Friday, December 18, 2009

Classic Yellow Cake

Can I get a little fluff please?

The vegan cooking world is full of forums, discussions and variations on the classic birthday cake recipe - white or yellow cake. The consensus seems to be that most vegan cakes are commonly more dense than their non-vegan counterparts. This is because many white or yellow cake recipes call for an absurd number of egg yolks. Despite my aversion to the cholesterol-laden goo of another species , I have to give credit to the fatty yolks for giving yellow cake a moist, rich, fluffiness that is difficult to replicate without them. I have made the Vegan Chef's Vanilla White Cake several times with success and rave reviews, but I must admit it lacks the fluff.

So as a dear omnivorous friend's birthday rolled around last week, I went searching for a recipe that would more closely match her favorite birthday cake - yellow cake with chocolate frosting - in hopes of instilling that nostalgic birthday glow one emits when they eat their favorite cake that Mom made for them each year after birth until either geography or age appropriateness forbade the tradition to continue. I wanted the yellow and the fluff, but I didn't want to use food coloring of course. So I decided I would trade in the yellow if I could just get some fluff.

Reading through several traditional recipes and nearly every vegan version I could find, most promised a light, moist cake. Others guaranteed a richness that could fool any non-veg. But alas, too many reviews conveyed extreme disappointment: this one is too dense, this one is too sweet, this one tasted like bread at 2nd grade communion (ok I made that one up)... So I decided to venture off on my own and combine several techniques of various vegan cake recipes and apply them to a simple traditional recipe. I found a recipe that called for only 2 eggs, versus the usual 4-6, and figured I could easily adjust.

When it comes to replacing eggs for baking purposes, my default is applesauce. It has a relatively mild flavor that doesn't seem to affect the overall taste of cookies, muffins or cakes. It is lower in calories and lighter in texture. However, I took viewed the calling of 2 eggs as an opportunity to share the glory of egg replacing between 2 different substitutions. I'm not big on powdered egg replacer, although it has its place in certain bread or crust doughs and goes well in pancakes. Flax is a bit too sticky and threatened to interfere with my fluff. At this point I would have done anything to salvage any degree of fluff in my cake. I really like the look and alleged moisture factor of yogurt cakes, like the recipe found in Veganomicon, though I have not made a yogurt cake yet. So I decided to test the waters with yogurt in cakes and go with that as my second egg substitute.

To be quite honest, I don't even know how this turned out yellow. I don't really need to know as I am highly content with the results. It had the desired fluff I was looking for and a decent amount of moisture. I say decent because I think it could use more, but the chocolate buttercream frosting did well to compensate for this. The recipe said to make this in 9" round pans, but as I am inadequately equipped when it comes to bakware, I made this in a 9"x"13 roasting pan and split it in half. The cake rose very evenly (as opposed to other cakes that rise more at the center than on the edges) which worked perfectly for a layer cake.

I have not included the Chocolate Buttercream Frosting recipe here, because I did not use a recipe. If I had to loosely guess, I used not quite a 1/2 cup of Earth Balance, 2-3 c cups powdered sugar and scant 1/4 cup soy milk. For the chocolate, I started using cocoa powder, but after a couple of tablespoons it tasted too weak for me. So I switched to Trader Joe's European Sipping Chocolate which is richer and has much more depth than the icky Kroger's brand I've been trying to get rid of (I have now decided to throw it away).

Classic Yellow(ish) Cake


  • 1/2 c. Earth Balance
  • 1-1/4 c. Sugar
  • 1/4 c. Applesauce
  • 1/4 c. Vanilla Soy Yogurt
  • 2 tsp Vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp Almond extract
  • 1 c. Soy Milk, plain or vanilla
  • 1 tsp Apple cider vinegar
  • 1 3/4 c. All purpose flour
  • 1/2 T Baking powder
  • 1/2 T Baking soda


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F . Grease and flour two 9″ round pans.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.
Stir the vinegar into the soy milk. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together Earth Balance and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the applesauce and soy yogurt, then stir in the vanilla.
Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the soy milk, mixing until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pans. Add additional soy milk if batter looks too thick.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool completely. Frost as desired.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Revival

After a fabulous weekend in Sedona with my family, the consensus was that this blog is due for a revival. Cooking dinner for 11 kept me in the kitchen for no less than 4 hours , and every minute was enjoyable (ok except for when I couldn't find the cinnamon or found out we forgot to bring garlic, but that's why we cook with a glass of wine on constant standby). Amidst the pleasant banter between bites of Greek delicacies, it was stressed that I be more diligent about updating my blog - I should have taken photos of the food before it was devoured to be sure, because there is no remaining physical evidence of our decadent meal.

Oh well, one more opportunity to duplicate and improve a recipe, right?

Vegan spanakopita tyropitas, moussaka, greek salad, italian wedding cake AND carrot cake with cream cheese frosting seems to have produced some kind of appreciation for the vegan diet among my dear and curious carnivores. In thanks and encouragement, I am heeding their advice to spring life back into the documentation of my vegan ventures in order to provoke more curiosity and interest in my vegan world. Perhaps they will read it, and some will pretend to have plans for making some of these recipes on their own, but I would be exstatic if I could could have even a slight impact on the awareness and eating habits of others around me. If, after time, they can distinguish tempeh from seitan, my goals for vegan outreach will be well on track for achievement.

What are my goals for outreach ? I really didn't realize I had any goals until I wrote that last sentence. Hmmmm....Maybe the process of elimination will work. What am I not trying to accomplish?

I am not as focused on turning people toward the meatless lifestyle as I am about highlighting the benefits and necessity of conscious, heathful eating. I do not share the animal rights fervor that many vegans and vegetarians possess, though I do respect the passion and sense of conscience supporting their efforts. I do not want to be the health nut (and by "nut" I do, in fact, mean crazy) that is constantly harping on people for making bad choices. However, I do not want to be a passive observer of poor eating habits who judges others' dietary disasters without offering advice and assistance if asked for it.

I do have a passion for fabulous food and the respectful treatment of our bodies. They are really the only avenue we have to live this life - so I suppose if you're actually interested in living it, you should take care of it. The way we choose our food and how we eat has everything to do with treating our bodies well and preventing damage. Why wouldn't you want to prevent and stave off cancer, digestive disease and heart malfunction? Those things are in my personal family history, and this vegan lifestyle is a tasty way to kick some dirty pathogen butt!

For me, the health advantages stemming from eating this way far exceed the effort it takes to follow the diet in my own opinion. More energy, a badass heartbeat, a solid immune system and normal blood pressure are just some of the things I get to enjoy by cooking real food at home without the use of animal products. I often hear people say they could never pay as much attention that vegan need in order to eat right. Hogwash. Most of the effort required of vegans should be included in anyone's diet, veggies and ommi's alike. For example...

1. Reading ingredient labels.

2. Avoiding saturated and trans fats.

3. Eating whole foods instead of processed foods.

4. Avoiding food additives, preservatives and flavorings (i.e. HFCS, MSG, etc...).

5. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (preferable seasonally).

That doesn't sound too vegan, does it? Because it's not. Even meat eaters should limit their intake of anything with grody fat in it and avoid buying snack foods high in sodium and who knows what other substances go into making Cheetos that I'm pretty sure are the same as substance you need to make a homemade bomb. Once you take an interest in your health, which is easy to fake but hard to do, most of the precautions vegans take are the same you'd need to do just to be healthy in general.

So back to my goal(s): Well education I guess by way of winning over people's stomachs. For starters, I don't care how much I "preach," as long as people eat my food and like it. The only way to spark genuine interest in most people is through taste buds. So down the hatch and then I'll spread the facts....Once I have their tummies, they'll ask questions. They always do.

And questions lead to personal research and enrichment, as many people start thinking about things they may not have considered prior to devouring a piece of vegan chocoalte pie. If a friend remembers the words quinoa and/or amaranth, well that'd be great. That's not even a vegan thing! If I can instill surpise by letting on that there are 400 kinds of potatoes grown in Peru (there used to be 4,000) and then they actually try a PURPLE potato just because it's different, I'd be giddy. You don't have to be vegan, but if you start paying attention, rocks.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bouranee Baunjan with Yogurt Sauce

I have to credit my love for ethnic cuisine and thus the origin of my love for cooking to the infamous Kabul Afghan Restaurant in Madison, WI. It was there that I began my food service career (well maybe not so much a career than a way to save up for my 6 months of adventures in France), and where I began to realize that what happens in the best of kitchens is nothing short of magic. So much was new, mysterious and delicious - the endless discoveries of flavors and seemingly oddly-paired foods sparked my enthousiasm for all things edible: What's with Quabouli - raisins in tomato sauce?! And how does Ashak taste so good - it's "just" a dumpling filled with green onions? Yogurt with garlic and mint?! Cardamom in...everything? My vocabluary grew, that is certain. And my quest for unusual delicious tastes sparked a need to replicate them at home.

One dish that particularly suprised and delighted me was Burani, a less popular appetizer served at the restaurant. Fried eggplant is topped with either a ground meat or green bean sauce and finished off with a drizzle of yogurt. Eggplant in general is a grossly underestimated and often misunderstood vegetable. Many view it as tasteless, too finicky to cook with, a mere absorbant of surrounding flavors or a good stand-in for mush when you need a decent dip to nosh. I think it is subtly flavored and holds a distinct integrity when prepared with simplicity and paired with other foods that sport their own distinctly simple flavors.

As it is summer and eggplant is clearly plotting a takeover of vegetable stands at just about every farmers market until buyers give it a fair chance to be present and truly shine in that perfect dish, I sought out the recipe for "Burani" to replicate chez moi. What I wanted was to make a classic, traditional dish using a method seldom employed in my kitchen...following a recipe with no fills, no adaptations, no monkey-ing around. I was romanced by the idea of shelving all the risks and thrills of creativity for one night to have some Afghan comfort food.

As linguistically skilled as I am, arabic/farsi is not a strong point for me. I did not realize that there would be several spellings, versions, and regional differences in this dish - from burani, bouranee, or borrani to banjan, badinjan, and baunjan, all with some kind of tomato sauce going on over fried eggplant. After hours of reading, reviewing and postulating which would most resemble the restaurant's version, I abandoned my search for the exact same recipe and admitted to my true motivation behind wanting this particular dish. Nostalgia. I miss Madison, I miss eating for free, I miss under-reporting cash tips. But a healthy supply of eggplant remained as did my craving for Afghan food, so I decided on a very simple recipe.

I was skeptical of this dish at first because of it's lack of flare and fuss. From what I knew of Afghan food, secret spice combinations had to be toasted, ground together and simmered under for hours with other miscellaneous co-conspirators to produce something so delicious that it's near-intoxicating, throwing you into a hypnotic trance that makes you go something like, "Mmmm, ooooo, ohh, mmmmmy god, ohh..." as you sort of rock back and forth. Bill Murray in "What About Bob" style. This recipe did not appear to possess these voodoo properties, but after picking up that bouranee baunjan is a comfort food of sorts in Afghanistan and because I was a bit suspicious of its simplicity, I felt it necessary to follow the recipe at least once to see for myself if it rouses the same sentiment that mac and cheese might for an American.

After oscillating bite after bite in a deep internal debate over whether I should devour or savor this dish, I was even more suspicious because of the mildly euphoric hypnosis I experienced. There is really only one spice playing a somewhat secondary role and I couldn't grasp how this dish came to own a part of my soul after eating it. Did it evoke the same mac and cheese warmth and love of all things you can remember from childhood? Well, it may not inspire the exact same feelings but it may become a staple and over time come to remind the humble chef that sometimes all it takes is a little salt and pepper.

I've made this several times and it never ceases to please, and that is putting it very lightly. I usually pair it with a jazzed up protein like cumin-crusted tofu (once perfected the recipe will come shortly thereafter) and a tasty rice pilaf. While it simmers, it needs very littler supervision. The aubergine mystique develops all on its own.

Bouranee Baunjan with Yogurt

1 c. Plain soy yogurt
2-3 tsp. Garlic, minced
1/4 c. mint or cilantro (optional)
1 T. Fresh lemon juice

1 Large eggplant, cut into 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices
2 T. Oil, divided
2 Medium tomatoes, sliced
1 Onion, sliced
2 Green bell peppers, sliced
Pinch of cayenne pepper (to taste)
1/2-1 c. Water

1. For the yogurt, combine ingredients first 4 ingredients in food processor. Season with salt to taste
2. Salt eggplant slices and let sweat 15-30 minutes.
3. Heat oil in pan and fry eggplant slices, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside
4. In same pan, cook onions until browned and tender ~7 minutes. Remove and set aside.
5. Add eggplant to pan in one layer and top with a layer of onions, layer of green peppers and finally the tomato slices. Add a generous pinch of cayenne and 1/2 cup of water. Let simmer~10 minutes. Check after 5 minutes and add more water if necessary.
6. Serve taking care to get each layer arranged on plate and top with dollop of yogurt.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sun-Dried Tomato Eggplant Sauce

As I am a bona fide jet setter, I frequently find myself low on produce at very odd times. However, I tend to resist grocery shopping for fear of spoilage while I'm gone. Being low on fresh vegetables isn't something I am ever comfortable with, but unused vegetables... wilting in my absence, sogging in neglect, longing for a once youthful, sexy crunch ... My dear omni's and carni's may not cry over spilt milk from that poor mammal's udder, but spoiled veggies to this chef is devastating. Until I have a compost bin and one of those trendy urban gardens set up on my balcony to redeem vegetable waste, this concept of abandoned produce is a travesty. Dramatic? Maybe. But the sense of loss is equivalent to dropping a perfectly good cupcake moments after purchase on a sidewalk in Brooklyn after seeing Fido relieve himself on the side of a nearby fire hydrant.

My point? Having slim pickin's for fresh produce calls for a thorough cupboard sweep and a splash of creativity. How very recessionista, n'est-ce pas! This doesn't necessarily mean culinary craziness or genius, but it does require an avoidance of the frozen entree default (or worse - ramen).

With only a pound or so of eggplant to play with, I was trying to think seasonally, perusing through shelves of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and alas... I came across a forgotten jar of sundried tomatoes. When I first started cooking, I was familiar only with sundried tomatoes packed in oil, but I recently grew fond of sundried tomatoes - "neat" - unadultered save for a good dose of sunshine. When you rehydrate the dry variety, you can reuse the liquid and I am a firm proponent of recycling in every form. The tomato broth resulting from rehydrating tomatoes is a great flavor boost to pasta sauces; Thank you Giada for educating viewers on the concept of thickening sauces with pasta water. I have one-upped this starchy inginuity with using tomato-flavored pasta cooking liquid, thus twice reusing what is often left to the dregs of the drain.

This recipe can be easily modified to accompany any herbs, fresh or dried, you may have on hand. I like it best with plenty of fresh parsley. I recommend adding some kind of herb as the pasta alone risks seeming a bit dull without it. Do not skimp on the garlic, as it fuses well with the rich, semi-sweet flavor of sundried tomatoes. Never skimp on the garlic.

Sun Dried Tomato Eggplant Sauce
Serves 4-6

1 lb Eggplant, diced
8 oz Pasta (brown rice, whole wheat)
1 ½+ c. Reserved pasta cooking liquid
1-2 T. Olive oil
1 c. Onions
2-3 T. Garlic, minced (6 cloves)
¾ c. Sun dried tomatoes
Salt and Pepper – to taste
¼ c. Fresh parsley, chopped

1. Sprinkle eggplant generously with salt and leave in a colander, 10-15 minutes.
2. Boil tomatoes in water 5 – 10 minutes to rehydrate. Using tongs, remove tomatoes, mince and set aside, keeping cooking liquid at a boil.
3. Add dry pasta to tomato water and cook al dente. Drain and reserve cooking liquid for sauce.
4. Heat olive oil in sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and saut̩ until golden, 5-7 minutes. Turn heat to medium add garlic and sun-dried tomatoes, saut̩ing until fragrant, 30 seconds Р1 minute.
5. Add eggplant and mix well, turning to coat with garlic and tomatoes. Saute 8-10 minutes, adding water by the ¼ c to deglaze if necessary. Add 1 cup pasta water and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer ~10 minutes or until eggplant is completely tender. Season with salt & pepper. Add pasta and cook 1 additional minute to blend flavors.
6. Turn heat off and fold in parsley.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Creamy Mustard Tofu

Despite the obsession with butter and how essentially non-vegan French cooking is in every conceivable way, I do share this passion and sense of adventure in the kitchen that is suddenly revived by the reawakening of Julia Child's contributions to not only the culinary world but the serventless kitchen. Inspired by others' talents, encouraged by gastronomic successes and mistakes alike, determined to make sense of fresh ingredients brought together by the season at hand, I absolutely love to cook. And I love to cook, because I love to eat. I love to eat, because...who cares why, but isn't it wonderful?

Why vegan? My meatless, dairy-less, eggless life began by wanting to eat more healthily which eventually came to mean ditching these things because of their connections to common diseases running in my family. I guess my love for life and drive to live it well sparked the curiosity into what causes or contributes to: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, breast cancer, etc... This if course morphed into a myriad of motivations to: hmmm, save the earth, support local and sustainable communities, remove myself from the environmental and public health consequences brought about by commercial animal (and plant) agriculture and, oh well, by commercial anything. Of course the transformation was catalyzed by thoughts and experiences of people who give also give a damn. Thank you Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.

At first, I enjoyed and thrived on the challenge and mystical science of making plant based edibles mimic their animal-based counterparts. Now, I love becoming not only more acquainted but also more intimate with real food. Food that grows and belongs to a particular season. Food that is grown in my neighborhood by my neighbors.

That's not to say I think it's entirely realistic to only cook up concoctions based on what my zip code can provide; I buy tofu, tempeh and frozen peas fully aware that they were shipped from somewhere and carry the associated environmental costs, though maybe someday I'll buy those enzymes to culture my own tempeh. But location and season have become vital sources of inspiration and culinary integrity in my life and I have a continuously growing sense of awareness and appreciation for all things local.

Local, vegan, sounds like hippy talk. My goal is not to shame this concept into others by regurgitating dreadful statistics and/or instilling fear with banter about some kind of apocalypse caused by big mac-eating, moon pie-munching maniacs. I will, however, win the hearts and stomachs of individuals that once upon a time refused to blink at beets or savor the soybean. If you test it, taste it, and trust it - you'll eat anything regardless of former convictions. So for all the veggie skeptics I say- Tofu to you too!

On to the food...

Here is one comforting tofu dish in a gravy-like sauce that I enjoyed with a side of steamed vegetables and a quinoa pilaf with tomatoes and green onions. You can whip it up in 20 minutes tops - including prep time.

Creamy Mustard Tofu

1 T. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 T. soy sauce
1 T. Red wine vinegar
1 T. Marjoram, dried
4-5 Cloves garlic, minced (2 T)
½ T. Agave nectar, sugar or your preferred sweetener
1/2 c. Soy yogurt, plain
3/4 c Water or broth

1 Pkg Extra firm tofu, pressed or patted dry
1-2 T. Cooking oil
1 tsp cornstarch
Salt & pepper to taste

1. Combine first 8 ingredients in medium bowl and mix well (making sure yogurt and water are well incorporated). Add pepper to taste.
2. Cut tofu into cubes and toss in marinade. Let sit at least 10 minutes.
3. Drain tofu, reserving marinade. Heat oil in wok or pan and add tofu. Cook for 5-7 minutes until golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside, keeping heat on.
4. Add marinade to hot pan and bring to a boil for 30 seconds-1 minute. Whisk in cornstarch and heat until sauce is thick – another 30 seconds to 1 minute.
5. Pour sauce over tofu. Season with salt and pepper.