Think Outside the Chocolate Box

Romance comes in many flavors, but chocolate is the dominant taste on lovers’ lips come February 14th. Truffles, molded and dipped, lavished with nuts, caramel, spices, and salt, line up in neat lines across interminable rows of red boxes, nestled into fluted paper cups serving more as garnishes than practical storage solutions. Chocolate, the ubiquitous sweet aphrodisiac, is easily the top treat for this loving affair, beating both flowers and jewelry offerings by a mile. Predictable yet indisputably in demand, it’s hard to argue with another chocolate-covered Valentine’s Day.

That doesn’t mean you need to stick with conventional confections to win over a fickle mistress. Consider a deeper dive into the cacao pool with a Homemade Tunnel of Fudge Bundt Cake. Originally devised as an amalgamation of questionable packaged baking mixes, a true tunnel of fudge cake is easier to assemble than your average Bundt. With a river of gooey, rich chocolate running through the core, it’s essentially a supersized lava cake if eaten warm. Dense, rich, and intense, at the core resides the famed heart of fudge, thick as cookie dough without the harsh sugar rush synonymous with unbaked batter. Nuts traditionally make up the bulk of this blend, but to make it allergen-free, they’re replaced with decadent chocolate morsels instead, much to the delight of devoted chocoholics and picky eaters, as well.

Just in time for this sweet heart’s holiday, you can find my recipe over on Go Dairy Free.

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Lucky Number Thirteen

Dearest BitterSweet,

Mazel tov! Today, you have crossed the invisible line separating childhood from the rest of your life, straight into ranks of adulthood. It’s unthinkable that your journey began thirteen years ago, back in the early days of blogging and before Blogging, capital B, became a legitimate occupation. Granted, you still have a long way to go before you reach that lofty pinnacle of professional success, but pure and simple survival is a triumph to be celebrated in this competitive, ever-changing field. You have beaten the odds to officially become a teenager.

I still struggle to define you at times, to explain your occasionally baffling tantrums and errors, but what child doesn’t have their rebellious moments? Even when we fight, no matter how ugly the language gets, it’s never enough to pull us apart. Thirteen years in, I couldn’t imagine my life without you.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into when I hit that fateful “publish” button on day one. The lessons came in fast, tough to swallow, painful at times, but always for the best. Let’s review in brief…

  • If you don’t love what you do, it won’t work out. Like any relationship, it can’t be about money, fame, or any other traditional marker of success. At the end of the day it’s always about passion and inspiration.
  • These things can’t be forced. You, little BitterSweet, only began to grow and thrive when given the freedom to do so. True followers can’t be bought and genuine comments seeking further conversation, not just self-promotion, can’t be be forced.
  • Perfection is the enemy of progress. It would be impossible to move forward if we focused on all the little shortcomings of every post, every photo shoot, every social sharing; the endless tally of flaws would be downright laughable.
  • Community is everything. It takes a village to raise a blog, or support one long enough for it to survive infancy. There’s not a chance that BitterSweet would still exist without the kindness and encouragement of a thousand voices chiming in from all corners of the earth. It still boggles to mind to consider how this tiny corner of the internet has brought together such an incredibly vast, diverse array of friends, whom I would have had no chance of finding otherwise.
  • Most importantly, if there’s anything I’ve learned after all this time, there’s only one real way to mark the occasion: Cake.

A grand cake, pitch-perfect with bittersweet layers of chocolate ganache sandwiched between tender yet bold espresso cake layers and dressed in a robe of the finest white chocolate frosting you ever did see.

Strong espresso, the kind that makes your eyes open wide and sends you flying high on a rush of energy, has become a recent obsession. Though I typically limit myself to one shot per day, for fear of never sleeping again should I exceed that modest dose, this treat really packs a serious punch of caffeine in each slice. Rest assured, however, that the belated bedtime will be worth every last bite. Tempered by the light, luscious buttercream, flecked with vanilla beans and redolent of cocoa butter, chocolate ganache could tread dangerously into the realm of excess, but it’s just the right amount of sweet indulgence here. The trio sings like a well-practiced choir, supporting without smothering one another… Much like a succession of outstanding blog posts, I suppose.

So today, BitterSweet, you turn thirteen years old. Happy birthday, my dear. You’ve come a long way, but we have so much further still to go.

Yield: 12 - 16 Servings

Bittersweet Espresso Layer Cake with White Chocolate Frosting

Bittersweet Espresso Layer Cake with White Chocolate Frosting

A dessert worthy of a celebration all on its own, the contrast of light and dark flavors is positively irresistible. Bold espresso layer cake with bittersweet chocolate ganache filling, covered in light, fluffy white chocolate buttercream frosting.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Additional Time 3 hours
Total Time 4 hours

Ingredients

Espresso Cake

  • 3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 3 Tablespoons Arrowroot
  • 3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 Cup Olive Oil
  • 1 1/2 Cups (About 12 - 14 Shots) Brewed Espresso, Cooled
  • 1/4 Cup Kahlua or Coffee Liqueur
  • 1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

BitterSweet Chocolate Ganache

  • 2/3 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
  • 2 Cups (12 Ounces) Bittersweet Chocolate Chips

White Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 8-inch round baking pans.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, arrowroot, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Separately, combine the oil, cooled espresso, kahlua or liqueur, vinegar, and vanilla, blending well before adding the liquid ingredients into the bowl of dry.
  4. Stir with a wide spatula to bring the two mixtures together. It's perfectly fine to leave a few lumps remaining in the batter, rather than running the risk of over-mixing.
  5. Divide the batter equally between your two prepared pans, smoothing the tops as needed.
  6. Bake for 20 - 24 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean. Cool completely before assembling.
  7. Meanwhile, prepare the ganache by heating the coconut milk and chocolate together either on a double-boiler or in the microwave. Stir frequently until perfectly smooth. If using the microwave, heat in 30-second intervals at full power. Chill, stirring periodically, until thickened but spreadable; about 3 hours in the fridge or 1 hour in the freezer.
  8. For the frosting, heat the white chocolate over a double-boiler or in the microwave but be vigilant! White chocolate is very easy to burn, so stir constantly, until smooth. If using the microwave, heat in 20-second intervals at full power. Cool to room temperature.
  9. Cream together the butter and sugar in your stand mixer using the whisk attachment. Once smooth, add in the cooled but still liquid white chocolate along with the vanilla. Beat on high speed, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula, until smooth and fluffy.
  10. To assemble the cake, slice both layers into two equal halves, creating four thin layers. Place your first round of cake on your desired serving plate and top with a third of the ganache. Carefully spread it to cover the top evenly. Top with another round of cake and repeat, until you end with the final round of plain cake.
  11. Smoother with frosting and decorate as desired. Be aware that if the cake is cold, the frosting will begin to set immediately. You can slightly melt and coerce it to a smoother finish by heating a metal offset spatula, but bear in mind that this will darken it to a more yellow finish, rather than bright white.

Notes

Cake layers can be baked in advance and stored separately in the freezer until ready to assemble. Thaw completely and bring to room temperature before beginning the process. Ganache and frosting must be made just prior to using.

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.

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.

Baking a Difference

You wouldn’t know it at a glance or from the taste, but there’s a lot more than meets the tongue baked into every immaculate mahogany and tawny brown square from Greyston Bakery. If you can temper your appetite long enough to examine the label, you’ll know there’s something different about these treats beyond the essential formula. Raising up people within the community is just as important as raising dough, literally and figuratively, which their Open Hiring Model especially admiral. It should come as no surprise that this progressive company would partner with fellow corporate radicals, Ben & Jerry’s, to supply the infamous brownies in their game-changing vegan pints. My first taste of those darkly decadent, fudgy chunks came smothered in rapidly melting chocolate ice cream, but it wasn’t long before they compelled me to seek out a whole, bare bite.

Genuinely baked bars of soft dark chocolate, they’re the platonic ideal of any brownie, making the case for vegan desserts on a grand new scale. Very sweet, undeniably indulgent, super chewy, and complete with gently crackled top, I dare you to find a single flaw along those edible fault lines.

Now, after 36 years, achieving such lofty goals with unprecedented success has encouraged these bold bakers to expand their offerings with that same spirit of inclusivity in mind. For their second act in vegan baking activism, at long last, a blondie has been born.

The Vegan Cinnamon Roll Blondie is so soft and tender, each sweet morsel practically melts in your mouth. Sprinkled with cinnamon sugar for a light crunch and extra pop, they could be alternately called “snickerdoodle bars” to suit the simplistic approach. No nuts, no fruits, no nonsense, they’re sure to please the pickiest of eaters. Every bit as dense and satisfying as their cocoa counterparts, it’s a victory for all of us to celebrate, right down to the factory line, alongside the workers themselves.

Though it’s hard to beat a fresh blondie straight out of the box, they really come alive when served slightly warm… And, it should come as no surprise, with a scoop of ice cream on top.

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

Printable Recipe