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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?

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Sweet Weekend

20 Jun

My little brother graduated from UCLA last weekend so I flew to Southern California to attend his two graduation ceremonies. My primary reason for visiting was to see my brother and celebrate his achievement, of course, but it was also an opportunity to explore the food scene and try new restaurants. I became vegan long after I moved to the Bay Area, so I’m not very familiar with the vegan scene there. Every trip down in the past few years though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of vegan businesses that have opened up and the diversity of the clientele that patronizes them.

In the past couple years, I enjoyed such vegan gems as VeggieGrill, a burger chain that uses Gardein-brand fake “chicken” and “beef” (processed, yes, but a satisfying occasional guilty pleasure) and has the best vegan chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever tasted, Vinh Loi Tofu, a super-delicious (and authenic!) Vietnamese restaurant and Shojin, an organic Japanese restaurant with an extensive menu. I’ve also tried Real Food Daily, a popular restaurant that was recommended me by multiple vegans and vegetarians, but my carnivorous family, my (vegan) partner and I all thought the food was severely lacking in flavor. Au Lac is a restaurant which used to offer authentic, tasty Vietnamese food but now serves Americanized Vietnamese and raw food to the hippie/New Age crowd. The food isn’t bad now, just not nearly as good.

This past weekend, my partner and I tried three new-to-us vegan places and were quite impressed: Native Foods, a chain featuring a raw and cooked menu and house-made drinks, freesoulcaffé, a coffeeshop/cafe offering salads, soups, sandwiches and a huge selection of pastries, and Sage Organic Vegan Bistro, a cute restaurant with reasonably-priced food and offering desserts featuring KindKreme ice cream. Not only was the food at each of these places delicious and for the most part, affordable, but we received great service all around. Seriously, after gorging on delicious vegan food all weekend, I considered the possibility of moving back to SoCal for a brief second. A very brief second.

Since this blog is about desserts though, here are the sweets!

PB&J Cheesecake from Native Foods

The first dessert I ate on this trip was the peanut butter and jelly “cheesecake” from Native Foods. I enjoyed the crumbly crust, but the peanut butter and jelly flavors were really lacking. And having tried samples at the San Francisco Fancy Foods Show in February, I recognized the flavor in the cheesecake as being Follow Your Heart “cream cheese,” which I’m not a fan of for its strong soy flavor. Overall, it was decent but not great.

Peanut butter torte at freesoulcaffe

The peanut butter torte is one of freesoulcaffé‘s most popular items and has been reviewed on Yelp multiple times. It has an Oreo crust and a very prominent peanut butter flavor. From what I can tell, I think the filling was made with Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese.. It was tasty but really, really rich and my partner and I could barely finish it between the two of us. If  you loooove peanut butter, this is the dessert for you.

Mocha biscotti at freesoulcaffe

The mocha biscotti had a good texture and was perfect for dunking into my cappuccino (which was excellent, by the way). I would have liked a stronger chocolate flavor though, personally. I might try one of their other flavors next time.

Pastry display case at freesoulcaffé

Yep, you read the caption right. This is the pastry display case at freesoulcaffé! And like the rest of the food/drink options, everything is 100% vegan. In addition to the torte and biscotti, they offer muffins, cookies, cupcakes, brownies, blondies and mini cakes and cheesecakes. [Are you swooning yet!?] If I lived nearby, I’d be hanging out at this place all the time. All. The. Time.

Raw mocha cheesecake at Sage Organic Vegan Bistro

My dad says Sage is now his favorite vegan restaurant. For dessert, he chose the raw mocha cheesecake made by KindKreme. He loved it, but I felt the coconut (which you find in most raw desserts it seems) overwhelmed the mocha flavor. This dessert is very dense and rich.

Large waffle sundae at Sage Organic Vegan Bistro

Great minds think alike, no? Even though we were stuffed to the core, my partner and I knew we had to order the waffle ice cream sundae for dessert. Greedily, we ordered the large-sized version which comes with a hot waffle topped with maple syrup, three scoops of KindKreme “ice cream” –tropical chocolate, banana and cinnamon cookie–and fresh strawberries and banana, and made my mom and brother order their own. Turns out, the large dessert was way too much for two people to  finish (and we are a group of big eaters!). The waffle was airy and not too flavorful on its own, but very crispy and a good canvas for the ice cream. I was skeptical of the raw ice cream, but it was very flavorful and smooth; it’s probably my third favorite vegan ice cream I’ve ever tried after Genuto Gelato and Scream Sorbet. I would come to Sage/KindKreme just for the waffle sundae — yum!

Overall, it was a fantastic culinary weekend and I can’t wait to get back to SoCal to try more restaurants as there are literally hundreds of vegan/vegan-friendly places to choose from. For now, I need to cut back and detox from my weekend of overindulgence. Any interest in seeing kale-based desserts these next few weeks? Kidding, kidding…

Still here

7 Jun

My my, it has been a long time since I’ve posted, hasn’t it? The past few months have been a fun and eye-opening culinary adventure and I just haven’t had the time or energy for personal baking but I’m baaaack! My adventure has included learning artisan bread baking as well as the opportunity to intern with chef extraordinaire Eric Tucker at Millennium Restaurant. If you ever dined there on a Wednesday night sometime between mid-January through April, you may have even seen me working on the line. Having gotten to witness a true master at work, all I can say is wow, wow, WOW!

Through Chef Tucker, I got a position at Encuentro Cafe and Wine Bar (which he co-owns) and have been working there part-time since March. Though my work had mostly been focused on producing savory items before, I now produce the desserts on the days I do prep. Co-owner Chef Lacey Sher has been extremely receptive to my suggesting new dessert items for the menu, which, as you can imagine, is very exciting for me. One of the desserts I introduced to the menu recently is a raw, vegan strawberry “cheesecake”  that also happens to be gluten-free. The crust is made with almonds, dates and cocoa powder and the filling consists of pureed raw cashews, strawberries, lemon juice, agave nectar, lecithin and coconut oil. We top the cheesecake with agave-sweetened strawberry slices. It’s deeeeelicious, if I do say so myself! Sometimes I even come back to the restaurant after my shift just to share a slice with my honey.

Cheesecake used to be one of my favorite desserts when I was an omnivore, and while the raw, cashew-based version tastes nothing like baked, cream cheese-based version, I think it’s tasty in its own right. The cashews give the cheesecake a rich, creamy texture, the agave and ripe strawberries a light sweetness, and the lemon juice a slight tang reminiscent of cream cheese.

I got four, overflowing baskets of strawberries at a farm and a bag of lemons from a friend’s lemon tree over the weekend so I decided to make a strawberry cheesecake that I don’t have to share with coworkers or customers (all mine!!). This time, I made strawberry-pistachio cheesecake — still a strawberry filling, but with a pistachio crust and no cocoa. Also, instead of making one big cheesecake, I opted for individual-sized versions so I can freeze the extra portions and not tempt myself to eat everything in one sitting.

I’ve gotta say, I’m partial to the strawberry-pistachio flavor combo. The pistachio crust provides a buttery flavor that complements the strawberry filling well. I imagine a bit of cardamom in the crust would also be a delicious addition. Either way, I suggest you give raw cheesecake making a try; it’s truly amazing what you can do with cashews. If you need to satisfy your craving now or are too impatient to make one yourself, go grab a slice at Encuentro while it lasts!

Waffles à la Mode

31 Mar

I love waffles! I don’t make them often though because I usually go crazy and end up making and eating them for several days in a row. My friend Jeannie came over for breakfast on Sunday and I made waffles, roasted potatoes, sautéed kale and Field Roast smoked apple sage sausages. We stuffed ourselves full of, well, everything. I think I ate three whole waffles (on top of everything else) so you’d think I’d be sick of waffles the next day. But noooo! First thing I did when I got home Monday was make more waffles.

When it comes to waffles, I like them thick with crispy outsides and fluffy insides, and plain so I can use them as a blank canvas for toppings, kind of like what you get at waffle shops in Brussels. This waffle is not a true gaufre (or even veganized version of one), however, but a plain–and delicious!–American-style waffle that is neutral enough to be topped with just about anything you want. As a late-afternoon treat, I topped mine with sweet strawberries that Jeannie gave me (thanks, Jeannie!), tangy non-dairy frozen yogurt I’d made on Saturday and bittersweet ganache I’d made earlier in the week.

I don’t like things very sweet, so this was perfect for me. If you want something sweeter, you can substitute ice cream for the frozen yogurt, use caramelized fruit or compote in place of fresh fruit, drizzle the waffle with caramel sauce, etc. The options are endless!

Waffles à la Mode

Yield: varies depending on your waffle maker; it made 5 large waffles for me

Ingredients

Waffles
2 1/2 cups AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 cups soy milk
1/4 cup oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup brown sugar OR 3 Tb agave nectar
extra oil for brushing

Frozen Yogurt
1 – 24 oz container of vanilla non-dairy yogurt (I used Whole Soy brand organic vanilla soy yogurt)

Additional Toppings
1 pint of strawberries, sliced
1/2-1 cup ganache/chocolate sauce (depends on how much you want to eat!)

Directions

Waffles: Combine dry ingredients together in medium-sized bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk wet ingredients together. Add wet ingredients to dry and whisk until thoroughly combined. Small lumps are OK! Don’t over mix or you’ll get tough waffles. I like to let the batter sit for 15-30 minutes before using, but you can use it immediately. Tip: For nice, crispy outsides, I turn my waffle maker to the max temp and brush oil on both plates before cooking each waffle.

Frozen Yogurt: It doesn’t get easier than this! Empty the container of non-dairy yogurt into your ice cream maker and run according to your machine’s directions. It should yield about one pint of frozen yogurt.

To assemble: Top waffle with sliced strawberries, a scoop of frozen yogurt, and drizzle chocolate sauce on top.

If for some reason you have more waffles than you can eat in one sitting (I’m not sure how this is possible!), store them in ziplock bags and freeze them. When you next have an hankering for waffles, simply toast them in your toaster or oven — they reheat really well!

Coconut-Sesame Banana Fritters

7 Mar

Even though I’m vegan, I really enjoy perusing non-vegan dessert books for inspiration. Every so often, I come across a recipe or two that’s already vegan and needs no adjustments, as I did with this banana fritter recipe from Pichet Ong’s The Sweet Spot: Asian Inspired Desserts. Last fall, I served these fritters with a side of cashew-and-coconut milk-based vanilla bean ice cream that I made as one of the desserts for my final for my plated dessert class.

For my final, I had to present a printed menu and four plated desserts–including one “special diet” item–to a panel of four (non-vegan) judges, of whom two are professional chefs. Call it a “vegan complex” or what have you, but I’m always debating whether or not to tell people the dessert I’ve just given them–whether it’s a cookie, cupcake or anything else–is vegan before or after they’ve tasted it. I usually opt to tell the unsuspecting subjects after, so that I can get their honest, unbiased opinion and not have them start imagining that there’s cardboard and alfalfa sprouts in their dessert. In this case, however, I decided to be upfront about it and put it right on the menu that everything was free of animal products.

I really just wanted to show the judges that vegan desserts can not only taste good in their own right, but be presented as elegantly as one would expect in a non-vegan establishment. And that vegans have high standards, too! Since this fritter recipe calls for rice flour, I used it for my “special diet” (gluten-free) dessert. For the plate, I swiped a stripe of pomegranate sauce I’d made to add a little color, and added a lacy rice noodle garnish for height. On the other side of the garnish was the scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. During the judging, I could see that the judges were visibly enjoying them (and none of them could believe the ice cream was vegan!). In the end, I got high marks and positive feedback all around, which was not only a nice ego boost, but reinforced my belief that vegan desserts have a real place in the pastry world.

Anyway, if you’re looking to be inspired by Asian-influenced desserts, The Sweet Spot is worth checking out. And these fritters are truly delicious, so definitely go make them! Right now!

Coconut-Sesame Banana Fritters
from The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts by Pichet Ong (called “Fried Bananas” in the book)

Ingredients
1 2/3 cups glutinous rice flour
1 1/3 cups shredded  unsweetened dried coconut
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup white sesame seeds, divided
Canola or veggie oil for frying
16 baby bananas (I cut up 5-6 regular bananas into two inch chunks)

Directions
1. Whisk the flour, shredded coconut, sugar, salt, half of the sesame seeds and coconut in a bowl into a smooth batter and let rest for an hour.
2. Heat oil to 350 F (you can just test it without a thermometer by dropping a little batter in the oil, which should sizzle when ready). While the oil is heating up, chop your bananas into two inch pieces (or just have the peeled baby bananas ready if you’re using those instead). When the oil is ready, coat the bananas with batter and and lower into the oil. Fry for about two minutes on each side, or until golden brown.
3. Sprinkle the remaining sesame seeds on the fritters. Serve warm, with ice cream.

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.

Masala Chai Truffles

8 Feb

When I’m not baking, I play with chocolate. This past weekend, I decided to make masala chai (spiced tea) truffles. The first step was cold infusing tea into my ganache. Cold infusion basically means you let your ingredients slowly release their flavors and aromas in the liquid you’re trying to flavor without using heat. In this case, I soaked black tea leaves in coconut milk overnight and strained them out before using the milk to make my ganache. Though you do have to use more tea to draw out the flavor, the benefit of cold infusion is that you get the great flavor of the tea without any bitterness that you might get from seeping it in hot liquid.

To make the ganache, I used approximately equal amounts of coconut milk and chocolate by volume (if I were using something less fatty and more watery such as soy milk, I’d decrease the milk-to-chocolate ratio).  I simply heated the tea-infused milk until it just began to boil and then poured it over my bowl of dark chocolate. I let it sit for a moment and then whisked it until completely melted and smooth.

Next, the ganache went in the fridge to cool and harden for a couple hours. Once it hardened, I scooped small balls of the ganache and coated the balls in a mixture of cocoa powder, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and peppercorn. I don’t have exact measurements to provide, unfortunately, because I just winged this. Luckily, truffles are very easy to make! And the fun part is that you can improvise with flavors — both with the ganache filling and the coatings.

The blend of spices and hint of tea in the ganache give these truffles a subtle but sophisticated flavor that I love. What’s your favorite truffle flavor that you’ve made or eaten?