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.
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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

Smart Cookies

Baking burn-out is a real danger, especially as the annual holiday demand for festive cakes, sweet presents, and spirited pastries ramps up to a fever pitch. Smart scheduling is the key to success, and maintaining, sanity, but sometimes it’s downright impossible to account for last-minute additions to the baking agenda. By the time it’s all said and done, I’ll be predictably exhausted, and without a morsel of sweetness left for myself.

That’s why it was truly a gift to receive a bundle of NoMoo Cookies in the mail. These are not your standard mail order biscuits, formulated to withstand harsh shipping conditions and remain equally impervious to gnashing teeth. Every last variety is as soft and chewy as if it had just come out of the oven hours ago, only long enough to cool.

Formulated primarily as a dairy-free option for allergy sufferers, NoMoo has recently launched an entirely vegan line of treats to accommodate a wider range of cookie lovers. Short but truly sweet, there’s not a single dud on this tempting menu.

Despite my penchant for unusual flavors and wild combinations, I must admit that my very favorite morsels brought me right back to the simpler days of my childhood preferences: Chocolate and vanilla. Glittering flecks of crushed vanilla bean pods and seeds rest right on the surface of the Vanilla Bean Dream, genuinely celebrating the aromatic bean instead of relegating it to the bottom of the ingredient list. A deeply fragrant, floral vanilla cookie with buttery undertones, the quality of each note places it firmly in the realm of high-end bakery goods, far superior to the average sugar cookie. Similarly, the Loco for Coco boasts an impossibly deep, dark chocolate flavor, like a thick, fudgy brownie wrapped up in cookie form. Visible shards of flaky salt dance across the surface, enhancing without overwhelming the flavors within. Pardon the hyperbole, but I believe this may be one of the best cookies I’ve eaten all year. I truly wish I could steal this recipe.

The remaining palate of dessert delights won’t disappoint either. Chocolate Chills adds a hint of mint to the original chocolate format, rendering a bright, cool, and refreshing peppermint essence throughout. Sugah Cinnayum offers a gourmet update to the classic snickerdoodle, coated in crunchy coarse sugar and earthy, subtly smoky cinnamon spice. Raspberry Bliss is a colorful curiosity; adorned with a red dot matrix of freeze-dried raspberry dust, the dough itself appears a bit blue, thanks to the mingling of acidic berries and baking soda in the oven. Though lacking the tart bite of fresh raspberries, it’s certainly no slouch when it comes to fresh flavor, which is a truly impressive feat for any average cookie dough. Finally, the Classic Chipper and Oatmeal Choco-Chip stay close to their roots, providing nostalgic comforts for cookie purists near and far.

Based out of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, NoMoo Cookies can be delivered to a majority of the country in one to two business days, which means that it’s not too late to order up a batch as holiday gifts. Whether those presents are for friends and family, or just for you, they’re a guaranteed hit across even the pickiest panel of tasters.

Uncommon Excellence

‘Tis the season of giving, although in this modern age it may be more accurate to say that it’s the season of shopping. Judging by the influx of gift guides already lining the pages of blogs both big and small, I’d have to assume that everyone already has more ideas for their holiday handouts than they know what to do with. If you’re anything like me though, these lists serve not to inspire better offerings to share with loved ones, but to capture my own desires. No matter if I’m looking at suggestions geared towards photographers or lumberjacks, I promise you I’ll find at least one purchase to add to my personal wish list, coming up empty handed yet again for my family and friends. Am I just easy to please, or has it become more difficult to shop for others, with all of their particular preferences? Nothing ever seems like just the right kind of gift, balancing gracefully between the grey areas of useless junk and utilitarian items for work. How can I inject a bit of whimsy into the everyday, and where on earth can I find such a rarity?

The internet holds the key to solving this conundrum, of course. Online shopping has become an increasingly popular pursuit, if not a genuine sport at this point. Questions of quality still remain, and sketchy merchants can ruin the most thoughtfully planned out gifting procedure, so the real question isn’t “what should I buy” for the holidays, but “where should I buy from?” Well, allow me to introduce one of the most fun stores on the web: Uncommon Goods. Perhaps you’ve heard of it before, and rightly so. They’ve been in the biz for over 15 years and feature some of the most unique, charming offerings I’ve seen all in one place. They truly live up to their title, working with small artists to furnish their catalog with handmade, one-of-a-kind items along with fun gadgets and toys that you may not have seen before. They too have many gift suggestions built in for the well-meaning but clueless shopper, although of course I was immediately drawn to the dishware section instead.

Given a generous stipend to test out their services and report back on the results, I certainly did take away an incredible haul. Shipping out with speeds that rival the gold standard set by Amazon, I’d wager to say that their packing is even more secure. Despite the weight and fragility of my items, not a single piece was dinged, scratched, or anything less than ideal. So, what presents did I give myself for the holidays this year? Primarily, lots of rocks.

Stone slabs in the form of cheeseboards, to be more precise. The granite cheese board with spreader was my real trophy gift, a luxurious hunk of glossy granite complete with a charming wooden knife. The dark coloring was in sharp contrast to the photo featured online, but that variability only added to the appeal. Even if you’re ordering for yourself, you may be in for a happy surprise!

Another excellent pick for the host or hostess with everything would be the slate cheese board with soapstone chalk (chalk not pictured.) That rich burgundy stone is absolutely stunning, and such an unusual shade to find in the typically drab category of grey slate serving pieces. This is one versatile plate that will no doubt make many more appearances in my photos for years to come. Best of all, it provides a spacious 10×16-inches for all of your appetizer needs, making it a genuinely excellent value, especially compared to what you might find in comparable houseware boutiques.

Moving deeper into the pages of dishes and utensils, the udon noodle bowls captivated me at first sight. Beautifully crafted and a true pleasure to use, this is one of the rare pieces that enjoys a place both in my prop closet and on the dinner table. It’s a perfect example of form and function working together, creating a vessel that holds an ideal amount of noodle-y goodness with an ergonomic handle and built-in chopstick rest. My only regret is not purchasing one in every color.

Finally, as a fun little toy to play around with in the kitchen, my final choice is one that my loved ones will actually benefit from as well. Churning out dozens of holiday cookies for annual swaps and parties alike, mine are guaranteed to stand out from the pack this year thanks to my brand new customizable cookie stamp. Infinitely adaptable to all holidays an occasions, the edible messages that it creates are sure to impress- Yes, pun intended. My fool-proof gingerbread cut-out cookies have never looked better, and there’s certainly no mistaking who made these sweets, even amongst a mountain of homemade holiday desserts.

Rather than give you more lists to look up or my own favorite holiday selections, I just want to give you this entire website for inspiration. Better yet, I want to give you a bit of holiday cheer in the form of a $50 gift certificate to spend however you please in this wonderland of shopping. To enter, hop on over to Uncommon Goods and browse about. Tell me what you would order, and who you’re ordering for (I’ll admit, I’m just nosy and want to know!) Make sure you include your name and email in the appropriate boxes and log your response before midnight EST on December 15th. Sorry to my international friends, but you must be a resident of the US to enter.

Treat yourself, spoil your friends, indulge however you want just as long as you enjoy!

UPDATE: The entry period has ended and the good old random number generator has smiled upon one lucky reader. That person happens to be the owner of comment #24…

Panya! You’ve won the giveaway and will be hearing from the folks at Uncommon Goods shortly. For everyone else, don’t despair; the next opportunity to take home a fun or tasty prize package is never too far away, so stay tuned.

This post and giveaway was made possible by the kind folks at Uncommon Goods. All opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.

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

Sweets for the Sweet

Some people on my holiday gift list are simply so sweet that they don’t need any added sugar. At least, that’s how I’ve come to interpret their need for lower glycemic and more health-supportive eats. Rather than going straight to savories, there’s still plenty of delicious middle ground to cover. Besides, chocolate is already well known to be health food, right?

Stevia is what turns these truffles into genuine candies, but it can take some play to get just the right level of sweetness. Tolerance varies by personal taste and brand, so be sure to sample and adjust your chocolate mixture (multiple times, if needed) before letting them set up.

Sugar-Free Citrus and Spice Truffles

1/4 Cup Refined Coconut Oil*
2/3 Cup Cocoa Powder**
1/2 Teaspoon Orange Zest
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
Pinch Ground Cloves
Pinch Salt
1/4 – 1/2 Teaspoon Stevia Powder or 4 – 8 Drops Stevia Extract, to Taste
1 Teaspoon Hot Water

*I prefer to use refined coconut oil in this sort of application, because I don’t want these treats to have a particularly coconut-y flavor. If you don’t mind that added element, then by all means, go ahead and use virgin/unrefined coconut oil instead. It will work exactly the same way.

**Quality counts here! This is the time to break out the good cocoa, since the entire chocolate taste depends on it.

The procedure for completing this recipe is so simple, it barely needs written instructions. Start by melting your coconut oil down to liquid form. Meanwhile, whisk together all of the dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Add in the coconut oil and stir the mixture until it’s a smooth, thick paste. Mix in the water so that it’s a looser, more pourable consistency. Carefully pour the liquid chocolate into a silicone candy mold. Place it in the fridge to set up; about 30 minutes. Pop the chocolates out and store either at room temperature (as long as the room is below 75 degrees) or back in the refrigerator.

Makes About 1 Dozen Truffles

Printable Recipe