June 12, 2008

A muffin is a difficult creature. The muffin top is universally lauded while the muffin bottom generally labeled innocuous if not a downright waste of time. I suggest that this unfortunate attitude towards the muffin is a result of a slew of uninventive and bland muffins saturating the market. Of course the crispy browned muffin cap will be relished and the bottom left to moulder in its wax paper if it isn't interesting enough to garner interest. The trick to muffins is to make them pleasing enough in flavor and fillings that the crisp of the top is merely an added bonus. Else the muffin experience is one that veers dangerously close to pastry regret, sparking self-flagellation and vows to never again spend money or time or both on an uncommitted baked good.

I don't often make muffins in the absence of a function since they don't lend themselves to moderate consumption. When the time comes it's the whole muffin or nothing, not so much because half a muffin will not keep as well as a slice of cake but because for the dedicated eater wrapping up half a muffin is insulting. Muffins don't inspire me in the way of cookies or cakes, and living in close proximity to each of these fine muffin purveyors typically deflates my muffin-baking sails.

However, I got to thinking about muffins while obsessively plotting my gustatory attack on San Francisco and wondering how I might weather eating a slice of pizza, a cheese roll, a vegan chocolate mint cookie, a piece of foccacia (depending on the topping of the day) AND a cornmeal blueberry muffin from the glorious Arizmendi without keeling over. I haven't come up with a solution short of "sack up and take it like a cheese detective" (post-Arizmendi note: it can be done. It's not pretty, but it was delicious) but the last item on that list of must-haves reminded me of the baked offering that, in conjunction with a provocatively spicy soy chai latte, inspires me to brave the laptop jockeys at Ritual: the dirt bomb.

Does all this gibbering have any bearing on whether you should go make dirt bombs right now? Not really. At the last minute I decided to make use of some ground flax, not yet having experimented with it as an egg substitute, and then decided to oh hell just make them vegan. I'm not crazy enough to have foregone the whole rolling in butter and cinnamon-sugar bit but if for some reason (I don't want to hear it) one wants to skip that step, rest assured that the muffins sans butter bath are very tasty on their own.

"Vegan" Dirt Bombs
The flax seed worked fabulously as an egg replacer and the blueberry gave a nice subtle dimension to the muffins. Next time I make these I'm going to stick in some fresh blueberries or blackberries.

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup agave nectar
2 tablespoons ground flax seed mixed with 6 tablespoons water
1 cup soy milk

for topping:
3/4 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 and grease your muffin tins.

Sift dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl.

Whisk vegetable oil, agave nectar and soymilk together and add the flax/water mixture.

Pour the flour mixture into the wet ingredients and mix until evenly integrated.

Pour equal amounts into muffin tins and bake for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let muffins cool before dipping them in melted butter and then rolling them rigorously in the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Allow the sugar to set before digging in. Or don't.

Makes 12 dirtbombs.

Slavery to Savory

June 4, 2008

I enjoy baking and enjoy eating my baked goods, but I've come to realize that when I have the urge to bake cookies what I often want is something more akin to a cracker. Same goes for a hankering for chips, which is why these have changed my life and I can't seem to stop touting them at every opportunity. This realization spells the end of the need to justify veganizing countless perfectly reasonable cookie recipes, for the answer to that indignant question of why anyone would mess with butter and eggs is this: I prefer salty to sweet. Though my recent introduction to self-made chocolate croissants courtesy of an ingenious suggestion by visitor Anna to stick chunks of dark chocolate into a crispy plain croissant ("they just taste so much better that way!") was a revelation for which I cannot thank her enough, when it comes down to it I would sooner never eat chocolate again rather than forgo bread, crackers, cheese, etc.

That being said, crackers can only be so decadent (alright prove me wrong) and the best cookie recipes come from that melding of sweet and savory, a savory treat decadent enough to truly be a treat. The following buttery peppery nutty nuggets that pass as cookies are such a treat. Involving too much sugar to be called crackers, yet pervaded by a magnificent spiciness that smacks into the butter with a satisfying muffled thud of agreement.

Hazelnut Black Pepper Cookies
from Chocolate & Zucchini
yields approximately 60 cookies

I have made these cookies a couple times now and discovered that chilling the dough for an hour doesn't really seem necessary unless you are squeamish about getting more butter residue on your hands while constructing the dough balls. While they don't call out for a plethora of additions the way some cookies do, this time around I added some diced crystallized ginger to half the batch and they turned out wonderfully (just watch out for the spice factor).
3/4 cup whole hazelnuts
1 2/3 cup whole wheat flour (I have used whole wheat pastry flour as well as a combination of whole wheat and all-purpose with germ and both have worked just fine)
2/3 cup rolled oats (Clotilde suggests spelt flakes, which I have not yet tried since I am typically flush with rolled oats rather than spelt flakes)
1/2 cup + 2 Tbl unrefined cane sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 pinch salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper (1/2 tsp if you want a wallop)
10 Tbl butter, chilled
2 Tbl orange blossom water (Clotilde suggests rose water, but fear of ending up with cookies smelling and potentially tasting like potpourri I have only used orange blossom water. Plain water is fine as well seeing as you really just need something to add a bit of moisture to the dough, but the combination of smells provided by the orange blossom water and pepper is worth it.)
Preheat oven to 300 F unless you are going to chill the dough for an hour, in which case preheat the oven when the dough is almost finished chilling.

Toast hazelnuts in a dry skillet until they are fragrant and be careful not to burn them. Let them cool a bit before chopping them roughly, either by brandishing your best mallet or carefully using a chopping knife.

Mix all ingredients except for the butter and orange blossom water and whisk until blended.

Finely dice the butter and add to the dry ingredients. Either use a pastry cutter or your hands to work the butter through the flour mixture, breaking up the resultant butter balls until you get something like coarse meal.

Gradually add the orange blossom water whilst stirring until the dough is damp enough that you can pack it together into two balls.

If desired, cover the bowl with a dishcloth and set aside to cool for an hour.

Place walnut-sized dough balls on a baking sheet (I was dubious about emulating something so diminutive as a walnut but dough balls this size do result in appropriately sized cookies considering how much flavor is in each one. This way you can dip two in your tea rather than bolting through one larger mass), flatten them down and bake for 25 minutes until just barely browned around the edges.

Leave on baking sheet for a few minutes before setting them on a rack to cool.

Keen on Beans

June 3, 2008

It's been over two months. Sorrysorrysorrysorrysorry. Alright, onward.

I never liked beans much. String beans frenched and dressed with lemon juice yes, but vulgaris, no. Hamburger soup involved painstakingly removing all the kidney beans and piling them like sweating larvae around the perimeter of the plate, imaging that the two likely tasted quite similar. I'd ask for my burritos without beans, my tortas without beans, wouldn't touch a bean-tainted salsa let alone a bowl of chilli. Funnily enough (or perhaps not so surprising), even my countless bean-based co-op meals did not do much to pique my interest in the foul little things. I can't quite pinpoint when the tide turned and I think nutrition of all things actually had the most to do with it: I decided that I'd better start liking beans. Now it seems all bets are off as far as how long it will take before I'm sick of beans seeing as I'll down a nice can of Goya anything in about as long as it would take me to work through an equivalent serving of sorbet or Tomme Crayeuse. Beans with salmon, beans with spinach, beans with kale, beans with cumin and chile, beans and grape tomatoes (rarely beans and rice, hm.).

In an attempt to hasten the approach of summer, I made the following salad sometime in March. Though I initially thought it would suffer from the near tasteless peppers (seasons Tory, produce has seasons), the dressing packed enough of a punch that combined with the richness of the black beans it pulled together a pleasing dish. Now that my procured peppers are up to the task of providing a crispy combination of sweet and sour, the dressing provides a subtle compliment to the natural play of flavors provided by the key ingredients. Unless you're one of those people unlucky enough to taste soap instead of the glory that is fresh cilantro, said green is a treat as a garnish for this salad.

Black Bean Bell Pepper Salad
from Smitten Kitchen
A note in regards to beans: I say use Goya. Yes, yes, you can soak your own if you wish but I've had nary a bad can of Goya anything. They are never mushy or flavorless and hold up under vigorous rinsing. Black, chick, cannellini, go to town.
2 cans black beans
4 bell peppers (I use one of each color)
1 medium white onion (Use red at your peril. I like to eat raw onions so I didn't perish.)
3 Tbl olive oil
1 tsp cumin
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp honey
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
juice from one lime
fresh cilantro
Rinse the beans well and drain them.

Seed and chop the peppers and onion and mix with the beans.

Whisk the remaining ingredients together, and toss over the bean mixture. Adjust to taste depending on your penchant for sweet and spicy (I typically add a bit more salt and a few cranks of pepper).

Garnish with cilantro.