BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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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Wave of the Future

If you can blend it, you can milk it. Once defined and dominated by soybeans alone, the very nature of non-dairy drinks is hotly debated by enthusiasts and detractors alike, struggling to find commonalities that might link that vast array of plant-based sources crowding out the antiquated plastic jugs of cow juice. It’s not just the sales figures that are booming, but the unparalleled variety and access that consumers can now enjoy, just as easily opting for an almond, hemp, or oat mustache instead. New blends are still popping up rapidly, before you can even empty your first frothy glass. Now, along with those nutty and beany staples, the lactose intolerant can stock their fridges with banana milk.

Banana Wave presents itself as a game changer seeking to disrupt the industry, but the whole truth is less likely to make real waves. Built upon a foundation of bananas, soymilk, and gluten-free oats, in that order, it’s more like a thin blended smoothie than a true dairy substitute, bearing a viscosity similar to a simple protein shake.

Surprisingly subdued in flavor, the initial impact was less sweet and potent than anticipated, perhaps to placate drinkers that might not be entirely on board with a fruity intrusion. Flax oil, though a welcome change of pace from lower quality canola or safflower, contributes a discordant note and slightly mineral aftertaste. An impressive battery of vitamins and minerals bolster the nutritional profile, proving that it has more to offer than the average watery mammalian formula. Undeniably smooth and creamy, it certain still has its charm. I could see this being a great grab-and-go snack, if only it was packaged in single-serving cartons. Overall, it’s a great concept that hasn’t yet realized its own full potential. I’m looking forward to the day when I see Banana Wave on the shelf, right alongside the heavyweights battling it out for non-dairy dominance, but I don’t think it’s quite ready to roll with the punches just yet.


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Dig In

Unless referring to the planet itself, “earthy” is a descriptor of dubious praise. Much like the ambiguous label of “interesting,” such a word can be interpreted in many ways- Mostly negative. Mushrooms and beets can be earthy, and for as fervently as their fan clubs will tout the word as praise, their detractors just as quickly adopt it as evidence for their disdain. Telling someone to “eat dirt,” is a fairly clear insult, on the other hand, although I have no qualms recommending charcoal, ash, or lava for your next meal. Still, the mental imagery of picking up a handful of soil and chowing down inevitably leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

This was the war of words I battled when agonizing on this new recipe’s title. Designed as a celebration of spring, gardening, and new growth, the original title was simply “Dirt Dip.” The dirty truth of the matter is that each distinctive strata was inspired by nature; worms, dirt, pebbles, and grass. Appetizing, right? Perhaps honesty is not the best policy here. Let’s start over.

Bursting forth with vibrant flavors ideal for celebrating the vernal equinox, I present to you my layered garden party dip. A base of savory caramelized onions sets a deeply umami foundation upon which this dynamic quartet is built. Fresh lemon and mint mingle just above in a creamy yet chunky black bean mash. Briny black olive tapenade accentuates these bold flavors, adding an addictive salty note that makes it impossible to resist a double-dip. Sealing the deal is a fine shower of snipped chives, lending a mellow onion note to bring all the layers together. Make sure you really dig in deep to get a bite of each one!

4-Layer Garden Party Dip

Caramelized Onions:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Large Red Onion, Halved and Thinly Sliced
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Lemon-Mint Black Bean Dip:

1 15-Ounce Can (or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked) Black Beans, Drained and Rinsed
3 Cloves Roasted Garlic
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Tablespoon Fresh Mint, Finely Chopped
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Tapenade:

1 Cup Pitted Black Olives
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Fresh Parsley, Chopped

Garnish:

1/2 – 1 Ounce Fresh Chives, Finely Chopped

The caramelized onions will take the longest to prepare, so get them cooking first by setting a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and sliced onion, tossing to coat. Once the pan is hot and the onions become aromatic, turn down the heat to low and slowly cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 – 45 minutes until deeply amber brown. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, make the bean dip by either tossing everything into your food processor and pulsing until fairly creamy and well-combined, or mashing the ingredients together in a large bowl by hand. You want to leave the dip fairly coarse for a more interesting texture, so stop short of a smooth puree if using the machine.

The tapenade is made just as easily. Either pulse all of the components together in your food processor or chop them by hand, until broken down and thoroughly mixed.

Finally, to assemble the dip, select a glass container to enjoy the full effect of your work. Smooth the caramelized onions into the bottom in an even layer, followed by the bean dip and then the tapenade. Sprinkle chives evenly all over the top. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with cut vegetable crudites, crackers, or chips.

The dip can be prepared in advance if stored in an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

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Mathematically Impossible Pi

There are “math people,” and then there’s everyone else. Math people breeze through tabulations for group dinners, factoring in precise tip percentages and taking individual drink orders into account, while the rest of us are still fumbling to pull up the calculator app on our phones. Math people relish real-life opportunities to crunch numbers when others can only feebly chew on their finger nails. To me, those skills are a sort of magical, superhuman power that I can only admire from afar, left behind in the dust as soon as we advance beyond basic multiplication and division. Needless to say, I am NOT a math person, but for the enviable folks who are, this day is for you.

Pi Day, March 14, 3.14, is the most mathematically sound day of the year to indulge in a slice of pie. At least that’s what the experts seem to say, and with my shaky analytical understanding, who am I to question the specifics?

Anything beyond the most basic math is an impossibility in my hands, but despite the name, this pie is not. The title merely refers to the way it “impossibly” forms its own crust as it bakes, no pastry needed to support a luscious custard filling. Riffing off my favorite childhood sandwich, stacked thick with gooey marshmallow cream slathered over crunchy peanut butter, this reinterpretation skips the bland bread and gets right to the good stuff. Deceptively simple, it takes little more effort to assemble than the classic school lunch inspiration itself.

Prepare for a decadent peanut butter and marshmallow onslaught; just a small slice will satisfy the most intense cravings, and it doesn’t take a math person to figure that out.

Impossible Fluffernutter Pie

1 Cup Crunchy Peanut Butter
1/2 Cup Vegan Vanilla Yogurt
1/2 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
3/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/3 Cup all-Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt*
1/2 Bag (5 Ounces) Dandies Vegan Mini Marshmallows
1/2 Cup Roughly Chopped Roasted Peanuts

*If you’re using salted peanut butter to begin with, dial back the additional salt or omit entirely, to taste.

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

Whisk together the peanut butter, yogurt, non-dairy milk, vinegar, and vanilla in a small bowl, and set aside. Separately, combine the sugar, flour, arrowroot, baking powder, and salt. Mix thoroughly so that no lumps remain and all of the dry ingredients are completely incorporated. Add in the liquid mixture and stir until smooth.

Pour the batter into your prepared pie pan, and bake for 40 – 45 minutes. It should be set around the edges but quite wobbly in the center, much like a cheesecake. Pile the marshmallows on top in an even layer and return the pie to the oven. Set the broiler to high and cook for just 5 – 10 minutes, until the marshmallows are lightly toasted and golden brown.

Let cool to room temperature before garnishing with peanuts, slicing, and serving.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

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Triangles and Tribulations

If ever a single holiday could rival the festivities of Halloween, it would have to be Purim. The comparisons are obvious: Fanciful costumes, parties and games, and of course, sweet treats. Where Purim has the leg up on the competition, however, is in those much celebrated edible offerings. Rather than merely candy, hamantaschen are the traditional pastry-based prize. They’ve become synonymous with the observance, almost more important to the observance than the historical significance itself. A Purim party without hamantaschen would be like underwear without elastic; uncomfortable at best, but in practical terms, truly impossible.

Previous years have seen the sugar-flecked and jam-splattered variations flying fast and furious out of my oven. Traditional or avant-garde, it’s hard to go too far wrong when you start with tender, buttery cookie dough, so rich that the best cookies threaten to flatten out into triangular puddles while baking. Flipping the script in a drastically new approach is a dangerous proposition, considering their fervent following, but I can never leave well enough alone. Perhaps they’re only hamantaschen in spirit, but since any food with three corners can stand in as a representation of Haman’s hat, I’m hoping my wild digression might still get a pass.

Savory, not sweet. Steamed, not baked. Wonton wrapper, not cookie. We can argue the disparities all day long, but when it comes down to it, there’s no question about their taste. Stuffed with gloriously green edamame filling, these dumplings are a quicker and easier alternative to the typically fussy sweet dough, and offer much needed substance after overdosing on the aforementioned pastries. General folding advice still stands as a good guideline to follow when wrapping things up, but once you get those papery thin skins to stick, you’re pretty much golden. If you’re less confident in your dumpling prowess, cut yourself a break and fold square dumplings wrappers in half instead. You’ll still get neat little triangles, and with much less full.

Short on time but long on appetite, I’m not ashamed to take a few shortcuts to get these delightful little dumplings on the table. You can go all out with homemade edamame hummus and even dumpling skins from scratch, but this quick-fix solution allows you to steam up a quick batch at the last minute, or any time the craving strikes.

Edamame Hamantaschen Dumplings

1 Cup Shelled Edamame
1/3 Cup Edamame Hummus
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Savoy Cabbage
15 (3-Inch) Round Wonton Skins or Gyoza Wrappers*
Additional Soy Sauce, to Serve

*You can typically find these either in the produce section near the tofu, or in the freezer aisle with other Asian ingredients. Double-check the labels because these sometimes include eggs.

The filling comes together in a snap so for maximum efficiency, set up your steaming apparatus first. Line a bamboo steamer or metal steam rack with leaves of savoy cabbage to prevent the dumplings from sticking to the bottom, and start the water simmering in a large pot.

Simply mix together the shelled edamame, hummus, scallion, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and cumin, stirring thoroughly. Lay out your dumpling wrappers and place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of each one. Run a lightly moistened finger around the entire perimeter and bring the sides together, forming three bounding walls. Tightly crimp the corners together with a firm pinch.

Place on the cabbage leaves and cover the steamer or pot. Steam for 2 – 4 minutes, until the wrappers are translucent. Serve immediately, with additional soy sauce for dipping if desired.

Makes 15 Dumplings

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Monochromatic, Never Monotonous

In such murky, turbulent times, it’s comforting to know that some things remain clearly defined in black and white. Even through the dense fog of uncertainty, it’s easy to identify a satisfying meal when you see one. Should it be clad in an attractive range of tones that never deviate too far from one scale of the color spectrum, so much the better.

Black pasta is crowning jewel of this monochromatic treasure chest, arrestingly dark spirals twisting through a sea of contrasting produce. Though the concept would traditionally suggest that squid ink was at play, the rise in popularity of charcoal has brought a new tint onto the food scene. I can’t vouch for its “detoxing” abilities, nor do I care to test out the claims; what interests me most is the dusky onyx hue it imparts to everything it touches.

In truth, you could pair absolutely anything with those obsidian twisted noodles with equal success and beauty, but the bold visuals of pale white cauliflower and tofu feta create stunning visual appeal, and an equally stellar flavor profile. Briny kalamata olives join the party to add a salty top note, accentuating the deeper roasted flavor of the cruciferous addition and lightly caramelized onions. Pine nuts add an occasional crunch to keep every bite exciting.

Plan ahead for this meal and everything will come together quite easily. Handmade pasta is definitely a labor of love, but can be prepared well in advance to save you the struggle when the dinner hour rolls around. Trofie, my shape of choice, is a Ligurian pasta that is already vegan by nature, no eggs needed. Rolled by hand into bite-sized twirls, it requires no special machinery, but can be time-consuming to complete. Feel free to go a simpler route with basic linguine or spaghetti to save yourself the hassle. The pasta will taste just as good, and look every bite as darkly handsome.

Black Trofie Pasta

3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Food-Grade Charcoal Powder
1 Teaspoon Salt
3/4 – 1 Cup Water

Place the flour, charcoal, and salt in a large bowl, whisking thoroughly to equally distribute the ingredients. Make a well in the center and pour 3/4 cup of water. Begin mixing the flour into the water, maintaining the well in the center as best you can. When the mixture gets too thick for a fork, drop the fork and get your hands in there to continue mixing. Drizzle in additional water as needed to incorporate all of the flour to form a cohesive dough. It should feel tacky but not sticky.

Knead on a lightly-floured surface for 8 – 10 minutes, until very smooth. Let the dough rest for an hour before proceeding, or cover with plastic wrap, place in the fridge, and let rest overnight.

To shape the noodles, first lightly flour a baking sheet and clean work surface.

Flatten the dough out into a disk and cut a strip about 1/2-inch wide. Don’t worry too much about the exact measurements, since you will next roll it into a rope about half that width. Slice it into 1/4-inch pieces.

Take one nugget at a time and rub it between your palms, creating a small cylinder with tapered ends. For extra flare, you can further twist the shapes to create ridges, but for an “authentic” trophie, you only need to rub the dough between your hands three or four times to create each noodle. Drop the finished shapes onto your awaiting baking sheet. Let the noodles rest and lightly air-dry, uncovered, for at least one hour before cooking.

The pasta will cook in boiling water in just 30 – 120 seconds (yes, seconds, not minutes!) depending on the thickness of your noodles. Stand by and taste-taste for when they’re perfectly al dente.

Makes About 1 Pound; 4 Servings

Black and White Pasta

1 Batch Black Trofie Pasta, Above

1 Head Cauliflower, Cut into Florets
1/2 Medium White Onion, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives, Pitted and Halved
5 Ounces Tofu Feta, Roughly Crumbled
1/4 Cup Toasted Pine Nuts

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Toss the cauliflower, onion, garlic, oil, salt, and pepper together in a large bowl until the vegetables are evenly coated. Spread everything out on your prepared baking sheet in an even layer, making sure nothing overlaps, and slide it into the hot oven. Roast for about 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is golden brown and fork-tender.

Toss the roasted vegetables together with the cooked pasta, kalamata olives, tofu feta, and pine nuts. Add in a tiny splash of the pasta cooking water if desired, to give the dish a bit more moisture. Serve immediately, while piping hot.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Flipping Over Pancakes

The greatest traditions of excess are born from their polar opposites, of fasts or famines, celebrating, repenting, or simply surviving. Shrove Tuesday carries that torch with unmatched enthusiasm, having evolved into an unrestrained eating and drinking bender, theoretically in preparation for the 40-day Lenten fast ahead. Pancakes are the star of the menu because historically, the fresh eggs and milk already on hand would spoil during that time of abstention, so the only reasonable thing to do would be to make massive amounts of flapjacks and throw a huge party, naturally. How this simple predisposition to thriftiness evolved into the revelry and debauchery of modern day Mardi Gras is a whole ‘nother story.

Those same concerns of preventing food waste certainly aren’t of primary concern for current festivities, but the universal love of pancakes has kept the practice alive. A simple sort of decadence, pancakes are as easy and uncomplicated as they come, making themselves right at home on the fanciest and unfussiest of tables alike. Regardless, it always feels like a special occasion when diving into a fluffy short stack, buttery and sticky with maple syrup. Despite their humble nature, countless cooks still find the prospect of flipping the perfect pancake rather daunting- Myself included. My own personal pancake disasters are too numerous to recount, but particularly infamous misadventures include scrambled pancakes, pancakes that are both raw and burnt at the same time, and pancakes flipped perfectly… Outside of the pan and literally into the fire.

For this Pancake Tuesday, I decided to seek advice from a master. Sitting myself down at Saturn Cafe with full view of the open kitchen, a few key elements for pancake perfection became clear.

1. Consistency matters. This means two things, actually: The viscosity of the batter is essential for the right texture. Too runny and you’ll get crepes. Too thick and you’ll get doorstops. Your best bet is a ratio of approximately equal parts liquid to flour by weight. The other component to this concept is that you should be consistent in your delivery. Use a ladle or measuring cup to dose out the same amount of batter every time, and space them an equal distance apart. Don’t forget to allow sufficient space to flip!

2. Take it slow. Pancakes already cook quickly so there’s no need to rush things. Keep the heat closer to medium-low to prevent them from burning on the outside before cooked all the way through. Look for the surface to be covered in ruptured bubbles before proceeding.

3. Add in, don’t mix in. Goodies like nuts, fruits, and chocolate chips are often the spotlight ingredients of truly decadent pancakes, but like any celebrities, they should arrive fashionably late to the party. Mix-ins stirred directly into the batter with sink to the bottom, creating some scantily clad pancakes. Wait until they’re about halfway done cooking before sprinkling your starlets on top, keeping them evenly distributed and at the center of attention.

4. Keep it on the down-low. When it comes time for the dreaded flip, don’t try anything fancy. Don’t expect to toss those little flapjacks in the air like pizza dough and don’t pretend that you can flick the pan forward to succeed without a spatula. Check to make sure that they’re ready by peeking underneath first. If the bottom is evenly golden brown, you’re good to go. Make sure the spatula is completely underneath and supporting the cake and keep it as close to the pan as possible when you turn it over. Be firm but gentle. Don’t slap it down forcefully, unless you’d like to redecorate your kitchen walls with raw batter.

If you have flour in the pantry, you could have pancakes for breakfast. The most basic formulas need little more than that to yield ambrosial breakfast treats, to dress up or down as your heart desires. There’s no reason to wait until Fat Tuesday rolls around to break out the skillet, but while we’re all throwing caution to the wind and pouring the syrup on thick, you might as well take advantage of the celebration to indulge.