate chips. Toss to combine and thoroughly coat the mix-ins with flour, to prevent them from sinking to the bottom.

Add the liquid chocolate mixture into the bowl of dry goods, mixing with a wide spatula to combine. You needn’t worry about over-mixing here, since it’s completely gluten-free! Make sure there are no pockets of flour or lumps hiding within the batter before transferring it to your prepared pan. Smooth down the top so it’s one even layer.

Bake for 16 – 20 minutes, until the top is dry and shiny. A toothpick inserted into the center should pull out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it; you don’t want it completely clean, or the brownies will end up being dry. Let cool completely before slicing.

Makes 12 – 16 Brownies

Printable Recipe

NuGo On the Go

The idea of going “back to school” has taken on a new meaning. Mere months after graduating, I find myself returning to campus bright and early each morning once again, eager to learn about the latest in photo technology. Now the difference is that instead of heading into the classroom, I plunge into the stacks of rental lenses in the equipment room, trying furtively to teach myself the intricate codes to their order and maintenance. These lessons are quite possibly even more difficult than those I grappled with as an undergrad, and while the days are long, the hours seem to evaporate in an instant. It’s the most I can do keep my head above water in the flood of paperwork, let alone steal away a full 30 minutes for a lunch break. After just a few hours in this position, I came to realize how little I appreciated those assiduous lab techs in my days as a student.

Times like these call for emergency sustenance; packable and compact, shelf-stable and easy to eat, healthy but of course, above all else, delicious.

The field of energy bars certainly has exploded over the past decade, expanding into a dizzying array of flavors, macro-nutrient combinations, and special dietary considerations. A blessing and a curse to those in need of quick snacks on the go, it’s difficult to discern when you’re actually picking up a cookie bar or sidewalk chalk dressed up in a shiny Mylar wrapper.

NuGo is a brand that’s been on the scene for ages, diversifying its offerings along different lines to accommodate shifting eater demographics. While their more old-school products contain milk and some admittedly questionable ingredients, their vegan NuGo Slim bars are more than enough to sustain the discerning herbivore. The company was kind enough to share a taste of their new Chocolate Mint and Toasted Coconut bars with me, and both were fine fodder for these busy days on the job.

Dressed in a cloak of dark chocolate, each one gives off the impression of a candy bar, but at half the sweetness, bear no threat of inducing a sugar coma. Although slightly dry, the texture is soft, with an easy bite that is not difficult to swallow- No pun intended. Imagine a very firm cookie dough binding together crispy rice cereal, and you’d come pretty close to the heart of these chocolate-covered protein bombs.

For those in need of a midday wake-up call, the mint option is the one for you. Sharp like spearmint rather than the more standard peppermint, it’s not messing around, leading with a fresh, bright punch of mint right from the first bite. Coconut, on the other hand, takes somewhat of a backseat to the chocolate, but still sings loud and clear with a comfortingly nutty resonance.

Though I can’t say either has instantly risen through the ranks to reach a new personal favorite, both are a boon to busy, hungry eaters of all stripes, with very impressive nutritional stats to boot. I’m certainly happy to have them on standby in my camera bag, ready in a flash when it’s time to go back to school all over again.

Just Add Ice Cream

Given my unconventional approach to featuring a pint of my favorite ice cream, as highlighted in my previous recipe melt down, it should surprise precisely no one to learn that I was once a master at making ice cream soup. Especially when the air took on a chilly edge and a solidly frozen scoop could send shock waves rippling through my sensitive teeth, it only made good sense to temper my treats a bit. Science has proven that we’re less capable of tasting the full flavor nuances of anything chilled below 32°F. I’d like to think I was simply wise beyond my years, gleefully turning sundaes into spoonable milkshakes for maximum enjoyment. Inevitably this led to some very sticky situations and many stained shirts, but that’s another story.

It wasn’t long after gaining the privacy of my own tiny apartment kitchen that I began to tinker with some downright insane concepts, while taking my penchant for ice cream soup to the extreme. After one cycle too many in the microwave, I discovered that my luscious chocolate ice cream had “defrosted” far beyond the realm of milkshake territory, sloshing around inside its cardboard carton freely. While one could toss the liquid back into an ice cream churn and salvage the mess, I saw this as a new opportunity. A new ingredient to play with, once again, to transform into an entirely new treat.

No baking is required for those suffering under summer’s stifling heat. In fact, the end results taste even better when eaten chilled; an inadvertent homage to its frozen origins. For anyone who’s ever craved a brownie denser than a cake, or a fudge just a hair lighter than pure ganache, these obscenely rich bars fill that gap. Admittedly, the squares pictured above are much too large for any reasonable human being to consume in one sitting. That didn’t stop me, of course, but I can’t recommend it for the sugar rush and food coma sure to follow. Just a little bit goes a long way with these devilish little dark chocolate squares.

This is yet another entry for the Raise a Pint Recipe Contest, fostered by Go Dairy Free and So Delicious. The entry period will end on July 24th, at which point all the sweet recipes will be revealed and you can vote for your favorites. In the meantime, you can join in by sharing your ice cream moments on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter- Be sure to use #RaiseAPint! Find the full details right here.

Instant Brownie Fudge Bars

1 Pint So Delicious Chocolate Coconut Milk Ice Cream
1/4 Cup Coconut Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
4 Cups (About 18 Ounces) Finely Ground Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Crumbs
1/2 Cup Chopped Walnuts or Pecans, Divided

Line an 8×8-inch square pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease; set aside.

Place the ice cream, coconut oil, and salt into a medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Allow everything to fully melt, bringing the liquid to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking, whisking periodically, for about 5 minutes.

Add in the cookie crumbs and half of the nuts, stirring quickly and vigorously with a wide spatula. The resulting batter will be very thick, so don’t be afraid to put some muscle into it. Transfer to your prepared pan and spread the mixture out into a smooth, even layer. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the top and use your palms to gently press them into the surface.

Move the pan into your fridge and chill for at least 4 hours, or into your freezer for 2, before slicing into bars or squares as desired. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week… If you can keep you hands off of them for that long.

Makes 16 – 24 Servings

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