27 June 2007

Stopping By

Just a quick update to let you know that my next post will be a special fruit tart for my friends Jessie and Steve. They'll be hosting a party on Saturday, and I thought I'd bring something special. The tart has a rich crust, a pastry cream filling and gorgeous fruit as a topping.

It's a bit of a practice tart. If it works alright, I'll make it again for another party. It's just one of those roll-of-the-dice things that happens when I try altering a recipe for the first time. I'm not sure I'll be making a tart for Richard's annual 4th of July bash. That will probably be pie.

Stay tuned. I should be updating with the new tart soon.

25 June 2007

Oatmeal Cookies at Pride in NYC

The oatmeal cookies below were a huge hit at my friend's gathering as well as another big party on the roof of a gym to watch the Gay Pride Day parade in New York. Yesterday evening, my mother reminded me that the first time I experienced Pride was when I was in junior high school. Mom and a friend of mine watched Andy Wharhol wave to us from a window during the parade. Even at that young age, I knew this parade with all its colorful participants was something important and special.

The Pride parade has become such a big event now -- 6 hours more or longer. I'd completely forgotten that it was the last Sunday of June when I drove into the city to meet Thom for his birthday lunch. I'd arrived a bit early, so I walked around the neighborhood where we'd agreed to meet, the West Village. I walked up Greenwich Street to 15th Street, where the Chelsea Market is.

I'd been there before, but I enjoyed the treat of walking through the market, stopping to buy three pints of beautiful raspberries for a tart I plan to make and blog about here. I also bought a shiny, new, round tart pan with a removable bottom at the restaurant supply store. It's the first one I've ever owned, so I'm pretty excited about using it for an Altered Plates recipe.

Thom and I enjoyed a yummy lunch at The Village Den, then headed off to meet the others. I remarked that there was a bigger traffic police presence than I'd seen lately, and Thom reminded me that it was Pride day. The buzz was palpable.

Everyone at the gathering loved the homemade cookies. Other folks had brought store-bought cookies and donuts, but I was happy to see what a big impression the cookies had on these lovely folks.

It was so much fun watching the parade from a rooftop filled with gorgeous young shirtless men enjoying this celebration of freedom. We waved to all the marchers and float dancers, especially the beautiful cross-dressers singing to us in their gowns and short summer frocks. Of course, the handsome bodybuilders were great to see as well.

At the end of the day, buoyed by the excitement of Pride, I drove back to my suburban home in New Jersey, thinking how much the times have changed, yet how much they stay the same. The number of young, out people we saw was remarkable. On the other hand, the stroller set was not represented at all in any of the groups I could see from the roof. Regardless, I'm happy for my gay, lesbian and transgender friends, for whom every day is Pride day.

24 June 2007

The Best Oatmeal Cookies Yet

I'm not a big self-horn-tooter, but these are definitely the best oatmeal cookies I've ever had. Not that I wrote the original recipe, because I didn't. The lovely and talented Elise of Simply Recipes did. I've included a short film below describing my baking process for these fabulous cookies.

The recipe is really buttery -- 2 sticks, but the resulting cookies are heavenly. I almost hate to give them away, but I made them for my friend Thom's birthday party taking place later today -- and if I'm not as good as my word, then what am I?

The original recipe makes 18 large cookies, but since I'm making them for a large (or rather, potentially large) group, I made smaller cookies. My yield was pretty high: 60 cookies. However, by the time I got to the end of the batch, there seemed to be a few ugly ones to keep to myself. No worries though, the ugly ones taste just as good. So filled with buttery goodness!

Before we get to the movie, here are my alterations:

  1. Additional spices: 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon cloves -- really made a huge difference in flavor.
  2. 1 1/2 cups of agave nectar for the 2 cups of mixed sugars.
  3. 1/2 cup of chopped apricots for 1/2 cup raisins.
  4. Pecans for walnuts
  5. Baked at 325 degrees F for 11 minutes, then switched the positions of the pans in the oven and baked for another 11 minutes (but that's just my tricky oven, you may have different baking times).
And now for the show...

What are your favorite oatmeal cookies?

23 June 2007

Tweaking Cook's Illustrated's Classic Brownies

Well, isn't that just the picture of brownie loveliness?

Have I mentioned how much I adore brownies? In my case, they're carob brownies, but they still taste great regardless. In today's blog entry, I'm reworking Cook's Illustrated's classic brownie recipe, curtosy of the wonderfully talented Smitten Kitchen blogger, Deb.

I made a few substitutions:

  1. Whole wheat pastry flour for cake flour
  2. 8 oz of unsweetened carob chips for 6 oz of chopped unsweetened chocolate
  3. 1 stick of butter for 1.5 sticks
  4. 2 cups of agave instead of 2.25 cups of sugar
  5. 4 egg whites instead of 4 whole eggs
  6. Vanilla paste for extract

First, the recipe calls for toasting the chopped walnuts. While they were toasting, I melted the butter and the carob chips together in a glass bowl over previously boiling water.

Then, I combined the dry ingredients. After the carob mixture cooled, I added the egg whites one at a time, whisking after each addition. Then, I added the vanilla and mixed again before mixing in the dry ingredients and the nuts.

Next, I poured the mixture into my favorite Polish pottery baker, just to try something different. I'd lined the baker with aluminum foil as per the recipe. That was a really good idea because the brownies later were extracted with the greatest of ease.

After 30 minutes, the brownies were still very wet and the walnuts had floated to the top. I put them back in and baked them for another 30 minutes. To do this recipe again, I would have increased the heat to 325 degrees F, as in the original.

The brownies cracked right in the spot where I tested them earlier. They smelled so great, I could hardly wait until they were done to try them.

They came out great! Very carob-y, rich and nutty. I didn't mind that the nuts floated to the top, but if I were to tweak this even more, I'd probably just use two whole eggs, and cut the agave by another 1/2 cup because the brownies were pretty sweet. Otherwise, I'm pleased with how they came out.

22 June 2007

John's Favorite Peanut Butter Cookies

I've been making these Vegan With a Vengeance cookies for a while now, but haven't shown in a movie how I do it. So, I decided to take the opportunity while I baked John some cookies earlier this week. They really don't take much time at all to make, including the baking. What's more, they're tasty and reasonably healthy.

I only made two changes to Isa's original recipe, and those were 1. agave for sugar, and 2. no arrowroot/cornstarch.

Otherwise, I really don't change the recipe except for the lower oven temperature. Here's a short film that shows my baking process.

What are your favorite peanut butter cookies?

19 June 2007

Not Shortbread, But Lovely Cookies Nonetheless

Shortbread is my baking Everest.

The cookies above were my attempt at reworking Martha Stewart's Living Cookie of the Month for July, Rum-Raisin Shortbread. The main challenge was adapting the recipe to account for the agave/sugar substitution. While I thought I'd be able to do it with the coconut flour, the cookies ended up tasting much more like these treats I made for Passover instead. Not that there's anything wrong with them at all. They were lovely. However, they did not remotely taste like shortbread.

Here is a list of my alterations to the original recipe:

  1. I don't cook with rum (or any other alcoholic drink for that matter), so that was the first change.
  2. I substituted chopped dried apricots for the dried currants.
  3. I used agave instead of sugar.
  4. I employed a lemon for zest instead of orange (although that would work really well with the apricots).
  5. I added vanilla paste instead of vanilla extract.
  6. I used a mixture of coconut flour and all-purpose flour instead of just ap flour.

When I creamed the butter with the agave, I had high hopes for the recipe working out as shortbread. However, when I added the remaining ingredients, the dough was just too creamy.

It wasn't like a sugar cookie dough, but I plowed ahead.

Martha's recipe called for forming the dough into two logs wrapped in parchment. Luckily, the parchment really helped in rolling the very mushy (yet tasty) dough.

Afterward, I let the dough rest in the fridge for two days, until I had time to bake the cookies (day before Father's Day).

At this point, I'll let a short clip tell a bit more of the story.

The resulting cookies were yummy and a big hit at my Dad's for Father's Day. However, they're not what I think shortbread should taste like. On the other hand, I'm willing to keep trying different flours and perhaps barley malt powder to achieve a more dry, crunchy, shortbready mouthfeel.

10 June 2007

Why Agave Nectar?

Over the past two years, I've been cooking and baking with agave nectar, experimenting with ways to replace all other sweeteners in my diet. I had tried stevia, but really didn't like the flavor at all. Then, there was honey, but it had such a huge affect on my system that I couldn't tolerate much of it at all. Honey almost instantly causes my body and skin to feel very hot. It also affects my mood the way cane sugar does -- a huge, arcing high, then a devastating low. Crying under the table, low.

Prior to going back to trying natural sweeteners, I tried Equal, Splenda and Sweet'n Low. All three left metallic tastes in my mouth, and Splenda had the same affect on me as sugar, but it didn't last as long. Still, not viable options.

So, I went completely sweetener-free for about two years. They were long, difficult years. I missed things like cookies, cake and pie. I had to do something.

I tried a number of different options. First, I tried brown rice syrup. In small amounts every once in a while, I enjoy some frozen Rice Dream (mint carob chip to be exact), but not often because, but it's high on the glycemic index. While I don't get the "hot" feeling, I still experience the mood shift. The same thing happens with barley malt, but I enjoy a barley-malt-sweetened candy once in a while.

While those two liquid sweeteners are used in a great deal of "health food" sweets, they're really not much better than cane sugar. It grinds my gears that "health food" manufacturers try to pull the wool over people's eyes by saying that evaporated cane syrup is any better than plain sugar. It comes from the same place! They just use a different method to extract the sucrose.

So, I discovered agave nectar at a local health food store one day. I asked the owner what he thought of it, since he knows of my dietary restrictions (and musical tastes, but that's for another blog). He recommended it highly and mentioned that I'd need to drop my oven temp and alter the other liquid ingredients in recipes if I were to bake with it.

Before I tried the stuff, I did some preliminary research. Agave falls at 14 on the glycemic index. Now, that's less than half of fructose. Just reading that fact led me to try it straight on pancakes. No mood swing. No wacky feelings at all. I was instantly hooked!

But, like every learning experience, I pushed the envelope. If I ate too much of my own baked goods made with it, I did experience the hot/moody bit. Let me clarify "too much" -- 4 brownies; 10 cookies; 1/4 of a pie. You get the idea. I had to eat a large amount to make the negative effects occur. I don't normally eat that way, so I figured I'd be alright.

Agave nectar is much sweeter than sugar, so I don't always use equal amounts to the recipes I'm altering. However, it's fortunate that agave is sweeter because it's also so much more expensive.

Since I've been keeping this blog, I've signed up to a Google alert on agave nectar. There appears to be a trend forming regarding this sweetener. Increasingly more manufacturers are using it in "raw" foods and in energy bars. I'll bet that we'll be seeing more of it in the news now that obesity and diabetes are the latest epidemics in the United States and agave nectar is safe for diabetics who watch their carbs.

So, in response to my title, why not agave nectar? Except for the high price and cooking challenges (liquid versus dry sweetener), it's ideal for me and other folks who suffer from sugar sensitivities.

Off topic just a little -- I'm still battling this $#@!*&% cold, so when I'm better, I'll be making pie. The summer fruits are filling the shelves, and I'm rarin' to bake!

07 June 2007


So sorry, friends. I've been struck down with a massive cold this week and just can't get it together to bake. Also, I'm not sure I'd want to serve anyone anything I'd made while sick, so there it is.

I'm drinking lots of herbal tea and taking huge doses of vitamin C, so hopefully this thing will run its course, and I'll be back to baking next week. Until then, be well.

02 June 2007

Reworking Lidia's Bread and Berries Pudding

I am a HUGE fan of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's programs on public television. Just the fact that they're on PBS rather than some other network is enough to make me watch. John says that Lidia reminds him of my mom in that they explain things in a similar way.

This special way of expressing herself is artfully echoed in Lidia's well-edited cookbooks, of which I own two. These aren't garden variety cookbooks. I enjoy reading them even when I don't plan to cook. It's evident that her editors took the time to keep her readily identifiable voice within the pages. And, for that I am very grateful. Even John, who doesn't normally read the books as I'm cooking, laughed along with some of the "Lidia-isms."

Earlier today, while John tied flies for his fishing excursion, I decided to play with Lidia's recipe for Bread and Berries Pudding from her book Lidia's Family Table. I adore bread pudding, so there was no question I would make this dish eventually. But instead of waiting for an occasion, I scooped up all the bread-on-its-way-to-the-croutons-pile bits available and made them ready for the recipe.

The first part of the recipe calls for cubes of bread to be tossed in maple syrup and toasted for 15 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees F. As is my way, I substituted agave nectar for the maple syrup, and lowered the oven by 25 degrees. I also didn't limit myself to hearty white bread, but also included some of my homemade wheat bread and some whole wheat pitas (I will not use those next time, although they added interesting texture. I can think of lots of her lasagne recipes where they would work much better.)

When those came out of the oven, I nearly ate a handful because they smelled great and tasted better. While they cooled, I noodled around with the rest of the recipe.

While this may seem like an OXO ad, it's not. It's just to show you how much liquid I ended up using -- less than the recipe due to the agave nectar. It's a rich recipe. When I say "rich," think eggs. Lots of eggs. Four eggs and four egg yolks. Not the kind stuff you'd give to your uncle with the heart condition. I kept all the eggs, but dispensed with the heavy cream and whole milk in favor of vanilla rice milk. (I do plan to use almond milk in a future recipe, but I bought the rice milk in bulk, so it needs to go first.) I also cut the amount of rice milk by 1/3 to account for the agave.

For the fruit, I used a small banana and two cups of fresh strawberries. If you live within 250 miles of the New Jersey area, please take advantage of the Jersey Fresh produce. It's in season now, and you will get good prices on them. Better yet, visit a local farm stand. You'll get even better prices and fresher produce.

I filled two of my favorite Polish pottery bakers with the toasted bread cubes and the fruit. Lidia advised buttering the bakers well, and I'm glad I did. When they came out of the oven later, the juices of the berries made for sticky edges.

Next, I topped the bakers with the liquid ingredients and made sure that all of the bread and fruit had been dunked at least once. Then, off to the oven to bake at 350 degrees F for 50 minutes.

At 30 minutes, I saw that the tops were browning too quickly, so I tented the bakers with foil and lowered the heat another 25 degrees. That worked like a charm.

After it cooled, I tasted the dish. It was delicious! Next time, though, I'm taking Lidia's advice and using just white bread. I know, it's indulgent, but I don't eat white bread often. I'm taking the big baker with me to Mom's on Monday so she and Dave can enjoy it (and so I don't eat the whole thing myself).