I get my (Top Chef) Just Desserts: Battleship Cake

Cake, like love, can be a battlefield. And is always better with side of ice cream.

I’m drowning in a sea of end-of-the-season produce: carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, lettuce galore. But I haven’t let me lose focus on that other essential food group: dessert. An opportunity from vegan news bloggy Vegansaurus! set me straight into cakeland with the challenge of making a vegan adaptation of the winning dessert from previous episode of Top Chef: Just Desserts.

Read more for my grumblings about buttercream, the pleasures of sour cherries and get a fresh batch of epic dessert recipes.

Stuffed stuff: Cornbread stuffing, hello old friend

I’m missing Thanksgiving this year. That is I’ll be far away from family and most of my friends and most importantly my kitchen (Paris Vegan Day calls, but more on that when I get back). But that’s not so unusual: most of my Thanksgivings my whole life have involved getting in cars, buses, walking, hiking and most forms of locomotion. So when do I get to cook and eat exactly what I want? Typically just before or after T-Day, with just a modest selection of the big hits; cranberry sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, a simple salad and stuffing. Gotta have stuffing, for if there’s nothing else about Thanksgiving cooking that arouses foodly passion for every eating persuasion it’s that comforting, carby mash.

Speaking of, make mine cornbread. Molded and baked into that perfect vehicle of a pre-cooked winter squash it’s a filling and gorgeous centerpiece on any vegan Thanksgiving table. This recipe is an old family favorite: being that Thanksgiving isn’t something either of my Venezuelan parents grew up with, it’s a holiday menu we cobbled together, without any established traditions. We made it up as we went along, picking and choosing from what recipes sounded best. I believe this particular cornbread stuffing is based off of an old James Beard recipe, perhaps from a Gourmet from the 80’s. Or maybe not, it’s been in regular rotation for so long it’s impossible to tell.

The original recipe had flourishes of scallions, red bell pepper, sausage–now vegan, of course–and toasted pecans that have remained untouched. This year I’ve enhanced it with more savory seasonings: fennel seed, celery seed (my fave), rubbed sage and chopped leek for that perfectly fall-like oniony kick. The homemade cornbread base really adds something special, so go ahead and make some, even if you choose to veganly modify a mix. Add a chopped red apple to the vegetable saute if you crave additional sweetness, or make it bold with spicy homemade or store-bought chipotle vegan sausage. I used succulent vegan beer brats by Tofurky this time with great, beery success. Cornbread stuffing fix achieved, I’ll try and post one or two more Thanksgiving-style recipes before I’m off across the pond next week.

Cornbread Scallion Pecan Stuffing
makes a boatload of stuffing, serves 6-8 stuffing hounds
1 hour, not including baking corn bread

Instead of stuffing into squash this stuffing is equally at home baked in a large 9 x 11 lasagna-type pan. It’s cooked already so the idea is to form a crusty, crunchy top.

1 recipe Cornbread for Stuffing, made at least 24 hours in advance
10 ounces vegan sausage (breakfast-style works well here)
1 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 tablespoon non-hydrogenated vegan margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 bunch scallions, trimmed, white and green parts separated and diced
1 large leek, green ends trimmed, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed, diced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
5 oz lightly toasted pecans, chopped
freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
2 1/2-3 cups vegetable broth

If stuffing in butternut squash: 3-4 lb squash, either 1 huge squash or several smaller, roasted*

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a large 9 x 11 lasagna-type pan or place in pans roasted winter squash ready for stuffing.

In a very large mixing bowl crumble cornbread into small pieces. Dice vegan sausage into small pieces and over medium heat in a large saute with vegetable oil until lightly browned but not overly dry. Remove from pan and add to crumbled cornbread. Melt 2 tablespoons of margarine in the skillet and toasted fennel and celery seeds for 30 seconds, then add diced onion, white part scallions and leek. Stir occasionally and cook until onion is softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in chopped red bell pepper, thyme, sage and cayenne pepper (adjust amount for heat…1/2 teaspoon makes a stuffing with a pleasant, slow burn for spicy food aficionados). Cook for another 5 minutes to soften pepper then add vegetables along with toasted pecans to cornbread mixture.

Heat 2 1/2 cups of vegetable broth (I like to use “chicken” flavored veggie stock in this instance) in a small saucepan over low heat until hot, then stir in remaining 3 tablespoons of margarine to melt. Pour onto stuffing mixture and use a large wooden spoon to thoroughly, completely stir broth to completely moisten the bread. You’ll see what I mean by needing a really big bowl to make this stuffing by now! Stuffing should be very moist but not slopping wet: if too dry dribble in a little more broth at a time and keep stirring. Taste stuffing and adjust seasoning with black pepper and salt if desired. Pour stuffing into prepared pans or firmly pack into roasted squash, mounding and piling on the stuffing. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes or until top of stuffing is golden browned. Serve pipping hot!

Uncooked stuffing can be made up to two days in advance, just keep tightly covered and chilled prior to baking.

*Roasting squash for stuffing
For best results you’ll want to pre-cook winter squash prior to stuffing. It’s easy enough to do it the night before assembling the whole thing. In the case of butternut squash split in half, remove seeds, cover cut part with foil and place cut-side down on rimmed baking sheets. Bake in preheated 400 degree oven until it becomes tender enough to easy insert a knife through the skin, but no so tender it’s falling apart. For a large, thick squash that’s about 30-32 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Just prior to stuffing scoop out enough roasted flesh (use pureed in muffins) to leave a thick 1 1/2 inch shell (more or less) and rub cut part with a little olive oil and lightly sprinkle with sea salt.

Cornbread for Stuffing
makes one 9 x 11 pan of cornbread

I modified this from the much-made skillet cornbread recipe from Veganomicon. Baked in a 9 x 11 pan it’s certainly thinner but with more surface area it’s crustier and firmer, ideal for making stuffing. Bake it night before stuffing-time and let it sit, uncovered, on the counter to dry out and get a wee bit stale, the ideal texture for soaking up broth for a moist, fluffy stuffing. Tip: I prefer corn flour, a finely milled corn meal, for this finely textured kind of cornbread. But regular corn meal will do just fine here too (just avoid chunky polenta-style meal).

2 cups plain soy or almond milk
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 cups corn flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour or all purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup canola oil

Line a 9 x 11 x 2 inch pan with parchment paper and lightly spray the sides with non-stick cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large measuring cup stir together soy milk and apple cider vinegar. In a large mixing bowl combine corn flour, white whole wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Form a well in the center of the mixture and pour in soy milk and canola oil. Stir just enough to moisten the dry ingredients and pour batter into prepared baking pan. Bake for 22-24 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of bread comes out clean. Remove from oven and let pan cool on a wire rack. For stuffing let the bread sit out on the counter, uncovered, overnight before making into stuffing.

2010 year of the seitan tamale: Viva Vegan! is VegNew’s Cookbook of the Year

The cat’s been out of the bag for over a week now, so I’ll say it here. While attending the Boston Natural Expo East (helping a friend in the name of vegan research) I received a tweet from VegNew’s editors in San Francisco to call the next free moment. In between nibbling seaweed crackers, inhaling geranium scented air at the laboratory-style oxygen bar and foraging for vegan chocolate I broke free of this demanding schedule and got the exciting news.

Admittedly I was giddy. Viva Vegan! was quite the project when I first strapped myself in over 2 years ago and I was clueless as to what kind of response it would receive. I had no idea that the notion of meatless, dairy-free Latin cuisine would seem anything less than insane to avid cookbook readers and kitchen enthusiasts, not just the vegan population at large. Yet it has made an impression beyond anything expected. I’m happy and hopeful Viva Vegan! will continue to serve the palates of Latin-food lovers gone veggie, long time vegans and the adventurous veg-curious in the US and beyond.

Perhaps this post is the closest I can get to a virtual podium and speech? If so I’d like to warmly thanks Viva Vegan! recipe testers putting up with demands of learning the distinction between masa harina and masarepa, patting out endless pupusas and steaming enough seitan to heat a spa (next up, seitan saunas?). Thanks also to VegNews staff and readers for making an impact with a vibrant, modern magazine to spread the vegan way o’ life. And of course huge, papaya-sized thanks to readers of Viva Vegan! itself…I’m hoping your copy is crusted with bits of masa harina dough and post-it-notes as much as my own copy (and my kitchen sometimes too).

As they say in the distant vegan utopia of “Veganzuela”, Viva los Vegans!

Me, you, tamales and the Boston Vegetarian Festival this Saturday

Tamale making elves...I mean students, at work

Tamales tamales tamalesthe cry of the street tamale vendor sometime heard in Queens reminds me that it’s time to get cracking making tamales. In the spirit of the fall tamale making season (tamales are year round eating, but I love the smell of steaming masa in cool weather) I’m going to be presenting a vegan tamale-making demonstration this Saturday morning 10:45 at the 2010 Boston Vegetarian Food Festival. These tamales will be stuffed with of chipotle-seasoned beans and roasted sweet potatoes, a damned fine combination for fall-inspired eating.

If you can’t make it to Boston I still hope you’ll have tamales on the brain as much as I do right now. Here’s a snippet of how I put together a tamale assembly line, essential for mastering batch after batch for your next tamale party explosion.

For assembly I like to set up my workspace as follows:

1)  Soak the dried corn husks. Make sure to soak an additional 4 for tearing into strips and 6 or more for lining steamer basket

2)    Prepare filling and let cool enough to handle.

3)    Set up the tamale assembly space such as a large clean cutting board and large plates for stacking finished tamales. Set up steaming basket and fill steaming pot with 3 to 4 inches of water. Line basket with soaked corn husks. Have a small bowl of cool water handy for moistening hands, useful for patting sticky tamale dough.

5)    Make the tamale dough. I like to make it right before I’m ready to start filling and use it while still warm.

6)    Assemble the tamales by spreading the dough onto soaked husks, filling, wrapping and tying. About half way through making the batch of tamales I like to put a lid on the steaming pot, turn the heat on high and try to time getting the water boiling by the time I finish the last tamale.

7)    Place tamales into steamer basket. The easiest way to do this is by leaning tamales against the sides of the basket, overlapping tamales slightly in a spiraling pattern. If you have too much space in the center (enough that tamales tend to fall over), fill the space with a crumpled ball of foil. Don’t pack tamales too snug; leave a little room to allow tamales to expand while cooking. Place basket into preheated pot, cover and steam tamales for at least 50 minutes, up to 1 hour.

8)    Test cooked tamales by using tongs to removing a single tamale, let cool for a minute and peel back the wrapper from one end. Tamales are done when the husk wrapper pulls away easily from the tamale. Cooked masa feels solid and has a somewhat firm yet tender texture. Maybe you could say it’s like firm, sliced polenta, but way better. Sometimes cooked tamales may still be a little sticky. Slightly sticky tamales sometimes just need a little more cooling, about 20 minutes, to firm up and be no longer tacky.

Before I forget, the Daily News

It’s too easy to let things slip through the cracks and my apologies if this is old hat to you, but I was in the Daily News (NYC daily that is) a few weeks ago.

Further apologies to all of the produce I felt up during our photo shoot at the Union Square farmer’s market on that idyllic summer Friday afternoon but hey, who can blame me, look at these gorgeous peppers (and check out the tomatillos in back).