Recipe Showdown: Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls!

Orange rectangle with the white MoFo fist logo. Text to the right says: "Recipe Showdown: pumpkin cinnamon rolls."

Welcome to the the first Recipe Showdown of VeganMoFo 2012! In my Recipe Showdowns, I pit three recipes for one food item against each other to see which recipe reigns supreme. For this challenge, I put three recipes for Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls in the ring and let them fight it out for eternal glory and a special spot in my stomach. ;)

Before we get to the contestants (and the results!), let’s talk about pumpkin cinnamon rolls. More specifically, let’s talk about what makes an excellent pumpkin cinnamon roll. I went into this showdown with virgin taste buds – I’d never actually eaten a pumpkin cinnamon roll! I had some simple criteria for what I expected. I decided that a stellar pumpkin cinnamon roll should be:

  • Tender and fluffy. This goes for all cinnamon rolls, really. They should be light and airy, not heavy and dense.
  • Rich, but not sickeningly so. This is a tricky line to toe – I want my rolls to have a rich, gooey filling in their centers, but I don’t want to feel sick after eating a single roll.
  • Pumpkin-flavored! This is a no-brainer, but I want to taste the pumpkin! A healthy dose of pumpkin pie spice to round out the flavor profile is also a must.

All pretty reasonable, right? Of course, to make pumpkin cinnamon rolls, one needs pumpkin. After I used freshly roasted pumpkin puree for my first batch, I knew that I had to continue using it for consistency’s sake. My pumpkin puree was nowhere near as dark orange as the stuff you find in cans:

Clear Tupperware container of a bright orange pumpkin puree.

Bright!

I love how vibrant homemade puree is, but it doesn’t make for noticeably orange baked goods. So if my pumpkin cinnamon rolls don’t look as orange as you’d expect, that’s why. I should also note that I don’t have a stand mixer, so I kneaded the dough for all my rolls by hand, even when the instructions said to use a mixer with a dough hook.

Now that we’ve got the technical details out of the way, on to the recipes! First, I tried a recipe from a chef who only occasionally cooks vegan.

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls from Eat, Live, Run

Intrigued by Jenna’s use of chia seeds and entranced by the beautiful, deep orange hue of the rolls, I eagerly put together the dough for these rolls one Sunday morning. As it completed its first rise, I realized that I’d totally forgotten to add the sugar. After much swearing and despairing, I made the sugarless dough into savory biscuits and forged ahead with a second batch of the now properly sugared dough. Here’s what these rolls looked like just before heading into the oven:

Glass baking pan with unbaked rolls. They're not very orange; they're more of a light brown.

Can you spot the chia seeds?

And here they are all baked up and drizzled with icing:

Closer shot of baked cinnamon buns in a glass pan. They're set against a bright blue napkin and they're drizzled with thick white icing.

Just a hint of orange…

I love how uniformly rolled these are – the dough was very easy to work with, so I had no problems rolling it out and slicing it. But how did they taste? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

PROS:

  • Not terribly unhealthy – just four TBSP of Earth Balance in the entire recipe!
  • Recipe was really easy to follow (as long as you don’t forget a key ingredient!)
  • S described them as “Really good!”

CONS:

  • S said, “This doesn’t taste overwhelmingly pumpkin-y… there’s definitely a spicy tinge to it, but I expected it to be more pumpkin-y.”
  • Texture was just the slightest bit chewy – I blame the chia seeds.
  • Boring, overly sweet glaze – it’s just confectioner’s sugar, almond milk, and vanilla.

Spoiler – this isn’t the only time you’ll hear about a lack of an overwhelming pumpkin flavor! Overall, S and I enjoyed these rolls. They were easy to make and were not overly sweet or fatty – I never felt remotely sick after eating them. Still, I was disappointed that they only used 1/3 cup of pumpkin and that the filling had no traditional pumpkin pie spice – just cinnamon. Adding more of those spices would’ve helped differentiate these rolls from regular ol’ cinnamon rolls.

OVERALL GRADE: B

Next, I tried a recipe that’s been on my To Make list for ages, one that was debuted during a VeganMoFo of yore to the delight of pumpkin-lovers everywhere.

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls from Don’t Eat Off the Sidewalk

The recipe for these rolls is prefaced with the warning, “I hope you have your fat pants ready.” Sounds promising, right? These rolls were fluffy, puffy dreams before baking:

Pillows of pumpkin-y delight!

Just look at that gorgeous filling! These rolls were equally attractive after a brief stay in the oven:

In the foreground is a small white plate with a tall cinnamon roll dripping with white icing. In the middle background is a small glass jar filled with cinnamon sticks, and in the far background is another plate with another roll on it.

Fat pants = ready.

If the tops of these rolls look a little bit brown to you, you’re not seeing things. I accidentally broke my golden rule of baking and set my kitchen timer for the recommended minimum baking time of 20 minutes. Usually, I set the timer for at least three minutes before the minimum time to make sure I don’t overcook them. Alas, I broke my own rule and suffered the consequences. User error aside, how did these come out?

PROS:

  • Absolutely perfect texture – fluffy and tender.
  • Yummy sweet filling.
  • Definitely a rich treat.

CONS:

  • No real noticeable pumpkin flavor.
  • Dough itself wasn’t very sweet – could’ve used just a bit more sugar.
  • Same boring glaze as the ELR rolls.

These rolls are more in line with a traditional cinnamon roll than the ELR rolls, which means that they’re richer and more filling. I found the dough a little difficult to work with – it was very soft and droopy. But that definitely made for a truly perfect texture – I was delighted with the tender, fluffy crumb.

Overall grade: B+

The final contestant was from another baker who isn’t always vegan, but when I saw this recipe come up in my MoFo feed last week, I knew it was the perfect recipe to round out the trio.

Pumpkin Spice Cinnamon Rolls and Maple Cream Cheese Icing from Baker Bettie

Let me tell you a little something about myself – I am a sucker for anything maple. I think that maple is the absolute most perfect flavor in existence. Those maple sugar candies? Heaven on earth. Maple syrup? Makes me weak in the knees. I had no power to resist this recipe.

The rolls were adorably soft and fluffy before baking:

Top-down view of a metal baking pan with uncooked cinnamon rolls.

Raw rolls.

When they were done, they got a drizzle of warm maple-Tofutti icing:

Top-down view of a single cinnamon roll. It's definitely orange and it's drizzled with a thick, light brown icing with noticeable flecks of spice.

Hey! It’s orange!

Look! Finally, a roll with a noticeably orange hue! So – how’d this recipe stack up?

PROS:

  • Great texture in the sections that were fully baked.
  • Very prevalent pumpkin pie spice flavors – “the spiciest of the bunch,” according to S.
  • Yummy icing!

CONS:

  • No noticeable pumpkin flavor.
  • Icing was nowhere near as thin as in the original recipe’s photos – it was chunky, thick, and a bit difficult to spread.
  • Rolls did not bake evenly – some were severely under-done in the centers.

What a mixed bag of responses for this one! Here’s the deal – I took the rolls out after about 16 minutes in the oven. Their tops were already golden brown and a bit hard; all my instincts told me that the rolls were done. Later, when I started cutting into them, I realized that they were still very doughy in places. But it was way too late to put them back in the oven (and I have a not-so-secret love of raw dough), so S and I just ate them as-is, doughy bits and all.

Beyond the dough issue, the icing was a bit of a nightmare. It looks okay in that photo, but the rest of the rolls didn’t get as much care from me and basically received large globs of thick, slightly chunky icing. I’m really not sure how Kristin (the recipe’s author) managed to get her icing so uniform in texture – all the whisking in the world wouldn’t have made mine as thin and glob-free as hers.

This is a tough recipe to grade. If they’d cooked through, these would’ve been amazing – the rolls that were fully cooked had a wonderful texture and flavor. If I’d let myself fiddle with the icing, I could’ve gotten it to a better state. But the integrity of a Recipe Showdown relies on me following recipes exactly, so I couldn’t do that. Therefore, I can’t grade these as highly as they probably deserve.

Overall grade: B

So, by a hair, the recipe from Don’t Eat Off the Sidewalk takes the day!

Here’s what I think – pumpkin cinnamon rolls are all about the pumpkin-related spices, because you can’t really taste much actual pumpkin in them. Maybe canned pumpkin would add a more noticeable flavor, but I’m not so sure. So it’s all down to a judicious sprinkling of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice to trick our easily-hoodwinked tongues into thinking we’re tasting pumpkin.

I think that my perfect pumpkin cinnamon rolls are a mix of the Don’t Eat Off the Sidewalk rolls and the Baker Bettie rolls, with a modified version of the maple-cream cheese icing. S and I are hosting a harvest-themed party in a couple weeks, so who knows – you might just see my own pumpkin cinnamon roll recipe up here soon. ;)

What’s your favorite pumpkin cinnamon roll (or regular cinnamon roll!) recipe? What vegan food would you like to see in a Recipe Showdown!

Recipe Showdown: Mac & Cheese

Orange rectangular banner that says "Vegan MoFo" and "Vegan Month of Food 2011."

A few weeks ago, I pitted three brownie recipes against one another in a battle for the title of Best Brownie. Joanna Vaught’s aptly named All-Time Very Best Vegan Brownie recipe handily defeated its foes, what with its fudgy, rich results. But what if you’re (gasp!) not in the mood for chocolate? What if you want something more savory, something carb-laden and creamy? What if you’re craving… mac & cheese?

Fear not! My second recipe showdown puts three rock-star mac & cheese (henceforth known as M&C) recipes to the test. First, my criteria – I think a stand-out M&C recipe must be…

  • Creamy. I want creamy, smooth sauce that perfectly coats my noodles. Too little sauce results in dry noodles, while too much sauce is more like cheese soup with pasta.
  • Neutral-flavored. Now, I don’t mean “bland;” I just mean that I don’t want to taste vegetables or potatoes in my sauce – I want it to have a unique flavor all its own. I know that a vegan M&C won’t taste like dairy cheese, but I don’t want it to have a recognizable flavor that is distinctly not cheesy.
  • Not incredibly heavy. This is where I might differ from many of you, and this is why I can’t do Daiya-based M&C. Basically, my body doesn’t tolerate fatty foods well, and I don’t want to feel sick and stomach-pained after eating a bowl of M&C. However, I still want my M&C to satisfy my comfort food cravings, to fill the creamy, cheesy pasta-shaped void in my tummy.

A tall order? You bet. But I tried the three recipes that people suggested as their favorites and that hold spots of reverence in vegan circles, so I had high hopes. Let’s see what I discovered!

First, I tried arguably the most popular and well-praised recipe that exists today:

VegNews’ Vegan Macaroni and Cheese

VegNews calls this “[t]he best mac ‘n’ cheese on the planet. End of story.” The reviews on the recipe are off-the-wall enthusiastic, and I’ve seen countless bloggers fall at the proverbial feet of this recipe, singing its praises and calling it the best thing they’ve ever tasted. But could it live up to the hype? I was willing to give it a chance, but I was skeptical.

Close-up of a glass casserole dish full of mac & cheese. The corner has a bit scooped out, and you can see it in the background on a plate.

The oft-praised VegWeb M&C!

PROS:

  • Pretty creamy.
  • Includes veggies, so you can trick yourself into thinking it’s slightly healthy.
  • No nutritional yeast. (This isn’t necessarily a pro for me, but I think NY-free recipes are crucial – not everybody loves the yellow yeast! It’s an acquired taste for many.)

CONS:

  • Breadcrumbs overwhelmed the top layer.
  • The Dijon mustard was too noticeable.
  • I felt heavy and a little sickish afterwards. :(

OVERALL GRADE: B

I hope I don’t lose friends over this one, but I was a little underwhelmed with this recipe. The recipe only calls for 1/4 t of Dijon mustard, but for some reason it was all I could taste. It definitely didn’t meet the “neutral taste” requirement, which is really my main beef with it – that and the stomach-ache it gave me. That said, the flavor wasn’t bad, and it was definitely creamy enough to satisfy the M&C need. It was S’s first taste of a non-dairy cheese sauce, and although he never would’ve been fooled into thinking it was real cheese, he also said it was tasty and that he’d make it again. It was a little labor-intensive for an average weeknight, though.

Next, I tried…

VeganYumYum’s Mac & Cheese

This recipe holds a special place in my heart – I used a variation of it the first time I ever made vegan M&C. Nostalgia! I’d never made it without modification, however, so I followed the recipe to a T[ablespoon… ha ha ha] this time around.

Close-up of a small bowl of macaroni and cheese with a glass of almond milk in the background.

This is an unattractive picture. I'm sorry.

PROS:

  • Despite the 1/3 C of Earth Balance (!!!), it didn’t taste overly heavy to me.
  • The sauce actually has a unique, enjoyable flavor.
  • Appropriately “gooey” texture.

CONS:

  • Post-baking, it seemed to lose some flavor.
  • 1/3 C of EB. :(
  • Makes way more than 2-3 servings. This mightn’t be a con for others, but I had lots of leftovers, and I wasn’t planning for them.

OVERALL GRADE: B-

That grade is for the dish as a whole. S described it as “bland,” although his portion was microwaved and a few days old. Straight out of the saucepan, the cheesy sauce tasted really, really good to me – it had a unique flavor that totally fit my “neutral flavor” criterion. But baked? It just tasted… bland. I don’t understand what happened! If I were grading the sauce alone, it’d definitely get a higher grade, but the dish as a whole just doesn’t merit it, alas.

The third contender was…

The New Farm Mac & Cheese (the Get Sconed! version)

This M&C is legendary. It has a storied history with roots in the out-of-print New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook. The original recipe is floating around the web somewhere, but once I heard that it contained ample amounts of both margarine and oil, my nerves failed me and I sought out a slightly less heart-attack-inducing variety. Jess’s version fit the bill, with its much-reduced fat content (which is not to say that this is a low-fat recipe!). I followed Jess’s recipe, although I didn’t make it gluten-free, and I didn’t add any of the optional add-ins.

Baked mac & cheese in a green square dish with a plate of M&C in the background.

This picture is even uglier than the previous one.

PROS:

  • Very, very creamy – totally satisfied that creamy-pasta urge.
  • Neutral flavor, pretty typical to any nutritional yeast-based sauce.
  • Coated the pasta nicely.
  • BONUS: According to S: “Congeals just like cheese when cold.” Ha!

CONS:

  • The neutral flavor very nearly crossed the line into bland territory.
  • Contains both margarine and oil. Blurgh.
  • The minced garlic bits were a little odd and detracted from the texture.

OVERALL: B+

S said that this one had “a cheese-like tanginess that permeate[d] more than the others.” Incidentally, this recipe contains the most nutritional yeast compared to the other two. Hmm! He didn’t know that, because he wasn’t with me when I made the second two recipes. I’m not sure I’d call it tangy, but maybe that’s because what he called tangy just tastes like nutritional yeast to me. Generally, though, this one filled the M&C void most strongly for me. Initially I thought it was a little boring, but it really grew on me – straight out of the oven, it was incredibly creamy. I have to begrudgingly admit that the oil might be the secret ingredient for maximum creaminess.

So, coming in a hair above the others, Jess’s version of the New Farm Mac & Cheese won this showdown. Ultimately, though, my ultimate mac & cheese might be a combination of the VeganYumYum and the New Farm varieties. I think that the tomato paste in the VYY recipe really adds a unique flavor to the cheese, while the olive oil in the NF recipe makes the sauce incredibly creamy. I think I’m going to experiment on a hybrid recipe! :)

I would be remiss in posting about this showdown if I didn’t mention The Noochy Noodle, a blog devoted solely to tasting and reviewing vegan mac & cheese. Whether it comes from a box or from a fancy-pants vegan restaurant, Kristen is dedicated to reviewing all the vegan M&C she can find. It puts this tiny little showdown to shame, really. I highly recommend you check out The Noochy Noodle for all your vegan mac & cheese needs!

What’s your favorite mac & cheese recipe? How many have you tried?

Note: This is a scheduled post, because I’m currently in Italy. Apologies for any weirdness with auto-publishing!

Recipe Showdown: Brownies!

Orange rectangular banner that says "Vegan MoFo" and "Vegan Month of Food 2011."

This is the first-ever Recipe Showdown, where I’ll pit three recipes for one food item against one another! Up this week: brownies!

Welcome to the great brownie showdown of 2011! As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always on the hunt for the elusive perfect brownie recipe, so I decided to perform a scientifically sound and rigorous test process to find a recipe that is undeniably the best… by which I mean, I pigged out on brownies, shoved them down the throats of everyone around me, and arbitrarily decided if they passed muster. I did have some criteria, however. In my opinion, a perfect brownie must:

  • Have a thin, crackly top layer, like a gift wrapped in chocolaty tissue paper.
  • Have a deep, rich, chocolate flavor, not just a hint of chocolate or a weaksauce milk chocolate flavor.
  • Be fudgy. For the love of tofu, they must be fudgy. Cake-like brownies are the worst. If I want cake, I’ll make some damn cake! I want chewy, dense squares that taste like fudge’s crumbier half-sister.

With those criteria in mind, let’s meet our contenders! First up, we have…

Wolffie’s Moist and Chocolatey Brownies from La Dolce Vegan

I’ll admit that I was dubious about these brownies; I’d tried a Sarah Kramer brownie recipe in the past and found it horribly disappointing; my notes in the cookbook say simply “boring!” What I should’ve done was cross out the titular “brownies” and replace it with “blandies”. But I didn’t want to write off Sarah’s brownie skillz based on one boring recipe, so I gave a second recipe (from a different book!) a shot. The entire package of silken tofu in the ingredient list didn’t exactly assuage my fears, but I gave Sarah the benefit of the doubt and forged ahead.

Photo of a rectangular brownie with chocolate chips on top. It's sitting on a small plate; in the background is a glass of almond milk and more chocolate chips sprinkled around the plate.

In the right corner…

PROS:

  • Definitely moist.
  • Appropriately chocolaty. I cheated and used some Dutch-processed cocoa powder; I couldn’t resist!
  • Not exactly cake-like.

CONS:

  • Not exactly fudgy.
  • Strangely textured – not what I’d expect in a brownie.
  • Chocolate chips just sat on top, unmelted and sad.
  • No crackly skin.

OVERALL GRADE: B

Despite their non-fudgy texture,  these were not bad. My roommate is a cake-like brownie fan, and she thought they hit the mark in that regard. She was also surprised to discover that they contained tofu, so they definitely didn’t have any lingering soy flavor. At first, I found their texture (sort of spongy and dense) a bit off-putting, but it slowly grew on me, and by the time I finished the batch, I’d converted to a grudging fan. I’d consider making these again, but not when I’m craving brownies – just when I want something chocolaty and moist!

Up next, we have…

Rich, Fudgy Vegan Brownies from Food.com

An underdog contestant, this recipe comes from a user named Pollen over at Food.com. I found the recipe by Googling “best vegan brownies,” which led me to this recipe, which had a comment saying “these are pretty good, but the other vegan brownie recipe I have posted is way better!” So I followed the link to the Rich, Fudgy Vegan Brownie recipe and knew I had to try it. They had five stars and purportedly tasted “soooooo good” – what could possibly go wrong?!

Photo of what is allegedly a brownie on a plate but is actually quite obviously cake.

Something is amiss…

PROS:

  • Undeniably chocolaty.
  • Quite tasty.
  • Perfect cakelike crumb. Wait…

CONS:

  • Not brownies.
  • Actually cake.
  • Not fudgy.
  • No crackly skin.
  • Not @%#*$!^ brownies; what else can I say?!

OVERALL GRADE: F-

That picture says it all. This recipe makes a damn fine chocolate cake, but a pan of chocolate cake is NOT THE SAME as a pan of brownies. As soon as I finished mixing the ingredients and saw just how liquidy the batter was, I knew with a sinking feeling that no brownies were going to come out of my oven. It’s partially my fault – for possibly the first time in my life, I read only the first review on the Web site, and didn’t read any subsequent reviews. Had I done so, I would’ve seen a multitude of comments alerting me to the fact that this is a cake recipe, not a brownie recipe. But it’s not all my fault; the recipe poster marketed these as fudgy brownies, which is a bold-faced lie. On no planet (except perhaps Delusionarius Cakeloverus) could these possibly qualify as brownies; even the cake-like brownie-lovers among you can’t deny that. So, for the purposes of my recipe showdown, I just had to give the recipe a failing grade. That said, if you’re looking for an awesome cake recipe, I highly recommend this one – it came out tender and moist, with a perfect crumb. S and I devoured it whilst watching Gosford Park and had a perfectly lovely cake-eating experience.

Finally, I tried…

Joanna Vaught’s All-Time Very Best Vegan Brownie Recipe

That’s quite the title, eh? At this point in my recipe showdown, I was weary of disappointing brownies and wary of overhyped brownie recipes. But then I stumbled across Joanna’s recipe and read her description of her ideal brownie: “When I think of what makes my ideal brownie, two qualities are essential: 1) fudgy, not cakey and 2) that crispy-crunchy top layer. ” Sounds familiar, eh? With renewed enthusiasm, I set out to test Joanna’s bold claim.

A photo of three brownies stacked on a plate; they're obviously fudgy and have a crackly top layer!

Could it be?

PROS:

  • Perfectly fudgy right out of the oven
  • Rich chocolate flavor
  • Crackly top layer

CONS:

  • Slightly too-strong coconut flavor
  • Very crumbly after just one day
  • Difficult to remove from pan

OVERALL GRADE: A

Hallelujah! Finally, a brownie that met all my specifications. Joanna’s boastful title, as it turns out, is a well-deserved one. When I pulled these brownies from the oven, I knew that goodness awaited me beneath their crackly surface. Somehow I restrained myself from prematurely cutting into the pan, but when I did, those first bites were heavenly. I couldn’t resist sneaking piece after piece as I slice them up in preparation for their photo session; they were just so rich and satisfying!

They weren’t perfect, however. I’m generally not opposed to using coconut oil in recipes, but I thought that the coconut undertones were fairly noticeable here, and they detracted slightly from the chocolaty goodness. And they became hard and crumbly quite quickly; maybe I should have wrapped them tightly in foil, but I suspect they’re just meant to be devoured immediately (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Finally, they were quite difficult to remove from the pan; brownie bottom bits kept sticking no matter how delicately I tried to maneuver my spatula beneath them. But this is my fault; I blatantly ignored Joanna’s recommendation to cook them on a layer of aluminum foil for easy removal.

Overall, though, these were the clear winners of this recipe showdown, and their few cons were really minor. So cheers to you, Joanna, for creating such a marvelous recipe!

In other brownie news, the recipe that I tried out here is also pretty solid (probably an A-), so I’d recommend that one along with Joanna’s recipe. And they’re pretty, too!

Photo of three thin, fudgy-looking brownies stacked on a small white plate with decorative brown edges.

Brownie nomz.

Do you have a go-to brownie recipe? What’re your criteria for excellent brownies?

And don’t forget – today’s the last day to enter my giveaway! You have until 7:00 PM CST.