Thursday, March 29, 2012

Decadent Oatmeal Bars

This is the culinary version of the story of the wolf in sheep's clothing. Think about it: Decadent Oatmeal Bars... sounds like it should be at least somewhat healthy, right? And look at the ingredients, not to mention the photos - tons of whole grains, unsweetened cocoa, flax, natural peanut and Three Legume Butter, even fruit and almonds! Should be the healthiest snack in the world.

Well, leave it to me to take all those ingredents, perfectly nutritious in their own, natural form, and basically turn them into a brownie that thinks it's a health food bar. Don't get me wrong, these are healther than most restaurant or bakery desserts by sheer virtue of the ingredients - and the relatively low added oil and sugar factor (I opted for a mixture of sweeteners and most of the fat came from the legume and peanut butters, not oil). But if you're counting calories, fat grams or carbs, these are probably not going to make your "must bake now" list. Come to think of it, if you are counting those things (especially the carbs), should you really be reading this blog? I mean, thanks and all for your support, but maybe you'll find my other, more nutritionally-oriented journal a bit more suited to your purposes. Or scan through some of my diet specific recipes (categories on the sidebar) - I do have some gems!

But back to these bars. I think their name says it all, honestly. They are very oatmealy, extraordinarly decadent, and once they've cooled completely, slice perfectly into bars or cubes perfect to wrap individually or pop into zipper bags and toss into your lunchbag or backpack. They even make a great meal replacement option for those who are used to grabbing a granola bar (or Oatmeal-to-Go type concoction) to eat in the car. There's lots of slow-burning, complex carbs; some cholesterol free, omega-3 rich fats and a decent amount of stay full and energized protein in a delicious, chocolatey package. There's even a hint of coffee in the mix - no need for the drive thru cafe!


Monday, March 26, 2012

Eggless Citrus Marshmallows

Forget Peeps... these are the "real" Easter marshmallow candy. Because I don't know about you, but I've never seen a neon-yellow chick or a fluffy magenta rabbit, and if I remember correctly I doubt they taste of much more than crunchy sugar and air. A sponge might be similar, if saturated with simple syrup.

Considering this is candy, though, it's not like these are light on the sweet stuff either... but they are light. And spongy... and bouncy! Not to mention filled with a fresh, bright lemon-orange flavour and just a hint of natural food dye. I had no idea marshmallows were as easy as this, given my whole fear of hot sugar (a fear I'm trying to overcome), but I came across this recipe a month or so on Frills in the Hills for eggless marshmallows (the usual recipe has egg whites) and I thought "perfect! No scrambling, no worry of straining, no worries about them setting up!". I had one of my Easter gift basket goodies decided on, I just had to wait until today to make them! Stale marshmallows (I'm looking at you, candy companies) are nobody's friend.

All I can say is that today, thank Goodness they were that easy, because I was in a wee bit of a funk early this morning. I think I've been out of the bread baking ring too long - first I couldn't find the jar of yeast I kept in the freezer, then I couldn't get the dough for the bagels I was attempting to make to come together to the right consistency (and it's not like I haven't made those before!). You'd think I'd quit while ahead, but nooooo... I went to try boiling the poor, misshapen blobs and they just got waterlogged and squashy, then (of course) I attempted to bake the suckers and got half-baked in the centre, burnt on the top rings that superglued themselves to the sheets. In my attempts to scrape off the burnt refuse (I was dangerously close to binning the whole sheet by then) I managed to stab my finger on the edge of the cookie sheet! So yes, something even I could do half asleep and have it turn out the way I hoped was pure comfort.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Three Bean and Flax Bars with Marmalade Glaze

I'm always faced with bits and pieces of things, the bottoms of jars, cans, bottles, bags... you know the like. It's the kind of stuff that savvy bloggers and Rachael Ray thrive on, whether its recipes for salad dressings and stir fry sauce or using those last stale Cheerios for a kid's craft. When our dog was still living, empty (plastic) jars instantly became the for her, especially the peanut butter ones (we'd toss in 3-4 kibbles to make noise and just watch the show). Plus, back then, we bought all our condiments, sauces, etc, since we both didn't have the garden we do now, and I wasn't sitting at home whipping up jam, chutney, hummus and salsa with the goodies we harvested. Now that I do make some of these things (and tomato sauce and mincemeat for days when the harvest comes in), I'm more invested in seeing that as much of the things in our kitchen be used and enjoyed in one way or another. The recession and my student-into-unemployment status, plus the ever rising cost of living, is another huge push for me (and my similarly frugal mom) to try our best - we simply can't afford to waste anything. This year I was lucky enough to get a contact at the Feed the Need in Durham program and let him know that come harvest time they'll be getting our excess produce too (fingers crossed it's a good year!). At least people who truly need good nutrition will be able to enjoy it.

But what does all of this have to do with the delicious, nutritious baked good you see below you? Well, I had the scrapings of a jar of my Citrus & Sweet Wine Marmalade and about a cup of my rich, luscious Three Legume Butter hanging out and taking up space in the fridge, threatening to turn green at any moment (probably not, but you never know around here), and the need to bring "sample-y" things with me when I was passing out info flyers for my Easter workshop. Not really feeling the "drop cookie" vibe (too messy, too much of a hassle on a short timeframe, insert-excuse-here...) I figured why not make a variation on the bar cookie theme: a nut butter based bar cookie-cake topped with a jam (or in this case, marmalade) glaze. I went the uber health-freak route with these ones (I was trying to market a health seminar!) by using 100% whole wheat flour, flaxseed, stevia and SucaNat and eschewing eggs, dairy and all other animal products.

The resulting bars turned out slightly cakier than I thought they'd be, but they were tasty nonetheless and the roasted nuances of the three legumes in the "butter" played well with the wheat flavour and added a nice contrast to the sweet-tart marmalade topping. The topping itself soaked into the batter but still stayed its own entity, almost making a "crust" of sorts. Different, yet delicious... yup, that's what I do!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Superpower Loaf

Imagine, if you will, the richest, moistest, fudgiest brownie ever. Then, shape it into a loaf and add all sorts of other stuff, including a banana, a block of tofu, two zucchini, dried cherries and California walnuts. Oh yes. That's precisely what this quickbread is - a lightly cocoa-ed, semi sweet, rich concoction packed with fruit, vegetables, nuts and chocolate chips. Oh, did I mention that it's also 100% vegan and wheat free?

If you've been listening to my whining / desperate marketing on Twitter lately, you know I'm doing some nutrition seminars and workshops at a local wellness centre. The first one (IBS... joy of joys!) was Monday night, and it was pretty lackluster in attendance so I didn't get the chance to demonstrate my "safe" banana-tofu pudding and therefore wound up with very ripe bananas and a full block of soft silken tofu back at my place. Throw in the two zucchini that I bought on a whim last grocery trip and a generous gift of walnut halves from the California Walnuts marketing board and I had a veritable plethora of goodies to play with (and use up, in the case of the produce!). I decided to shred one zucchini and puree the other one with the tofu and banana, which meant a lot less oil and a lot more moisture than the standard zucchini loaf. I used a mixture of dark brown sugar (I love it's flavour with cocoa desserts) and a stevia baking blend to sweeten, and let the concentrated sugars of the dried cherries pop on its own.

This super-food laden quickbread does contain gluten (from whole grain barley flour), but it also has tons of essential fatty acids and fibre from the chopped walnuts and the ground chia and flax seeds. This beast of a bread is also super rich in iron, calcium, magnesium and manganese, and a decent source of protein and B vitamins too. This is one breakfast / snack / dessert  that earns it's label as a "superpower" bread.

And to think - I did the whole shebang in the food processor (and one cereal bowl for the shredded zucchini)! Why dirty a mixing bowl, I say!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Citrus & Sweet Wine Marmalade

I always felt that preserving was something to do in the late throes of Summer. The garden is just about to give up the ghost, beets and grapes are at their peak, the only tomatoes on the vines still green and though they aren't likely to reach the gorgeous ripe ruby of their earlier cousins, they're perfect for a batch (or three) of chutney to enjoy over the Winter.

But of course, that's probably because my lemon and fig trees have never borne me fruit, and of course the plants outside have either died completely or gone into a deep, deep slumber by the time the first snows come around. Thankfully the bounty of the warmer parts of the world, especially the decadent citrus out of Italy, Morocco and the southern USA. These locales give us up in the windswept North the delicious, juicy Cara Cara and blood oranges, the sweet navel oranges and tangelos, and the brightly tart lemons - all the elements that go into one of the most perfect morning spreads this season has to offer.

I originally found this recipe on the blog Leena Eats, where it had been adapted from the Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard. I modified Leena's version to suit what I could find in our house, which included five types of citrus (though only one or two of each type) and some fresh ginger, but no port - one of the integral elements of the marmalade. Luckily, being the good Italian household that we are, there was red wine, and since I have a pantry stocked to the hilt there was plenty of sugar. So a makeshift port mixture was created, added to the blended citrus and ginger stock and cooked to a luscious, ruby red gel that spreads into a jewel-like cloak on morning toast and pairs with strong, spicy cheeses just like the best wine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fig Newton "Sarah-Bars"!

I'm not sure why, but I never really "got into" the energy bar craze as a teen and college student. There were certainly enough of them out there - from the cheap cereal-based "granola-y" snacks I could kill for as a kid (but which my mom would never buy) to the trail-mix "natural" bars in our vending machines, vegan options in the dorm convenience store and of course the quintessential PowerBar, they innundated us students from all angles. As I completed my nutrition programs, they showed up more and more around me, especially when classes were running to 9PM, and though I tried a few of them I just didn't "get" their appeal.

Amusingly, although I wasn't a fan of eating energy or snack bars, I had (and still have, obviously) no problem making them for those who are! More as an experiment on my end (and an excuse to play around with my Three Legume Butter), I set out to make a mock-Lara Bar concoction dubbed the "Sarah-Bar". The flavouring was dictated essentially by what I first laid eyes on when I went to my baking pantry - along with the necessary dates, I had a half package of dried figs and a goodly amount of raisins by the time I made it back to the kitchen. My idea was to make a sort of "Fig Newton" with the combination, and lightly coat the tops of the bars with poured fondant (yeah, I know - undoing any health benefits from the beans and fruit).

I soaked the (very) dried out figs and raisins first so that my poor off-brand food processor wouldn't conk out on me, draining them well and pressing out the liquid so that they were pliable but not soggy. Then I just chucked everything into the processor and let'er rip until it basically became a fruit-legume butter paste, scraping it into a plastic lined square pan. It was too soft to cut right away, so into the fridge it went overnight, after which they cut wonderfully with my bench scraper! All told, it took longer to mix up and glaze the bars with the fondant than it did to make the plain bars, and from what I heard from hungry snackers (especially those who were gluten-free and vegan) it was well worth the minimal time and expense!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

So Much More Than Carrot Cake Cookies

Growing up, I loved carrot cake. Specifically, the gobs of cream cheese frosting on top, but also the texture of the batter, the occasional juicy bite of raisin, the super moist crumb, even the crunch of nuts (which I generally abhorred above all else in baked goods). Over the years, and several disappointingly super-sweet or over-oily carrot cupcakes, muffins or slices at restaurants, I finally stopped ordering them altogether. And, because I was young (like not even in highschool young) and all the cakes of the day came out of a box, I turned to the available mixes, which were okay.

But there was always something missing. The cakes and muffins looked gorgeous, were moist, but lacked the experience and texture I loved so much. Not to mention the canned frosting was all kinds of wrong. Too creamy, too sweet, no cheese to speak of. Of course, it's only now, years later, that I realize why - dehydrated carrots or - in one cake mix - corn syrup based, carrot flavoured pieces - are not in carrot cake or muffins. At all. My grandma would make muffins with the mixes all the time, but they were by far the best - once she added soaked raisins and a fresh-grated carrot to the batter. Not perfect, not the home-made, South Carolina dessert I remembered, but close.

I've made my share of carrot cakes too - even an award winning one - and I think that they're quite spectacular for a home baker. Unfortunately, there isn't quite the market these days for a stacked, frosted, super rich carrot cake. It's not chocolate, it's usually unsafe for those with nut and dairy allergies, and it is (as a rule) high in fat and sugar. Cupcakes and muffins today are viewed with either a "jumped the shark" loathing or nutritional suspicion - people know that most bakeries use cupcakes as delivery devices for frosting, and that even though yes, walnuts and carrots are healthy things on their own, picking up that muffin at the coffee shop can run you a nasty sugar, fat and carb deficit.

But nobody ever said anything about cookies! I was leafing through Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar and found their version on the theme, which intrigued me immediately. I started looking through my pantry and found lots of other "things" that would fit the flavours of sweet carrot, coconut and wheat to a T. By the time I was done, these cookies were essentially denser, chewier bites of all the best bits of carrot cake. And hey - they aren't diet food, except in small, small amounts, but they aren't meant to be, and they are fantastic. I hesitate to say it, but frosting-free is a-OK with these... but come to think of it, I might have to make another batch as sandwich cookies, just to be sure...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Citrusy Bran - Kiwi Muffins

March and April are those awkward months of what I like to call "teenage weather". You know, days that can go from being sunny and burgeoning on warm for the morning drive into work, setting you up to believe it'll be even nicer by the time you clock out, only to turn sullen and brooding around 1PM, blowing brisk wind that smells faintly of December and makes you wish you had brought that winter jacket with you.

Like I said - "teenage weather".

But, like those moody, broody teenage years, these months are a bridge period between seasons, a mixture of frigid winter and fresh spring. And these months will pass just as quickly as those youthful "good old days".

For today, though, why not embrace both the bright promise of springtime and the hearty comfort of winter? A classic omelette with gooey cheese and bright, crisp asparagus with a fresh spinach and roast beet salad for lunch, perhaps? Or a thick, hearty bowl of chana masala with barely steamed broccoli and cauliflower and a scoop of fragrant jasmine rice for a meatless dinner?

I combine the best of cold and less-cold (!) food cravings in these muffins too - hearty bran, wheat germ, multigrain cereal and spices on one hand, with home-dried kiwi slices, fresh ginger, two types of citrus and the tang of buttermilk and sour cream on the other. Rich, stick to your ribs, but the perfect gateway food for spring!
What's your favourite "in between seasons" food?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Things Learned by Drying Fruit

Take it slow.

It helps to have support.

A little elbow grease never hurt anyone.

It is possible to work together.

You might feel like you're falling through the cracks...

...but something will always catch you.

Some things just weren't meant to be. Persevere and you will be rewarded.

Things will get messy sometimes...

But in the end, you're responsible for your own messes.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Mostly Mom's Banana Bread


I missed National Banana Bread Day.

Wait, there was even a National Banana Bread Day in the first place?? Yeah, news to me too. But according to the news mogul that is CNN, it blew past us on the 23rd of February. I actually just realized (like 5 minutes ago realized) that I have yet to flip the months on any of my 3 bedroom calendars. C'est la vie. Like so many other things these days, it will get done later. Just like going through bananas at our house - they seem these days to always be the fruit we "promise to eat tomorrow".

The bonus of that procrastination / busy life is that come the weekend, it's banana bread time! And this one is really not special - one of the gazillions I now have posted on this blog and quintillions I've made over the years. The difference for me, when I made it, is that the recipe this time didn't come from a website or a blog or a cookbook - it came from my mom's recipe box.

Granted, the recipe itself was sourced from the late 70's copy of The Joy of Cooking, but my mom re-wrote it years ago and added it to her files. Then, when I was searching for "the perfect banana bread", I found it and slightly updated it to not only use what I had on hand (yogurt for sour cream, 5 bananas instead of 4) but make it slightly healthier by reducing the eggs and mostly richer with dark chocolate chips and chopped walnuts. The recipe itself was perfect as is - dense, sweet and an undeniably homey excuse to eat cake for breakfast, snacks and dessert (hey, it had fruit!), but now it's even better. More moist, just as dense, without a real "heaviness" or "oily dampness", and the bites of nuts and embedded treats of chocolate made it that much more of a "moreish" coffee break snack.

So thanks, mom and the Joy of Cooking, for one super-duper loaf!