Adventures in Vegan Baking

I never understood how it worked. Vegan baking. If baking is a science, then vegan bakers must be mad scientists. Breaking all the rules, mixing up cookies and cakes with ingredients that most of us would never put in a baked good, vegan bakers are trailblazers in the kitchen. Baking scares me, because I am much better at stovetop cooking. For years, vegan baking totally frightened me and then I became intrigued. Recently, I finally rose to the challenge and tried it out. I dove headfirst into a sea of recipes and tried my hardest not to sink.

Miraculously, I swam. And in the process I discovered a few awesome things about vegan baking.

  1. Not all vegan baked goods are healthy, but a lot of healthy baked goods are vegan. Replacing sugar and butter with applesauce makes things a tad healthier. It also may make them vegan. There are a lot of healthy cookies and bars out there that are vegan, so entering this world may help you build a better breakfast for yourself.
  2. In most cases, you can eat the dough! And not worry about salmonella poisoning! This fact alone should convince you to whip up a batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies today.
  3. Searching for vegan baked goods recipes online will introduce you to a whole new world of awesome bloggers. So open your mind and make some new friends already.

Here is a rundown of all the things I tried:

Pumpkin Protein Bars from Peas and Thank You

These scared me because they came out exactly as I feared they would; they tasted like pumpkin scented cardboard. I think it was my protein powder. This vegan protein powder I tried tasted great in smoothies but it was pretty gross by itself. The pumpkin and sweetener in these bars did not cover up the bland chalkiness of the protein powder. I am going to try this one again with a different protein powder because the nutrition stats on these were awesome.

Chocolate Pumpkin Loaf from the Post Punk Kitchen

This bread came out really dense and moist with a very rich chocolate flavor. The pumpkin pie spice played well with the chocolate and I felt comfortable serving this to non-vegan friends as it tasted pretty normal. I doubled the recipe and made two loaves and I am glad I did. One is in the freezer for me to thaw out next time I have unexpected guests.

Fall Harvest Fruit Cake from FatFree Vegan Kitchen

I omitted the persimmons because mine weren’t ripe enough and I am not a patient person. I added pumpkin puree so as not to ruin the consistency by leaving out the persimmon pulp and I added sweetened dried cranberries because apple and cranberry is a winning combination. This one turned out awesome. I served it to a few friends and family members and they could not tell it was vegan at all.

Cherry Almond Cookies from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar

So delicious! And excellent with a glass of vanilla soy milk. . . or dunked in almond milk? You definitely cannot tell these are vegan. Something about the oils and the almond extract make you think you are eating a buttery drop cookie, but there is no butter involved! Grab a Christmas gift card or scrape together a few dollars and buy this book. I can’t wait to try out more of Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s and Terry Hope Romero’s vegan baking recipes.

I think I have more experimenting to do. The excitement of vegan baking is putting all these things that you don’t think should go on a cookie sheet or in a cake pan, popping it in the oven, and crossing your fingers that it comes out somewhat resembling a baked good. It’s science! It’s magic! It’s completely fascinating!

Maybe if you win my OXO Spatula giveaway, you could whip up one of these recipes to test it out. Don’t forget – today is the last day to enter my giveaway for a Good Cookie gift pack! Click here for details. Contest closes at 11:59 PM tonight!

What to Serve Vegan and Vegetarian Party Guests

If the December holiday party season is not in full swing for you yet, it will be soon. And with the increasing number of diet labels floating around, it can be difficult to navigate the waters of holiday entertaining. Vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free’s, pescatarians, macriobiotics and raw dieters. . . it can all get very confusing for the holiday host. What to serve? Whom to accommodate? How to label?

I was recently asked for ideas on what to serve at a party with vegetarians and vegans in attendance and I was eager to help out. I follow a vegetarian diet myself, and while I am not at all an authority on vegan food, I cook a lot of vegan meals at home without realizing it (until it hits the plate and I am struck by the absence of cheese, cream or butter). So I guess I have a few more tricks up my veggie eating sleeve than the average home cook. If you need help figuring out what all the labels mean, there is a great resource from GAIAM that gives a brief description of each diet.

Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy a variety of party foods, and accommodating them requires just a little bit of forethought. Here are my favorite vegan-friendly party foods:

  • Tofu Lettuce Wraps from Whole Foods
  • Chips, Salsa and Guacamole (some prepared guacamole includes sour cream and some chips are fried in lard so be sure to check the ingredient lists)
  • Veggies and hummus or white bean dip
  • Tofu Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce from Eating Bird Food
  • Mexican Bean Salad from AllRecipes (a favorite in my office for herbivores and omnivores alike)
  • Olive Medley Pinwheels from Better Homes & Gardens (substitute Tofutti brand vegan “cream cheese”)
  • Mixed Nuts
  • Seven Layer Dip from Peas and Thank You (substitute Tofutti brand vegan “sour cream” and vegan cheese substitute like Daiya brand shreds)

Olive Medley Pinwheels

Also, I thought I would remind you of some of the things to stay away from to make sure you are truly serving vegan food. It usually gets trickiest with prepared and bottled or canned foods, so be sure to check ingredient lists on anything that isn’t fresh produce. If you have any other suggestions or corrections, please jump in on the comments.

  • meat and fish (of course)
  • eggs (some pastas contain egg)
  • milk, cheese, butter and other dairy
  • honey (yes, some hard core vegans avoid honey)
  • whey protein (this common ingredient is milk-derived and sometimes added to vegetarian items for protein)
  • other hidden non-vegan items to look out for on ingredient lists: dehydrated chicken or beef, anchovies or anchovy paste, chicken broth, dehydrated milk

You do not have to make a big deal about what each guest can eat, so some labels can get your message across concisely. That way you do not feel like you have to usher your guest around the food table or constantly field questions about what is “safe.” I recommend that you use small place cards or signs to label foods as “vegetarian” or “vegan”. Or you could simply list animal products and common allergens in each prepared dish, like “contains chicken” or “contains peanuts.”

I think that if you have just a few options for the vegans and vegetarians in attendance, even if it isn’t the most exciting food on the planet, they are really going to appreciate the gesture. You are already going out of your way by inviting us into your home, and throwing a few vegetables our way doesn’t hurt. However I am always extremely impressed and grateful when a party host thinks to prepare something creative and meatless that I can enjoy. Most people don’t even think to have something vegan or vegetarian friendly so you will make your guests feel welcome just by making an effort.

Happy Hosting!

Extreme Juicing Challenge

If you have noticed that the posts over the last week have been a little sparse, you may feel that I have some explaining to do. The reason I haven’t been writing is that I haven’t been cooking or eating food. It’s not you, it’s me. I haven’t been bringing much to the table lately besides this:

A few weeks ago, I went to a screening of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, a film about a man who drastically improves his health by consuming only fresh fruit and vegetable juice for 60 days straight. At the conclusion of the screening, my friend and I participated in a Q&A with Joe Cross, the man behind the movie. After hearing about the health transformations that people have made while inspired by Joe’s film, we decided to give it a try. We considered doing a ten day “Reboot” but eventually committed to doing just seven days of nothing but juice.

This is the part of the story where I feel obligated to tell you that a juice fast is not for everyone and you should consult a physician before embarking on a any diet plan. I also should mention that I did a lot of research before choosing the plan that was right for me, and although I may refer to this as a diet, weight loss was not the goal of the fast. I did this for three reasons:

  • To cleanse my body of toxins and give the digestive system a rest so that my body would have energy to heal itself naturally
  • To become more attuned to my body’s nutrient needs and to explore my relationship with food
  • To experience the changes and feelings that other juice fasters had described in online articles and in person, because I was fascinated by some of the typical side effects of an all juice diet

My friend and coworker Liz committed to doing the fast with me and I was looking forward to having support at work for the inevitable times when I would feel like giving up. As we talked to more people about what we were planning to do, we found another coworker who had completed a 3-week juice fast a few years ago and who was interested in joining us. After that, two more women decided to join us with a modified juice diet, in which they included healthy foods and smoothies. In this recap, I will cover the diet that Liz and I followed.

Phase 1: Before the Juice

I knew that my greatest challenge would be giving up caffeine, specifically coffee. Ever since I started working as a barista in a neighborhood coffee shop in my hometown , I have had a love affair with coffee. In fact, before the juice, I had not gone a day without coffee in about ten years. In some states, coffee and I would be just one joint tax return away from common law marriage. One week before the juice fast, I weaned myself off of caffeine by stepping down my coffee consumption and then substituting green tea followed by substituting herbal (naturally decaffeinated) teas. I was still on the green tea at the beginning of the fast, but I was off it for the second half of the diet.

The Join the Reboot website recommends that you slowly transition yourself to a plant based diet during the week before the fast. I do not eat a lot of fruit, so I started incorporating more fruit into my diet the week before. As a vegetarian cook, I typically make sure that my plate is half full of vegetables, so I did not need to make many diet changes during the transition.

On the night before the fast, I got together with Liz to shop, cook and juice. Check out how much produce we bought for three days worth of juice for two people! We spent about $100 on the first trip ($17 per person per day) and bought as much organic produce as we could. It costs less to do this with conventional produce. If you want to do some organic and some conventional, use the EWG’s dirty dozen and clean fifteen as your guide.

The last supper was artichoke spinach lasagna with feta and a glass (or two) of sangiovese. The juicing was a ton of fun and for the apple-carrot-ginger juice, I used fresh ginger for the first time ever. I know, that is ridiculous. I just always used the jar because I didn’t know it made that much of a difference. Now I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the jar again.

Phase 2: During the Juice

Days 1-3

The first three days were the hardest. I started out really excited and motivated, but soon I desperately missed chewing and I started having food cravings.I had lunch on the first day with two coworkers who were doing the plan with me. We were all expecting to have some digestive issues the first few days based on what we had heard. I planned to be near a bathroom for the first three days, but the only thing that I felt was going straight through me was water. No emergencies, no discomfort, no digestive cleanse. I had expected to, as a coworker put it,  “hit the big flush button” on that first weekend. No such luck. My relationship with the porcelain throne was as normal as ever.

The transition to waking up in the morning and having nothing but juice was a little difficult for me. I am used to starting my day with a protein, a carb, and some coffee. The juice just seemed incomplete to me. I realized by the second or third day though that it was all I really needed in the morning.

On the second day, Liz and I headed to the farmers’ market and the smells of all the foods we couldn’t have were so overwhelming. I almost couldn’t handle it! We must have looked like some crazy sweets junkies as we drooled over the mulled apple cider with brown sugar, palms sweating, eyes twitching, jonesing for some added sugar. We tore ourselves away from the cider, the doughnuts, the bagels and the Bombolini pasta and focused on the produce. We picked up some local organic veggies at the market and then we made more juice on the third day.

rough morning

By the third day I was easily fatigued and I was experiencing mental fogginess. I woke up congested in the mornings and my skin was less than perfect. Allegedly these are common signs of toxins leaving the body. I also lost 8 pounds in the first three days. A portion of that was a loss of water weight due to the fact that my body was no longer retaining water to aid in the digestion of insoluble fiber (which was left behind in the pulp and was no longer a part of my diet). By the end of this phase, I could easily differentiate between food cravings and hunger and this was a big revelation for me. I started to feel more in control of my health when I was able to make that distinction without difficulty.

We also killed my juicer on the third day due to prolonged use and possibly the presence of water/juice in the motor. It sounded a little funny, then it smelled like burning, then it started smoking. It was ugly. Check out the crime scene photo from my juicer’s violent death:

We had ordered a new Breville though that was due to arrive on day 4 so we were not without a juicer for long.

Days 4-5

Days 4 and 5 were when it really started to turn around for me.I felt like quitting altogether on day 4 and it was really good that I was surrounded by people who were doing the diet with me. I kept trying to visualize plants capturing the sun’s energy and converting it to nutrients that my body could use to heal and re-energize. It helped a little. I was still making lists of all the foods I wanted to eat when the diet was over. Surprisingly, most of them were healthy whole foods. Baked sweet potato, spinach salad, a ripe banana.

My energy improved and my head was clearer by day 5. I started to get creative with the juice combinations and did fancy little things to make juicing feel more special. I created recipes for “mojito juice” and my own version of mean green juice. I got some adorable color-changing straws at Target. I poured my juice into fun glassware, and I tried adding coconut water and sparking water to my juices. I truly started to have fun with it by the end of day 5.

I think my favorite cashier at Whole Foods in Short Pump started to catch on to what Liz and I were doing. What else could we possibly be doing with all this produce?

One of the biggest challenges I had while on the fast was baking a coworker’s birthday cake on day 5. I have mentioned before that in my office, we have a homemade cake for every person’s birthday and last week it was my turn again. Hello carrot cake! I didn’t even taste the batter or the frosting. If you’re ever in the mood for torture, try frosting a two layer cake and then washing your hands instead of licking your fingers. It is tough!

During this phase of the fast, I felt like I finished climbing the hill and started to breezily slide down the other side. My body adapted to the diet and started to crave juice. My hair was really shiny and my skin started to look better. Although (gross-out alert), it appeared that all of the toxins in my body were trying to escape through one facial pore. Ugh.

I also realized how little food I need to get through my day. I hoped that this would translate to better portion control down the road. On day 5 I felt the energy that I had heard other juice fasters describe. I was sick of beets and a little tired of carrots so I started to experiment with new fruits and vegetables. I made a mental note to try and eat a greater variety of foods in the future.

Days 6-7

I felt completely awesome on days 6 and 7. I had energy and I was alert all day. Most of all, I was amazed at how much energy I could have from eating right, with no coffee at all. I learned that when you don’t have the crutch of caffeine to lean on, you are forced to eat good-for-you foods and get a full night’s sleep in order to have energy. As much as I missed eating some foods, I was much better at resisting temptation during these days. Kyle’s dinners didn’t bother me at all.

His and Her Veggies?

I supplemented the homemade juice diet with juices from our local grocery store Ellwood Thompsons. I even made fewer servings ahead of time just so I could try out new combinations at the ET juice bar. So imagine my disappointment when I walked in on the morning of day 7 and discovered that Ellwood Thompsons’ juicer was broken. I had not made enough juice for the day because I was counting on ET to fill in the holes. So I made the decision to break the fast at dinner that night with a whole lot of vegetables and a wee bit of tofu.

My First Real Meal in Seven Days!

What I really missed the most on these last few days was cooking. Cooking at night in my kitchen is such a stress reliever for me, and I love to do it as much as possible. It engages my mind and body in a creative way and I missed having that outlet while on the fast. So I decided on a simple salad for my reintroduction to solid food, but I also cooked a Thai-inspired sweet potato, tempeh and kale stew for Kyle on the last night. I did not taste a drop of that stew on the first night but the experience of cooking it was ultimately very satisfying.

On these last few days, I felt radiant. I was lighter on my feet and more energetic and passionate about everything. My senses sharpened (allegedly a symptom of starvation) and I could smell and taste every little thing. This continued through my first solid food meal, which happened to taste a little too salty. The flavors of everything were so intense and I really enjoyed tasting every component of the plate. My family and friends told me I appeared to be in a better mood than usual and I absolutely was. I felt a renewed commitment to health by the end of the experience.

Phase 3: After the Juice

I eased back into a solid food diet, starting first with raw or steamed vegetables and fruits and a small amount of nuts and legumes. Then I gradually added soy protein, then cheese, then wheat. I did start drinking coffee again, but not every day. I love coffee too much to give it up forever. I have been eating solid food for four days now and everything is going very well. I am eating mainly vegetables and fruits at the moment, plus a bit of whole grains and plant-based proteins here and there.I have had three fresh juices since completing the fast. I can’t quit you, green juice!

As I reflect on the juice fast, I am very happy that I did it. I believe that I accomplished what I set out to do. I learned a lot about my relationship with food and proved to myself that I have the self-control to make better diet choices every day. I got to experience the energy and heightened senses that always fascinated me when I heard about other juice fasters’ experiences.

I think I detoxified a bit, but to be honest I don’t think I got much out of the cleanse portion of the fast. Because I had no “big flush” and I felt pretty good throughout the whole fast, I don’t think I had many toxins to release. Vegetables, especially the green leafy ones, act as little scrub brushes in your digestive system, cleaning everything out as they pass through your system. Many fruits, vegetables and herbs have detoxifying effects on your liver. Regular cardiovascular exercise keeps your lungs and heart healthy. Because I eat a vegetarian diet with at least 50% consisting of fruits and vegetables, and I live a somewhat active lifestyle, I think that I am naturally cleansing, healing and detoxifying my body all of the time.

However I won’t ignore the notion that the juice could have been healing my body in ways I will never know. All of those nutrients couldn’t have hurt! I don’t know if I will do a “reboot” again, but I do know that juice will continue to be a part of my diet moving forward. I plan to work on portion control and building healthy plates at every meal (not just dinner). I also plan to stop eating when I am no longer hungry, which will be a big challenge for me (especially at dinner). But after successfully completing a seven day juice fast, I have the optimistic mentality that no challenge is too large for me when it comes to my health and wellness.

Cheers to that!

Ten Things I Learned About Nutritional Yeast

It seems like it has been awhile since I’ve shared a new ingredient, doesn’t it? I guess that’s because I’ve been saving up some good ones to test their versatility. One such ingredient is nutritional yeast. I have read about it on a few different blogs, but this is one that I haven’t seen on restaurant menus or salad bars yet, so it was kind of a mystery to me. I first tried it in Mama Pea’s potato and white bean burger recipe on 4th of July weekend.

And then I had an almost full container of nutritional yeast sitting in my refrigerator so I decided to do a little research to figure out how any why I should use it. Here are some things I learned.

  1. Nutritional yeast is created by culturing yeast with a mixture of sugarcane and beet molasses.
  2. It can be described as nutty, cheesy, and creamy in taste.
  3. It is a complete protein like quinoa, meaning it contains an adequate proportion of all nine essential amino acids that are necessary in our diets.
  4. It is an excellent source of vitamin B12.
  5. It is low  in fat and sodium, despite having a salty taste.
  6. It comes from the same species of fungus as brewer’s yeast and baker’s yeast but the culturing method is different, which results in a more flavorful product.
  7. While active brewer’s yeast and baker’s yeast are live, nutritional yeast is deactivated during processing.
  8. Some movie theaters provide nutritional yeast along with cayenne pepper to sprinkle on popcorn. I ran into this fact over and over again during research, which begs another question: where do I find these movie theaters?
  9. It is often used as a homeopathic treatment for the prevention of fleas in cats and dogs, so it’s allegedly okay to share with your furry friends (although I won’t be trying that anytime soon).
  10. There are many different ways to enjoy nutritional yeast. Here are some of the suggestions I have come across for adding nutritional yeast to everyday foods:

Mashed Potatoes

Frittatas

Baked Pasta

Summer Vegetable Stir-fry

Cheese substitute in Mac n’ No Cheese

Vegetable Soup

Garlic Breadsticks

Egg Salad or Tofu Salad

Veggie Burgers

I chose to use it again in an adaptation of Mama Pea’s burgers with the following changes:

  • Substitute sweet potato for Yukon Gold potato
  • Substitute black beans for white beans
  • Substitute cilantro for basil
  • Add cumin into the burger mix

They were a big hit!

I am sure that I will soon try this out in a lot of my favorite foods. At first I was skeptical of what looked like a container of fish food, but now I’m convinced that I’ve stumbled upon a super food!

Green Smoothie

I like to keep things interesting by writing about the ingredients and preparations that I try for the first time. While I enjoy reading other people’s daily food blogs, writing about oatmeal every day just isn’t my cup of tea. This is not the first time I have used kale, and it is not the first time I have made a smoothie.

But it is the first time I’ve put kale in my smoothie, so let’s talk about it!

Kale is a super ingredient that is great for your health. It is a descendant of the wild cabbage, which originated in Asia and is thought to have been brought to Europe around 600 B.C., where it was a popular food among peasants. Kale is an excellent source of vitamins K, A, and C. One cup of kale contains over 85% of your recommended daily value of each of these vitamins. It is also a great source of calcium, fiber, and iron. I found some great information about the health benefits of kale at this site: World’s Healthiest Foods.

I have used kale in stir-fry alongside ginger marinated tofu atop brown rice, and in potato and kale soup. I hear it is the cabbage of choice for use in Colcannon, an Irish dish that incorporates cabbage, potatoes, and sausage. I’ve been meaning to make a vegetarian version but right now it’s just too hot for that. There are three popular varieties of kale: curly, ornamental, and dinosaur. They are all slightly different, and most of my experience is with curly kale.

I used just one large leaf of curly kale for two smoothies. One leaf yielded about a cup of kale, and each cup packed plenty of vitamins and other nutrients for my healthy little smoothie for two. Here’s how it went down.

I added to my blender: one cup of frozen sliced bananas, one cup of frozen pineapple chunks, one leaf of kale (torn, stem removed), and one cup of vanilla soy milk (to sneak in a little more calcium, and because I was out of juice).

Yes, that is a wine glass in the background. It was Saturday morning, post-farmers’ market and pre-dishwashing. There is an empty wine glass (or two) on my kitchen counter after almost every Friday night. This is a fact of life which I am okay with and you should be too.

I blended this for a few minutes, and added a little more banana for consistency and a little more pineapple for flavor, then poured myself a large glass and Kyle a small taste. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about the grassy green concoction. Turned out he loved it, so he enjoyed a large glass too.

I think I’ll try this one again with pineapple or orange juice. It was delicious the first time around, but I would have liked a little more fruit flavor to mask the kale. The pineapple chunks did a great job infusing the smoothie with fruitiness so I’ll punch up the citrus next time for an even more enjoyable jolly green smoothie.

I wonder what will go in my smoothie next?