Better Than Butterfinger

Gather ’round and don’t be scared now. Conventional candy bars do have many frightful ingredients, reading like a chemistry experiment gone terribly wrong. Tempting with bewitching spells cast from sugar and corn syrup, even the strongest hero have occasionally fallen for their evil tricks. It’s time we beat those monsters back once and for all.

Butterfingers were original unleashed upon the world almost one hundred years ago and continue haunting hapless shoppers at checkout stands to this day. Escape from that dangerous trap because back in the safety of your home, we can make a real treat together.

Resoundingly crunchy, crisp throughout, and packed with deeply toasted nutty flavor, this recipe is more than just a resurrection of a past favorite, but a complete revival and revamp. Cloaked in devilishly dark chocolate, these rich, intense flavors would utterly slay the old phantom.

Originally featured in my now defunct eBook Wicked Treats, it seemed a same to let this gem meet such an timely end. If there’s only one treat you plan on making for Halloween, make it this one!

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Melon Drama

If it’s named for a melon and looks like a melon, then obviously, it should taste like… Not a melon.

Such is the curious case of melon pan. Captivating the imaginations and cravings of Japanese bakers since the early 1900’s, right around the time that Western influences made bread the trendy starch of those in the know, it gave traditional rice flour a run for its money. Simple, sweet buns wrapped in a buttery cookie exterior, the name has more to do with its deeply grooved, crackled exterior than flavor. Said to evoke the appearance of the delicate skin of a muskmelon, covering the fruit like natural lace, it’s one of many theories, though it strikes me as the most plausible explanation.

Some are round, others are more like ovoid footballs. Most are plain, but some are filled with cream or jam. A few intrepid bakers try to make sense of the misnomer by adding artificial melon flavoring to the dough itself. For years, that was my impulse as well, but I could never fully connect the dots. Melon extract is not exactly the most common ingredient in the pantry, and even as a special order, few genuinely tasteful options exist.

What I’m proposing instead might seem like a stretch, but it’s the most sensible extension of the concept I’ve devised yet. The melon family, cucurbitaceae, is a classification that includes a diverse array of plants both sweet and savory, starting of course with melons like cantaloupe and honey dew, but also squashes such as pumpkins. That connection was the catalyst I needed to finally make a melon pan I could better justify.

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Stuffed to the Gills

Just like people, shiitake mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes.

Uniformity might be prized for mass-produced, cultivated mushrooms grown indoors, but greater flavor can be found in nature. Forest-grown Sugimoto shiitake are exposed to greater variation in sun, rain, and wind which in turn creates a greater depth of the flavor, richer texture, and higher nutritional value. This method has withstood the test of time, serving Japanese growers well for over 1000 years with countless bountiful harvests to show for it.

Since it is impossible to control the weather, these wild shiitake mushrooms develop into two primary classifications, largely dependent on the season: Donko and Koshin.

Donko are gathered before the mushroom can fully bloom or open up. These shiitake are a thicker, chewier, and meatier, but smaller overall. The name itself from the Chinese word for “winter,” as they’re harvested primarily in the cooler months from January to April.

Koshin, bearing flatter but larger caps, are named after the word for “fragrant.” Brilliantly aromatic, they produce an ambrosial bouquet of umami before you even take a bite. Fully mature when harvested, they’re inactive during the summer months due to the high temperatures, but flourish in fall for plentiful late autumn yields.

Although they’re born of the same spores, the mushrooms change shape and texture depending on the time of harvest.

Both varieties perform splendidly in a wide range of dishes, but to maximize the unique qualities of such delicately nuanced, artisanal products, it’s important to know their strengths. The best way to honor the work of the 600 family farmers, who painstakingly nurturing these spores deep in the mountains, is to treat their shiitake with care and respect.

Utilizing the inherent textural advantages the Donko shiitake has to offer in creating a firmer, juicier bite, they’re the only type of dried mushroom that can be brought back to life as a satisfying base for stuffing. Most others would buckle under the weight if dressed with a mere teaspoon topping, but these sturdy caps stand up to the demands as superlative finger foods.

Quick, homemade nut cheese dazzles with fresh herbs and a luscious creamy texture that seems to defy its dairy-free components. Vegan yogurt adds a slightly tangy, funky note, like earthy yet mild goat cheese, perfectly paired with the rich umami mushrooms underneath. Thick enough to spread on a bagel like cream cheese, it has a distinctly buttery quality thanks to a touch of nutritional yeast and sweet white miso paste. To enhance the aroma that might be lessened in the Donko shiitake, additional dried shiitake powder gives this schmear an irresistible final savory punch.

Grown in harmony with nature, both Koshin and Donko Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms lend that same symphonic balance to every dish.

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Nuts About Summer Snacks

I received free samples of California Walnuts mentioned in this post. By posting this recipe I am entering a recipe contest sponsored by California Walnuts and am eligible to win prizes associated with the contest. I was not compensated for my time.

Snacks make the world go ’round. On the go or at home, it’s easier to eat lots of small bites to keep hunger at bay, rather than two or three big meals. No matter what’s on the agenda, smart snacks are necessary to power through the day. Few foods come close to the powerful nutrition contained within the humble walnut. Research suggests walnut consumption may be associated with improved cognitive function thanks to high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

That doesn’t mean that trail mix or raw nuts are the only options. This incredibly versatile nut is ideal for mixing seamlessly into all sorts of sweet and savory applications, or in this case, thoroughly coating some of summer’s best produce.

Unripe green tomatoes, firmer and tangier than their juicy red brethren, were born to be batter-fried. Fried green tomatoes are a time-honored southern staple that look like crispy gold coins and taste like a million bucks, too. Some use cornmeal, finely ground crackers, or breadcrumb for that gilded crunchy exterior, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to go a little bit nuts.

Pulverized walnuts create a completely gluten-free crust, further enhanced by aromatic herbs and spices. Though flavorful enough to satisfy cravings all by themselves, a dip into spicy remoulade sauce can really take these savory slices to the next level. That, too, is made from a creamy walnut base, demonstrating the full range of culinary potential locked inside each unassuming shell. Punchy paprika, horseradish, and hot sauce add flavor with firepower for a truly mouth-watering flavor sensation.

If a more substantial snack is called for, consider this the base for the most epic BLT ever. Replacing raw red tomatoes with fried green tomatoes adds heat and texture to this foolproof sandwich, and you can even use the remoulade instead of plain mayo. Piled high on soft slices of bread with crisp lettuce and umami meatless bacon, each bite is pure summertime brilliance. Now that’s a real snack with both brains and beauty.

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Let Freedom Ring

Americans are not shy about letting their opinions be known, particularly when it comes to matters of freedom. From the very inception of this country, our founding fathers were shouting from the rooftops about liberty and justice for all. That ideal was a bit skewed and misleading at the time, silently omitting the vast majority of the population, but after a few hundred years of mucking about, I’m cautiously hopeful that we’re on the right path to actually realizing that dream.

“…if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

On this particularly joyous 4th of July, when many reunite, emerging from quarantine cocoons for the first time in over one and a half years, there’s so much more to celebrate than just the baby steps forward on the journey towards true freedom. Vaccination does feel akin to emancipation; we must never forget the struggle to get here, nor those not fortunate enough to see this day.

It’s truly a bittersweet moment for me, acknowledging both the immense progress we’ve made collectively, and still the terrible, horrendous, and heinous setbacks that continue to plague the country. As a rule, however, I’d like to focus on the positive. Though many still suffer, I want freedom to ring, loud and clear, in every home and especially… Every home freezer.

Yes, it all comes back to food! Finally free to serve friends in-person, I’m thrilled to whip up a batch of frosty ice cream doughnuts from Super Vegan Scoops! to symbolize the endless ring of freedom intended for all inhabitants of these fifty states.

For a more thematically appropriate attire, these cool contenders are all dressed up in a variation of the white chocolate shell icing. For a blue tint, it just takes 1 teaspoon of butterfly pea tea powder (also known as “blue matcha,”) and the red is infused with 1 teaspoon of powdered beets. Add festive sprinkles and voila, you suddenly have some beautiful, festive food to share.

At long last, on this 242nd observance of our independence day, I hope that freedom truly can ring for one and all, and may it taste as sweet as vanilla bean ice cream.

Greatfruits

Life is like a box of CSA produce: You never know what you’re gonna get.

We all know what to do when life gives you lemons, but what about grapefruits? Sure, you could give them the same treatment and turn them into grapefruit-ade, but it doesn’t have the same kind of ring. Simply topped with a sprinkle of sugar and brûléed for breakfast is a nice treat, but it feels like so much work to painstakingly dig out each little segment first thing in the morning. When all I want to do is just go back to bed, that level of effort is really asking a lot.

Best suited for advanced preparation, they’re a perfect match with chia pudding, soaked overnight and ready to enjoy no matter when the alarm clock rings. As both an ingredient and topper, the excess grapefruits infuse the whole elegant assembly with bright, citrus flavor. Perfumed with floral notes from orange blossom water and the distinctly spicy taste of cardamom, the pudding itself contains volumes of rich, complex flavor that far exceed the average bowl of oats.

Simple grapefruit supremes would be a fine topper for a simpler finish, but they take on greater substance when gently gelled with agar, straddling the line between jelly and compote. Full of zest to spark your enthusiasm for a fresh new day, grapefruit will suddenly become the shining star amongst the predictable array of seasonal produce picks.

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