BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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All It’s Choc-ed Up To Be

Walk two steps into your average supermarket, corner store, or pharmacy, and you’re liable to trip over a stand of assorted chocolate temptations. The field has grown at an exponential rate ever since the first bite of tempered cacao passed through discerning lips, and that explosive growth shows no sign of slowing down. It’s impossible to keep up with all the new varieties proliferating from old favorites, let alone stay in the loop about fledgling brands. Any reasonable person can at least appreciate a good square of chocolate, so it doesn’t take much to explain the steady upward trend.

Valentine’s Day is a particularly good excuse to single out some exceptional chocolate options, should you need a reason to indulge in the first place. Gourmet truffles represent the height of the art form, but for the more casual chocoholic, a whole world of superlative bars now exist within easy reach, right on shelves alongside more accessible sweets.

Better known for their whole grains, Alter Eco has colored countless meals with their rainbow of quinoa options, but also pours that same passion for quality into their chocolate molds. Carefully, consciously sourced in order to support the farmers and workers contributing to every step of the process, it’s a brand I feel especially proud to call local to the San Francisco bay area. They truly put their money where their mouth is… In between bites of luscious cacao, of course.

Not all their confections are vegan, but the dairy-free options are so dark, rich, and deeply satisfying that it’s hard to understand why they would need such a crutch at all. Look no further than the Quinoa, Mint, and Orange varieties to see for yourself.

Move over Crunch and Crackle! The most unique option of the three, popped quinoa offers all the crispy texture you love, with the sophisticated, slightly bitter chocolate you crave. Just sweet enough to take the edge off, it’s the darkest of these three, which makes even a tiny shard quite satisfying. The quinoa adds very little flavor, but big visual and textural impact. You get all the whimsy of a childhood classic but with serious chocolate taste.

Mint chocolate is perhaps one of the most perfect flavor marriages in my mind, and this rendition does not disappoint. Luscious herbal aroma perfumes the air as soon as the seal is broken, revealing a flawlessly molded bar. Tempered to a crisp snap, it has a smooth, creamy melt with a refreshing, bright, but not overpowering undercurrent of mint. Well-balanced sweetness highlights the fresh flavor while rounding out the chocolate profile.

Substantial, chunky pieces of candied zest immediately gleam across the surface of the orange twist bar. Subtly smoky, woodsy chocolate lends a more earthy essence to contrast with the bold taste of citrus. The orange itself is relatively subdued, but still clean and fresh. Those whole pieces are the best element, adding a bit of chew and excitement into the experience.

Even bad chocolate is generally pretty good, but with so many exceptional options to choose from now, why settle for second rate? It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to indulge in any of these delights.

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Dreaming of a White Chocolate Christmas

Gleaming in the early morning light, bright and luminous as freshly fallen snow, white chocolate is an irreplaceable staple for the holiday baker. Generous pans of fudge, slabs of peppermint bark, and boxes of cookies all shimmer with these sweet morsels, unrivaled in their versatility for ornamentation and flavor enhancement. The trouble, as every careful shopper knows, is that mainstream options contain far more dairy than cacao. White chocolate gets a bad rap for precisely this reason, to say nothing of the waxy hydrogenated oils that often bind the whole sugary messes together. While relatively limited vegan options exist on the market, the tides are slowly changing.

Homemade options are always a treat, and you’ll find boutique bars aplenty online, but what I’m talking about today are genuine chips, capable of holding their own in any dessert rather than functioning simply as a treat to eat out of hand. Right now, there are two types of vegan chocolate chips: Those that are good for melting, dipping, and drizzling, and those that maintain their shape, more resistant to the heat of the oven.

The newest chip off the block is somewhat revolutionary; 100% organic, no hydrogenated oils or questionable fillers in sight. Cocoa butter, rice milk powder, sugar, and vanilla are the only things that go into Pascha Chocolate‘s new rice milk white chocolate chips. For the obsessive label-readers or highly allergic eaters, this stuff is heaven-sent. Flatter than the traditional snowy peaks of conventional chocolate chips, they’re more like crisp white disks, ideal for melting down into creamy cacao creations.

Mildly flavored, they don’t beat you over the head with sweetness, but whisper gently of vanilla with a subtle buttery undertone. This nuanced approach is perfect for crowning more aggressively flavored baked goods, like these gingerbread bars pictured above, cutting their intensity without detracting from the overall experience. Although their more delicate composition means they’re more likely to pool and puddle when faced with a trip through the oven, they’re perfect for turning into white ganache or icing once your treats are fully baked. For your highest quality option with the cleanest label, Pascha Chocolate is your one and only choice.

If you’re craving a smattering of white chocolate freckles throughout your cookies or cakes, however, you still have one great option! While there are a few white chips out there designed for the kosher crowd, most of those taste of little more than wax and sugar, entirely eschewing cocoa butter and thus losing the essence of this simple sweet addition. Not so with the White Chocolate Chips offered by Chocolate Emporium. These are the little morsels of pale cacao goodness that I’ve been buying (and hoarding) in bulk for years.

Although they’re stubbornly resistant to melting down smoothly, that quality serves them perfectly for baked applications. They have a slightly softer chew right out of hand, but somehow manage to hold their own in the face of a 350 degree inferno. Their flavor would be described as subtle at best, but their main function should be to add sweetness, creaminess, and color contrast anyway.

When the chips are down, these two are your very best bets, and both should have a place of honor in your kitchen year round. Vegan white chocolate is still something of a rarity, so these sweet treats will undoubtedly elicit astonishment, wonder, and awe- Not to mention hunger.


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Coconuts Get Cultured

“Plain” is almost never a compliment, nor a desirable description. The word evokes a certain homeliness, blandness, a lack of zeal or zest. Even worse than “basic,” which suggests a comforting familiarity, there’s little to say in defense of plainness.

Applied to yogurt, however, “plain” is the holy grail, the standard by which all cultured non-dairy products are to be held, and so few make the cut. Rare is the company that will even venture to offer such a demanding flavor in the first place. Without added fruits or flavors for embellishment, there’s nowhere to hide a lackluster base, marred with unpleasant sour notes or strange aftertastes. What’s even more elusive is a blank slate without sweeteners, making savory applications all but impossible. Despite the abundance of new vegan options on the market now, you still have to plan on making your own or finding a suitable substitution. If you happen to live in the bay area, however, you now have another option: Yoconut.

Yoconut is a small but rapidly growing startup created by self-described foodie Bonnie Lau. If you voted in the recent Veggie Awards, you may have noticed this brand on the ballot, right alongside industry giants like Silk and So Delicious. That alone should say volumes about the product- Not yet distributed in mainstream markets, but already competing with the big shots. What sets Yoconut apart is its focus on quality, which is immediately apparent from a cursory glance at the label. No weird gums, no preservatives, no sugar at all; just smooth and creamy coconut, plain and simple. The Original is a cook’s dream, able to blend seamlessly with dips and dressings of all stripes, finally giving “plain” a good name.

Granted, what most eaters will want to know about are the flavored varieties, and I’ll have you know that they’re held to those very same high standards. Vanilla simply shimmers with seeds from the whole bean, without any syrup sweetness to diminish from its glory. Chocolate is admittedly still under development, but the latest rendition I sampled was a revelation; nothing like the pudding I had come to expect from such a title, but a legitimate cocoa-tinted cultured snack. Nothing else on the market comes close to this sort of highly sophisticated approach, and I for one hope the final formula doesn’t stray too far from this exquisite initial taste.

Right now your best bet for scoring a few of these precious containers is directly from Bonnie herself, at the Fort Mason Farmers Market held every Sunday from 9:30am to 1:30pm. Keep a close eye on local grocery store shelves though, because I have a feeling it won’t be long before this small business strikes out in a big way.


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Brazilian Bread Blowout

So a vegan walks into a Brazilian steakhouse…

Reality is stranger than fiction, and while that may sound like the opening line of a terrible joke, that is exactly what happened on a recent afternoon exploit in the city. Why, in a veritable vegan wonderland, would I willingly chose a venue best known for slinging skewered meats like a relentless barrage, bearing glistening swords of the stuff right at your table, no less? Three simple words, my friends: Free salad bar. There is such a thing as a free lunch, at least when it’s your birthday and you’re gifted with a voucher that would cover the cost of the lavish “market table,” a bottomless buffet piled high with a wealth of naturally plant-based options. Luxurious platters of naked hearts of palm, fat spears of asparagus, whole cloves of caramelized garlic, roasted red beets, and yes, even verdant kale salad all beckon atop a platform of glistening crushed ice. It’s a veggie-lovers heaven; a miraculous vegan oasis amid a desert of meat. Thus, for the grand total of $0 (plus a generous and well-deserved tip,) I shamelessly piled my plate high, going back for round after round until I swore I would need to be rolled all the way back home.

To their credit, the servers all took my curious requests in stride, even when I turned down the buttery mashed potatoes, crispy, cheese-encrusted polenta fries, and complimentary birthday dessert. “But it’s included as part of the experience!” they cried, falteringly but graciously returning the untouched bounty to the kitchen whence it came. Only when one carefully folded napkin briefly fell away to reveal a bundle of mysterious little rolls, more like puff pastry than bread, did I feel the smallest pang of regret. Pão de queijo, an entirely unique baked good never before seen through my travels or tastings, suddenly dominated my imagination. Made of either yucca or tapioca flour, the texture is dense and chewy, much like baked mochi with a savory slant. Of course, the little gut bombs positively shimmer with the rich dairy components that make up the bulk of each bite.

That is, of course, until you take matters into your own hands. By no means traditional or remotely “authentic,” my take on the celebrated Brazilian cheese bread is a quick and dirty version that requires none of the typical kneading, rising, or general fussing associated with making bread. If you’ve got a blender and 30 minutes to spare, you’re in business.

Break through that crisp, golden exterior and plunge yourself head-first into an intensely buttery morsel of bread, the likes of which no average dinner roll can compare. Part of its appeal is its simplicity; the flavor is simple and savory, bold but agreeable, easily paired with any other main or side dish on the table. Though unremarkable at first glance, these treats are big winners once you get to know them.

They may not come with the full steakhouse experience, but once you can pop one of these warm, cheesy morsels into your mouth any time a craving strikes, well… You really aren’t missing anything at all.

Brazilian Cheese Bread (Pão de Queijo)

1/4 Cup Aquafaba (Chickpea Brine)
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted
2/3 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Teaspoon White Vinegar
1 1/2 Cups Tapioca Flour
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
2 Teaspoons Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoons Baking Powder
6 Ounces Vegan Mozzarella-Style Cheese
1 Teaspoon Salt

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease two mini muffin pans.

Simply place all of the ingredients into a blender and pulse until smooth. You don’t need to worry about over-mixing the dough, since there’s no gluten to work up here. Pause as needed to scrape down the sides of the blender to ensure that everything is thoroughly incorporated.

Once completely smooth, pour the batter into your prepared mini muffin pans so that they’re filled 3/4 of the way to the top. Bake for 16-20 minutes, until puffy and evenly browned all over. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack for a few minutes. Don’t be alarmed if some of them fall in the center as they cool.

Serve right away and eat while still warm.

Makes 2 – 2 1/2 Dozen Rolls

Printable Recipe


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Leave the Dairy, Take the Cannoli

After fourteen years of veganism and a lifetime of lactose intolerance, cow’s milk doesn’t pose even the slightest temptation, no matter the myriad forms it may take. That commitment is effortless not simply due to habitual avoidance, however, but because the alternatives are now more readily available and more delicious than ever. So Delicious, in fact.

Dumping dairy isn’t a challenge when you already have luscious frozen desserts and rich, creamy beverages on your side, so the call to take part in the So Delicious Dairy Free 21 Day Dairy-Free Challenge sounds like a real non-dairy cakewalk to me. Whether you’ve been committed to a lactose-free life for years or have merely dabbled with the concept, consider joining the Facebook group for a chance to win some fabulous prizes! Leading up to and throughout the event, from January 21st through February 10th, there will be giveaways for gift cards, food kits, and even a trip for two to Boulder, Colorado.

Like the smoking gun of The Godfather, all forms of dairy can easily become part of a regrettable past, replaced by the immediate gratification of the sweet, simple cannoli. The overwhelming urge to take comfort in familiar flavors, childhood treats, or downright decadent indulgences can drive the average person to commit unspeakable culinary sins, despite the best intentions, but one needn’t return to a life of crime for satisfaction. Cannoli were always the greatest treat if in the nearby vicinity of an Italian bakery, since no one in my household would have dared fire up a vat of hot oil to fry and fabricate the shells from scratch. Without that edible container, there was no pastry altogether- Or so I thought.

Believe it or not, after tireless taste tests, standard waffle ice cream cones have proven themselves as highly satisfying substitutes, every bit as crisp and crunchy, and far less greasy, to boot. In place of the typically heavy mascarpone filling, a combination of Greek-style coconut yogurt and airy CocoWhip commingle to create an effortless mousse. Light as a cloud while still possessing that same characteristic tang of traditional cultured dairy, this barely sweetened filling comes together in a matter of minutes. That’s fast enough to strike down any craving in its tracks.

Let’s be honest: This is the least challenging “challenge” on the internet, and if you’ve ever spent time trolling YouTube videos, you’ll know that’s really saying something. Whether you join in on the fun or not, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to try these fun faux-cannoli. You’ve got nothing to lose, except any residual attachment to dairy products!

Cannoli Cones

“Mascarpone” Mousse Filling:

1 6-Ounce Container Plain Greek Cultured Coconut Milk
2 Tablespoons Confectioner’s Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon White Miso Paste
1/2 Teaspoon Nutritional Yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Bean Paste or Extract
4.5 Ounces (Half a Container) CocoWhip Original

Assembly:

8 – 10 Ice Cream Cones
3 Ounces Dark Chocolate, Finely Chopped
1/3 Cup Toasted Pistachios, Roughly Chopped (Optional)

To make the mousse filling, mix together the yogurt, sugar, miso, nutritional yeast, and vanilla in a large bowl. Stir until fully combined and completely smooth. Add in a few dollops of the Coco whip at a time, using a wide spatula to gently fold it into the mixture. Be careful not to beat all the structure out of it to keep the filling light and airy. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve, and for up to a week.

To finish the cannoli assembly, place the chocolate in a microwave safe contain and heat for 30 – 60 seconds, stirring thoroughly until the chocolate has completely melted. Dip the tops of the waffle cones into the liquid chocolate, allowing the excess to drip off, and carefully stand them in tall, narrow glasses to dry upright.

To serve, simply pipe, spoon, or scoop the chilled mousse into your cones and top each with a sprinkle of toasted pistachios. Enjoy!

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by So Delicious, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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More Mac and Cheese, Please

Like countless other American children, I had an unshakable affinity for mac and cheese even before I could properly pronounce the words to request it. Elbows, twists, ambiguous character shapes that would better be described as pasta amoeba; they were all greeted with enthusiasm, as long as they came from that magical blue box. I had never even heard of such a thing as baked macaroni and cheese until I hit high school, and by then it was much too late to swap allegiances. Soft noodles slowly drowning in a pool of neon yellow cheese sauce were the only thing for me, and no bread crumbs, vegetables, or fancy seasonings need apply.

Happily, my palate has considerably improved since my formative years, allowing me to discover the joys of homemade mac, spruced up with a brave new world of different flavors. That said, the love of that ubiquitous blue box will always be embedded deep within my psyche, drawing comparisons to each new mac and cheese contender, for better or worse. Now that there are genuinely cheesy vegan options appearing in every aisle of the supermarket, there’s a new blue box on the market, seeking to dethrone the old mac monarch.

Earth Balance first made waves when it unleashed vegan cheddar and white cheddar mac and cheese options about a year ago. Casting aside all preconceived notions of how a classic mac should be constructed, they’ve fearlessly unleashed a revised box that is not only dairy-free, but also gluten-free. Even I have to say that this is a pretty risky move, considering past hits and misses for non-allergenic noodles alone.

The cooking procedure is identical to every past mac I’ve known and loved; boil the pasta until tender, drain, mix with “cheese” powder, “milk”, and “butter”, and shovel into your mouth as fast as you can. Okay, that last part isn’t specifically written into the instructions, but just like any other cheesy macaroni mixture, this one doesn’t sit around well, and reheats rather miserably.

However, when hot and fresh, the rich, subtly starchy sauce has an undeniably cheesy, savory flavor. The initial flavor is somewhat delicate, but builds with subsequent bites. Though the dense, toothsome noodles are impressive for gluten-free pasta, they still clearly lack the distinctive springy texture granted by traditional wheat flour. As a certified gluten-lover, I probably wouldn’t pick these over the original, but they’re easily one of the better options for those already accustomed to celiac options.

As my omnivorous sister could attest, they certainly wouldn’t fool someone who’s more familiar with the old fashioned blue box, but even she admitted that they were “not bad.” High praise from someone who balks at the sight of anything remotely green on her dinner plate. Overall, Earth Balance has created an impressive offering for an instant, out-of-the-box dinner that can accommodate eaters of all stripes.


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Cashew is King

Dense, silky smooth, capable of melting so slowly and seductively across the palate that it seems to linger far beyond the average taste; cashew ice cream has certainly come a long way. Once a mere glimmer in the eye of the mad kitchen scientist who dared venture outside the standard arsenal of readily available dairy alternatives, cashew ice cream has finally hit the mainstream, and in a big way thanks to So Delicious. Textural superiority provides the unshakable foundation for all of these nutty frozen desserts, unburdened by excessive gums or stabilizers like so many commercial options. This attention to ingredient detail allows the most basic of flavors, the vanilla-infused Creamy Cashew, to shine without any adulteration. Similarly, the unfussy Cappuccino boasts a perfectly balanced coffee flavor, deepened by a subtle hint of cinnamon in the afterglow of each frosty bite. What truly sets this line of nut-based pints apart from the pack in the freezer aisle, however, are their bolder, unabashedly indulgent flavor combinations.

Turtle Trails from the original Purely Decadent label has been my top pick for countless years, but now that I’ve tasted the sweet extravagance of Salted Caramel Cluster, I may just have a new favorite treat. So packed full of chunks that it’s difficult to scoop, this pint of cashew goodness is not messing around. Whole, full-sized, plump cashews smothered in crisp shells of dark chocolate litter the landscape, flanked by rivulets of flowing caramel sauce. Notes of browned, burnt sugar define the custard base, spiked with just the right amount of salt to propel the flavor into crave-worthy territory.

Dark Chocolate Truffle succeeds in delivering an equally intense dessert experience as well, clearly formulated with the unreformed, unapologetic chocoholic in mind. Strong chocolate ice cream with devilishly bitter edges cradles thin shards of shaved chocolate that shatter effortlessly between the teeth. Truly an “adult” chocolate ice cream, it would be a disservice to compare it to the average cocoa concoction. The plentiful truffles are even better than those found in the average box of chocolate, especially since you’ll always know exactly what you’re going to get; every scoop is delicious, just as promised.

If simple sugar cookies and cinnamon spice hold more allure when a sugar craving hits, then the Snickerdoodle would be just your speed. Reminiscent of a thick, icy glass of horchata, this comforting blend has the upper hand on the original beverage thanks to the abundant smattering of gluten-free cookie dough pieces found throughout. Each bite maintains a soft, supple chew, no matter how deeply the pint has been wedged into the back of the icebox. I couldn’t help but further the cookie theme by serving up a few scoops as ice cream sandwiches, but the beauty of this variety is each spoonful provides the full compliment of these childhood treats, without the hand-held mess.

Even in the increasingly crowded category of vegan ice creams, So Delicious manages to continue innovating, reinventing itself, and staying ahead of trends while still remaining genuinely delicious. These cashew ice creams deserve a place in your freezer- But I can promise that they won’t stay there very long.