Spooky Season

I don’t want to scare you, but those voices in your head, the haunting whispers, are all true: Halloween is right around the corner. It’s downright terrifying to consider how quickly the year is flying by, but it would be far more nightmarish to miss out on Spooky Season, and all the devilish treats it brings.

Commercial candies can be pretty frightening though, between artificial colors, unpronounceable preservatives, and the hidden horrors in labor and production. The instant gratification of trick-or-treat freebies does still tempt, but I happen to have a few tricks up my sleeve, too.

Years ago, I released Wicked Treats, a mini ebook with a half-dozen of my favorite homemade candies, sure to delight the most discerning guys and ghouls. Long off the market, this monstrous collection had been locked away, mummified in my digital vault. The photo quality is perhaps suitably unsettling but the sweet spells are still capable of culinary magic.

Unchaining this Frankenstein once again, you can now download Wicked Treats completely free of charge. In addition to being vegan, these recipes are completely gluten-free, with options to make your candies soy-free, too.

What are you waiting for? The witching hour is almost upon us. Get a kettle on the fire and start brewing up something sweet!

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The Lion’s Share

Do you know where your chocolate comes from? No, not the grocery store, or even the country of origin for the beans. More to the point, do you know who your chocolate comes from?

Most of the world’s chocolate is industrial, highly processed to maintain consistency and low prices, but at the expense of nuanced flavor, to say nothing of the human cost. Only a handful of chocolate makers are producing candy for the mass market, but smaller startups are turning the cacao world on its head by starting from the ground up.

Dandelion Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker rooted in the Mission District of San Francisco. One of the very few operations in the US that go through the full process of roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, grinding, conching, and tempering cacao beans in small batches, it’s a full three to four days before any bars are even formed or packaged- all by hand, I might add.

Here, the unique properties extracted through fermenting and roasting high quality beans are celebrated rather than muted. Even the sweetest blends minimize the use of sugar, adding just enough to accentuate the inherent flavors of the cacao, and dairy is never a consideration. Notably, neither is additional cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, or any of the other usual chocolate suspects. Without these typical crutches, everything you taste comes solely from the bean at hand. Finally, it’s chocolate that can speak for itself, and the message is loud and clear: There’s nothing comparable on the market, and almost certainly nothing better.

The real treat is getting to see how it’s all made firsthand, through factory tours and generous tastings if you’re lucky enough to be in town. While the cafe is still light on vegan eats, the drinks are really where it’s at. Incredibly rich, dense, decadent hot chocolate put them on the map years ago, but for a lighter, one-of-a-kind refresher on a hot summer’s day, you really must try the cacao smoothie. If you’ve never had fresh cacao before, brace yourself; this tastes nothing like chocolate. Believe it or not, the tropical fruit is more evocative of pineapple, but mild and with no acidity, blending in notes of sweet Meyer lemon. When given the such a rare opportunity, I would implore you to taste the range of flavors the whole fruit is capable of.

Chocolate is so much more than cheap Halloween handouts. Dandelion Chocolate is working to change that misconception, one handmade bar at a time.

Cococlectic Tastes

Lined up neatly on the mantel in one carefully manicured row, the thick card stock shimmered with foil appliques, glitter, glossy photos, puffy stickers. Printed or handwritten, each holiday card is a gift of the highest order. The thoughtful messages, updates on life events and bright wishes for the future, come straight from the heart. When I would simply ask to exchange greeting cards if prompted for a holiday wish list, it wasn’t to be rebellious nor frugal, but a genuine love of that time-honored practice. Over the years though, like so much of the pure glee this season holds during childhood, life tends to get in the way, making it a torturous mad dash to stuff that stack of envelopes into the mailbox before time runs out. That’s why I’ve slowly start shifting to the fledgling movement of sending New Year’s cards instead, and that’s why I’m also advocating New Year’s shopping and gifting, when Santa doesn’t quite deliver.

Amidst the subscription box boom, there are some real treasure chests to be found, and Cococlectic is one of them. Chocolate is never a hard sell so in case the presents don’t all make it under the tree in time, the promise of a monthly cocoa bonus is a foolproof, and quite cunning, way to buy a bit more time. Four full-size, single origin bars are bundled in each package and sealed with a stately wax impression, almost like an built-in stamp of approval.

Each assortment is guaranteed to delight with exclusive artisan treats. No matter the feature, the highlighted dark chocolates are always vegan, fair trade, soy-free, gluten-free, and tree-nut free. That also means extraneous ingredients are kept to a minimum, leaving your attention entirely focused to the quality of the cacao. Those notes of caramel, coffee, fruits, flowers, wine, earth, and more that you’re tasting come solely from the bean; a bold new world of nuanced flavors awaits you in each burnished square.

Cococlectic only ships during the cooler winter months to avoid a potentially disastrous meltdown in transit, so when you take that into consideration, you’re actually right on time to take advantage of of such a gift. Get $10 off any Cococlectic Membership subscription when you use the coupon Code SWEETVEGAN at checkout. Finish off the year on a sweet note to share with others or savor all by yourself.

Bark with a Bite

For all their creative potential, edible presents are criminally undervalued, often viewed as gifts of last resort. Can’t figure out a darned thing your difficult, curmudgeonly Uncle Eddie would enjoy? Well, everyone eats food, at least. Oh, but what about that co-worker you greet every morning but forgot to include on your list? There must be something in the pantry you could cobble together and stick a bow on.

Written off as a last-minute option, haphazardly slapped together in a moment of charitable desperation, chocolate bark especially enjoys particular prominence around this time of the year. Little more than cacao slabs with a bit of extra texture, the concept nonetheless remains wildly popular despite- or perhaps in part because of- this very unpretentious simplicity. Chocolate is never a hard sell to begin with, so when you add in a handful of nuts or crushed candy canes, such effortless appeal is universal among givers and receivers alike. However, that’s just the beginning of this spicy story. Given a little bit more deliberate intention, what if I told you we could make bark even better?

Despite its comparatively blanched pallor, this particular festive candy innovation could make the finest single origin dark bar melt. Gingerbread aroma beyond your wildest dreams springs out of the woodwork, going out on a limb to kick this festive palate of spices up another notch. Chewy nuggets of candied ginger and the crisp, fresh crunch of roasted almonds lend textural dimension that goes against the traditional grain, eschewing the candy-coated peppermints of years past to complement a more balanced sweetness.

In this modern re-imagination of the classic confection, refined sugars need not apply, believe it or not. A modest measure of stevia is enough to contrast with those warming spices without risking dessert overdose during the most tempting time of year. I used Steviva Blend since it’s about twice as sweet as white sugar, thus allowing me to use less and create a more satisfyingly snappy texture. Desserts should always be about the flavor first and sweetness second, making it a perfect mix for my needs.

To satisfy your curiosity and your sweet tooth at the same time, you can check out more info about Steviva on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Gingerbread Bark

4 Ounces 100% Food-Grade Cocoa Butter
1 Teaspoon Blackstrap Molasses
1/4 Cup Steviva Blend
1 Tablespoon Coconut Milk Powder
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
1/8 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Sliced Almonds
2 Tablespoons Crystalized Ginger, Very Finely Minced

Place your cocoa butter in a microwave-safe bowl and heat it on full power 1 – 3 minutes, pausing at 30 second intervals to stir, until it completely liquefies. Be sure to keep an eye on it at all times, as it has a much lower melting point than a bar of finished chocolate. Mix in the molasses and let sit for just a moment to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, sift together the Steviva Blend, coconut milk powder, spices, and salt. Add the dry mixture into the cocoa butter, stirring gently until smooth. Pour into chocolate molds, shaped either like traditional break-apart bars or genuine slabs of bark for greatest effect, and tap lightly on the counter to knock out any errant air bubbles. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds and ginger.

Place the molds in your fridge or freezer to accelerate the curing process, allowing them to sit undisturbed until entirely solid; at least 1 – 2 hours.

Makes 1 Large or Two Small Chocolate Bars

Printable Recipe

Fudging the Dates

Is it too early to start talking about homemade holiday gifts? Thanksgiving decorations still liter the seasonal aisles and many dining rooms lay in ruin awaiting the grand feast, just a day away, but let’s be honest. We’ve all been looking warily towards Christmas and Hanukkah for the past month or two. The “Christmas Creep” is a real threat, as retailers try foist merriment upon us earlier each year, making it impossible to forget that presents must be purchased, urgently, abundantly, more generously than ever before. Rather than having their intended effect of spurring sales, it has quite opposite impact on me. Recoiling from such forced jolliness, I rebel, scorning the very things I love most. The limited edition items that I love, that I wait for with baited breath to return after a year’s absence, the bright spots of the dark days of winter; I deny their existence until at least Black Friday has safely passed. However, there are some seasonal specialties too good to resist. Fully embracing that urge to indulge, Voortman Bakery Chocolate Mint Wafers have made the shortlist of annual delicacies that are worth stockpiling as soon as they hit store shelves.

Delicate, light, and crisp, you’ve likely seen these classic treats before. Voortman Bakery has been baking with the best of them since 1951, slowly expanding and diversify their offerings over decades of experience. What hasn’t changed is their focus on real ingredients and fresh flavors. Though many times those bright packages caught my eye, I never stopped to investigate, wrongly assuming that such a classic staple couldn’t possibly be vegan. Shockingly, happily, it turns out there are no animal products layered between those thin pastry sheets and sweet cream fillings!

Reliably found in grocery stores across the nation, the everyday flavors are delights themselves, but mint chocolate, as I might have mentioned before, is one of my favorite combinations. The simple pleasure of biting into one of these crisp biscuits is amplified when eaten chilled. At first I thought I’d prolong my stash by hiding them away in the back of my freezer, but I discovered with both dismay and delight, that made them even more irresistible.

Taking that inspiration one step further, I reached into the candy jar for some minty fresh candy canes, gleaming in a crisp coat of red and white stripes. Enrobed in a rich coat of chocolate fudge that melts in your mouth, fast and sweet like freshly fallen snow, those wafers stay as snappy as ever.

The whole treat comes together so quickly, even taking into account the time it takes to set, it feels like a bit of homemade holiday magic.

If you’re not such a big peppermint fan, that’s okay, we can still be friends. You can also find the illustrious gingerbread wafers for a limited time, which positively sing when smothered with chocolate and topped instead with very finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Can fudge still make the cut on a holiday cookie platter? With wafers at the ready, crunching throughout every festive bite, I think that these exceptional little squares get the green light; no one said you had to do all the baking!

Peppermint Crunch Fudge

1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Cups (12 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/4 Teaspoon Peppermint Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
5 Ounces (1/2 Package) Chopped Voortman Bakery Chocolate Mint Wafers
1/2 Cup Roughly Crushed Candy Canes or Peppermint Starlight Hard Candies

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking dish with parchment paper or aluminum foil, lightly grease, and set aside.

Place the butter, non-dairy milk, and chocolate in a microwave safe bowl. Heat on full power for 60 – 90 seconds, pausing at 30-second intervals to stir thoroughly, until the chocolate has completely melted. Once smooth, mix in the peppermint extract and salt. Use a wide spatula to gently fold the chopped wafer cookies into the chocolate mixture, being careful not to crush them.

Transfer to your prepared pan, smoothing it out into as even a layer as possible. Sprinkle the crushed peppermint candy over the top. Place the dish in the fridge for at least 1 hour, or in the freezer for 30 minutes, until fully set.

Use the parchment or aluminum as a sling to remove the fudge from the pan and slice into small squares with a very sharp knife. Enjoy chilled for the most refreshingly minty experience!

Makes About 1 Pound Fudge; 24 – 30 Servings

Printable Recipe

This post was made possible thanks to the support of Voortman Bakery and Towers Marketing Group. All content and opinions are unbiased and entirely my own.

Sweeter by the Dozen

They say it’s your birthday
It’s my birthday too, yeah

As I struggle to stitch together the right combination of words on yet another post, I find that The Beatles sum up the general premise quite nicely in just a few simple words. My biological birthday was last month, but today is the day that BitterSweet turns twelve years old, an implausible, unbelievable milestone that I find myself celebrating with an even greater fervor. This humble little corner of virtual space has become so inextricably linked with my identity over the years, growing and contracting, morphing and evolving, persisting against all odds, that it really is my own birthday, too.

Let’s not get too mushy here, but there is a deep debt of gratitude that I do owe to you, every last one of you, that has dropped by to comment, like, pin, tweet, re-gram or re-post. That encouragement, reassuring me that I wasn’t just blogging in a vacuum, that there genuinely was interest in my crazy experiments and rambling thoughts- That is what allowed BitterSweet to not only survive, but thrive. It’s because of you that I found my true passion in life, made a career out of it, and continue striving to create and circulate all those adventures (and misadventures) along the way.

It’s given me the opportunity to make friends all across the globe, to connect with people I would otherwise never meet, to share some of my favorite things and find many more. It’s on that note that I’d like to introduce you to one more incredible small business poised to make a big splash…

Noosh turned out to be the sleeper hit on my list of new brands showcasing their wares at the Winter Fancy Foods Show last month. Hidden in a small enclave off to the side of the main floor, wedged into a tiny booth among many, I almost walked right on by without a second glance. How many different types of almond butter do we really need, after all? Just like granola bars and protein powders, isn’t the market already saturated with more options than we know what to do with? Yet somehow I was charmed, drawn in by the slick packaging and straightforward ingredient list. It’s pure, creamy almond butter, but so silky smooth and naturally sweet that you could almost call it almond nectar. In fact, I’ve taken to drizzling it liberally over my morning oatmeal instead of using maple syrup. Since that fateful encounter, I’ve grown increasingly smitten with the stuff, packing my bags with the single serving pouches in case of almond butter emergencies on the go.

As marvelous as the original and chocolate are, this is just the start. Not yet on the market but previewed at the show, I’m not kidding when I say that the Birthday Cake Almond Butter might just be life-changing. Yes, it is THAT good. It’s a challenge to slowly ration out my current supply until it officially hits the market, opening up the flood gates to unimpeded nut butter-based cake indulgence. Whereas many snacks promise a cake-like flavor, doomed to fall terribly short by comparison to the real thing, Noosh actually delivers. I don’t know how they do it, and quite frankly, I don’t want to. There’s a certain magic in that delicious mystery.

Inspired by that fresh-baked flavor and determined to stretch my limited stock just a little bit further, I couldn’t help but turn it into another cake facsimile. Rich, soft, melt-in-your-mouth bites of fudge both look and taste so much like the genuine article, you could easily get away with serving these at your next big party. Comprised of little more than almonds, coconut, and maple syrup, these adorable miniatures will satisfy your sweet tooth without inciting a sugar coma, even if you do indulge in seconds- or thirds.

Mercifully, the tortuous wait for a fresh supply of that ambrosial almond elixir is almost over. After much needling and prodding, I’ve been assured that this incredible flavor will finally be ready for purchase within the coming month. Best of all, so cheered by my irrepressible enthusiasm, Noosh has offered to send three readers a package of their very own, as soon as it’s available. What better way to celebrate a blog birthday than with presents, and of course, cake?

To enter, all you need to do is leave me a comment. If you’re a longtime subscriber, tell me how long you’ve been along for this wild ride. Have you tried any recipes over the years, or do you remember way back when BitterSweet was primarily about the knitty gritty of more crafty ventures? If you’re new to these parts, introduce yourself, say hi! What brought you here, what got your attention?

Log this and additional entries to improve your odds on the official giveaway page until Wednesday, February 14th at midnight PST. Win or lose, don’t forget to come back for the recipe which you’ll want to celebrate all year, every year.

Cupcake Fudge

Cupcake Fudge Base:

1/2 Cup Noosh Birthday Cake Almond Butter
1/4 Cup Melted Coconut Butter
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Chocolate Fudge Frosting:

1/2 Cup Noosh Chocolate Almond Butter
3 Tablespoons Melted Coconut Butter
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1 Tablespoon Cocoa Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Garnish (Optional):

Edible Glitter and/or Shimmer Spray

Begin with the cupcake fudge base: Simply mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl until smooth. Spoon the liquid fudge into small fluted cup silicone truffle molds. Let sit for at least 30 – 45 minutes, until completely solidified. Pop them out of the molds and keep them in the freezer.

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting by going through the same process of blending together all the ingredients, spooning the mixture into spiral (as pictured) or small dome silicone truffle molds and place on a flat surface in the freezer. Let rest for 10 – 15 minutes until they begin to set but are not yet entirely firm.

Take the finished cupcake fudge bases and gently pressure them into the soft frosting fudge. Return the molds to the freezer to allow them to finish solidifying. After 30 – 60, they should be ready to pop out all in one cohesive piece.

Garnish with edible glitter(s) if desired. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to a month… If you can manage to stay away from them that long, that is.

Makes 20 – 22 Cupcake Fudge Truffles

Printable Recipe