Broken oven creates a knead for old fashioned soda bread

The oven is broken.

For someone for whom a baking session is the equivalent of a relaxing massage or a few hours of Skyrim, I’ve been a little in crisis mode the past month. Month? A whole month without a working oven! I’ve been busy and not home a lot, so repairing the poor dear has fallen to the wayside.

I wanted to present to you an updated version of my favorite twist on soda bread (just in time for March 17th) from Veganomicon, the Whole Wheat Soda Bread with Millet and Currants. It’s a rich, tender bread similar to a scone with the snappy addition of crunchy millet.

I love it. You should make it sometime.

But that’s not in the recipe cards for me. However, I’ve been told that true Irish soda bread is not baked in an oven but over an open fire or stovetop. Very well, I have a fabulous cast iron Dutch oven that I’ve used for countless versions of no-knead bread. Seems entirely feasible to craft old fashioned soda bread (with new fashioned whole grains and vegan adjustments) with a similar set-up, only setting the covered oven on top the oven instead of inside it.

But I did have my reservations: old fashioned soda bread is a lean thing indeed: no added fat, not sugar and only buttermilk (or for me, clabbered soy milk) and baking soda to make it rise. I was skeptical going in, but it made for a fascinating process…and hells bells, the bread rose and baked all the way through.

And it’s wonderful. The texture is light and springy, and a crunchy roasted crust forms on the bottom (and slightly on top after flipping) with the aroma of the currants and caraway penetrating though the golden brown crumb. It’s unlike any other quick bread I usually make, and is relatively low maintenance for a stove top treat. I adore currants (or here, affordable faux currants made from Zante grapes) and caraway seeds, but you could leave these out for a very simple loaf.

Here’s a few tips for your stovetop bread adventures:

-This is lean bread without any added fat, so the key to a tender crumb is to just barely mix the dough; over-knead it and the bread can be tough and tasteless. So be careful to stir only enough to moisten everything (some streaks of flour in the dough are fine), drop it into the floured surface and shape immediately into a ball.

-Preheating the Dutch oven is key! Using cast iron is probably the best material for making any stove top bread.

-Being generous with the flour coating. No need to grease the Dutch oven; the coating of flour and the preheated surface will prevent sticking. If you bread sticks, you haven’t preheated the pot enough and you didn’t use enough flour

-For a sweeter bread, try using sweetened milk and adding 2 tablespoons sugar along with the soy/almond milk

Broken Oven Soda Bread

Makes 1 generous loaf

  •  1 ½ cups graham flour, whole wheat pastry or white whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional flour for dusting
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups plain soy milk or almond milk
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup dried Zante currants or genuine dried currants
  • 1 rounded tablespoon caraway seeds

1. Cover cast iron Dutch oven with a lid and preheat over a medium-high flame for at least 15 minutes. If you have a heat diffuser plate, place that underneath the pot.

2. Sift together both flours, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a large measuring cup whisk together soy milk and apple cider and set aside to curdle for 2 minutes.

3.   Form a well in the flour, add the curdled soy milk, currants and caraway seeds. Stir only just enough to moisten ingredients. The dough will be slightly sticky, that’s fine…don’t be tempted to add extra flour.

4.   Generously flour a work surface and drop the dough into the flour. Gently pat the dough into a circle, then carefully flip over a few times to coat generously with flour. Pat the sides with a little additional flour.

5.   Use a shape knife to slice a deep X into the top the dough at least 5 inches long (cut deep, about 2 inches deep). Uncover the Dutch oven, lower the dough into the pot and cover. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the bread is about doubled in size and feels firm to the touch. Uncover the pot. Use a long handled spatula (and wearing oven mitts to protect your hands!), carefully flip over the bread and bake uncovered another 5 to 10 to minutes to lightly toast the top of the loaf.

6.   Remove the bread, transfer to a cooling rack and cool for 5 minutes before slicing. Serve warm. Wrap leftovers tightly and reheat before serving.

Just a maple granola recipe

There are as many granola recipes on the internet as their are stars in the sky. And making your own at home, is this the most vegan thing ever? Perhaps, but a lot of store bought granola can be too sweet and have a lot of needless junk in it. Regardless of what you eat beyond breakfast, it’s probably worth trying. Quickly researching the rocky origins of granola, it probably was the breakfast of choice of late Victorian-era health nuts and a corporate invention, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring it back to the people. Make your own, stick it to the granola man.

Well, here’s my star in that oaty constillation: a simple maple-sweetened concoction, slow roasted until crisp and with a light sheen. Because it’s autumn, there’s plenty of ginger and spice. Flaky Maldon sea salt adds sparkle and compliments beautifully the concentrated sweetness of dried fruit, but use any large grain salt, or even basic kosher salt.

Change things up by:
-Subbing agave for maple
-Pumping up the spices, or swapping out with garam masala or curry powder
-Adding coconut flakes or quinoa flakes, stirring in a few tablespoons of chia seeds or flax
-Use whatever dried fruit floats your boat. Just dice it fine.
-Omit the oil if you must, or cut it to 1 teaspoon

Use your nose when roasting the granola: don’t wander away from the kitchen long during the delicate roasting process! The oats should appear dry, have a golden sublte sheen, and perhaps a few lingering on the edges of pan appear extra toasty. Stir often, watch closely. Your oven may run hot (or cold) so your milage may vary, but the idea is to get deeply flavorful, evenly roasted oats.

It’s a challenge not to eat it all when it’s pipping hot out of the oven. Resist the urge, let it cool completely before stashing and enjoy the smug satisfaction of living off the store-bought granola grid.

Maple Maldon Granola
Makes about 5 1/2 cups

A maple syrup tip: spray the insides of your measuring cup with a generous coating of oil spray, then measure your maple. It will slide easily out of the cup into the bowl, just like that.

  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil, olive oil, or melted virgin coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice or nutmeg
  • 5 cups old fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds or chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 generous teaspoon Maldon salt or any coarse salt
  • 1 cup dried cherries, cranberries, flame grape raisins, or finely chopped dried apricots or dried apples

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly spray the insides of two 9 x 13 x 2 inch baking pans, or similarly sized pans, with cooking spray. In a large mixing bowl whisk together maple syrup, oil, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and allspice or nutmeg until very smooth.

2. With a rubber spatula or large wooden spoon, fold in oats and nuts and coat everything thoroughly with the maple mixture. Sprinkle with Maldon salt and thoroughly stir again. Spread in an even layer into  Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and watching carefully; bake until the oats have a golden color. Don’t overbrown and promptly remove the granola from the oven.

3. While still hot, fold in the dried fruit; the heat will gently steam and soften the fruit. Cool completely (at least 45 minutes) before tightly sealing in glass or plastic containers.

Oatmeal Chipacado Cookies

Oh why the hell not…let’s bake desserts avocado already.

This recent article in Lifehacker with it’s claims of replacing some, perhaps all, of the butter in a baking recipe with mashed avocado sounded awfully vegan to me, even if by pure accident. Though not a fan of cooked avocado, I was intrigued and went along with sacrificing a perfectly ripe and tasty Haas in the name of vegan baking science. On a 91 degree day no less.

But here I am surrounded by chewy, moist, surprisingly almost-normal oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that to an uniformed eater seem like solidly good afternoon nibbles, perfect with coffee or the prize at the bottom of a brown bag lunch.

So what is different about these? Well, I didn’t color correct my photo very much, in hopes to preserve their semi-greenish, light olive hue. Unlike the claims in the LH article the addition of a heafty amount of brown sugar didn’t totally offset the mild green color.

And the taste? They taste good. They taste like brown-sugary, vanilla-laced cookies (besides the obvious nuts and chocolate bits), but with a mysterious avocado-like aftertaste. My husband claims he couldn’t (or just barely after another, cooled off cookie) taste it, but I picked up on it right away and it’s actually pleasant, even with my bias against cooked avocado. The flavor is faintly vegetal, nutty, creamy, and earthy all at once, without any of the fruity sweetness that other reduced-fat baked goods sometimes have. If I hadn’t had known and been served these myself, maybe I would have wondered why these seemingly pistachio-paste cookies taste like avocado.

The greatest victory of these “guakies” or “gamma cookies” as a few friends have dubbed them (but I’ll call them chipacados, thanks) is the the excellent texture. If you’ve ever substitued applesauce or prunes in cookies to the end dissapointment of cakey, overly-damp cookies, I understand if you’re less than thrilled at the idea of avocado used in place of fat. However, the resulting texture of these cookies was dense, moist and super chewy without that telltale low-fat cakey texture. As they continue to cool, they become fairly study, avocado strangeness considered.

So are these low-fat? Probably not. These are still cookies. Lots of sugar, nuts, and chocolate should keep you pacing youselves and not turn an entire batch into lunch. But if the idea of offbeat baked goods with slightly less fat and a pleasing chewy texture sound intriguing, then maybe a little ‘cado is what the cookie doctor ordered.

Oatmeal Chipacado Cookies

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

For best results use an avocado that’s just turned ripe. You want the flesh to be firm and bright green with little or no brown striations, which can add bitterness. If you’re feeling lazy, squish the avocado halves in your hands directly into the mixing bowl, instead of bothering with mashing them in a seperate bowl first.

The flavor and texture of these cookies improves as they cool, so do try and leave them alone for at least 15 minutes after baking.

  • ⅓ cup vanilla almond milk
  • 3 tablespoons ground flax seed
  • 1 cup mashed, ripe avocado (about 1 large Haas avocado)
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unbleached all purpose flour
  • 2 cups old fashioned rolled oats or quick-cooking oats
  • 1 cup semisweet vegan chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Lightly spray the parchment paper with cooking spray (the dough is stickier than regular cookie dough and needs a little extra grease).

In a glass measuring cup whisk together the almond milk and ground flax seed and set aside for 3 minutes. Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl using electric beaters beat together the mashed avocado and both sugars until creamy and as smooth as possible. Beat in the flax seed almond milk mixture and vanilla extract, then sift in the baking soda, salt, and flour until combined.

Use a rubber spatula to fold in the oats, chocolate chips, and chopped pecans or walnuts and make a thick dough. Use an ice cream scoop to scoop the dough into balls on to the sheet about 2 inches apart, and gently flatten the dough balls with lightly moistened fingers. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes or until the bottoms of the cookies are golden and browned on the bottom. Remove from oven and cool on cookie sheet for 2 minutes, then use a spatula to carefully transfer (cookies will be fragile) to cooling racks to completely cool. Store loosely covered.

Caribbean Christmas Fruitcake Version 1.0

Here she is, my fruitcake endeavor for 2011. From my previous post you know I’ve been dreaming of a tropical fruitcake with Caribbean roots; plenty of rum and the surprising addition of port wine infused this dense and ultra alcoholic treat.

This is a work in progress; next year I will most definitely make this cake again, only with a few changes. The spices and fruits are very appropriate for a December holiday, so this is definitely a once a year dessert monster. With that, my resolutions for next year’s cake:

  • Really puree the heck out of the fruit. My urge to Americanize this and leave some chunkiness I think was part of the reason the cake didn’t reach the dark depths I’d hoped for.
  • Find commercially made West Indian browning liquid. Or use blackstrap molasses. The homemade stuff was okay, and it did add a special dark caramel nuance, but my cake is just brown, not black as a midwinter sky. For the ease of the recipe below I’ve omitted the part about making your own browning, but if you really insist on it email me and I’ll send you a recipe for making your own burned sugar in the microwave.
  • I’m tempted to add a little instant coffee powder to the batter; I love how coffee adds rich color and a nice toasty bitterness that compliments spice and molasses.
  • Let the cake sit for a week before eating. A whole week, I know, the torture. But the cake I prepared Friday only became mellow enough to appreciate by late Monday night. Consumed right out of the oven (which we did with one of the cakes), all that alcohol makes it positively aggressive to the bite.

Caribbean Fruitcake Version 1.0

Makes 2 nine inch cakes

Start your soaked fruits at least 10 days in advance; even months if you can plan that far into your baking future. The long soak does indeed make an impact on the quality of the fruit; the longer you leave it alone the more flavorful the fruit becomes.

Tip: My favorite gadget for grating citrus zest is a microplane grater. Use a light hand when grating the lime; you don’t want to grate in too much of the bitter white pith, just the thin green outer edge of the lime peel.

  • 1 recipe Wine Drenched Fruit, steeped for at least 10 days
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • ¼ cup ground flax seeds
  • 1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups almond milk
  • 2/3 cup canola oil
  • ¼ cup molasses, preferably blackstrap (or organic molasses)
  • Grated zest from 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup dark rum for brushing

1. Empty the fruit and any juices into a large food processor. Pulse the fruit into a thick paste. Use a rubber spatula to occasionally push around the fruit to insure everything is blended. The paste will be very thick and sticky.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and cut out two circles of parchment paper to line the bottom of the cake pans. Lightly grease the pans and place parchment paper circle inside the bottom of each pan.

3. In a 4 cup glass measuring cup whisk together the orange juice and flax seeds and set aside for 5 minutes, then whisk in the brown sugar, almond milk, canola oil, molasses, lime zest, and vanilla extract until smooth.

4. In a large mixing bowl sift together all purpose flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and salt. Form a well in the center and add half of the liquid mixture. Use a rubber spatula to fold mixture together only until just moistened. Add the pureed fruit and the remaining liquid ingredients and fold again just enough to evenly blend the fruit into the batter. Divide the batter between the two pans, smooth the top and bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.

5. Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for 25 minutes, then run a knife along the inside edges of the cake. Flip the cakes onto plates, remove the parchment paper and slide onto cooling racks to complete cooling. While the cakes are still warm brush with plenty of rum, flipping the cakes over and brushing the undersides with rum.

6. When the cakes are completely cool, wrap tightly in foil and wrap in plastic or seal in a metal tin. Store in a cool dry place for at least 4 days before slicing and serving.

Boozey fruits and messy holiday kitchens

Every single day these past few weeks has been like cooking for a holiday.

It’s exciting business toasting up homemade garam masala powder, a vegan Moroccan pigeon pie (made with chickpeas and vegetables, not vegan pigeons), Jamaican curried seitan patties wrapped in golden dough, Greek custard pies folded in flakey filo, sambals, sweet and spicy Thai wok noodles, injera pancake experiments and crusty saffron rice studded with pistachios. The photos say it all.

But like any holiday feast, it’s me and my dear husband (who’s become a pro at random herb identification thanks to too much emergency grocery shopping) versus a messy kitchen at the end of the day. I feel like I’m reaching a new quota in dirty dishes, doing a fully loaded dishwasher’s worth every evening night. I’m getting a break this weekend only because I’m to be whisked away to attend the wedding of some dear friends in New England. The reception will feature vegan treats, not made by yours truly (but I appreciate the much needed break).

Holiday cooking, just for the sake of the holidays, has taken something of a sideline for me this year. Sure there will be a few cookies, but most of the big projects will have to have to chill. Last year I was making Venezuelan hallacas (big tamales wrapped in banana leaves): as you can see, hallaca making is not a casual task. But holiday cooking should feel different from what you do every day, so I’m cool with that.

But last night after simmering a batch of vegan Ethiopian spiced butter, I gave into a last minute impulse to start on a Caribbean-style fruitcake I’ve been thinking about adapting for years. An article in the New York Times years ago reminded me of the wonderful looking deep, dense cakes I used to see when I frequented the Caribbean markets Flatbush, Brooklyn that dot Church Avenue. Caribbean cakes don’t mess around with frostings or garnishes (I’m not much of a decorator, so I support this), instead focusing on a rich, complex tapestry of flavors and textures.

But you can’t exactly be spontaneous when it comes to fruitcake, especially black fruitcake. As mentioned in the article, some cooks like to marinate their dried fruits in wine and rum and entire year before baking. An entire year! There are few things in life I can imagine planning a year from now, but I suppose a dead-serious fruitcake would be one of those things.

This fruitcake is going to have to settle for a week of forethought; maybe 10 days if I get busy (which is always likely). The fruit in question is a blend of things, some freshly purchased just for cake, some from orphaned pouches of dried fruit found in the pantry. I’ve combined a gorgeous raisin mix from Trader Joe’s (featuring huge golden raisins and dried flame grapes), zante currants, dried cherries, a handful of non-traditional dried cranberries, and prunes. I do have a soft spot for candied citron, so in that went along with some blanched almonds. Then I’ve poured on some vegan port wine and dark rum. For the steeping I’ve packed the fruit into a 1 quart plastic take out container (the kind a big curry comes in), and found there was still a little bit of liquid room to spare, so I added a few more glugs of rum. Its now sealed tight and hanging out with the remaining booze.

If you want to join me in my black cake journey, get your fruit started with me asap. Or start right now and you’ll be totally prepared for next December. I’ll post one more holiday recipe next week (in addition to the cake), my other new vegan tradition on an old family favorite, Venezuelan Christmas (un) Ham bread.

Booze fruits for a future Caribbean black cake

Wine Drenched Fruit for Caribbean Black Cake

Makes 1 quart of boozey dried fruit

  • 8 ounces (1 cup firmly packed) dark or light raisins, or a combination
  • 8 ounces (1 cup firmly packed) dried currants, dried cherries, dried cranberries or a combination
  • 6 ounces (1 cup firmly packed) firmly packed dried prunes, without pits, roughly chopped
  • 4 ounces (about 1/3 cup) candied citron or candied citrus peel
  • ½ cup blanched almonds, sliced or slivers
  • 1 cup sweet red wine or vegan port wine
  • ½ cup dark rum
  • 2 three inch cinnamon sticks

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Pack into a 1 quart plastic take out container or 1 quart wide mouth glass jar. If there’s still some space in the container, top with a little more rum as desired.

2. Let steep for 1 week or longer (even a month or more) in a cool dark place.