BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Scary Good Sweets

’tis time! ’tis time!
Round about the caldron go;
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Fear not, dear readers. The bubbling hell broth on my stove on this crisp October evening is not poison, nor calls for such unpleasant inclusions as eye of newt or baboon’s blood. Quite the contrary, the glowing orange brew cooking away on my fire lands distinctly on the opposite end of that spectrum, farm from poison, or similarly tricky “treats.”

Forget the laundry list of obscure magical inclusions. Candy is possible not only with simple everyday ingredients, but wholesome staples that wouldn’t spook the healthiest of goblins- Or their parents.

Pumpkin spice, straight to the point, possesses these gummy morsels with more than a merely haunting flavor. Spirited seasonal sweetness rings true in each chewy bite, casting an impossibly enchanting spell. Quantities may look small, but each batch produces a bountiful harvest of tiny pumpkin pieces, so there should be plenty to appease any hungry apparitions that arrive as the witching hour approaches. That said, they’re so quick and effortless to whip up, it may not be such a bad idea to stock up, before those charming costumed creatures turn into ravenous monsters.

This fearfully addictive snack was inspired and made possible by the devilish Pumpkin Spice Extract by Rodelle.

Pumpkin Spice Gummies

1/2 Cup Pumpkin Puree
1 Cup Apple Juice Concentrate
1 1/2 Tablespoons Agar Powder
1 Teaspoon Pumpkin Spice Extract or Pumpkin Spice Blend

Have four mini pumpkin candy molds at the ready, or a comparable shape. Alternately, you can line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with foil and plan to simply cut out gummy squares. Just be sure to lightly grease the foil before proceeding.

Whisk all of the ingredients in a small saucepan until smooth and set over medium heat. Stir gently but consistently; you should start to feel the mixture thicken almost instantly. Continue scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you stir to prevent sticking or burning, until the mixture is sticky but spoonable. It will be so dense that it doesn’t quite come to a boil, but should bubble up around the edges quite a bit.

Smooth the mixture into your molds as quickly as possible, is the candy sets up very quickly. Let stand at room temperature until fully set; at least 20 – 30 minutes. Pop the pumpkins out of the molds and trim away any excess, if necessary. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for 5 – 7 days… If they don’t mysteriously disappear first…

Makes About 60 Mini Pumpkin Gummies

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A Very Merry Unbirthday to You!

Birthdays come and birthdays go. Some are occasions to rejoice, some are best forgotten. Ready or not, they happen to the best of us, and we find a way to struggle through, as it sure beats the alternative. For the remaining 364 days a year, we tend to gloss over the fact that we’re still getting older, still surviving to see another morning; why shouldn’t we celebrate that too? Treat yourself to a nice dinner because it’s Monday. Splurge on some fancy olive oil because you answered all your emails. Throw yourself a party because you damn well feel like it. Most importantly of all, eat cake simply because it’s delicious.

Birthday cake is the first thing that came to mind upon cracking open a bottle of baker’s extract, my new favorite secret ingredient. Primarily vanilla but so much more, Rodelle describes it as having notes of chocolate, caramel, cream and oak mingling within the dark emulsion. If you ask me, it’s like vanilla with the dial turned up to 11. Robust and smooth, just a few drops add incredible richness and complexity to any sweet treat, which is why I’ve been reaching for this bottle more often than not. Blend it into pancakes for legitimate cakes made in a pan. Add a splash to a protein drink transform it into a cake batter milkshake. In the case of today’s recipe, mix things up with simple cereal bars, and create an everyday birthday treat.

The much beloved childhood cereal bar morphs into a convincing cookie and cake hybrid with just a few small tweaks. Crunchy, chewy squares of crisp rice are bound together with a simple sticky syrup, bolstered by that extraordinary baker’s extract and just a touch of cake flour to really cement the theme. White chocolate stands in for frosting, keeping these snacks packable, portable, and perfectly suited for whipping up on every unbirthday you please. Speaking of which, don’t you have one coming up soon, too? Maybe you should start planning your next batch right now.

Though technically optional, I would argue that it’s really not a birthday without sprinkles, so err on the side of whimsy and let it rain. If you really insist on being an adult about it, chopped nuts could be an acceptable topping as well… Albeit considerably less fancy-free.

This post was made possible thanks to Rodelle and their sweet contributions.

Birthday Cake Crispy Rice Treats

5 Cups Crispy Brown Rice Cereal
3 Tablespoons Cake Flour
1 Tablespoon Vegan Butter
1/2 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Teaspoon Rodelle Baker’s Extract

6 Ounces (About 1 Cup) Chopped Vegan White Chocolate, Homemade or Store-Bought
1 – 3 Tablespoons Assorted Sprinkles

Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease. Combine the cereal and flour in a large bowl; set aside.

Set a medium saucepan over low heat and begin by melting the butter. Once liquefied, add in the agave, sugar, and salt, stirring as needed until the sugar crystals dissolve. Bring the mixture to a steady boil and then cook for an additional 3 – 5 minutes, until it appears to have thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the both extracts.

Pour the contents of your saucepan over the dry mix and fold it in carefully but briskly with a wide non-stick spatula, being careful not to crush the cereal.

Transfer the sticky mixture into your prepared pan and gently press it out into an even layer. It’s easiest if you grease the bottom of a flat measuring cup and use that to smooth it down, applying firm downward strokes across the full pan of cereal.

Seal the deal by melting down the white chocolate and pouring it on top. Distribute the sprinkles equally across the top, and let the chocolate cool until set. Slice and celebrate!

Makes 10 – 12 Bars

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Salty Language

Sweet loves salty; salty loves sweet. Together, they give life to a far greater taste sensation than either could achieve individually. Even casual bakers have gotten hip to the fact that an extra pinch of salt really makes their cookies pop and chocolates sing, but what happens when you add a touch of umami into the mix?

Reach beyond the salt shaker and head straight for miso paste for this sticky, sultry caramel sauce.

Pure sodium can do wonders for this burnt sugar syrup, effectively reducing the inherent bitterness created in the Maillard reaction while simultaneously enhancing the impact of its overall sweetness. No wonder why simple salted caramel has taken hold of eaters worldwide- Even those crazy enough to declare themselves unaffected by the siren song of sugar. Now, take those same flavor enhancing properties and bolster them with a seductively savory edge, and you’ve just elevated your dish to an entirely new realm of decadence.

Cara-miso, my miso-infused caramel sauce, has no boundaries when it comes to usage. Chocolate cake pops with every bite when you grace it with a tiny drizzle; black coffee comes to life with a taste that will make you forget all about any pumpkin spice nonsense; whipped coconut cream sparks and pops with just a few drops. Naturally, this endlessly versatile syrup finds itself most at home atop luscious scoops of ice cream, but that alone wasn’t enough to satisfy my sweet tooth during the latest great heatwave. Take it even one step further for the single best milkshake you will ever stick a straw into.

If that photo alone doesn’t have you scrambling into the kitchen, I don’t know what will. Thankfully, once you whip up a batch of the caramel sauce, you’ll have enough for a few more rounds of this crave-worthy nectar made in sweet and salty heaven. Still, it might not hurt to double it, just in case.

Cara-Miso Milkshake:

2 Cups Vegan Vanilla Ice Cream
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Vanilla Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Cup Miso Caramel Sauce, Plus More for Garnish (see following recipe)
Whipped Coconut Cream (Optional)

Cara-Miso (Miso Caramel) Sauce:

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cup Water
3/4 Cup Full Fat Coconut Milk
3 Tablespoons Sweet White Miso Paste
3 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

To make the milkshake, simply combine the ice cream, almond milk, and caramel sauce in a blender and blend until smooth. Divide the mixture between two glasses and top with whipped coconut cream and additional caramel sauce, if desired.

For the miso caramel sauce, combine the sugar and water in medium-sized saucepan. Place the sugar and water inside before setting over moderate heat. Resist the urge to stir, but rather, gently swirl the pan in a circular motion mix the contents.

Meanwhile, mix together a few tablespoons of coconut milk with the miso paste. Whisk vigorously to thoroughly incorporate the miso. Make sure that there are no remaining lumps before stirring in the rest of the coconut milk, and set aside.

Continue to cook the sugar mixture, swirling occasionally, until it turns deep amber in color, but do not allow it to begin smoking or smelling burnt. You want to cook it to a fairly dark shade to give it the most flavor, but if it smells burnt, it’s already too late and you must start again. Once it begins to color, it will progress very quickly, so do not walk away at this point.

Once deeply colored, very carefully pour in the coconut milk along with the coconut oil. The mixture is likely to sputter and bubble up, so you may want to stand to the side while making this addition, and it’s not a bad idea to wear long sleeves to cover your arms, just in case. The mixture may seize and crystallize slightly, but don’t worry, it’s easy to fix. Continue to cook the syrup over gentle heat until any crystals are dissolved and the mixture is completely smooth again. Stir in the salt and turn off the heat.

Let cool completely before using or storing in a glass jar.

Milkshake Makes 2 Servings
Caramel Sauce Makes about 1 1/2 Cups

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For the Sake of Sake

While much of the country closes up their beach chairs and dusts off their long sleeve shirts, things are just beginning to heat up in the bay area. Summer always arrives fashionably late, yet the visit never fails to catch us by surprise. When temperatures jump over 20 degrees in a day, topping out around 110 in some particularly hellish pockets of the city, talk of pumpkin spice lattes sounds like a cruel joke. If I should so much as contemplate operating the oven, I swear my entire kitchen would likely ignite like a tinderbox full of gunpowder. After this record-breaking weekend, I can easily imagine what it feels like to live on the surface of the sun.

Cooking under such conditions is out of the question. Rational cravings and hunger goes straight out the window too, for that matter. If it’s not coming straight out of the fridge or freezer, I don’t want to know about it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and only one thing in my arsenal could effectively take the edge off: Ice-cold coffee sake.

Typically a non-drinker, no one is more surprised than I by how quickly sake has become a prized indulgence for me. I’m blaming it entirely on Takara Sake, Berkeley-based sake makers that offer mini museum tours followed by generous tasting flights. There, I discovered that sake is so much more than just fermented liquid rice, and so much more drinkable than the average swill I’m accustomed to. One of their more unusual offerings include sparkling sake, which reminds me of soda; already a guilty pleasure going on many years now. What really hooked me on my last visit, however, was the sweet coffee-flavored sake, a genuine dessert drink that can rival the best coffee liqueur on the shelf.

After securing a sleek bottle for myself, for whatever reason, the first thing that popped into my head was tiramisu. The situation called for something considerably cooler though, so creating a fleet of creamy, subtly spiked popsicles seemed like the only rational option.

Forget about baking ladyfingers or any fussy cake. Since it will simply soften in the sweet, slightly tangy base, crushed vanilla cookies work perfectly fine for this application, soaking up all the sake with ease. If you don’t have access to this heavenly elixir, you can use any plain sake and just increase the instant coffee powder to taste.

Tirami-Sake Pops

1 8-Ounce Container Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Cup Coffee Sake, Divided
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
6 Vanilla Sandwich Cookies, Roughly Crushed
1 Teaspoon Instant Coffee Granules
1 Teaspoon Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder

To make the creamy base, simply blend the cream cheese, sugar, non-dairy milk, 2 tablespoons of the sake, vanilla, and salt together until smooth.

Separately, mix the crushed cookies, the remaining sake, instant coffee, and cocoa powder in a small bowl, stirring thoroughly until the coffee granules have dissolved.

Layer the base and the cookie mush into popsicle molds of your choice. Insert sticks and stash on a level surface in your freezer. Let rest for at least 4 hours, or until solid.

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No Churn? No Problem!

tIn the heat of the moment, or scorching rays of the sun, as it may be, it’s easy to get carried away. Serial shoppers and gadgeteers alike can relate, getting swept up by the temptation of shiny new toys and tools guaranteed to make life easier, cleaner, brighter, tastier, smarter, or generally yet indefinably better. While ice cream makers are seen as a superfluous luxury good for most casual kitchen creatives, rapidly advancing technology has brought the average entry-level machine down to pocket change territory.  Even for an impulse buy, you could do much greater budgetary damage with just a few fancy umbrella drinks on the beach.


No-Churn Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

As a self-professed ice cream obsessive, it should come as no surprise that I’ll always advocate churning your own frozen treats above all else. Sadly, I’ve come across scores of misinformed folks that think it’s an arduous process, not worth the time or effort, having never been fortunate enough to taste the fruits of that labor themselves. Lacking the proper equipment should no longer be a valid excuse for not diving in, or at least dipping a toe in, to the refreshing world of iced sweet treats.

Believe it or not, any ice cream base can be made without a machine, right here and now, with a wide range of alternative methods at your disposal. Start with a solid recipe and clear out your freezer; your summer is about to get a whole lot cooler.


Carrot Granita

1. The Granita Method: A traditional Italian method of making fruit-based ices much like instant snow cones, this method creates desserts with larger, crunchy ice crystals. That same idea can be used with an ice cream base, and naturally yield smoother, creamier results. Simply prepare your ice cream recipe of choice as directed, and chill thoroughly. Pour out the cold mixture into a baking dish. The exact size is not important, provided it can fit comfortably in your freezer on a flat surface. Don’t chance it and try to balance the pan on top of numerous unequally sized items; trust me, it’s a pain to clean melted and re-frozen liquids from inside a freezer! Simply bear in mind that the larger the pan, the greater surface space the base will have, and the faster it will freeze.

Place your baking dish filled with liquid ice cream base in the freezer, and let it sit for 30 – 45 minutes. At this point, it should begin to freeze around the edges. Take a fork and scrape up those ice crystals into the center. Place it back in the freezer, and repeat this process every 30 minutes or so until the entire contents of the pan has frozen; approximately 2 – 3 hours, depending on the temperature of the freezer and size of the pan. When ready, spoon into glasses and serve immediately, or it will ultimately freeze solidly into once piece.

2. The Cube-and-Crush Method: Easier than the granita method but similar in concept, this approach is much less hands-on, so you can occupy yourself with other projects while the actual freezing takes place. Additionally, this procedure yields ice cream that’s more like a soft serve texture. Pour prepared and thoroughly chilled ice cream base into one or two ice cube trays, and set them on a flat surface in your freezer. Smaller cubes are better, as they’ll freeze faster and put less of a strain on your blender. Allow at least 6 – 8 hours for the ice cream cubes to freeze solidly, but you can prepare them up to this stage a day or two in advance. When the need for ice cream strikes, pop out at least one tray of cubes at a time, and plunk them into your blender or food processor. Begin by pulsing to break them up, and then puree just long enough to get the ice cream smooth and creamy. Be careful not to overdo it, or the entire mixture will melt. Serve immediately.


Citrus Popsicles

3. Popsicle Method: This should be a foreign concept to precisely no one, but an idea worth revisiting. All it takes is chilled ice cream base poured into pop molds and frozen until solid. To get a stick to stand up straight, be sure to insert it about 30 – 45 minutes after first placing the molds in the freezer, so that the mixture has had time to thicken up a bit. If you don’t already own molds, seek those that are BPA-free, or rig your own by lining up paper cups on a baking sheet. Lollipop sticks or wooden popsicle sticks can be found in most craft or kitchen supply stores.

4. Coffee Can/Baggie Method: Although arguably the most involved of all four approaches, this procedure can be a fun activity for a crowd, and especially with young children. It makes the smallest amount of ice cream at a time as well, so you must start with a maximum of only 2 cups (1 cup) of prepared, chilled ice cream base. In addition to the edibles, you will need a cleaned and rinsed coffee can that once held 3 pounds of coffee (gallon baggie), and a second that once held 1 pound of coffee (1-pint baggie). Additionally, you should have at least 1 ½ cups (6 tablespoons) of rock salt, 10 cups of ice cubes, and strong duct tape on hand.

Pour the chilled base into the smaller can, and tape it up tightly. Place it in the larger can, and surround it with salt and ice, layering the two a few scoops at a time. Seal the larger can with duct tape as well, and start rolling! Roll the can on its side, shake it up, or toss it around continuously; anything to keep it moving. The ice cream should be rather soft, but ready to eat in about 20 – 30 minutes.

Even if you can’t spare the cash or counter space for a full-featured ice cream machine, that shouldn’t stop you from chilling out with a double or triple scoop treat this season. Skip the churn, but give it a whirl!


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Batter Up

Dumping, stirring, scooping; it was a hard job. Such were the demands of a fledgling baker, still too young to read the recipe and too small to reach the kitchen counter without the assistance of a stepping stool. Measuring ingredients was a task just slightly more advanced than my skill level, but diligently, carefully, I took pre-portioned scoops of flour and sugar, adding them to the mixing bowl with earnest precision. At the age of five, it was impossible to understand the alchemy that would transform these raw, unappealing components into my favorite treat. The magic started well before the batter ever hit sheet trays, though. Even better than the finished chocolate chip cookies themselves would be the reward for all my painstaking efforts: a lick from the beater or bowl, still coated in unbaked dough.

Golden and slightly granular from the coarse brown sugar, those morsels were the ones I savored most. Though each piece of the appliance was thoroughly scraped before being surrendered for my inspection, more than enough remained to sate my sweet tooth. Looking back, those errant chunks and chips left behind within the tightly coiled metal whisk may not have been so accidental, after all.

A love for cookie dough was fostered at a very young age, from some of my very earliest memories of cooking with my mom. It seems to be a common thread across almost all demographics, even for those who learned to bake later in life, that raw cookie dough evokes a certain nostalgia. Unpretentious, undemanding, its inherent simplicity is all part of the appeal. Especially when the heat of the oven loses its appeal through the steamy summer months, it’s difficult to resist the urge to skip baking when you could just as easily dive in with a spoon.

If you can delay gratification just a little bit longer though, I have an even cooler way to appease those childhood memories. Cookie dough pudding pops, with all the familiar flavors in a creamy, frozen package, may become the new nostalgic sweet treat.

Toasting the flour brings out the subtle nutty, roasted flavors imparted by baking, without the same intense heat. The base is otherwise prepared the same as any other cooked custard, so if you can stir a pot, you can whip up this buttery brown sugar pudding in no time. In fact, you may be tempted to eat the plain pudding prior to its trip to the freezer, and I wouldn’t blame you. Just try to leave a little bit for the popsicles themselves; you’ll be grateful to have them on hand (and in hand) the next time a craving strikes.

Cookie Dough Pudding Pops

1/4 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Cup Light Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Tablespoon Vegan Butter, Melted
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Cup Chocolate Chips

Begin by lightly toasting the flour in a dry skillet. Place the skillet over medium heat and continuously, gently stir the flour, until faintly golden brown all over. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup of the non-dairy milk to form a thick paste, beating out any lumps before proceeding. Continue to add in the remaining non-dairy milk and whisk vigorously to smooth out the mixture. Incorporate the sugar, vegan butter, and salt, stirring well. Cook, stirring periodically, until bubbles break regularly on the surface and the liquid has thickened significantly.

Turn off the heat, cool to room temperature, and then let rest in the fridge until thoroughly chilled. Stir in the vanilla and chocolate chips before transferring the mixture to popsicle molds. Place in the freezer and let rest until frozen; at least 3 hours.

Yield will vary depending on the size of your molds.

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What’s in a Name?

One name is pretty standard baggage, if not the bare minimum for informal identification. Whether you’re a fan of your moniker or not, it sure beats yelling out “Hey, you! You with the face!” to command attention from friends and family. We all have at least one good name, and often two, perhaps three, and even a nickname for closer confidants. However, the web of casual connections grows increasingly tangled from there, when a seemingly endless stream of unrelated aliases all point in the same direction. What kind of secrets are hidden behind each different title? Where did all those names come from, and why did they keep relabeling the exact same item?

Sea foam, fairy food, hokey pokey, honeycomb, sponge candy- There could very well be more pseudonyms that I’ve missed, well concealed by this cunning candy. This vintage sweet had taken on a new assumed name with each community of unsuspecting bakers. None were troubled enough to ask many questions, so utterly enchanted by its signature matrix of sugary bubbles, forever frozen at the hard-crack stage, that all other concerns were quickly abandoned.

Though I set out on a mission to uncover the truth, that cause fell by the wayside as I cooked and caramelized, stirred and stewed, bubbled, boiled, and crystallized my very own sweet mystery. If anything, the kitchen enigma I created was even darker, more powerful than the old fashioned candies of yore. Crisp foamy craters redolent of chocolate define this newest incarnation, possessing almost as many forms of cacao as its storied names. There’s cocoa and dark chocolate of course, and cacao nibs for extra crunch, but the real secret ingredient here is chocolate extract. Nothing else is able to convey such a depth of flavor in this fragile ratio of sugars and liquids without collapsing the delicate framework of airy perforations.

I’m no closer to uncovering the true indentity of this culinary chameleon… But I do understand why so many before me have fallen for such a sweet devil without question. Now that I’ve given it yet another name to contend with, the waters of history grow murkier, tinted with the all-consuming powers of chocolate, but that’s far from a bad thing. What’s in a name, anyway?

This post was made possible thanks to Rodelle and their superlative cacao contributions.

Quadruple Chocolate Honeycomb

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
5 Tablespoons Water, Divided
1 Teaspoon White Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Cocoa Powder
1 Teaspoon Chocolate Extract
2 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
2 Ounces Dark Chocolate, Finely Chopped
1 Tablespoon Cacao Nibs

Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking dish with parchment paper and lightly grease. It doesn’t need to fit perfectly inside the pan, as long as it will cover the bottom and sides without any holes for the liquid candy to escape through.

Combine the sugar, agave, 4 tablespoons of the water, and vinegar in a medium saucepan. Stir just to moisten all of the sugar and place over medium heat. Swirl the pan gently to mix the ingredients as the sugar slowly melts, but avoid stirring from this point forward to prevent premature crystallization.

Meanwhile, mix together the remaining tablespoon of water, cocoa powder, and chocolate extract in a small dish; set aside.

Cook until the mixture caramelized and reaches 300 – 310 degrees, also known as the hard crack stage in candy-making terminology, and remove the pan from the heat. Things will move very quickly from here, so be on your toes. Vigorously stir in the cocoa paste along with the baking soda, allowing the mixture to froth and foam violently. Immediately transfer the liquid candy mixture to your prepared baking dish but do not spread or smooth it down. Allow it to settle naturally to maintain the structure of fine bubbles trapped within.

Let cool for at least 1 hour until fully set. To finish, melt the the dark chocolate in a microwave-safe dish, heating at intervals of 30 seconds and stirring thoroughly in between each one, until completely smooth. Pour over the top and spread it evenly across the surface. Sprinkle with cacao nibs and let rest until solidified. Break the candy into pieces and enjoy.

Sadly, it doesn’t keep well for more than a two or three days at room temperature, even when sealed in an air-tight container, so enjoy without delay!

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