July 14, 2015

Dessert validation: berry-lemon cake

The other night I brought dessert to a family dinner, as I often do, and as usual I hoped it would taste okay. I'm not so confidant about my desserts. On tasting her piece, my seven-year-old granddaughter, Miss E, declared that I was the best dessert maker in the whole wide world. Hahaha, imagine that. Then she said I should write a cookbook with only desserts. And send it to the President!

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thrilled to have her approval of my baking skills, but the downside is that now I have to maintain my reputation. :D

So what did I bake to earn such an enthusiastic endorsement? It was an easy-to-throw-together blueberry/strawberry lemon cake that has appeared on these pages before. But since it got such a high approval rating, I thought I'd reprise it. It's basically the same as the cake in this post except I added a flax egg and a blueberry glaze, and baked it in a round cake pan instead of a square one. It rose so beautifully and had such a pleasant taste and texture, I'm going to make it more often.

Berry-lemon quick bread
based on a recipe from Fire and Earth Kitchen for
blueberry breakfast bread
bake in a 9"x9x2" square pan or a 9 x 3" round pan.

  • 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed plus 3 Tbsp cold water
  • 1-1/2 cups Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour (or similar GF flour blend)
  • 1/2 cup almond meal
  • 1/4 cup oat flour 
(2 cups of wheat flour can be used instead of the other flours, if you aren't baking gluten-free. I haven't tried it but F & E Kitchen says yes, and I trust them.)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch of salt (1/4 teaspoon or less)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 small organic lemon, seeds removed, plus enough almond (or other) milk to equal 1 cup  OR juice and zest from 1/2 small lemon plus enough almond milk to equal 1 cup (I used a high speed Vitamix. If your blender can't handle the intact lemon, use the juice/zest option)
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/3 cup oil (I used avocado oil)
  • 1.5 cups fresh blueberries or 1 cup blueberries plus 1/2 cup strawberries cut similar size to blueberries. The strawberries amp up the flavor.

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil pan and line the bottom with parchment paper cut to size.
  2. Place the flax meal in a 1-cup glass measuring cup and add the water. Let sit while you measure the dry ingredients.
  3. Add the GF flour, almond meal, oat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon to a large mixing bowl. Whisk together all the dry ingredients until thoroughly mixed. 
  4. Beat the flax with a fork until gluey. Add the (cut-up) lemon to the cup. Add almond milk to make one cup. Mix together.
  5. Add the flax- lemon-almond milk mixture to the blender. Add the vanilla, maple syrup and oil to the blender and blend until smooth. (I used a high speed Vitamix.)
  6. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, scrapping out the blender to retrieve all the batter. Beat with a spoon or an electric hand mixer until the dry ingredients are well incorporated.
  7. Add half the berries and fold in. 
  8. Place the batter into the greased pan and spread the remaining berries evenly over the top. Press in gently, so they still show on top.
  9. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan about 15 minutes before removing from the pan by inverting onto a rack then turning right side up onto a second rack. Let cool completely before transferring to a serving plate. 
I made a simple blueberry glaze to pour over the top of the cooled cake, but it doesn't really need one.

May 05, 2015

Fabulous four-day weekend in Philly, including TWO visits to V-Street

View of City Hall from our 17th floor room at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia.

During the weekend of April 23 I attended a very significant high school reunion in Philadelphia. I think I'm officially old. Initially, I hadn't planned to attend, but somehow I ended up creating and maintaining a Facebook page and a class blog, and that, along with added pressure from a good friend, fortunately led me to the right decision. It was fantastic! The reunion was a three-day affair, but we couldn't get there until early Friday evening, so we missed the first activity, a Friday visit to the school. My classmates were generally depressed to see how school budget cuts had impacted our beloved school, an all-girls academic public school magnet program — no librarian, no nurse, no counselors, no extended music programs or assemblies, etc. It's sad to see how schools all around our country are struggling.

Our Friday night plans included dinner with two high school friends, my friend's husband and my husband. Originally we wanted to go to Vedge, but could only get a reservation for four at 9 p.m. I was worried that after traveling all day, 9 p.m. was pushing my limits, and besides, we needed a table for five, so we let our reservation go. We went to V-Street, the more informal (and cheaper) sister restaurant to Vedge, instead. They don't take reservations, so K and I walked over and got on the waiting list, and we were seated before my friends even arrived. It was too dark to take photos, but trust me, the food was gorgeous and fabulous (as you will see later). The food, which is served as "small plates," is 100% plant-based, and eating gluten-free, if that's an issue for you, is seamless. After dinner, sated and happy, K and I returned to our beautiful (discounted!) room at the Ritz, the site of the reunion luncheon the next day.

Spouses were invited to all reunion events except the main luncheon, so K headed off on the train to visit his mother, and I was left to take a selfie of me in my dress-up clothes, as best I could, before heading to the reunion. (There seems to be a large mirror behind the tub, doesn't there? Fortunately, there wasn't a mirror in the shower.)

The Ritz Carlton is an elegant and, shall I say, 'ritzy' hotel, but that doesn't mean 'vegan' is in their vocabulary. My vegan, gf lunch had been ordered and cleared with the chef far ahead of the event, but oh well. First they brought me a large wad of chicken, then they brought me farro, and finally the chef came out and assured me he would make something appropriate. I was friendly and pleasant, not wanting to cause trouble, but you know, the affair cost $100 per person. Anyway, as most people were finishing, a very large plate with a tiny but extremely pretty serving of steamed vegetables garnished with radish slices and cilantro, was brought out. It was the equivalent of a small side order. I ate it happily, thinking that our aim for an early dinner would work out as planned. Fortunately, I had such a good time at the luncheon that the food wasn't much of a concern. I was too involved in the afternoon's activities to think about food. Reflecting back, though, I always find myself a little surprised at the size of the vegan/vegetarian meal compared to the 'regular' meal. Do people think vegans require less food than omnivores?

By the time I returned to our room around 5 p.m., K was already back, and we started planning our dinner outing — I was a little hungry. We had been so enthralled with V-Street the previous night, that we wanted to return and try all different things, so we walked over there, and were warmly welcomed back by the very friendly staff. There was a wait for a table, but the window counter was open, and we grabbed two seats there, and proceeded to order from the menu of small plates. At 5:30, there was still plenty of light coming through the large window by which to photograph the food.

From the 'sticks' list, we got shishito robatayaki, shaved daikon, togarashi.
The green veggies are grilled peppers and scallions. Smoky and amazing.

From the 'market' list we ordered Peruvian fries, aji amarillo, cilantro, olive, peanut. We had eaten this the night before, but if you have ever had it, you'd know why we ordered it again. I don't know exactly how to describe it except for divinely rich but well-balanced potato heaven.

From the 'plates' list, we chose Korean fried tempeh tacos, gochujang, radish kimchee, corn tortillas. When I took my first bite I let out a little scream of appreciation, which was overheard by our server, who smiled in understanding. The tempeh was melt-in-the-mouth tender with a crispy edge, and the taco as a whole was scrumptious. I've never tasted anything quite like it.

The last dish we ordered was from the 'bowls' list — Singapore noodles, char sui tofu, broccoli, peanuts, lime sambal. It was quieter than the previous plates, but no less satisfying and delicious. The dishes seemed a lot smaller the night before when we were sharing among five people. With just two of us, we couldn't finish the four things we ordered — we were both stuffed and smiling. I think V Street is my new favorite Philly restaurant.

After dinner we walked to a cocktail gathering, the third reunion activity, in a most fantastic historic row home owned and lived in by one of my classmates. It had at least four floors, and had been fully restored to it's 19th century glory. I was imagining living there, and just as I was beginning to wonder how I'd ever be able to run up and down so many steep stairs on a daily basis, I learned it also had an elevator! But of course. The hosts had provided a beautiful spread of food and beverages, but we were too full to even think about food.

After the house party, there was a small after-party at the hotel, and I didn't return to my room until midnight.

Early the next morning we walked to the Reading Terminal Market. Although I grew up in Philadelphia, believe it or not I'd never been to the historic Reading Market. Glad that's taken care of.

After walking through the Market, we strolled over to our next event — brunch with siblings and spouses at P. S. & Co. There was an official reunion brunch taking place at another location but we have family in Philly, and wouldn't want to visit there without seeing them, so we opted to have our own brunch.

Pure Sweets is a rustic, cute cafe serving an all plant-based, gluten-free , organic menu. We shared some yummy scones while waiting for our food to arrive. I had a daily special bowl with chickpeas, rice and kale. Lots of kale. It was supposed to be warm, and it was warmish, but the kale was basically raw. It was tasty and filling, but the kale wasn't cooked or massaged, so it was pretty tough. I liked it — with reservations. My husband had a pad thai bowl which looked a lot like mine but with noodles instead of rice and edamame instead of chickpeas. He liked it a lot. The most popular dish at the table was pancakes, and we accidentally got an extra order. I ate one and it was excellent.

The last reunion event was a tour of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and we hiked over to the museum as fast as we could so as not to be late. The tour was fascinating, although by this time I was feeling the effects of a three-hour time difference and a general lack of sleep. When we finally parted with our group, after a refreshing stop in the museum cafe, I reflected on the reunion experience, which had far exceeded my expectations. I can hardly describe my gleeful reaction to our reunion weekend, and the deficit I felt after having to say goodbye.

We headed out of the city to spend Monday and Tuesday with K's mom, and as we traveled up Broad St., I spied the remnants of the historic Divine Lorraine Hotel, looking less than divine with its graffiti and missing windows. At one time the luxurious Lorraine Apartments, built between 1892 and 1894, was the home of Philadelphia's well-to-do. At 10 stories, it was one of the first high rise buildings in the city. In 1948, it was purchased by Father Devine and turned into Philly's first racially integrated hotel, with some interesting requirements for staying there. In 2006 the hotel was sold to a developer, who was supposed to turn it into condos and restaurants. Instead, the developer gutted the building, sold the stripped materials, and never completed the restoration, leaving the building open to squatters and vandals. It is now just an abandoned shell. (More about Father Devine here.)

We spent the next two days visiting with Ken's mom. We took her to the movies, and out for lunch and dinner. Of note was the lunch we all enjoyed at The Allways Café, a small, unassuming café in a strip mall in Huntington Valley. I had the hot kale with red peppers, chickpeas, quinoa, avocado and mango in a house coconut curry sauce, and except for being incredibly salty, it was really delicious. It was also huge, and the box of leftovers I took back to our (not the Ritz) hotel fed us both for breakfast the next day.

My husband had a Thai peanut salad, and although it was enormous, he ate the whole thing, claiming it was mostly lettuce. Ha.

I really meant to share a story I told at the reunion, but the post has gone on long enough, and the story will have to wait for another time. Have you been to any high school reunions? Were they fun? 

April 20, 2015

Do you know about the 'other'?

What 'other' am I referring too? It could be the other uses of homemade cheese, besides slicing and eating. (Hint: please read to the end for the real other,)

In my last post I shared a recipe for cheese that I'd made at least six times, always with perfect results. Then late one night I made it to have for the next day, and it didn't work. I don't know exactly what I did wrong, though I suspect I added too much liquid, and it never solidified. I even attempted to cook and add more agar agar, to no avail. It tasted exactly right, but had the consistency of a dip. I didn't want a big tub of dip, but I hate to waste food. Too bad it's not a ruined cake recipe, I thought, so I could turn it into cake balls.

No problem, though, I turned a large share of the unwanted dip into delicious mac 'n cheese with cherry tomatoes. I had been planning to try this with the solid cheese, but that will have to wait until I make the cheese again. But, no, this other use for the cheese is not the other from the title.

With another portion of cheese dip, I made a rich and cheesy stew. First I soaked and cooked lima beans. Then I cooked potato, carrot and broccoli chunks in a small amount of water until they were tender.

When the veggies were tender, I added in the lima beans and their cooking liquid, some diy gravy mix, and the cheese dip. I loved eating the result., but this is not the other I'm talking about.

THIS is it. It's the 'other' folder next to your message folder on facebook. Have you ever opened it? I'd heard of it, but had never noticed it particularly until recently, when, in conjunction with an activity related to my upcoming high school reunion, I sent a message to a fellow classmate on facebook. Facebook informed me that because we weren't friends, the message would go to her 'other' folder. OK. I sent the message, wondering if she would ever see it.

Curious about the mysterious other folder, I looked at my own fb message folder, and clicked on the greyed-out 'other'. It opened to reveal a long list of messages I never knew were there. The first few messages looked kind of sketchy — the first was from someone named 'Ronnie' with a last name I didn't recognize, and began with, "You look fabulous. Send me your recipe. I'm living in Tampa..." You can only see the first sentence or two, and I didn't open any of the personal messages, because they looked weird, and I had a bunch of other stuff to do. However, seeing the name Ronnie sparked a quick Internet and fb search for an old, dear friend named Ronnie who had been a close friend long ago, and with whom I'd lost touch as we each moved so many times. When I couldn't find her, I searched for her ex, hoping it would lead me to her, and learned he had died two years ago — a discovery that made me very sad. I'd looked for her unsuccessfully many times in the past, so wasn't surprised that nothing had turned up.

Anyway, having discovered my other folder, I asked my husband to check his. He found a message from someone we knew in Madison, asking when we had moved, and how we were doing. The message was two years old, but Ken immediately wrote back and we are now reconnected through fb. After I saw the real message in my husband's folder, I returned to my other folder, and this time I opened the message from Ronnie. OMG is the only appropriate expression to describe my reaction. The message was dated Jan. 2014, and was from my friend! She had remarried and was using the last name of her second husband, which is why I didn't recognize it. We are now back in touch.

There were lots of real messages in the other folder, reminding me of bake sales, workshops, political events and other assorted activities, but the message from Ronnie was a stunner. Over the past few days I've asked lots of people if they've ever looked in their other folder (I think you have to be on a computer rather than a phone or tablet, to see it) and they all said no. Have you?

April 07, 2015

Easy vegan scallion-crushed red pepper jack cheese

UPDATE: The last two times I made this recipe it failed to firm-up properly and I don't know why. I suggest that no one try to make it until I figure out what's going wrong and fix it! I'll remove this notice when I get it right.

In my last post I talked about a dinner party we hosted, and how I made so much food I couldn't talk about it all in one story. This is a continuation. I previously mentioned the mini-omelets we had as part of the appetizer assortment.  In addition to the omelets, I also made a nacho dip and a sliceable vegan cheese. You can read about the fabulous nacho dip (from Miyoko Schinner) and find a recipe link and how-to video, here. What I want to tell you about now is the cheese.

A wedge from the round cheese — roasted peppers and scallions.

Vegan cheese isn't one of my favorite food groups. It makes up a very small part of my diet, and I almost never buy it, unless I'm really curious about a new brand, or someone is coming for dinner who I know is a fan. One thing I can tell you, though, is when I eat vegan cheese, I don't really care if it tastes exactly like dairy cheese, as long as it tastes good. Vegan cheese has to be worth eating on its own terms, not because it tastes like something else. And it has to be made from ingredients that, in my opinion, are worth eating! Fermented nut cheeses, for example, are real food and real cheese, but I don't like the idea of eating some of the other commercial vegan cheeses — something made of fat and starch — just because it is cheese-like. That might not be the most popular opinion, judging from the tidal wave of vegan cheeses on the market, but that's how I feel. I know cheese is very hard to give up, and I appreciate that. I was there. Now that I don't need cheese to be happy (:D) I only want to eat vegan cheese that's worth eating. Or not at all. I've made cheeses that I thought were really good, but except for cream cheese-type-cheeses, they didn't make me think I was eating dairy cheese, and that's okay. I've had people say tell me that they can't understand the concept of 'vegan cheese.' If you want cheese they say, why not just eat 'real' cheese. Well, I could give you a few dozen reasons, starting with animal cruelty, global weather change, food equity, etc., but I don't really want to get into all that here. I just want to share a recipe that I've become extremely fond of. It is cheese-like, tastes really good, satisfies certain textural and taste cravings, and isn't filled with added oils.

One of the reasons I write this blog is to provide ideas for new vegans, or those just looking for a vegan-friendly dish or two, so even if a certain food category isn't a priority for me (like cheese), I still try out recipes in case someone else might enjoy it. But I never post recipes I haven't tried and really like a lot. Which brings me to today's recipe for vegan pepper jack cheese, or, in this case, vegan scallion-crushed red pepper cheese.
A thin slice of the scallion-pepper flake cheese.

I found the recipe for Vegan pepper jack cheese on Baked In (Sept. 2014). But after further checking before posting it here, I see that Julie from Baked In found the recipe on Nouveau Raw (Oct. 2013). The only difference in ingredients I could see between the two versions, was that on Nouveau Raw the recipe contained one and one half tablespoons of agar agar, and on Baked In it contained two tablespoons. I tried the Baked In recipe as written, and I found the cheese a bit too jelled — if you know what I mean. I served it as appetizer to a mix of vegans and omnivores, who liked it fine, and gobbled it up. It's a very good recipe as is, but the texture just wasn't my cup of tea; it reminded me too much of extra firm jello. Texture can be a personal hangup. I tried the recipe again with less agar agar and more tahini, as well as a few other changes, but the same group of people preferred the first version. Oh well.

Scallion and pepper flake cheese melted in the microwave.

I tried it a few more times, and am finally delighted with the result. It's softer and creamier than the original, but still can be thinly sliced — and it melts! I put a cracker with a slice of cheese on it into the microwave for 15 seconds, and it melted, and tasted great. (I haven't tried melting it in the oven, yet.) I gave a melted sample to my husband and he was uncharacteristically enthusiastic. He also loved the unmelted version. I made the latest version with green onions and crushed red pepper flakes because when I went to get the roasted peppers from the refrigerator, they were gone. The green onions made for a great-tasting cheese, and I think I might use green onions again next time I make the cheese.

I'm providing a recipe for my latest version of the cheese, and the one that I like best of all the ones I've tried. I've made it in so many variations, that giving it a name seems kind of hard. I've made it with olives, peppers, green onions, sun dried tomatoes, and various combinations of these. They were all good, and, if I didn't plan ahead, the add-ins I used depended on what I had on hand. The cheese takes about 20 minutes (or less) to mix up, and an hour in the refrigerator. If you have a high powered blender, you don't have to soak the cashews or seeds, but if not, soak them for two to four hours, drain well, and be sure the blended mixture is super creamy with no trace of grit. You may want to use a food processor instead, to make blending and cleanup easier. The first few times I made the recipe, I formed it in a 7"x2" round pan because I thought the round cheese looked cool, and I liked slicing it into wedges. But for the most recent version I used a 4"x8" loaf pan, and I think I like the rectangular slices better. I think you'll like this as much as I do. It's so easy to make you can whip it up spur of the moment, or it makes a great make-ahead snack for a party. You may want to try the original version instead of mine, but either way, try it. Do you have a favorite vegan cheese? Is having vegan cheese in the pantry important to you? Do you care if it tastes like dairy cheese?

Vegan scallion-crushed red pepper cheese
  • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
  • 3/4 cup raw cashews
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons onion powder (I used toasted onion powder from Penzey's)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1 medium lemon)
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened non-dairy yogurt (I used coconut milk yogurt)
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon agar agar powder (not flakes)
  • 1 cup finely minced green onions (or jarred roasted peppers, or calamata olives, raw red or yellow peppers, roasted red peppers, jalapenos — whatever)
  • 1 tablespoon dried pepper flakes (optional)
pan suggestions: 7" x 2" round or 8" x 4" x 3" loaf pan
  1. If you don't have a high speed blender, soak the cashews and seeds for two to four hours and drain. If your blender isn't very powerful, use a food processor.
  2. Prepare the pan. For a round pan, cut a round piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan. For a loaf pan, cut a piece of parchment paper to cover the bottom and extend up the two long sides. It's not necessary to oil the pan.
  3. Place the almond milk, sunflower seeds, cashews, tahini, nutritional yeast, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked Spanish paprika, yogurt and lemon juice into the blender jar. Blend until very smooth and creamy with no trace of grit. The mixture will be extremely thick and you may have to give it a little stir at the top to get the vortex going.
  4. Put the arrowroot powder into a small pot. Add the water and stir to dissolve. Sprinkle the agar agar into the pot and let it sit a minute to soften. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Once bubbling, turn the heat to simmer and cook, continuing to stir, about four minutes until the agar agar is completely dissolved and the mixture is translucent and thick.
  5. Scrape the agar agar mixture into the blender and blend on high until thoroughly mixed. Turn the blender off and quickly add the pepper flakes and about 2/3 of the veggies. Turn the blender to low and blend for about two seconds (in a high speed blender) or until the veggies are as fine as you want them to be. You don't want them to disappear. Turn the blender off and quickly stir in the rest of the veggies. By leaving some of the veggies larger, you add color and interest to the cheese. You can, if you wish, stir all the veggies in by hand.
  6. Immediately use a silicone scraper to scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. Allow to cool, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least one hour. 
  7. Unmold onto a plate and sprinkle with paprika, chopped scallions, or decorate as you wish.
FYI: As soon as the agar agar mix is blending, soak the pot right away in hot water, not cold. Cold water will cause the mixture to immediately jell and adhere to the pot. You can still get it off, but it will be harder. Agar agar jell will solidify even at room temperature, so the faster you get hot water into the pot, the better.

Here's a link to a blog post about arrowroot and kudzu on Real Food for Life that you might find interesting. I haven't checked out the claims recently, but I remember hearing the same information years ago when I was macrobiotic.


As long as I'm talking about cheesey foods, I want to repeat my recommendation to try Miyoko Schinner's nacho (queso) dip made from butternut squash. None of my dinner guests could guess what the main ingredient was. One person said, "It tastes just like cheese." It's now one of my three favorite hot dips. And you don't have to use it just for a dip. You could make mac 'n cheese with it, or you could spread the leftovers (if there are any) over roasted brussels sprouts. :D


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