Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats

The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats
Author: Dunja Gulin
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small (2013)

Everyone loves a treat once in a while. It’s almost impossible to think of an office meeting, open house or even road trip without some sort of edible, and while muffins and cookies aren’t considered “health food” in any sense of the phrase, they can provide a much-needed pick-me-up during the day. However, those who have dietary restrictions are often at a loss when it comes to the conventional sweets table. Most commonly purchased bakery items are laced with eggs, dairy, nuts or one of the other common allergens, and those who follow a specific diet for religious or ethical reasons often avoid prepared foods for this reason as well. One of the most basic ways to eliminate two of the major allergens, as well as any animal product-based restrictions, is by preparing vegan items. While they may be stereotyped as things only palatable for hippies and health gurus, the science and methodology of vegan baking has progressed enough to be more than capable of producing items that are approachable, economical and simply delicious – no segregating identifier of “vegan” required. Dunja Gulin believes delicious baking that just happens to be vegan is accessible to everyone, and avers this passion in her third cookbook: The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats.

Vegan Baker takes not only a dairy- and egg-free approach to baking, but a healthier twist as well. Gulin stresses the use of the best possible ingredients, organic items when possible, and limiting or eliminating refined sugar – resulting in wholesome, not-too-sweet goods that are still most definitely treats. While some people may argue against all these restrictions (or “rules”) for what is supposed to be something decadent and special, Gulin’s reasoning is that the finished goods will taste just as rich and delicious, if not more so, than their conventional counterparts. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the belief that organic food tastes (or is in general) better, but I do know that quality ingredients in any form of cooking or baking make a huge difference. This is not to say you should break the bank on imported chocolate and hand-harvested and ground grains for flour, nor do you need to cook beans and grind nut butters from scratch at home – just have faith that the items you choose to cook with will produce stellar results.

If the passionate introduction and thorough discussion of ingredients doesn’t whet your appetite for the recipes, Clare Winfield’s fantastic, full-colour photos just might. Beautifully styled shots of almost (if not every) recipe fill the pages, and unlike many cookbook pictures provide a relatively authentic representation of the words alongside.

Carob Slice
Yummy Carob Slices (p. 58)
Of the recipes I tried in Vegan Baker, I was consistently amazed. Not because the methods were outlandish or the ingredients were exotic, but because they were anything but – fairly simple, straightforward and quick, with the most outré ingredients being carob and agar powder (which even in my relatively rural neighbourhood were easy to locate at the health food and bulk store). The results weren’t anything other than decadent – not just “good for being vegan” – and while I included a list of ingredients on the packages I put together for some friends of mine (in order to avoid any potential allergies to soy, gluten or nuts), no mention was made of the treats being made without many conventional staple ingredients and no questions ever came up. The Rich Tea Bread (p. 36) was first on my list to try, and I actually made it twice in different forms to use up a bunch of partial bags of nuts and dried fruit in my pantry. Both the original, more “British” combination of Earl Grey, prunes, dates, Craisins, sunflower seeds and walnuts and the “tropical” rendition with mango tea, candied ginger, apricots, macadamia nuts, dates, cranberries, almonds, pumpkin seeds and raisins were moist, dense and flavourful – better than any standard fruitcake I’ve ever made or had before! The sleeper hit for many of my taste-testers was the Yummy Carob Slices (p. 58).  Given that carob is the unfortunate recipient of the “70’s-era hippie food” stereotype, I waited for the unbiased opinion to be leveled before cluing in the group. While it didn’t taste like your standard chocolate cake (and it wasn’t billed as such), it was moist, rich and nothing short of a wonderful dessert.

The only recipe of Gulin’s I questioned was the Coffee Toffee Cookies (p. 89), as there was no real “toffee” or true “coffee” element in the ingredients. I expected a buttery, bittersweet note from the two ingredients, but the cookies only contained coffee extract, not brewed, ground or instant coffee, and contained cocoa powder which seemed out of place. If I was to re-make these, I would use a vegan butter substitute instead of the relatively flavourless coconut oil, add a dash of butterscotch or caramel flavouring, leave out the cocoa and use a spoonful of instant coffee along with the extract.

Tropical Tea Cake
Rich Tea Bread (Tropical Version) (p. 36)

On the whole, Dunja Gulin does the culinary world as a whole a great service with The Vegan Baker: More Than 50 Delicious Recipes for Vegan-friendly Cakes, Cookies, Bars and Other Baked Treats. With sweet, rich tasting treats that have a subtly healthy twist, the book will become a staple on my baking bookshelf and I urge you to take a look yourself.

Available on Amazon

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Leafy Greens Cookbook

The Leafy Greens Cookbook
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2013)

Everyone knows that dark leafy greens are a nutritious, low-calorie option that should be included more often than not in our diets. However, their positives – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and varieties – are often overshadowed by their “negatives”. In this day of over-sweetened, over-oiled, over-salted meals, our palates are trained to perceive the taste of a beautiful leaf of rainbow chard, a head of kale or a pancake-like collard as too bitter to eat. As a result, many home cooks no longer know how to cook them well, or cook them at all. Chefs that put the greens on their menus are divided between the “raw vegan” camp and those who adhere to the Southern style of cooking, adding copious quantities of pork meat and fat before stewing for hours. There is a happy medium in all of this, though, and it’s one that Kathryn Anible strives for in The Leafy Greens Cookbook.

Leafy Greens has 100 recipes ranging from smoothies to salads, soups and suppers. Some are relatively tame and “conventional”, like the Arugula Salad with Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette (p. 8) and the currently haute Kale Chips (p. 50) – both excellent introductions to the world of culinary greenery. More adventurous palates are catered to as well, with offerings like Sautéed Radicchio and Endive with Quinoa and Capers (p. 52) and Arugula Hummus (p. 34). Those who are well accustomed to the taste and (somewhat strange) composition of green juices and smoothies will find no shortage of inspiration, with 14 concoctions such as Super Greens Juice (p. 93) – made with spinach, kale, parsley and cucumber amongst other things – and a Spinach, Peanut Butter and Banana Smoothie (p. 96). I was let down slightly by the fact that there was no use of the greens in sweet applications, as they can work quite well and many parents (and picky adults) would find these a good way to “sneak in” some extra nutrition. Each recipe is accompanied by a brief introduction, and while there are no photos (a sad oversight) the recipe titles are eye-catching and descriptive enough to warrant a look. Unfortunately, the photos on the cover are not of actual recipes in Leafy Greens, but rather shutterstock purchases – something I discovered when scouring for the kale-pine nut- and cranberry dish on the back (called Sautéed Kale by Andi Berger).

For anyone brand new to eating more than iceberg lettuce salads, Leafy Greens comes complete with a detailed introduction and glossary covering the types of edible leaves as well as a few paragraphs on their health benefits as a whole. I particularly liked the practical details of the vegetables’ appearances (handy when shopping!) as well as the note that “[w]hile not every green will become a favourite, they are all worth trying” (p. 5). This is good advice for any new ingredient and definitely worth remembering in the kitchen!

My favourite thing about this book is that the recipes are so varied that it’s impossible to say you hate all forms of all greens. I still detest any green in smoothies, but give me a plate of Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells (p. 65) or a side of Roasted Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Parmesan (p. 42) and it is gone in a flash. Likewise, my mother would never serve up a bowlful of Black Bean, Corn and Kale Salad (p.17) for lunch, but I finally convinced her that the green was delicious in African Peanut Stew (p. 29). The stew recipe is not for those sensitive to heat, however, since even after accidentally quadrupling the peanut butter and using a milder chili than the habanero called for, my curry was just barely edible. I can’t imagine what it would be like as written, but I doubt there would be a discernible flavour after all that powerful flame. The Saag Paneer (p. 69) was far more palatable – spicy but flavourfully so – even though it looked less than appetizing on the plate. It was also a dish easily made lighter by using skim milk for the cheese in the recipe or purchasing pressed non-fat cottage cheese and skipping the cheese-making altogether.

African Peanut Stew
African Peanut Stew (p. 29)

Needless to say, there is something for everyone to be found in The Leafy Greens Cookbook. Whatever your preference, the book makes it easy – and tasty – to add the nutrient-dense produce to your table in forms from the predictable to the outlandish, and Kathryn Anible’s recipes will turn many preconceived notions of bitter leaves on their heads. It just goes to show you that it can be easy being green!

Available on Amazon