BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Top Nog

What is it about the holiday season that incites us to cast all common sense aside and engage in otherwise inadvisable behavior, with childlike glee, no less? Whether that means racing outside into giant piles of freezing snow, risking frostbite to all appendages without a second thought, or racking up credit card bills for the sake of tree dressings and silly ornamentation used only once a year, we all write off these aberrations as all part of a collective Christmas madness shared throughout society. What causes you to throw out the rule book and deviate from standard operations? What touch of insanity do you entertain to make it really feel like the holidays are here? For me, that would be buying every single vegan nog option available across three towns for the sake of comparison.

Yes indeed, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The great Nog-Off of 2017, pitting past industry heavy weights against startups and newbies to determine which eggless nog reigns supreme. This round was the most impressive yet, bringing in no less that nine different beverages vying for the title of Top Nog.

Time is of the essence, with each of these elusive elixirs produced for a very limited time during the most festive of days, so let’s pour a glass and get started, shall we?

It was an extremely difficult, close race to judge, but last place was obvious right away. Sorry, not sorry, but Rice Dream Rice Nog will never be welcome at my holiday party. Inexplicably pink and quite watery, it utilizes aggressive sweetness to compensate for a distinct lack of flavor. Granted, it’s not outright dreadful, but not even close to “authentic” nog. On the plus side, the rice base will appeal to those with severe allergies, and the aseptic, shelf-stable carton means it will keep well… Possibly for years… Much like an unwanted fruitcake.

That said, this came as no surprise. My greatest disappointment was actually the second to last place finisher, the highly esteemed MALK Pecan MALK Nog. Tawny brown, it stood out with a distinctive darkness in a sea of pastel hues, owing to a unique blend of maple syrup and whole pecans as a base. The bottle isn’t kidding when it admonishes the drinker to shake “super” well; no stabilizers or fillers means that this stuff separates, which I can certainly appreciate from a stance of ingredient integrity and a commitment to quality. Scented strongly of cinnamon, the overall impression was surprisingly light, dangerously drinkable- Smooth and sweet, but not particularly thick or rich. Sadly, this made it more reminiscent of horchata than eggnog. It just couldn’t cut the mustard for that full-bodied eggless experience.

From there, things improve drastically. Luckily, you can’t go too far wrong with most selections available Nationwide, and in fact a number of these cartons could be interchanged without any guests being being the wiser.

Califia Holiday Nog and Silk Nog Original pull in the next rank up, tied for their close flavor profiles and consistencies. Silk is perhaps a touch sweeter, if anything. Though the former is almond-based and the later soy, both have a smooth, creamy pour equivalent to the average, slightly richer non-dairy milk. There’s a distinctive brightness at first sip that defies definition; almost like undefinable spice or burst of acidity, but without warmth or sharpness. Fine as an everyday, everyman sort of nog, a hit of bourbon or brandy would be a welcome addition to make things a bit more festive. Fairly neutral, without explicit nutmeg nor eggy notes, either would be inoffensive, if undistinguished, offerings on the drink buffet.

Fresh on the market, Trader Joe’s Almond Nog has already taken Instagram by storm, right along with the impressive array of new vegan options that seem to crop up on each new trip to the store. Smooth and mellow, creamy, and boasting a balanced sweetness, this blend presents a harmonious middle of the road option that should please all who imbibe. Satisfingly in thick, not overbearing nor weighed down by gums, a light hand on the spicing and very subtle nutty undertone explains why dairy-free drinkers are delighted by this new choice. No one would mistake it for the traditional brew, but no one would complain about the substitution, either.

Moving on up, it’s with sadness and joy that I must report that previous grand champion So Delicious Seasonal Coconut Holiday Nog has been dethroned! It’s a sad blow to the superlative brand, but a boon to veganism that there are even greater choices to pick from now. Still a genuinely delicious selection, true to the name, the coconut base is definitely rich, decadent, and bold. That said, it was all love and sweetness on the first sip, and then… A startling aftertaste of old latex bandaids came to the fore. Off-putting, upsetting, to say the least, this mysterious sour note almost put it on the naught list this year. Such missteps would certainly be forgiven with a splash of booze to smooth things over, but otherwise it was fabulous!

Another fresh face on the scene is making a big splash, pulling in a top spot with an unconventional flaxseed fixation. Good Karma Holiday Nog is the one and only flax nog on earth, to my knowledge. Glowing with the palest complexion of pastel yellow, the flavor profile is defined by a restrained sweetness, a bare hint of spice, and a subtle nutty, pleasantly grassy aftertaste. Smooth and creamy, but slightly sticky, it lingers on the palate in an indulgent sort of way that belies its impressively light calorie load.

In a big upset, my mainstream market nog of choice this year turned out to be Classic Almond Breeze Almondmilk Nog. Curiously absent from the official brand website and difficult to track down, it was a sleeper hit. So easy to drink, creamy and cool, it makes no bones about the almond base with an attempt to cover up the nutty influence, incorporating it harmoniously within the overall beverage instead. Vanilla plays a more prominent role in this blend, and although I do wish there was more nutmeg sparkling throughout the mix, this was the bottle I ultimately wanted more of when all were drained.

But that’s not the end of the story. There was one clear, standout winner here, rising far above the ranks of these more attainable options. The crown is well deserved, for its genuinely egg-like richness, sheer decadence, and clear holiday spirit. Though you may need to special-order it online, the efforts would be worthwhile for a true nog lover. The Urban Remedy No Egg Nog is in a class all its own. Rich and filling, with a clean finish, it has a very different texture from the rest of the pack, without gums or stabilizers. Though easily the most indulgent option available, it’s arguably the most healthy, owing to its simple, natural ingredients; whole almonds, cashews, and dates join forces in this nutmeg-centric and boldly spiced beverage that drinks like a meal. A considerable sprinkle of salt boosts the flavor up to eleven, making it entirely crave-worthy on a whole new level. This is what the holiday season is all about: a rare, special treat that breaks through the typical structure of one’s daily life, or daily diet, as it were. You wouldn’t drink it everyday, but you’ll miss it dearly when it’s gone.

To all those unfortunately out of driving or delivery range, the sweet folks at Urban Remedy have a generous holiday present to share. You can actually scope out their unique recipe, posted for all to enjoy and freely imbibe.

If all that noggin’ around doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will.

So, how did your favorites stack up? Do you agree with the 2017 Nog-Off results, or are you willing to pick a fight for your own personal winner? More importantly though, did I miss any other contenders for the next round?

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Mocha Me Crazy

Crispy edges shatter upon the most tender, tentative of bites, giving way to a gently chewy interior rife with toasted nuts. Sweet, but balanced by the naturally bitter nuances of coffee and dark cocoa, this riot of flavor and texture all comes in a modest, unassuming little bar. While most holiday cookies are lavished with bold frosted jewels and colorful sugar crystals, the prettiest confections would be hard-pressed to compete with such unvarnished indulgence. Most would dub such an accomplishment as a resounding baking success, so it might come as a surprise that the whole lot of them was almost destined for the trash heap.

Though glorious in their own quiet sort of way, these treats were born of much loftier aspirations- Literally. Back in the very early stages of aquafaba awareness, many crazy experiments were carried out in the name of science, and sweet tooth-fueled cravings, of course. Admittedly, the frustration of failure has darkened the memory of their origins, so it’s hard to say exactly what I had intended while dutifully whipping chickpea brine into submission. A seriously nutty sponge cake, perhaps? Regardless of intention, the results fell flat.

Trying hard to salvage the thin, brittle sheet of confectionery matter, I picked up the pieces and dutifully went through the motions of styling and photography, but remained dispirited. If not for certain interlopers that kept swiping errant crumbs and strongly suggesting that a proper taste test was in order, the recipe would have immediately hit the digital dust bin. Thank goodness for that persistence which saved a new family favorite.

Rising from the ashes and crumbs, I’m pleased to finally present these Mocha-Nut Bars as part of Rodelle’s 2017 Holiday Cookie Campaign. Pooling together some of the brightest (and sweetest) minds in the blogosphere, there’s no shortage of sugar or spice here. In fact, the master bakers at Rodelle have taken it upon themselves to ensure that, and have generously offered to provide their unrivaled baking cocoa for many more rounds of delicious experimentation.

GIVEAWAY ALERT! Enter to win one of two 8-ounce jars of this superlative baking cocoa by telling me in the comment section: What has been your most delicious recipe “failure” or mistake to date? Log your submission and find more ways to enter though the official giveaway form.

Baking, as with most things in life, doesn’t always go exactly according to plan on the first try. The only real mistake, however, would be letting those challenges prevent us from finding entirely new successes in the process.

Mocha-Nut Bars

1/2 Cup Toasted Pistachios, Chopped
1/2 Cup Toasted Cashews, Chopped
1/2 Cup Toasted Pecans, Chopped
1/2 Cup Almond Meal
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1/3 Cup Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
1/3 Cup All-Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Instant Coffee Powder or Granules
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Cup + 2 Tablespoons Aquafaba
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9×9-inch square pan.

Mix together the nuts, almond meal, confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, flour, instant coffee, salt, and baking soda. Make sure there are no clumps, and that all the ingredients are well distributed throughout before proceeding.

Place the aquafaba in the bowl of your stand mixer and whip on high speed for about 10 minutes, until light and fluff. Slowly add in about half of the dry mixture, mixing gently until incorporated. Fold in the remaining half by hand using a wide spatula. Add in the oil and vanilla last, stirring as little as possible to keep the batter nice and airy.

Spread the batter into your prepared pan and bake for 20 – 25 minutes, until the top is glossy (but not wet) and slightly crackled in appearance. Let cool completely before slicing. Store in an airtight container for 3 – 5 days.

Makes 12 – 16 Bars

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Poached Trade

At their bare essentials, all holidays are based around eating and drinking to some degree, but none more so than Thanksgiving. In fact, it’s the main event! Without the gluttonous, butter-soaked spread, it would be just another family meal. Our excuse is that we’re merely celebrating the great bounty we’re so fortunate to receive, but somewhere along the line, it becomes a battle between man and sweatpants, seeing which will give under the pressure first.

Today, I would like to offer you the antidote to that over-the-top indulgence, in the form of a persimmon. Elegant simplicity defines this plate; more of a procedure than a full recipe, the most essential step is one not written in the instructions. Start with only the very best fruit, or don’t bother starting at all.

I would never suggest that such a humble dessert, delicious as it may be, could ever replace the traditional slab of pumpkin or pecan pie. Rather, consider each one a sweet little snack that’s something extra special for the occasion. Serve these dainty orange orbs midday to stave off that familiar, gnawing hunger while dinner slowly roasts to prevent the inevitable frenzied binge. Alternatively, save them for the following day when those sticky, crumbly, half-eaten pies aren’t nearly so appealing.

Poached Persimmons

5 Fuyu Persimmons, Stemmed and Peeled
3 Cups Pineapple Juice
2 Tablespoons Dark Rum
2 Inches Fresh Ginger, Sliced
1 Vanilla Bean, Split
Zest of 1 Orange, Peeled Off in Strips
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch

Whipped Ginger Fluff:

1/4 Cup Aquafaba
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

5 Tablespoons Toasted Pistachios, for Garnish

Core out the persimmons, removing the calyxes, and peel. Place them in a medium saucepan along with the pineapple juice, rum, fresh ginger, vanilla bean, and orange zest. Bring the liquid up to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and gently cook for 20 – 30 minutes, until the fruits are fork-tender.

Remove the persimmons with a slotted spoon, leaving the excess poaching liquid behind in the pan. Remove and discard the ginger pieces, spent vanilla bean, and orange peel. Whisk in the cornstarch and return it to the heat. Bring the mixture back to a boil, whisking periodically, until thickened. Set aside.

When you’re ready to make the fluff, begin whipping the aquafaba in your stand mixer on low. Gradually increase the speed all the way to the highest setting and slowly begin adding the sugar and ginger together. Once incorporated, add in the vanilla. Continue whipping for about 10 minutes, until light and fluffy.

To serve, spoon a dollop of the ginger fluff on top of each persimmon and top with a tablespoon of the pistachios. Divide the sauce equally between the plates and enjoy warm.

Makes 5 Servings

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Clear-Cut

Alinea set the internet on fire once again with another avant-garde culinary masterpiece, drawing on the pumpkin spice craze to further propel it into a viral hit. Perfectly clear pumpkin pie, glossy and ethereal, gently quavered in the brief Instagram video, a tiny wedge being turned over and examined by a disembodied hand. Mesmerizing, confounding, the attraction is instant and irresistible.

#surrealism, indeed.

I tried to look away, to ignore the hype, but curiosity got the best of me, as it always does. A homemade rendition would never be able to stand up to the original for lack of fancy equipment, unless you happen to have a centrifuge and rotary-evaporator lying around to extract clear, condensed liquid from pumpkin puree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with the concept. Drawing inspiration from this wild idea and combining it with the pumpkin spice trend that ignores the actual gourd, my take is admittedly more translucent than transparent, but nonetheless a whimsical departure from the ordinary orange slice.

Translucent Pumpkin Spice Pie

1 (8-Inch) Graham Cracker Crust, Baked
3 Cups Water
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons Pumpkin Spice Extract
1 Tablespoon Agar Powder
1/8 Teaspoon Salt

Combine the water, sugar, pumpkin spice extract, agar, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk periodically until the sugar has fully dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil and cook for 2 more minutes. Gently pour the mixture into your prepared crust so as not to kick up lots of loose crumbs. Let the pie cool to room temperature before moving it into the fridge to chill. Once fully set (about 1 to 2 hours), slice and serve!

Makes 8 Servings

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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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