Hanukkah and the Sweet Potato Latkes that Weren’t

Do you ever get an instinctual, gut feeling that an endeavor (say, a particular cooking project) just won’t end well? Do you ever ignore that gut feeling, despite the fact that said gut feeling has, in the past, been fairly accurate? ‘Cuz I sure do. Not often enough to make me question my own intelligence or anything, but often enough that I really should know better.

Let me back up a little.

Happy Hanukkah!

Disclaimer: I’m not Jewish. However, I do have Russian Jew heritage, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Hanukkah and all things Jewish. This “soft spot” manifested as more of a low-key obsession when I was a child; I made clay menorahs for my dolls and spun dreidels and ate my dad’s delicious latkes and wished I could celebrate the holiday for realsies. I might’ve moved on from that tiny obsession (which is not to say that I didn’t buy a Hebrew textbook at that amazing used book sale a few months back), but I still think Hanukkah and its accompanying rituals are rather enchanting.

As a nod to my heritage and to all my Jewish pals, I decided to make latkes for dinner tonight. Although Hannah’s recipe for baked latkes was timely and looked, quite honestly, delicious (since I’m no fan of fried and/or fat-laden foods), fate got in the way and led me astray. An absence of white potatoes necessitated my use of sweet potatoes instead, and although I probably should have just adapted Hannah’s recipe – what with my knowledge that baked latkes would be easier and would sit better in my tummy! – of course I ignored my instincts and decided to go with a more traditional (i.e. fried) recipe instead.

Sigh. I should’ve known better. Perhaps it’s obvious where this is going. My latkes did not, to put it mildly, turn out well. They didn’t look all crispy and yummy like the latkes from the original recipe do. I didn’t photograph them (or, really, it, because I ultimately created a monstrous, hideous, oily patty of sorts), but here are some of my thoughts during the cooking process:

  • Man, I really hate grating things. I hate the little nub at the end because I want to grate it all but I also want all my fingers.
  • Hmm, this mixture is really not coalescing at all…
  • Oh, yeah, I forgot that my stupid stove is tilted. Probably it’s not a great thing that all the oil is gathering in the back of the pan. Stupid stove. Stupid apartment.
  • Huh. Why are bits of my pancakes sticking to my spatula instead of the other bits?
  • Oh, this isn’t good. Yeah… these won’t be pancakes. Wonder if I can call them hash browns.
  • Ah. Ah, that’s gross. They’re oozing oil.
  • Maybe I’ll just make it into one giant pancake and call it a day.
  • Oh #@%&, I don’t have any paper towels. Damn my smug, eco-friendly self! How will I blot this oily mess?
  • …I do have Kleenex…
  • Well, this is kind of disgusting. But I refuse to waste it.

Yes, friends, I had a major latkes fail. SIGH. Happy Hanukkah to me – I gave myself a tummyache and an apartment that smells like fried disgustingness.

Guess what, though? You can set yourself up for a much better Hanukkah, Christmas, Festivus, or General December of Awesomeness! If you’re in the mood for a gift of your own, check out my giveaway – you can win a bunch of lovely handmade vegan craft items and a cookbook, just in time for holiday baking. And let’s hope that your holiday baking is 1000x more successful than my holiday latkes-failing.

Food Fail: Not-So-Decadent Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies

Man, I am so disappointed. All day long I was thinking up something yummy I could bake and then share with you guys as part of my triumphant re-entry into the world of the living/MoFo. I toyed with lots of ideas, most of them involving crushed candy canes, chocolate, and suuugarrrrr, but then I decided to stick with a more autumnal theme and bake up some Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies. Mmhmm. It was gonna be fantastic; I envisioned a pumpkin, tofu, and Tofutti mixture swirled into chewy, dense, chocolaty brownies, creating a decadent, beautiful treat.

Well. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and vegan bakers often go awry. When I set out to create my cheesecake mixture, I discovered that both my pumpkin AND my tofu were sporting attractive moldy fur. Apparently they’d been in the fridge much longer than I’d remembered… I guess that’s what happens when you don’t think about anything but work for a couple of weeks! Being the pumpkin-lover that I am, I did have another can in the pantry, so I just forwent the tofu and used pumpkin, Tofutti, agave, and a spice blend for the cheesecake mixture. Whatever; that was manageable, and then the brownies came together as smoothly as decidedly non-vegan silk. Because I don’t have a go-to brownie recipe yet, I decided to try out the Decadent Brownies from The Garden of Vegan, and after an hour or so in the kitchen and in the oven (the brownies, not me), I pulled this out:

Looks delicious, but...

Not too bad, right? Maybe a little cake-y, but I thought I could live with that. When I cut a square and took a bite, I was hopeful; I was sanguine that the flavor would make up for the sad lack of fudginess. Oh, how wrong was I.

Have you ever heard the saying “beautiful on the outside; boring on the inside?” Yeah, neither have I; I just made it up to describe these sad little squares of boringness. They look pretty, but that’s about all they have going for them! These are, quite literally, the least decadent brownies I’ve ever had the misfortune to taste. They don’t even taste like chocolate, for crying out loud! They’re just puffy squares of flavorless cakiness. Somehow, though, their lack of flavor overpowers the pumpkin cheesecake flavor! How absurd! The pumpkin cheesecake mixture tasted really yummy pre-baking; I know because I sampled it not a few times. But in the brownies it just gets lost in a sad mix of blaaaaah-flavored nothingness, whatever that even means.

...looks can be deceiving.

Gosh, I ‘m so disappointed. I don’t even want to look at these stupid little dudes because they make me sad and angry. SIGH. I mean, okay, maybe it was my fault for using the Trader Joe’s brand of cocoa powder, and maybe I should’ve ignored the fact that the recipe called for olive oil and just used vegetable oil instead, but still. Ugh, I can’t even think about it anymore. Please, tell me something wonderful and cheery and puppies-and-rainbows happy!

BUI: Baking Under the Influence (…of the internetz)

This is a cautionary tale, folks, a warning for those of you who sometimes feel an urge to bake but can’t drag yourselves away from the internerdz while doing so. You’ve got the recipe open on one tab, Gmail on another, Google Reader on a third, Jezebel on the next, and the PPK on yet another. Your iTunes is blasting some ridiculous and probably embarrassing tunes, and maybe you’re trying to keep up a Gchat conversation simultaneously. This is worse than drunk!baking, people. It’s distracted baking, and – much like texting while driving* – it can have Serious Consequences.

Sometimes, baking while under the influence of the INTERNETZZZ!!!11!1!!! can cause you to do things that make you seriously question your intelligence… or at least your ability to perform the simplest of tasks. Graduating magna cum laude with distinction in my major from a top college? No sweat; I can pull that off in my sleep. But reading a recipe? That’s beyond me. Somewhere between the [super embarassing] S Club 7 music video I watched on YouTube and the irritated e-mail I fired off to my best friend, I misread 1/4 tsp as 1/4 cup. Yeah. And the ingredient in question? Blackstrap molasses.

And the most embarrassing bit – the bit I very nearly decided to omit from this post – is that it took me an obscenely long time to realize my error. It wasn’t ’til I’d combined the wet and dry ingredients and was wondering why the result was more batter than dough that I figured something was wrong. And then – suddenly – I thought, “Hey… chocolate chip cookie dough isn’t s’posed to be brown.” Y’think?

So – let’s just say that my chocolate chip cookies quickly morphed into chocolate chip-molasses cookies. The good news? Dreena’s recipe can stand up to even this assault of stupidity; they were still surprisingly delicious, if a little too sweet, given the inclusion of maple syrup + sugar + way too much molasses.

Somethin' just ain't right.

I’d just like to try and recoup a meager 2% of my Baking Legitimacy by saying that this fiasco was caused because I was baking for the end results. When I bake for the sake of baking, I treat each step in a recipe with love and care, tenderly measuring flour and leveling the top of my measuring cups with a knife to ensure precision. I use my best Pampered Chef spatula to scrape the sides of a bowl, making sure no speck of flour goes unmixed. But baking for the end results is a much more slapdash experience, a mad rush of pouring and distracted stirring wherein all I care about is the finished product (and maybe a few spoonfuls of batter along the way). I’m disconnected from the end product and the recipe on the page; I’m pouring and mixing and measuring individual ingredients without thinking about how they’ll work together as a whole. It’s bad juju, man.

So, in conclusion – focus on your baking! That series of tubes might be super distracting, but don’t let it distract you so much that you commit a baking mistake that would make Betty Crocker cry and shun you from her kitchen forever.

*Plz don’t text while driving. It’s stupid and irresponsible. Guess what? In the olden days, people couldn’t even talk on the phone while driving – and they survived! You can wait 10 minutes to text your bff about the slowpoke old lady doing 25 in a 55 MPH zone. Trust.

The Great Cake Debacle (and some raspberry-chocolate goodness)

Fun fact about me: I hate failure. Obviously nobody likes it much, but it seriously grates at me. As a perfectionist with OCD, I can’t stand when things don’t work out correctly. Failure is like a festering wound into which I keep pouring salt in the form of continually obsessing about what went wrong and why things didn’t turn out perfectly. I feel the compulsive need to fix my problem, to make it right. Bear that in mind as I spin the following tail of woe.

On Wednesday evening, my family had a little get-together because my darling baby sister is going away to college in a few days, and we wanted to send her off properly. I found myself in charge of providing sustenance in the form of desserts of my sister’s choosing. First she decided that the Raspberry-Chocolate Chip Blondie Bars from Vegan with a Vengeance sounded mighty fine, so that went on the list, and after procuring a few choice items, we threw together the blondies with no problem. They came out perfectly; the Lindt dark chocolate bits we used in place of chocolate chips contrasted most deliciously with the raspberry filling. These were a huge hit – and they didn’t look too shabby, either.

Chocolate and raspberry delight.

Tantalizing, no? But we had to make something else, because a proper dessert gathering is all about having options. So, after much hemming and hawing, Sister Dearest decided she wanted something lemony. A lemon cake, perhaps.

But where to look for a sophisticated, lightly lemony cake recipe? It was obvious to me. I headed over to Have Cake, Will Travel to see what Celine could offer. I found perfection in the form of her Lemony French Cake. You all need to go check out Celine’s gorgeous photos of this cake to understand why I was so enamored with it. It’s truly a thing of beauty, understated in its elegance yet clearly sophisticated. Wildly eager to recreate this statuesque stunner, I followed Celine’s gentle hint to bake the cake a day ahead of time in order to to “let the flavors develop.” After successfully and easily pulling together the blondies, I imagined that this next endeavor would be – pardon the expression – a piece of cake. With only eight ingredients, I anticipated a surefire success. So imagine my dismay, friends, when ding of the oven’s timer revealed this to me:

Pancake-cakes!

Oh, the horror! I’m exaggerating, though; the baking of this cake was fraught with adversity and halfway through I knew with dreadful certainty that no good would come of it. First, my poor, helpful, little sister zested her finger instead of a lemon and was out of commission. Next, because of my local grocery stores’ lack of plain or even vanilla non-dairy yogurt, I had to resort to this “recipe” instead.* I’d used it successfully in the blondies, and it never fails in the muffins from Vegan Brunch I’ve made a few times, but I think that for this cake recipe, it’s just not right. Because I sort of eyeball the amount of cornstarch, I often tend to add a little too much, thus creating a quite thick “yogurt.” I also sometimes neglect to add the splash of lemon juice or vinegar the recipe includes, which in this case was a punch in the gut since I had lemons right there – this is, after all, a lemon cake. Then, because the soy yogurt was so thick, my cake batter was very, very thick. So I added a few squeezes of lemon juice (I was replacing the lemon extract with extra zest, by the by) and a dash of soy milk, and had to keep stirring to mix everything together. Only after I had thoroughly stirred my batter did I notice Celine’s note to “stir until just combined;” it was then that a 1000-watt lightbulb flashed on in my brain and I realized that this was a delicate cake, one that required a light touch and definitely not extra mixing.

Presentiments of failure began to stir in my head at this point, but I pushed them aside for the time. The final piece of kindling in this fire of failure was my lack of a 6″ x 4″ round cake pan; we only have the small 9″ x 1″ ones, so after doing some hasty math, my sister and I thought we might just make two of those size and layer them. But by the time I halved my batter and poured it into the two pans, it was too late to save the cakes. A few minutes in the oven revealed that they were obstinately refusing to rise; I’d overmixed them and allowed the flour to glutenize. And the shallower pans surely didn’t help matters; in retrospect, after seeing how little they’d risen, I realized that just one 9″ x 1″ pan would’ve worked fine. Anyway, 25 minutes later, I ended up with two very, very flat lemon cakes… they were more like pancakes, really. I felt irritated with myself because the failure was my fault; I should have intuited what sort of cake this was and not taken it for granted. There was no way I could show these cakes to my family the following night, but by then it was too late to do anything; I’d have to wait until the following day. I went to bed, and visions of tiny, mocking lemon cakes danced in my head.

I awoke the next morning with a few possible solutions. I could save the cakes for “personal eating” and make something totally new, or I could try again and work to perfect the same cakes. But neither of those possibilities satisfied the frugal penny-pincher that lives inside of me; it seemed like a waste to make something entirely new. So I decided that if the cakes at least tasted okay, they might be salvageable.

A tiny taste revealed to me that – hallelujah! – despite their refusal to rise and dense appearance, the cakes still tasted mighty fine! The way was clear for a salvaging mission. After a little quick thinking, I decided to stack the cakes and make mock-petit fours with a layer of raspberry jam in the middle, thus turning VeggaSis’s going-away gathering into a vaguely raspberry-themed event. I covered my faux petit fours with a simple glaze, and guess what? They didn’t turn out half bad.

SUCCESS.

These sweet squares looked charming and had a delicate lemon flavor that was complemented nicely by the raspberry filling. So even though my inner perfectionist is still bothered by my initial failure, I’m happy that I managed to save the cakes and turn them into something presentable. I’ll try the recipe again soon, armed with a little extra experience under my belt. ;)

I’ll leave you with another gratuitous blondie shot, because these babies were amazing. My one tiny criticism of the recipe is that the actual blondie layer is much more cake-like than blondie-esque, even if the flavor is spot-on. I might tinker with it some day and try to give it a denser, chewier texture. But even if I don’t, I’m definitely adding this recipe to my arsenal of no-fail favorites!

Yum.

* I found this recipe while Googling for a quick homemade soy yogurt recipe, and I do believe that this must be an older blog of Celine’s, which I didn’t realize until now. Interesting!