Thursday, January 28, 2010

Serious Hot Chocolate for Hard-working Grown Ups

The promise of hot chocolate makes chores like shoveling the driveway and knocking icicles off the roof feel almost worth it. Your fingers are cold, your back is sore, and you deserve a treat. You can simply veganize the recipe on the side of the cocoa canister, but your hot chocolate will be thin and sickly sweet.

You need a thick, dark, sinister mug of Aztec liquid chocolate.

For hot drinks, I like hemp milk: it's rich like soy milk, but its flavor is understated. I mix it with coconut milk and swap real chocolate for cocoa powder to create a tongue-coating, eye-watering, all-consuming chocolate drink. Since the chocolate and hemp milk are already sweetened, no additional sugar is necessary. You'll want a spoon to scoop the last few drops from the bottom of your mug.

Grown Up Hot Chocolate

2 ounces semi-sweet baking chocolate (bittersweet or unsweetened if you are a badass)
2/3 cup hemp milk
1/3 coconut milk

Warm all ingredients over medium heat, whisking frequently until chocolate is melted and liquid is steaming. Stop short of boiling. Makes 1 large or 2 small servings.

For real excitement, try serving this hot chocolate with a slice of orange or candied ginger. Or for nostalgia, plop in a few dense vanilla Sweet & Sara vegan marshmallows (square marshmallows feel so rustic and artisan).

Let the kids have their Swiss Miss and their dehydrated marshmallow pebbles; you should celebrate the end of another long, chilly day with a steaming cup of real chocolate.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Easier than it Tastes: Italian Roasted Eggplant Stew

This easy weeknight dish is based on one of my favorite recipes in Veganomicon, Tomato and Roasted Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas, which you can find here. Roasting eggplant, garlic, and red peppers gives that stew a delicious sweet and smoky flavor, but takes a fair amount of time, planning, and counter space.

Sometimes I need to make dinner after a long day of herding children, driving to meetings, and shoveling. By six o'clock, I don't want to follow directions anymore. I want to throw things into a bowl or pot, squish them between my fingers, and see what comes out. On nights like this, I can't go wrong with chickpeas, tomatoes, and eggplant. Veganomicon is in the back of my mind as I cook, but over time I've greatly simplified this stew and taken the seasoning in an Italian direction. The measurements I've provided are only a starting point; I prefer to sprinkle, stir, taste, and repeat until I've reached the perfect balance of sweet and salty.

Salting the eggplant removes its bitterness and makes it tender. If you're into planning ahead, you can salt and roast the eggplant the day before you make the stew. Serve this with polenta—it'll feel so fancy for a Wednesday.

Italian Roasted Eggplant Stew
adapted from Veganomicon

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)
kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
¼ cup white wine
28-oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Trim the stem off the eggplant. Slice the eggplant in half lenthwise, then slice into ½-thick half circles. Place slices in a mesh strainer and rub with kosher salt. Place strainer over a bowl and let sit for 20 minutes.

Heat oven to 400F. Rinse eggplant slices in cool water and pat dry. Toss lightly with olive oil and spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 15 minutes, until edges begin to brown, then flip slices. Roast another 10-15 minutes, until slices are lightly browned, but not dried out. Remove eggplant from oven and set aside.

Warm olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sauté garlic 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Add wine and simmer 1 minute. Add tomatoes, chickpeas, roasted eggplant, rosemary, thyme, and oregano.

Simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes, until liquid is reduced by half. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add salt and pepper if desired.

Serves 4. Best served over polenta.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Great Finds in my Moving Boxes

Last winter, the recession had fashion bloggers and morning show correspondents discussing how to look great and save money by shopping in your own closet. While I couldn't care less about fashion (I will remove my hoodie if I must, for very fancy occasions), I enjoy anything that helps me put off a trip to the mall.

Since moving last August, we've been slow to unpack, since every room in the house needs work. We're still opening boxes, finding places for our belongings, and culling broken and unwanted objects.

A few weeks ago, I tired of alternating the same two sweaters on school days, and of climbing over a rubbermaid bin to get into the upstairs bathroom. In the bin, with my work clothes, old shoes, and painting gear, was this Red Sox sweatshirt. I hadn't been looking for it and didn't remember owning it, but now, thanks to its super-thick fabric and snug wrists, it's in heavy rotation.

Then I found a quilt and plaid lap blanket that I bought in college. Good as new.

This weekend I decided to go through old cds. I opened a beat-up box and uncovered some 90s AWESOME, just what I need to turn folding laundry into a dance party.

I'm so glad I never bought any of these albums on iTunes.

If you're snowed in or stir crazy this winter, go shopping in a closet, attic, or stack of moving boxes. Find something old, fun, and forgotten; it's like getting a present from your (younger) self.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: The Gluten-free Vegan

The Gluten-Free Vegan: 150 Delicious Gluten-Free, Animal-Free Recipes by cooking instructor and consultant Susan O'Brien offers a broad collection of recipes, from beverages to main dishes to dessert. Many of the recipes are basic, and will be helpful to gluten-free cooks looking to expand beyond the meat and potatoes paradigm, but obvious recipes for vegan staples like hummus, roasted vegetables, and garden salad will hold little interest for moderately experienced cooks.

The book's layout is straightforward and modest: one recipe per page, no photographs. Brief introductory text accompanies each recipe; it is occasionally helpful, but mostly inane ("My friends/son/husband really liked this..."). The intro to Baking Powder Biscuits does not inspire confidence: "These are not easy to make without gluten. I have done my best..."

Most of O'Brien's recipes emphasize whole ingredients and natural sweeteners. The first dish I tried, Betcha By Golly Bean Salad (why this title?), is a healthy, orange-juice sweetened adaptation of the traditional three-bean salad. Looking over the recipe, which calls for canned beans, cilantro, walnuts, red bell pepper, and only a touch of seasoning, I hoped it would magically be more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, tin can was the dominant flavor. I added more orange juice and more cumin, as well as olive oil, cider vinegar, coriander, salt, and pepper. Canned beans can't stand on their own like that.

Though I won't follow this recipe again, I probably will use orange juice instead of sugar and include walnuts in future three-bean salads.

I found the Curried Coconut and Squash Stew similarly bland. Butternut squash, red bell pepper, coconut milk, and soy milk are naturally sweet; simmered together, without assertive rich or spicy seasoning, they were cloying. I needed cumin, Sriracha, and lots of lime juice to enjoy this curry. Tofu had no business here—it contributed nothing to the flavor, and was just another soft tan thing thing in a stew full of boiled squash. Black beans would have been a better choice.

I can find recipes for lentil soup and sautéed greens in any vegetarian cookbook; what I really need to learn about is gluten-free baking. Many of O'Brien's recipes call for Ener-G Egg Replacer, a pre-mixed combination of starches and leavening agents that seems a little lazy.

After my last round of baking, I didn't expect the Carrot Cake to be edible. (I'm learning it's best not to get your hopes up when baking without gluten.) Boy, was I surprised.

It may be the best carrot cake I've ever eaten. It's light, moist, and not too sweet, with shredded carrots, chopped walnuts, coconut, and pineapple in every bite. It rose beautifully, and though it's made with quinoa flour and xanthan gum, there's not a hint of weirdness. Our resident carrot cake fiend approves. I chose the optional brown sugar over agave nectar (it's cheaper and I prefer the flavor), and since I don't have a 9x11 pan, I baked ⅔ of the batter in a square pan and made the rest into cupcakes. If you made only cupcakes with this recipe, you would probably get 18; mine were cooked through after about 25 minutes.

O'Brien suggests frosting this cake with her Cashew Crème Frosting, a purée of coconut milk, dates, and raw cashews that thickens after a few hours in the fridge. I would have preferred a lemon or coconut buttercream. This spread, which would be delicious with sliced apples, made the cake taste like health food.

Encouraged, I tried the brownies. They were rose quite a bit in the oven (2 teaspoons of baking powder!), and were gooey in a lovely, chocolatey way. I don't enjoy the chocolate-banana combination, so I'd like to bake these again with a different puréed fruit, or even silken tofu, as a binder.

The Gluten-Free Vegan may have some winning recipes (I look forward to trying the pumpkin scones), but only a few shed light on gluten-free technique. Beyond a couple of cookie recipes, the rest of the desserts are coconut milk puddings, fruit crisps, and other vegan dishes that are easily prepared without gluten or are gluten-free to begin with. The majority of the book is dedicated to unimaginative savory dishes; if you're new to vegan cooking, these quick and easy recipes may help you expand your repertoire. If you're a long-time vegan looking to learn about gluten-free baking, get this book from the library, photocopy the carrot cake recipe, and save fifteen dollars.

Monday, January 11, 2010

C is for...

1. Celiac
2. Cookie
3. Champion

Last week's successful batch of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies contained flax, xanthan gum, and peanut butter. Convinced at least one of these binders was unnecessary, I spent the weekend experimenting.

Without flax, the cookies were flat and crispy. Without xanthan gum, the dough melted into a sheet. Without peanut butter, the dough spread too much and cooked unevenly.

Left and top: Gnarly cookies with flax and xanthan gum
Right: Plump and chewy cookie with flax, xanthan gum, and peanut butter

So in the final recipe, I kept all three binding ingredients. If I were more analytical and better at math, I could build recipes based on chemistry rather than trial and error and dumb luck. I'd probably waste less food that way.

I posted my recipe at Maine Food & Lifestyle, but I'll include it here, too. In a few months, when I've recovered my appetite for cookies, I'd like to work out a recipe that doesn't rely on peanut butter (so many people are allergic). But for now, this recipe is reliable and delicious. Give it a try—I'd love to hear how it works for you!

Gluten-free Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup tapioca flour
1/4 cup almond flour (or finely ground almond meal)
1 tablespoon ground flax
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 cup (1 stick) nonhydrogenated margarine (such as Earth Balance)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup rice or other nondairy milk
1 cup smooth peanut butter (natural and unsalted)
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Combine flours, flax, baking soda, salt, and xanthan gum in medium bowl. Beat margarine, sugars, vanilla extract, rice milk, and peanut butter in large bowl until creamy. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes before transferring to wire cooling racks.

Makes approximately 2 dozen cookies.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cookie Quest

As I begin exploring the art of baking without gluten, I'm amazed by the range of flavors and properties gluten-free flours present. In traditional bread and pastry recipes, all-purpose flour is usually just a backdrop, but choosing the right balance of gluten-free flours requires research into density, texture, flavor, protein, and fiber content. Good luck helps, too.

Take something basic, like drop cookies. With normal all-purpose flour, there are only three possible outcomes: ooey-gooey, cakey, and somewhere in between. In each case it's not the behavior but the amount of the flour that determines the outcome. Substituting combinations of bean, nut, and gluten-free grain flours can lead to dozens of results, most of them inedible.

I have a lot to learn, so I turned to a confection that's practically fool-proof in its traditional form. Chocolate chip cookies, that good-old American classic, are one of the first items most children and novice bakers master. Recipes abound, on the backs of chocolate chip bags and in the pages of all but the snobbiest cookbooks. Making them vegan is no problem, but what about vegan and gluten-free?

Searching for wisdom in other people's recipes, I've made and eaten several dozen cookies over the last two weeks.

First, there were the Flying Apron chocolate chip cookies, which I discussed at length in my cookbook review. Made with brown rice and chickpea flour, they were a bit too light, dry, and crumbly.

Next I tried a recipe posted by Lori Jablons, another food blogger who recently went gluten-free. Lori's recipe uses coconut flour, almond meal (gluten is a protein, so if you're not replacing it with eggs, nut flour seems a good choice), and an all-purpose mixture of rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch.

I liked these cookies more. They were dense and gooey, with a lovely caramelized brown sugar flavor. The flecks of almond detectable throughout (Bob's Red Mill Almond Meal isn't as finely ground as other brands), benefitted the cookies' flavor and texture.

My third batch came from a box. I wrote a while ago about Cherrybrook Kitchen's Sugar Cookie Mix, which works like a charm but makes me feel like a cheater. The ingredients in the chocolate chip cookie mix are very similar: a mix of white and brown rice flour, lots of sugar, xanthan gum, and some starch.

Like the sugar cookies, the just-add-water-and-margarine chocolate chip cookies are puffy, quite sweet, and a little grainy. Of the three batches, the mix made the tastiest (and quickest) cookie dough; I saved a bit for mixing into ice cream.

After two weeks of eating cookies and studying the effects of gluten-free flour combinations, I was ready to create a recipe of my own. I took the rice flour and starch from Cherrybrook Kitchen's mix, the almond flour and brown sugar from Lori's recipe, and modeled the rest of my ingredients on the classic Toll House recipe.

Photogenic and completely delicious! They're crispy on the outside, soft and melty on the inside, and they hold up well for days. The recipe needs a little tidying up before I can share it; I threw every binding agent I could think of into those cookies, and I'm sure some of them are redundant. Peanut butter made a lovely addition to the second batch.

I can't believe it, but I'm beginning to get tired of chocolate chip cookies. The recipe is almost there, though, so I'll make another batch this weekend and get it right.

How I suffer for my art.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

R.I.P. Yellow Apron, 2005-2010

The old yellow apron was laid to rest this morning. After more than four years of admirable service, the apron could no longer perform its duties due to a malfunctioning neck strap.

Farewell, friend. You were a good apron. I shall remember fondly your wide pockets, your absorbent fabric, your hot sauce stains. The evenings I put you on and discovered a kleenex, or an animal cracker, leftover from some previous night's adventures.

You will be replaced, but not forgotten.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Review: Flying Apron's Gluten-free & Vegan Baking Book

I made out like a gluten-free bandit this Christmas. In addition to my tortilla equipment, I received two gluten-free vegan cookbooks. Pulled in by the engaging layout and cozy full-page photos, I dove first into the Flying Apron's Gluten-free & Vegan Baking Book.

The Flying Apron Bakery in Seattle is entirely gluten-free, mostly vegan (some baked goods contain honey), and mostly soy-free. The recipes emphasize whole, organic grains, sweeteners, and oils. This is not a budget cookbook—the chocolate cake, for instance, calls for 2 cups of maple syrup—but if you're health-conscious, gluten-free, and vegan, you deserve a treat once in a while.

Figuring they were a good starting point for comparison, I began with Flying Apron's Chocolate Chip Cookies, made with 2 parts brown rice flour and one part chickpea flour. "Chickpea flour in cookies?" I thought. "Won't that make them chocolate chip samosas?" No guar or xanthan gum, either, so when I finished mixing the runny, beany dough, I feared I'd have a flat, savory mess.

To my surprise, they baked up light, fluffy, and sweet. This isn't my favorite chocolate chip cookie—I prefer them dense and gooey, and these are more like muffin tops—but based on this recipe, I had high hopes for the rest of the book.

Next I tried the Corn Berry Muffins, made with corn flour, corn meal, and brown rice flour. The batter was extremely thin: the recipe calls for more than a cup of water in addition to a half cup of oil. After baking, the muffins were soggy, greasy, and crumbly. Even after extra time in the oven, the bottoms never cooked through. I ate the fruit off the tops of a few muffins and threw the rest away. I can't help but wonder if this recipe would work with less water and oil.

The ultimate test for a gluten-free cookbook is yeasted bread. I started with the Flying Apron Bakery House Bread, their standard toast and sandwich loaf. Unlike traditional yeasted breads, Flying Apron's require no kneading. Instead, the freshly-mixed dough is immediately placed in a warmed oven, so the bread bakes as the yeast release gases.

When my finished loaf was a brick, I suspected my yeast was too old, but wasting expensive gluten-free flour and maple syrup for any reason makes me cranky.

I still needed something to dip in my soup, so I tried the Quinoa Bread, which is leavened with baking soda instead of yeast. The wet dough was like muffin batter; there was no possibility of kneading or shaping. I globbed it onto my pizza stone and baked it for the proscribed time, and when I removed the loaf from the oven...

...brick #2.

What gives? The breads pictured in the cookbook look so airy and normal. Obviously Flying Apron's bakers have success using these recipes—if they served the kind of bread I wound up with, they'd have no customers. So what's the difference?

Are there errors in the recipes? Were the recipes tested by amateurs in home kitchens, or only in a commercial bakery? Is gluten-free baking so finicky that differences between brands of chickpea flour or measuring technique can spoil a whole cookbook?

After my baking disappointments, I moved on to the Flying Apron's selection of simple, portable main dishes, soups, and salads. First I tried the Dinosaur Kale, Artichoke, and Garbanzo Bean Salad. With tomatoes and a salty lemon vinaigrette, this salad is colorful and tangy, and so simple you won't need to look at the recipe after you've made it once. Kale holds up well in dressing; this salad was still firm and crunchy three days out.

On a kale kick, I went next to the Asian Kale, with ginger, sesame, and pumpkin seeds.

Fresh, crunchy, mild, and wonderfully easy. With some cashews or a side of broiled tofu, it makes a healthy and delicious lunch. Why are no bakery-cafes in central Maine serving this much kale?

I wanted to make the Chinese Green Beans and serve them for dinner with broiled tofu and rice, but the green beans at the grocery store were looking sad (it is January, after all) so I substituted sugar snap peas, with which I am having a minor love affair. Shallots, fried gently in sesame oil, soaked up the maple-sweetened ginger vinaigrette. With a touch of Sriracha, this dish was a perfect balance of hot, sweet, rich, and fresh. The leftovers were welcome in my lunchbox.

Finally, I made Flying Apron's Lentil Dahl, which confused me by being made of split peas, not lentils. It came together in under an hour (most of it inactive) and made six large servings. Toasting cumin seeds and other seasonings produced a rich, warming flavor. Tomatoes and diced sweet potato gave each spoonful texture and variety. This soup is perfect for a busy weeknight or a snowy weekend.

The bottom line: although this is primarily a baking book, I had the most success with Flying Apron's non-baked savory lunch items. I had mixed results with pastries, and my expensive and inedible attempts at bread left me annoyed and disheartened.

Many recipes in this book call for expensive and hard-to-find ingredients, but if you're both vegan and gluten-free, it might be worth tracking down specific brands of fruit juice concentrate in your quest for a decent muffin. I'll continue to explore the soup and salad sections of the cookbook for lunch ideas and try other cookies and breakfast pastries, but I don't plan to give the breads another chance. The layout and photography in this book are beautiful, but definitely do a trial run of any baked goods you plan to serve to guests.