From the Bottom of My Heart…

With love, from Hannah and Luka

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Barking Up the Right Tree

Regardless of holiday party plans, as host or attendee, no matter how long or short (or nonexistent) gift and wishlist’s may be, I have two words for you: Peppermint Bark.

All it takes is chocolate and crushed candy canes, yet it can elicit the same level of enthusiasm as a laborious multi-tier Christmas cake. You’d think the stuff was sprinkled with pure gold judging by the way some people clamor to snap up piece after piece, as if they had struck it rich at the dessert buffet.

Something about the combination of creamy chocolate slabs, festooned with crunchy red and white striped mint confections seems to strike a chord with everyone, young, old, jolly, and curmudgeonly alike. It’s all about the ratio and quality of ingredients that always hits the sweet spot.

For all the breathless praise this classic confection receives, the real beauty is in its simplicity. Even the fanciest renditions, decked out in layers of dark and white chocolate, can be made by the pound in a matter of minutes, for pennies on the dollar. If you’ve forgotten someone in need of a sweet holiday greeting, or need a last-minute contribution for a party, peppermint bark has your back.

This year, my bark is even better than a quick little bite. Blending cocoa butter with brilliant, full-bodied vanilla, freshly ground candy cane, and rich cocoa, I’m starting from scratch, building my bar from the ground up. Maybe I took it a bit too literally at that, but I couldn’t resist the double entendre of making it look like bark of the earthier sort while I was at it.

Of course, it’s still the very same straightforward concept at heart. Any shape will do, be it a bar or snowflake or edible spoon. The only way to mess this one up is to not make it at all.

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Easy Brie-zy Entertaining

What’s that I hear, off in the distance? Could it be the sound of winter boots storming down the driveway? The staccato knock of knuckles against the front door? The unmistakable chime of the doorbell, ringing out as clear as day: YOUR GUESTS HAVE ARRIVED!?

Ah yes, it sounds like the holidays are here again! Trickling in slowly, gathering in greater numbers with every passing minute, the kitchen swells with sounds of merriment, laughter and banter ricocheting off the walls. Cue the music, crank the oven, and break out the appetizers; it’s time to dazzle with more than sparkling tinsel lining the hallways.

Play your cards right, and one spectacular starter will set the whole party in motion. The pros know that it’s only possible by keeping it simple, prepping ahead, and using the best ingredients. That’s why I’m dropping this show-stopping wheel of homemade vegan brie, supple and soft, crowned with the bold combination of tart raspberries and balsamic vinegar. If that doesn’t kick off the festivities with applause, at least, perhaps you’ve invited the wrong audience.

Buttery, creamy, melting at room temperature, this brie isn’t a dead-ringer for its dairy counterpoint, but it doesn’t need to imitate exactly when it can exceed that experience. Reaching into my pantry for an easy accompaniment, bottles of Alessi White Balsamic Raspberry Blush Vinegar and Alessi Raspberry Infused White Balsamic Reduction inspired this unconventional, yet compelling combination. Melding that tangy, fresh flavor with sweet whole berries in a lightly simmered compote created a heady aroma that no one could resist.

I can count on Alessi ingredients to raise the bar on everyday staples, no matter the recipe or occasion. Family owned and operated for 72 years, these essentials have stood the test of time. They’ve been stocking grocery store shelves across the country for as long as I can remember, that’s for sure. Going straight to the source reaps the greatest rewards, though, since orders over $20 ship free and no where else can you find such a wide section of authentic Italian specialties. As if that wasn’t enough, if you shop directly through Alessi.com and enter the code HANNAHK at checkout, you’ll get 15% off your order! This code is good for 1 use per customer, until December 31.

Both the cheese and chutney can be made up to a full week in advance, so there’s no need to stress on the big day. Just take off the chill as conversations warm and spirits flow. The savory wedges will melt in your mouth, and any extraneous worries will melt away. Now that’s what makes a happy holiday.

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Looking Sharp

Why should bunnies have all the fun when Easter rolls around? They’re not the only lovable little herbivores to spring out of a sleepy winter funk. Right alongside Flopsy and Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter, porcupines emerge to share all the fresh green shoots, fruits, and leaves now ripe for the foraging. Sure, they’re not as outwardly cuddly with those intimidating quills raised, but trust me, it’s all just a facade. Unless provoked or threatened, porcupines are about as vicious as newborn kittens.

Consider setting a place at the table for a more diverse cast of characters at your Easter feast. Engaged in the right conversation, their wits are likely sharper than their quills.

Rather than rolling out predictable bunny buns, take just a few extra swift snips to bring these steamed porcupettes to life.

Don’t be daunted by homemade bao, which are simply stuffed balls of bread dough. Fillings can be sweet or savory, from red adzuki beans to meaty seitan, depending on whether you’re in the mood for dessert or dinner. Start with a basic formula for bao dough and watch these charming creatures come to life in your hands.

After sealing the goodies within rounded parcels of dough, gently pinch one end of the ball to make it more oblong for the nose. Make many little triangular snips with very sharp kitchen shears just on top of the dough, without cutting all the way through to the filling, to form the quills. Mix together a tiny bit of aquafaba and cocoa powder and apply tiny drops with toothpicks to make the eyes.

That’s all there is to it! Just steam until fluffy, or bake if you prefer more golden brown goodness. Either way, your new Easter mascot will happily rise to the occasion.

Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Do you know what’s in your pumpkin puree? No, do you REALLY know what’s mashed into that aluminum tomb, wrapped up like an autumnal present with labels that promise “all natural” and “100% pure!” contents? This isn’t not a trick question like asking who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, but a real head-scratcher that might surprise you. That golden orange goo has little to do with actual pumpkins, which are much more stringy, watery, and bland than what we’ve been raised to enjoy. Rather, a blend of hardy squash, such as butternut, Hubbard, Boston marrow, and golden delicious are the unsung gourds that have bakers swooning. Like orange juice, natural variations between harvests turn the job of maintaining consistent flavors a perpetual challenge between batches. It takes more than one source to hit just the right standards for the tastes and textures we’ve come to know and love. If you thought you were really just getting plain Jane pumpkin all along, I’m very sorry to pull the curtain back and ruin the illusion.

By spreading this knowledge, my goal is not to incite riots in the canned goods aisle, but encourage everyone to think beyond those metal constrains. There are so many more squash in the sea, looking for love, and a place in your kitchen.

Featuring a few of the unsung heroes of autumn, this grand double decker celebration cake is a gloriously sweet tribute to those underdogs at the farm stand. Butternut squash puree is an easy swap for pumpkin, since you were probably using that anyway without even realizing it, but I’ll readily admit that spaghetti squash might be a bit of a stretch for some. In fact, it rarely makes it onto the dinner table as is; a real shame, considering just how delicious those firm, noodle-like strands are, especially when smothered with red sauce or pesto. We’re talking dessert today though, so just consider this a natural evolution of carrot cake or zucchini bread. You wouldn’t give a second though to including those vegetables in their eponymous confections, so why should this humble gourd be any different?

Crowing this pièce de résistance, naturally artful slices of delicata squash contribute beauty along with brains, adding a moreish bite to the moist, delicate crumb down below. Paper-thin shavings are essential here lest you risk throwing off that careful balance, perfected by the crisp crunch of fresh squash seeds. If you have to call it a day and resort to good old pepitas, well, I won’t tell. A little bit of pumpkin is still welcome on my table, especially if it’s not coming out of a can.

Does this revelation ruin or redeem the classic orange gourd for you? Hopefully I can make amends either way with this offering of the best cake autumn’s bounty has to offer. Trust me, you’ll never miss the pumpkin; you were never eating it anyway.

Harvest Squash Cake

2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry or All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Ground Cinnamon
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 1/2 Cups Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Cup Butternut Squash Puree
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3 Cups Cooked Spaghetti Squash*
Delicata Squash, Seeded and Thinly Sliced (Optional, for Topping)
Reserved Squash Seeds or Pepitas (Optional, for Topping)

Cream Cheese Filling:

1 (8-Ounce) Package Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Lemon Extract or Lemon Zest
1 – 2 Teaspoons Water

*To easily cook your spaghetti squash, slice it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, reserving them for the topping if desired. Place the halves with the cut sides down in a microwave-safe dish, adding about an inch of water around them. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave for 8 minutes. Let stand for 2 minutes before carefully removing the plastic. Test for doneness by piercing them with a knife; if it slides in easily, and the squash give under gentle pressure, they’re done! When cool enough to handle, take a fork to the interiors and scrape out the strands of tender squash.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 8-inch round baking pans.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices, stirring thoroughly to evenly distribute all of the dry goods throughout the mixture.

Separately, whisk together the coconut milk, vinegar, butternut squash puree, olive oil, and both sugars. Still to dissolve the sugar and smooth out the mixture, so that there are no lumps of butternut remaining.

Toss the cooked spaghetti squash into the bowl of dry ingredients, coating the strands with flour to keep them from simply sinking to the bottom of the cakes. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, folding the two together with a large spatula to combine. Resist the urge to break out the heavy artillery here; the batter will be fairly thick, but it’s perfectly fine to leave a few lumps, rather than risk over-mixing.

Divide the batter equally between your prepared cake pans. If desired, seed and very, very thinly slice the delicata squash, arranging the pieces artfully around the top of one pan of unbaked batter. Sprinkle with the leftover seeds or pepitas for a final flourish. Bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Bear in mind that the layer topped with squash will take longer to bake due to the excess liquid expressed by the gourd.

Let cool completely before assembling the final cake.

To make the filling, simply toss the cream cheese and butter into your stand mixer and beat until soft, smooth, and homogeneous. Add in the confectioner’s sugar and begin to mix on low speed. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula, as needed. Once mostly incorporated, add in the vanilla and lemon, and increase the speed to high. Add water as needed to reach your desired consistency, but use sparingly! It doesn’t take much at all. Whip for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy.

Turn out the bottom layer of the cake onto a serving vessel and smoother generously but evenly with the filling. Top with with second, decorated layer, press down to adhere, and serve with aplomb. No pumpkins need apply.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe