BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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For the Love of Chocolate

Chocolate is a gift that is always in style, matches with everything you already own, and always fits. It should come as no surprise that it’s the Valentine’s Day token of choice, ranking well above the typical flowers, cards, and unintentionally tragic stuffed animals. Let’s keep it that way, and let’s keep it classy, folks. No dollar store mockolate to show your sweetheart how bad you are at planning ahead, please. Considering the explosion of high-quality options now on the market, there’s no excuse not to go the extra mile to seek out something special. Those efforts to find a truly transcendent box of cacao decadence will be repaid in full with just one bite.

Amore di Mona is part of the new wave of contemporary chocolatiers that stands apart from the rest. Committed to producing exceptional treats that can be enjoyed by all, every exquisite morsel they produce is vegan and gluten-free.

Even the gold wrapping and immaculate box of the Connoisseur Collection exudes opulence and indulgence. It’s clear from square one (no pun intended) that these are no average candies. Impeccably molded, dipped, and decorated, each piece glistens in the sunlight and snaps firmly under pressure. Seven entirely unique flavors are included in the assortment, ranging from solid chocolate hearts with various accouterments to dipped and drizzled caramels. Unsurprisingly, the chocolate itself is exceptional: Dry, smooth, intense dark chocolate, but not the least bit harsh, it’s very easy to eat without risking either palate fatigue or a sugar coma.

Finding good vegan caramels can still be challenging at best, but this box may very well end the search. Each “caramela,” as they are called, possesses a firm bite, soft chew, and subtly nutty, toasted sweet flavor. Although I must admit that I found myself craving a tiny extra pinch of salt at times, there’s really little to fault about the final execution. Favorites will only be a matter of preference, because you can do no wrong with any of the options. Pieces containing cranberries shine with tartness from the dried fruits, bitterness of the chocolate, and just the right amount of sugar to smooth out any hard edges. Meanwhile, those that incorporate whole coffee beans are predictably bold, in all the right ways; the coffee flavor never overwhelms, only delights with an extra crunchy texture.

Each morsel is a handcrafted work of edible art. Beautiful to look at, and even more enjoyable to eat. Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to spoil someone you love or simply yourself, but don’t forget that chocolate is always in season.


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Ugly but Tasty

Though it’s a quality often possessed by the most delicious meals and one that I passionately embrace in my daily menu, ugliness can be the kiss of death for a new recipe. Creations so unsightly that no amount of careful prop styling nor Photoshopping can disguise, countless innocent dishes have met their end, sacrificed in the name of vanity and not in good taste. For this conceit, I must apologize, my dear readers. It’s a personal shortfall that I couldn’t look beyond a bad photo shoot for so many homely, but tasty, pursuits.

Thank goodness for recipe tasters. Even when I’ve written something off as unexceptional, imperfect, and most commonly of all, unphotogenic, there are passionate eaters in my life outspoken enough to rescue those edible gems from certain doom. One of the most “famous” cases was that of the Frankenstorm Pie; quickly thrown together without any recipe at all, it was only due to the begging and pleading of the recipients that it was even recorded in any format to begin with, let alone make the final cut for the pages of Easy as Vegan Pie.

By some small miracle and number of very vocal recipients, one of last year’s holiday gifts was rescued from a similar fate. Inspired by the traditional rum ball, these potent little treats may be sorely lacking in the beauty department, but the flavor sure won’t leave you wanting. Spiked with a heady dose of both mint and coffee liqueurs, they were originally dubbed “Boozy Peppermint Mocha Balls,” but the only way I could think to improve their image problem was to further finesse the moniker, at the very least.

Just think of these little morsels as the adult version of a peppermint mocha latte in candy form, and for maximum enjoyment, don’t waste too much time admiring their good looks… Or lack thereof.

Spiked Peppermint Mocha Bites

2 1/2 (12-Ounce) Packages Peppermint Joe-Joe’s or Mint Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (30 Ounces Total)
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar, Divided
1/4 Teaspoon Instant Coffee Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup (6 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/4 Cup 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Cup Kahlua or Any Other Coffee Liqueur
1/4 Cup Creme de Menthe or Any Other Mint Liqueur

Place the minty sandwich cookies of your choice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the “s” blade, and pulse until very finely ground. Don’t worry about a few larger pieces; the extra texture is a nice addition. Introduce 1 cup of the confectioner’s sugar, instant coffee, and salt next, pulse briefly to incorporate.

In a microwave-safe dish, combine the chocolate and maple syrup, and heat for 60 seconds. Let stand for another minute before stirring thoroughly, until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Add the liquid chocolate into the food processor along with both liqueurs. Pulse again until the mixture is more or less homogeneous, with no particular dry or wet patches.

Scoop out a heaping tablespoon for each bite, roll firmly but gently into a ball between your palms, and toss in the remaining cup of confectioner’s sugar to coat. Repeat until all of the cookie mixture is used up, and work quickly; it becomes increasingly difficult to shape as the chocolate cools. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to a week, or in the fridge for up to a month… If you can manage to ignore them for that long.

Makes 5 – 6 Dozen Bites

Printable Recipe


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Veni, Vidi, Videri

Why do people save the best for last? As one of those people, I’m not sure I can fully explain the compulsion to leave the very best bite for the end of the meal, or my favorite song for the end of a playlist. This very same impulse to delay gratification seems to get me in trouble at times, particularly when the end is not something clearly defined. Such is the case for many product reviews, languishing on my to-do list simply because the item in question was so good, I want to reserve it as a final reward. In realistic terms though, this just means that the post never gets written because an active blog never ends. That’s the only excuse I can come up with for explaining why these stellar chocolates remained without a proper feature for over two years.

Packaged lovingly with handwritten, individual numbers, one could easily mistake these for jewelry boxes rather than containers for edible treats. Crafted in small batches in Raleigh, North Carolina, Videri is one of the few American bean-to-bar operations. Not all of the offerings are vegan, but the dairy-free options will not leave you wanting. Defined by a clean, crisp snap and smooth melting texture, even a small square promises to satisfy the most voracious chocoholic.

Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt is an instant winner. Large flakes of salt are easily visible on the underside of each bar, immediately hitting the tongue with a strong saline hit. This serves to balance out the overall sweetness beautifully, while eliminating any bitter notes typically associated with dark chocolate.

Classic Dark Chocolate with 70% cacao is the everyday sort of treat that goes well with everything. Slightly woodsy with notes of raisin, the complexity packed into this little bar reminded me of tasting a fine wine.

90% Ecuadorian Dark Chocolate is a seasonal special, and one that you’ll definitely want to take advantage of while you still can. Dry, with a pleasantly bitter edge and slightly tannic aftertaste, this bold bar is not for the timid. Crushing sugar cravings without piling on the sweetness, these powerful chocolates became my secret weapon for vanquishing a snack attack.

Gifted with this wealth of cacao goodness, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take them into the kitchen for a bit of sweet experimentation. Especially in the heat of summer, peppermint patties are one of my favorite treats. Best stashed in the freezer for full cooling effect, I love the way the chocolate shell shatters upon impact, revealing a soft, creamy center with minty fresh flavor. The only thing that could be improved is perhaps the ratio of chocolate to peppermint, which is why I decided to flip the classic patty inside-out. Now, a solid chocolate center is graced by a blanket of white peppermint coating, allowing the chocolate to truly shine.

Inside-Out Peppermint Patties

Chocolate Centers:

6 Ounces 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Light Corn Syrup

Mint Coating:

1/2 Cup (4 Ounces) 100% Cocoa Butter
1/2 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1/8 Teaspoon Peppermint Oil

To form the centers, place the chopped chocolate and corns syrup in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for about 60 seconds. Stir vigorously, and continue to heat at intervals of 30 seconds, stirring well each time, until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Transfer the mixture to a silpat or piece of parchment paper, and refrigerate until set; about 1 hour.

Roll the chocolate disk out to about 1/4-inch thick and use 1-inch round cookie cutters to punch out the candy pieces. Should the chocolate dough become too soft or difficult to work with, just toss it back in the fridge for another 15 – 30 minutes before proceeding. Once all of the center are cut, stash them in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before getting to work on the coating.

Place your cocoa butter in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 1 – 3 minutes, so that it completely liquefies. Whisk in the confectioner’s sugar and mint oil, stirring vigorously to make sure that everything is completely dissolved.

Pull out your semi-frozen patties and dip each into the mint coating, one at a time. Place them back on the silpat, allowing the coating to set. This top coat is thinner than the standard pure chocolate shell, so you may wish to double-dip once the first layer has solidified.

Makes 30 – 34 Patties

Printable Recipe


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Well-Traveled Treats

Time was not on my side. Mere days before departing for my two month stint in Hawaii, a generous package from Dear Coco landed on my doorstep, over a half dozen glossy chocolate bars embellished with huge chunks of amber brown toffee. These were no ordinary candies, boasting flavors as wild as curry and wasabi, each one inspired by various cuisines across the globe. Despite my voracious sweet tooth, I couldn’t have possibly eaten them all before jetting off, but there was no way I could leave them behind. Somehow it seemed fitting that such a worldly collection of chocolates should accompany me on this exciting adventure. After ejecting shoes and shampoo from my overstuffed suitcase (you know, the less important things) I miraculously made enough space to squeeze in the whole range of treats. Sure, I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt for a full day or two, but any cosmetic sacrifice was worth it.

Boasting eight unique varieties, there truly is something to suit all tastes in this powerful lineup. A brief overview of the creative flavor options wouldn’t truly do these innovative chocolate creations justice. Sharing a peek at my tasting notes is the only way to properly explain these treats, since complete sentences seem to fail me when faced with such intense chocolate treasures.

Sidama (coffee toffee with Buunni Ethiopian coffee beans and sea salt):

  • Whole coffee beans! Not fooling around here
  • Aroma of freshly brewed coffee erupts from the package as soon as the seal is broken
  • A must for mocha-lovers
  • Dark, smoky chocolate is a match made in heaven with those warm, roasted coffee notes
  • Sweet, crunchy toffee makes the perfect counter point
  • Caramel incorporates a symphony of burnt sugar flavor to round the whole bar out
  • Utterly addictive, not to mention highly caffeinated
  • I feared that the whole beans would be off-putting, but they meld beautifully- Not at all gritty like ground beans can become

Savanah (pie spiced toffee with roasted pecans and sea salt):

  • The toffee is absolutely divine! I would gladly eat that alone, and by the handful
  • Delicately balanced yet warmly spiced, the salt is really bumps the flavor up to a whole new level
  • Toffee really is the star here, with pecans lending their nutty essence and crisp bite
  • The chocolate, while snappy, rich, and deep, is really the backup singer to this melody, emerging with a smooth baritone once the high notes have melted away

Barcelona (roasted almond toffee and sea salt):

  • The most tame, traditional of all offerings
  • Not really sure what makes it so distinctly “Barcelona”
  • Solid rendition of the classic chocolate/toffee combination
  • Toffee really holds its own against the dark chocolate, both share about equal time in the spotlight
  • Nicely snappy, crisp and crunchy throughout
  • Liberal use of salt makes flavors pop
  • Something that everyone would enjoy, very agreeable; no doubt a crowd pleaser

Shanghai (chinese five spice toffee with roasted white sesame seeds and sea salt):

  • Especially thick, crunchy slabs of toffee chunks
  • Lovely licorice-driven spice; gentle yet persistent
  • Sesame seeds really do get lost in the mix
  • Seeds look nice and are conceptually sound, but don’t contribute discernible flavor or texture
  • Very good, just not exceptional like the others

Oaxaca (Mexican cinnamon and smoky hot pepper toffee with roasted pepitas and sea salt):

  • Toffee has taken on a distinctly red hue from the pepper
  • Gentle warmth from the cinnamon lures you in, but the fiery aftertaste of cayenne bites back with a vengeance
  • Definitely has a kick, but isn’t overly aggressive
  • Spice adds flavor without so much heat that it would make me hesitate to break off a second (or third, or fourth) piece
  • May take you by surprise, but there are no alarm bells going off here
  • Pepitas are overshadowed by the bold toffee
  • One for you thrill-seekers and hot sauce-lovers out there

Madras (sweet curry toffee with roasted sunflower seeds and sea salt):

  • Golden-yellow colored toffee chunks
  • Notes of coriander and cumin come through most clearly, but are soft and subdued
  • Not the least bit hot; Spice adds a certain je ne sais quoi, an undefinable complexity
  • Doesn’t ring quite true as the madras curry powder I know and love, but it’s certainly a tasty riff on the flavor.
  • Love the addition of sunflower seeds. An unexpected addition that really pulls the bar together with a nutty, toasted undercurrent

Istanbul (cinnamon toffee with rosewater, roasted walnuts and sea salt):

  • Sings with sweet cinnamon!
  • Brighter pops of clove follow, adding excitement and energy to each bite.
  • Rosewater is an intriguing addition, but is sadly smothered by the stronger spices
  • Occasionally, if you’re really looking for it, you might get the faintest hint of something floral… But that might also be imagined
  • If rosewater hadn’t been listed on the label, I would have never guessed

Tokyo (ginger toffee with crispy rice and sea salt):

  • Definite zing to the toffee
  • Bright, almost floral/citrus-y ginger
  • Very vibrant and fresh
  • Deep dark chocolate balances out the high notes
  • Rice crisps lighten the toffee just a touch, but are barely noticeable
  • All you taste is ginger and crunch, but there could be far worse things of course
  • A fairly straight-forward combination that’s still a nice change of pace
  • Any easy leap for anyone looking for something slightly different

No matter your location or destination, any one of these stellar confections can instantly transport you to a whole new world of flavor. There isn’t a single dud in the whole bunch, but don’t just take my word for it. There’s good reason why all eight are available as a neatly bundled gift pack!


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The Last Last-Minute Gift

Browse around the web for five minutes or more and you’ll undoubtedly run across at least a dozen “last-minute gift guides,” all touting effortless tokens for the people you forgot you should care about. Heartwarming stuff to consider right before Christmas, isn’t it? Since Chanukah has been long over for weeks now, it’s strange to watch it all unfold from the sidelines, without getting swept up in the madness as I usually do each year.

Of course, I do still have one suggestion here at the eleventh hour, but I’ll level with you: This post is more for my benefit, but you might just enjoy the results, too. Why sit on this fabulous candy recipe for another full calendar cycle, holding it back through the austere days of the New Year while everyone suffers a collective sugar hangover? While your sweet tooth is still in gear, set aside a few extra minutes for this simple yet transcendent treat. I had merely wanted to play around with the gold-tinted crystals of Zulka sugar that the company had been kind enough to send my way, but the toffee that came of my kitchen capers was anything but ordinary.

My dad, a man who knows his way around all things candy and an avowed sugar-supporter if I ever did meet one, claimed that this was some of the best toffee he ever had. No small compliment coming from such a knowledgeable source! So, if you find even one inch of space remaining on your cookie plate, in your candy baskets, or simply in your stomach, take that last-minute before the holidays all blow over to make yourself a batch. If one crisp, golden, nutty morsel of toffee is the last sugary taste on your lips for the rest of 2013, it would leave you with a sweet memory of the season indeed.

Golden Macadamia Toffee

1 Cup Toasted, Lightly Chopped Macadamia Nuts
2/3 Cup Vegan White Chocolate Chips
1 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Cup Zulka Sugar
1 Tablespoon Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, lightly grease, and sprinkle the macadamia nuts and white chocolate chips as evenly over the bottom as possible. Set aside.

Combine the margarine, sugar, maple syrup, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and set over moderate heat. Stir just to moisten all of the sugar, and then keep your spatula out of the mixture until the very end. Instead, swirl the pan gently to mix the contents, which will help prevent premature crystal formation.

Allow the margarine to melt and sugar to dissolve before clipping a thermometer to the side of the pan. You’ll want to bring the sugar to a steady boil, until it turns a deep amber brown color and reaches 300 degrees, which is also known as the “hard crack stage” of candy making.

Turn off the heat, carefully stir in the vanilla as it may sputter angrily, and immediately pour the mixture into your prepared pan. Try to pour it evenly over the goodies within, because the more you spread it around with your spatula, the more you’ll smear the melting white chocolate. Don’t worry if it doesn’t reach all the way to the edges of the pan.

Let cool completely before snapping into more manageable pieces. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Printable Recipe


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Scare Up Some Berry Good Sweets

BOO!

Okay, so I’m not the most fearsome creature you’ll meet this Halloween, but I do have a terrible tale that should strike fear in the heart of any sensible human being. I may be sugar-coated, but this story is not. Just imagine: A world that progressively grows colder, harsher, inhospitable to life itself. The ground freezes solid, impenetrable as steel, strangling off all the plant roots and shoots within. Nary a weed can grow, let alone the delicate and highly perishable foodstuffs we’ve come to depend on. Sun shines but thermometers remain unmoved, staunchly refusing to thaw. As a result of the harsh shift in climate, there are no more blueberries; not here, not anywhere.

Positively terrifying, right? Mercifully, that tragedy is only based on real life, more fiction than fact. Though we are swiftly moving past the prime growing season with winter soon to come, there’s no end in sight to the supply of Frozen Wild Blueberries. Whether it’s 100 degrees or -10 degrees outside, they’ll still be waiting for happy homes and hungry mouths, just as plump, ripe, and sweet as ever in the freezer aisle. That consistency and predictably high quality standards make them the ideal addition to any fruit candy formula, demanding precision to turn out.

That’s where my batty family and I come into the picture. Try finding decent fresh berries now and you’d be straight out of luck, yielding nothing but bland blue marbles unsuitable for consumption. Spare yourself the horror and hit the chill chest instead, where Wild Frozen Blueberries remain every bit as flavorful and vital all year round. By introducing such a powerful superfood, touted for its antioxidants and nutrients the world over, you can reason that indulging in a sweet wild blueberry pate de fruit instead of any commercial candy out there is by far a lesser evil.

I don’t mind if you or your little goblins are clamoring to take a bite out of me- I’m completely irresistible, after all! My crunchy sugared exterior gives way to a soft, jam-like center, each bite a balance of bold, fruity sweetness. Mysterious and dark, black cocoa contributes to my fetching hue while adding a rich, smoky, earthy sort of flavor. Blend that with a tiny pinch of cinnamon and a splash of lime for an unexpected, yet completely complementary twist, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t scare up some sweet treats out of Frozen Wild Blueberries sooner.

Boo-Berry Bats

2 1/2 Cups Frozen Wild Blueberries, Thawed
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce
1/4 Cup Black Cocoa Powder
3 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
2 (3-Ounce) Packages Liquid Pectin

About 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar, to Coat

Place both the Wild Blueberries and applesauce in your blender or food processor, and thoroughly puree.  Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl every now and then, until the mixture is completely smooth. Add in the cocoa powder and blend briefly to combine.

Transfer the puree into a medium pot with high sides, along with sugar, lime juice, and cinnamon.  Though it may seem like a lot of sugar, don’t forget that this is candy we’re talking about, and the pectin requires a certain amount of sugar to set properly.  Whatever you do, do not attempt to reduce the amount or swap it for a different sweetener!

Stir well and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. While that comes up to temperature, line a 9 × 9–inch square baking pan and lightly grease it in preparation for the finished candy.

Once boiling, add in the pectin, mix thoroughly to incorporate, and stir while the mixture boils for a full 10 minutes.  Continue scraping the bottom and sides of the pot with your spatula to make sure that nothing is sticking and burning.  Remove from the heat and pour the liquid candy into your prepared pan.  Allow that to come to room temperature before moving the pan into the fridge.  Let chill until set, at least 2–3 hours, before cutting into bat shapes using a small cookie cutter.

Toss the bats in granulated sugar and store in an airtight container. Kept away from moisture and in a cool place, the bats should last for 1 – 2 weeks, if they aren’t devoured before then.

Makes about 35 – 40 (2-Inch Long) Bats

Printable Recipe

This post was written for and is sponsored by Wild Blueberries, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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Hanging with My Peeps

Come March 1st, grocery store shelves are already fully stocked with enough Easter paraphernalia to power non-stop spring fetes lasting a full month, regardless of when Easter Sunday is actually observed. For all the pastel glitter and sugar on offer, they still lack what is arguably the single most important element to a proper holiday celebration: Vegan marshmallow peeps. Peeps may have gotten a life outside of the spring season, but they will forever be inextricably linked with Easter in my mind, and vice versa. Since there was little understanding of what Easter really was in my formative years, all that in my eyes were those colorful, sugar-encrusted chicks and bunnies, staring out of their cardboard sleeves with emotionless dots for eyes.

Sweet & Sara has taken up the task of providing this essential Easter staple, easily surpassing that original standard. This isn’t the first time I’ve shared about these seasonal treats, but I’m happy to say that they’ve only improved over time. Now they too come dusted in a light coat of colored sugar, matching my fond childhood memories, but with real dark chocolate adorning each adorable shape. You won’t find them in stores any time soon, but they’re worth seeking out during this limited window of availability. Spring just wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without them.