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The Week in Sweets

21 Aug

AKA The Good, The Bad and the Mediocre. Let’s start with the good, shall we?

The Good

I love summer. Not just because of the weather, but because of the fruit. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, watermelons, cherries, peaches, nectarines, and pluots are just some of my favorite indulgences during the summer season.

Homemade peach galette:  For the crust, I used a mix of flour and cornmeal, coconut oil and a mere two tablespoons of sugar. The cornmeal gave the crust a nice crunch and rustic touch that I really liked. For the filling, I added the teeniest amount of  maple syrup as the  peaches were perfectly ripe and sweet as they were, and a touch of cinnamon. So, so good!

This photo does not even begin to convey the deliciousness of what you are looking at.

Farm-fresh strawberries: These came straight from a strawberry farm down the street from my sweetie’s family’s house. Because they live in farm country, we always get top-notch, freshest of the fresh produce for super cheap when we visit. $10 for six full baskets of the sweetest, juiciest strawberries you’ve ever tasted in your entire life! We usually finish off a basket in the car before even making it back to the house.

Quite possibly the best stuff on Earth.

Watermelon: During one particularly hot summer a few years ago, I ate six large, whole watermelons all by myself over the course of two months. True story. Though I’m not as zealous about watermelon eating as I once was, I love a cold, crisp wedge (or five!) of watermelon on a hot day.

Don't touch my watermelon!

The Bad

Chocolate Cookie by Kerri Kreations: I came across this vegan cookie during my shopping trip at Rainbow Grocery. It was quite an attractive cookie– thick and generous with the chocolate chips and walnuts–and had an enticing, chocolaty aroma so I was pretty excited to give it a try. Unfortunately, it was was super dry, flavorless and had a slight chalky flavor. I don’t know whether the fault lies in Rainbow possibly selling stale cookies, or whether recipe is just bad, but either way, this cookie was inedible.

Meh.

The Mediocre

Twinkie and Peanut Butter Snowball from Source: Though I can imagine that many others enjoy or would enjoy these desserts, I found them to be cloyingly sweet. Admittedly though, I don’t like my sweets very sweet and my dessert preferences lean toward the French rather than American tradition. I’d never before tasted a Twinkie (vegan or otherwise) and after trying this one, I don’t expect to ever eat one again. The cake was very dense and a bit dry. The filling was some kind of cream loaded with what I would guess is powdered sugar.

Because my partner loves the flavor combination of chocolate and peanut butter, we of course had to get the peanut butter snowball, which consisted of a dense cake topped with thick, sweet peanut butter cream, chopped peanuts and chocolate ganache. Now, my partner has a major sweet tooth and this was even too sweet for him. Total peanut butter overload, which I’m sure sounds great to some of you! Again, just not for me. That said, I would definitely go back to try more of their savory foods. Everything is vegetarian/vegan and organic, and the owner is super nice — all major pluses in my book!

Please excuse this ugly photo taken with my crappy phone.

Conclusion: Sometimes nothing beats nature-made desserts, such as a piece of fresh fruit.  What do you think? What’s your favorite summer dessert?

Project Vegan Croissant

15 Aug

I feel like such a boring person sometimes. When people ask me what I do “for fun,” I really have to stop and think about it. Truth is, when I’m not baking and cooking…I’m baking and cooking. I resurrected Project Vegan Croissant  in aim of creating THE perfect vegan croissant. Not just vegan, but palm oil-free as well. It hasn’t been an easy feat because there are currently no commercially-produced, non-hydrogenated, palm oil-free, non-dairy margarines that mimic the properties of butter. [My issue with palm oil? There have been numerous articles written on the topic, or check out my thoughts from my old blog.] Alas, I am happy to report that a flaky, fluffy, vegan and palm oil-free croissant is entirely possible thanks to the wonders of coconut oil! I’m still a ways off from perfecting my recipe, but I’m getting there.

In the past two weeks, I’ve made three batches of croissants. My first batch, though buttery in flavor, had a dense interior with few air pockets/layers.

For my second batch, I thought I’d remedy the situation by baking the croissants at a higher temperature to encourage a quick rise. While this resulted in a dark, crispy exterior, the interior remained dense and doughy. It was also lacking a buttery flavor. (No photo, sorry!)

The third batch, however, was a winner! A dark, crispy, flaky exterior, and buttery, fluffy, tender interior.

Fearing another dense interior, I was a little overzealous in laminating the dough for this batch and completed six turns (folds) instead of the usual four, resulting in 729 layers (!!) instead of the usual 81. As such, the interior had air pockets which were smaller and less distinct than I would have liked. I’m aiming for something more like this so I’m going to stick with four turns next time. Still, check out all of the layers! So exciting!

Now it’s time to work on batch #4. I think this time I will make some pains au chocolat (chocolate croissants) as well. Who wants to be a taste tester?

Sweet Corn Muffins

24 Feb

This recipe is from my old blog so I feel like I’m cheating a bit by reposting it, but I really like it and want to share it with those of you who haven’t seen it yet. I enjoy a good cornbread, but I’m very particular about it. I like it just so. While this recipe isn’t perfect, it cures my cornbread cravings every time. I love the crispy, crackly tops, which give way to a dense, moist muffin inside. The agave nectar gives the muffins a slight sweetness that I also love. When in season, I dress up these muffins by adding corn kernels or blueberries for some extra flavor.

Sweet Corn Muffins
Makes 12 small muffins

Ingredients
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 six oz container plain soy yogurt (I recommend Whole Soy & Co brand)
1/4 cup agave nectar
1/8 cup canola oil

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a muffin pan or line with paper muffin liners.

In a medium sized bowl, mix the soy yogurt, agave nectar and canola until combined. In a separate bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and gently stir until thoroughly combined. The batter should be very thick — too thick to pour.

Spoon the batter into the muffin pan, filling each cup about 3/4 of the way. Use a small spoon to smooth out the tops of the muffins. Bake the muffins for 18-20 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Devour!

Bitter Cake and a Swimming Pool of Ramen

19 Feb

Being sick can really mess up your whole week! I got whatever superbug has been going around and two weeks later, I’m still in recovery mode (but back in my routine for the most part, thankfully). Not all was lost last week while I took time off to rest though. For starters, I had some crazy dreams while on Nyquil PM, including an awesome food-related one:

In a spacious banquet room, a large, silver platter of various vegan sandwiches sits atop a round dining table covered in white tablecloth. As I go to reach for one, Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute keeps on grabbing my arm and stopping me from taking one of these delicious, veggie-packed sandwiches. I’m super frustrated, but Rainn/Dwight is much too fast for me, so I move on.

I walk through an indoor/outdoor courtyard and spot ahead — can it be!?– a swimming pool of vegan ramen! Fresh wheat noodles floating in a dark, shoyu-based broth. I excitedly inhale the savory aroma and anticipate the taste on my tongue as I jump in. There are already two other women in the pool and we all happily float about in the warm broth — me on my back, with long, soft strands of noodles flowing between my arms and legs. I look up and on the deck overlooking the pool is none other than Desi Arnaz, one of my favorite actors/producers of all time! The drama of the vegan sandwiches behind me, I am in bliss.

I’m so not kidding; that was the exact dream that I had. And in my dream, I knew that sandwiches and ramen were vegan (I’m not just making that up now). I was so excited about my dream, I actually woke up my partner to tell him about it. He looked at me like I was crazy…

While I was sick,  I also started reading Spiced: A Pastry Chef’s True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen, which was recommended to me by one of my mentors. Though far less overt in my previous experience working at nonprofits, I could relate to the sexism in the workplace that Dahlia Jurgensen writes about. I’m a little more than half way through and so far, it reads more like a memoir than a detailed account of the experience of being a pastry chef. Her experiences are definitely eye-opening, however, and provide some insight into how things work in a fast-paced professional kitchen (e.g., be prepared for long hours, low pay and a high-pressure, high stress environment). Jurgensen’s story of her ascent from a bored office worker to a pastry chef thus far has been both entertaining and inspiring and I’d  recommend it to anyone curious about career in the culinary field.

Lastly, I managed to bake one thing last week (I have a hard time doing nothing, even when I really need to): a chocolate olive oil cake from one of the dessert recipes in Great Chefs Cooks Vegan. The use of cake flour gives the cake a soft, delicate crumb that I liked, but I found the finished product to be much too bitter. When I scanned the recipe, my gut told me that it called for too much baking soda — two teaspoons for one-and-a-half cups of flour! — but I decided to go with it since it was created by a famous chef and I figured it must have been tested. I did, however, reduce the teaspoon of salt it called for. Turns out, my gut was right and the cake had a noticeably bitter taste. I was planning to take a photo for the blog, but since I wasn’t happy in how it tasted, I scrapped it. I’ll have to try the recipe another time with some adjustments and see how it turns out.

M.I.A.

6 Feb

I gone without posting for much, much longer than I intended. I’ve just been dead tired. I’m tired from doing work that I love though, so it’s all good. Even so, sorry for being missing in action for so long. I hope to get back on schedule this week. In the meantime, here’s a photo of some French bread I baked recently. Not a dessert, but delicious nonetheless!

Apple Strudel

13 Jan

 

Oh — strudel, strudel, strudel,
I made you out of dough
And when you’re baked and ready
In my tummy you’ll go

I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what came into my head as I put my apple strudel into the oven. I crack myself up sometimes! But seriously, if you’ve ever had apple strudel, you know it’s frickin’ delicious! And you know what? It’s pretty easy to make, too.

For those of you who followed the show Top Chef: Just Desserts, you may remember the quick-fire challenge that involved the two competing groups having to pull strudel dough as fast as they could without tearing it. It’s like that, but without the pressure of the clock, or judgment from teammates if you tear a hole or two. Really, it’s not that bad at all.

To make the dough, what you need is a big table, a clean tablecloth that you don’t mind getting oil stains on and your knuckles. I did my best to provide directions below. If you’d like detailed photos illustrating what the process, however, the bloggers at Chef in You do a fabulous job here.

Anyway, I like to play around with ingredients in the kitchen so I decided to flavor the strudel filling with currants and garam masala, a blend of spices that is commonly found in Indian cuisine. My blend, which I found at a local Indian store down the street, includes coriander, chili, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, amchur, salt, anise, fennel seeds, black pepper, mace and bay leaves. The flavor ended up being more subtle than I intended, so if you’d like more of a spice kick, I’d suggest adding a little more. The strudel dough recipe is from The Pie and Pastry Bible, and is already vegan (score!).

Apple Strudel

Ingredients

Strudel Dough
(from The Pie & Pastry Bible)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tb + 1 tsp vegetable oil
1/3 cup warm water

Apple Filling
1 pound of apples (I used 3 large Granny Smith)
1/4 cup dried currants
2 Tb lemon juice
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt

Streusel Topping
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

For brushing
1/3 cup refined coconut oil, melted

Directions

For the strudel dough:
Mix ingredients in a stand mixer until thoroughly combined. If needed, add water by the teaspoon. On a floured surface, knead dough for a couple minutes. Lightly oil the dough and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. While your dough is sitting, prepare your filling and streusel topping.

For the apple filling: Peel, core and slice apples into 1/4″ slices. Combine with rest of ingredients in large bowl and toss to evenly distribute ingredients.

For streusel topping: Combine ingredients in a bowl and using your hands, mix ingredients together until they form course crumbs.

Putting it all together: Preheat oven to 400* F and have a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat ready. Spread out a clean tablecloth on your table. Roll out your dough to a large round (how large? I didn’t measure exactly, but so the dough is about 1/4″ thin). Brush the top of your dough with some melted coconut oil to keep it from drying out. Slide your hands under the dough and using your knuckles (not your fingers!), gently pull the dough. Continue to stretch it from every side to a rectangular shape, as thin as you can get it–until it’s almost transparent if you can–while being careful not to tear it. It’s OK if there are a few small holes, but you don’t want too many because the filling will poke through. When you’ve stretched it as far as you can, using your brush, sprinkle some coconut oil across your dough.

Next, leaving a few inches around the edges, sprinkle your streusel topping  across your dough. On one of the short sides of the rectangle–again leaving a few inches around the edges–spread your apple filling in a thick layer. Now, using the tablecloth, flip the edge of the dough over the apple filling layer. Lightly brush the layer with oil. Flip the strudel over itself again and oil the next layer. Repeat until you get to the end of the dough. Brush the ends of the dough with oil and tuck under the roll. Brush the top and sides of the strudel with more oil and top with brown sugar. Cut a few steam vents in the roll. Transfer to your baking sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the strudel is a dark golden brown.

Serve warm with ice cream. Yum!

Chocolate Pear Napoleon

30 Dec

The end of the year is always a little bittersweet for me. It’s a time when I start reflecting on the year past, looking back fondly on some experiences, with regret for others. It’s also a time filled with both hope and fears for the year ahead. Of all of the desserts I’ve made these past few months, the chocolate pear napoleon best reflects the mood of this experience for me with the melding of flavors of dark chocolate, sweet pears and tart cranberries.

This dessert is also a reminder of my favorite experience this year, which is when I took the plated dessert class at Laney College in the fall. In this class, all students were responsible for creating a menu item for the bistro on a weekly basis, and preparing and plating that item daily for the week. The program at the school isn’t catered towards vegan baking at all, but the chef instructor of this class allowed me to do all vegan desserts, which was very exciting! The plus side of this was that I was given free reign to experiment and had access to culinary professionals and students to critique my work on a daily basis. The negative was that every Monday morning–when we had to figure out who we wanted work with for the week–felt like being chosen last for the dodge ball team at recess. Actually, more like not being chosen at all because I ended up working alone a lot of the time.

It’s not so much that I minded working alone (a lot of the time, I prefer it) or that anyone was rude or mean to me (everyone was actually very, very nice), but being The Vegan Who Uses Her Special Ingredients Stored in Her Own Cabinet and Doesn’t Use Eggs or Dairy or Gelatin or Even Milk Chocolate Like the Rest of Us means the non-vegans automatically assume they can’t or shouldn’t work with you. When I did work with someone, it was almost without exception with my longtime-vegetarian classmate, Irene (us veggie folk have a way of finding each other!).

Vegan baking is still an icky, foreign concept to most people and seems to intimidate even the most confident and experienced baker. In attempts to combat any negative preconceptions about vegan desserts (of which there are usually many), I tried to pick desserts that were sophisticated and visually appealing but would also have a familar feel to non-vegan desserts. Basically, challenge people’s ideas of what vegan desserts can be, but nothing too out of the norm that may scare people off.

The chocolate pear napoleon with cranberry compote, derived from a recipe by acclaimed pastry chef Gale Gand, was one of the desserts I worked on. To create a vegan version, I adapted various components of the recipe that called for butter or cream. Also, rather than using poached pear, I decided to use pears that I caramelized in a pan with sugar, vanilla bean and brandy. I was skeptical of serving cranberry compote with a chocolate and pear dessert at first, but the tartness of the compote worked really well with the chocolate and sweetness of the pears. It was a delicious combination, and apparently a real hit with the omnivores as well. If I recall correctly, this was one of the desserts that completely sold out during the week. One of the bistro workers came up to Irene on the second day to verify the ingredients in the dessert, saying that one customer didn’t really believe that it could be vegan!

Give this napoleon a try and let me know what you think!

Chocolate Pear Napoleon with Cranberry Compote
Adapted from Chocolate Napoleon recipe by Gale Gand

Serves 5

Ingredients

The Phyllo

1/2 cup refined coconut oil, melted, or canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 sheets phyllo dough (9″x14″)
1/4-1/2 cup evaporated cane sugar
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Caramelized Pears
8 ripe, medium-sized pears, peeled, cored, halved and cut into 1/4″ slices
1 cup sugar (you can adjust depending on how sweet your pears are)
pinch of salt
seeds from 1 vanilla bean, or 1 Tb vanilla bean paste or extract
2 Tb lemon juice
splash of brandy

Ganache
8 ounces dark chocolate, coursely chopped
1/2 cup non-dairy milk
1/2 cup regular-fat coconut milk
1/4 c  agave nectar

Cranberry Compote
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen cranberries
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup sugar

Directions

For the phyllo: Preheat oven to 350* F. Mix together the melted coconut oil or canola oil with the cocoa powder. If using coconut oil, you can keep this mixture over a bowl of hot water to keep it liquid while you’re working with it. Lay a piece of phyllo on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush a light layer of the oil-cocoa mixture and sprinkle some of the sugar. Top with another layer of phyllo and repeat the process with remaining layers. Using a cutter or knife, score the the phyllo stack into 2″x3″ pieces (21 pieces total). Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until the phyllo layers are crisp. *Tip: The cocoa makes it difficult to tell when the phyllo has baked long enough so include a plain phyllo layer on your baking sheet and use it to gauge when they’re done.

For the caramelized  pears: Combine the sugar, salt, vanilla and lemon juice in a large skillet. Toss pear slices in the mixture until all pieces are coated. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently to ensure even caramelization. Sauté pears until golden and softened. Stir in brandy at the end. Transfer pears to a pan and let cool to room temperature.

For the ganache: Place the chocolate in a small bowl. In a small sauce pan, combine the non-dairy milk of choice, coconut milk and agave nectar to a simmer. Pour over chocolate and let stand for a minute. Whisk mixture until smooth. Set aside and let cool to room temperature.

For the cranberry compote: Combine and mix all of the ingredients in a medium sauce pan. On medium high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and continue to simmer until the cranberries have popped and softened, and the juices have thickened. Transfer to a bowl and chill until cold. This can be made and stored a few days in advance.

To assemble: Place a dab of ganache at the center of each plate (this keeps the napoleon from shifting around when you move the plate). Place a piece of your 2″x3″ phyllo on top, gently pressing it down. Top with a thin layer of ganache and pear slices. Repeat until you have three layers of ganache/pear. Top with a fourth piece of phyllo. Dust top layer with powdered sugar. Spoon cranberry compote around the napoleon.