Thanksgiving Thoughts: Vegan Gluten Free Cornbread (to eat or for Stuffing)

“It just requires a bit of planning….”

I was chatting with friends this week about Thanksgiving and the fact that I am making Thanksgiving dinner for folks who are vegan in addition to the folks with all the food allergies in our family. As someone who enjoys hosting and creating menus, this fact doesn’t overwhelm me, but I realized as I chatted with a person in line at the grocery store yesterday, that for some, cooking for folks with food restrictions seems daunting.

I explained to the woman in line that it doesn’t have to be. It just requires a bit of planning. And with that in mind, I thought I’d take the initiative over the next couple of weeks to post some recipes and thoughts which might be helpful for folks who need to think about family members with food sensitivities.

As it happens, I promised my mother-in-law that I’d make cornbread for a gathering this weekend, and I thought it would be a good chance to talk about stuffing. Many folks believe Thanksgiving dinner is not complete without stuffing. I am inclined to agree. If you are wheat or gluten sensitive, though, traditional stuffing won’t work for you. The nice thing about today’s world, though, is that you can choose from a variety of ready-made whole grain gluten free breads which you can simply substitute for regular bread in any stuffing recipe.

If you’re looking for something a little different, though, cornbread stuffing is a nice addition to any Thanksgiving meal. If there are food allergies, though, it is not as easy to find cornbread “stuffing” bread which is gluten, dairy, nut, and egg free. There are certainly gluten free mixes which you can swap out vegan alternatives for the butter, eggs and milk the box will tell you add, but if you’re going to take the time to do that, you may as well make your own from scratch which won’t take you any longer to do.

The recipe below is one I created for making a vegan, gluten free cornbread. You can make it as bread to eat or turn into corn muffins. You can also turn them into cubes for using in stuffing recipes.

Vegan, Gluten Free Cornbread

Ingredients:

2 tbsp ground golden flax seed

6 tbsp hot water

1/4 cup agave (optional) or additional 1/4 cup cold water

3 tbsp vegan butter

2 tbsp agave

1 1/2 cup dairy free milk of choice (I usually use soy milk)

2 cups favorite whole grain gluten free flour blend

1 cup gluten free cornmeal

1 tbsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp chives

1 tsp thyme

1 tsp other herb of choice (like rosemary, sage, marjoram, or a mixture of all three)

1/2 tsp ground onion powder

1 tbsp vinegar (white or apple cider)

Baking Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare pan with parchment paper or favorite method of greasing the pan.**
  2. Mix the ground flax seed with the water and allow it to thicken. If you are used to “regular” cornbread, once the flax seed mixture has thickened add the agave. If you prefer a more savory cornbread, use water in place of the agave.
  3. Melt the vegan butter and add 2 tbsp of agave (regardless of whether you added the above 1/4 or not). Set aside.
  4. Measure out the milk and set aside.
  5. Mix together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, chives, thyme, herb choice, and onion powder.
  6. Using a wooden spoon, mix into the dry ingredients the flax seed mixture until you have a mixture which looks like coarse crumbs.
  7. Add the butter mixture, the milk and the vinegar and whisk together quickly just until incorporated and somewhat smooth.
  8. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes until puffed and golden and a finger pressed into the top reveals that the cornbread is firm to the touch.
  9. Cool on a wire rack.

** If you’d prefer making cornbread muffins for Thanksgiving dinner, you can spoon the batter into greased muffin tins and bake until the muffins have puffed and are golden and firm to the touch. Usually the muffins will only need about 15 minutes, if using a traditional sized muffin tin.

To make cornbread crouton cubes for stuffing: To turn them into cubes for making stuffing from it, you simply cut the cooled cornbread into the size cubes you desire, lightly coat the cubes with a neutral tasting plant oil such as extra light olive oil, place the cubes in a single layer on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven until they have dried into a crouton-texture. Most recipes for croutons will tell you to use higher temps like 400 degrees. I prefer to use a lower temp of 250 degrees, and I shake or turn the cubes over a couple of times during the process. It’s up to you what you choose, but what’s important is to definitely check on them every ten minutes or so and pull them out as soon as they dry out. You don’t want to brown or burn them. Once you have the cornbread croutons, then you can substitute those into any of your favorite cornbread stuffing recipe.

Hashing it Out: Veggie Hash

“You seem to like to take the easy way….”

Folks who have been following this blog know that every once and a while I branch out of baking to post “how-to’s” about food other than baked goods. Usually that is because someone asks me a question which I think others might like to know the answer to as well. This week someone read a couple of posts of mine and asked an interesting question about hash.

If you are not familiar with hash (or know it only as the shorten form of hashish, a stronger form of marijuana), hash is a dish that began as a way of stretching meat during times of scarcity. You take leftover meat, dice it up, and add diced potatoes (because potatoes were filling and cheap) and anything else you can dice to make the dish more satisfying. Almost every country has its version of hash, which comes from a French word meaning “to chop”.

Over the centuries, the versions of hash recipes which exist has exponentially grown with every type of meat or poultry and potatoes variations being explored. In more recent years, folks started adding vegetables and tofu and legumes to make the hash more “healthy” and edible by non-meat eaters. This week, someone asked me, though, “The recipes for hash seemed to require so much work! All that cutting and chopping. You seem to like to take the easy way. How would you make hash quick and easy?”

I just had to laugh. Someone who knows how lazy a cook I am! School nights are always a rush at dinner time because of the children’s activities or my and my husband’s meetings, so yes, I do find ways to make meals quick and easy. Folks who have read other posts know that I love my crock pots, and many days of the week, meals are crock pot dinners which were assembled in the morning and ready to eat at dinner time. When that is not possible, though, then something like hash for dinner is perfect as long as you have ready-made items on hand.

For quick and easy hash, I keep diced potatoes in the fridge. Simply Potatoes is the brand I usually purchase at the store because it stores well in the fridge. Because we usually make a vegetarian version, I also stock the freezer with frozen, chopped kale or swiss chard or collard greens or spinach, and I keep cans of no salt and no sugar added petite diced tomatoes in the pantry. In the spice cabinet I have freeze-dried fresh herbs, onion powder and pepper, and in the fridge, I keep diced garlic. All this is all one needs to make a quick and easy vegetable hash. Should you want a meat version, then make the hash on a night when you have leftover meat or poultry from another meal which you can just add near the end of the cooking time. When I make hash, I can have dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes.

Vegetable Hash

Ingredients:

Olive oil

two 20 oz packages of Simply Potatoes with Onions (or another brand)

one 20 oz package frozen, chopped kale, collard greens, swiss chard or spinach

one 29 oz can of no salt, no sugar added petite diced tomatoes

Freeze dried or fresh Herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, dill, rosemary, marjoram, etc…; if you use dried herbs, you should add them with the potatoes so that the flavors have time to meld)

Black pepper

Onion powder

minced garlic

Optional: add leftover chopped meat or poultry or rinsed, canned beans or tofu

Optional (which is how we eat it): Serve the hash with a cooked egg atop of it

Cooking Instructions:

  1. In a large, shallow pan, on the stove top, put just enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the diced potatoes and cook the potatoes until they are browned on all sides. To brown potatoes well, you need to let them just sit and cook. They will stick to the pan, but that’s what you want. That is how the crispy coating is formed. Just use your spatula to unstick the potatoes and turn them. Any browned crusty pieces which stick to the bottom of the pan will come up later when you add the greens and tomatoes.
  2. After the potatoes have browned, add the frozen chopped greens and cook through, stirring frequently, until the  greens have thawed.
  3. Drain the canned tomatoes and add the tomatoes without the juice to the pan, along with herbs of choice, black pepper, onion powder and minced garlic, all to your taste liking. (I don’t add salt because the store bought potatoes have more than enough salt in them for the entire dish, but if you like things saltier, that’s your call.) Mix well and let the hash simmer, stirring every once and a while, for about five minutes until the browned crusty pieces have come off the bottom of the pan and mixed in with the hash.
  4. If adding the meat, do so now and cook just until everything is thoroughly warm.
  5. If eating as a vegetarian dish, serve as is. If eating it as we do, fry eggs hard or over-medium and place one on top of each serving of hash.
  6. Enjoy!

 

 

Recipe Revamping: Lemon Bundt

“The world as best as I remember it….”

A musician named, Rich Mullins, released an album years ago titled, “The World As Best As I Remember It.” The songs in the album challenged folks to think about what they thought they knew, to consider how our current perceptions can affect memories and views of “history,” to understand that much is simply “as best as we remember it.”

Food memories are often “as best as we remember it” because the emotions around them can cloud or enhance what we remember. For example, when I was pregnant with my second child, I simply could not eat iceberg lettuce. It made me so sick that to this day I cannot eat it. What’s interesting is that when I think about iceberg lettuce now, I don’t seem to have memories of eating it ever, though my parents will tell you that I most definitely did, and for a time, wouldn’t eat any other type of lettuce as a child.

Another example is a friend whose mother always made cake from a box for his birthday which was the only time his mother ever baked, so in his memory, his mother made the best cakes ever. As a grown up, after eating one of my homemade cakes, his mother made him a cake from a box, and he couldn’t believe the difference in taste because he was sure his mother’s cake would win the “best ever” taste test over my homemade cake, which he had to admit, it didn’t.

This week I received an email from someone whose grandmother used to make a lemon bundt cake that held fond memories for her. She wanted to be make the cake for her granddaughter but realized that with all her granddaughter’s food allergies she couldn’t. So, she asked if I might help her find a way to recreate the cake so that it tasted and looked just like her own grandmother’s recipe.

Her grandmother’s recipe called for 3 cups of all purpose flour, 1 cup of butter, 2 1/2 cups of sugar, 6 eggs, and 1 cup of sour cream in addition to the salt, baking soda and lemon juice. When I read the recipe, I realized that in addition to the allergy substitutions, the cake needed a health-makeover as well!

Substituting and recreating the lemon bundt cake:

The Flour: Since the granddaughter needed to be gluten free I opted to use King Arthur’s gluten free blend, but to make the cake a bit healthier, I chose the whole grain blend instead of the straight rice flour blend and reduced the flour to 2 1/2 cups.

The butter: The granddaughter’s dairy allergy meant substituting the butter with something else, but to make it healthier as well, I decided to use olive oil which has good fats and to reduce the amount to 2/3 of a cup. Because I didn’t want a heavy olive oil flavor, I used the extra light version.

The sugar: 2 1/2 cups of sugar is a lot! My friend didn’t ask me to do anything about the sugar, but I couldn’t help myself. I opted to use a combination of agave and truvia. To create the exact same sweetness as the original cake, I used 2/3 cup agave with 1/2 cup truvia. To make the came so I’d like it, which meant it being much less sweet, I reduced both amounts by half. So, folks can choose what they’d prefer.

The eggs: Six eggs is a lot! I reduced the amount by half and added some water to help fill out the liquid ingredients. Since I was using the agave which is a liquid, between the agave and the added water, the reduction in eggs was fine.

The sour cream: Since the granddaughter had a dairy allergy, I couldn’t use the sour cream, so I opted to make a buttermilk from soy milk and lemon juice but I reduced the amount to 1/2 since it was a liquid as opposed to the solid sour cream, which reduced the amount of fat in the cake.

The flavoring and leavening: I added baking powder to the baking soda since it was a gluten free cake and I used fresh lemons to achieve the most lemony taste by grating the peel and then squeezing the juice.

The cake came out amazing! When I served it to company, which included my friend, she said it tasted just like her grandmother’s. So, now she had her grandmother’s cake to serve only allergy friendly and as a much healthier version!

Lemon Bundt Cake

Ingredients:

2 ½ cups Gluten Free Flour blend (I used King Arthur’s whole grain blend)

2 tsp gluten free baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp freshly grated lemon peel (from fresh lemons is the best way to go)

2/3 cup extra light olive oil

1/3 to 2/3 cup Agave (use higher amount if you like a sweet cake)

1/4 to ½ cup Truvia (use higher amount if you like a sweet cake)

½ cup “buttermilk” (I used soy milk mixed with 1/2 tbsp lemon juice)

3 large eggs

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (depending on size of lemons, you will need anywhere from 4 to 6 lemons)

1/4 cup plain water

Baking Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare a bundt pan for use.  (I coated the pan with vegan butter, and then I sprinkled the pan with ground flaxseed.)

2.  Mix the flour with baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Add the lemon peel and mix well. Set aside.

3.  Mix oil, Agave, Truvia, buttermilk, eggs, lemon juice and water.

4.  Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Combine well until the dry ingredients are completely moistened.  Batter will be thick.

5.  Evenly spread batter into bundt pan and bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

6.  Cool on wire rack for at least 15 minutes before removing from the pan and cooling completely.

Healthy Habits: Aquafaba

website souffles

“What?”

I travel to libraries to give workshops on allergy friendly and healthier baking. Last weekend, at a workshop, I spoke with a group of about 30, and I received an email this week with a follow up question about aquafaba.

If you have not heard about the new rage, aquafaba, it’s apparently the words for water and beans and refers to the liquid you find in a can of chick peas or after you cook dry chick peas.  The chemistry of the liquid is yet to be determined but what is known is that it makes for a wonderful egg and dairy substitute. You can whip it like eggs to make meringues or replace eggs in baked goods or mayo or waffles and more.  You can whip it like heavy cream to replace dairy in whipped cream, mousse, or ice cream and more.

For my workshops, I always bring samples so folks will know that I’m telling the truth about being able to “have your cake and eat it, too”, and I try to provide a variety of desserts which are gluten, dairy, nut, peanut, soy and egg free. Depending on the season, the particular items I bake vary. For this workshop, I made meringues with the aquafaba and a chocolate cream pie with an aquafaba topping so folks could see how the aquafaba worked as both an egg and a heavy cream substitute.

The participant in the workshop who had emailed me did so because she was looking for the meringue recipe which wasn’t actually on this site. So, I’m remedying that situation by including it below. *grin* I’m also including some other tips for how you can use aquafaba in recipes.

Tips for using aquafaba:

  1. Purchase no salt, no sugar added versions of the chick peas if you are using canned chick peas. This helps you to control the sodium and sugar levels. You simply drain the liquid into a bowl and use your chick peas for another recipe at another time. If you prefer to use dry beans, soak them until doubled in size, bring the water to a boil, then simmer until the beans are soft. Drain the liquid into a bowl for your use and save the chick peas for another recipe.
  2. To use the aquafaba as a regular egg sustitute, simply measure out 1/4 cup per egg needed and whisk the egg with a fork just until frothy. Then use in your recipe as you would an egg. Works well for baked goods and French toast.
  3. To use the aquafaba as eggs which need to be whipped for angel food cake or Belgium waffles, start with room temperature aquafaba, add between 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cream of tartar and whip with the whisk handle of your mixer until stiff peaks form (as pictured above). Fold into your mixtures are indicated in your recipes.
  4. If you want to whip the aquafaba for a meringue topping or meringue cookies or to use as a whipped cream topping or as a substitute for heavy cream in ice cream, when you add the cream of tartar to the room temperature liquid, you should also add your sweetener at the same time. If you try to fold in the sweetener after you’ve whipped the aquafaba, it will deflate and soften. I find that powdered sugar works the best because it’s the lightest weight. Depending on how sweet you like your foods, 1/2 cup to 1 cup of powdered sugar per 15 oz can of liquid works well for most recipes. After you have added both the cream of tartar and powdered sugar, then you can whip the aquafaba to the desired stiffness. It’s best to check if the sweetness is to your liking when soft peaks have begun to form so you can add more if needed before you reach the stiff peak stage.

How to Make Aquafaba Meringues:

To make the aquafaba meringues you simply need a 15 oz can of chickpeas.  Drain the liquid into your mixing bowl and put the chickpeas in the fridge for another use.   Add at least 1/4 tsp and up to 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar.  Then add powdered sugar to your liking.  Start with 1/2 cup to 1 cup of powdered sugar. You can always add more later if you find it’s not sweet enough for you. Add 1 tsp of vanilla alone or with 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder if you want vanilla or chocolate flavor.

After you’ve put everything into your mixer, use the wire whisk handle to whip the aquafaba until it looks like the picture above.  It usually doesn’t take very long.  (When the peaks are still soft, check the sweetness to see if you need to add any more before whipping to stiff peaks.)

After it’s whipped to stiff peaks, put some into a gallon zip lock bag and snip off the end.  Preheat your oven to 250 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using the ziplock bag, pipe meringues onto the parchment paper.  I usually make them about tablespoon size. I also like to make the meringues pretty by sprinkling a mixture of unsweetened cocoa powder and powder sugar on top of each meringue before putting them into the oven.

Once you’ve filled the cookie sheet with your meringues, pop them into the oven and bake them for at least an hour.  Then check them.  When they are done, they’ll be hard and dry.  If they’re not quite done, cook them longer for 15 minutes at a time until they are.  (If you make them tablespoon size, they’ll be done after an hour.  If you made them larger, they may take more time.)

Once they’re done, turn off the oven and let them cool in the oven for half an hour.  Then take them out and let them cool completely on a wire cooling rack.  When you go to take them off the parchment paper after they’ve cooled, carefully lift them off and place them into a tupperware, using parchment paper or plastic wrap to layer them.  They’ll keep for a good while in the tupperware.

Healthy Habits: Tofu

“The parts all contribute to the whole.”

As a drama director my job is to help folks bring every aspect of a character to life. Some excel at body language. Others mimic voices well. Most know how to speak with emotion but not always how to use facial expressions to enhance the emotion. When I work with folks, I get questions like, “But I sound just like an old lady. Isn’t that enough?” Or “What difference does it make how I walk?” And then I have to explain that every aspect of a character – how they speak, walk, dress, gesture – has to be spot on for the audience to believe in the illusion we are creating.

When I received an email this week from a wife who wants to get her husband to eat more tofu, I thought about the types of illusions created by food and cooking. Restaurant chefs learn how to garnish plated food artistically because “beautiful” food is better tasting. Right? Not necessarily but the illusion is created and our brains believe it, so our palate does too… sometimes. *grin* When we’re sad or upset, and we eat, it’s because somewhere along the line the illusion was created that “comfort” food is comforting. And sometimes it is, but most of the times it just makes us fat. *wry grin*

That doesn’t mean all illusions are bad, though, when it comes to food. For food like tofu, creating illusions is precisely what helps when a wife wants her husband to eat more of it so he can live a longer, healthier life. *grin* When one’s husband really wants a meat chili, what can you do to get his brain to believe in the satisfaction of a tofu chili instead? If he wants chicken in his stir fry, how can you make tofu an acceptable substitute?

The answer lies in the parts contributing to the whole. For example, what makes chili taste like chili? It’s the spices and the traditional add-in’s. Almost every chili recipe calls for chili powder or actual chili peppers. Most include onions and peppers, regardless of whatever else is also added. So, the key is to infuse all the part of a tofu chili with the flavoring which your taste buds associate with a chili. The other important factor in chili is the texture. People are particular about chili – that’s why you see all the debates about chunks of meat versus ground meat and meat only versus meat with beans. So, you have to mimic the texture of the type of chili you’re trying to substitute tofu into. I have a recipe below which I use which a lot of folks have liked in the past.

Another example of how to create illusions with tofu is baked tofu recipes. Commonly folks will substitute tofu in a stir fry or recipe by simply adding chopped tofu instead of chicken or beef. The problem is that folks were expecting a “meaty” taste and texture, but plain tofu is not going to supply that. Baked tofu, however, does. When tofu is baked, it becomes crispy on the outside and meaty, chewy in the center, the way beef and chicken can be. It’s obviously not the exact same, but if you flavor the tofu as you would the beef or chicken in a stir fry, you’ll find that the brain can buy into the substitution. Below I’ve pasted in some tips for making baked tofu.

Crockpot Tofu Chili

Ingredients:

2 cups chopped kale

2 cups sweet white corn

1/2 cup chopped onions

1 1/2 cup chopped peppers (I like to mix red, yellow and green for color)

2 cups chopped butternut squash

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground chili powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

28 ounce no salt added diced tomatoes

16 oz can drained, rinsed no salt added dark red kidney beans

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground chili powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp olive oil

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground chili powder

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp ground onion powder

2 14-16 ounce extra firm tofu

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground chili powder

1 tsp minced garlic

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Mix the kale, corn, onions, peppers, and squash with the garlic, chili powder, and cumin in a 6 cup crockpot.
  2. In a bowl mix the tomatoes and beans with the garlic, cumin and chili powder and then add them to the vegetable mixture in the crockpot.
  3. In a large pan, saute the olive oil with the cumin, chili powder, garlic and onion powder for about 30 seconds. Using your hands crumble the tofu into the pan so that they are in large chunks that look like ground meat. Mix the tofu into the hot seasonings well and saute until the water has evaporated out of the tofu mixture. Add to the mixture in the crockpot.
  4. Mix all the ingredients with the final dashes of cumin, chili powder and garlic. Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.
  5. NOTE:  If you do not cook out all the water from the tofu, the chili will become watery. If that happens, simply use a spoon to scoop out the excess water and then remix your chili.

Tips for Making Baked Tofu:

  1. The tofu: Make sure you are using at least firm tofu. Extra or super firm is best.
  2. The seasonings: You can use whatever you want. Soy sauce, sesame oil, herbs, spices, pesto, black pepper, bottled sauces, whatever you like. You want to make sure to completely coat your tofu cubes well before you begin to bake them. If you use something like minced garlic, you should add that to the tofu later in the baking time so the minced garlic doesn’t burn. If you want to use a sauce, you can toss the tofu with oil and bake it and then toss them with the sauce after they’re done as opposed to before you bake them.
  3. Oil: Baked tofu works best if you have a little bit of fat to help with the crisping. I prefer to use oil. You can use olive oil or sesame oil or a nut oil or another plant oil… it all depends on the flavor you want and the seasonings you want to complement. Toss the tofu in the oil before tossing them with the seasoning you want to use.
  4. Shape: Cut the tofu into cubes for best baking. I like 1 inch cubes.
  5. Oven: 350 degrees is a good temperature to slowly bake the moisture out of the tofu and to create a crispy exterior.
  6. Baking Sheet: The best way to bake tofu is on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. It helps to absorb the moisture without causing the tofu to stick and allows the heat to reach all sides of the tofu.
  7. The baking: It’s good to place the tofu in a single layer and to turn them over at some point so the bottom side gets some of the circulating heat on it. The time will vary, depending on how watery your tofu is and how many you have on a sheet. Some tofu will be done in 15 minutes, others can take 30 minutes or longer. Some recipes will tell you to toss the tofu in cornstarch. This helps to reduce the moisture which can cut down on the time in the oven and can create a crispier texture. Other recipes will tell you to place items on top of the tofu to squeeze out the extra moisture before baking. This can cut down on the time, too. I never do that because I have no problem with baking the tofu a little longer while I do have issues with too many steps and the risk of squashing my tofu so I can’t have my neat little cubes.

Cooking Techniques: No Leaf Teas

tea

“My throat hurts!”

School as barely begun and already the sick germs are flying around. First my son came to me at the beginning of the week complaining of  a sore throat and nose congestion.  Then yesterday my high school aged daughter was sent to the nurse in the middle of French class because she seemed off to the teacher, and this morning my husband woke up and said he wasn’t feeling well either!

For the entire family, whenever we’re not well, I treat the symptoms as organically as I can. My goal is always to minimize the need for doctor intervention. So, all week my son has been doing salt water gargles, using the neti to clear his nose, taking apple cider vinegar to balance his system, using honey to soothe his throat, and drinking my homemade teas so he has enough fluids and vitamins to help his immune system. This morning, I started the same regimen with my daughter.

Over the years, I’ve made countless pots of what my children call “special tea” which I learned from my Korean mother. Growing up, we rarely had tea made from tea leaves. Instead we had tea which my mom brewed using fresh ingredients like orange peels or ginger root or cinnamon sticks or roasted barley or sweet rice mixed with barley powder. I was in high school before I realized that an individual cup of tea could be brewed using tea bags and that most teas were made with tea leaves.

As a grown up, I love tea, and if you come to my house you’ll find an assortment of teas to choose from which rival the nearest grocery market tea aisle, everything from black teas to white teas to green teas to herbal teas to holiday teas to specialized sore throat or digestion teas. When my children, husband or I are sick, though, I always turn to the natural teas my mother taught me to make. The fresh ingredients have nutrients, vitamins and minerals which are helpful to the immune system and naturally relieve symptoms like sore throats, nausea, and congestion.

In addition, I’ve learned through friends that not everyone can drink leaf tea, that for some it causes terrible gastrointestinal or allergic reactions. If you talk to the specialists, they say that there are usually two reasons for having issues with leaf tea. The more usual is that people are reacting to the caffeine, theanine and/or tannins in tea which are compounds found in tea which people can have sensitivities to. The other reason is that if you have environmental allergies to plants, you’re likely to have allergies to the plant ingredients in tea like hibiscus and rose petals. So, for these friends I often make my mother’s teas because they can then enjoy tea without the reactions.

Making homemade teas from natural ingredients is very easy. You simply throw your ingredients into a pot, fill it with water, and brew until the water has changed color and is infused with the flavor of the ingredients. The teas can then be kept in the fridge in a container and rewarmed as needed, or as in our case, left in the pot on the stove top, drunk within a few hours, and more made to replenish what was drunk.

Since I know that some folks really appreciate more specific recipes, however, I’m going to post below a couple of my favorite versions.

Cinnamon Ginger Tea

In a pot filled with 6 to 8 cups of water, put a fresh piece of ginger root, about 3 to 4 inches in length, with 4 large cinnamon sticks. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain out the ginger root and cinnamon and drink the tea warm or cold, plain or with a drizzle of honey if you prefer to sweeten it.

NOTE: I keep ginger root frozen in my freezer which I just pull out and plop into the water whenever I need it. Also, you can reuse the ginger root and cinnamon sticks several times before they need to be thrown out, so after straining them out of your tea, put them into a container in your fridge until needed for their next use.  Also, ginger tea is great for upset tummies!

Citrus Peel Tea

In a pot filled with 4 to 6 cups of water, put fresh orange peels from two large oranges, or four tangerines or clementines, or three mandarin oranges or four lemons or limes. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, then turn off the water and let the peels steep for an hour or so. Serve warm or at room temperature.

NOTE: I usually use the whole peel, including the white pith because so much of the nutrients are in the white pith, but some folks find that to be too bitter. If you use a peeler to peel the outside of the citrus peels, you’ll avoid the pith and get more of just the outside peel. You can also dry citrus peels by simply letting them sit on a rack until they dry out and then store them in a tightly sealed glass container until you need them. If you’re using dried peels versus fresh, though, you usually only need half the amount for the tea because the flavor is more concentrated. Citrus tea is good for coughs and chest congestion.

Korean Barley Tea (Bo-ree-cha)

In a pot filled with 8 cups of water, put about 1/2 cup of roasted barley which you have rinsed well. Bring the water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat and allow the tea to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. With this tea, the barley will settle to the bottom as it steeps. Strain out the barley and allow the tea to cool. We always drank it cold or at room temperature.

NOTE: I usually buy my roasted barley at the Korean grocery store but I’ve noticed that you can now find it at regular grocery stores, too. Barley tea is strong and not sweet. If you like a sweeter tea, you can purchase roasted corn and mix that with the roasted barley. You can also simply make a roasted corn tea which my mom used to make as well. Barley tea has a lot of antioxidants, and many folks swear by its ability to help with digestion and regulation of the body.

 

 

 

Cooking Techniques: No Bake Cheesecakes

“But they’re really more like suggestions than hard and fast recipes….”

Once again some friends were telling me this week that I needed to write a cookbook….. And once again, as I thought about it, I realized that the problem with a cookbook is that it presumes you believe your recipes should be followed…. And I don’t!

I personally never follow recipes. Even the ones I put on this blog, I’m always re-creating to see if I can either make them better or differently. To me the goal of this blog is to give folks enough tips and techniques and knowledge that you can then be as creative as you want. My recipes are supposed to be jumping off points, not “hard and fast, you must follow this to the T” types of experiences. That’s why I write at length about the “how’s” of each recipe I give, and it’s also why there are so many posts on this site which give no recipes and only “techniques”.

To illustrate my point today, I thought I’d use no bake cheesecakes: Right now they’re all the rage because they’re versatile and summery without the use of an oven. I could certainly give you a recipe for a no bake cheesecake but the fact is that there are so many different ways to make them that I’d hate to limit you to just one recipe.

For instance:

The crust: For a no bake cheesecake, you can use just about any type of crust you’d like: a crust made from graham crackers, cookies (any type there is from ginger to lemon to sandwich cookies to chocolate chip to oatmeal to you name it!), pretzels, crackers,coconut, goldfish, vanilla or chocolate wafers, nuts, etc…. What type of crust you’ll make will depend on what you’re making for the filling. If you want a traditional cheesecake, use graham crackers. If you’re making a cheesecake with chocolate in it, you might want to use chocolate wafers or a cookie with chocolate pieces. Maybe you’re making a lemon cheesecake which might go well with lemon or vanilla cookies. You can experiment and see what tastes you prefer. If you have allegies, you can use allergy friendly versions of all the above which you can now find in any supermarket.

What’s key is that you should process whatever you’re using into fine crumbs and mix them with a binder such as melted butter or vegan substitute or coconut oil or a nut oil or plant oils such as olive or safflower. Rule of thumb: about 1 1/2 cups of finely processed crumbs will cover the bottom and sides of a traditional pie pan. How much binder you use depends on your tastes and health: I tend to use a low amount, about 2 tablespoons, just enough to moisten the crumbs so they’ll adhere to one another. Many recipes will call for 4 to 6 tablespoons. You can also begin with two and add more if you think it’s needed. What you use can depend on your tastes and health and allergies. If you’re allergic to dairy or have health issues, you may opt to use a plant oil instead of butter. Or maybe you want just the taste of the cookies you’re using to come through, so you might use a more neutral canola oil. Or maybe your cheesecake will do well to have the complementary flavor of a nut oil.

Whatever you choose for the crumbs and the binder, for a no bake cheesecake, the crust should be made first. You then can either pop the crust into the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes or put it into the fridge for an hour or two. Either way, you want the binder to get cold enough to keep the crumbs together so it won’t crumble when you cut into your cheesecake. So, make sure the crust is solid before making and adding your cheesecake filling.

If you’re looking to make things even easier, you can use store bought crusts. Now they even make gluten, dairy, nut free versions which you can purchase at the regular grocery stores.

The cream cheese: For folks with no allergies, regular cream cheese is what most cheesecake recipes call for. if you’re trying to watch the fat, using a light or fat free version of the cream cheese is acceptable.  If you have dairy allergies, you can use the Tofutti vegan cream cheese. If you’re allergic to soy, you can puree tofu or soaked cashews to replace the equivalent 16 oz of cream cheese.  What’s important is that if you’re using cream cheese, any version, you should bring it to room temperature so it will blend more smoothly without chunks. If you’re using the tofu or soaked cashews, make sure to puree them completely so they’re as smooth as they can be. For a traditional pie pan, two packages of cream cheese or two cups of a replacement is enough to fill the pie pan once you’ve added the rest of the ingredients.

The sweetener: Most no bake cheesecake recipes call for the use of either sugar or powdered sugar in quantities ranging from 1/2 to 1 1/2 cup. You can use either, varying the amount to your particular tastes. If you’re like me and don’t use sugar, you can substitute coconut sugar or stevia or agave which usually require half to less the amount you’d use of sugar. I’d suggest beginning with 1/4 cup and tasting to see if you need to add more. What’s important to know is that no matter what you use for the sweetener, you should add it immediately after you’ve creamed your cream cheese smooth, and you should combine the sweetener well so the cream cheese is not grainy. If you using Agave, keep your mixer going on low while you slowly pour the agave in a little at a time.

The flavor: A no bake cheesecake can be whatever you want it to be: chocolate, lemon, mint, berry, peanut butter, etc…. What’s important to keep in mind is that whether the flavoring is an extract or peel, or chunky like chopped chocolate pieces or mint cookies or pureed strawberries, or if you opt to use jello or pudding mix for the flavoring (see below), add it AFTER you’ve made your cream cheese or substitute smooth and after you’ve added the sweetener.  The first thing you always do with a no bake cheesecake is to make the cream cheese smooth. Then you want to add the sweetener, and then you can add the other ingredients, with the binder being the final ingredient.

The no bake filling binder: When making a no bake cheesecake, you don’t use eggs which is what usually helps to solidify the cheesecake as it bakes. What you can use in the place of eggs varies, though. Some recipes use heavy cream. Others use a combination of sour cream and whipping cream. Some use condensed sweetened milk. Others use whipped topping. Still more use pudding mixes or jello/gelatin or even marshmallow creme. This is why I’d rather not give you a recipe, because you may want to use one or the other depending on tastes, allergies/health, and/or what you have in the house.

What I can give you, though, are tips and information to help you: So, for example, if you are going to use heavy cream or sour cream or whipping cream or whipped topping or marshmallow creme, the ratio is usually two 8 oz containers of cream cheese to 3/4 to 1 1/2 cups of whichever you use. What’s important is that they should be added at the end after you’ve mixed the rest of your cheesecake ingredients, just before you put the cheesecake into the fridge. The quantity will depend on the type of consistency and taste you want for your cheesecake: the more you put in, the airier, lighter and less cheesecake-tasting the cheesecake will be. The less you put in, the more dense cheesecake-like and tasting it will be.

If you choose to use gelatin or pudding mix, the ratio is usually two 8 oz packages of cream cheese to one package of jello or pudding (3 oz size) or one envelope of unflavored gelatin. What’s important is that if you’re using jello or pudding mix, you have two options for how to use them.  One is to simply mix it in really, really well with the cream cheese so it’s smooth. Another is to make up the jello or pudding and let is slightly set before mixing it in with the cream cheese mixture.  If you’re using an unflavored envelope of gelatin, the gelatin needs to be dissolved according to directions (usually a couple of minutes over a tablespoon of cold water and then stirred with a tablespoon of hot water until dissolved) and added to the cream cheese mixture at the end.

For people with allergies, So Delicious makes a whipped topping out of coconut which you can substitute for whipped topping. To substitute for heavy cream you can puree an equal amount of silken tofu; or mix 2/3 cup soy milk with 1/3 cup melted vegan butter for one cup of heavy cream; or use coconut cream in a one to one ratio; or make a cashew cream (soak cashews for a day and puree really, really well) where about one and 1/4 cups of soaked cashews purees into one cup of cream.

The topping: A no bake cheesecake can be simple with just the above ingredient choices mixed together and poured into a crust, but you can also jazz up the cheesecake with toppings. You can pipe whipped topping in designs. You can melt chocolate and drizzle it over the cheesecake. You can chop up cookies or chocolate and carefully place the pieces on top. You can chop berries and put them on top. You can spread jam on top. You can cook a fruit compote and pour it over the cheesecake. The ideas are endless. Let your creative side have fun.

For folks who do like a recipe, below is one a version I made recently.  It does have coconut and soy, though if anyone has allergies to either, you can substitute with anything I’ve written about above!

Lemon Blueberry No Bake Cheesecake

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup gluten, dairy, nut free graham cracker crumbs (I pureed Midel graham crackers)

2 tablespoons vegan butter, melted

two 8 oz containers Tofutti vegan cream cheese, at room temperature

2/3 cup coconut sugar (I like things tart; you may want to sweeten it more)

one tablespoon lemon juice (Meyer lemons are sweeter)

one tablespoon lemon peel (optional, grating fresh lemons are better; store bought dried peel can be bitter)

one teaspoon gluten free vanilla

one cup So Delicious dairy free Coco Whip

one cup fresh blueberries

1/4 cup water

one tablespoon Agave

one tablespoon cornstarch

one tablespoon water

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter and mix until the crumbs are completely moistened. If you need to add a bit more melted butter, do so. Carefully press the crumbs in a glass pie pan to cover the bottoms and sides. Place into the freezer for half an hour.
  2. In a mixer, blend the cream cheese until smooth. Scrape down the sides and bottoms.
  3. Add the coconut sugar and blend for a couple of minutes until completely smooth and not grainy.
  4. Add the lemon juice, lemon peel, and vanilla. Mix well.
  5. Add the Coco Whip, and mix just until blended. Pour into the prepared crust.
  6. In a small saucepan on the stove top, mix the blueberries with the water and agave and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  7. Once boiling, mix the cornstarch with the water and blend until smooth.  While stirring the blueberries, add the cornstarch mixture and keep stirring until the blueberries thicken. Remove from the heat.
  8. Carefully places spoonfuls of the blueberry mixture on the top of the cheesecake. Use a knife to run through the berries to create a pretty pattern and to mix the berries a bit into the top layer of the cheesecake.
  9. Refrigerate for at least four hours.
  10. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Cooking: Dairy Free Dark Chocolate Mousse

“But I want it quick and easy!”

I’ve already confessed to being a lazy cook, someone who likes to make a good meal with the least amount of effort. Now, I confess that I’m also a very impatient cook. If I want to make something, I rarely like to wait the time it takes for something to get cold or to reach room temperature, and I never have patience if I try someone else’s recipe and it fails, making it a waste of my time.

Recently one of my daughter’s really wanted a chocolate mousse, but with my dairy allergy we couldn’t make it with heavy cream. Many online recipes call for using coconut milk which I have done in the past for making a whipped cream. The problem is that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you purchase a can of coconut milk, put it the fridge, and it doesn’t solidify properly. Other times, the coconut milk tastes a little off, making your mousse not as palatable. And in both scenarios, you’ve had to wait for the coconut milk to chill, only to be disappointed.

So, we then looked at recipes which used tofu, but we found many of those recipes to be too sweet because people wanted to cover the tofu taste and did so with sugar. We also discovered that many of the tofu recipes either still called for the use of heavy cream or used almond milk, both of which I can’t have. In addition, a bunch of the recipes required a wait time for the tofu to get to room temperature or required a complicated process of straining the tofu mousse after making it.

Undaunted, though, I decided I’d make a mousse to my liking in taste, texture, and time spent. So I pulled out two cold 16 ounce containers of silken tofu and went to work. Since the process of straining the mousse seemed to be because people wanted a creamy texture which would be marred by chunks of tofu, I decided that I’d simply puree the tofu completely smooth first with my hand blender. This would eliminate any additional work needed later. And it worked really well.

Next, after looking at the too sweet recipes, many of which called for two cups of chocolate chips for one package of tofu plus additional sugar, I figured that for the two tofu packages, one 10 ounce package of Enjoy Life allergy friendly mini chocolate chips (about one and a half cups)  with no addition of any other sugar products would suffice. I microwaved the chips in a large four cup measuring bowl for one minute, stirred, and then microwaved them for another 20 seconds so that when I stirred the chips, they were melted and smooth.

Because I knew that adding the warm, melted chips to the cold tofu would result in the chocolate becoming solid again, I decided that I’d adopt the tempering process one uses with eggs to the chocolate. I added a couple of spoonfuls of the cold tofu to the warm chocolate and blended it well with the hand blender. I repeated the process three times, and then added the entire chocolate mixture into the rest of the smooth tofu, using my hand blender to completely blend the chocolate and tofu together.

When we tasted the mousse, we realized that while cutting the amount of chips made for a less sweet mousse, it also made for less of a chocolate taste, too, so I added two tablespoons of Hershey’s Special Dark unsweetened cocoa powder with 1/2 tsp of gluten free vanilla and blended one more time with the hand blender until everything was smooth and creamy. We divided the mousse among eight dishes and sprinkled chopped dairy free chocolate pieces on top as a garnish.

The entire process from start to finish was less than ten minutes, and by the time we were done eating dinner, the mousse had cooled enough in the fridge to make for a delicious impromptu dessert!

Dairy Free Dark Chocolate Mousse

Ingredients:

Two 16 oz containers of silken tofu

10 oz package Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips

2 tablespoons Hershey’s Special Dark unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 tsp gluten free vanilla

Cooking Instructions:

  1.  Puree the tofu completely smooth first with a hand blender. If you don’t have a hand blender, use a food processor or blender. The key is to make it completely smooth and creamy.
  2. Microwave the chips in a large four cup measuring bowl for one minute, stir, and then microwave them for another 20 seconds so that when you stir the chips, they are melted and smooth.
  3. Add a couple of spoonfuls of the cold tofu to the warm chocolate and blended it well with the hand blender. Repeat the process three times, and then add the entire chocolate mixture into the rest of the smooth tofu, using the hand blender to completely blend the chocolate and tofu together.
  4. Add the Hershey’s Special Dark unsweetened cocoa powder with the vanilla and blend one more time with the hand blender until everything is smooth and creamy.
  5. Divide the mousse evenly among eight dishes and sprinkled chopped dairy free chocolate pieces on top as a garnish.

 

Cooking Techniques: Stir Fry

“It was magnificent!”

Our family had a recent opportunity to attend a concert my oldest was performing in which was her women’s Glee club singing with Cornell’s men’s Glee club. Over 120 voices combined in four part harmony to create a most wonderful listening experience. What was amazing was listening to the individual voices even as their voices melded to become one united sound.

I thought about this when I received an email asking about how to make a good stir fry. Stir fry is food’s equivalent to a choir. Separate types of food becoming one dish where the tastes of the individual food remains even as their flavors meld to create a delicious stir fry.

Too often, though, people think of stir fry as something difficult. “Well, I don’t have a wok,” some say. “It’s too much chopping,” others say. I’ve also heard, “I never have the proper ingredients.” The fact, though, is that stir fry can be easy, quick, and done without a wok. It’s a great way to use up leftovers or to make when you only have a little bit of a variety of food items available. It’s also versatile and can be made any number of one thousand and one ways, not to mention stir fry is very accommodating for people with food allergies.

The Pan: The reason people like woks is that their curved shape allows you to cook at different temperatures at the same time. The bottom, which is closest to the heat is hotter and the temperature gets increasing cooler as you get to the top. This means you can move cooked foods toward the top and add newer food to the bottom to begin cooking on the hottest part, and then you simply mix everything together in the end. The shape of a wok also allows you to cook in different ways. The food that hits the hot bottom sears which traps flavor into the veggies or protein. When the sauce is added, though, moisture rises in the concave center of the convex wok, allowing the foods near the middle to top of the pan to be braised, which softens the food without making it mushy. If you don’t have a wok, though, you can still make a good stir fry. The key is simply to use a skillet which is just slightly larger than your burner and which has at least 2 in sides, which most of the larger skillets have these days. The center closer to the burner will get hotter than the edges of the skillet which allows you to move food to cooler sections of the pan, and the higher sides will allow you to braise. If you don’t have a large skillet with 2 in sides, you can also simply cook in smaller batches, cooking the veggies and protein separately, then mixing the two, and thickening the sauce separately and adding it to the mixed vegetables and protein. Doing everything separately doesn’t add time, it only adds another dish, and if you use the dish you’ll ultimately be serving the food in, then it won’t even do that!

The Veggies: All good stir fry dishes have an assortment of vegetables. Varying what goes into the dish can make for a colorful presentation as well as provide a variety of nutrients, textures, and flavors. People tend to get hung up on what they see as a “traditional” stir fry with bamboo shoots and baby corn and water chestnuts, but virtually any vegetable can go into a stir fry, so whatever you may have on hand works: broccoli, green beans, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, sweet potato, zucchini, squash, bean sprouts,leeks, asparagus, beets, radishes, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, and of course, baby corn, water chestnuts and bamboos as well. What’s key is cooking your vegetables uniformly. This means chopping vegetables of similar texture into the same size. It may also mean that you start vegetables which may take longer to soften like carrots and sweet potato first and adding greens like spinach or kale at the end. What’s nice about stir fry is that your goal isn’t to cook the vegetables for a long time; it’s to cook them just long enough for their colors to become bright and deep. You want the veggies to be still have some of their crunch and crispy-ness, not for them to be mush. For folks who don’t want to do any chopping or prep at all, nowadays you can buy your vegetables pre-chopped in the vegetable section. You can also used frozen chopped veggies, which is what I tend to do because then I always have veggies on hand.

The Protein: A stir fry doesn’t need to have protein but if you’d like to add protein, just about any type can go into a stir fry. Beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops, tofu, beans. As with the vegetables you want the protein to be able to cook quickly and uniformly, so make sure all pieces are similar size. Cutting the protein into smaller pieces allows you to use less, increases it’s ability to blend in with the vegetables, and spreads its flavor. Most recipes will tell you to sear the meats like beef, chicken and pork first and then to move them to the cooler section of the wok or skillet while you cook the vegetables and then to mix the two together, adding the sauce. This allows the meats to begin cooking their cooking process with the searing but then finishes the cooking with the braising which keeps the meat from becoming tough and dry. When using protein like tofu or softened beans or seafood, though, it’s often better to cook those at the last minute, just before you add the sauce because they usually only need a couple of minutes to cook, and overcooking them will make them tough or fall apart. For folks worried about the prep and chopping for these, you can find pre-sliced tofu and meats at the grocery store. For seafood such as scallops, I use the frozen variety; I simply thaw them in cold water for about 15 minutes and throw them in. You can also simply used leftovers from previous meals which you throw in at the last minute just to rewarm.

The Sauce: A good stir fry will have some flavor added more than just your veggies and protein. What you do can vary, though. If you don’t want a sauce, you can simply use herbs and spices. Stores carry premixed blends for specifically adding to stir fry. You can also experiment with herbs and spices to see what you like. For me fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions are my preferred flavors. If using dried herbs and spices, you’ll want to add them to the veggies and to the protein as you begin cooking them so the flavor have time to meld. If using fresh, add them at the end. If you opt to make a sauce, the key thing to know is that you need a thickener for your sauce. For stir fry usually cornstarch is the thickener of choice but you can also use tapioca starch or arrowroot or any type of flour. You want to whisk the thickener in with your liquid before adding the sauce to the pan to thicken. A good rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of cornstarch, tapioca starch, arrowroot, or flour is needed for every cup of liquid. When cooking the sauce, you’ll want to continually stir the sauce whether you’re cooking the sauce separately or whether you’ve added it to the pan with the vegetables and protein. If you add it the pan with food in the pan, simply move the veggies and protein to the edges of the skillet or up the sides of the wok, so you can thicken the sauce in the middle of the pan. Once thickened, combine the sauce with the veggies and protein. As for ingredients in a stir fry sauce, that all depends on your tastes. For the liquid part you can use soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, broth such as chicken, beef, or vegetable, red or white wine, sherry, etc…, whatever your tastes prefer. To add another dimension of flavor to whatever liquid you choose, you can add different flavored vinegars like apple cider, rice, or red wine, juices like lemon or lime or pineapple, oils like sesame or peanut, etc…. You can also add herbs and spices like garlic, scallions, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, etc…. To make the sauce, simply mix all your chosen ingredients in the ratio that tastes the best to you and which makes one cup’s worth, add your thickener, mix well, and cook over heat, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens to a consistency where it will cling to the veggies and protein in your stir fry. If you find that for some reason you need more thickener, simply mix more of your thickener with the equivalent amount of water and add it to the sauce (so, one teaspoon of cornstarch with one teaspoon of water).

The Sides: Stir fry can be eaten alone or atop something else. Good options if you want to eat them with something else are rice (brown, white, wild, jasmine, etc…), quinoa, barley, noodles such as udon, soba, lo mein or rice noodles, strips of spaghetti squash or zucchini ribbons or chopped cabbage, fresh greens like spinach, kale, arugula or swiss chard, etc…. Use your imagination and be creative.

 

 

Cooking Tutorial: Eggless Baked Macaroni and Cheese

“Third time’s the charm!”

There’s something about the number three…: We all know the folks who sneeze in three’s; there’s that belief that bad things happen in three’s; the occult, divine, and human psychology seem to value the power of three; and of course, we talk optimistically about the third time being the charm.

When I opened up my email to find a question about baked macaroni and cheese, I had to laugh because this will be the third posting about macaroni and cheese, hence my thinking about the number three this morning!

Previously I had posted a general baked macaroni and cheese recipe which was a lightened up version of an Emeril recipe. Then someone asked about a gluten, dairy free version of the lightened version. Now I’m being asked about whether you can make a baked macaroni and cheese without eggs.

The answer, of course, is yes. The purpose of eggs in a baked macaroni and cheese is to create a firm and thick texture. Combining the eggs with evaporate milk also makes for a silkier macaroni and cheese. A baked macaroni and cheese can achieve the same texture and silkiness, though, without eggs. Instead of using evaporated milk, though, you would use regular milk or milk substitute, and because you won’t be using eggs as a thickener you’ll need to make a thick sauce first as opposed to simply combining everything and baking.

Creating a thick sauce: There are a few ways to go about making a thick white sauce:

  1. Roux: You can make a roux by warming 2 tbsp of olive oil (or other plant oil or you can use butter/butter substitute, too, if you’d prefer) and adding 1/4 cup of your preferred type of flour with a whisk. Once the flour mixture has cooked for about 30 seconds, you slowly add 2 cups of your “milk”, stirring constantly to mix the roux into the liquid well. Heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Then you add your cheese.
  2. Cornstarch: You can simply mix cornstarch into your “milk” and heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. A good ratio is 1 tbsp of cornstarch per cup of milk, so you’d use 2 tbsp of cornstarch in 2 cups of milk, and once it’s thickened, you’d add your cheese.
  3. Flour: You can also simply mix the milk with flour and again heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. Usually 1/2 cup of whatever flour you’d like to use in 2 cups of milk will do the job. Once it’s thickened, you add the cheese.

Creating a creamy cheese sauce: Again there are a few ways you can go about making a creamy cheese sauce:

  1. Using good cheeses: One way to make a silky, gooey, cheesy sauce is to invest in cheeses with good melting and great taste. This means opting for the more full fat cheeses like gouda, fontina, sharp cheddar, etc. If you have no dairy allergies and don’t mind the expense, the taste will be worth the investment. These cheeses, when added to your thickened white sauce, will simply melt into creaminess. Depending on your tastes, you would add one to two cups of shredded cheese to the white sauce.
  2. Mixing types of “cheese”: Another way to create cheesy-ness is to use half shredded cheese of your choice and half cream cheese. Since I have a dairy allergy and can’t use real cheese, I’ve found that the non-dairy cheeses don’t provide the creamy texture, so in my mac and cheese, I mix Daiya mozzarella with tofu cream cheese, and it makes for a lovely creamy sauce. So, once my white sauce is thick, I add the mozzarella and let it begin to melt, stirring constantly; then I add the cream cheese and keep stirring until both the mozzarella and the cream cheese have completely melted into the sauce. Depending on your taste, you would use 8 oz of the mozzarella and then add between 1/2 cup to 1 cup of the cream cheese to the white sauce.
  3. Adding sour cream or yogurt: A third way to create a silky texture is to add either sour cream or yogurt to the cheese sauce. After you’ve made the cheese sauce the way you prefer, simply mix in yogurt or sour cream until it’s well blended. Depending on your tastes, you would add between 1/2 to 1 cup.

Using the best noodles: For macaroni and cheese the best noodles to use are ones with nooks and crannies, so pastas like elbows, shells, penne, rotini are all good choices. What’s key for baked macaroni and cheese is to only cook the noodles until al dente, which means they are mostly cooked but still a little sturdier in texture. The reason you slightly undercook them is because the noodles will cook more in the oven during the baking and you don’t want them to become mushy. Because of my wheat allergies, I like to use a quinoa elbow or shell variety which adds some protein to the dish.

Being creative with add-ins: Yes, you can make a straight mac and cheese but additions to the dish can intensify the flavor and texture. My children like ours best when I add chopped up bits of turkey ham or turkey sausage with chopped up bits of zucchini or broccoli, but you can opt to add whatever you’d like — chicken, spinach, peppers, bacon, tomatoes, etc….

Choosing spices and herbs: Many flavors complement cheese so you can be imaginative in your choices. I like to combine cumin, nutmeg, onion powder, black pepper, and oregano. Sometimes I simply add some red pepper flakes. Other times we opt for thyme and sage. Think about the type of cheese you’re using and what you’re adding in, and experiment with flavors.

Assembling the macaroni and cheese: The best way I’ve found to make a good macaroni and cheese is to cook my noodles al dente and then cool them with cold water, rinse and put into a bowl. Then I mix the noodles with my add-ins and spices and herbs. Then I make the cheese sauce, also adding spices and herbs to the sauce. Then I combine the cheese sauce with the noodles, before putting the entire contents of the bowl into a greased glass casserole pan.

The topping: Baked macaroni and cheese can be topped in many ways:

  1. Cheese: Most people simply put shredded cheese on top of the macaroni and cheese casserole. This adds another level of gooeyness.
  2. Bread crumbs: If you mix bread crumbs with herbs and spices and either a plant oil or butter and spread it evenly over the macaroni, you’ll get a nice crispy contrast to the creamy macaroni.
  3. Add-ins on top: Another way to top the macaroni is with more of the add-ins, so sprinkling chopped bits of bacon or broccoli on top. This makes for a colorful presentation of the baked macaroni and cheese and lets folks know what else might be on the inside.
  4. Creative toppings: Some folks like to be a bit more creative in their toppings and add foods like crushed potato or tortilla chips or crushed corn flakes. Use your imagination and see what flavor combinations work best.
  5. Herbs: Another way to make for a pretty and tasty baked macaroni and cheese is to sprinkle fresh chopped herbs on top immediately after the dish comes out of the oven. So, adding chopped fresh basil or mint or thyme — experiment and see what you like.

Baking the macaroni and cheese: Most dishes cook well in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes. Because everything is already cooked, you simply need the casserole to set and become hot and for your topping to melt or become browned and toasty, depending on what you chose to use.

 

Creative Cooking: Crumb Cake

“Your EKG is abnormal.”

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to make an allergy friendly version of a crumb cake recipe for an office party.  I was told, though, “Please don’t change anything other than to make it gluten and dairy free for my co-workers.  It’s a delicious recipe, and I don’t want to lose the taste.”

I did as instructed, but it killed me emotionally. Simply reading the ingredients was enough to give anyone a heart attack. Between the cake batter and the crumb topping the recipe called for two cups of full fat sour cream, four cups of sugar, four cups of butter, four whole eggs, and of course, white flour.

I’m sure the gentleman was correct in saying that the crumb cake was delicious. All that butter and sugar, how could it not be. My question, though, was whether it couldn’t be just as delicious as a healthier version of itself. I thought about that question again this week as I laid in a hospital bed after a severe stomach flu rendered me completely dehydrated which in turn caused an abnormal EKG.

I was sent home yesterday and spent this morning being checked out by a cardiologist. Fortunately, because I do lead a healthy lifestyle of exercise and good eating choices, the abnormal EKG did appear to be caused by low potassium levels and not anything being wrong with my heart itself. I thought, though, about how differently the results could have been if I did eat crumb cake the way a lot of people do.

Food is to be enjoyed, and I want to eat delicious crumb cake just like other people. I think, though, that what one eats should be the best it can be for my body’s health. So, I confess, that after I made the crumb cake as I was asked, that I went to work creating a healthier version which I shared with my writing group, a friend, and my family, all of whom declared it to be delicious. It took a little though, but I was able to make a few simple changes which made all the difference.  Let me share….

The Sugar: Four cups of sugar is crazy. Really. As I’ve mentioned in the past, sugar is a poison to our body, and we’re better off avoiding it if we can. As I’ve also mentioned, sugar replacements aren’t the end all as well. They still have calories and still can cause some fluctuations in one’s glycemic index, but that you can lose so much less in a recipe and are not as refined has pluses which sugar does not. So, I opted to use a cup of Agave for the cake batter and 1/2 cup of coconut sugar in the crumb topping which reduced the sweetener from 4 cups to 1 1/2 cups. Everyone agreed the cake was plenty sweet enough.

The Butter: Four cups of butter is A LOT. I agreed, though, that for a good crumb topping you did need a substantial amount of butter to get the right consistency and taste. So the question was how to create a balance between quantity and quality. In the end, I swapped grapeseed oil for the butter in the cake batter. As a plant based oil it has health benefits which butter does not, and as a liquid fat, I only needed to use 1/2 cup versus the two cups of butter in the original recipe. For the crumb topping, I decided I could halve the amount and use one cup of a vegan soy free butter which still reflected the taste and consistency of a good crumb topping. So, I was able to decrease the fat from 4 cups to 1 1/2 cups.

The Eggs: Eggs are not bad in general. In fact, they’re quite good for you. But as with all things, moderation is the key, and four whole eggs carry a lot of cholesterol in those egg yolks, which is not always good for people with certain health risks. This was an easy enough fix, though. I simply opted to use 3/4 cups of liquid egg whites which eliminated yolks altogether but kept the liquid ratio needed for the cake batter.

The Sour Cream: I admit, I love sour cream. Even the tofu version I have to eat because of my dairy allergy. It’s creamy texture and tangy taste definitely make for a delicious crumb cake. The problem is that even the vegan version isn’t really that great for you. Being made from tofu only adds a small margin of protein, nothing concrete enough to counter the fat and other additives. So, I thought about for something different to give the cake it’s moisture and flavor. In the end I decided to use pureed pumpkin because it would lend a pretty orange color to the cake as well as all those good minerals and vitamins which our bodies need. Two cups of pumpkin instead of sour cream eliminated a lot of extra fat and calories from the cake.

The Crumb Topping: This was key to do correctly, because crumb cake is, after all, about the crumb topping. If it didn’t meet expectations, all would be lost. As I previously mentioned, I had reduced the quantity of butter to one cup and swapped 1/2 cup of coconut sugar for the two cups of white sugar , but there was still the problem of how little nutritional value the white flour in the topping had, not to mention my allergies to wheat. I finally chose to use a combination of gluten free whole rolled oat and gluten free oat flour. With the addition of protein and fiber, I felt better about the topping being healthier than the original version. I also reduced the overall amount of “flour” and used 2 cups instead of the original three cups to reduce the extra calories.

The Flour: White flour is another food to be avoided if at all possible. There is no nutritional value to white flour, and if you’re like me and allergic to wheat, you can’t have it anyway. The problem, though, is that my usual switch, which is to use high fiber, high protein gluten free flours like bean flours and sorghum flours wouldn’t necessarily give me the texture I wanted for the crumb cake. Crumb cake batter is supposed to be a medium batter, not light and airy but not overly dense. Since I had altered the crumb topping, though, to have more fiber and protein, I decided I could be more lenient with the cake batter, and I opted to use a gluten free baking mix that was a mixture of brown rice flour and sweet white sorghum with potato and tapioca starches that worked well.

The Flavoring: Since I had omitted the sour cream which usually gives a good crumb cake its flavor, I needed to consider adding some spices to the pumpkin replacement. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves did the trick.

The Ratio: Because crumb cake is all about the crumb topping to cake ratio, and because I was reducing the amount of flour and butter, I opted to cook the cake in an 11 x 15 pan which meant I could distribute the crumb topping over a shallower depth of cake batter to ensure that there wouldn’t be more cake to crumb topping which might prevent enjoyment of the any piece given.

The Appearance: Crumb cake usually has a powdered sugar coating which makes for a beautiful presentation. I admit, I didn’t want to eliminate the aesthetics because for me presentation is important, too. I could, however, greatly reduce the amount used. The original recipe called for 1/2 cup of powdered sugar. I was able to use one tablespoon and create the same appearance without all the added sugar.

Crumb Cake

Ingredients:

Cake Batter:

2 1/2 cup gluten free flour blend (use a version with brown rice flour)

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp cloves

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

3/4 cup liquid egg whites

2 cups cooked, pureed pumpkin

1/2 cup grapeseed oil

1 cup Agave

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Crumb Topping:

1 cup gluten free whole rolled oats

2 cups gluten free oat flour

1/2 cup coconut sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1 cup vegan soy free butter

1 tbsp powdered sugar

Baking Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 11 x 15 pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
  2. Mix together the gluten free flour blend, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.
  3. Blend together the liquid egg whites, pumpkin, grapeseed oil, and agave. Add to the dry ingredients with the apple cider vinegar, and blend until the dry ingredients are fully moistened.
  4. Pour cake batter into the prepared baking pan.
  5. Combine the whole rolled oats, oat flour, coconut sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Using clean hands incorporate the vegan butter into the mixture until everything is completely mixed and you have no dry ingredients leftover. You’ll have a nice clump which you can then crumble for the crumb topping.
  6. Evenly distribute small chunks of the crumb topping over the cake batter.
  7. Bake the prepared cake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake is puffed and golden.
  8. Cool the baked cake on a wire cooling rack. Using a sifter, gently sprinkle the powdered sugar to completely cover the crumb topping.

 

 

Recipe Makeover: Dairy Free Vegetarian Enchiladas

“It’s killing us.”

What my high school aged daughter seems to be learning from her science classes is that we’ve screwed up the world, and as a result, too many things in our environmental lives now have negative repercussions. In many respects, I understand and agree with what the teachers are saying. On the other hand, it’s not easy to feed the family when your daughter seems to think everything she eats will cause cancer or heart attacks or just general bad health. As her list of what she thinks we shouldn’t eat anymore grows, her father and brother find themselves devoid of the foods which they would rather eat, despite the risks. Throw in food allergies, and you can see the dilemma I’m facing with the “What’s for dinner?” question.

Tonight the family was in the mood for enchiladas, something we actually haven’t had in a while. My son and husband would have preferred a nice pork or beef enchilada but my daughter wanted nothing to do with those “cancer-causing” meats, as she expressed. I’ve always loved enchiladas but since developing a life-threatening dairy allergy, I’ve not found a cheese substitute which comes anything close to what is needed for a cheesy enchilada casserole. But enchiladas were what was wanted, so I needed to put my thinking cap on and get to work.

The first question was how to make a vegetarian enchilada which would have the umami without the actual meat. Mushrooms have always been a good “meat” substitute, but only my oldest and I like mushrooms so if I was going to use them, I would need to disguise them. I also didn’t want to simply have mushroom enchiladas. I’d like a variety of vegetables. So I chose to combine spinach, mushrooms, yellow and red peppers, and cauliflower. Cauliflower may seem an odd choice, but like the mushrooms, they have a meaty component to them.

Because enchiladas require time and effort, I lessened my work by using frozen and canned versions of the veggies. It meant I could more quickly begin the assembling process without all the cooking beforehand. I also used my food processor to finely chop everything together to both disguise the mushrooms but also to create a texture that would be more like ground meat.

The second question was how to create a cheesy taste and texture without actually using cheese. The filling was easy because the use of tofu cream cheese could impart the impression of cheesy-ness. The topping, however, required a bit more thinking. Usually a vegetable enchilada calls for a white sour cream sauce and then a liberal topping of cheese, which when baked forms a nice crust for the enchiladas. I began the process of creating a sour cream sauce using tofu sour cream and unsalted vegetable stock from my freezer (if you don’t make your own, it’s easy enough to purchase at the store, or you can use vegetable broth, but you’ll want to omit the salt in the recipe then). As I looked at the mixture, it occurred to me that if I added a gluten free flour to the sauce, it would not only thicken the sauce for me, but when it baked, the flour would slightly separate from the sauce to create a crusty top. I decided to give it a try.

In the end we had a delicious vegetarian enchilada with a meaty texture and a cheesy, crusty facsimile which we’ll make again.

Vegetarian Enchiladas

Ingredients:

Filling:

two 4 oz cans of mushrooms, drained

1 cup thawed frozen cauliflower

1/2 cup thawed frozen mixed red and yellow peppers

1/2 cup green onions

10 oz thawed frozen chopped spinach

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

“Cheese” for Filling:

8 oz tofu cream cheese

1/2 cup unsalted vegetable stock

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp cumin

2 tsp minced garlic

Sauce:

1 1/2 cup unsalted vegetable stock

12 oz tofu sour cream

1/4 cup sorghum flour

1 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground onion powder

1/4 tsp white pepper

12 to 16 corn tortillas

Cooking Instructions:

  1. In a food processor combine and process the mushrooms, cauliflower, peppers and green onions. Add to the chopped spinach and mix well.
  2. Add the cumin, oregano, salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Set aside.
  3. In a pan put the tofu cream cheese, vegetable stock, lemon juice, cumin and garlic, and slowly melt the cream cheese over low heat, stirring continually until the mixture is smooth.
  4. Add the vegetables to the cream cheese sauce and combine well. Set aside.
  5. In another pan combine the vegetable broth, tofu scour cream, sorghum flour, lemon juice, cumin, onion powder and white pepper. Over low heat, stirring continually with a whisk, let the mixture slowly heat and thicken.
  6. Grease a 9 x 13 pan and cover the bottom of the pan with about 1/3 of the sour cream sauce.
  7. Wet a paper towel and wrap the corn tortillas in the wet paper towel. Heat the tortillas in the microwave 20 seconds at a time until the tortillas are warm, soft to the touch and pliable enough to bend. (Mine took 40 seconds total).
  8. Divide the vegetable mixture among the tortillas evenly. (I had enough filling for 16 tortillas but I opted to fill twelve and then use the leftover filling to cover the top of the twelve tortillas to increase the “taste coverage” of the filling, but you can simply fill all 16 tortillas if you’d like.)
  9. Cover the tortillas with the remaining sour cream sauce.
  10. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.