Friday, April 29, 2011

Cowgirl's Baking: Strike Two

My first visit to Cowgirl's Baking wasn't exactly a success and I've since learned that I'm not the only person who has received a less than warm welcome.  But, when I recently found myself dining nearby at Quintessence, the consensus of the group was to give them another try; who am I to argue against baked goods?

Luckily there were many more options in the case than had been on my previous visit, but, for the most part, they didn't really look like anything I couldn't make at home.  Sue me; presentation is important (and I'm not good at it).  On top of that, the gentleman behind the counter seemed less than enthused- answering our questions in an even, disinterested monotone.

But we had come to give them a chance and, despite my propensity to hold grudges, as soon as I saw the donut-topped cupcake I knew I'd been nudged towards diplomacy.  I mean, it's a donut! and a cupcake! in one!

Given the inherent coolness of the donut/cupcake hybrid I would have ordered almost any flavor, but it turned out that the cupcake was mocha.  I don't know what flavor the donut was supposed to be (still didn't after eating it), but I ate it first.  I kind of liked the firmness of the donut's cake and certainly the aesthetic of the glaze and sprinkles, but it didn't have much flavor.  The cupcake itself was mis-shapen and falling apart, so it had to be eaten with a spoon.  But, it had a most pleasant mocha-ness about it and was much tastier than I expected.  Since I'm not a huge cupcake fan in general, this is a big compliment.

My friend got the regular-sized donut which looked more vanilla than mine looked, but was equally lacking in flavor.  For some reason, his donut was unpleasantly chewy in a most un-donut-like way.  Two of us gave it the thumbs down, but he said he enjoyed it.

Another friend got the Boston creme cupcake, which was quite tiny.  So tiny, in fact, that we sharers decided to let her have it all to herself.  When I asked her what she thought of it she said it was okay, but not as good as these.  Color me flattered!

The seating area is cute, but very small and perhaps not the best use of the space; there is a shallow counter with a couple of stools and then an extremely deep window seat.  However, it is the most appealing part of the shop.

Otherwise, there isn't much decoration at all and the hand-written signs come across as lazy rather than quaint.  The stainless steel burrito bar in the back is stark, not streamlined, and doesn't really blend with the rest of the "bakery".  Spoiled by Lula's propensity towards real silver and glassware, the disposable plates, napkins, and utensils were kind of a buzzkill as well. 

Lest you think I am being harsh, it was at this point when the owner walked in from outside.  She neither greeted nor acknowledged the group standing outside deciding whether or not to come in and seemed to make a discernable effort not to meet any of our eyes as we passed her on our way out the door.  We did, however, all manage to get a glimpse of her now-familiar un-enthused grimace.  Yep, same as last time

There is so much that goes in to making a business work; being welcoming is the easy part...a smile goes a long way!  Not being welcoming, however, can be the final reason that customers do not plan to return any time soon.  Disappointing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Quaint Quintessence

Wanting to try something healthy different and healthy new to most of us (okay, just me), friends and I recently decided to visit Quintessence, an organic, vegan, raw restaurant in the East Village.  The place is serene and small, but although it got crowded we never felt cramped. The atmosphere is calm and relaxed; even though it took us quite a long time to decide, our pleasant waitress was extremely patient with us.

We went for brunch, which comes with hot tea and a salad.  A good deal, but none of us could help but to salivate over the rest of the considerable menu offerings; based on options alone we were all ready to return for a second visit before having tasted anything.

One friend decided on the "Fofu Benedict: 2 Slices of our tasty sprouted kamut bread topped with walnut herb sausage, avocado and fofu. Smothered with mock Hollandiaise sauce and caramelized onions. Served with mixed mesclun and your choice of dressing."

Raw, vegan, eggs benedict?  Yup!  The fofu was smooth and delicate- very much like an egg white, but without the cruelty and general grossness.  I suspect black salt had a hand in the eggy taste and, overall, the dish really did, impressively, taste like a rich but healthful benedict.

Another friend chose the "Savory Crepe: Baby spinach and diced tomato tossed with scallion cream "cheese", wrapped with sprouts and avocado inside a sweet yam golden flax seeds crepe, topped w/ caramelized onions and served with side salad."

Besides being the most visually appealing dish at our table (my poorly lit photo doesn't do it justice), the contrast of the different, fresh tastes and textures were great. 

I had the "Potato Pancakes w/ Apple Sauce and “Sour Crème”: These hearty, delightful pancakes are made with sweet potato, walnuts, zucchini, and chopped onion, served with home-made apple sauce and coconut based “sour crème”. Better than the original! Served with a side salad."

Ok, I admit it; my dish looked the most boring out of all of them.  But, don't be fooled; it was delicious.  Ironically, the latkes seemed a little well done in a good, crispy way.  I wasn't quite sure how the apple sauce/sour cream combo was going to go over, but it was a really nice mixture that made the dish that much better. 
I don't know much about raw food and I tend to shy away from it because, besides just generally loving junk food, I also like my cold foods cold and my hot foods really hot.  I have to say that this was a 100% non-issue; there was nothing about any of these meals that left me thinking they'd be improved by a temperature change.  In the past, I've found macrobiotic food wholly bland and boring.  Not so with raw; these dishes were all tasty and absolutely inventive, fresh without being earthy.  A return trip is already in the works.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter: Bunny, Hot Cross Buns, P.F. Changs (fail), and Vegan Peeps

After all of the skill and effort that goes into Passover, Easter comes too quickly on its heels not to give VM a break from cooking.  So, frighteningly, I take the helm.

The Easter Bunny made an early appearance at my house.  Doesn't it look like a giant popcorn ball?

While book shopping recently, VM & I somehow got on the topic of the plastic Easter egg hunts of my childhood.  Hidden all over the house, the change-filled (sometimes a, I'm old), colored orbs somehow took precedence over the giant Easter baskets filled with candy.  I'm sure I don't need to tell you that wouldn't happen today; candy beats money.  Cuz what would I buy with money?  Candy.  Anyhoo, she recalled that when she was a kid her mom hid hard-boiled eggs.  Yes, real hard-boiled eggs.  This isn't just the vegan in me talking, people; who in their right mind- vegan or not vegan- would be excited to search for and find real hard-boiled eggs?  Gag. 

But back to the present: for breakfast there were hot cross buns, courtesy of Vegan Dad's recipe.  I never liked these fruitbit-ladened buns at all, but they are one of things VM still eats that prevents her from being vegan.  As I conquer veganize the few remaining things on this list, she has no excuse!

the prettiest one of the batch

As far as hot cross buns go, these were fantastic and surprisingly authentic.  Ok, they were also a bit of a pain to make: a lot of dishes.

before the first rise

after the first rise

evenly dividing the dough

ready to bake

It's not something I'd make for myself when I could have, say, chocolate, but they were very good.

decorating fail
More importantly, VM enjoyed immensely and promised to eat only these vegan ones from now on!  Score one for me, another loss for Entenmann's.

For dinner, I made...reservations!  When there's a stubborn omnivore in the family, P.F. Changs* is one of the last vestiges of sanity the place to go.  Where else in suburbia can you so easily dine with just about anyone, of any dietary ilk or persuasion?  The best part about Changs, besides the fact that they have so many vegetarian (vegan by default) options, is that they initiate the conversation by beginning each dining experience with an inquiry about dietary restrictions. So nice for a mainstream restaurant to care (The Cheesecake Factory doesn't).  And, while they make no claims as to whether or not the sugar they use is bone-char refined, how cool is it that they know what that even means?  P.F. Changs, in my opinion, is the most respectful and delicious mainstream choice vegans can find in the suburbs.  [Update 4/25/11: In response to a reader's comment below, I contacted P.F. Chang's for clarification.  They tweeted, PFChangs: @beanmail We do not claim that any of our dishes are vegan."  Needless to say, this was extremely disappointing considering it is totally inconsistent with the information I have been provided with by servers on countless occasions.  Once other vegans joined in the Twitter conversation, P.F. Chang's clarified with this statement: "PFChangs: @beanmail We do not claim our vegetarian dishes are vegan because of the sugar used in the sauces.", which is what I said (above).  Yet my request for further clarification of which vegetarian items do not contain dairy, egg, or animal stock yielded a personal email listing most of their vegetarian items, with the glaring omission of both the vegetarian spring rolls and dumplings (I am not reproducing the listing here because of the confidentiality note in the email I received)- proving that the sugar factor isn't the only non-vegan culprit within their vegetarian items.  Suffice it to say I was giving P.F. Chang's way too much credit; the standard vegan rule applies; always check, double-check, and triple-check when ordering...then hope for the best.  In closing, I'm glad that most of the things I order are vegan, but I'm not happy with the company's inconsistent message- especially given their supposed concern about dietary restrictions.] 

Now onto the grub.  Because we have no self-control, In anticipation of this review, VM and I ordered all of our veg favorites.  So, for those of you who have never had the pleasure of dining at Chang's, feast your eyes on our meal.

(yes, plural!)

Chang's Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps: "A vegetarian version of our signature appetizer with tofu instead of chicken".  Ok, granted they could do much better with the description, but these are fantastic.  Their iceberg is always crisp and perfect, the tofu cooked to perfection with diced veggies and crunchy water chestnuts.  Add some of the spicy sauce from the table (mustard + potsticker sauce + sambal olek) and you're good to go.

Vegetable Dumplings: [4/25/11: not vegan]

Spring Rolls: [4/25/11: not vegan]

Green Tea Noodes: these are technically a side, but I like to order them as an appetizer.  The thin, cool and startlingly green-hued noodles are a refreshing, light contrast to the fried appetizers.  They come sprinkled with scallions (yum) and loaded with fresh cilantro (eew), so order accordingly.

And for Dinner:
(don't worry; most of it is now leftovers)

Coconut Curry Vegetables: "Stir-fried mixed vegetables, crispy silken tofu and peanuts in a vegetarian coconut curry sauce"; this is my favorite meal at Chang's.  Add some more of the spicy sauce (you might need to order extra at some point), mix with rice, and your tummy will be happy.

Vegetable Chow Fun: "Soft, wide rice noodles and vegetables in a vegetarian sauce"; this is VM's favorite.  It's not that she doesn't like the curry; she really does.  She just doesn't like the silken tofu.  However, if I order her Chow Fun with the five-spiced, pressed tofu added in, I can sometimes get her to actually eat a few bits pieces. Note: Chang's will sub either version of tofu for you in anything.

Changs does not offer a vegan dessert option, but I kind of prefer the abstention over the obligatory fresh fruit bowl or sorbet.  No matter, I had my dessert waiting for me at home.

PEEPS!!!  Yes, Sweet & Sara has done it again: the familiar, somewhat unsettling crunch of sugar-coated marshmallows has returned and they are just as ridiculously sweet as you remember and love.  Not to mention, look how cute they are!

Happy Easter.

* Eons ago I was in one of the Carolinas for a wedding. I honestly can't remember which one of the Carolinas; the visit is just a blur of the impossibility of acquiring a vegan meal where we were and the horrors of what parts of the animal were thrown into vegetables "to give them flavor".  After literally subsisting on sweet tea for two days, it almost seemed a mirage when I came upon the first P.F Changs I'd ever encountered and saw the word "tofu" on the menu! Harpsichords sounded and I floated in without thought to the preference of the full-bellied omnivores I was traveling with.  Little did I know that there would something on the menu for everyone; I didn't care.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Daiya Pepperjack Has Landed

Know what that means? 

I pre-cooked the cheesy holy trinity: peppers, onions & mushrooms.  Then, I lightly sprayed both sides of the tortillas with olive oil and filled them with cheese, toppings, cheese, and more cheese.  I baked them on a baking sheet at 375 degrees for ten minutes on each side, which gave me enough time to whip up some fresh salsa.  Quarter them with a pizza cutter and enjoy!

I've never tried pepperjack cheese before; I was impressed.  The company describes it as "smooth and slightly spicy" and I concur.  It was very good and completely different than the cheddar and mozzarella Daiya varieties.  More cheesy options than a vegan could hope for!

Because I'm not familiar with pepperjack, I'm having trouble finding its place in my mental recipe index, but don't worry; I'll find a way.

In the meantime, though, I have plenty of cheddar and mozzarella to tide me over.

Thank you for existing, Daiya (and Pangea for selling you in bulk)!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Festive Meal: Vegan Matzoh Ball Soup, Vegan Kugel, Vegan Cutlets!

In my multi-denominational family we follow tradition more than religion.  And, over the years, our Passover Seder has become more of a Jewish-themed meal in homage to our ancestors, rather than an actual kosher-for-Passover celebration.

It all starts off with some light reading and a delicious charoseth.

Next up: the infamous soup.  It's well-known that VM makes the best vegan matzoh ball soup in town.  On this night, she chose not to strain the flavorful vegetables out of her homemade stock: instead leaving in the finely cubed potatoes, carrots, parsnips, celery, onions, and scallions.  Not a matzoh ball enthusiast herself, I suspect this was because she has tired of plain broth; but, she claims she was merely inspired by her last foray into the soup world.

The secret to light & fluffy matzoh balls?  VEGANIZE THEM!
Not suprisingly, VM's kugel- what we call "noodle pudding"- is a sweet one, and the only one for me.  I grew up on this kugel and no other can begin to compare.  Don't bother looking for a recipe; she'll never share.  I've "seen" her make this kugel countless times; but, in addition to her claim that she doesn't use exact measurements, I have the sneaking suspicion that she throws in secret ingredients while I'm not looking.

This year we decided to veganize the chicken cutlets that usually make an appearance at the table.  We aren't big fans of mock meat, so, instead, we jointly created the famous chickpea cutlets from Veganomicon (p. 133).  You just can't beat a crispy, cruelty-free cutlet with apple sauce.

VM might not like to cook and she might not do it often, but I appreciate when she does because she knows exactly how I like things the best and always outdoes herself

She's a tough act to follow, but I managed to handle our holiday dessert all by myself: Sweet & Sara's toasted coconut covered marshmallows.  Simple, yet extraordinary.

So, happy Passover.  And, to all you peeps with extra matzoh in your pantry (you know who you are with the free, 5lb box from the supermarket), go make yourself some matzoh brei!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chocolatier Needed: Revisiting Cocoa V (and Dunwell Donuts)

You know I can't resist a Groupon, so even though I haven't always been thrilled with Cocoa V, I found myself armed with a coupon and willing to try again.

On my first revisit, Cocoa V no longer had any of the house-baked goods I'd enjoyed in the past, so I decided to go for the Dunwell Donuts: chocolate-coated with peanuts, coconut-covered, and, my favorite of the series, the peanut butter and jelly donut.  They were as good as they look, but I have to admit that I missed the cute mini versions from the launch party with their higher proportion of icing to cake!

The tiny and heftily priced chocolates at Cocoa V are too rich for my blood, but I had to try the Butterfinger bars I'd heard so much about.  They were thick squares of Butterfinger-like innards surrounded by a considerable dark chocolate shell.  My favorite part was that they were shimmery, having been coated with a layer of golden dust.  They were scrumptious to be sure, but they left an unusual aftertaste in my mouth.  I haven't had a Butterfinger in a long time; maybe that's authentic?

Not long after, I found myself in the neighborhood of Cocoa V once again.  There were no donuts to be found this time and again, no baked goods- save some boring looking cupcakes.  I asked what had happened to the yummy scones, biscotti, etc., and was told that the chocolatier had left a few months ago.  I hadn't realized that a chocolatier would be the mastermind behind the baked goods, but ok.

Odder, though, was the fact that the chocolate options were practically non-existent.  Here I was in a highfalutin chocolate store, looking at this:

When I asked why the pickins were so slim I was reminded that the chocolatier had left the business...a few months ago.  Hmm.  In theory, I certainly get why this would be a problem.  Buuut, I'm thinking a few months might be long enough to address such a situation- especially in a chocolate shop.  Here I had decided to finally try their artisanal chocolates and the assortment was more starving artist than artisanal.  Drat.

Not to be deterred, I bought a couple of each for a VM/AB taste test. 

Flowery squares: chocolate truffles with sea salt
Musical rounds: pistachio truffles.

We tried the square, sea-salted truffles first and they were quite good.  Oddly, the round, pistachio ones tasted exactly the same.  I could clearly make out a few pistachio crumbs on top, but I couldn't taste them at all; I guess that minimal amount didn't lend enough flavor to compete with the sea salt.  Ultimately they were both delicious, but not at all different.

In fairness, the other side of the counter did contain two, full plates of chocolates, but they were from a box.  Did I come to a chocolatier to buy pre-packaged chocolates?  For $4 each!?  Admittedly, they were raw; but, as I'm not a raw-foodist, I couldn't justify the price-tag.  I did ask the counterperson why a chocolate shop wouldn't hand-make all of the chocolates they served and she explained- once again- that the chocolatier had left the business a few months ago.  Le sigh.

Not sure how they missed being in the photo, but the strawberries were on the left.
The chocolate-covered strawberries looked extremely fresh, although I can't deny I was disappointed when half of the chocolate stuck to the plate instead of the strawberry as the counterperson was packing them up for me.  However, they were as sweet and ripe as they looked- even eaten a day later (see, I do have will-power).

But the best thing I purchased this time- and perhaps ever- had to be these little blobs that I assumed were chocolate macaroons.  Nope; better.  Instead, they were chocolate, peanut butter, pretzel clusters. Yep, you heard me.  And, like the other two chocolates, these were also sprinkled with sea salt; it seems to be the current flavor theme of the shop.

I cannot stress enough how outstanding these were: rich, chocolatey, salty, and crunchy- with a hint of peanut butter.  I have no immediate plans to return to Cocoa V, but I just might try to make these at home.

P.S. If you're a vegan chocolatier looking for a job, I think I know where you might find one.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Cookie Inside a Cookie

Someone recently shared this crazy cookie recipe with me; can you guess what it is?

It all starts with an Oreo.  Or, if you prefer (I did), a Newman O.

Top it with a scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough.  I simply veganized the recipe that was given to me, adding 1/2 cup of flour because, without it, my dough was runny.

I don't know much enough about baking to know if any cookie recipe would work; as far as I'm concerned, these particular measurements could have been scientifically tested for optimum sandwich cookie encasement and I didn't want to risk failure.

Bottom it with another scoop of dough. 

Now comes the fancy part: smoosh it between your palms and seal the edges.  Once you've made a couple you'll get a rhythm going.

Learn from my gluttony mistake:
I would suggest using smaller scoops, i.e. less dough, than you think you'll need.  My first batch of cookies turned out rather tremendous.  The recipe claims to yield 2 dozen cookies, so when only 8 of mine fit on the baking sheet, I wondered if something was amiss.

When I noticed that there was only about 1/3 of the dough left and no way to eek 16 additional cookies out of it, I grew concerned.

As the cookies baked and grew into ginormous mountains, I finally conceded that I had over-doughed.

But, luckily, they still cooked to perfection (after 30 minutes).

I practiced some restraint and the second batch was truer to recommended size.

And before I knew it, all 15 were gone. 

Since I had half a package of Newman O's left and couldn't think of a better way to use them, I tackled the recipe again.  I even fancified my chippage: using dark and white to Oreo-fy the decoration.  Madness, I tell you; complete, utter, I've-been-trying-to-get-rid-of-these-tasteless-white-chocolate-chips-for-months madness.

Note: the cookie is totally different if you eat it warm, right out of the oven vs. room temperature, the day after.  If you find you prefer it warm, simply microwave the cookie for ~20 seconds; the chips and the inner cookie will become melty.

Who would ever suspect that this:

contains this:

Moreover, how can I add another cookie to the mix?  Because really, shouldn't it be a cookie inside a cookie, inside a cookie?