Christmas: Sweet Edition

Lest you think we ate nothing but savory foods at our Christmas celebration, let me show you all the sweet, sugary delights we consumed. Technically these aren’t all of them, because I didn’t photograph the oodles of beautiful and undoubtedly delicious non-vegan desserts my aunt shared. But I don’t think you’ll miss them when you see all the sweets we shared!

First up, the traditional Christmas morning cinnamon bun + grapefruit breakfast. Like the past few years, Mama followed the glorious unhealthy-but-delicious VeganYumYum recipe for our cinnamon rolls. This time, I snapped some shots of her baking process, including the super-awesome trick of cutting the giant cinnamon log with dental floss:

Log o' dough.

Look at the perfectly clean slices!

Amazing!

And check out how lovely they look, all nestled up to one another pre-baking.

All rolled up.

And the finished product, covered in an oozy, sweet icing, is equally appealing.

Ready for eatin'.

As usual, I could barely finish one of these buns with breakfast – I had to save the rest for later, when I needed some post-present-opening refueling.

Rest assured, cinnamon buns weren’t the extend of our sweet treats. For dessert proper, Mum made an amazing chocolate-orange mousse pie, a rich, creamy confection with the perfect blend of chocolate and citrus.

I would like to eat a slice right now.

Even though I didn’t make this pie, I think I contributed to its deliciousness by cluing my mom in to silken tofu – apparently, the last time she made it she used regular soft tofu. This time around, I set her straight, to marvelously smooth and creamy results.

Although I can’t claim the pie as my own creation, I did contribute my fair share to the dessert table. Because Christmas isn’t Christmas without cookies, I whipped up some Five-Spice Snaps from Hannah Kaminsky’s Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season and some Peppermint Mocha Roll Cookies from Scissors and Spice.

A variety of nibbles.

Both of these cookies were excellent. The snaps were just a touch more sophisticated than your typical gingersnap, with a mellower yet more nuanced flavor. And the peppermint mocha roll cookies were the perfect yuletide delicacy, chocolaty and minty with a tiny kick of caffeine and just the right amount of chewiness.

I also made a sort of gingerbread cake, but it came out a little dry and not terribly gingerbread-y. I totally forgot to photograph it, but no matter – it was pretty forgettable; I don’t even recall where I found the recipe.

All in all, I’d say we had a pretty damn tasty Christmas, wouldn’t you? What are your favorite holiday desserts? And do you have a no-fail gingerbread recipe I could borrow? :)

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!

The Post-Holiday Rambling Rundown: Part 2, A Christmas Retrospective

Confession: I’m losing my bloggy steam. My motivation to post is pretty low, and I’m even having difficulty mustering up the energy to comment on others’ posts. And Twitter’s been getting on my nerves lately – for those of you who Tweet, how do you keep up with people? It seems like 50% of the people I follow (and whose Tweets I actually want to read!) Tweet all day long. What’s up with that, people?! Do y’all have really relaxed jobs? Or is it that you all have those newfangled smart phones? I hear tell that you can access the internetzzz with them thar things! In any case, you’re makin’ it hard for me to keep up! SIGH.

Okay, I’m done whining. :)

Hey, remember when Christmas happened? Yeah, I know it was like three weeks ago… whatever. Remember how I had all these grand plans for an internationally-themed dinner? Well. Let’s just say that my big plans turned into us having three main dishes, only one of which was vegan, and all of which were Portuguese. Some major fail happened there, but I won’t point fingers at Certain Family Members who dropped the foodie ball. Cough. I won’t lie, either – I had my one and only Petulant!Kelly moment of my trip home at that point, when I realized that all my plans had basically culminated in a table full o’ meat. But after imbibing one [or two… maybe three… definitely too many] vegan White Russians, I let go of my petulance and became my ol’ cheery self again. Plus, there was dessert.

Nom nom nommity nom.

I know that photo is godawful, but… three White Russians, people. We had three vegan desserts! Reppin’ our English heritage, my momma made a yummy figgy pudding (hidden in the dish, d’oh), which was a hybrid of traditional figgy pudding and rice pudding, and my sissy made some super decadent sesame-cranberry-dark chocolate scones. Oh yeah. I put together a really fantastic Russian poppy seed roll – I highly recommend that recipe! So, hey, yummy desserts totally made up for the lackluster dinner.

Plus, who needs dinner when you’ve had cinnamon rolls for breakfast?! Just like last year, my mommy made vegan cinnamon buns for our traditional Christmas morning breakfast of cinnamon rolls and grapefruit.

Stomachache-inducingly good.

They were just as perfect and sugary as they look. I really love that my family is so adaptable and willing to eat vegan. It doesn’t hurt that my mom is 95% vegan, too. ;) My parents both felt so bad about our dinner!fail, which made me feel quite guilty for having a moment of teenager-like petulance. Ah well.

So – that was my Christmas, from a food perspective! And you know what? Writing this post has totally rejuvenated my bloggy mojo. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m also listening to crazy energetic/embarrassing dance music. Enrique, I’m lookin’ at you.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with this loverly photo of my siblings and me on Christmas Eve, just because. Man, my family is the bestest.

Yeah, we *might* be related...

Queen of Apologies No More: From Restroom Run-ins to Rhapsodizing on Veganism, All in One Fell Post!

Sometimes the most mundane, silly experience can inspire serious self-reflection.

A few days ago, I had a fairly awkward restroom encounter. I was exiting, my coworker was entering, the door opened suddenly – it was all very surprising, and I let out an involuntary, “Oh my goodness!” and raised my hand to my throat; apparently when I’m startled I revert to Jane Austen-esque behavior. My coworker, equally startled, visibly jumped a bit and then started laughing and apologizing profusely.

“I always scare people like that with the door! I’m sorry!” “No, it’s okay, I’m sorry!” I said, also laughing. After we’d each said our repeated sorries, we went our separate ways, and I started thinking about those apologies.

What is it that makes us so quick to apologize in situations like that? Sure, I was sorry that my coworker was surprised at the door when she just wanted to use the restroom in peace, and I’m sure she was sorry that she nearly needed to bring out the smelling salts for my startled self, but were either of us sorry for attempting to enter / exit the restroom, respectively? Of course not! Our timing was just a little unfortunate, but neither of us could have helped that. Yet the sorries flowed as if we carried rivers of regret for our awkward meeting.

I used to pour forth gratuitous, nearly involuntary apologies like I was some overactive geyser of guilt. If Apologia Unecessaria were a country, I was the queen, showering my subjects with useless sorries from on high. I knew that the impact of an apology is fairly limited if it’s the 50th one you’ve said in a day, yet I had to consciously stop myself from saying sorry. And this need to show my penitence made its insidious, ingratiating way from my insecure little self into the kitchen and the dining room.

“Sorry for being a pest!” “Sorry for making you go out of your way to cook me something!” ”Sorry for making us choose a restaurant that doesn’t serve your typical American food!”

Not wanting to seem like I was purposely creating trouble for people with my veganism (and previously my vegetarianism), my gut reflex was, for the longest time, to apologize, apologize, apologize, and then thank, thank, thank. After all, who was I to force people to adapt their cooking styles?  Was my personal eating pleasure worth making others go out of their way to accommodate me? My instinct – that insidious, insecure instinct – used to say no. My dietary restrictions are voluntary; it’s not like I’ll go into anaphylactic shock if I eat a scoop of ice cream or chomp on some cheese. I’m sorry for making things difficult! I’d say.

These days? I am not sorry anymore. I am proud of my dietary choices. Going vegan was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I harbor absolutely no regret for kicking dairy and eggs to the curb once and for all. In so many ways, I feel happier, healthier, and cleaner of conscience now than I ever, ever have in the past. I feel more complete.

And the sorries? They’ve stopped (although the thanks continue). When my friends bake with Earth Balance instead of butter, when my co-workers experiment with vegan alternatives instead of making egg-laden quick breads, when my family chooses to eat at a vegetarian restaurant while visiting me, I know these actions are their choices. They do so because they want to be inclusive, to share the simple act of eating with me, not because they’re begrudgingly bound and beholden to appease the girl who doesn’t do dairy or eat eggs. They’re cooking from the heart, and each cruelty-free bite of their food tastes so much the better for that simple reason.

My heart has been opened by veganism. I’ve made a conscious effort in the past few years to shed my cynicism and my defensive sarcasm. I am trying, truly, to let my compassion and empathy overpower the walls I’ve built up over the years. So how could I ever, ever be sorry for something so life-altering?

Especially when being vegan is so satisfying, not only to the heart but to the tummy. Being vegan has given me the chance to slowly work past my aversion to combining the sweet and the savory with foods like this shockingly delicious Curried Couscous Salad with Dried Sweet Cranberries.

Using the Hot Curry powder from Penzeys takes this dish to new levels of awesome.

And it’s let me play with presentation to make sweet little Cucumber Tea Sandwiches for a garden tea party with dear friends.

Garnished with watercress for good measure.

And it’s given me the courage to experiment, to take an inspiring Maple Hemp Granola Bar recipe and tweak it to make my own granola bars for camping, and then eat the crumbly leftovers with soy yogurt for a simple, delicious Sunday breakfast.

Perfection in a bowl?

Nope, I am not sorry for being vegan. Not one eensy-weensy, teeny-tiny little bit. So there.

Three Reasons Why My Family is Wonderful (or, a Christmas Retrospective)

1. Stocking Stuffers

Our family Christmas traditions are simple yet solid. Ever since I can remember, we three kids have received a new pair of pajamas on Christmas Eve before reading The Night Before Christmas together and then hopping off to bed so SantaMom&Dad can work their magic. In the morning, we kids wake up and peer eagerly at the beautifully arranged presents around the tree before waking up Mom and Dad. Then we troop into the living room to open our stockings – no presents! – before eating breakfast. Mom’s usually in charge of filling the stockings, and this year the stocking stuffers she chose for me were incredibly thoughtful. Check out some of the swag.

 

Stocking stuff(ers).

 

Knowing that my vegan lifestyle is becoming more all-encompassing and extends beyond my dietary choices, Mom found a cruelty-free, vegan lip balm for me, along with organic, vegan body lotion, and Tom’s of Maine deodorant. I was so very pleased to discover these treasures in my stocking! The Candy Cane lip balm has a lovely, subtle scent, and the lotion’s Vanilla Chai scent smells just like warm cinnamon buns. Speaking of which…

2. Cinnamon Buns

The next part of our family tradition is the most delicious – breakfast. We break our fast on Christmas morning with half a grapefruit each, followed by delicious, sticky, cinnamon buns. In the past, we’ve gotten them from local bakeries, but this year Mom and Dad knew that I wouldn’t eat non-vegan cinnamon buns, so they sacrificed the safety of tradition in favor of experimenting and making some that I would definitely eat. Because I didn’t get home until 10:30 on Christmas Eve (and I almost didn’t make it at all!), I couldn’t volunteer my services and Mom was in charge of the buns. At my recommendation, she tried out this utterly decadent recipe from VeganYumYum. Although Mom is mostly low-fat vegan, we all decided that for this one day, we would indulge and enjoy ourselves. And, oh, how we enjoyed these beauties.

 

Sticky, sweet, delights.

 

These cinnamon buns surpassed all our expectations. They not only tasted as good as the bakery buns of yore, but even better. They were almost too rich for me – I could only finish a half in one sitting, and had to save the rest for a post-present-unwrapping pick-me-up! Mom did an amazing job, especially since it was her first time making anything yeasted. So thoughtful.

3. Sweet Surprises

Another part of our food tradition involves a huge platter o’ cookies and fudge, compliments of my Aunt Nancy. She’s an incredible baker, and she devotes the month of December to making and freezing dozens – if not hundreds – of Christmas cookies. She shares them with friends and family, and no Christmas is complete without a platter or two of her tantalizing treats. Aunt Nancy even provides a special nut-free plate for my sister, to accommodate her allergies.

Unfortunately, none of my aunt’s cookies are vegan, and although she mentioned the possibility of trying some new recipes next year, I found myself unable to eat anything from her platter. Just looking at the macaroons and candied walnuts and mini magic bars made me a little bit sad that I couldn’t indulge, but then I was presented with this.

 

Sweet surprises from my sissy.

 

My lovely, wonderful, sister made me a platter of adorably decorated vegan sugar cookies! She knew I wouldn’t be able to eat any of my aunt’s, and took matters into her own hands. I don’t know what recipe she used (she said it called for silken tofu), but I thought they were perfectly yummy. I grabbed one every time I saw the rest of my family cutting a slice of cheesecake or chomping on some fudge, and they made my day so much brighter. Next year, I’ll be home for a few days before Christmas, and I’m looking forward to spending that time baking dozens and dozens of vegan cookies with Rhiannon.

Really, could I ask for a more gracious and accommodating family?! They are so thoughtful and wonderful. Other Christmas highlights included receiving my own Settlers of Catan game and expansion (any other Catan fanatics out there?!), the Babycakes cookbook, and lots of awesome kitchenware. But the best part of all was spending time with everyone, even if it was only for three days. I’m counting down ’til I can take another trip home and spend a little more time with my lovely family.

Five Minute Photoshop: Ms. Mac N. Cheeze

Ladies and gents, I’d like to introduce you to a new friend of mine. She’s comforting and reassuring and, um, delicious. Meet Ms. Mac N. Cheeze.

Mac N. Cheeze in da house!

I know, I know. You thought I couldn’t get any lamer after my Banana Muffin Photoshop stupidity. But, oh, I can, and I did.

It seems to me that making – and, ideally, enjoying – dairy-free mac and cheese should count as a rite of passage of sorts, a hurdle to be cleared on the way to vegan nirvana. I’m happy to say that I’ve jumped that hurdle and avoided any embarrassing falls.

While vegan mac and cheese has never exactly scared me, per se, I’ve always been a little reluctant to try it. I didn’t think I was a bit nutritional yeast fan, and I was never fond enough of regular mac and cheese to make finding a vegan substitute a pressing need. Truth be told, I always associated the rich, homemade versions of mac and cheese with tummyaches; my stomach has never dealt well with large amounts of fat (and probably dairy), and super creamy dishes never sat well with me. I did enjoy Annie’s white cheddar shells, but overall macaroni and cheese was never high on my list of all-time favorites.

That said, there came a point when I began to crave something creamy and warm and reminiscent of those cholesterol-laden dishes I used to occasionally enjoy. Tonight I decided to fulfill that craving. After perusing various mac and cheese recipes, I settled on this simple one from VeganYumYum. Although cashew-based “cheeze” sauces seem to be all the rage – and that VegNews recipe looks intriguing – I wanted my first vegan mac and cheese experience to be more traditional, meaning I wanted to try it with nutritional yeast, even though I was a little uncertain if I’d even be able to stomach it.

Happily, I was more than able to do that. I really and truly enjoyed this recipe. Even though I left out the miso, I thought it was wonderfully creamy and tasty. I think I may’ve used a bit too much tahini, as it was bordering on the verge of too sweet, but that’s my fault since I was halving the recipe and eyeballing measurements. I’m pretty sure my eyes almost bulged out of their sockets when I first tasted this “cheeze” sauce, I was so pleasantly surprised. I thoroughly enjoyed my bowl of penne and, um, yeast, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t leave me feeling full and sick like “real” mac and cheese used to do.

The only downside to this meal was its rather unflattering aesthetic. I didn’t bake it and top it with breadcrumbs, so it was pretty ugly… hence the Photoshop jobber. But other than that, it was a wonderful introduction to the world of vegan mac and cheese and I can’t wait to try more variations on this wonderful dish. Ms. Mac N. Cheeze, we’ll meet again soon – I promise!