BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Toast of the Town

Living in the land of the original $4 toast, it’s easy to become jaded about the countless open-faced sandwiches now infiltrating menus across the country. In fact, looking back at this story now, $4 seems like a remarkable bargain. It’s not uncommon to see a single slice of crusty bread command $6, $7, or even as much as $12 dollars if topped with half an avocado and paired with a frilly salad. Strange but true, the toast trend appears to be here to stay, and is only inflating alongside the inscrutable local economy.

Friends, it’s time to take toast back. I don’t mean that we should all be making Instagram-worthy edible artworks on thickly sliced, grainy artisan loaves, but that we should be able to take some average sandwich bread, throw it in a toaster, and spread something delicious on it. Is that so much to ask? I think that a lot gets lost in translation when it comes to the endless array of topping options, at least when ordering toast at a restaurant. When it arrives at the table with over an inch of spreads, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, it’s a wholly delicious creation, but don’t call it toast; you’ve gone well beyond those boundaries and into the terrain of tartines.

Getting back to home toast, all that really matters is starting out with decent bread and slathering on a quality topping. Pick out a sweet option and you could be looking at breakfast, snack, or dessert; talk about getting a real bang for your buck. Nocciolata Dairy Free will instantly cure even the most severe chocolate craving. A flawless dupe for the beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Nutella, it’s sticky yet silky smooth, and honestly sweet enough to pass for frosting. It feels outrageously indulgent to pass for a morning meal, and yet somehow easy enough to rationalize as a healthy choice, thanks to all those wholesome hazelnuts packed into each jar. Don’t question that logic; just slather it on thick, and if anything, top only with a pinch of coarse salt for maximum enjoyment.

Plain nut butters naturally make for a more neutral base, but that doesn’t mean they should lack flavor. Vivapura’s raw pecan butter is a shining example of a superlative spread, positively radiating nutty aroma upon opening the jar. It’s hard to believe that something so luscious could be just so simple, containing only nuts and salt. Almond butter may be having a moment, but pecans have all that richness, and then some.

Many have decried the toast trend, pointing out blatant price gouging as if that wasn’t the case for every other dish on offer, but that’s not my MO. I just think we should start taking toast back; back into our own kitchens, and back to its more humble roots.


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Hip To Be Shared

Puffed snacks represent the pinnacle of junk food innovation and technology. No matter how hard you try, there’s simply no way to replicate that characteristically light, airy, yet impossibly crisp texture at home; trust me, I’ve gone through the ringer in my own kitchen, to no avail. Coated in powdered cheese of varying fluorescence hues, the salty morsels have been staining fingers since the 1930s but never gained much traction among the nutritionally conscious. That should come as no surprise, since questionable oils and highly processed dairy ingredients have long been the “best” that these salty treats could offer.

Hippeas is a new company set to change all that, turning away from the traditional corn base and towards one composed of everyone’s favorite legume: the chickpea.

Much more substantial than your typical puffed snack, each kernel boasts a sturdy, satisfying crunch, backed by impressive protein and fiber values. Unlike the Styrofoam whips of yore, one serving really will do… Although the tempting flavors might convince you keep munching.

Six unique seasonings offer a different taste for every craving. Cheese is the gold standard, the essential foundation of the puffed snack hierarchy, so the Vegan White Cheddar has very high expectations to live up to. While the overall effect doesn’t disappoint, it doesn’t entirely deliver either. Evoking the flavor profile of creamy mac and cheese, it will certainly scratch that savory itch, but an incongruous sweetness detracts from the experience. Simply put, they’re highly enjoyable, but would never fool an omnivore.

Where Hippeas shine is in their more creative offerings that make no allusions to imitation. Delicious within their own right as a completely unique snack, the Far Out Fajita was the stand-out winner by my account. Cumin and coriander ring clearest out of the seasoning melange, imparting a Tex-Mex vibe. Further munching evoked the flavors of crunchy falafel, which made me think they would pair brilliantly with a bold tahini dip.

Pepper Power presents a strong showing for the most basic option. Thoroughly flecked with ground black pepper, each bite provides a nice balance of spice and salt, creating a subtle warmth that doesn’t overwhelm. By contrast, Sriracha Sunshine takes a bolder approach, but falls far short of its scoville target. The initial taste is of vinegar, with a timid heat following quietly, slow to build up steam. Excess sweetness brings down the spice considerably for these morsels, but in the case of Happenin’ Hickory, that same quality creates a pleasing balance. Accented with tomato, onion, and garlic, the overall effect delivers the impression of barbecue sauce more than pure hickory smoke, but is highly munchable nonetheless.

For those with a sweet tooth, Hippeas has something for you, too! The taste of Maple Haze rings true for pancake syrup with subtle buttery undertones. Take a bag with you to the theater next time; I think they’d make delightful alternative to caramel corn.

The full line of Hippeas aren’t perfect across the board, but one thing is for sure: They’ve mastered the elusive ways of the puff, and taken the “junk” out of this particular junk food favorite. There’s a whole lot to savor if you stick with the top hits.


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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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Worth Its Salt

Considering my legacy of dessertfocused cookbooks, it might surprise some to know that my salt tooth often speaks louder than my sweet tooth. Call it an inevitable balancing act, brought on by years of saccharine excess, but it seems that there’s not enough salt in the world to compensate for my reckless, sugar-coated youth. I’ll still dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream or a plate of chocolate chip cookies, but there’s a good chance I’ll spike each serving with a pinch (or two) of coarse salt before indulging.

Clearly, I’m not alone on this impulse. Gourmet salts have taken off in a category all their own, exploring new territory with different flavors far more adventurous than the classic mixtures of herbs and spices. San Francisco Salt Co. is one of the leaders of that pack, blending gourmet ingredients with high quality sea salt for a luxurious finishing touch. While various flavors of smoked salts have been a mainstay of the brand for many years, their newest release offers something unique to this crowded, salty category. Whisky Smoked Sea Salt elevates the concept to a lofty new realm, utilizing empty barrels once employed to age Teeling’s Irish Whiskey to lend deep, oaky aromas to this most humble of seasonings.

Dusty grey and fine as soft beach sand, the powerful scent that emerges from the package is stunning. Earthy and downright primal, like a carefully tended campfire, there’s no liquid smoke nonsense going on here. It’s the truly natural, unmistakable aroma that even the most advanced flavor labs could only dream of synthesizing.

The flavor is naturally a bit more restrained when paired with food. Unless you add a heaping teaspoon of salt to every meal, it’s only natural that it would take a backseat to the taste of the food itself. That doesn’t mean that it disappears into the scenery by any means. As with any good finishing salt, it serves to accentuate those savory morsels, adding subtle notes of smoke that add depth and character otherwise impossible to achieve in a single bite.

Frosting the rim of a tall, icy glass of Bloody Mary, there’s no better way to get a full-frontal hit of this richly smoked salt. Regardless of your final destination on either sweet or savory route, it’s one unmistakable, inimitable condiment that’s definitely worth its salt, and then some.


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Ben & Jerry’s – The Inside Scoop

Blinking sleepily, stupidly at the gate, it took a full ten minutes for the meaning of the digital scrawl to sink in. My cross-country, red-eye flight had been further delayed, now rescheduled to depart sometime in the predawn hour of 2AM. A punishing schedule already awaited me upon arrival, complete with a second plane to catch and events lined up from the moment the wheels hit the tarmac. For all this tumult, I would only be in Burlington, Vermont for a two days all told. What on earth could possible be worth that kind of suffering?

Ice cream. And not just any ice cream, but Ben & Jerry’s new 100% vegan line of almond milk frozen desserts. It’s the one food news story that the whole world is buzzing about lately, omnivorous or otherwise, and I was given the rare opportunity to see the birthplace of this extraordinary creation.

Though the dead of winter would be my last choice for when to visit this picturesque east coast town, the white carpet of snow and cozy blanket of clouds were not without their charms. If only I had an extra day, or perhaps even an extra hour, I would have loved to explore the myriad vegan restaurants just around the corner, but I was here on a bigger mission.

Along with a select group of exclusive, top drawer food bloggers, I was treated to an incredible adventure in the Ben & Jerry’s factory and test kitchen. Our main objective, of course, was to get the goods on the buzz-worthy new pints, developed both for the sake of hungry customers demanding dairy-free options, and to decrease the deleterious environmental impact that goes along with milk production. It was made very clear that these four initial flavors are only the beginning of that pursuit. Although it took 3 years and between 70 – 90 trials in development, there are promising hints that pending the success of this launch, we may eventually have even more flavors tempting us on store shelves.

Delicious and ambrosial as the tasting session was, my highlight of the trip was getting the opportunity to play around with the almond milk base to fabricate a “limited edition” frozen dessert. So exclusive that you will never see it in production, it was still a joy to mix up a big batch of the creamy concoction with any and all the chunky mix-ins my heart desired. Working in teams, my group was responsible for unleashing the “Drunk’n Pumpk’n Pie” upon the party, complete with toasted marshmallows, graham cracker crust pieces, and a generous splash of bourbon. Each spoonful had a whole lot of spirit, but alas, it was no match for the truly superlative “Southern Roots” dreamed up by the competition.

Ben & Jerry’s, if you’re listening: Please put this one on the official line up! Outrageously thick ribbons of caramel swirled through every square inch of the creamy peach bourbon jam base with a hint of cinnamon, intertwining with crunchy chunks of toasted pecans. Within our small, secret sampling society, this creative and unabashedly indulgent mix was a hands-down winner.

But… What about the REAL dairy-free offerings now hitting grocery store shelves and scoop shops nationwide, you ask?

For the full scoop on the flavors themselves and my personal tasting notes, head over to my official review on Go Dairy Free.

This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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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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Blender Bender

To anyone who’s ever eyed their rapidly growing collection of kitchen equipment and shrinking counter space with dismay, there comes a point when only the most essential tools can still make the cut. A blender will always be at the top of that list, but even so, are you really making the most of it? Wonder no more, because The Blender Girl Cookbook by Tess Masters will keep you happily spinning away from breakfast to dinner, and everything in between. Tess is the unrivaled guru of all things blended, blitzed, and pureed as far as I’m concerned, which makes it all the more shameful that I’ve withheld a proper review of this book for nearly two years. Her blog is an invaluable resource for eaters of all tastes and cooks of all skill levels. She understands the zen of a spinning blade like no one else I’ve met, combining her expert knowledge with a trained palate and penchant for crafting unique recipes. I never feel as though I could do proper justice to all her skills, but instead of sitting this review for another year or worse, I hope this small sample of my experiences might inspire others to go out and try more for themselves.

When my enthusiasm for a mango sale left me with a considerable surplus, I turned to Tess for some suggestions. A smoothie would have been too obvious, too ordinary, so the Magic Mango Massage salad immediately caught my eye as an intriguing approach to managing this embarrassing excess. Though it didn’t strike me as a necessarily harmonious pairing on paper, the fruits’ naturally sour edge matches the gentle bitterness of the dark leafy greens beautifully. Light, sprightly herbal notes add freshness while the tangy, spicy dressing, tempered by the sweet mango chunks and creamy avocado, completes the picture with a flourish. Simple but so well balanced, the whole assembly is a shining example of what ordinary ingredients can do when combined in just the right proportions.

Goma Dofu, a study in subtlety and a delicacy when correctly executed, is done proper justice by this easy recipe. It ultimately comes down to only 3 main ingredients when all told: tahini, vegetable stock, and kuzu starch. Wobbling like a softly set custard, its unassuming appearance belies rich sesame flavor. Nuances of umami whisper gently throughout, leaving the lucky eater with a surprisingly rich impression. Creamy, cool, and refreshing, it would be an ideal appetizer to enjoy on a hot day.

Though the juicing trend has failed to spark my interest, to say the least, I can still fully appreciate a tall glass of vegetable juice when the mood strikes. Thus I found myself drawn to the Spicy Gazpacho Grab, which is really more of a sippable soup than a thin, unfulfilling drink. This ruby red elixir sparkles with just the right accent of spice, reminiscent of V-8, only so much brighter and bolder. Both thirst-quenching and satisfying, I would even be tempted to leave the blend slightly chunky next time around, serving just as I would for the traditional chilled tomato soup.

If The Blender Girl Cookbook doesn’t restore your blender to a place of honor in your kitchen, nothing will. Since publication, Tess hasn’t stopped dreaming up new recipes for even a minute, unleashing a full book focused on smoothies and a companion app as well, with no sign of slowing down. Rumor has it that another cookbook is in the pipeline as we speak. In the meantime though, this wealth of fool-proof formulas will keep me blending smoothly for months, if not years, to come.