Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dirt Cake and Marzipan Mushrooms

This is a blog of heartbreak, dear readers. That is, I had my vegan heart set on making a buche de noel for my friend Diana's Christmas Eve party. And I had that heart broken. For those of you who are not so much in the know on these things, a buche de noel is also known as a yule log. Basically you make a swiss roll cake, then frost and decorate it to look ~kind of~ like a log. Cocoa sprinkles and powdered sugar stand in for "dirt from nature" as one amusing ehow video suggested and snow, obviously. It is also somewhat traditional to create a bark-like effect by dragging a fork along the frosted log, and to festoon the log with marzipan (or meringue, for the chicken ovum-inclined) mushrooms. Inevitably, I got cocky. I thought I had this yule log thing on lock-down. I dropped hints about it on facebook. I trumpeted about it to my friends via text message and on the phone. I was so confident that I was going to be able to pull it off seamlessly that I didn't leave myself all that much time to correct/revise/reverse direction altogether.

Then two things went wrong. First, the coconut whipped cream with crushed peppermint sticks was too thin. This part was my fault. I didn't allow adequate time for the cans of coconut milk to chill in the fridge, and apparently the store had had a run on them recently so the ones I bought were too recently manhandled in a warehouse somewhere. Because of this, the fat was insufficiently separated from the more liquidy part of the milk. Because of this, the coconut milk was too runny. And because of this, the coconut whipped cream was too runny. You're seeing the pattern here, right? I honestly think I could have worked with a too runny filling, though, if only the cake, which had rolled up perfectly and without incident when it was fresh out of the oven, hadn't cracked all the way through in three places when I unrolled it. There I was, dear reader, standing in my kitchen wearing my fabulous black Secret Society of Vegans apron, with my chilled bowl of runny, but decidedly delicious, coconut whipped cream ready by my side. As I gently unrolled the cake, using the utmost care, the damn thing cracked. My shrieks of disappointed horror could probably be heard in three counties. In desperation and denial, I attempted to fill the cracked thing anyway, only to have it crack even worse when I rolled it back up again. Furious, now, I threw the whole thing in the fridge and faced my beloved partner, C, who was standing gingerly by to absorb the tears or fists that inevitably result from such a thwarting at the hands of the baking gods.

While I was initially infuriated by C's suggestion that I make another cake, I soon calmed down and saw the wisdom in this proposal. I quickly whipped together a double batch of the basic chocolate cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, and baked it into a layer cake. This I frosted with chocolate buttercream and some of the now delightfully glaze-like coconut whipped cream. I topped the cake with adorable marzipan mushrooms. Seriously, can those things be any cuter? I left the sides of the cake bare, which rather worked because it was my de facto buche de noel...just without the log part. I instead thought of it fondly as a dirt cake, and I enjoined the party goers who received it to imagine that it was, in fact, rolled in some meaningful way. So I guess this is after all a sort of meaningful holiday story of thwarting, sadness, anger, and redemption. I really wanted a buche de noel, but what I got instead was a dirt cake. Luckily I--and my friends--really like dirt. Now somebody please please please give me another excuse to mold things out of marzipan, because I may have a new addiction.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Daring Bakers December Challenge

You probably didn't notice (or did you?), but I skipped a month of Daring Bakers Challenges. With family visiting and Thanksgiving to plan, I just couldn't wrap my head around it. But I'm back! The December challenge was relatively easy, fun to make, and delicious: Christmas Stollen. Basically, this is a yeasted sweet bread, filled with candied fruit and dusted with powdered sugar. The host for this month's challenge, Penny from Sweet Sadie's Baking, explained in the notes that the loaf is traditionally shaped to represent the baby Jesus, though her directions specify a wreath shape. I would have been a little creeped out to hack into and eat something shaped like a baby. But maybe that's just me.

The stollen was delicious. So much so that I was relieved to be able to take it to a holiday party to which C and I were invited. How better to dispose of a delicious sweet bread loaf of 10-12 servings than to take it to a party and foist it on other people? Otherwise, C and I would likely have stayed home with it for days, shaving off thin slices repeatedly and trying to convince ourselves that we had not eaten enough to qualify as a serving, even as the loaf steadily dwindles and disappears. It would have been ugly. I might have stopped going to the gym, and become to altogether disoriented from the constant influx of sugar and white flour that my senses might have gone completely out of whack. I might have started gargling with olive oil and brushing my teeth with marzipan. I might have required an intervention that wouldn't come because C would have been collapsed under a pile of stale cookies with his cell phone just out of reach. I'm not going to lie to you, dear readers. Our lives are hard.

Anyway, though it looks pretty fussy, this loaf was pretty easy to make. The only extra step involved candying citrus peel. Because why buy pre-made citrus peel when it's quite easy to candy your own? I had already done something close to this when I made the orange marmelade for my first ever Daring Bakers challenge. Luckily, that stuff lasts forever. I'm just a tad ashamed to admit it, but I think we might have a small jar of it kicking around the fridge. Basically, you slice the orange peel, blanch it three times, and then cook it in syrup until the peel absorbs all the sugar. Then you roll it in powdered sugar and let it dry. This candied peel is then chopped and added to the buttery dough along with rum-soaked dried fruit (I used cherries). Once the dough is assembled, it hangs in the fridge for up to a week (I let it go three days) before shaping, final proofing, and baking.

Now that I've had it, I can see why this sort of thing makes such excellent Christmas gifts. The stollen is sweet, tender, and flaky, but also quite sturdy. It apparently ships well as the post-baking bastings of butter (well, vegan margarine) and sugar act as a kind of preservative. If you're a fan of sweet breads and have time to make your own, please consider forgoing the inevitable holiday panettone and try this instead. Seriously, bread in a box at the grocery store? What's that about? Incidentally, if you are now fired by the passion of a thousand suns and just know that you have to make your own stollen like right. freaking. now, send me a message or email me and I'll give you the vegan lowdown for enterprising stollen bakers. It is well worth the effort.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Roasted Carrot Soup

Last week I had a sudden, intensely strong craving for borscht. I am not, in general, a huge beet fan, but I absolutely love a bowl of borscht. The earthiness of the beets mixes with the mild sweetness of the carrots and cooks up into a kind of buttery tasting soup that still manages to seem very...clean, for lack of a better word. Admittedly, the soup's vibrant redness and capacity for staining things makes it a bit dangerous. If you have to spill some soup on your favorite pajamas (doesn't everyone eat dinner in pajamas?), you don't want that soup to be borscht. All the same, though, that level of danger makes eating it just a little bit more special.

After that lovely stuff was all gone, though, we I wanted to go with something a bit safer. What's safer than carrots? I realize that the world is littered with carrot soup recipes, many of which lean heavily on a variety of fat sources to thicken and enrich them. Since I am personally not a fan of soups with a really heavy mouth-feel, I opted to use just a bit of cashews to give it that slight, cream-based feeling. My other main contribution is roasting the carrots instead of just cooking them in the broth or with the onions. I've been a bit single-minded about roasting recently. Seriously, there aren't many things I can be talked out of drizzling with a bit of olive oil and baking in the oven. Also, the garlic roasts along with the carrots, and very few things in this world are more delicious than roasted garlic. Or it may just be that there are very few things in the world about which I will resist the temptation to speak in hyperbole.

All joking aside, this is the time of year to make root vegetable soups. Right now the squashes, beets, and carrots are bursting from the produce shelves in all their winter abundance (which, incidentally, also means that they're at their cheapest), but don't be lulled into complacency. The season will be over sooner than you think.

Roasted Carrot Soup

1/3 c raw cashews, soaked for three or four hours
5-6 medium-sized carrots, thickly sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced or chopped
sea salt
1 small sweet onion
1/2 t turmeric
1 T rubbed powdered sage
3 cubes veggie broth
6 c water
1 mandarin orange

Preheat oven to 375. On a baking sheet, toss carrots and garlic with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with salt. Roast for 30 minutes or until tender, stirring at least once. While the carrots are roasting, heat a little more oil in a large pot. Add onions and cook until translucent. Add turmeric and sage and cook 3 minutes more. Add 3 cubes of broth and 6 cups of water (or just 6 cups of veggie broth. You can figure that out right?) and reduce heat to low. When the carrots are tendered and starting to look a bit caramelized, remove from oven. Process carrots, garlic, cashews, and about a cup of the broth/onion mixture until smooth. Add more broth as necessary. Return the soup to the pot and cook on low for 10-15 minutes to let the flavors mingle. Squeeze the juice from the orange into the soup, stir briefly, and serve topped with roasted pepitas. Some of the onion chunks will still be in the soup, but we like it that way.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thanksgiving Food Porn

C's famous stuffing
As promised, dear readers, here are my results from the kitchen-related havoc that, for so many of us, signals this recent holiday. I've never actually been all that wild about Thanksgiving, largely because as a kid I wasn't into a lot of the food that is traditionally served. Call me un-American if you must. I will carry the banner of my anti-nationalistic sentiments boldly. As I've grown older, though, I've developed a sort of mild, nostalgic fondness for the Thanksgiving meal formula. As I indicated in my preview post, I went very safe, very traditional, and this at least partially because my omni mom and stepdad were visiting. If the "turkey" loaf sucked, they would go home with stories of how horrible tofu turkey is. And I can't have it, gentle reader. I can't. So I stuck with the tried and true. Should we decide to celebrate next year in quasi-similar fashion, I think we'll get a bit crazier. The menu was exactly what I've already described. Now for the photos.
Apple Pie: As you'll see below, I also made pumpkin. Making this one was really just a concession to my own taste because I have...issues...with pumpkin. As it turns out, apple pie is also my mom's favorite kind of pie. Bonus! Also, I used a skull and crossbones cookie cutter to remove the center of the top crust, but I don't think you can tell...

Green Beans: I was torn at first about whether to make these or brussels sprouts. I tend to prefer the latter, but I went this way because the oven was already spoken for. I didn't want my brussels to have to jockey for position with the stuffing and two roasts. These were very lightly steamed and dressed in a simple orange-citrus dressing, then sprinkled with slivered almonds.

Orange-Almond Cinnamon Rolls: Because you have to eat breakfast on Thanksgiving, too. Also, I love love love adding citrus flavors in general, but orange in particular, to cinnamon rolls.  It's a simple step but makes them so much more special. We ate all of these in one sitting. 

Seitan En Croute: Otherwise known as that-which-I- refuse-to-stop-calling-Seitan-Wellington. If I make a mushroom pate of some sort and layer that between the seitan and the pastry, will it be a Wellington then? Or need one appeal to the mastery of Bryanna Clark Grogan to make such a claim? (If you're wondering who she is, get thee to your google, vegan neophyte, and be chastened.)

Pumpkin Pie: One must, right? C loves pumpkin pie, so really I made this for him. Aside from being consistently thwarted by cracking tops, I find pumpkin pies very easy to make. Now that I've gone this way, I won't use tofu in one again. I made this recipe, and I highly recommend it for simplicity, ease, and flavor.

Also wonderful and visible in the top photo were C's reliable tasty mashed potatoes, his masterful onion, mushroom, and miso gravy, and a stuffed seitan loaf.