baked sweets

Whole Wheat Gingersnap Cookies

I stumbled upon The Violet Bakery cookbook at the massive Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I went in with no desire to buy a cookbook (the internet is essentially one huge one anyway), but after pulling multiple baking books off the shelves only to find them boring and uninspiring, I magically grabbed ahold of Claire Ptak’s beautiful book. After a few moments of admiring the cover and flipping through the bright and clean pages, I was off to the cash register, book full of unknown recipes in tow and mind and body bubbling with excitement. I went home, plopped myself on a bed, and devoured the words and pictures in a couple of hours. I then proceeded to doze off into a nice little slumber and awoke with the urge to bake and bake and bake. Since my first day owning this book I’ve filled it with a thick wad of cute post-it notes; some shaped like butterflies, others like polar bears; it makes the recipe perusing experience all the more fun. One of the first recipes that had me head over heels in awe was the chewy gingersnap cookies. Molasses and ginger plus butter and dark sugar equals a divine revelation.

Ingredients~
Makes 12 large or 16 medium cookies

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup coconut sugar (plus more for rolling the cookies; or light brown sugar)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/3 cup & 1 tbsp dark molasses
2 tsps ground ginger
1 1/2 tsps cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
Pinch or two of paprika
1 tsp baking soda
Scant 1/4 tsp fine salt
1 1/2 tsps boiling water

Instructions~

Note: recipe adapted from Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery cookbook!

gluten free/ snacks/ vegan

Salted Date-Caramel & Pretzel Dark Chocolate Cups

Ingredients~
Fills 5 standard cupcake liners 

Cups:
1/2 cup cocoa butter, melted (or coconut oil, but know that it has a much lower room-temperature melting point)
1/2 cup cacao powder
2 tbsps brown rice syrup or other liquid sweetener of choice
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Filling:
1/2 heaped cup chopped medjool dates
1-2 tbsps milk or liquid sweetener of choice (for slightly thinning the date paste)
1 heaped tsp red miso paste

Handful of small pretzels (gf if necessary)
Pinches of flaky salt to top

Instructions~

breakfast

Buckwheat Pancakes

Ingredients~
Serves 2 hungry individuals 

1/2 cup wholegrain buckwheat flour
1/4 cup wholegrain spelt flour (or another lighter flour such as white spelt, whole wheat pastry, or all-purpose)
3/4 cup milk of choice (I enjoy hemp-coconut)
1 tbsp coconut sugar (or other granulated sugar)
1 tbsp coconut oil, melted (or unsalted butter/ghee)
1 egg
1 tsp apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup wild blueberries for stirring into the batter (or chocolate chips! or sliced banana! or raspberries!)
~1 tsp butter/ghee for frying the pancakes (or omit if using a good non-stick pan)

For serving:
1 cup blueberries (cooked over low-medium heat until reduced into a thick compote)
3-4 tbsps heavy cream, whipped into soft peaks
Maple syrup for drizzling!

Instructions~

gluten free/ snacks/ vegan

Chocolate Covered Date-Caramel Nut Clusters

I may no longer be seven years old, but I am still dewy eyed in the face of chocolate. I’m also very, very dew eyed when presented with a salted chocolate caramel combination. These nut clusters are made without heaps of refined sugar and oil, but they don’t connote the grudgingness that ‘healthy’ often equated to when I was a kid. Healthy often looked like carrot sticks and sour apple slices and it was not fun. If it’s worth anything, I think I’d make my 8 year old self proud with this recipe; the all too straightforward and bland crunch of a dry carrot has been replaced by a matrix of rich, chewy, crunchy, sweet, and salty.

Kids are often labeled picky eaters and put down for their undeveloped palettes, but I think we  (‘adults’) can learn a thing or two from them. It’s easy (and honestly sometimes fun) to get caught up in the swing of intricate dishes and complex flavor combinations; there is a thrill in all of that, but there’s also a special, unassuming quality to simplicity that ought not go overlooked. I’m no self-proclaimed philosopher, so I’ll try to spare the tangential thoughts, but I think what I’m trying to get at is that, *perhaps* it’s no wonder the simpler, mama-used-to-make-that kind of dishes are the ones that hold a special place in people’s hearts. If you give most kids free reign to choose what they want for dinner or snack, they’ll likely say pizza or pasta or brownies or ice-cream. Each food stands on it’s own, stripped of convoluted wording (which I know I tend towards) and ingredients. For some reason, those straightforward foods from our childhoods become cemented on our tongues and hearts and minds. White chocolate will always be awe-inducing for me and salted caramel will always remind me of happy summers spent on the Oregon coast. It’s easy to dismiss seemingly ‘easy’ dishes as boring and unexciting, but at the end of the day, they’re what we usually choose to come back to.

Perhaps there’s an unseen comfort submerged in the homemade, love-filled pumpkin soup you first tasted as a child. How pureed roasted pumpkin can be so powerful, I don’t know. Calling attention to the mysteriousness that underlies a day to day activity such as eating adds more depth to my life; making soup can sometimes feel straightforward and mundane, but as soon as you incorporate emotion and memory inducing flavors into the mix, you have a bizarrely magical soup on your hands.

While I’m sure my eight year old self wouldn’t have specifically craved dark chocolate coated date-caramel nut clusters, she would have definitely daydreamed about salted caramel ice-cream and Hershey’s chocolate bars. And so, as a nod to my little kid self, I decided to dress up my childhood cravings in velvety chocolate and gooey date caramel. I tasted these clusters and wondered how can something taste so wonderful? Even though I put them together and anticipated how they’d taste, I couldn’t help but be struck by their spot-on sweet umaminess. You may not have revered salted caramel and chocolate as much as I did as a kid, but it’s never too late to imprint yourself with new, awe-inspiring flavors. At the end of the day, when the lights are out and we’ve got the covers pulled up to our chins, we’re still wide-eyed little kids, aren’t we?

Ingredients~

1 cup unsalted nuts of choice (I like a mix of hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds, but pick whatever suits your fancy!)
1 cup chopped dates* (medjool or deglet noor will work)
2 tbsps coconut oil, melted
1-2 tbsps brown rice syrup, maple syrup, or other sticky liquid sweetener
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (I enjoy 70% cacao)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 heaped tsp red or white miso paste*
Pinch or two of flaky salt for topping

*If your dates aren’t super gooey and soft, soak them in warm water for about 10 min before pureeing them
*If you don’t have miso paste on hand, you could replace it with salt (gradually add it to taste pinch by pinch), but I do think the miso adds a unique, subtle flavor that salt can’t perfectly replicate

Instructions~

raw treats/ snacks/ vegan

Fudgy Chocolate Prune Truffles

Note to self: make chocolate prune truffles every chance you get.

Let’s put to sleep (forever) the notion that prunes are only for old people. I very loudly and proudly proclaim my love of prunes, particularly when morphed into fudgy, chocolatey truffles. Prunes sans the chocolate and fudge part? Still good, but not good enough to warrant knocking on your neighbor’s door about. So, here I am, more or less doing the former, trying to convert you to team prunes & chocolate. Think of me as a prune missionary; I’m a little prudish, but only for the sake of this pun.

The other day at the grocery store I suddenly felt compelled to buy a different fruit, something that would pair well with my usual bowl of oatmeal in the morning, but also something that could mimic dates in baking (my very dear stash of medjool dates are nearly gone). I settled on prunes because: A) they are overwhelmingly decently priced and B) they are packed with healthy, helpful things. Let’s start by getting the elephant out of the room; yes, prunes are known for having a laxative effect, which is rightfully so, given that they are more helpful at moving things along than psyllium husk, a currently very trendy (and pricy) fiber-packed product. It’s a shame most people won’t look beyond the glaring laxative label slapped onto prunes to notice the other, incredibly beneficial nutrients they contain. For starters, they are a good source of manganese and iron, two antioxidants that, very simply put, work at keeping our immune systems and mitochondria in check. On top of that, 1/4 cup of prunes (about 4-5 prunes) will load you up with 32% of your daily requirement of vitamin K, 12% of fiber, and 9% of potassium. Click here or here if you want more details about why you ought to add prunes to your diet!!

While prunes are no where near as sweet or gooey as medjool dates, they provide the helpful punch of moist, stickiness that I usually rely on to replace some oil and liquid sweetener in baking. I had a go at making date-sweetened chocolate truffles a while back and was very pleased with the result, so I obviously, very enthusiastically, jumped at the opportunity to replace the dates with prunes. Maybe my eagerness for the prune truffles to work and blow me away with flavor and fudge had something to do with the magic that ensued. Or maybe prunes just rock. And prunes in chocolate form? In other words, chocolate prune truffles? They rock at a rate never before fathomed by man/woman. Please make (and eat) these truffles, they are the perfect dose of healthy decadence and everyone needs a great big serving of that once in a while.

Ingredients~
Makes 6-8 small truffles

Truffles: 
7 large pitted prunes (I used California prunes)
3 large & gooey medjool dates
3 tbsps cacao or cocoa powder (carob may also be lovely)
2 tsps cocoa butter, melted (or sub with coconut oil)
Generous pinch of salt

Coating:
2 tbsps cacao or cocoa powder
2 tbsps cocoa butter, melted (or coconut oil, but know that it has a much lower room-temperature melting point)
2-3 tbsps finely crushed walnuts for topping (or use shredded coconut, hemp seeds, sea salt,…)

Instructions~

1. First, chop up the cocoa butter and melt it in a non-stick saucepan on low heat. Allow it to cool as you mash the dates and prunes. If your dates/prunes are very dry, soak them in hot water for 10-15 minutes before mashing. Once you have a thick, sticky fruit paste, mix in the cocoa powder and pinch of salt (I find it easiest to use a fork and cut in the cocoa powder). Add the 1 1/2 tsps of melted cocoa butter and use a fork to cut up the mixture, ensuring the cocoa butter is evenly distributed throughout it. Alternatively, use your hands to knead the ingredients together until the resulting mixture holds together in a glossy ball. Set the truffle mixture in a bowl covered with plastic wrap and allow it to chill in the freezer for about 15 minutes or until a little more firm and easy to handle.
2. As the truffle filling chills, prepare the toppings. Melt the cocoa butter over low heat until melted. Allow it to cool as you finely chop the walnuts; you could also use a food processor to blend the nuts, but know that the texture should resemble walnut meal rather than powder or flour. Whisk together the cocoa powder and cocoa butter until no lumps remain. Remove the truffle mixture from the freezer and roll together 6-8 balls. Using a chopstick or fork, prick each truffle, dunk it in the liquid chocolate until fully submerged/coated, and gently level it onto a sheet of parchment paper. Sprinkle each truffle with the chopped walnuts right after setting it on the paper; the wetter they are, the better the walnuts will stick. Allow the truffles to harden up in the fridge for about 1 hour or speed things up by leaving them in the freezer. Enjoy the fudgy, chocolatey goodness!!

baked sweets/ breakfast

Buckwheat Croissants

Am I a little nutty for adding buckwheat flour to my croissants? Maybe a little. These croissants are a little nutty, too. The standout flavor is definitely butter, but unlike standard croissants, these ones take you to unchartered territory, where buckwheat and butter can be found living in harmony.

In all seriousness, these croissants are very tasty. As I made them my mind wavered from concernedly questioning the addition of buckwheat, to excitedly exclaiming how cool it would be if the grey sheet of dough in front of me actually resulted in flaky croissants. I wanted to believe that the buckwheat had the potential to puff and crisp up alongside it’s totally opposite pal, all-purpose flour, but I was afraid it might smell my eagerness and desperation, so I tried to remain level-headed, disinterested and cold. Of course, I was practically inflating my insides with giddiness.

From the outside (i.e. as you view videos of professional pastry chefs making 10 kg’s worth of croissants on Youtube), making croissants yourself sounds unattainable. After enough video viewing and jaw dropping you will realize that it would be inaccurate to say you lack the capabilities/utensils/ingredients to make croissants (unless you really don’t have a rolling pin, flour, or butter in your home), but it would be 100% true to say that the flaky pastry requires a lot of time. And not just plain ol’ waiting-for-the-brownies-to-bake kind of time, but actual fiddling and rolling and turning time. It’s kind of like you’re on babysitting duty for several hours; you check to see if it’s risen, you check to see if it’s too cold, and you really hope that it isn’t sitting in a big yellow puddle when you check on it for the last time. If your schedule can’t allot you a handful of hours over a two day period, then homemade croissants may sadly be out of the question (although you can find same-day croissant recipes on the internet).

The first time I made croissants I was not nearly prepared enough. The weather in Melbourne was hot and slimy, but I didn’t think much of it, I’ll just work super quickly, I told myself, not realizing how difficult it is to super quickly roll out delicate layers of melting-by-the-millisecond butter and soft dough. My work did result in a batch of croissants, but they were a little lot on the wonky side. Buttery and tasty, yes, but lacking the visibly layered interior that makes croissants the stuff of reveries. This time around I was determined to at least inch a little bit closer to golden flaky galore. And I did. Just a little bit.

It is summertime in Tokyo and the worst time of the year to make croissants. Some days it feels like the temperature won’t stop climbing; the sun is out to scorch and turn naively proofing croissants inside out. In an effort to bypass the unforgiving hot weather, I began my croissant-making in the early hours of the morning, waking at 6 AM to roll out and fold the dough twice before the clock even struck 9. I also turned the air con way up and chilled my rolling pin and cutting board in the freezer before working with the dough. I can now say with certainty that attention to detail truly pay offs (in the form of crispy, buttery pastries).

If you finish reading this thinking, yeah, I’m never going to attempt croissants, I’ve probably done a good job of over exaggerating how lengthy and intricate the process it. There are no handstands and juggling clowns involved, not even the metaphorical ones. There is, however, a little bit of dough handling (rolling, turning, folding, x2) and a fair bit of waiting. Here is a simple breakdown of events:

1. Make dough. Allow dough to rise for 45-60 minutes. Roll, fold, and set dough in fridge overnight or for at least 8 hours.
2. The next day, create the sheet of butter. Allow the butter to chill further if it is melting. Roll dough, sandwich butter in between, and roll again. Perform one book fold and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.
3. After dough has chilled, roll and perform one letter fold. Allow the dough to rest in the fridge for 15-20 minutes before performing one more letter fold. After the last fold, allow the dough to chill for 1 hour.
4. Roll the dough out one last time. Cut into two rectangles and then slice into four triangles. Trim off blunt edges. Roll each triangle into a croissant. Brush each croissant with egg wash. Cover and let proof at room temperature (22-25 C) for 30-45 minutes until puffier.
5. Preheat oven to 190 C as croissants proof. Bake croissants for 20-25 minutes. Enjoy croissants while they are warm.

See? It’s not that challenging of an endeavor. There’s no doubt that it’s one hell of a finicky pastry, and there may be a longer than ideal waiting period in between making the dough and baking it, but a little bit of waiting and a lot of bursting-at-the-seams excited anticipation is supposed to be healthy for the mind, body, AND soul. I know because I made these croissants, ate them, and feel just about as good as they look: glowing!!!! But with good vibes, not butter. Okay, and maybe a little bit of butter.

gluten free/ vegan

Vegan Banana Pudding: A Short Story

Sometimes I wish there were shortcuts to my dreamed about successes; perfectly flaky croissants ready in 2 hours, minimal handiwork required; no-rise fluffy cinnamon rolls; pie crust that pleats itself. Life would be pretty neat. My life really would be a lot less messy in the literal sense, with no flakes of dough to uncake from my nail beds and no mountains of dishes to wash because I had to make banana pudding three times rather than nailing it on my first go.

Nonetheless, there is a perverse pleasure in struggling when you know that it’s building you up and bettering you. Long distance runners haven’t found a way to NOT feel like there’s acid running through their veins, yet they continue to run, because, well, because of what lies ahead of them: a finish line, a personal best, a big meal, a better state of mind and body. I run and I also bake. The latter more often than the former, and that’s something that has got to change, but in the mean time, I can at least try to adopt my running state of mind when I’m in the kitchen. In other words, PERSIST despite the frustrations and letdowns, REPEAT in order to improve, and, most importantly, REMAIN LEVEL HEADED because it’s too easy (and stupid) to resort to cynicism and self doubt in a crisis.

I was on a banana pudding rollercoaster the past couple of days, uuuup and up before heading very, very far doooown, and then, because happy endings are nice, back on up again. I had a bunch of prime spotty bananas in the kitchen, but before mashing them for banana bread and calling it a day, I made myself take a little plunge off an unfamiliar cliff and make some banana pudding. I try to make my sweets as close to healthy as possible, so I decided to cut back on the cream, sugar, and eggs, and venture down the sinister road to creamy vegan pudding. Had I known how many times it was going to take to achieve my banana cream dream, I likely would have grabbed the ingredients for banana bread and fled. Long story short, I’m glad I didn’t. I stuck it out and now have a glorious vegan banana pudding to show off (and some not-so-pretty runner up pictures as well).

I began making my first batch of pudding thinking I had it in the bag. Pudding was a baby food in my mind; there isn’t much room for error when you’re asked to mash a banana or warm some milk. While I succeeded at the former two tasks, the pudding I found upon peeking into the fridge the next morning was not the one I was giddy for. It was greyish, the texture was foamy and lumpy, and it looked a lot more like actual baby mash than sophisticated adult pudding. So, what went wrong?

I forgot about my environment. And nature. And the laws of the world. Which, to be fair, is all very heavy stuff to remember when you’re trying not to scald precious pudding milk. Bananas turn grey and brown when unpeeled and sliced up and left to sit for hours!!!! This was only incredibly obvious to me AFTER the fact. I gave myself a little pep talk, I definitely won’t make this mistake the second time around. I am totally capable of manifesting my ideal banana pudding, and went on my jaded way to plan for pudding #2.

Pudding #1:
3/4 cup soy milk
1 small spotty banana
1 1/4 tbsps cornstarch
1 tbsp brown rice syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extractIt was now day two of banana pudding making and I wasn’t any closer to my dreamed about parfait. I could see it, but I couldn’t quite envision how x, y, and z ingredients would mold together once whisked and left to chill. For pudding #2 I used 1/3 the amount of mashed banana as before and I included a little block of silken tofu, thinking it could mimic thickened cream.

Without a blender/food processor in tow, I had to press the tofu through a mesh sieve. The actual labor involved was akin to lifting a pinky, but regardless, the fancy new addition to the recipe didn’t bring me any closer to satisfaction. Banana pudding castle was hidden in the clouds and I was on Earth eating grey mash.

I can only wonder if a blender would have solved the silken tofu problem. Using the mesh left the tofu looking like curdled cream. At the time I had tried to ignore it; everything else was prepared and I wasn’t in the mood to take a step back after not succeeding with pudding #1, so I combined the curdled tofu with the rest of the ingredients and left it to chill in the fridge overnight (big mistake).Still grey as ever. In fact, MORE grey than attempt #1!!!! I wasn’t going to add ANY mashed banana to the next pudding and I was definitely going to drop the tofu. Rotten Banana Curdled Milk Pudding. Yum. In all fairness, it didn’t taste all that bad. But cake batter and cake are two very different things. Sure, we like to steal a few licks of batter, but the cake is why we bother baking in the first place. Same goes for banana pudding, it may taste well and good, but if the texture is off the delivery is off and the whole damn thing is OFF. I needed to find a thought through and viable solution to the consistency problem. Simply dumping together ingredients in the hopes that they’ll conjure up creamy pudding was obviously not working.

Pudding #2:
3/4 cup soy milk
1/3 small spotty banana
1 1/4 tbsps cornstarch
1 very small block silken tofu
1 tbsp brown rice syrup
Scant tsp vanilla extractAnd then… Aha! Agar agar, you are my sunshine on a grey and underwhelming day. I had been doing some research about baking with gluten free flours and more specifically, what can be substituted for xanthan gum, when I came across the words agar agar and tiny things in my brain clicked and buzzed and gurgled and I suddenly recalled seeing it at the local grocery store. It turns out agar agar is a popular vegan replacement for gelatin. It’s derived from algae and can be bought in three forms: 1. strands (which must be pounded into granules) 2. flakes and 3. powder. The powder is the easiest to deal with as it requires the least amount of stove time and the least amount of teaspoons. The ratio of flakes to powder is about 3:1 and after heaps of internet lurking I learned that about 1 tsp of agar powder is enough to turn 1 cup of milk into firm jello. Colorful ideas for vegan jello and panna cotta and gummy bears had to be put on hold. Now was the time for CREAMY banana pudding.It worked! Creamy banana pudding was mine. And it was still vegan and low in sugar. The agar powder really saved my butt. Without it I’m not so sure I would’ve found another viable vegan alternative. Creaming tofu was not possible and coconut cream is way out of my food budget here in Tokyo. Maybe I’ll find a way to fit a can of it into one of next month’s grocery lists. I’m definitely going to need a couple of weeks to detox from all of this banana pudding. If it wasn’t for Matt’s helping hand (pictured above) and sizable appetite I wouldn’t have kept the ball rolling on this banana pudding project. It is possible to have a little too much of a good thing. Or rather, why make pudding if you’re not even going to want to eat it?

Pudding #3: The Finale
3/4 cup soy milk
1/4 tsp plus 1/8 tsp agar agar powder
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp brown rice syrup
3/4 tsp vanilla extractIngredients~
Makes a little more pudding than pictured or enough for 2 small serving glasses

3/4 cup soy milk or other dairy free milk
1/4 tsp plus 1/8 tsp agar agar powder
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp brown rice syrup or other liquid sweetener (add more for a sweeter pudding and reduce liquid accordingly or slightly increase agar)
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
Toppings:
1 small lightly-spotted banana, sliced
6-8 homemade vanilla cookies or store-bought vanilla wafers
1/2 cup vanilla whipped cream (coco whip for a dairy-free alternative!)

Instructions~

1. Pour the soy milk into a non-stick saucepan and sprinkle the agar powder on top. Allow to sit for a few minutes before adding the syrup, turning up the heat to low-medium, and whisking until the ingredients are visibly combined. Add the cornstarch, whisking to avoid clumps. Continue to whisk/stir every handful of seconds to prevent the cornstarch/agar from sticking to the bottom. It will take up to 4-6 minutes for the mixture to visibly thicken, at which point you should continue to stir for about 30 more seconds before turning off the heat.
2. Moving quickly, arrange your cookies/sliced banana/whipped cream* in serving glasses and divide the mixture accordingly. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to set at room temperature for 1 1/2-2 hours before transferring to the fridge for another 1-2 hours to further set and chill. This pudding is best enjoyed cold and with a big dollop of whipped cream on top!

*The whipped cream won’t retain it’s airy form 100% if it’s layered between the warm pudding, but it does add a yummy variation and blends well with the other layers.