Thursday, May 27, 2010

May Daring Baker's Challenge: A Tower of Cream Puffs

Okay, so this is not really called a "tower of cream puffs." Instead, it has a French name, or a few French names, actually. The idea is you make a pate a choux, which is basically a puff pastry and the base for many a French sweet delicacy. You shape the pate a choux into puffs, fill them with cream of whatever flavor--vanilla, chocolate, coffee, etc--then dip them in some sort of stickiness and pile them into a shape. All of this is an incredibly lowbrow way of describing this dessert, which is actually called a piece montee. The real and truly French ones are often used as wedding cakes, apparently, and pastry chefs shape the tower o' puffs into various shapes all stuck together with caramel or chocolate sauce.

Before I get too far into my explanation of this challenge, let me just tell you that it knocked me down a peg or two. I like to think of myself as a fairly good vegan baker. Maybe even just a teensy bit accomplished. I've wowed my fair share of soccer moms, good-hearted Buddhists, and eager, overly-grateful compatriots with my cakes and pies and whatnot. But if you, dear reader, ever feel that in the future I'm getting a bit big for my britches, so to speak, and I'm waxing on about my various baking exploits and conquests, you have only to whisper two words to me to put me back in my place. By now, I'm sure you can guess what those two words are, right? 1) Cream. 2) Puff.

I could only find one recipe for vegan pate a choux online, here. This is a variation of a recipe posted to vegweb and reiterated on yahoo answers and other places. Apparently, the cream puff is one of those stubborn egg-based hold-outs that continue to stymie egg-free bakers. Most standard recipes for pate a choux require many eggs, which apparently are whipped into the dough until it is "glossy." I achieved nothing like "glossy" and perhaps I should have known on the two (count my failures, two) occasions on which I tried different variations of these recipes that the lack of gloss was an early warning of my inevitable failure. Despite the satisfied tone of the blogs from which I took my recipes, my puffs didn't puff. Not at all. The first time I made them, I used a simple cornstarch egg replacer and doubled the baking powder. I also think I over-cooked the dough. The result: Sweet, pasty lumps. Um, no thanks. The second time, I decided to use a different egg replacer recipe that seemed much more complicated, and, I figured, better. Isn't complexity at the heart of French baking? This time they worked better. Still nothing I would call puffage. No crispy golden exterior. Not be completely undone by this challenge, though, I hollowed them out a bit, filled them with whipped cream, glazed the tops with some bittersweet chocolate and had it over with. Since the challenge specified that the final product must have some height to it, I assembled the free-form pyramid you see in my photo.

Verdict? In spite of my utter and devastating lack of puffage, and even though I was unable to eradicate a slight gumminess in the dough, even when cooked longer than specified, these were pretty good. It's been so long that I had omni-style cream puffs, that I'm kind of okay with them as is. The outside of the puff is crispy, and the inside has a mild doughiness. Definitely no crooks and nannies on these bad boys. To stuff I had to insert my pinky finger and wiggle it around a bit, creating a small cavity. The combination of the slightly sweet dough, the crunch of the outside, the fluffiness of the cream, and the bitter, chocolatey glaze made these quite tasty. Still, this experience was slightly harrowing and required numerous pep talks from my personal next-room-over grumbler. If you plan to try them, make sure you have your own grumbler handy for emotional support. You'll need it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Food Tourism: The NYC Editions

My apologies to those of you who are bored by the gratuitous travel post. I have myself indulged in a righteous eye-rolling at food bloggers who post too much about stuff they eat in their travels to fabulous places. In my defense, and for whatever it's worth, I promise to keep it to a minimum. Also, I try to make it a point not to engage in any serious culinary efforts while on vacation. My best inspiration seems to come from times in which I have just the right amount of leisure between jobs to ruminate on creative combinations of ingredients and exciting confections. On vacation, and not staycation, I prefer to enjoy the vegan offerings of wherever I am, particularly those that I don't have to concoct myself. Take heart. I don't travel frequently.

On this, my third trip to NYC, C and I, in the fantastic company of our bff Matt, have explored both the familiar and the new. Our first dining adventure took us to V-Spot, an all vegan, latin-cuisine leaning restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  I was really excited about this place, my enthusiasm for empanadas having been considerable stoked by all the hubbub concerning Terry Hope Romero's soon-to-be-released book of vegan latina cooking. Since we got there around noon on a Saturday, we all ordered from the brunch menu. C and I both got the steak breakfast, which consisted of some strips of seasoned seitan with onions, a side of scrambled tofu, and french fries. C also ordered a single pancake. Matt ordered the fruit empanadas and a sort of tofu ranchero tostada. C and I split an appetizer of empanadas stuffed with daiya, guacamole, and tofu scramble. Verdict? The food was pretty half and half. The seitan was flavorful, but too greasy for my taste. The fries were good, if predictable. The tofu scramble was uninspired. Why is this basic vegan go-to always such a disappointment? A colleague of mine once insisted that the reason scrambles always suck is that no scramble-maker is ever satisfied with any scramble but her own. Personally, I think that's a bunch of crap, but I digress. The pancake was gummy and flavorless. On the upside, the empanadas were delicious and served with a perfectly spicy and tangy salsa. Matt's fruity empanadas were like toaster pastries if toaster pastries were as good as you want them to be. The tostada was also really good. I wouldn't cry to find myself there again, but I won't hurry back either.

The next night we went to the famous Foodswings, specializing in vegan fast food for your not-so-inner fat kid. Guided by Matt, who swore up and down by the things, C and I split a slider in addition to getting full sandwiches of our own--C got the sausage and peppers hoagie while I picked the filet of soul (or whatever the actual name was). Matt got some kind of burger with cheese and bacon, maybe?, and we all split some buffalo chicken wings. Matt totally nailed this one because the wings and the slider were the best part of the meal. Both were delicious. We also all enjoyed our sandwiches very much.

Finally, today we went to Manhattan to hit Mooshoes and Lula's Sweet Apothecary. I mostly know about the latter because of Evan McGraw's blog in which he gushes endlessly about their cake batter softserve. The place seriously lives up to the hype. Holy crap. We ended up walking around Manhattan way more than we intended to because when we first arrived at Lula's, we realized we had over an hour until they even opened. This required a complete adjustment to our plans, but adjust we did, and we were there when they opened the doors. Though the brownie sundae and banana split get a lot of attention from people, we all opted to go with the classic sundae: two scoops, one sauce, one topping, coconut whipped cream, and a cherry. Matt got peanut butter fudge and cookies n' cream ice cream, caramel syrup, and graham crackers. C picked the aforementioned cake batter and mint chocolate chip, marshmallow sauce, and chocolate cookie crumbs. I also got the cake batter softserv but combined it with rocky road ice cream, caramel sauce, and chocolate cookie crumbs. The man working surprised me by asking whether I wanted the cherry. Seriously? Why would I hold back now?

If you can't tell, Matt's is above. Mine is on the left, and C's is on the right.

Further delights await us on our repeat visit to Wild Ginger and elsewhere, but, again, I pledge to keep my gloating to a minimums--at least here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I've been trying to articulate for myself exactly what it is about mochi that makes me love it so. I'm so deeply grateful that it's naturally vegan--as far as I can tell--because I really can't imagine that there is any substance available today that could even approximate its toothsome glory. Though I've had mochi before, I bought the particular mochi that I am gushing about in this post at a little place in Japantown in San Francisco. I am indebted to Vegansaurus! for the discovery. Indeed, I have become dependent on that snarky little blog for most of my San Francisco-related food finds. It's fantastic, and you should check it out, even if you don't live in/around the Bay Area. They also cover vegan finds in NYC, LA, and other places. They get around, so to speak. In any case, the post that introduced me to Benkyodo can be found here, but Benkyodo actually has their own website, if you'd like to leer at more mochi than this particular post will afford you.

My mochi story probably begins with this entry for daifuku on Lolo's blog: Vegan Yum Yum. I was immediately drawn to their pillowy softness and secretive fillings. I took a run at them, but failed. I was rushing, for some reason that I can no longer recall, and my daifuku sucked. I ended up throwing them out, which was depressing on two levels: 1) I hate hate hate hate hate hate to waste, and 2) I failed. Generally when this happens I pick myself right back up and remake the offending recipe. For whatever reason, though, I never got back around to the daifuku.

While I still think I'll try my hand at making my own, I was positively giddy when I walked into Benkyodo and saw the case filled with little mochi confections in the softest pinks, greens, and whites. The nice woman behind the counter waited patiently as I decoded the sign indicating which mochi were filled/flavored with what. C, for his part, openly smirked at my enthusiasm, selected one mochi for himself, and then assured me later that my over-anxious performance was "cute."

Here is my final selection. The pink ones with the nipple-ish dot are filled with smooth lima bean paste. The green one was mugwort filled with whole red beans, and the one that looks purple but is actually white was smooth red beans. The green with the yellow powder was C's pick: smooth red beans with soy flour. He's always down for extra protein. The white with the flowers stamped on them are actually buns filled with red bean paste. Finally, my absolute favorite were the plain pink, filled with white lima bean paste and fresh strawberries. If I ever wind up on death row, my final meal will include strawberry mochi.

If you've never had mochi, do your best to remedy the situation. Come visit! I'll take you to Benkyodo. You can experience the glory. In the spirit of the thing, though, I'll attempt to describe the experience of eating one. The mochi itself is basically dough made from rice flour and sugar. These are cooked together, filled, and then rolled in cornstarch. In your mouth, they feel like the softest, most forbidden thing you've ever wanted to eat. They smell like sugary flours. They remind me of how desperately I wanted to eat my Strawberry Shortcake action figure when I was a kid. She just smelled so. damned. good. They are an amazing combination of ultra soft and slightly chewy. Then there is the combination of textures: the smoothness of the mochi dough, the powdery slipperiness of the cornstarch, the slight graininess of the bean paste. Heaven.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Fava of Love

My first idea for what to title this post was something along the lines of The Double Down: Vegan Style, but this was ultimately defeated by two factors: First, the Kentucky Fried Cruelty "chicken" sandwich has already been admirably veganized in multiple online venues. If that piques your curiosity, check it out here and here. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I mean it as a sort of ode to the period of vh1 reality tv of which I was an unabashed fan. I say "was" because the world seems to have moved on from the super-staged, salacious shows that I love and onto more regular life, celebrity-themed reality shows. Basically, the thing now is to get fairly well-known but struggling celebrities and follow them around as they tend to the mundanities of their existence. No hyper-inflated romance narrative. No hilarious elimination scenes. No exploration of the (delightful and ridiculous) terrains of the super-sexed twenty-something's ego. No stormy reunions shows. Color me sad, indeed. Arguably, all of this glory was inaugurated by one man's search for love from a pool of fifty or so scantily clad ladies, all of whom would inevitably follow in Brigitte Nielsen's shoes and kick him and his clock to the curb. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, well, that's weird. Below is that amazonian goddess as I love her best. Am I right?

I also think that Fava of Love is a great name for the dish that I made out of the generous handful of fava beans we got in our farmbox yesterday. When I worked at the coop, I used to pause slightly as I strolled by the highly seasonal offerings of fava beans, their green, fleshy fingers waving at me seductively. In New York, though, they were always pretty expensive. Imagine how my delight at my farmbox was compounded when I discovered that I was allowed to swap out the generous bunch of bok choy that we also got for yet another deliriously large handful of fava. When I got them home and put them in a bowl, it looked like a LOT. We figured we would be able to have the fava as our main dish, with maybe a bit of salad. By the time I finished processing them, though, C had to run to the store to get some additional victuals. With that said, though, this dish was really delicious. The favas are a bit of a bitch, but worth the trouble, especially if you have somebody just sitting around watching tv in the text room who is willing to help.

What makes the fava so much trouble (though so very worth it) is that you have to shell them twice. Well, you have to de-pod them, and then you have to shell them. Two stages of removal. Both are easy, luckily, if a bit time-consuming. But again, WOW.

Fava of Love

2 large handfuls fava beans (I wish I could tell you how many pounds I had, but I have no idea. The bowl in the picture is quite large, though, so that should be helpful, right?)
1 small bulb fennel, thinly sliced and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cube vegan bouillon
1 c water
black pepper
1/2 lemon
olive oil for the pan
vegan bakun bits

First, prepare your fava beans. Remove the favas from the pods. Boil a medium-sized pot of water, and toss in the beans. Simmer for 2 minutes, then drain and immerse the beans in cold water. When the favas are cool enough to handle, slip the beans out of their shells. Try to pretend that you knew that such a huge bowl of favas would yield so few beans. I think I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups of favas. 

In a medium-sized frying pan, heat a few tablespoons of oil until hot. Add the fennel and garlic and saute until fragrant and almost golden. Add the beans and cook one minute more. Add the water and bouillon cube, and reduce heat to medium-low. Allow the liquid to reduce until it is almost all gone. Squeeze the lemon over the top, and sprinkle with black pepper. You should have enough for two small servings. Garnish with bakun bits. Amazing, truly. Make this.

We ended up eating these with a salad: spring mix topped with browned seitan strips, avocado, mandarins, and walnuts. Thus, I think, we doubled down. Two salad-ish dishes, one meal.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mixed Berry Shortcake with THE Vegan Whipped Cream

This is it. The post you've been waiting for. Well, at least one person has been waiting for it (couBETHgh). I've been looking for the right opportunity to blog about this stuff, and it has finally arrived. Aren't you excited? I'm going to share my method for making stabilized whipped cream. I've blogged before about the many reasons that vegan whipped creams fall short of the mark. At best, they're limp and melty, total wusses when it comes to topping pretty much anything, and at worst they taste weird and have a grainy texture. Don't even get me started on the tofu-based "whipped creams." These make a perfectly servicable fruit dip, but keep them away from my shortcake!

I made this dessert when we had a few friends over for dinner, and it was a hit. Berries of various sorts have been making quite a spectacle of themselves here in NorCal--much to my delight. C can attest to the wistful look I get every time I pass a roadside stand or store display piled high with strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries. When I think about the wonders awaiting me in the height of summer, I get a little tingly with anticipation. When will the blueberries finally get here? Will there be fiddleheads? Does persimmon season start in August? Can I be this blase about avocados already?

The shortcake recipe is, once again, the basic scone from Vegan with a Vengeance. I found it already posted in many places and versions online, but also here.
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp baking powder 
1/4 cup sugar (plus extra for sprinkling on top)
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 c non-dairy milk 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add the oil, soy cream, and milk with vinegar. Mix until just combined; the dough should be clumpy and not sticky. Even if there is still a light dusting of flour, that's okay.
Drop by 1/4 cupfuls onto the greased cookie sheet and pat the tops just a little bit to round them out; sprinkle with a bit of sugar. Bake 12-15 minutes until slightly browned on the bottom and firm on the top.
 I served these with generous amounts of blackberries and strawberries and lovely dollops of the famous and aforementioned whipped cream. Now for the recipe and tutorial:

Vegan Whipped Cream

2 cans full fat coconut milk
3-4 T organic powdered sugar
3 T juice of some sort (I've used lemon, pomegranate, and cherry. Basically, you just need a vehicle for the agar, and since the coconut fat doesn't have a particularly strong flavor of any sort, a touch of fruitiness makes it extra good.)
1 T agar agar powder (heaping!)

The only really tricky part of this recipe involves the coconut milk. If you have the bad fortune to have two cans that have been vigorously shaken or heated or some combination of the two, you may open them to discover that the fat has not adequately separated from the clear coconut milk to make a suitable whipped cream. If this happens, cry a little and start over. In the best case scenario, you would know that you were going to make this whipped cream a few days in advance. You would dutifully purchase your cans of coconut milk and let them hang unmolested in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours. I hadn't really planned ahead when I had to make this, but luckily my coconut milk was adequately separated. It easily could have gone the other way.

When you feel like you're ready, open the cans and use a spoon or a knife to carefully scoop just the solidified fat out of the can. Reserve the remaining liquid for some other use. We sometimes add it to our protein shakes, for example. Dump the fat in a medium-sized mixing bowl and get ready to whip it. I like to use the whisk attachment that came with my electric hand-mixer, but I suppose regular beaters would work as well. Beat the coconut milk fat until it is lumpless and smooth. Set this aside for a moment. The pic on the right is the de-canned coconut milk before mixing.

Pour the juice into a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for about 30 seconds until the juice is hot and steaming. If it boils a little bit, that's okay. Remove it from the microwave and mix in the agar. The heat activates the agar, so you need the juice to be hot. The agar will soak up the juice quickly.

Add the agar/juice mixture and the sugar to the coconut milk and whip for 3-4 minutes. At this point you can add more powdered sugar (if you don't think it's sweet enough) and/or any other flavored extracts you desire. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Stir vigorously before serving.

On the right is the prepared whipped cream, ready to chill for a few hours. Note the lovely whorls of delicious, light, fluffy goodness. When it's ready to serve, it actually has an almost Cool Whip kind of consistency. Lovely, if I do say so myself.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Enjoy Vegetarian

Living an hour away from San Francisco certainly has its perks. Pretty much every time C and I go we hit up a new (to us) vegan or vegan-friendly restaurant in the area. Yesterday we went to Enjoy Vegetarian, which is located somewhere or another in Sunset--lower, inner, upper, something like that. We had a crazy hard time deciding what to order since all the food they serve is vegan and they have a plethora (that's right, I said plethora) of our beloved faux-meat offerings. The one thing I didn't get a picture of was the combination appetizer plate, largely because we consumed it quickly and before we thought to take any pictures of our meal. The combination plate was filled with some of each of the following: homemade, smoked tofu; goose; barbecued pork; and gluten puffs. My god but we love our meat analogues. We also got the fragrant, crispy chicken, pictured above. These were, indeed, fragrant and crispy. The insides were dense and succulent, though I found myself wishing for some kind of dipping sauce. That's probably my inner fatty talking.

C ordered the braised spareribs, which were fantastic. The menu says they make all their meat analogues from some combination of tofu, gluten, and yam. I'd love to have someone demystify for me the process for making these. The spareribs came with cinnamony chunks of taro, cabbage, and carrots in a light glaze.

                                                                               I ordered the kung pao prawns, by which I was very underwhelmed. I can't resist fake seafood, though, so I had to plunge ahead with it. The prawns didn't really taste like much, and the texture was only so-so. I think I would have liked this dish a lot more had they done something a little more aggressive with the prawns. Maybe coating them in cornstarch and lightly frying them? What partially saved my entree was how perfectly cooked the vegetables were. I tried to focus on the zucchini.

I've also included a picture of the hot and sour soup the kitchen sent out to us for being such charming and attractive non-meat eaters. I'm assuming that's why. And, finally, a picture of C brandishing his chopsticks and looking very excited, indeed, to be diving in to such a feast.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Roasted Vegetables with Miso Pesto (and Cake)

I'm adoring my new digital camera so much that I'm almost thankful to C's reliably untrustworthy water bottle. Without its treachery on that sunny afternoon in Dolores Park, I would still be struggling to hold my breath and stay as still as possible when snapping shots of food. With this new camera, I can almost aim and shoot with abandon. The smart little thing automatically compensates for my unsteadiness. Very exciting. Again, I'm tempted to flood your eyeballs with my amateur portraits of calla lillies and red barns, but I'll refrain. Accept, instead, some food porn.

I have one recipe of my own for today, and some other stuff of note. I'll get to the recipe first. Our farmbox has been practically flooded with fresh basil this week and last. We're getting huge bunches of the stuff. Since I'm not generally the kind of cook who gets really excited or bent out of shape about fresh herbs, my uses for bunches of parsley or cilantro or basil are a little limited. I'm a two or three trick pony, I guess you could say. With basil, you make pesto, right? I opted to whip up a very simple pesto, not getting bogged down in cheese analogues because, frankly, I prefer the clean taste of basil, nuts, and olive oil. I felt inspired by Bryant Terry's parsley pesto potato salad that I made a while ago, and I wanted to create something in a similar vein with different base ingredients. The result was very tasty even without the miso. I found that stirring in just a bit of it at the end ramped up the flavor quotient to produce something better than I was expecting.

Roasted Vegetables with Miso Pesto

First, roast your vegetables. I sliced up a bunch of red beets, about four medium carrots, and a garnet yam. Spread the vegetables on a cookie sheet, brush lightly with oil, stirring to coat, then sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Roast at 400 for 30 minutes or until they achieve the desired softness. Stir them every 10 minutes or so to prevent them from sticking and to assure even cooking.

While the vegetables are roasting, make your pesto.

1 bunch fresh basil
1/2 c raw walnuts
1/4-1/3 c olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1-2 T white miso

Process basil, garlic, and walnuts until a thick paste forms. Mix the miso into the oil and add. Process until it achieves a smooth consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.

Toss the vegetables with 2-3 T of the pesto. We had this with a simple saute of lacinato kale and mushrooms, baked tofu, and millet. Just a friendly reminder, I am currently underemployed and willing to hire myself out as personal chef to the right people for the right price. (cheap!)

Finally, I wanted to include some pictures of the cakes that I made for C's party. He got to pick two different flavors because we needed that many cakes for the number of people attending. He chose, and I made. The first is a red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, and the second is a vanilla cake with raspberry marble and a lemon frosting. See if you can figure out which is which.

I had to be a little heavy handed with the food coloring on both counts, unfortunately. As it turns out, traditional yellow cake is yellow because of its reliance on egg yolks. Mostly, vegans do white cake that ends up being slightly yellow, though I guess you can pull some shenanigans with turmeric to achieve that golden hue. After an entirely abortive effort at transforming the golden cupcakes recipe from VCTotW into raspberry swirl cake (major fail), I opted for a vanilla cake and food coloring. For the raspberry swirl, I made simple puree of frozen berries, a bit of sugar, and water.

Most people at the party claimed they couldn't decide which they prefer, but we came home with much less red velvet.