Friday, April 22, 2011

Sugar Free Vegan Walnut Pie Variation

I tried the pecan pie recipe that I posted before again with some small changes.  This time it was all walnut instead of a walnut-pecan combination, and I added a handful each carob chips and shredded coconut.

I liked the carob-coconut-walnut flavor combination quite a bit. It was a bit richer than the other pie, and had deeper flavor. 

I also decided to try using cornmeal instead of flour to thicken the filling.  I found the result to be a bit gummy on the first day but pretty good on the second.  I may go back to flour in future pies or try a combination of the two.

Liven up your Lasagna!

Tips and tricks for creating exciting variations on vegan lasagna

It’s a perennial crowd pleaser.  It’s substantial, it travels and reheats well, it’s fancy enough to be impressive without being all that intimidating or difficult to put together, and last but not least, it veganizes well enough to be tolerated by most omnivores. It’s easy to see why it shows up on so many vegan menus.
That doesn’t means it can’t get boring or overdone after a while. So here’s what you can do if you’ve got a killer lasagna recipe in need of some spicing up.

1.   Change the structure

Did you know that most lasagna recipes can be easily modified into manicotti, cannelloni, stuffed shells and other recipes based on large filled or stacked pastas?
For example, if you had a spinach lasagna recipe that had alternating layers of tofu-spinach filling and marinara sauce, to modify it you would fill the inside of the manicotti tubes (cooked) with the tofu-spinach filling and put them on a bed of the marinara, then spoon more marinara on top before baking and serving.  The difference in texture and presentation makes it a whole new dish.

Tofu-Artichoke Manicotti, modified from a lasagna recipe

You can also make lasagna roll-ups, a beautiful variation.  You cook the noodles, lay them out, spread them with filling and then roll them up like cigars.  I like to cut the rolls in half and then arrange them ruffle side up, packed tightly so they don’t unravel, and then spoon tomato sauce over and around them. They look really pretty this way.

Various types of smaller pasta shapes can be layered in place of the lasagna noodles as well. It becomes kind of a baked ziti-like casserole that way.  Broken up lasagna noodles work too, and so does spaghetti.

You also don’t have to use pasta at all.  You could make a standard layered lasagna with thinly sliced eggplant or zucchini in place of the noodles for a moussaka-like effect. You could also layer in tortillas or crepes as well as matzo, toast, polenta, breadcrumbs or croutons. There are always combinations as well, such as half standard noodle and half zucchini, or a noodle layer at the top and bottom and croutons in the middle.

And if you enjoy miniatures, you could always take mini loaf pans and lasagna noodles cut into halves or thirds and make individual mini lasagnas. It’s cute and it eliminates serving difficulties.

2.   Change the sauces
Most lasagnas seem to have a three basic components: noodles, a thick, sometimes chunky filling, and a thinner sauce such as tomato in alternating layers.  Both the filling and the sauce can be changed and combined in different ways.
Here are some examples: 
  •  Basic Lasagna Bolognese, with a thick, meaty (or fake meaty ;) and slightly tomatoey ragu style filling alternating with a thin white sauce (usually béchamel) 
  • Florentine style, with a ricotta-like filling containing spinach (chard or other greens my be substituted) combined with layers of a thin tomato sauce 
  • Combinations of the above, such as the spinach filling with the béchamel for a sort of white lasagna, or a triple decker with the ragu, tofu ricotta, and béchamel all in one dish (very tasty but sort of elaborate)
  • Pesto Lasagna, with your favorite pesto either mixed into the tofu ricotta filling or thinned to replace the tomato sauce.  (FYI, while traditional pesto is made with basil and pine nuts, it can be made with any type of herb or green and any type of nut or seed or a combination.  My favorite is Kale-Almond-Walnut. Other types of vegetables, such asparagus or peas can also be used, and the nuts can also be omitted if desired. For lasagna I usually prefer a pesto that’s made with something other than basil so the leftovers don’t discolor.) 
  • Stroganoff lasagna, with a tangy and creamy mushroom filling (with or without a meat substitute added) and a white béchamel sauce
  • Pumpkin or Sweet Potato Lasagna, using a pumpkin sauce in place of the tomato. I like to flavor this one with cinnamon or nutmeg.  This is good at the holidays or for people with tomato or acidity issues.
  • The sauces and fillings themselves can also be modified: 
      • Your standard tomato sauce can be made with roasted or sun-dried tomatoes for a more intense flavor, spiced up with red pepper flakes, embellished with caramelized onions or roasted red peppers or even have the tomatoes replaced with tomatillos for a Lasagna Verde.
      • The béchamel may have herbs or spices added (nutmeg or dill would be nice), or be flavored with nutritional yeast and lemon juice to be more of a cheesy sauce, or it may be replaced with a richer and tangier alfredo style white sauce (I have a pureed white bean and roasted garlic alfredo that I like).
      • The ragu can be based on a number of things, including TVP, commercial sausage crumbles, seitan, mashed lentils, whole beans or chunky vegetables (cubed eggplant gets a particularly nice texture). Having meatballs swimming in sauce for a filling is a pretty cool variation too. The flavoring can be changed too—there can be a strong tomato base or just a small amount of paste, and the spices can be altered. I think a pinch of sweet spices such as fennel and/or cinnamon adds a really nice note, and of course hot spices may be added or the aromatic vegetables increased, changed, or prepared differently (such as roasting or caramelizing to deepen flavor or switching to sweet onions).  The flavor may be changed according a particular theme as well, such as using taco spices for a Mexican Lasagna, adding chocolate for a mole effect, or using you favorite Chili spice mix for a Chili Lasagna.
      • The ricotta style filling can be made with all kinds of things from pureed silken tofu or mashed firm tofu to beans to cauliflower, cashews, commercial or homemade non dairy cream cheese or sour cream products or any combination thereof. It can be made with varying degrees of tanginess and richness and different amounts and types of fresh or dried herbs.  It can be very vegetable heavy, or mostly creamy. Nutritional yeast may be added to increase cheesy flavor. Seitan can be added to approximate some of those chicken-based white lasagnas.

  1. Add-ins—There are a lot of things that can be added to lasagna, either as the featured ingredient or just sprinkled on top.  Here is a rundown:
    • Spinach and other greens—a classic, and one that tends to enhance the flavor of the ricotta flavoring. Fresh or frozen is fine.
    • Artichoke hearts, canned or marinated—this is one of my favorites. It adds great flavor and texture.
    • Olives—good in the tomato sauce or ragu fillings
    • Capers—can be mixed in or tossed on top
    • Roasted Garlic—good in white sauce or ricotta filling. Raw is good too.
    • Caramelized onions—or roasted or just plain sweet onion are good too.  Also anything in the same family such as shallots or chives.
    • Eggplant—This is good cubed into the ragu or tomato sauce, or sliced thinly in between layers.
    • Zucchini—best sliced thinly or shredded
    • Bell peppers—generally best in the ragu or tomato sauces.  Roasted can be tossed in as well or pureed into sauces or fillings.
    • Mushrooms—work anywhere. Can be sautéed first if desired.
    • Asparagus—either tips or chopped up
    • Potatoes—cubed, mashed, or even scalloped
    • Broccoli, Cauliflower, Squash, Carrots and other veggies—can be chopped, shredded, or sliced thinly and may be fresh or frozen
    • Salad Dressing—can be used to add flavor to the ricotta filling
    • Salsa—can be added to make sauces chunkier or improve flavor.  Excellent in Southwest-style lasagnas
    • Various marinated or pickled vegetables—adds tanginess
    • Non-dairy Cheese—I tend to just use this on top of the lasagna in a thin layer, if at all.  I find it just gets lost in the lower layers and since it’s expensive and high in fat I prefer to put it where it makes to most impact. Briefly broiling at the end of cooking time until slightly browned brings out its best flavor and texture.

4.   Change the method
A while back I tried an easier version of my basic recipe out of a combination of laziness, hunger and lack of ingredients.  I used frozen spinach instead of fresh, coarsely mashed the tofu instead of pureeing it, put the noodles straight in raw instead of boiling them first, and just sprinkled nutritional yeast on top instead of making a parmesan substitute or using soy cheese, and then just covered it with foil and slung it in the oven.
I ended up liking it better than the original!  And I definitely have been able to make it quite a bit more often. It’s great for unexpected guests because you can just throw it together and then go gab while it bakes.
My point is that sometimes small changes can make a big difference, and harder doesn’t always mean better.

I find that if the sauces and fillings are very moist and juicy, using dry, uncooked noodles (just regular ones—special no-boil noodles are not necessary) is a good way to firm up the final product and help it hold together better.  Make sure the sauce covers all the noodles and cover the pan with foil to keep the top noodle layer from drying out. This is also good way to save time and it’s less frustrating too.  Dry noodles tend to be easier to stack without flopping around or sticking together. If your sauce and filling are thick and dry, though, you’re better off precooking the noodles or they’ll get crunchy.

Other methods you can change are: whether you sauté you veggies first or just toss them in (a matter of preference and convenience), whether fillings and sauce are pureed smooth, left chunky, or somewhere in between, the order in which they’re layered, (can affect structural integrity, texture and flavor) how many layers there are, and the ratio of noodle to filling and sauce.

These are all things you can change for convenience, to try and improve a flaw, or just to see what happens.


 Sometimes it’s fun to try a familiar recipe in a whole new way.  I haven’t tried every single idea on this page (although when I went to count how many I had tried I was sort of shocked at how much lasagna I’d had over the years) but I do suspect I’ll end up trying most of them eventually. 

After all, anything worth doing is worth doing 97 different ways, right? ;-)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Vegan Cookbook Review: Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World

Okay, I know, this is a very well known cookbook in vegan circles, but I thought I’d add my two cents anyway.  I’ve made quite a few recipes from this book, some of them different from the ones typically reviewed, so I decided to share my thoughts on individual recipes as well as my general impressions of the book.  I am an unrepentant fiddler when it comes to recipes, so I will also share the various modifications I have made.

Here is a list of the recipes I have tried and my impressions of their pros and cons:

Crimson Velveteen Cupcakes:  I had these unfrosted. These had a nice mellow, pleasant flavor that worked perfectly well with carob in place of chocolate.  The color was a bit too strong in my opinion—it looked a little unappetizing and could be tasted slightly too.  That is a general characteristic of all red velvet cakes, though, not something specific to this recipe. Over all, I would make it again, possibly reducing the coloring. 

Peanut Butter Cupcakes: I glazed these with berry jelly instead of ganache for PB&J cupcakes.  They tasted pretty good that way.  The peanut flavor was not bad, but I’ve tasted stronger.  They were a good mellow choice for a kid’s party.

Maple Cupcakes with Sugared Walnuts:  I’ve eaten these, but not made them myself.  The cupcake itself and the walnuts are excellent, one of my favorites.  They are better with the Cinnamon Icing recommended for the Pumpkin Cupcakes than with the maple frosting recommended in the book.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cupcakes:  These have an excellent deep chocolate flavor (even with carob!) due to a slightly higher than typical cocoa to flour ratio, and a pleasant hint of spice and heat. The texture is a little off though—almond meal and corn flour added to make it “pleasantly gritty” reduce the structural integrity quite a bit.  If these are replaced with more flour you get a cupcake that tastes just as good but holds up much better.

Coconut Lime Cupcakes:  I admit it; I have never made this one exactly as written.  Before I even tried it I decided to reduce its saturated fat content with deliberate substitutions, and made one accidental substitution through the chaos of making several different types of cupcakes at once.  It tasted good nonetheless.  I ended up making it for an important event and refined the recipe even further during practice runs, to the point where fully half the ingredients had been changed in one way or another.  The fact that the texture remained constant—and consistently good—throughout shows it to be a very robust recipe.

Apple Cider Cupcakes:  Very nice apple-spice flavor, with a slightly shiny top that looks pretty without frosting.  I must say, though, the boiling and reducing and cooling steps make this recipe a bit of a pain to make.  It seems like there should be an easier way to do it—like replacing part of the juice with concentrate or something.  The agar would still have to be activated, though, so who knows.  There is something very soothing and winter-y about these, so I’ll probably end up making them again sometime anyway.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip (carob chip for me) Cupcakes:  Another one that I have tasted but not made.  It was pretty good, the combination unusual but surprisingly harmonious. Nice and moist, too.

Margarita Cupcakes: I made these without tequila and had them unfrosted.  They had a nice bright citrus flavor, although I made them at the same time as the coconut lime cupcakes and the general consensus was that those were better.

Frostings and Glazes
The basic buttercream works well enough as a base.  I went through a phase last year of doing a lot of experimenting with comparing and refining a lot of white/vanilla frosting recipes, including this one, with a goal of finding the best for a big project.  I ended up with a final product fairly similar in texture to this one but with quite a few extra flavoring elements to round out the slightly bland sweetness common to many frostings.

The ganaches work well with carob chips, and so does the chocolate mousse filling.

My favorite frosting in the book is the cinnamon icing. It has 1/8 of the fat and 1/7 of the sugar of the buttercream, but manages to exceed it in flavor.  That’s one of the challenges I found when I was being the Frankenstein of Frosting.  The pounds of sugar in typical frostings are not only expensive and caloric, but can have a diluting effect on any added flavors.

Why I tried these recipes, and not some of the others that are better known from this book:
Well, first of all, I have some personal dietary restrictions, including caffeine.  So cupcakes strongly emphasizing coffee or tea are more or less out.

Also some recipes called for ingredients that I find difficult to find or annoying to work with, chief among these being soy yogurt and soy milk powder.  I don’t care for soy yogurt in baked goods because baking is a science that requires a degree of consistency. Non-dairy yogurts vary considerably in sugar content, acidity and viscosity from brand to brand and flavor to flavor and that means your results will vary too.  Its availability also remains limited in a lot of areas (I’d have to drive a few towns over for it).  Soy milk powder is also inconsistent, particularly its sugar content, and most importantly, how readily it dissolves.  By which I mean that many powders do not in fact dissolve adequately and remain gritty and clumpy no matter what you do, and give pretty unappetizing results.  Sometimes there’s a bit of an off taste too. Other bakers may have access to better versions of these ingredients and not have any problems, though, so make your own decisions and don’t let me put you off automatically.

Other recipes I decided against trying simply because I already had a good recipe and didn’t need a new one.  I have an amazingly reliable and easy vanilla cake recipe that I got off the net years ago that hasn’t failed me yet, so I didn’t try the book’s version, which looked both more difficult and less healthy.  I didn’t try the low fat version either, because it has the dreaded soy yogurt and also it only manages to save about 2 TBSP of oil total.

Formatting Notes:
There are quite a few pictures in this book, all of them well lit and clear.  They make quite an impression.  So much so that I was rather surprised when I counted up and found less than half of the recipes were actually illustrated.  Apparently a number of the pictures are artistic shots of sprinkles, muffin liners etc.  That’s still quite a lot of pictures compared to cookbooks with only a few pages of them in the middle of the book. I would like to see more intermediate steps illustrated though, particularly on the more complex assembly methods.

The font is a bit small.  I’m not overly bothered by it because I’m nearsighted anyway but I know people who’ve complained about it.  I’d estimate it goes as low as 7 pt at times, and half that, of course, whenever there’s fraction notation (as in ½ tsp).

The tone is friendly and funny without being ribald enough to put people off, and lively enough to get you through the longer information sections.

Although this review may seem full of quibbles and criticisms*, I do actually like this book and use it regularly. There are some very good recipes in it, as well as a lot of good ideas about decorating, embellishing, and modifying the cupcakes to create a wide variety of options.
It’s also an excellent jumping off point for learning how to use a solid recipe base to develop your own ideas into creative variations.

*That’s just my personality ;)

Friday, April 8, 2011

12 Vegan Products I Wish Existed

Here is a list of things I occasionally pine for as a vegan, some with more hope than others.  It was going to be a list of ten but I overshot :-).

  1. Low fat or nonfat non-dairy cream cheese
Why?  One of the most frustrating things about vegan shopping is the fact that you’re often limited to one dietary modification.  Case in point—one can often find low fat crackers or chips, and one can sometimes find low sodium versions too.  But you very seldom find a version of the same product that is reduced in both fat and sodium simultaneously.  And it is the same with vegan food:  you can find special non-dairy versions of a product, but not so often with other dietary considerations available as well. And since there are medical issues requiring restrictions such as low or nonfat, low sodium, and sugar free foods, some vegans are placed in a difficult position when it comes to their food choices.

And while some foods can be made at home effectively, and thus modified as needed, I have had limited success achieving a satisfactory cream cheese texture at home.  I suspect industrial equipment and materials may have more success, but perhaps not.

  1. Cool Whip
I don’t mean a substitute for real full-fat whipped cream.  I never really ate it anyway.  What I miss is the totally artificial, mostly air, water and chemicals, stay-fluffy-til-the-end-of-time cloud of sweetness, both for its own sake and for its use in a variety of recipes, from frostings to puddings, pies, cheesecakes, etc.  Since it was so low in sugar (low in everything, really—all air and water :-)) it was great for diabetic-friendly desserts.  And it was low enough in fat that things made with it never left that heavy feeling in your stomach that really rich food can—and the way coconut milk substitutes usually do, in my experience.

  1. High Protein Vegan Cheese
I’m not quite sure why vegan cheeses are so low in protein, but the ultimate result is that when it replaces dairy cheese in recipes, it makes for much less of a well-rounded meal. This leaves me having to add extra ingredients to make up for it, which can be inconvenient, and it leaves the vegan cheese’s role as essentially a condiment, rather than a main ingredient that can stand on its own.

  1. Cracker Cheese—firm textured and sharply flavored
Finally, a food that makes the list based on something other than nutrition!  This one is all about taste and texture.
While I can respect the improvements that have been made in the meltability of faux cheeses, and I do appreciate their properties for some things, I really would like a cheese whose texture has been perfected as a nice firm solid, without worrying about melting.  One that would be great sliced on crackers and sandwiches.  I also would like a cheese with a nice sharp tang to it, and perhaps some smoky or herb flavors too.

  1. Lemon Based Vegan Mayonnaise
My reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, I personally find lemon juice to be more digestible than vinegar, although I realize this may not be a common issue.  Secondly, I find citrus tanginess to be brighter and more appealing than the fairly bland and harsh flavor of white vinegar, especially when zest is used.  In fact, when I’ve added lemon juice and zest (and a little olive oil) to a standard vegan mayonnaise, the flavor has immediately and significantly improved.

  1. Reduced Sugar Non-Dairy Ice Cream
Second verse, same as the first, right?  Another case where I would like more diet-friendly and diabetes-friendly options.
I will concede that the vegan versions sometimes are lower in fat, sugar and calories than standard versions, but not always low enough to meet medical needs as well as diet-friendly non-vegan foods.

  1. Non-Chocolate Desserts
I actually cannot eat chocolate, and thus i am acutely aware of just how much of the vegan dessert market it takes up.  Brands with more than a dozen ice cream flavors may have less than three without chocolate, and not uncommonly nothing but plain vanilla.  When I’ve gone to vegan expos, there will one piece of non- chocolate candy for every six booths filled with nothing but chocolate.

This is not only inconvenient for me, but it limits everyone else’s variety as well.

I have actually been lucky enough to come across three different carob-based ice cream flavors in the past, although their availability is very limited.

These days I actually stick mostly to sorbet, because it’s easier to get a hold of and of course is mainly fruit-based, not chocolate.

  1. Vegan Graham Crackers
I’m sad to say that this was once easily available on grocery shelves but has become increasingly scarce, at least in my area.  Brands that used to be vegan are now filled with honey (something many vegans avoid, and which in my opinion adds nothing to the crackers in question), and my vegan s’mores go unmade :-(.

  1. More Creative Meat Substitutes
The thing about fake meats is that you’re starting from scratch—the sky really is the limit in terms of both nutrition and flavor. These products can be fortified with anything from higher amounts of protein and fiber to vitamins and minerals and even omega-3s.  And they can be as low in fat and sodium as you want because the only sources are added, not inherent.

So why are so many commercial version sky-high in sodium, higher in fat than they need to be, and mostly unfortified?  It’s a wasted opportunity if you ask me.

On another note, I would also prefer it if such substitutes didn’t try so hard to mimic meat exactly in texture and flavor. I’ve tasted some products that went too far along those lines for my personal taste—they copied some of meat’s less appealing characteristics as well as the positive ones (Does anyone actually want to eat fake gristle?).
I sort of think it’s like the culinary equivalent of Uncanny Valley , where getting too close is creepier than something that is noticeably different but appealing in its own way.

I’d like to see some ultra-thin deli sliced versions as well, sort of like Arby’s. I think that style would be slightly more forgiving in terms of flavor and texture issues than thicker cuts.

I’d also like it if there were some really interesting flavors that are either uncommon or impossible from a traditional meat product. For example herbs or vegetables could be blended right into a cold cut or other solid “meat” product. Green eggs and ham, anyone?

  1. Baking Chips in Various Flavors
The kinds I miss the most are cinnamon chips, vanilla chips and peanut butter chips. They’d be handy not just for jazzing up cookies and cakes for also for use as coating in dipped or filled candies (yum!).
On the other hand, if these were available I’d probably eat too many of them, and I’ve never seen any, vegan or otherwise, that didn’t have a significant amount of either saturated or trans fat.

  1. High-protein, Low Sugar Yogurt
Most vegan yogurts are nearly all carbohydrate, and thus do not make very balanced snacks or meals when combined with fruit or granola as is traditional.  More protein and less sugar would improve this, and also make the yogurt more versatile for use in different, particularly savory, recipes. There may be limits in terms of how low in sugar you can go with active cultures, however.

  1. Pre-pureed silken tofu
Call me lazy, perhaps, but I think this would be extremely convenient.  You could just stir it into soups or cream sauces, and casseroles and other baked dishes would be easier too, to say nothing of desserts.