Once, I had a good vegan brownie. Once. It was my friend Megan’s birthday, and a bunch of ladies met at the Peninsula for high tea. The vegan offerings, while extremely appreciated in such a traditional setting, were hit or miss. The hits: tiny lemon-poppy-seed muffin tops, cranberry-chutney-and-arugula sandwiches, mushroom stacks with pesto. The misses: peanut butter muffins that tasted like freezer burn, under ripe strawberries covered in crunchy unremarkable chocolate, and anything involving tofu (watery parfaits, grainy cheesecake). But the brownies saved it all (well, those and the champagne). They were dense, moist, fudgy, with a crispy top, studded with tiny walnut bits. They were real brownies. They were everything a brownie should be, vegan or not.
See, the problem (or I guess I should say problems) with vegan brownies is that the name usually holds no weight. They’re not brownies. They’re flat chocolate cake, too moist and fluffy. Or they’re square chocolate cookies, too dry and crumbly. They never seem to achieve that balance of gooey and firm, resisting and melty.
So I decided, screw it, I’ll skip all of those inferior vegan brownie recipes and take my chances with a solid-sounding traditional one. Armed with Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet and a bar of Scharffen Berger 99% cacao unsweetened chocolate, I headed to the kitchen. For the seemingly manageable two eggs, I subbed some extra gooey flax goop and a bit of soy yogurt. I melted the chocolate with an unseemly amount of Earth Balance. I dutifully pre-toasted the walnuts. And everything seemed to be going well. The batter looked thick and fudgy and tasted amazing. But that’s when my luck ran out. The oven did little to turn my promising batter into the brownie perfection I was hoping for. It baked for the recommended thirty minutes. Definitely not brownies yet. That’s fine; vegan baked goods always seem to take a bit longer than their egg-laden counterparts. In they stayed for the additional five minutes the recipe said might be necessary. Hmmm. Is that a layer of wet, bubbly fat resting on top of the deep brown still-not-brownies? Another ten minutes. And another. And perhaps another. But then I gave up. By now I had a heavy chocolate brick, unappealingly caramelized on the bottom, covered in melted, unabsorbed margarine on the top.
Maybe I’ll eventually overcome this utter baking disaster and go on to discover the perfect vegan brownie recipe, but it may be easier to set my sights on becoming a lady who lunches so I can spend many more afternoons sipping earl grey and nibbling on pastries at the Peninsula.
I always try to come up with something interesting when we have friends over for pizza, but sometimes I get stuck in a mushroom-olive-spinach rut. Luckily tonight we had some leftover dough and a fresh shipment of (new extra-puffy) Dandies vegan marshmallows on the counter and Dan suggested that we put them together. Ryan, the Dandies maker himself, was resistant to the idea, preferring to gorge on Teese-piled pies, but by the time the dessert pizza was out of the oven he admitted, into the video camera even, that he was wrong and what was in front of him was nothing short of genius. And I think Dan—who insisted I put chocolate only on half the pie, decrying the combination of strawberries and chocolate as “sex food”—realized the error in his thinking as well.
Dandies Dessert Pizza
1 batch pizza dough
1 cup frozen strawberries
scant 1/4 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for sprinkling edge
1 Tbsp cornstarch
enough Dandies to scatter over dough
coarsely chopped chocolate (or chocolate chips)
1 Tbsp or so agave nectar or simple syrup
Preheat oven to 550.
Puree strawberries in blender until smooth. Add a splash or two of soy milk if needed to get it going. Sift in powdered sugar and cornstarch and transfer to a small saucepan. Heat on medium, stirring continuously, until the sauce thickens.
Prepare your pizza dough and spread with strawberry sauce. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the outside edge of the crust is just beginning to get a little golden.
Heat broiler to high. Scatter Dandies onto pizza and place under broiler. Broil until marshmallows begin to brown, then scatter on chocolate and continue to broil until marshmallows are puffy and toasted, chocolate is melted, and outer rim of crust is crispy, but watch it closely so nothing burns.
Thin agave with a touch of water (simple syrup should be good as is) and bush on edge of crust. Sift a bit more powdered sugar on top of the agave-glazed crust.
In the kitchen, there are a few things that I know to be true. If there is an open jar of peanut butter in the refrigerator, somewhere in the room (smudged on the refrigerator door, hiding out among the natural blotches of the countertop, on the door jamb—yeah, it’s happened) said peanut butter will be smeared. If I turn off the heat-dry function on the dishwasher, as soon as I walk away, it will be on again. Once I even got into a screaming match—with my dishwasher, God help me—as I pressed the button over and over and over, only to watch that little red light pop on again, mocking my futile attempts to make the damn machine do what I wanted it to do. And—this one is very important—you must proof instant yeast. Must. I never trust a recipe that tells me to mix yeast, flour, salt, and water together all at once. No sprinkling the tiny granules on warm-but-not-too-warm water, with just enough sugar to give the yeast a nice little meal? Those recipes are not for me. I worry too much. Will those three-odd cups of flour end up wasted on fickle yeast that refuses to do its job? And what’s the point of making bread/bagels/English muffins/whatnot if your kitchen doesn’t get filled with that wonderful sour smell of blooming yeast? Well, I guess there is some point.
But although I’ll still opt for that yeasty smell whenever I can get it, I think I might be a changed woman. Instead of doubting the recipe in front of me and proofing my yeast in an act of rebellion, I dove in. I stirred flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, and water in the Kitchenaid and tried to shut up that nagging voice in my head. “It will work. It’s from Smitten Kitchen. Who’s more trustworthy than Deb? Remember this? And this? And, holy crap, this? What could go wrong?” But still, I couldn’t stop checking the dough in the refrigerator. Was it rising enough? Was that a skin forming on the surface?
After all that needless worry, the pita turned out perfectly. They puffed up into little floury balloons in the oven, and when deflated they had thick, doughy bumps perfect for sopping up my take on this Palestinian lentil soup. But the real standout of the meal was the cauliflower, cut into wee little pieces, roasted to almost-burnt caramelization, smothered in a salty-tart tahini-lemon sauce, and scattered with bits of parsley. The original recipe called for enough sauce to turn the crispy pieces of cauliflower soggy before they could even hit the table, and one head of cauliflower can shrink to a paltry portion likely to cause fistfights at the dinner table, so I’ve adjusted both amounts. And if you’re lucky enough to have any left over, it will still be delicious straight from the fridge the next day.
Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini Sauce
adapted from The Washington Post
2 heads of cauliflower
olive oil, sea salt, pepper
Cut cauliflower into small, bite-size pieces, coat evenly with a flew glugs of olive oil, spinkle with salt and pepper, and roast in a 450 degree oven for 30-35 minutes, or until starting to turn a roasty brown in spots, tossing every ten minutes or so.
2 1/2 Tbsp tahini
3 Tbsp water
1 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
small handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Combine tahini, water, lemon juice, and garlic until smooth. Toss with warm cauliflower, then sprinkle with parsley.
I’ve been vegan for nearly fifteen years, but it wasn’t until about two years ago that I succumbed to the most intimidating member of the protein triumvirate: tempeh. And it took even longer to come around to what is now one of my favorite convenience foods, Fakin’ Bacon. Since I gave up the real thing somewhere around age ten, I never really felt the need for a replacement product. Plus, it had one of my most hated flavors, liquid smoke. Smokiness reminds me more of the neighborhood house I watched burn to the ground at five more than a fourth of July spent in the cloud of a backyard grill. But once I sucked it up and finally bought my first package of Fakin’ Bacon (probably to toss on top of pizza), I was hooked.
My favorite use of Fakin’ Bacon is ridiculously simple. I heat up two slices in a dry skillet, lightly toast one piece of bread, slather on a bit of Vegenaise, and plop the bacon on top. Tempeh on toast. It’s the absolute perfect snack when it’s one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and I realize that I’m starving but don’t have time to make a proper lunch before I have to fold yet another load of laundry. And it keeps me from eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich again.
Almost knocking tempeh on toast out of first place is the BLT salad. Why it took me so long to put spinach and tomato and croutons and tempeh bacon together and cover it all in a garlicky mayonnaise dressing I have no idea. It’s so simple. So obvious. Yet so genius.
Vegan BLT Salad Dressing
2 Tbsp Vegenaise
1 Tbsp soy milk
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp minced garlic
Whisk ingredients together. Pour over spinach, tomatoes, and warm tempeh bacon and toss with croutons.
The first time I made fondue, I got drunk. We invited our friends Jay and Jennifer and their kids over for some celebratory dipping. It was before Dan was vegan, or even vegetarian, and since we only had one fondue pot, I had to cook my nutritional-yeast-based sauce in a pan on the stove and eat out of the cooling pot at the table. I based the fondue on my usual nutritional-yeast sauce, only I subbed wine for the water. ALL of the water. And I didn’t think about the fact that I needed to cook off the alcohol before serving. So as soon as the sauce began to thicken, I began my dipping. With every hunk of bread and asparagus spear I ingested more and more alcohol, and by the end of the meal I was more than a little tipsy without having taken one drink. But damn was it tasty.
My next foray into fondue took a few years, but this time it was among all vegans, and since there was a small child involved, I opted for apple cider rather than wine, but I stuck to the basic nutritional-yeast formula. The thing was, since I was sort of winging it that first time, every subsequent trial of apple-cider fondue turned out differently, and most were sickeningly sweet. I have since learned to write things down. Most of the time, at least.
Mary, Megan, and I had been talking about throwing a fondue party for nearly a year, but there were always other parties, holidays, obligations. Plus, the only open dates seemed to fall during warm weather, and fondue and air conditioning just seems like a ridiculous combination. When we finally had an appropriately chilly date set, I planned on finally perfecting the apple-cider fondue, but then I made a vegan mornay sauce and realized it would make the perfect fondue. Cheesy, melty, able to cling to the crevices of roasted cauliflower, and just drippy enough to make me wish a had remembered to lay down a tablecloth.
As for dessert, I can’t take credit for that, except for a batch of orange-scented mini madeleines. Megan made peanut butter caramel fondue and Mary made chocolate marshmallow fondue. We probably could’ve skipped right to dessert and been completely happy. And completely nauseous.
There’s something extremely intimidating about tempeh. Seitan is meaty enough to seem familiar, bready enough to be accepted by the uninitiated. Tofu is bland enough to soak up flavors and hide its true nature. But tempeh? It hardly ever shows up on restaurant menus, even in all-vegan restaurants, so even those of us who should be familiar with it often aren’t. Plus, every recipe for tempeh seems to include a caveat about tricking the tempeh into releasing its iron grip on bitterness.
It took me a long time to come around to tempeh, but now I can’t seem to get enough. Lately most forms of soy seem to give me stomach aches, but I never have problems with tempeh, so I get my soy protein fix without the nasty side effects. And did I mention that it’s actually delicious? Its substantial texture lets it stand up at the center of the plate. Sometimes vegan meals can feel like a hodgepodge of side dishes, but throw some tempeh in there and you’ve got a meal.
This orange-glazed tempeh from 101 Cookbooks is my new favorite way to prepare tempeh, and I’ve only made it once so far. It’s just too good to wait to write about it. I’m already thinking of what I can pair it with next. And I can’t wait.
(I made the recipe as is, with the exception of reducing the oil from 2 Tbsp to 1. The tempeh might brown more deeply with the extra oil, but I don’t think the added fat is neccessary.)
When Dan and I were first living together, I watched a lot of Food Network. I mean, A LOT. I was just learning how to really cook, and the pre-Rachael Ray Food Network chefs, plus as much Martha Stewart as I could injest, relaly helped me to learn all the basics. These days I think the only cook left on TV who actually teaches anything is Alton Brown, and I am amazed and grateful that Food Network still keeps him around (and hasn’t convinced him that he would be more popular if he put a pound of butter in everything).
A side effect of this culinary TV obsession was that I really, really wanted a Kitchenaid mixer. I wasn’t totally sure what I needed it for, but it was so pretty! So shiny! I was convinced that I couldn’t be serious about cooking without one. Dan and I talked them up so much, we ended up getting one for Christmas from each of our moms. (The next year we got two blenders, but we’ve since learned to coordinate our lists.)
But in the years since the mixer appeared in our kitchen, it hasn’t been nearly as useful as I thought it would be. So pretty! and So shiny! turned into So heavy! and So hard to move! Especially since I decided that counter space was more important than a convenient way to cream butter and sugar and moved the mixer to a bottom cabinet. And anyway, I discovered that I actually like doing by hand the things the Kitchenaid does so well. Half the point of making bread is the therapy involved in the kneading process—plus, the intense bicep workout is always appreciated.
Which is why I didn’t automatically pull out the old heifer when I decided to make cookies. I thought, I hardly ever make cookies, I should enjoy it, not rush through it and let a machine do all the work. But what I learned is that sometimes you should take help where you can get it. Because creaming butter and sugar by hand? Annoying and frustrating and ultimately not very fruitful. In the end, everything worked out, the cookies came together nicely, and I didn’t have to clean batter off the Kitchenaid. Still, next time, I’ll haul the hulking girl out of her hiding place.
Apple Almond-Butter Cookies
These are based on my favorite fall afternoon snack, crisp, juicy apple slices dipped in creamy, salty almond butter. Almond butter makes for a richer, smoother cookie than peanut butter, so smaller is better for these.
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
2 1/2 Tbsp Earth Balance, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy, salted almond butter
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp almond milk (add more for a less crumbly texture)
1/4 cup dried apples, diced
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix flour, baking soda, cornstarch, and salt in small bowl. Cream togehter Earth Balance and sugars. Add flour mixture into butter mixture. Mix in almond butter, vanilla, and almond milk until well incorporated. Fold in apples. Drop tablespoon-size pieces onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and flatten with the tines of a fork. They don’t spread much, so you don’t need to leave too much room between cookies. Bake for about 10 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet until they are solid enough to move, then finish cooling on baking rack.
My husband is responsible for certain things in the kitchen. Stir fries, meaning anything involving tofu and vegetables and rice that doesn’t follow a recipe. Garlic bread. Pancakes. One weekend when he was sick I took over pancake duty, only realizing halfway through that it had probably been nearly a decade since I’d made a pancake.
He makes other things too, of course, occasionally. But those are his specialties. He even refers to anything he makes as “world famous.” He’s especially proud of his “world famous” garlic bread.
Lately Dan has taken up a new mission: donuts. This weekend’s experiment was vegan apple cider donuts. They still need some work, but the flavor was excellent. And any imperfections just means that he’ll have to make them again next weekend. I can’t wait.
After college I came to Chicago and moved in with my best friend, Amanda. And let’s just say we didn’t have the healthiest eating habits. We went to the grocery store maybe once a month, bought as many non-perishables as we could carry from car to apartment in one trip, and hoped we didn’t have to go back for a while. Considering that one of our first joint trips to Dominick’s included an overgrown frat boy making lewd comments while we tried to choose cucumbers, it’s not really a mystery why we didn’t go back often. Our haul generally consisted of a few loaves of bread (some to freeze before they got moldy), boxes of veggie burgers and various frozen fake meat products, frozen broccoli (for me), canned green beans (for her), instant mashed potatoes, boxes of a now-forgotten brand of Mexican rice, and an instant coffee-cake mix that came with a disposable baking tray and a bag to mix the batter in, perfect for a couple of kitchen-lazy girls with no dishwasher.
But our absolute favorite disgusting convenience food was Betty Crocker hash browns. They cost about 89 cents a box and were perfect for two people, mine slathered in a repulsive amount of ketchup, hers not. They were so good, in fact, salty and buttery and crispy in all the right places, that I would probably still eat them today if they hadn’t been discontinued. I’d probably just skip the step of checking out the nutritional information before chucking them in the cart.
I’ve been thinking about those convience foods a lot lately, and I was reminded of the last time Amanda visited, when she told me about something she’d been eating a lot lately: tater tot nachos, or totchos. I finally tried it tonight, and it was exactly what I needed after a horrible commute. A pile of warm, crispy tater tots globbed with spicy refried beans, a quick nutritional yeast cheese sauce, pepper-heavy salsa, and green Tabasco. Somehow the tots, with their steaming, fluffy interiors, seem more suited to an especially chilly, rainy fall night than a handful of tortilla chips.
The other morning, as I walked from the office kitchen to my desk, tea in hand, I craved peanut sauce. I needed it. And right at that moment. No matter that it was ten A.M. or that the smells in the air consisted of nothing more than over-roasted coffee and fake-maple-laden instant oatmeal (and a few things less savory, I’m sure). I wanted peanut sauce. But not just any peanut sauce. I wanted the vinaigrette-thin, slightly grainy peanut sauce from Vegan Yum Yum, the one that accompanies soy-mirin-glazed tofu and blanched snow peas.
It took me a long time to come around to peanut sauce, and I can blame it all on one thing: Peanut Sauce Delight. The Vietnamese/Thai/Japanese restaurant I worked at after college had a truly repellent dish by that name on the menu. Once in a while a customer would be swayed by it, and any waitress who wanted a decent tip would do everything in their power to unsway them. But if that failed we would have to deliver a bowl filled with peanut sauce, a smattering of broccoli, and a few pieces of tofu/chicken/beef, served with a very inadequate portion of mostly dried up, often leftover (and sometimes, if the owner was around, “saved” from another diner’s plate) jasmine rice. Let me repeat that: a bowl filled with peanut sauce. But this wasn’t any peanut sauce. This was the same thick, gloppy mixture that accompanied the satay appetizers—and was too rich in even that small amount. It resembled nothing so much as peanut butter soup with broccoli croutons. And I never once saw anyone eat more than a few bites.
But once I got over the horrors of Peanut Sauce Delight, I began to embrace peanut butter as a suitable ingredient in Asian dishes. When mixed with sweetness and acid, such as lime juice or rice wine vinegar, and used sparingly, it could be downright delicious. This sauce serves as more of a garnish, giving the rice, tofu, snow peas, and shredded carrots the perfect hint of salty and sweet.
I used the recipe in the Vegan Yum Yum cookbook, but this recipe is nearly identical except for the broccoli. I may never recover from Peanut Sauce Delight enough to accept the combination of broccoli and peanut sauce.