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Thursday, September 29, 2005

IMBB #19: Having my (Vegan) Cake

Let them eat cake!

Apologies for the blurry quality of the image, I took this pic at an odd angle.

I am a dedicated omnivore and am no stranger to eating vegan (no meat, no fish, no dairy, and no eggs). One of my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants in town, Vegi Food, is 100% vegan and everything there is incredibly tasty. The Asparagus with Black Bean Sauce I did for IMBB #11 (and as an early IMBB participant who has dropped out, I'm happy to be back even if the fabulous Sam weren't hosting this) was my home kitchen rendering of something I ate, and loved, there.

I've moved more in the vegan direction in my own kitchen (interestingly enough I was vegetarian myself for years, but relied heavily on cheese and eggs for protein). My best friend, who cannot eat meat thanks to her hippie parents raising her vegetarian, is married to someone who has developed dairy sensitivities, so if I want to have them over, I have to be creative. Fortunately they love things like veggies with black bean sauce or spicy peanut sauce as much as I do.

Vegan cooking, while still subject to an appetite-killing degree of earnestness from those to whom politics seem to be more important than palates, has come a long way. Back in the seventies and early eighties it seemed to be a lot of lentil loaf (a la early Moosewood), but cookbook writers such as Deborah Madison and Lorna Sass have really helped it be "for everyone".

There is, however, one area where I think that vegan cooking falls seriously short and that is in the Dessert-Type Baked Goods department. While it is perfectly possible to make a lovely fruit compote, or a crisp, or even fruit pie without use of animal products, sometimes the soul just cries out for ... chocolate cake.

I got help in this department from an extremely non-hippie source: an acquaintance of mine who is a convert to the Orthodox religion. Orthodox Christians have prescribed rules about abstaining from particular foods in the seasons of Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter), as well as being enjoined to "fast" (scare quotes because mostly the rules are about abstention again, as opposed to going without all food) on (most) Wednesdays and Fridays during the year. The proscribed items vary per day, but they are "no meat, no dairy, no eggs" at a minimum (shellfish is usually allowed, for some reason) and go all the way to "no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no olive oil, and no wine" (even some days "no fish") for large parts of the Lenten fast.

The following dish is well-known in Orthodox circles, as it gets considerable use as a birthday cake for those unlucky enough to have their birthdays fall during the Advent or Lenten fasts. I've seen it (or minor variants) on a number of church recipe sites, but I'm renaming it in honor of the lady who tipped me off about it:

Josephine's Lenten Chocolate Cake

Preheat oven to 350 F and put two cups of water into a container in the fridge. Grease (not butter!) and flour a 9x13 pan.

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vinegar (have seen up to 3 T in other recipes)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup (6 fl oz) corn oil
2 cups (16 fl oz) COLD water

Optional: dark chocolate chips or nuts

Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl until well blended. Mix wet ingredients together (I found my 4 cup Pyrex good for this and used a whisk). Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix together (again, my flat whisk was helpful).

If you want to add dark chocolate chips (check ingredients ... some have whey) or nuts, you can do so at the dry-ingredients stage.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until tested done.

For topping, you have several options. Josephine either dusts it with powdered sugar, or frosts with frosting-in-a-can that passes the ingredient test. If you are a better person than I am, you can whip up some frosting of your own as long as you use margarine or shortening, not butter. What I did was put some high-quality dark chocolate chips on the cake the minute it came out of the oven, and after they melted (about 5 minutes), spread them with my spatula to cover the cake.


This came out very high, light, tender, and chocolatey. It is undeniably tasty - it reminded me a lot of the butter-and-eggs chocolate sheet cake my mom used to make for our birthdays and cover with "Rocky Road" frosting. Indeed, if you had an appropriately vegan chocolate frosting and vegan marshmallows, you could easily make this into a rocky road cake. (Thanks to the commenters who politely pointed out the non-vegan status of most marshmallows.) I took it into the office and the remarks were "How did you do that without eggs?" (after "That's good!"). I couldn't believe I ate vegan, and my standards for baked goods are quite high!

I will definitely make this at some point in the future; variations I'll consider are using walnut or hazelnut oil and/or flavoring variants - substituting coffee or raspberry puree for some of the water sounds tasty.

I now understand why there are so many web pages with Orthodox divines waggling their fingers at people who observe the letter but not the spirit of the fasts. Sort of like those luscious flourless chocolate cakes that are a Passover dinner staple, but, hey, neither of those are required by my religion and how people work these things out is not really any of my business, so I merely admire peoples' ingenuity as I ask for more.

If you or a near one are vegan, or dairy-sensitive, or egg-sensitive, or trying to cut down on your cholesterol, this is just a darn tasty cake, and it couldn't be easier to put together. If any of you break out in hives at the thought of organized religion, call it Josephine's Chocolate Cake and be done with it.

And if you want some more vegan baking tips from the Orthodox church ladies (most of whom can cook up the proverbial storm), here's one of the parish recipe sites, and a general guide, or let me know and I'll send you some more of Josephine's, including a variant on "Tomato Soup Cake" that she swears is wonderful despite sounding very weird.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

checking in, and at Betty's bakery

I haven't been doing a lot of cooking lately; my physical strength is inching back up towards "normal" but work has been taking it out of me.

Interestingly enough I haven't been in the kitchen much during our Feed-the-Homeless gig; I've been working the front of the house, in training for coordinating the whole shebang. (If you'd like to help, we do it on the afternoon of the third Saturday of the month.)

I haven't even been to the Farmer's Market the last couple of weeks - trying to conserve energy/# of shopping trips. I made some minestrone and have been living off that and rotisserie chicken from the Berkeley Bowl.

I did finally walk over to Bake Sale Betty when I was dealing with some prescription business on my day off. Unlike my underwhelming experience at Pizzaiolo on the same increasingly-chic block of Telegraph Avenue (go Temescal!), Betty was up to all the buzz and then some. Everything was a-plus, first rate, finest kind. The lemon-raisin scones were meltingly tender, full of plump raisins and with just enough lemon for a pleasant zing. The banana bread made me rethink needing raisins and nuts in mine. And the lemon bars are without a doubt THE BEST I have ever had. And I've had some mighty tasty lemon bars, including the lemon curd bars I made off a recipe in Fine Cooking and ate the whole damn pan.

I complimented Alison (aka Bakesale Betty herself) on the bars and she generously pointed me towards her source - Alice Medrich's Cookies and Brownies (which is the source of those eeevilly good Scharffenberger double chocolate cookies). I can see making up a pan for a church function but for my onesie-twosies I'm definitely going to keep buying from her.

In the works ... finally a real review of Sea Salt (or maybe "A tale of two restaurants"), and hope to get something done for Sam's I Can't Believe I Ate Vegan IMBB #19. I have Vegan Stuff in the archives but have something else in mind.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Enjoy Every Sandwich

Four years and three days ago (I have been a bit busy), I woke up way too late to get to work on time to what I thought was NPR's version of "War of the Worlds", because I couldn't believe that what was coming out of the radio was true.

There was a dinner that night, or maybe it was the next night, with my freaked out ex-New Yorker friends, one of whom had a double whammy because her brother in law is Navy brass and works at that five-sided building which also got hit.

(It was a while before she heard about him, because he had been on stretcher duty for a while, and then been sent home. The phone lines were, of course, impossible. Eventually someone thought to email her.)

Ever since then I have made sure my ass was up at 5:45 am for a moment of silence, and the ceremonial Noo Yorker Cawfee and a Roll. But Best Friend's conversations with Navy BIL. The weekend after she got him on the phone to check in and asked how he was, and he, without missing a beat, quoted the late, great Warren Zevon and said "I enjoy every sandwich". On the one year anniversary, she called and talked to him at about the time he got back from his lunch and he was still enjoying his sandwiches.

To Cap'n Bill (and, of course, TLGWZ), a salute.

In the light of the recent events in this country, it's a double plus good idea. I very much enjoyed the cookie I was given as a snack on Sept 11, I enjoyed putting food together for my church's Evensong reception (the pizza was praised by a New Yorker, our guest organist, which pleased the cook no end), and I certainly enjoyed the "Quality Control" nibbles I had. I was with friends doing something I loved, as I observed the anniversary (and thought about those affected by Katrina). I hope you were too.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Paper Chef #10: Born on the Bayou

For this weekend's special NOLA-themed Paper Chef event, I was inspired by Janine, a South Louisiana Cajun lady of my online acquaintance, who put together something very similar in her crock-pot for a Mardi Gras gathering of people from the group (at which I was sadly not present) and posted her guidelines to the group's ongoing recipe thread. It was the holy Louisiana food trinity of Onions-Celery-Sweet Peppers with sausage and shrimp swimming in a sea of spicy tomato and made my mouth water just reading it.

Those of us on this group have seen the storm through her eyes ... from her Friday determination to stay put ("we can ride out a Cat 3 here"), her Saturday change of mind and calm organizing of the family forces (elderly parents to tiny grandson), and the aftermath. Janine lives in Terrebonne Parish, which was spared the brunt of the storm (she was back in her bayou house by Tuesday) and which is now home to a number of displaced people. She is unsure that her oil-related job will continue to exist, but her attitude is "in that case I'll have more time to help out".

I must admit my terrible ignorance of Creole and Cajun cooking and tell you that I don't know what kind of dish it is. [Edited to add: I have since learned, through reading other entries, that it's a very jambalaya-like object.] And I have played with it myself, in the best improv cook tradition, by adding the green beans and summer squash that insisted on coming home with me from the farmer's market, and the beer required by the challenge.

So in her honor I will call it ...

Janine's Creole Stuff
[Edited: Jambalaya a la Janine would also work]

1 lb or more sausage links
(You can use any kind you like. I used Calabrese from Fatted Calf because they were out of Andouille.)
1-2 medium yellow onions, chopped
5-6 celery sticks, chopped, leaves included
4-5 sweet bell peppers, diced

Look at these peppers I got at the market! Aren't they beeyootiful?

Late Summer Rainbow Peppers

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 10-14 oz can tomatoes-and-chiles (Rotel or similar)

Spices to taste: salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, rosemary, oregano

A couple of good slices off a lemon

Shrimp (add at end ... I used a 1 lb bag frozen pre-cooked, because that is what I could get, but uncooked would be better)

Charlotte's Variations:

1 bottle beer (I used a local brand ... Pyramid Brewing IPA)
1 lb green beans, topped, tailed, and snapped into eating-size pieces
1 lb baby yellow zucchini, cut in rounds
1 cup (8 oz) long-grain rice

If you are using a crockpot, like Janine does:Cook the sausage and cut it up first. Then dump the tomatoes and beer in. Add the spices and the aromatic veggies, then put the cooked sausage in. Simmer till it's pretty much done. The green beans/squash/shrimp go in at the end.

I do own a crock-pot but didn't want to haul it out. So I used my Dutch oven instead:

Cut sausage in pieces and saute with onions, then add celery and peppers. Saute till meat is browned and onion/celery is soft.

aromatics and sausage

Add spices and stir for 1 minute to "toast".

Add squash, tomatoes, and beer. Reduce to simmer, stirring occasionally.

After about an hour (and adding the green beans) of simmering uncovered, it looked "too soupy" to me, although it smelled and tasted great.

getting ready

Since I was planning to serve it over rice in the Creole style (okay, I grew up in California rice country and I don't really need an excuse to eat rice, but it is traditional), I got the rice out of the cupboard, threw it in, gave it a big stir, and let it cook covered for 20 minutes.

At the end I threw the shrimp in, covered the pot, and turned off the heat. I fished the lemon slices out and served it forth in a shallow bowl:

Allez manger

The mix of colors, textures, and flavors was just wonderful.

This makes a number of hearty servings, so make some up while you and your family/friends empty out your change jars and roll up those pennies to give to the Red Cross or some reputable charity.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Jill at Cookies in Heaven made a comment on my last post that was way too great an idea to leave buried in comments.

I challenge other food bloggers to give aid to those who worked in the food industry and made New Orleans so flavorful:

New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund A fund has been established to benefit employees of the hospitality industry of the Greater New Orleans area who have experienced hardships because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Contributions may be sent to:

New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund
Greater Houston Community Foundation
4550 Post Oak Place, Suite 100
Houston, TX 77027
Call 713-333-2200 for additional information

Commander's Palace

I'm a big proponent of "paying it forward", but in a lot of ways, this is "paying it back". Even people like me who have never experienced the "bon temps roulant" of N'awlins have heard that, well, it's a friendly, generous, and fun town.

Jill also has some great NOLA-related posts on her blog, check them out.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Restaurants are Dark

I have been utterly stunned at the extent of the one-two punch in the Crescent City and in the MS/AL gulf. I think that every city in this land should have a jazz funeral to commemorate the dead and the diaspora, and do Fat Tuesday/crawfish feeds for relief charity. I challenge food bloggers to do something on their blogs to salute one of the Great Food Towns on the Planet. (I am, alas, without my own New Orleans food memories. It was always "Next year at Mardi Gras." waaaah) It's not that much in the grand scheme of things, but as someone who has been through some powerful stuff recently, I know I appreciate it when someone out there cared.

Edited to add: Owen at Tomatilla! was ahead of me here, with this weekend's Paper Chef. This is in conjunction with the relaunch of the Is My Blog Burning? site.

Via my blogpal bls over at The Topmost Apple I learned of the Blog for Relief day sponsored by The Truth Laid Bear.

Like bls, I will be sending a contribution to Episcopal Relief and Development, a worthy (and low overhead) organization that is already "on the ground". If you do not have a pet charity that you like giving to, please consider them. They do good work. If you know of a worthy charity that you would like to commend to peoples' attention, mosey on over to TTLB and let them know.

At this point I can't do much more than this (and pray). Lord, have mercy.

TTLB roundup

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