31 December 2008

Things That Just Make Life More Wonderful

From Before and After Photos of the Kitchen

For example, this lovely spice cabinet that John made all by himself (and painted it the same color as the kitchen trim, Acadia White, by Benjamin Moore). Here are some more photos of my newest favorite kitchen item.

From Before and After Photos of the Kitchen

From Before and After Photos of the Kitchen

Just chalk it up to reason number 6,794,281,098 why I think John's the greatest.

Other things that make life more wonderful?

1. In 19 days, I start back to school to pursue a master's degree in Library and Information Science at Rutgers (too exciting!)
2. My in-laws were exceedingly generous this year, so a new micro-computer and color printer will be arriving on Friday.
3. A new cookbook landed on my desk the day before we left on our Utah vacation, so there will be a review and a new agave-nectar recipe here soon.
4. An over-due product review also will be posted in the next couple of weeks. (If you love, love, love macaroons, you will want to stay tuned.)
5. Finally, I'm truly fortunate to be starting a new year off again with my wonderful husband John, good health, a positive view of life, a case full of agave nectar, and you lovely folks to inspire me.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year!

20 December 2008

Vegan Carob Cake with Fudgy Carob Frosting

From Vegan Carob Cake

Here's the recipe I promised from my last post. It's based loosely on the Chocolate Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting in The Angelica Home Kitchen cookbook.

Caveats: This is a time consuming recipe, especially the frosting part. Things will look very weird at several points in the recipe. Trust me, it will all work out just fine. I wish I'd taken photos of the weird stuff, but I didn't. So here's a weird-ish photo to show you what I mean:

From Vegan Carob Cake

See how the top of the layer looks lumpy? Well, it's even lumpier going into the oven. Don't panic at all about this. There's some real magic that goes on between the apple cider vinegar and the rest of the cake. It leaves it all moist and wonderful. Besides, no one will see the lumpishness. The frosting takes care of it.

Speaking of the frosting, there is definitely enough to cover your cake lavishly. You can definitely be generous when you're smearing it on.

OK. Now for the recipe.

Vegan Carob Cake with Fudgy Carob Frosting

Serves 12

Cake Ingredients:

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup carob powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup oil (I used grapeseed.)
2 cups agave nectar (I know this sounds like a lot, but the original called for 3 cups of maple syrup -- an expensive recipe, for sure. Still, it's a LOT of cake.)
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar (Don't omit this ingredient, whatever you do!)
2 tablespoons vanilla
2 cups filtered water

Frosting Ingredients:

6 tablespoons agar flakes
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup carob powder
3/4 cup agave nectar
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 1/2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
6 tablespoons almond milk (or whatever non-dairy milk you prefer)

Cake Directions:

1. In a large bowl, sift together all the dry ingredients. Give them a stir for about 2 minutes, until all the ingredients are evenly distributed.
2. In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, mix the wet ingredients for 3 to 5 minutes, until they are well combined.
3. Stir the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Here's where things are very weird. It's going to be extremely lumpy. Don't overmix this no matter what your head tells you. Mix until the dry ingredients have been moistened -- about 3 minutes.
4. Let the cake batter rest a few minutes while you preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and oil and flour your two 9-in. cake pans. You definitely want to line the bottoms of your pans with a circle of parchment paper as well. Trust me on this. The cakes WILL stick if you don't.
5. When the pans are prepared, pour the batter into the pans. Don't be concerned that there is a lot of batter, it won't over flow. However, feel free to put the pans on top of a cookie sheet with a lip.
6. Bake the cakes for 35 minutes or until a tester comes out with just the barest of crumbs. Do NOT open the oven for the first half hour. This important for the lump-killing abilities of the cider vinegar. You will regret it if you don't leave the layers alone.
7. Cool the layers completely before frosting.

Frosting Directions

If you thought the lumps were weird, strap in -- it gets much weirder.

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the agar and water until the agar has dissolved. If you haven't yet worked with agar, you're looking for something akin to a mucous-y consistency. Sorry, but that's probably the best comparison I can think of at the moment. Feel free to add yours in the comments.
2. Whisk in the carob powder, agave nectar, salt, and vanilla, mixing well as the mixture simmers. Make sure you get all the lumps of carob because these will show up later if you don't.
3. In a little bowl or a liquid measuring cup, dissolve the arrowroot in the non-dairy milk.
4. Add the arrowroot mixture to the saucepan, and continue stirring until the whole thing thickens a bit. It doesn't take long -- only about a minute.
5. Pour the mixture into an oven-to-table-to-refrigerator pan or baker, then chill it in the refrigerator until it sets. This could take up to an hour. Play it safe and leave it in there for an hour.
6. Just when you thought you were done... Take the set almost-frosting out of the fridge and cut it into 1-in. squares. Load the squares into your food processor or blender and puree until smooth. This may take a few minutes. It took about 10 minutes for mine to get completely smooth. However, there were lots of air bubbles in the frosting that you can see in this photo:

From Vegan Carob Cake

7. Gently remove the cake layers from their pans and place one layer upside down onto your cake plate. Using an offset spatula, spread the frosting generously on the top of the layer. Gently place the second layer on top of the frosting, then generously frost the top and sides until the cake is completely covered in luscious frosting.
8. Enjoy!

From Vegan Carob Cake

18 December 2008

Love Letter to a Vegan Carob Cake Baker

From Love Letter to a Carob Cake Baker

I'd baked this cake:

From Vegan Carob Cake

for Ken and Tanya who visited a couple of weeks ago, but had about that much left over. So, I took this very rich, moist, and surprisingly low fat vegan carob cake with me to the co-op so that other folks could enjoy it.

I wrote the note on the left side of the first photo: "Hi! I'm a vegan carob layer cake with yummy carob fudge frosting. Made with agave nectar + love. Please enjoy me + please save the container for Deb. Thanks!"

From Vegan Carob Cake

When I returned for my next shift, the following love letter was left for me:

"Deb Schiff
Thank you for the amazing cake and the yummy baklava [which I'd left on another, previous shift]. It brightened our days and filled our tummies with yummy healthy goodness. You make us forget that it's sometimes difficult to be vegan. We wish there were more bakers like you.
Melissa and Stephanie
P.S. Keep up the good work!"

I nearly cried. OK, I got downright misty. Makes it all worthwhile, really.

The cake took a crazy amount of time to make, but I'd make it all over again for those very appreciative young ladies.

I promise to publish the recipe as I made it soon. I just wanted to share that with you because it means so much to me. My wish for you, my fellow bakers and cooks, is that you get as much love back for your treats as I have. I'm an incredibly fortunate person.

07 December 2008

Madhava's Craig Gerbore Responds to Agave Nectar Controversy Here

For the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Madhava Agave Nectar's President, Craig Gerbore. Unfortunately, our conversations came about because there are a number of articles out on the 'net that are factually untrue. I contacted the company in order to find out 1. if Madhava was crafting a response to the rumors, and 2. exactly what is true/untrue. I'm very glad I did because Mr. Gerbore contacted me himself and provided me with a hefty bit of information which clears up much of the mess.

The whole thing is a bit (ehem, pardon the pun), sticky. If I link to the original, highly controversial and factually incorrect article published at NaturalNews.com, I feel that I'd be promoting the circulation of the errant piece. However, in order for you, my kind and lovely readers, to truly understand how this discussion came about, you should see the article that spawned this action. So, open up a new window when you click on this link, so you can compare Mr. Gerbore's response below with the original. It's eye-opening, to say the least.

One last thing before I share Mr. Gerbore's response. As a journalist and a professional editor who has worked for some top publications in their fields, I'm pretty disgusted with the NaturalNews's editor for even publishing such a patently one-sided story. Truly yellow journalism at its smarmiest.

That said, here is Mr. Gerbore's response completely unedited by me:

Agave Nectar: Hold on now…
Response to Rami Nagel’s article
By Craig Gerbore, President of Madhava

In response, I must first point out that Mr. Nagel’s article is based on the view of a sole individual, Russ Bianchi. I suppose we should thank Mr. Bianchi for pointing out some issues that may have contributed to Iidea’s (the initial manufacturer of blue agave nectar) demise from the market, however I want to be clear, this is not about Madhava or our agave nectar. Once a dominant supplier, as of this past summer Iidea is no longer a major supplier in the agave syrup business. The distributors using them as a supplier have quietly switched to newly formed blue agave companies for their supply. Madhava has always worked exclusively with Nekutli, the producer of agave nectar from the agave salmiana, a very different species of the agave.

However, there is no mention of our agave nectar from salmiana in the article, nor of the differences in the plant, the collection and production of our product. So, the author has blurred the line with his all encompassing attack on blue agave nectar, by his failure to present complete information on the subject of agave nectars. For what purpose was this article written? If it were to educate the public, I think it would include all the information available. With the errors and misstatements and half-truths, I don’t think this article is about education, it is an all out shotgun attack.

I believe Mr. Bianchi, presented as the sole authority on agave nectar, was initially introduced to Iidea’s blue agave syrup product on their entry to the market in the late 90’s. At that time, Iidea was promoting a 90% fructose agave syrup. This is what I believe Mr. Bianchi is referring to. Unfortunately, he ignores the fact that this is not the agave sold on the market today, nor is it representative of Madhava’s product. In fact Mr. Bianchi has never even acknowledged the existence of our agave nectar from the salmiana variety. So, all his comments are apparently based on his experience with Iidea’s product, but I find ourselves caught in the blast.

In their zestful attack against the blue agave syrup he was introduced to initially, Mr.’s Bianchi and Nagel have also made inaccurate comments which reflect on agave nectar generally. As such, I take issue with several of their statements and claims and want to clarify some things as regards Madhava’s Agave Nectar from agave salmiana.

Their discussion of the processing of agave nectar is in no way reflective of how Madhava’s agave nectar is produced. There are three ways to convert complex sugars into a simple sugar sweetener such as agave syrup. It can be done thermally, chemically, or enzymatically as ours is. There are no chemicals whatsoever involved in the production of Madhava’s agave nectar from agave salmiana, nor is it cooked. Our agave is subject only to low temperatures during the evaporation of excess water from the juice.

The author states “The principal constituent of the agave is starch, such as what is found in corn or rice.”

This statement, which is the foundation of much of their argument comparing agave nectar to corn syrup, has no basis in scientific fact, THERE IS NO STARCH IN THE AGAVE.

How can the author and his source be so mistaken on this statement on which he bases his attack?

All plants store energy in one of two ways, as starches or fructans. All agave plants create fructans as their energy storing means.

So, agave plants have fructans, not starch. From Wikipedia: Inulins are a group of naturally occurring polysaccharides produced by many types of plants. They belong to a class of fibers know as fructans. Inulin is used by some plants as a means of storing energy and it typically found in roots or rhizomes. Most plants which synthesize and store inulin do not store other materials such as starch.

There is no starch in either species of agave, and agave nectar is not from starch as the author and Mr. Bianchi claim. They have tried very hard to propagandize the public with a false fact, either by design, or ignorance, for which there would be no excuse.

Such an error of fact certainly casts doubt on the validity of the rest of Nagel’s article, as the lack of depth of his research has to be apparent to all. Really, he is just regurgitating the singular views of Mr. Bianchi.

I personally spoke with the author during his “research”, as did at least one other in the industry. He chose not to include one word of the information given to him by us, which I will repeat below, and failed to make any distinction between Madhava’s Nekutli agave nectar from salmiana and that from the blue agave plant. He only mentions blue agave. The plants differ, the locations differ, the methods and production differ greatly. The information we gave him did not fit his purpose and so was omitted in favor of a generalized attack.

Madhava’s source is exclusively agave salmiana. If you haven’t already reviewed our site at www.madhavasagave.com , you will find background information there. Briefly though, the native people supplying the juice collect it from the live plant, by hand, twice daily. There is no heat involved in the removal. The juice is immediately brought to the facility to remove the excess water as it will ferment rapidly if left standing. It is during the removal of the moisture that the only heat is applied. The juice is evaporated and moisture removed in a vacuum evaporator. The vacuum enables the moisture to be withdrawn at low temperatures. The temp is closely controlled. Subsequently, our agave is handled and packaged at room temperatures. No other heat is applied. And, rather than convert the complex sugars of the juice thermally, we use gentle enzymatic action. Just as a bee introduces an enzyme to flower nectar to make honey, we introduce an natural organic vegan enzyme for the same purpose. The technical term for the conversion of complex sugars into their simple sugar components is hydrolysis. Inulin is a fructan which is hydrolyzed into the simple sugars composing agave nectar, fructose and glucose. Honey is composed of the same simple sugars.

The blue agave plant is harvested and the blue agave nectar is produced by a completely different method. I will have to leave it to the blue agave nectar sellers to comment on the production themselves. While I know of it, I have not witnessed it as I have Nekutli’s. Unlike the author, I won’t comment publicly on something I cannot verify.

To clarify further on another claim, “Agave Nectar as a final product is mostly chemically refined fructose”. As regards Madhava’s agave nectar, there are no chemicals involved in our production whatsoever. The sugars in our agave nectar come from the breakdown of the inulin molecule through the introduction of the enzyme to break apart that molecule. It is in no way chemically refined, there are no chemicals involved in any part of the production or packaging process. Our agave nectar is refined only in as much as the excess moisture is removed from the juice of the plant.

“HFCS is made with GM enzymes”. Bianchi’s states “they (agave and corn syrup) are indeed made the same way” This is another false assertion as regards Madhava’s agave nectar at least. Our agave nectar is certainly and clearly not made the same way as corn syrup. There is no starch in our agave. There are no chemicals, no refinement beyond the evaporation of water. And, there are no GMO’s whatsoever. The agave salmiana has never been subject to this and the enzyme is a natural, non GM organic, vegan enzyme.

Other points regarding fructose apply to sugars in general and are a consumption, or overconsumption issue. Certainly consuming large amounts of sweeteners of any kind will be detrimental to one’s health. Suggesting fructose could cause health issues when concentrated amounts are eaten is a statement which should really apply to the overconsumption issue. The information the author links to agave nectar is the result of megadose testing of pure clinical fructose. Not the same thing as normal daily use of agave nectar in the course of our meals.

The antisweetener advocates just have to admit that it is the overconsumption of sugars that is the problem. Used in moderation, sugars serve a purpose, to make other foods and beverages more palatable. Imagine a world without sweeteners if you can. Affinity for sweet taste is a human trait that most want to satisfy. For those who use sweeteners, there are limited choices available and many choose agave for its particular attributes. It is a good choice. Madhava Agave’s neutral flavor suits the purpose. It is in fact low glycemic, organically certified and non allergenic. Many with diabetes and other special diets find it suitable for their use where other sweeteners are not. It’s easy to use and you can use less.

And, we guarantee the purity of our product. Attached is a letter from the CEO of Nekutli stating this guarantee that Nekutli agave syrup is pure and unadulterated, from the natural juice of agave salmiana.

While it remains up to the individual to maintain balance in their diet and monitor their overall consumption of sweets, Nekutli/Madhava’s Agave Nectar does have advantages over other sweeteners and that is why it has become so popular and
received so much attention today.

I think the information I have brought to light here clearly contradicts the claims contained in Rami Nagel’s article. Thank you for your consideration.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the clarification of this issue because I regularly use agave nectar, especially the Madhava brand. It's good to know a company president who not only stands behind his product, but who has the class to respond directly to a question from a customer.

Your thoughts?

01 December 2008

Veganized and Agave-Sweetened Baklava

From Vegan Baklava

Turns out, I was able to contribute to Thanksgiving after all. As you can read (and see) on Here and There, I've had a functioning kitchen for a week now.

One of the recipes I didn't get to make during my Making Over Martha month was baklava. First, I wanted to use agave nectar as the sweetener, and second, I wanted to veganize it. Both were tall orders, but I was able to produce a more-than-edible dessert for Mom's Thanksgiving.

I made significant changes the recipe, but you can find the original in the November 2008 issue of Everyday Food magazine under Cinnamon-Walnut Baklava. Here's how I made it.

Veganized Baklava

Yields 24 pieces.


1 stick Earth Balance buttery spread
1 1/2 cups agave nectar
1 1/2 cups water
Juice of 1 lemon
3 cups walnuts finely chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 package vegan phyllo dough


1. Use a small portion of the Earth Balance to butter a 13 x 9 in. baking dish. Melt the remaining Earth Balance.
2. Whisk together the agave nectar, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool.
3. In a large bowl, combine the walnuts and the cinnamon. Mix well.
4. Cut the phyllo dough so that it will fit the baking dish. Keep the sheets covered by a damp paper or cloth towel.
5. Place one sheet in the dish and using a pastry brush, lightly (this is important!) brush the sheet with the melted spread. Lay another two sheets on top, then spread a coating of nuts and cinnamon on top, cover with another sheet and brush that sheet with the melted spread. Repeat the pattern until the nuts are finished. Finally, top the baklava with a top sheet of dough and lightly brush the top with the spread.
6. While this may seem a little counter-intuitive, cut the baklava into squares before baking it for 30 minutes, until golden brown.
7. Transfer the dish to a wire rack and immediately pour the agave nectar mixture over the baklava. It will sizzle a lot. Let the baklava stand for at least 3 hours before serving.

From Vegan Baklava