Monday, August 31, 2009

Ask Veg Baker, J.D.

Recent inspiration has brought about a new segment on the blog: Ask Veg Baker, J.D. If you have a burning baking question, email it to me or post a comment, and once or twice a month, I'll post an answer and a recipe to go with it. Admittedly, I am not a trained pastry chef, so I definitely don't want to give the impression that I'm a baking know-it-all. I hope these monthly Q&A sessions take on more of the flavor of friendly banter where people can trade tips. In that vein, if you have anything to contribute to a question, please post in the comments. And if I don't know the answer, I'll happily research to figure it out.

So what's the story behind this idea? A phone call from my wonderful sister, Alison. If you don't know my sister, please go out of your way to do so. I'm one of her biggest fans, not only because she's a fabulous big sister, but she's just an incredible person. I always looked up to her as a kid, and I continue to look to her for support and guidance as an adult. I'm just super proud to be her little sister.

One of the many areas where Alison shines is her hostessing capabilities. She always throws these amazing parties, and she is a fantastic cook and baker to boot. Whereas I like to take recipes and modify them, Alison just pulls these ridiculously good ideas for food and parties out of the various recesses of her brain and, in true Tim Gunn style, she "makes it happen."

It is the topic of Alison and baking that brought about the Ask Veg Baker, J.D. segment. Alison gave me a call last week because she was in a predicament that I am in more than I care to admit: she was in the middle of baking and realized she was short on an ingredient. Here was her question: when you are baking and short on vegetable oil, is there anything you can substitute?

The answer is: yes! As a general rule, in baking, a solid fat can be substituted for another solid fat, and a liquid fat can be substituted for another liquid fat. If you think about it, we've been doing this for years already; people use butter, margarine, and shortening interchangeably all the time and don't think twice about it. For some reason, though, doing the same thing with liquid fats just didn't get the same amount of press. In Alison's case, she was short on vegetable oil, so my first recommendation was to use applesauce to make up the difference. Applesauce actually is a great substitute because it adds a lot of moisture without altering flavor and its fat-free. When she scoured her fridge and realized she was out, though, we went to Plan C: she melted some butter and added it to the oil and put it in. (This would work with Earth's Balance, too!) Alison added the butter and found success! (I can personally attest to the final product's yumminess.)

I should note, though, that when substituting liquid fats, it is important to use neutral fats, like vegetable/corn/canola oil, applesauce, and melted butter. For example, you should NEVER use something like olive oil. It has a tremendous taste that beefs up the flavor profile of savory foods, but put it in your cakes and cookies, and you've got yourself a big pile of yuck (unless, of course, the recipe calls for it, and then that's a different story).

In honor of my sister's idea to start Ask Veg Baker, J.D. (and her enthusiastic proclamation of "Thanks, Veg Baker, J.D.!" when she hung up the phone), I am going to post today's recipe in honor of Alison. When Alison was a teenager and starting to bake for the first time, she made the Hershey's Best Brownies recipe, and it was super delicious. It's a recipe I've turned to time and again. I've recently veganized it, and I'm still tinkering with it, but I definitely like the result below.

I should note, though, that when you make these brownies, because applesauce is used, they are going to look undercooked when they come out of the oven. I can't stress this enough - it is really important that you test the brownies and make sure a toothpick comes out clean, otherwise these are really easy to overbake. If you're like me, the toothpick will come out clean and you'll pull the brownies out of the oven, but then you'll pace and lament that you can't believe you stopped baking the brownies even though they look so raw and you spoiled this batch, and then 30 minutes will go by and you'll want some form of chocolate so you'll cut yourself a brownie, and you'll realize you have a warm, super soft (and fully baked) brownie, and you'll feel goofy for doubting yourself. Not like I've gone through this dance before or anything...

Anyway, these brownies are at their best still hot out of the oven in a brownie sundae as well as in traditional cooled down brownie form.

Best Brownies, Vegan-Style
Yields: 12 brownies

1/2 c. melted non-dairy butter substitute, like Earth's Balance
1 c. white sugar
1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
1 -1 1/2 tsp. vanilla (optional; there will be a darker chocolate taste without it)
1/2 c. flour
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. baking powder

1) Mix together butter substitute and white sugar; add applesauce and vanilla until well mixed.
2) Mix flour, cocoa, and powder into wet ingredients until just mixed.
3) Pour into an 8x8 or 9x9 well-greased square pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out in the center (and in different spots of the pan) cleanly.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cookies = Superfood

Although Greg isn't a huge fan of sweets (a fact that still blows my mind, even as we enter our fifth year of knowing each other), he has an undeniable weakness for oatmeal raisin cookies. I always knew this about him, but I didn't realize the full extent of his passion for the stuff until my wonderful college roommate delivered us her version of Quaker's classic recipe. I think his excitement may have been comparable to our wedding day. Maybe I'm exaggerating...but maybe I'm not. Needless to say, that recipe safely made it into my baking repertoire.

When it comes to feeding my "Greg on the Go" then (as I described in an earlier post, of Greg's almost frightening cactus-like tendencies), I was thinking of his great love of the noble oatmeal raisin cookie both to change up his work day snacking and to entice him to take a few minutes to eat some actual food. This cookie works well as sweet brain food...or, at least I tell myself that, to alleviate the guilt from constantly trying to feed my husband cookies...

After some monkeying around and incorporating some favorite techniques, I came up with the recipe below, which has increased fiber and protein as well as being veganized. The other nice thing about this recipe is you can pretty easily change out the flavor profiles. Other dried fruits would work well as well as some nuts; or, you can use another favorite trick of my college roommate and toss in some white chocolate as well. I'm also a fan of this recipe because I used banana to take out the eggs, so, if you're in a position like Mrs. Smith in the comments from my last post, and you have a bunch of bananas and just can't stand banana bread anymore, these cookies really benefit from the slight sweetness of fruit.

Pumped Up Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Yields: 4 dozen cookies

1 c. non-dairy butter substitute (like Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks)
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c. granulated sugar (I use vegan)
2-3 bananas, mashed
1-1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. soy flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 -1 1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon
3 c. oats
1 1/2 c. raisins

1) Cream together butter substitute and sugars. Add bananas and vanilla; mix well.
2) Gradually add flours, soda, and cinnamon; mix until just combined.
3) Stir in oats and raisins.
4) Drop by rounded tablespoons or using a cookie scoop onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until edges begin to turn golden brown.
5) Cool slightly on cooling racks for 1-2 minutes, then remove from cookie sheets and cool completely.

Freezes well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Having an Open and Honest Relationship with Boxed Cake Mix

I have had a long and sordid relationship with boxed mixes, and cake mix in particular. When I first starting baking in junior high, it's not too surprising that cake-making from scratch was not my strong suit. After a couple of tremendous flops, I decided, in true dramatic, adolescent form, that I simply was not cut out to make cakes from scratch and that I could never be taught. I discovered Pillsbury and Betty Crocker and gained the confidence to make all kinds of cakes and cupcakes all through high school and college.

After college, I decided that, perhaps, I should try this whole making cakes from scratch thing again. Lo and behold, I discovered that my skills as a baker had improved over the 10+ years I had limited myself to cookies, brownies, and banana bread, turning me into a cocky 20-something who began to foresake the very boxes that had helped hone her baking skills.

I soon began to realize how much of a baking snob I had become and wanted to give the boxes another try, but I soon ran into other food-related dilemmas. In addition to the trans fat and high fructose corn syrup problems that mixes create, I also faced some economic realities as a consistently broke adult; I couldn't really justify buying the box mix because I already had the flour, sugar, and other ingredients in my house to make a cake from scratch. In addition, I rarely needed the full 24-30 cupcakes a box would yield. By making something from scratch, I could control the final quantity, without having spares around the house for me to snack on and get me into trouble. Add in the snob element that was still lurking underneath, and I thought boxed mixes had retired for good.

Finally, though, I think I've struck the balance that was missing. As I've been going through favorite recipes from childhood, I'm finding that more and more recipes relied upon on boxed mixes than I realized. The difference is that the recipes rarely used straight mixes; instead, the boxes were gussied up to take the best of the mix and bump it up into a delicious new product. It's true that the baking purist in me rarely relies on a box anymore, but now that I know I can transform a box into something unexpected, some recipes that use the stuff will occasionally make it into my repertoire. This recipe below is definitely a winner; I got it from a friend of my sister's at a bridal shower. It travels really well and has made an easy dessert at outdoor concerts, or else it can be easily turned into fun cupcakes. I recommend topping with chocolate frosting. I haven't had a chance to fully veganize it, so I hope to update this post soon, but a quick glance tells me that removing the egg shouldn't be too tough. I'll keep you posted!

As a final note, there is still the very legitimate concern of finding a vegan baking mix that does not have trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils, and all of the other scary things that make mixes taste so good. Enter Cherrybrook Kitchen (; not only are the mixes vegan, nut-free, and gluten-free, but a young child can read all of the ingredients off the side of a box, which I think is the noblest test any foodstuff can pass. I find it is consistently stocked at Whole Foods. And did I mention the final product is delicious?

Banana Cake
Yields: one cake that easily feeds 6-8 people

1 package of plain yellow cake mix (I prefer Cherrybrook Kitchen)
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
2-3 ripe medium mashed bananas (about one cup)
1 c. water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
3 large eggs

1) Combine cake mix, sugar, and cinnamon. Blend in bananas, water, oil, and eggs until well mixed.
2) Pour into a greased 9x13 pan and bake for 40 minutes in a 350 degree oven, or until the top is lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean.
3) When cooled, frost with your favorite icing (my favorite is the vegan chocolate buttercream frosting).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Taking the Sour Cream Out of Coffeecake

Before I got married, my sister had a wonderful idea. She made recipe cards and collected recipes from family and friends and then put them in a recipe box for me. That recipe box, with all of the recipes inside, has become one of my most cherished keepsakes. Not only do I have fabulous recipes that I have literally turned to time and time again, but I feel connected to all the different women in my life who supported me and played different roles in helping me become me.

One of these special recipes is from a childhood friend, who shared a recipe with me that she said has been passed down through multiple generations on her mother's side, and I feel touched that she shared the recipe with me. And - it's delicious, too! It is sour cream coffeecake, with a cinnamon sugar ribbon. It is truly amazing! It is great to bring as a hostess gift. It freezes incredibly well, so I can make it ahead of time and have a special breakfast treat for overnight guests. It also makes a great gift around the holidays as well.

When I started gravitating towards veganism, one of the recipes I thought about experimenting with first was the coffeecake. Not surprisingly, Earth's Balance, with a little extra kick of vanilla, worked well. Even the eggs didn't cause a huge ruckus; after some research, I learned that unsweetened applesauce actually works well in quick breads, and in this recipe, applesauce creates a moist, tasty result.

As you can imagine from the name, though, there is an additional ingredient apart from the butter and eggs that created a vegan hurdle: sour cream. I wasn't entirely sure if I could just substitute vegan sour cream. First, I've never eaten it before, so I wasn't sure if tasted good. Second, even if good, I have no idea if vegan sour cream can go in the oven. Then, thanks to the internet, I learned that, when baking, soy yogurt can replace sour cream. Who knew? To be perfectly frank, the concept of soy yogurt kind of weirds me out to eat by itself, for no good reason. But then I decided that, since the soy yogurt is actually going into something and I don't have to see it directly that maybe I could be brave and try it.

I am pleased to report that using soy yogurt is one of the best vegan baking tips I've picked up. The final result of the coffeecake was just as delicious as the original - and maybe now I'll start eating soy yogurt by itself? Well, one step at a time, people.

Cinnamon-Sugar Coffeecake
Yields: One coffeecake, which easily feeds 6-8 people

1/2 c. non-dairy butter substitute (I vote for Earth's Balance)
1 c. granulated white sugar (I recommend vegan, if you can find it)
1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
1 - 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
6 oz. plain (not vanilla!) soy yogurt (RECIPE UPDATE: I tested vanilla, and it's great - I use that now! So either plain or vanilla is fine.)
Cinnamon sugar (2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 c. white sugar, and optional 1/2 c. chopped nuts)

1) Cream butter substitute and sugar; add applesauce and vanilla. Beat until light.
2) Alternate dry ingredients (flour, soda, and powder) and soy yogurt (start and end with dry ingredients) until just mixed; don't overmix!
3) Pour half the batter into a well-greased springform or bundt pan. Sprinkle with 1/2-2/3 cinnamon sugar on top. Pour other half of batter on top and sprinkle remaining cinnamon sugar on top.
4) Put cake in preheated 350 degree oven for 40-45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
5) If using bundt pan, immediately remove from pan; cool completely on wire rack.

Friday, August 21, 2009

When You Eat Ice Cream, It's Always Summer

Apparently, sometime around Memorial Day weekend, I blinked, it became August, and summer was almost over. Applause to me for not paying attention at all. I am firm believer, though, that the time is always right for ice cream. So that said, let's dedicate this Friday post to the end of summer and using ice cream to make any day feel like a lazy July.

If you do not have an ice cream maker, I highly recommend that you get one. They come in all variety of price points (or for you Kitchen Aid stand mixer owners, you can get the handy dandy attachment), but the results are always delicious. I did not fully appreciate how much better homemade ice cream tastes until I made a batch myself, and it's fun to make to boot. Plus, when you make ice cream yourself, the results are really intense (in that good way), so you tend to eat less. See? Make ice cream for your health.

Greg is actually not a huge fan of sweets and baked goods. Once I picked myself up from the floor from learning this, we found a middle ground - ice cream. Greg is an ice cream fiend. So, for Valentine's Day a few years ago, I bought him an ice cream maker, so we could be cute and couple-y and make our own ice cream. It was such a great plan, the ice cream maker sat in the box for two and a half years before we busted it out.

So what finally convinced us to bring out the ice cream maker, only to fall in love with it all over again? The Vegan Scoop by Wheeler Del Torro. I read a recommendation on the VegCooking blog ( and promptly ordered the book. It has been life changing to say the least. Exaggerating much? I don't think so. Our first foray, admittedly, fell a bit flat, because our first recipe, Mint Chocolate Chip, apparently had a fateful misprint. (In related news, if you pick up this cookbook, only use 1/2-1 tsp. peppermint extract...or you will end up with frozen Listerine like we did). Every recipe since then, however, has been magical. The one below is my favorite so far.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Ice Cream (adapted from The Vegan Scoop)
Yields: 1 quart

1 c. soymilk, divided
2 Tbsp. arrowroot powder (you can find this on the spice aisle)
1 c. soy creamer
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1/2 c. chocolate chips (my vegan fave is Ghirardelli)
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
3/4 - 1 1/2 c. natural peanut butter

1) In a small bowl, combine 1/4 c. soymilk with 2 Tbsp. arrowroot powder. Set aside.
2) Mix soy creamer, remaining soymilk, sugar, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips in a saucepan and cook over low heat, for approximately 15-20 minutes, stirring constantly. When the mixture begins to boil, immediately remove from heat and add the arrowroot mixture and vanilla. This will cause the ingredients to thicken.
3) Chill mixture for 3 hours in the fridge.
4) Freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions. In the last few minutes of freezing, swirl in the peanut butter. The original recipe calls for 3/4 c. of peanut butter...but if you're like me and can't get enough peanut butter and chocolate, you may need to double the peanut butter...


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chocolate for Breakfast? Yes.

Man I love food. I'm fairly non-discriminating, too; breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, brunch...I mean, I would make up meal times, just as an excuse to eat more. Time for lupper? Well, I do say so myself, yes.

Although as an adult I love traditional breakfast foods, I would not go near anything breakfast-related with a ten-foot pole when I was younger. Fortunately, my mom had a very liberal breakfast rule: you have to eat something for breakfast. Yes, she built in that loophole just so I wouldn't go off to school starving. Baked potato for breakfast? Yes please. Spaghetti with marinara? Why thank you, I'll have another helping, please.

In that spirit, I often find myself waking up wanting something very sweet to eat first thing in the morning. Although I can usually knock out this craving with chocolate chip pancakes or waffles, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. When I was studying for the bar exam, I was confident I could not begin my bar review course without a cream cheese brownie first. Gross you think? How is dessert for breakfast different from a donut? I'm not judging, I'm just curious where it becomes socially permissible to draw the line.

I do realize, however, that one cannot healthfully live on a diet of cream cheese brownies and cookies (whoops, did I fail to mention that, too?) for breakfast. So thank you Bethenny Frankel of Naturally Thin fame, your recipe for Joyful Heart Muffins have saved me again. They have chocolate, and I modified the recipe to pump up the protein and fiber, and I added fruit - perfect for a girl who has sugar that perennially runs through her veins.

Joyful Heart Muffins
Yields: 8 Muffins

1 c. unsweetened applesauce
1/2 c. raw sugar (you can use white granulated, if need be)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. canola or vegetable oil
1/4 c. soy flour
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/3 c. cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Dash of cinnamon
3/4 - 1 c. oats (this is basically a preference call)
2/3 - 3/4 c. sliced, pitted cherries (also a preference call; I bet chopped dry cherries would work, too)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees; either spray or add cupcake papers to add muffin cups of a muffin tin.
2) Mix together applesauce, sugar, vanilla, and oil. Set aside for a minute or so, so the raw sugar crystals can dissolve.
3) In a separate bowl, mix both flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Gradually add the dry ingredients to wet until just mixed.
4) Stir in oatmeal and cherries.
5) Divide batter between the cups; fill 2/3 full.
6) Bake for 20 minutes or until firm to the touch (the batter won't rise much, if at all).
7) Cool for 10 minutes on wire rack, then remove from tins and cool completely on rack.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Freezer: The Amazing Baking Sidekick

The number one question I get when I bake is: how do I find the time to do it? The answer: I plan ahead and take full advantage of the freezer. By planning ahead, I don't necessarily just mean finding the time in the day; I can usually can find a weekend morning to relax and to bake, and I usually only need about 2 hours of time, even to make many batches of things. I also look ahead in my calendar, usually 1-2 weeks or so, to see if there are any events coming up where I'd like to bring a baked good. That way, I can figure out one or two things to make where I will yield a certain number of quantities that can be broken out amongst many events, with the help of the freezer. That way, I can minimize the baking when I'm short on time to maximize what I share with friends.

I think the two items I bake and freeze the most are breads (like banana, blueberry, and pumpkin) and cakes and cupcakes. Frankly, I think these things turn out better after a round in the freezer; once they thaw, they are more moist than when they went in. The cake and cupcakes in particular tend to surprise people, but they work really well. For example, for a layer cake, if you bake the layers ahead of time and freeze them, you can pop them in the fridge the night before an event to thaw them. Then, right before you need to take them somewhere, you whip up a quick batch of frosting and you can put together a cake (more easily, I find, because the cake is cold and you get fewer crumbs). Cupcakes are also great, because you often don't need to bring all 24 cupcakes to an event, but if you bake and freeze the cupcakes, you only have to bring what you need. Although most baked goods have a long shelf life, I like to only bake a week ahead of time, or two at the very most, to be conservative.

My freezing sprees tend to pick up around the holidays. Each year, I tend to make 10-15 batches of cookies, so planning ahead is a must. The recipe below is a favorite; it yields a ton, and one batch freezes well and can be brought to many parties. It's a recipe from another close friend of my mom's (they were high school pals - how great! I've also had the wonderful privilege of growing up and being friends with her daughter), and it is always a winner. This recipe is also a favorite because it is the very first thing I ever made for Greg when we were dating, and now we like to make it together.

And did I mention - it's another no-bake recipe! For my readers suffering through the dogs days of summer, I hope you can at least cool off with some chocolate and peanut butter. You can eat these straight from the freezer, which is Greg's preferred method.

Peanut Butter Squares
Yields: 30-40 bars

3/4 lb. graham cracker crumbs*
1 lb. powdered sugar
3/4 lb. non-dairy butter substitute (Earth's Balance, bring it on!)
1 lb. (or a jar roughly this size) shelf-stable creamy peanut butter (I look for ones without trans fat and hydrogenated oils, like Whole Foods 365 Brand)
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
12 oz. milk chocolate chips**

1) Mix together graham cracker crumbs and powdered sugar in a bowl. Set aside.
2) Melt 3/4 lb. non-dairy butter substitute and 1 lb. of peanut butter over low heat.
3) Once the peanut butter mixture is melted, pour over dry ingredients and mix together. Spread in an ungreased 10x15 inch pan.
4) Over low heat or in a double boiler, melt together both bags of chocolate chips. Pour over peanut butter layer.
5) Refrigerate for 30 minutes; cut squares in pan. Return to refrigerator until fully cooled; remove from pan and store in fridge or freezer.

* Don't feel like you have to be a slave to this measurement; I've used boxes with 12 ounces and boxes with 15 ounces, and I've made my own crumbs out of a 14 ounce box. Just use the whole box of whatever you buy, you'll be fine! I also don't know of any vegan graham crackers; most have honey, and some have butter. I will look around and report back, but if anyone has any suggestions, please drop me a line!

If I find a substitute for milk chocolate chips that are non-dairy, I will let you know!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Satisfying a Chocolate Craving When It's Too Darn Hot

I realize that I am an extremely odd person when it comes to my oven usage. I will crank up the oven without any regard for what the thermometer reads outside, a tendency that I'm sure my parents adored when I was a teenager and would go on baking sprees while the air conditioning was working overtime.

The following recipe is in honor of my parents and their patience, as well as a tip of the hat to the dog days of summer and the respect they so deserve. I started playing around with this recipe after I found it in The Vegan Scoop by Wheeler Del Torro, a fantastic ice cream cookbook (which I'm sure will be profiled in a later post). I decided to make these cookies after fulfilling a request from Greg to make banana ice cream, which, frankly, is a concept I wasn't sure I totally supported. Mr. Del Torro, though, in his wisdom, paired his banana ice cream recipe with this no-bake cookie recipe, so I made the cookies in an effort to get more excited about this crazy banana ice cream concept. Needless to say, these cookies became my downfall as I couldn't stop shoveling them in my mouth all week long.

As a side note, I feel compelled to tell you, I feel like when I make these cookies, I must be doing something wrong. The original recipe title is "Crunchy Chocolate Balls," but I have never been able to get them into ball form, and they have never, ever had a texture that has even come close to approximating crunchy. That said, they are sweet, soft, chewy, and delicious. If, however, you have luck turning these into said crunchy chocolate balls, please post a comment and share how you did it!

No-Bake Vegan Chocolate Cookies
Yields: 30-40 cookies

1/4 c. non-dairy butter substitute, like Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Spread
1 c. agave nectar or honey (please note, many vegans do not consider honey to be a vegan ingredient)
1/2 c. cocoa powder
1/2 c. soy milk
3 c. oats
1 c. shredded coconut
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1) Line cookies sheets with parchment paper.
2) Combine butter substitute, agave nectar or honey, cocoa powder, and soy milk in a large saucepan, stirring continuously on medium heat until the mixture begins to boil. (This may take a little bit of time, but be patient - it's worth it!) Put on low heat and let boil for exactly 5 minutes (with an occasional stir).
3) Remove the mixture from the heat and mix in oats, coconut, and vanilla.
4) Using a cookie or small ice cream scoop, or two spoons, form cookies that are roughly 1 Tbsp. in size.
5) Let set in the refrigerator, for 1-2 hours, until set (although cookies may still be sticky to the touch). Store in container in fridge.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thou Shall Eat Buttercream Frosting

As someone who is perenially terrified of things such as trans fats, partially hydrogenated anything, and high fructose corn syrup, I decided a long time ago that I would no longer purchase frosting from tubs at the grocery store. Though delicious, store-bought frosting is the intersection where all of these scary ingredients come together.

This realization never really bothered me because my wise mother had pointed me to the direction of a Domino's powdered sugar box, which, if you've ever looked on the side, has an ages old buttercream frosting recipe which is easy and is hands down a favorite that people have always enjoyed. I used this recipe for everything, but two of its ingredients have recently proved problematic for me: milk and butter.

A couple of weeks ago, I made cupcakes and took the opportunity to play around with two separate recipes: veganizing the Domino's recipe and applying the same techniques to the Barefoot Contessa's unbelievable peanut butter frosting. I was truly pleased with the results; the buttercream frosting was decadent and, I think, tasted identical to the Domino's recipe, and the peanut butter frosting was so good...that maybe I finished up the leftovers as a snack. I'm just saying...

Both recipes are below and can easily be increased in size.

"Buttercream" Frosting - Vanilla and Chocolate
Yields: Frosting for 12-15 cupcakes

2 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. non-dairy butter substitute, softened (Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Spread is still my fave)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2-4 Tbsp. soy milk or soy creamer
1-2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa (if making chocolate frosting)

1) Cream together sugar and butter substitute until mostly mixed (it won't mix all the way without the liquid ingredients)
2) Slowly add the soy milk or creamer until the desired level of creaminess while mixing the ingredients on high. A little goes a long way here; I would start with 1 Tbsp and gradually work your way up. If you inadvertently add too much milk, you can add more sugar to even out the mixture.
3) Mix in vanilla. For vanilla frosting, stop here; you're done!
4) If you would like to make chocolate frosting, add 1-2 Tbsp. of cocoa, a little at a time, until desired chocolatey-ness. I tend to use a heaping spoon of cocoa. I have found that 1 Tbsp isn't quite enough, but once I used more than 2 Tbsp. and found that there was a slightly bitter aftertaste, so I'd add a little cocoa at a time. (A special thank you to Dave Lieberman, author of Young and Hungry, whose chocolate icing recipe was the inspiration for my own adaptation.)

Peanut Butter Frosting, adapted from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa
Yields: Frosting for 12-15 cupcakes

1 c. powdered sugar
1 c. creamy peanut butter**
1/4 c. non-dairy butter substitute, like Earth's Balance, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 c. soy creamer

1) Cream together sugar, peanut butter, butter substitute, and vanilla, until well mixed.
2) Slowly add soy creamer while mixing the ingredients at high speed until the ingredients are blended and smooth.

**After reading my opening paragraph of this post, you will probably be surprised to read that, for this recipe, I don't recommend natural peanut butter; though I love it and use it elsewhere, I would use a shelf-stable creamy peanut butter. This probably seems odd, since shelf-stable peanut butters often have partially hydrogenated oils. However, if you poke around your grocery store shelf, you will can probably find a stabilized peanut butter that does not contain these ingredients. When baking, I use 365 Everyday Organic Creamy Peanut Butter, which is found at Whole Foods and is delicious.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On the Search for a Chocolate Chip Cookie Epiphany

My journey towards vegan baking almost ended before it began nine months ago after a disillusioned baking session with chocolate chip cookies. Without a little prodding from Greg, I probably would have thrown in the towel and decided that great baking simply requires butter and eggs and stopped at that. I'm happy that I've since been proven wrong, but I still have not won the war with my friend-turned-foe, the chocolate chip cookie, and I have a feeling that there are posts to come that will talk about our ongoing battles.

How could I possibly harbor such a sore spot with chocolate chip cookies? It's because we used to be the best of friends. Before I decided to try to cut out dairy and eggs, I used to bake chocolate chip cookies and bars all the time with the famous Nestle Tollhouse recipe. Although I used to bake other things, I knew I could always rely on the good ol' chocolate chip to bring a smile to my face and joy to others.

Then I decided to foray into the world of vegan baking. There is one product that gave me the confidence to do this, as you can likely tell from my previous recipes: Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Spread. I am not a huge fan of margarine, because recipes just don't turn out the same, and that fact alone kept me from experimenting (and I later found out that many margarines actually do contain some dairy, which totally defeated the point!). Then I had a few friends turn me on to Earth's Balance, and I've never used butter again. Earth's Balance is all vegan, but it is not margarine; instead, its recipe was designed to behave just like butter, without trans fat or partially hydrogenated oils, and I can tell you, somehow, magically, it does! Just swap it out one for one with butter (and many times, I add a little extra kick of vanilla), and you'll never notice the difference.

With, however, one exception: the chocolate chip cookie. Don't get me wrong, I still make chocolate chip cookies and use Earth's Balance, and they taste good, but for some reason, the cookies don't have the same *joie de vivre* as when I made them with butter. The first time I used Earth's Balance was with, you guessed it, chocolate chip cookies, which is why it took major moral support from Greg to give the stuff a second shot. And don't even get me started with trying to make chocolate chip cookies without eggs - that is a whole other post unto itself! The results are always tasty, but so far chocolate chip cookies are the only recipe where I haven't been able to duplicate that tastiness of the original in dairy-free or vegan form. But I will not give up yet!

Fortunately for me, I have a thoughtful friend, Anita E., who has given me a powerful alternative. She gave me a fantastic recipe for Chocolate Chip Coffee Bars. I took one look at this recipe and knew I had to try it. First, I love that it uses coffee. Through my baking adventures, I have learned that chocolate on its own needs help from other ingredients to make its flavor "pop"; Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut Chocolate has built her stellar career on this fact. Instant coffee crystals are a staple in my kitchen for this reason; they give chocolate an excellent depth of flavor. When I saw Anita's recipe followed the same philosophy, I knew these cookies would be something special. Second, I'm a huge fan of any recipe that is flexible on the ingredients. As much as I love to bake, I hate going to the store to actually buy the ingredients (or sometimes I just forget...see my recipe notes at the end of the post). Any recipe that just lets me bake with what I have on hand is always a friend of mine.

And let me tell you, one bite of the finished product, and I was hooked! These are simply the most amazing vegan chocolate chipcookies I have ever had. My old cookie recipe better watch it; Anita's vegan-friendly noshes are giving it a run for its money.

Anita E.'s Vegan Chocolate Chip Coffee Bars**
Yields: 30-40 bars

2 c. non-dairy butter substitute (Earth's Balance tasted awesome in these)
2-4 Tbsp. instant coffee
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. white/brown sugar
4 c. flour
2 c. chocolate chips
1/2 -1 c. slivered almonds

1) Cream non-dairy substitute, instant coffee, and salt. Then beat in both extracts and sugar. Finally, work in flour, chocolate chips, and most of the almonds.
2) Spread in greased 10x15-inch jelly roll pan and press until flat and even. Press in remaining almonds on top.
3) Bake 18-20 minutes until edges are slightly brown.
4) Cool in pan and cut into squares. Store between wax paper.

**I reprinted Anita's recipe as she gave it to me, but I did make some modifications when I was baking. The biggest modification I made was not using almond extract and the slivered almonds, for one big reason: I forgot to pick them up and I had already started baking. Yikes! I look forward to trying this recipe again, when I actually have everything! Anyway, for those who don't like nuts or have an allergy, you can eliminate the almonds and use 1 tsp. of vanilla to swap out the 1/2 tsp. of almond/1/2 tsp. of vanilla combination, and it will still be tasty.

Other recipe notes: I used two cups of brown sugar and no white sugar. I also omitted the salt, just because I never bake with it; Earth's Balance has salt in it, so I often find that I don't need to add extra.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Fruit Crisp Recipe in the Works

This post focuses more on the experimentation aspect of the blog. I debated whether I was being too premature in posting this recipe, since it is still in the works, but I decided to put it up anyway for a few reasons: 1) I do like how this crisp tastes, even if I end up modifying it later; 2) this is the perfect season for buying fresh fruit from the farmers' market; 3) it is easy and great for parties or potlucks; and 4) I'm hoping some of you will be inspired to experiment at home and drop me comments with suggestions!

The base recipe is from, called "Apple Crisp IV" by Rhonda. Rhonda, wherever you are, all I can say is that this is one awesome crisp, and your commenters have made great and helpful suggestions.

I first stumbled across this recipe when I needed to bring something to a friend's house for a dinner party. She is a wonderful friend from law school and she throws great shindigs, so I wanted to bring something up to the task. Unfortunately, about an hour and a half before her party started, I realized I hadn't been to the store and that I hadn't started to make anything - yikes! Thank you Rhonda et al for bailing me out.

I think this recipe would work well for any kind of fruit. I've made it with apples twice now, but I think blueberries or mixed berries would be a winner, too. I've also got a bag of locally grown peaches at home, courtesy of my neighborhood Whole Foods (seriously, peaches for 99 cents a pound? How could I resist!), and I think they might be making their way into a crisp soon enough.

I like this recipe because it has the traditional crumbly, cinnamon-y taste, but the nutmeg in it gives it a special, unexpected tang. I think I might have to work out ways to add a little more texture...I'm thinking of mixing in the oatmeal separately, after I've combined the other ingredients in the food processor. Ideally I will post an update later with modifications, so keep your fingers crossed!

Fruit Crisp
Yields: Easily feeds 6-8 people

1 1/2 c. flour
2 c. rolled oats
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. non-dairy butter (Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Spread is my fave)
Fruit of choice (Just eyeball it - you can either be fruit heavy, or go heavy on the crust...I usually do the latter. For example, I find four apples to be enough, but Rhonda's gang has used as many as 2 quarts)

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients, except butter and fruit. Cut in butter. -OR-
If you are inept like me with cutting in butter, combine flour, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, and butter in food processor, until well mixed. You may need to pulse it a few times and mix in the butter occasionally until well combined.
3) Prepare your fruit of choice. For berries, I'd wash them and make sure they are dry. For apples and peaches, I'd remove the skin and core or pit, and then cut them into thin slices.
4) Pat half of the crust into a nongreased 9x13 pan. Layer the fruit on top of the crust, filling in all available gaps. Take the remainder of crust and crumble it on top.
5) Put in the oven; I think the bake time will depend on the fruit you are using. For apples, I usually need around 53-55 minutes, but I would imagine berries could be ready in closer to 40-50 minutes. Just keep an eye on it and wait until the fruit is soft.
6) Scoop and serve! I prefer it hot, but it also works at room temperature and is great straight out of the fridge as a leftover.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Using Baked Goods to Feed a Greg on the Go

My husband Greg has found a way to combine one of his passions with a career; he is a pilot who teaches people how to fly warbirds, and he also gives aerobatic instruction. (Shameless plug alert: visit the Gauntlet Warbirds link under "Friends on the Web" to get a taste of what he does!)

One of the things I love about Greg is how incredibly hard he works. Unfortunately, this almost always means he will work a 12+ hour day without stopping to eat. You can probably imagine how I feel about this habit of his. Through the power of baking, though, Greg and I have been able to work out a compromise where he eats little snacks throughout the day, and I can stop panicking that he eats like a camel.

This recipe is adapted from Naturally Thin, by Bethenny Frankel. I was making the original recipe one day, when Greg tasted a cookie and asked if there was a way to beef up the protein and turn it into a "mini meal" for him. We had a lot of fun experimenting with different ingredients until we got the combination to a point where we always have a batch of these living in the freezer, so Greg can stock up before a work day. And, as a fun plus, Greg and I got to bake together, which is something I just love to do.

I will admit that these cookies are a bit on the dense side, but they are tasty and very filling (and vegan, too!). If you've never cooked with soy flour before, I highly recommend it. It's a great source of protein and mixes well with other flours; be sure to store it in the fridge so it stays fresh. Raw soy flour has the slight aroma of banana, so it works really well in this recipe. If, however, soy flour isn't your thing, you can use a different kind of flour. Speaking of banana, this recipe is a great way to get rid of bananas that have been lurking around your house a bit longer than they were welcome to stay.

Banana Oatmeal Cookies
Yields: 18-24 cookies

3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. soy flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 c. raw sugar (if you only have granulated sugar, that will work as well)
1 Tbsp. natural applesauce
1/3 c. soy milk
1 1/2-2 medium ripe bananas
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 - 2/3 c. chocolate chips (optional) (you can use vegan or your favorite brand)**

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2) Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. While mixing, add the applesauce, milk, and vanilla.
3) Add the bananas last. For a smoother consistency, mash the bananas before you add them. If you like banana chunks, just throw the bananas in whole.
4) Once the dough is well combined, stir in chocolate chips, if you desire.
5) Scoop little cookie dough balls (about one tablespoon) onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. I recommend using a cookie scoop or tiny ice cream scoop, but regular spoons work just fine.
6) Bake in the oven for about 12 minutes, or until the bottoms and/or edges start to turn a light brown. The cookies won't rise or spread while baking, but don't fret - that's normal! Also make sure to rotate the pans halfway through.
7) Rest the cookie pans on a cooling rack for about 2-3 minutes, and then remove the cookies and cool all the way on a cooling rack. The cookies may be a little sticky when you take them off the pan, but that's normal. Parchment paper is a wonder for minimizing sticking to the pan.

**For those who know me, you are probably shocked that you saw "chocolate chips optional" because I am a huge lover of all things chocolate. However, Greg and I have a philosophical difference on whether chocolate should be added to these cookies. He likes them just the way they are, and I think everything improves when chocolate is added. I would just follow your gut and do what you normally like in a cookie. I've also approximated the measurement, because you should just eyeball how much chocolate you add, until it is to the level chocolatey-ness you prefer.

If you think that you have never baked with vegan chocolate chips before, you may be surprised! I was pleasantly happy to read the back of the Ghirardelli Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips to find, as far as I can tell, no animal products. These are now my chocolate chips of choice - and they are delicious.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Celebrating Spaciness with Blueberry Bread

In honor of my first post, I thought I would share a recipe modification that made me happy, but I only stumbled on it after a not-so-fine moment of mine.

On Sunday, at about 6:30 in the morning, I decided to take Lucy and Sheila, the resident wonderpups, outside to enjoy the gorgeous weather. Unfortunately, the moment the locked door shut behind me, I realized I had grabbed a different set of keys...the set that did not have house keys on them. No worries, I thought, I will hop in the car and drive to my sister's, because she lives only a mile away. Then I realized-no car keys on this ring, either (in retrospect, I think this "other" key ring may be worthless). Did I mention that Greg was out of town and not coming home until later that night? No problem, I'll call a locksmith...but wait, I forgot to grab my cell phone, too. **Commence smacking head against the door.**

Fortunately for me, my wonderful neighbor, who I had never met before, answered his door at 6:30 to a frazzled woman in yoga pants and a sweater in 80 degree weather and two crazy barking dogs. He lent me his phone and let me come in to search for a locksmith on Google. Brave man! One hour later, I was in my house.

Cue the blueberry bread! I figured a moment of neighborly heroism should be rewarded with a loaf of bread. I had fresh Michigan blueberries in the house, so I decided-let the baking and home delivery of bread begin!

I adapted the blueberry bread from a blueberry muffin recipe from my mom's wonderful friend, who I love like family. I enjoyed the muffin recipe but couldn't resist playing around with it (including making it dairy free). The bread is great, but the crumb topping makes it special. The final result is below!

Blueberry Bread

Ingredients for Bread:
1 1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. white sugar (I use vegan, if you can find it!)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1 egg
1/3-1/2 cup soy milk or soy creamer
1 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen-if you use frozen, don't thaw or your batter will turn purple!)

Ingredients for Crumb Topping:
1/2 c. white sugar
1/3 c. flour
1/4 c. dairy-free butter substitute (I prefer Earth's Balance Vegan Buttery Spread)
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Directions (for bread):
1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray one loaf pan with non-stick spray.
2) Combine flour, sugar, and baking powder.
3) Put oil in a one-cup measuring cup. Add the egg, and then add enough soy milk or creamer until you reach the one cup line.
4) While mixing the dry ingredients, slowly pour in the wet ingredients. Mix until well combined and creamy.
5) Fold in blueberries.
6) Pour ingredients into loaf pan.

Directions (for crumb topping):
1) By hand (if you are talented, like my mom's talented friend):
Mix together sugar, flour, butter substitute (cubed), and cinnamon with a fork until well combined.
With a food processor (if you are incapable of cutting butter into ingredients, like me):
Add sugar flour, butter substitute (no need to cube) and cinnamon; mix until combined. It will probably lump up, but you should be able to break it apart easily.
2) Add the crumbs to the top of the bread batter, covering completely.
3) Bake bread for 20 minutes at 400 degrees; then, turn down the oven to 375 and bake for another 15-20 minutes (until toothpick comes out clean).
4) Set pan on cooling rack for 10 minutes; remove loaf from pan and cool completely.

Welcome to Veg Baker, J.D.!

Hello new readers, and welcome to my corner of the internet!

My name is Beth, and I've decided to take on the blogosphere to talk about my exploits in baking. Let me explain!

I am an attorney, happily practicing in Chicago, Illinois. I live in the city with my husband Greg and our two crazy pooches, Lucy and Sheila. I enjoy cooking, but I have long loved to bake as a hobby. Recently, I've begun experimenting with favorite recipes more and more. I've been a vegetarian for almost five years, and lately, I've been thinking about reducing or eliminating the dairy and egg products I use in my baked goods. I have been curious to see if I can modify recipes in such a way that I can enjoy my favorite desserts, without the guilt!

The purpose of this blog is to share my baking adventures with all of you, including recipes, things that worked well, and things that didn't go exactly to plan. Essentially, I will be documenting my journey, and as such, the journey may change along the way, to encompass cooking, tip and tricks I learn along the way...who knows! I hope you'll join me and see what happens.

On a side note, I hope everyone feels welcome at this website. I am a vegetarian because that is the lifestyle choice that is correct for me; I don't feel comfortable dictating personal choices to my readers. I hope vegans and omnivores alike will follow along. That said, people often have questions about why I'm a vegetarian, and I'm always happy to talk about how I got here, so feel free to drop me a comment or an email if you are so inclined.

On the topic of comments, I would love comments, both kudos and criticisms, although I do ask that comments stay constructive.

Thanks for joining me, and let the baking begin!

PS: Because the lawyer in me can't resist...although I hope Veg Baker, J.D. becomes a place where readers and I can swap advice about baking and cooking, this website is personal and non-legal in nature. Therefore, nothing on this blog should be construed as legal advice or as legal representation.