On and Around New Year...

New Year's Eve and Day have both come and gone, and now I'm surrounded by leftovers from the past several days. Not that I'm complaining. It was fun turning my house into the central hub of girlie conversation for a few days, punctuating our jabbering with as many sweets as we could hold. I rarely do as much visiting as I have done in the past few days, and now that the house is quiet, I miss it greatly.

On the sweets front, I already had quite an impressive amount of leftover Christmas cookies, and more added to me from my Mom. But an email from Northern Brewer convinced me to bite the bullet and add even more. You may remember the beginning of my obsession with them back in June when I started brewing kombucha. Though I haven't been there for a visit in a pretty long time, just the thought of their store still excites me. It's like a well organized and stocked pantry of laboratory supplies for obsessive fermenters like myself. If you are of the curious type and just walk in the front door, you immediately find inspiration and 20 new things you feel as if you must try. No surprise then that the mere mention of a New Year's Champagne Cake led me to yet more sugar.

I decided to turn a half recipe into 18 cupcakes. They are simple, yes, but actually quite elegant and complex. I topped them generously with an orange cream cheese frosting, which proved to be the perfect complement. I think I ate 4 of them all by myself on New Year's Eve... and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the least bit sorry. I tried them both cold and at room temperature (since some people like refrigerated cake, and I usually do not), and I couldn't really decide which way I liked them best. At room temperature, the frosting was soft and droopy, from the fridge it was a bit more sturdy.

The room temperature cake tasted surprisingly like the inexpensive, yet delicious, Cristalino Brut Cava. This Spanish sparkling wine is actually a really great match for many different food types. (I once memorably served it with a Portuguese fish stew.) It has aggressive bubbles, and a semi-sweet flavor that believe it or not actually makes a simple butter cake recipe taste beautifully like champagne.

Plus, how much fun is it to say Champagne Cupcake?

Champagne Cupcakes (slightly adapted from the Northern Brewer blog)

makes 18
  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/4 c. granulated white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 c. champagne or sparking wine
  • 1 1/2 c. plus 3/8 c. (6 T.) AP flour
  • 1 1/8 t. baking powder
  • 1 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 1/4 t. salt
Preheat oven to 350.

In a medium sized bowl, sift (or stir) together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In a large bowl, cream butter together with sugar until light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating a full minutes after each. Beat in vanilla.

Add flour alternately with champagne (or sparkling wine). (Add flour in three additions and the wine in two, beginning and ending with the flour.) Mix until well incorporated, but do not over mix.

Portion batter into 18 cupcake liners and bake for 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out cleanly.

Cool completely before topping with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting. (recipe follows)

This frosting makes a little more than you probably want to use on a batch of 18 cupcakes (or, maybe not!). This frosting is so good, I have an overwhelming urge to make some vanilla ice cream to use up the rest. I've never added leftover frosting to an ice cream before, so I'll let you know how that works out for me.

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting
(adapted from Epicurious)
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
  • 4 T. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • grated peel of 1 orange (preferably organic, about 2 t.)
  • 1/2 t. vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 1/2 - 3 c. powdered sugar
  • 1/3 c. sour cream, cold from fridge
With a hand mixer, beat butter and cream cheese until very soft and well combined, then add orange peel and vanilla. Add about half of the powdered sugar, and continue mixing. After the powdered sugar is incorporated, add about half of the remaining amount. Mix well, then taste and add a pinch of salt if you feel it needs it. Mix in sour cream, and beat well. If the consistency is too soft, add a bit more powdered sugar. Refrigerate for a half hour or longer (to firm up a bit more) before using a knife to top cupcakes.

Prior to the overindulgence of sugar, we actually attempted to be quite virtuous by making pizza. Any time I have company, I use the excuse to knock out another of the veg heavy Lahey pizzas on my Lahey Project list. This delicious specimen was the Pizza Radici de Sedano, or celery root pizza.

I'd have to say, that this is the variety that I was looking forward to the least, and the one that is probably my favorite so far. The celery root turns soft and nearly potato-like in some parts, while still retaining the trace of celery flavor. Another of the cheese-less pizzas in My Bread, I decided that being from Wisconsin entitled me to add just a little bit of Parmesan during the last few minutes of baking. We can't see it floating on the top, but are convinced that the salinity of the cheese is a good addition to an already perfect recipe. I can't help but say it again: You have to get a copy of My Bread for yourself!

Though we could have easily survived on leftovers and sugar well into the new year, I decided to make a New Year's Eve Gumbo on December 31, 2010. I had proudly made a stock from shrimp peels that my Husband peeled for me (his only kitchen task, and one he enjoyed!) last month using the method that Sally Fallon outlined in Nourishing Traditions. I'm actually a "take it or leave it" type when it comes to shrimp, and this stock smelled so delicious when I was simmering it that I could hardly wait to use some up in something. I only ended up using a cup in this gumbo recipe from Paula Deen, but I'm convinced that it made a difference.

I took back my vow of "no chicken parts" for one day, and used 3 chicken breasts along with andouille sausage and a half pound of shrimp for this southern stew. I have never made this before, and am so thankful for leftovers and the promise that it will be made again. I hate the description, but I'll use it anyway that the broth was actually silk-like, since the pot was thickened with a whole half cup of flour. A fair amount of veg was present for all of that meat: a large green pepper, onion, okra and home canned tomatoes. We served the gumbo on plain white rice, and garnished with slices of sourdough bread. I was actually surprised that the meal wasn't as heavy as I anticipated. Well, at least not until I continued eating Champagne Cupcakes on into the wee hours of the morning.

Gumbo (adapted from Paula Deen, via Food Network)

serves 8-10
  • 3 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 12 oz. andouille sausage, cut into 1/4-inch slices on the bias
  • 1/2 cup AP flour
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 5-6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 3 stalks celery chopped
  • 1/4 c. Worcestershire Sauce
  • 1 smallish bunch of parsley (flat leaf)
  • 1 c. shrimp stock (could use chicken or beef stock to equal the 4 cups of liquid, we agreed that 4 cups of the shrimp stock may have been too "shrimpy".)
  • 3 c. water
  • 14 oz. "stewed tomatoes" (1 can, or equivalent home-canned)
  • 2 cups frozen, sliced okra
  • 4 green onions, sliced, white and green parts
  • 1/2 pound small shrimp (25-30 size), peeled and deveined

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a non-reactive (enameled) dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken until browned on both sides and remove. Add the sausage and cook until browned, then remove. Sprinkle the flour over the oil, add 2 tablespoons of butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until brown, about 10 minutes. Let the roux cool slightly.

Return the Dutch oven to low heat and melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Add the onion, garlic, green pepper and celery and cook for 10 minutes. Add Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper to taste and 1/4 bunch chopped parsley. Cook, while stirring frequently, for 10 minutes.

Add 4 cups liquid (shrimp stock/water or other stock), whisking constantly. Add the chicken and sausage. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.

Add tomatoes and okra. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Just before serving add the green onions and shrimp. Cover and cook until shrimp is opaque and cooked through about 3 minutes. Add additional chopped parsley, and serve over rice.

I reheated the last of the celery root pizza for lunch today, and look forward to a little bowl of gumbo for supper later tonight. Meanwhile, I'm sitting around in a clean-ish house after having taken my tree down yesterday. It's always a bittersweet time of year for me, I love Christmas and it's joy, the remembrance of the deepest things of life. A year ends, another notch indelibly marked into our lives, and January begins as a clean slate with nothing on the horizon.

The days seem immediately to lengthen, and the circle of seasons and life continue on. Being the homebody I am, I wonder what I can get myself into for the next few months before all I want to do is be outside, and I have a few ideas. If you have any suggestions, send them my way. Meanwhile, I'm off to read about sprouting grains...

Happy New Year!!

That Vegan Cashew-Cheese Frosting Experiment. And On Diet.

I did take that leftover cup of cashew "ricotta cheese" from yesterday's adventure and tried to turn it into delicious vegan frosting. I felt that I succeeded, but then I really did want it to taste just a bit like butter. I didn't add any mind you, but here is what I did:

I was obviously in an Aleppo pepper kind of mood...

First, I made some vegan chocolate cupcakes. Then, with my immersion blender, I took 1 cup of leftover cultured cashew cheese from Tal Ronnen's recipe and blended it to near perfect smoothness. It took me a few minutes. He does include recipes in his book for actual Cashew Cream and Whipped Cashew Cream, but I figured that I didn't want to waste (or end up eating entirely myself) a rather large amount of cashew cheese and besides we all know that I'm always up for tinkering around in my kitchen. Had I started with one of these, I would have had a smoother product from the beginning, and certain success.

After smoothness was obtained, I began to think about sweetener. I do have some agave syrup that I needed to use up (and do not and will not purchase it again after reading so much on it's huge amount of over processing. A quick search gave me this article - as it pertains particularly to vegan eating - that sums up quite a bit of what I've been reading elsewhere...), so I added maybe a tablespoon or two and tasted. It was a bland and awful taste, quickly corrected by about a 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar. Now I was getting somewhere! A heavy pinch of salt, a pinch more brown sugar - and still immersion blending... It was beautiful, thick, and creamy, but frosting-like it just was not.

I added 1/2 cup of Spectrum Organic Shortening and switched to a hand mixer, and then, I decided that the flavor was just too strange, so I added the last of my cocoa powder, maybe a 1/4 cup. Now I was REALLY getting somewhere. It finally had a bit of character, and the cocoa masked any strangeness that I was getting before. Cocoa powder works hand in hand with espresso powder in my kitchen, so I sprinkled some of that in as well. My final decision was that I am indeed a sugar addict, and yes I know it is something I need to work on (and I am!), and I added more sugar, this time I used confectioner's sugar. I figured the cornstarch in it would act as a bit of a thickener. I called it finished, and filled a piping bag to give it the proper test:

It still looks a bit granular, but really, it was very creamy and mousse-like. If you are looking for a way to use up leftover cashew cheese, I'd recommend tinkering with it. I let the Boy-O eat one for dessert, and he had no qualms, proof that perhaps I was over thinking (and over tasting) the entire project.

Vegan Cupcakes with Chocolate Cashew "Ricotta Cheese" Frosting? Pretty edible and tasty for a vegan cupcake... but I'm not suggesting that you rush out and make them instead of the real deal. Unless, of course, you are vegan - then I would say do it now!

I'm trying to identify what it is about vegan and non-vegan foods that appeals to the practitioners of each style. Vegan foods seem so noble and clean, minimal and beautiful. Conventional "American" diets seems by comparison seem fat-laden and heavy with both wheat and sugar, which I know they really are. While vegan cookery is very appealing to me, strange vegan dessert preparations that feel like they are just lacking something in my mouth do not. I know there is someone that can prove me wrong, and I'm sure I'll try many more things and let you know if I manage to prove it to myself.

This obsession of vegan foodstuffs is really causing me to stop and think if nothing else, about all of the flaws in my own diet. My copy of Sproutman's Kitchen Garden came this afternoon, and it would be worth noting this paragraph which is sticking out in my brain (I was actually one paragraph, I just split it up for emphasis):
The "Standard American Diet" suits its acronym, S.A.D. It is synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle. It is founded on what looks, smells, and tastes good... ...We are most concerned with its presentation and convenient availability. We freeze it, can it, preserve it, artificially flavor it, color it and otherwise separate it into parts and reassemble it in different ways to pique our interest and pry open our pocket books. Advances in technology serve mostly to improve production and distribution. We have largely ignored the multitude of ways that food influences our health. America's most popular foods are steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, poultry, cold cuts and canned tuna. We are also dairy and refined wheat addicts. We consume excessive amounts of hard cheeses...

...We drink milk well beyond our ability to digest it and consume mountains of ice cream. In regard to wheat, we have taken an important grain and over indulged it. Our bodies respond to this excess with all kinds of alarms and signals: chest coughing, nose blowing, sinus dripping, palate itching, skin breaking out and pimpling. What does it take to get our attention?...

... Breads, cookies, crackers, cakes, pretzels, pastries, bagels and pizza are not poison. But their ubiquitous presence and the daily intake of such low quality wheat products takes its toll. Bread companies proclaim the virtues of their brand by the number of synthetic nutrients they add. What irony that we remove natural vitamins and then seek praise for replacing them with synthetic substitutes. Breakfast cereals also make the same claim. America literally wakes up and launches the day with a cup of coffee and a bowlful of sugar and refined flour in designer shapes. Then, at dinnertime we pat ourselves on the back for eating a meatless meal in which we again consume refined flour, this time in curls, squiggles and pillows with excess salt instead of sugar. It never dawns on us that pasta, pizza, pretzels, crackers, cookies, breads and cereals are different forms of the same food.
Sproutman (a.k.a. Steve Meyerowitz) wrote this book in 1983! Yes, I know that he has a broad and generalizing view and not everyone in America eats this way, but I know I am guilty of eating more sugar than I know is good for me. Part of it is because I love baking, but part is because it is an addiction. Sproutman goes on to say that the typical American diet consists of 42% fat, 12% protein, and 46% is made up of carbohydrates - of which more than half comes from sugar! Wow. Serious thinking needs to be done.

I know this seems like a huge soapbox for me to be up on, but really it is a funny topic to me. It would be easy for me to seem piously against all of these things, but sometimes, I do just want to walk into a joint like Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and chow down and not worry and wonder about the detriment of my diet and how it is affecting both myself and others. I want to be connected to the American food culture that varies from state to state. I want a hamburger, and I want it without having to think about factory farming. I am reminded of this scene in Barcelona (which I haven't seen in like 10 years, and due to the miracle that is the Internet, I can find the scene and insert it here!):
Take hamburgers.
Here, hamburguesas are really bad.

It's known that Americans like hamburgers,
so again, we're idiots.

But they have no idea
how delicious hamburgers can be.

It's this ideal burger of memory we crave...

...not the disgusting burgers
you get abroad.

We can't even call ourselves Americans.
I guess where I'd have to go with this, since a wrap-up should be in sight, is that I really do need to go sit in a corner and chant my Mantra. To "do the best I can and trust God with the rest", as my Gram always said. She also once told a doctor who asked what was the secret to her good health: "I don't drink or smoke, and eat all the ice cream I can hold". That was the quote I liked most when I was younger, and I guess I still do. In fact, I whipped up another ice cream base this evening, just before all of this vegan talk... To add to my moderation, I suppose it is best that I am eating ice cream I make myself. Zero preservatives, and with organic milk, fairly low in chemical pesticides, and truth be told, I cut the sugar in half. I'll let you know how THAT worked out for me. I sure didn't cut back in this frosting.