February 23, 2011

Golden cake

Remember the cake and frosting I described in my last post? That cake had palm sugar* and chocolate-sweet potato frosting, and was my idea of a perfect-tasting cake — not too sweet with a delicate, caramel-y flavor and fudgy frosting. I loved it, and I'm sharing the cake recipe today but with a slight change. The cake calls for evaporated cane juice instead of jaggery. It's easier to find and it makes a sweeter cake, but use whichever you feel most attracted to.

The frosting was made from Ricki's (Diet, Dessert and Dogs) recipe (sort of) and was creamy and delicious. Who would ever guess it was made from sweet potato?

The cake was served Feb. 14 at a small dinner with Miss E, her parents and my husband and me, to celebrate Miss E's third birthday.

Moist to the last drop.

Two days ago, Miss E had her "official" birthday party, and I made another cake for the occasion. I'm not a creative cake decorator — I admit that freely — but I wanted the cake embellishments to be a little more exciting than my usual sprinkle of coconut. I wasn't thinking of anything fancy, understand, but maybe a covering of chocolate disks similar to the button cakes my husband favored as a child.

By serendipity, I discovered a small, funky, quirky, totally spectacular cake decorating store in Maple Leaf, about 10 minutes drive from where we live, and we headed there to find the disks. Yikes! If you can't find what you want in this crazy, crowded shop, called Home Cake Decorating, it probably doesn't exist.

Even the very knowledgeable proprietor was decorated — with sparkles on her face. No kidding. I saw every cake pan I've ever coveted, plus endless decorating supplies. There was a customer at the checkout counter who had driven 70 miles to get there, and who was purchasing fondant and other supplies that I could only stare at in wonder. I wouldn't even know how to ask for half the stuff that's for sale. I did ask for dairy-free disks, and bought a bagful. I also bought a package of very cute flower candles.

Now back to the cake. Instead of palm sugar, the party cake and frosting were made with evaporated cane juice, to make them a little sweeter. To me, the cake tasted too sweet, but not to anyone else, so it's a matter of personal choice.

Early Sunday morning I baked a cake in a 7-inch by 2-inch straight-sided round cake pan, and the results made me think the pan was too small. The center caved in just a little and didn't look baked enough, even though a toothpick came out dry. (After tasting the cake the next day, I realized it was fine.) And part of the cake's side kind of detached a little when I removed the cake from the pan. I guess I could have glued it all back together with frosting, but I wanted the cake to be good, and you can't exactly cut a slice and try it. I decided to re-make the cake. Tsk.

7x2 Fat Daddio's on left, 6x2 Wilton (from Goodwill!) on right.

I sent my husband out to a kitchen store to find a bigger pan, but after an unsuccessful attempt to find the same pan I had in an 8-inch size (it was Sunday and the cool cake decorating store was closed), I used a 9-inch slightly flared pan that I already had. I split the single layer and put frosting between the two halves, but it still looked a little flat to me.

I really like the Fat Daddio's straight-sided anodized aluminum pans that come in a 3-inch height, and am going to get an 8-inch one for next time. Though the cake baked perfectly in the 9-inch standard cake pan, I like the added height and straight sides of the 3-inch-high pans.

  • 1/3 cup unsweetened orange juice concentrate
  • 2/3 cup almond milk (or non-dairy of choice)
  • 1-2/3 cups white whole wheat flour (or unbleached if you must)
  • 3/4 cup sugar (I use an evaporated cane juice) or grated palm sugar for a less-sweet cake
  • 1 level teaspoon baking soda
  • scant 1/4 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
  • 5 tablespoons oil (I used sunflower)
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons orange extract
  1. Place the orange juice in a one cup liquid measure and add almond milk to make one cup. Let it sit while you measure the dry ingredients.
  2. Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt, if using, into a bowl. (Be sure to stir up the flour and add it to the measuring cup then level the cup with a knife.) If you don't feel like sifting, you can add the dry ingredients to a bowl and whisk them together well.
  3. Stir the milk to dissolve the juice concentrate, then add the extracts.
  4. Make two wells in the dry mix and add the oil to one and the vinegar to the other.
  5. Pour the milk over all and mix well.
  6. Immediately pour into a greased 8x3-inch or 9x2-inch pan, and bake in a preheated 350˚F oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until done. (A toothpick should come out clean or with a crumb or two attached.)
  7. Let the cake cool in the pan five minutes before carefully removing to finish cooling on a rack.
  8. When cool, split the cake into two layers, and frost between the layers and the top and sides of the cake, or eat as is. (I find the easiest way to split a cake is with a long, serrated bread knife. Place the layer on a plate. Start cutting a few inches into the cake, turning the plate as you go so you can cut along the center line and keep the halves equal. When you've cut all around the cake, use the cut line as your guide and cut all the way through the cake to make two equal layers.)
I used this recipe with many ingredient changes, but followed the directions. I used one cup of baked sweet potato, though you could probably use more if your potato is bigger, six tablespoons of evaporated cane juice (or grated palm sugar), 1/4 cup of cacao powder, 1/4 cup of almond butter, one tablespoon of coconut oil , two squares of semi-sweet non-dairy baking chocolate (56 grams), and two teaspoons of vanilla extract. The first three ingredients get emulsified in a food processor. The next three get melted in a small pan and added to the processor with the vanilla. You may need to add a tablespoon or two of milk to get the spreading consistency just right. (See Ricki's blog for the stellar original version and complete directions.) I whipped mine in a mixer but I think the food processor works fine, if you don't have a mixer. The frosting firms up beautifully on the cake.

In other words, I took Ricki's lovely, carefully constructed ACD-friendly, allergy-friendly recipe and turned it into ... something else. And it was GOOD! Though it may not be as healthy as the original, I still think it may be healthier than frosting made from mostly margarine and sugar, and it tastes great. You will surely notice that Ricki's frosting looks a lot better than mine, because she obviously has a knack for cake decorating.

*I'm re-posting my blurb about jaggery for anyone who may have missed it and is interested.
Jaggery is an unrefined form of sweetener that may be made from the boiled sap of sugarcane, sago palm, arenga pinnatasago palm, date palm, sugar date palm or coconut palm, with date palm being the most prized. It is usually found as a large solid cone, or as rectangular chunks, but can also be found in a granulated form. Jaggery is the most popular kind of sweetener in West Bengal, South India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Also known as known as gur in India, panela in South America, piloncillo in Mexico, hakuru in Sri Lanka, it comes in various shapes and sizes, varies in color from light to dark brown, and can range from dry to sticky. It has a rich, caramel-y flavor that is less sweet than white sugar. Coconut sugar is low on the glycemic index, and is one of the latest "healthy" sweeteners to hit the natural foods market. (The information available about the sources of jaggery is a little confusing, so I've done my best to summarize and present what I've uncovered.)

This is one of Miss E's party guests, making himself right at home.


The hat

Remember the hat I crocheted (and ripped, and crocheted, ripped and crocheted) for Miss E? Here she is wearing it on a short vacation she took with her parents to go snowshoeing and sledding in the mountains.


Testing for Urban Vegan

This is a very delicious version of shepherd's pie called Indian shepherd's pie.

February 15, 2011

Sweet (birth) day | Stuffed shells | Frosting with cake

Miss E prepares to blow out the candles. Note the chaos in the background.

Valentine's Day has changed for us — it's now officially known as Miss E's Birthday. That's right, the charming Miss E (our little granddaughter) was born three years ago on Feb. 14, and the day now belongs to her. Completely.

Yesterday afternoon I baked a heart-shaped cake, and we headed to Miss E's house for a birthday dinner and an orgy of present unwrapping. Too bad all the relatives who sent gifts couldn't be there to hear the shrieks and squeals. I'm talking to you Grammy and Big Poppy, who sent a pretend wooden birthday cake AND a wooden pretend pizza with all the toppings. And Uncle Lenny and Aunt Ellen — I was summarily handed the old, hand-me-down-excuse for-a-Dora as soon as the new one emerged from the box, and the usually accommodating Miss E would not trade with me. She always gives me whatever toy I want, but she wouldn't give me the new Dora.

Is this not the cutest kitchen you've ever seen?

And what did we bring her? Why, a pretend kitchen, of course. Miss E loves to do both real and pretend cooking, and she's now set to turn out delicious pretend meals whenever she wants. She can make pizza, cake, cookies (a previous gift) or anything her very active imagination dreams up. I'm sure we'll be enjoying many pretend meals with her, along with the real ones.

Miss E's mama made a delicious, real dinner that included scrumptious, creamy stuffed shells with homemade tomato sauce, and a tangy kale and cabbage salad. She got the recipe for the shells from a friend, Brenin Williams, who generously agreed to let me share it with you.

Stuffed shells or manicotti
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 splash soy sauce (too much will affect color)
  • 1 teaspoons black pepper (or to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 8 ounces silken tofu (soft)
  • salt to taste
  • 14 ounce to 1 pound firm tofu, quartered
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1 cups steamed spinach (or can be cooked frozen) or sautéed mushrooms
  • cooked jumbo shells or manicotti (about 12 ounces)
  • vegan cheese, as desired
  1. In a food processor, grind the cashews until smooth. Add the oil, garlic, oregano, soy sauce, pepper, vinegar, soft tofu and salt, if using. Blend until smooth. Add a little water, if necessary, to incorporate.
  2. Steam the firm tofu three to four minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, crumble the steamed tofu into the cashew mixture with 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast flakes. Stir in the spinach or mushrooms.
  4. Stuff into manicotti or jumbo shells and place in a large casserole dish.
  5. Cover generously with your favorite tomato sauce and a sprinkle of vegan cheese, and bake at 325˚ F, until hot, about 20 minutes.
Serves six to eight.


Frosted with WHAT?

You can tell I made the cake by the lame decorations.

Now I have to say a few words about the cake and its frosting. Actually, this will be mainly about the frosting. I want to work on the cake recipe measurements and post it at another time. I got the frosting recipe here, on Diet, Dessert and Dogs. It's made from — hold onto your spoons — sweet potatoes! Well, there's other stuff in there, too, but not big globs of margarine and powdered sugar. I can't say I followed the recipe exactly, no, I can't say that, but I never would have thought to make anything like this without Ricki's inspiration. I wanted more volume, so I actually doubled the sweet potatoes but kept the other stuff pretty much the same. Ricky specifies coconut sugar, and I used jaggery* that I had purchased in an Indian grocery store, and which may or may not be the same. I used a little extra jaggery instead of stevia. And I used cacao powder instead of carob, because for some reason carob gives me a headache. I also used 56 grams of semi-sweet baking chocolate instead of 65 grams of unsweetened chocolate. I had to make the frosting in the morning, then refrigerate it all day before using it, so I whipped it with an electric mixer and added some soymilk and a tablespoon of agave to help it whip to creamy perfection when I was ready to spread it on the cake. In spite of my changes, the recipe worked wonderfully, and I loved it. Thank you, Ricki, for being so impossibly clever.

Jaggery — the pieces are about two inches high

*Jaggery is an unrefined form of sweetener that can be made from the boiled sap of sugarcane, sago palm, arenga pinnatasago palm, date palm, sugar date palm or coconut palm, with date palm being the most prized. It is usually found as a large solid cone, or as rectangular chunks, but can also be found in a granulated form. Jaggery is the most popular kind of sweetener in West Bengal, South India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Also known as known as gur in India, panela in South America, piloncillo in Mexico, hakuru in Sri Lanka, it comes in various shapes and sizes, varies in color from light to dark brown, and can range from dry to sticky. It has a rich, caramel-y flavor that is less sweet than white sugar. Coconut sugar is low on the glycemic index. The information available about the sources of jaggery is a little confusing, so I've done my best to summarize and present what I've uncovered. Coconut sugar is the latest "healthy" sweetener to hit the natural foods market.


I made this

I've been crocheting again, and Miss E received a hat for her birthday. I made the hat, crocheted a flower and attached it, then added a bit of elastic thread around the bottom so the hat would be a little more snug. I almost wanted to keep the hat — not to wear but to look at — but I managed to part with it and hand it over to its sweet new owner. Am I proud of my handiwork? Yes, in this case, I am.


Test recipe of the week
for Urban Vegan

Hot and sour carrots and lentils


It doesn't seem like it today, but could spring be coming?

Last week I took a walk with a friend, and it was a sunny, warmish, photo-friendly day. We walked the 2.8 mile path around Green Lake, which is about a block from where I live.

When we arrived back at my house, we noticed the crocus growing in my next door neighbor's terrace garden. This week the temperature is colder, it's raining, and the possibility of snow is predicted for Thursday. But still ...

February 11, 2011

Socca salad sandwich | Sodium | Getting real

I was hungry as I cruised my blog list and came upon Bitt's post about socca on Bitt of Raw. I'd made baked socca before in the oven, but her husband made it in a pan like a pancake. Aimee had made raw falafels, and her husband rolled his falafels up in a socca wrap. The socca wrap sounded so good and fast, and I was really hungry. I remembered making similar chickpea flour omelets like Zoa, from The Airy Way Blog, did, and not being so fond of the chickpea flour taste. But I've changed my mind about chickpea flour since then, so I was eager to roll something up in socca. Like Zoa, I used an equal amount of water and chickpea flour (1/2 cup) for my socca, plus a teaspoon of oil and a tiny pinch of salt, and I cooked up two pancakes at high speed. (Remember — really hungry.)

For the inside, I made salad with baby greens, tomatoes, avocado and some leftover chickpea chili. I needed both my hands to roll and enjoy it, so no photos. Fantastic!


Some thoughts about salt

Do you ever think about sodium? Do you try to reduce your intake? Most of us get far too much sodium in our diets, exposing us to the possibility of high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attacks, kidney disease and certain cancers? Did you know that excess sodium leaches calcium from the body? If you're young and in good health, you may think you don't have to worry about stuff like this, but waiting until problems manifest isn't always the best method for dealing with them. And doctors are finding diseases such as these occurring in younger and younger people. The issue of sodium has come up for me recently as I've been doing recipe testing for someone, and finding the recipes much saltier than I'm used to. For recipe testing I make the recipes as written, and I don't usually mention the salt in my reviews unless someone else at the table complains. But many of the dishes taste pretty salty to me, which has me re-examining my diet.

I went to the USDA's most recent release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to see what the latest mainstream thinking is about salt. The general recommendation is this:

"Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) and further reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults."

The following offers a little more detail:

"For adolescents and adults of all ages (14 years and older), the IOM (Institute of Medicine) set the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) at 2,300 mg per day. The UL is the highest daily nutrient intake level that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects (e.g., for sodium, increased blood pressure) to almost all individuals in the general population. The IOM recognized that the association between sodium intake and blood pressure was continuous and without a threshold (i.e., a level below which the association no longer exists). The UL was based on several trials, including data from the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)-Sodium trial. The IOM noted that in the DASH-Sodium trial, blood pressure was lowered when target sodium intake was reduced to 2,300 mg per day, and lowered even further when sodium was targeted to the level of 1,200 mg per day.46 An intake level of 2,300 mg per day was commonly the next level above the AI of 1,500 mg per day that was tested in the sodium trials evaluated by the IOM."

Americans, especially males, are getting substantially too much sodium in their diets. Many people consume double or even more than double, the highest recommended amount. Where is all this salt coming from? Table salt contains the following:

1/4 teaspoon salt = 600 mg sodium
1/2 teaspoon salt = 1200 mg sodium
3/4 teaspoon salt = 1800 mg sodium
1 teaspoon salt = 2400 mg sodium
1 teaspoon baking soda = 1000 mg sodium

But table salt and salty seasonings that you add to home-cooked food may be only part of the problem. If you are eating many purchased, prepared foods, including breads and other commonly store-bought items, you could easily be exceeding the salt guidelines. Here's a sampling of commonly consumed foods and their sodium content:

Breadcrumbs, seasoned, 1/4 cup - 795 mg
Baking powder, 1 teaspoon - 488 mg
Baking soda, 1 teaspoon - 1,000 mg
Plain bagel - 561 mg
Capers, 1 Tablespoon - 255 mg
Pesto, basil, 1/4 cup - 730 mg
Soy sauce, 1 Tablespoon - 914 mg
Soy sauce, light, 1 Tablespoon - 660 mg

If we eat a lot of snack food, restaurant food, commercial baked goods, etc., we could be getting much more salt than is healthy. Even if we eat mostly home-cooked food, relying heavily on high-salt seasonings also can lead to problems. But what happens to flavor when salt is reduced?

I've been reducing salt in my cooking for years, and at first, everything tasted bland. Then, after a short adjustment period, the real flavors of the food began to intensify for me, and too much salt became an unwelcome distraction rather than an enhancement. When a small amount of salt is used to bring out a food's flavor, it's completely different from when salt IS the flavor. I remember when my mother-in-law had to go on an extremely low salt diet for health reasons, one of the foods on the restricted list was celery. Celery? I couldn't believe it at the time. Celery didn't seem like a high sodium vegetable. Now when I bite into a piece of celery, I can taste the saltiness.

I still use salt, but very judiciously. If anyone wants more, they can always add it at the table. In fact, you will probably consume less salt if you greatly reduce cooking salt (including salty condiments like soy sauce) and add a light sprinkle at the table. Having salt on the surface of the food gives your tongue the impression that the food is saltier than it is. Other foods that taste salty can add a lot of flavor with less sodium. Compare 1/2 teaspoon of salt (1200 mg) with one tablespoon of capers (255 mg.). When buying canned or jarred foods like beans or tomatoes, I choose the no salt added varieties, and if I buy prepared soup stock, it's always the low-sodium kind.

Salt, like sugar, is an addictive substance, and hard to give up. You can compensate by adding more aromatic seasonings like onions, garlic, herbs and spices. For example, I found an amazing, organic salt-free seasoning mix at Costco that we use on everything from broccoli to popcorn, if we want to bump up the flavor. Most vegetables taste delicious to me plain, but if I'm feeling creative, I may add grated garlic, fresh lemon juice and zest, toasted sesame seeds, or green onions and herbs. Real food tastes so much better to me now, I don't miss the salt.


What do we really eat?

Everything I post on the blog is something either my husband or I have cooked and eaten, but because I tend to post the better-looking stuff, you may get an unrealistic view of what we eat. Mostly we dine simply, with occasional gustatory splurges. Above you see a simple dish of steamed kale and puy lentils with carrots. The kale was enhanced with crushed red pepper, lemon and garlic, and the lentils were pretty plain, but delicious. This is how I like to eat.

And here's my breakfast — not very pretty but great tasting. It's rolled oats with raisins, banana, walnuts, frozen blueberries, cinnamon and almond milk — no added sugar or salt.

Above is a barley soup made with dried shiitake mushroom stock. (I've linked to a recipe for stock (dashi), but it's pretty flexible and can be made with or without the seaweed. It can also be soaked overnight in the refrigerator. Here's another.)

This was a yummy Indian dish called Batata Bhaji which I found on Holy Cow Vegan Blog.


Recipe testing for Urban Vegan

Shamefully simple chickpea chili

Shamefully simple chickpea chili served over rice with broccoli/mushrooms and salad

Tofu with broccoli and black bean sauce

Tofu with broccoli and black bean sauce served over noodles

February 04, 2011

Okonomiyaki—Japanese vegetable pancakes | Oprah

I was reading this post about Your Vegan Mom's obsession with okonomiyaki, Japanese vegetable pancakes, and her obsession soon became mine. All I could think about were those darn pancakes. I actually had the cookbook they were from, and had even reviewed it on this blog last October, so I fetched it from the cookbook shelf and got to cooking. "Japanese Cooking, Contemporary & Traditional" by Miyoko Nishimoto Schinner is a terrific little cookbook filled with simple but delicious traditional and contemporary Japanese dishes. Everything I've made from it has been wonderful, and the pancakes, from the contemporary everyday favorites section, were no exception.

The batter was thick, white and a little weird, and I wasn't sure what to expect, but the pancakes cooked perfectly on a lightly oiled cast iron skillet. There are five cups of julienned vegetables in the mix, though it's hard to tell that from the photos. I used two cups of Chinese cabbage, one cup of carrots, one cup of broccoli stems and one cup of onion. I used white whole wheat flour for the okonomiyaki, as it has become my all-purpose flour, and I thought it worked very well. The thick and savory pancakes, served with a little tamari and some hot sauce, were absolutely delicious, and I will certainly be making them again soon.

The recipe says it serves six, but I got seven large pancakes, and my husband and I could only comfortably eat one each. It was awfully hard to stop, however, so we split an additional one and put the rest away before we had a chance to eat any more. The pancakes reheated well and were delicious for breakfast the next day. (And the day after.)

Savory vegetable pancakes (okonomiyaki) reprinted with permission
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 pound regular tofu
  • 2-1/2 cups whole wheat pastry or unbleached white flour (I used white whole wheat)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 to 5 cups thinly sliced or slivered vegetables: onions, carrot matchsticks, cabbage, broccoli, green beans, mushrooms, etc.)
Purée the water and tofu in a blender until smooth. Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl, and mix well. Pour in the liquid mixture, and mix lightly. Add the vegetables and mix well to combine.

Cook large pancakes on a lightly oiled skillet or griddle over medium-low heat until browned on both sides. Serve while hot, with soy sauce. (You can also serve plain or with your favorite Japanese-style sauce.)



What we've been cooking

Tofu and kale tostados

One of our old favorite quick meals is tofu and kale burritos, which I first made after eating something similar in a restaurant in Santa Fe. The recipe is here. My husband made tostados recently and when I tasted them I recognized the old recipe right away. It's a very easy to make dish with great flavor, and it worked perfectly on corn tortillas.

My son whipped up a batch of English muffins from Vegan Brunch. He loves these, and has now made them three times.


Thoughts on Oprah's vegan for a week experiment
The vegan blogs are buzzing with criticism of the way Oprah handled her show about what happened when she and 378 members of her staff went vegan for a week. You've probably encountered at least one blog review of her show. I encourage you to watch the program if you haven't seen it. I was going to spout off my opinion, but Natala of Vegan Hope has said everything I was thinking much more eloquently than I could, so I'll just direct you to her post instead. I certainly agree with all the negative points vegan bloggers have been making; I couldn't help but be disturbed while I watched. But the show wasn't directed towards committed vegans. Oprah knows her audience well, she has the power to influence people, and she probably did more than we know to encourage people to think about what's on their plate.


Some of the recipes I've been testing for Urban Vegan
I've been expending a lot of cooking energy on testing recipes for Urban Vegan's newest cookbook. All this testing doesn't leave much time for other food exploits, but I'm not complaining. It's been fun to try so many new recipes.

Spicy tomato lemon dressing

Earthy eggplant

This was so good. We had it as a side dish the first night, then I added sun-dried tomatoes and served the leftovers over brown rice spaghetti.

Mushy peas

Golden millet pilaf

I loved this dish so much but my husband and son didn't like it at all. I couldn't understand why.

Cinnamon-date scones

Island-style tempeh

Island-style tempeh served with rice, roasted veggies and salad