Ginger Balls

Ginger balls, ginger balls, ginger all the way…

Don’t you hate it when you get a song stuck in your head, and then you start making up your own lyrics? … What? That doesn’t happen to you? Okay, never mind. But this recipe is really good, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself making up songs about ginger balls, too.

Following the success of my mint chocolate balls, I decided to get creative. Having just purchased some uncrystallized candied ginger from Trader Joe’s with no actual plan for how to use it, I decided that it might taste good in Larabar-style date and nut balls. These balls come together with only five ingredients! And they remind me of gingerbread, which is always a plus.

Ginger balls with tea

Ginger Balls
(Inspired by Larabars and necessitated by my impulse purchase of Trader Joe’s Uncrystallized Candied Ginger)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup nuts (I typically use a mixture of unsalted roasted almonds and raw cashews, but you can experiment. Go nuts!)
  • 3/4 cup Medjool dates, pitted and halved
  • 1/4 cup uncrystallized candied ginger (or less if you’re ginger-curious but not sure if you’ll like the stuff)
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Grind up the nuts coarsely in the food processor.  (Just a few pulses will do. Don’t go nuts, or else you’ll end up with nut butter.)
  2. Add the dates and ginger to the food processor and process with the nuts until it forms a loose, crumbly, sticky mixture. You should be able to take a little sample and pinch it together into a solid mass.
  3. Add the salt and vanilla extract, and process just long enough to get them into the mixture.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a medium-sized bowl and knead it together into one big blob.
  5. Find a diversion that does not require using your hands (music, TV, podcasts, etc.) and laboriously roll small balls between your palms. Your hands will become very sticky by the end. You can lick them when nobody is looking.
  6. Store the balls in the refrigerator in a closed container. They keep for several weeks but are best in the first few days, as they dry out over time.

Note: I took these pictures of the ball-making process when I made chocolate mint balls, but they apply to this recipe as well.

Edibility Evaluation

I really like these ginger balls! They have a strong, gingery flavor, which I enjoy, and they  benefit from that endlessly appealing sweet/salty combination. They are a bit sweeter than my other ball recipes due to the additional sugar in the candied ginger, but I think they’re a nice seasonal variation. I awarded them a very high edibility score of 4.6, only slightly lower than the 4.75 I gave to the chocolate and mint balls. I didn’t think that Bill would like these balls, and I was right. He grudgingly agreed to taste half of one, though, which he did after bisecting a ball with surgeon-like precision. Although he decided that these balls were not for him, he did acknowledge that tasting them helped him identify the flavor that he doesn’t like in sushi – namely, ginger. So, ginger balls aren’t for everyone, but if you like the strong ginger flavor (and/or if you bought uncrystallized candied ginger and you’re not sure what to do with it), then you might want to make a batch of these ginger balls.

Ginger Balls Edibility

Pie, (Food) Porn, and Puppies!

VegEdibles just got interesting!

After my dad asked for the Reader’s Digest version of my recent post about grain milling, I started to realize that VegEdibles will never become popular if my posts are as dense and dry as the whole wheat bread they describe. In this post, I will turn over a new leaf and attempt to write something that people actually want to read! Through my non-scientific research, I have identified three key elements that increase the popularity of food blogs.

The Three P’s of a Popular Food Blog:

  1. Pies: Or desserts, more broadly. Everybody likes the idea of cooking healthy food, but posts about desserts and sweets are by far the most popular in the food blogosphere.
  2. Porn: Food porn, that is. Let’s face it. Even the most delicious food will be overlooked if it looks like poorly lit cat vomit.
  3. Puppies! Because I needed a third P, and who doesn’t like to look at pictures of puppies?

Let’s start with a picture of Sophie to draw you in. Sophie isn’t actually a puppy; she’s a 14-year-old golden retriever. But she’s as cute as any puppy. Sophie happens to be a really big fan of VegEdibles, by the way. She is quite fascinated by grain milling minutiae, and she appreciated how this post provided a thorough and balanced treatment of such a controversial topic. She also appreciates my very clever puns.

Now that you’re hooked, let’s move on to the recipe. You may recall that Bill and I purchased this orange kabocha squash at the farmers’ market as our surrogate pumpkin for Halloween. I decided to ask readers for ideas about what to make with it, and I got some interesting suggestions, all of which sounded delicious. However, since it’s close to Thanksgiving and I really love pumpkin pie, I had to go with the kabocha pie.

The kabocha squash, and in particular the orange kabocha, is supposed to make a really good “pumpkin” pie because it is more sweet than pumpkin, and its flesh is smoother and less stringy. Additionally, the kabocha flesh contains less water than pumpkin flesh, so you don’t have to strain the purée the way you would with homemade pumpkin purée. Without further ado, here’s the recipe for kabocha pie.

Kabocha Pie
(adapted from the Red Kuri Squash Pie recipe in Healthy Green Kitchen)

Ingredients

Crust:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (I used freshly milled soft white wheat berries.)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced crystallized ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Filling:

  • 2 cups kabocha squash purée from a 2-3 pound squash (see directions below)
  • 1 cup cream (I used coconut cream from Trader Joe’s)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Directions

Crust:

  1. Stir together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl.
  2. Stir in the yolks, then add the flour, crystallized ginger, and salt, and stir just until the mixture comes together. (Note: It will be dry and crumbly.)
  3. Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Freeze for 20 minutes, or until firm.
  4. Cut a round of parchment paper to cover the base of the crust, and place pie weights (or about 2 cups of dried beans) over the parchment.
  5. Bake the crust in an oven preheated to 375F for 20-22 minutes, or until the crust turns golden brown.
  6. Remove the parchment and pie weights, and allow the crust to cool before pouring the pie filling.

Filling:

  1. Using a heavy-duty knife, chop the kabocha squash in half and scoop out the seedy, gooey insides. (VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t cut off your hand or fingers!!!)
  2. Cut each half into smaller wedges, place them in a baking pan with the skin side down, and drizzle them with olive oil. (Note: This squash has a very thick skin, so it’s difficult to cut. If you happen to drop the squash on the floor while attempting to cut it, just pick it up à la Julia Child, and continue as if nothing happened.)
  3. Cover the baking pan with foil and roast at 375F until very soft (40-60 minutes, depending on the size of the wedges).
  4. Allow the roasted squash to cool, then peel off skins and blend the soft flesh until smooth. (Note: It should be closer to the consistency of mashed potatoes than applesauce.)
  5. Measure 2 cups of kabocha purée to use for the pie filling, and reserve the rest for something else, like these muffins.
  6. Blend the 2 cups of kabocha puree with the other filling ingredients.

Assembling and Baking the Pie:

  1. Pour the filling into the baked crust. (Note: I had too much filling, so I poured the remainder into two ramekins and baked them separately.)
  2. Preheat the oven to 325, and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the filling just begins to set in the middle. Cover the pie loosely with foil if it starts to get too dark.
  3. Allow the pie to cool in the refrigerator for 6 hours to overnight.

Edibility Evaluation

This recipe was very involved, but it was totally worth it. Bill and I gave the pie edibility scores of 4.8 and 4.9, respectively. We both loved the filling, and I thought the use of coconut cream instead of evaporated milk gave it a nice flavor. Our only complaints were minor, and they related to the crust. I thought it was a bit too sweet, and Bill was put off by the bits of crystallized ginger. He picked one out, made a face, and asked, “What is this gummy, fruity thing in the crust?” I actually enjoyed how they made the crust more interesting with their strong, gingery flavor.

(Update: The NY Times recently published this article comparing different types of winter squash as substitutes for pumpkin in “pumpkin” pie. Kabocha was praised for its silky texture, but the resulting pie tasted “vegetal and too earthy.” I think it was because they used a green kabocha. The orange kabocha is sweeter, and Bill and I noticed no such earthiness. But be warned if you’re thinking about using the more common, green variety of kabocha.)

And now, let’s move on to the food porn. Photography is one of my weak points. However, as a result of spending hours on foodgawker observing legitimately good food photography, I have gleaned a few shortcuts to help me get by until I take some time to seriously learn how to style and photograph food.

Tips for Good Food Porn Photography: (Just remember the initials: G.F.P.)

  • G is for Good Lighting: Poor lighting in food photography can make an otherwise delicious dish look unappetizing or even downright frightening. Here are before and after shots to illustrate this concept. You can see what a huge difference good lighting makes.

  • F is for Fuzzy Background: Those of us who live in small apartments don’t always have the luxury of a well-appointed photography studio. The key is to blur the background so that you can draw attention away from any unsavory elements in the photo. Here’s an example:

  • P is for Props: Let’s face it. Your food isn’t always going to look pretty. But that doesn’t mean you can’t deceive everyone into thinking you’re Martha Stewart. Select props that draw the viewer’s attention away from any minor blemishes in the food.

And now for the giveaway!

Finally, you know you’ve made it to the food blog big leagues when you start having giveaways. However, I realized that you don’t actually need sponsors; you can just give something away. So, VegEdibles is having its first giveaway! Simply write what your favorite type of pie is in the comments section, and you will be entered to win … drum roll, please … Pong!

Pong is a nine-year-old, fawn-colored pug with a cute, wrinkled face, poor posture, and debilitating self confidence issues. He enjoys long walks to the mailbox and even longer naps with his brother, Ping. His talents include snoring, chasing planes, and barking at his own reflection. What he lacks in intellect, he makes up for in softness.

Thanks for reading, and have a happy Thanksgiving!  Also, thanks to Creative Dialog Studios for the dog pictures!

To Grind or Not to Grind?

Is grinding your own flour worth the effort? Or is it too much of a grind?

I was bit by the bread baking bug early in my amateur culinary career. First came the bread machine. Then came my discovery of no-knead bread. Soon, I was producing rustic loaves of cranberry-rosemary bread, and my ego began to inflate like a yeast-leavened boule. As my bread snobbery raged, I wondered how I could step up my game even further. Enter the grain mill.

There comes a time in every bread baking hobbyist’s life when they encounter the question: To grind or not to grind…your own flour, that is. My true desire as a burgeoning bread baker was to bake the perfect loaf of whole wheat bread, so the idea of grinding whole grains into flour intrigued me. I read about the virtues of home grain milling and was encouraged by glowing reports of delicious, healthy bread produced using freshly milled grains. Ultimately, I was persuaded to invest in a Nutrimill grain mill.

Still, there remained a grain of doubt in my mind as to whether bread made with my freshly ground whole wheat flour was indeed better than what I could have made with whole wheat flour purchased from the store. Sitting next to my behemoth of a kitchen gadget in the cold light of day, I began to think more critically about why exactly I was grinding my own flour.

I’ll begin with a brief flour primer:

  • What is flour, and how is it made? Flour is a powder produced by grinding grains, seeds, nuts, or roots. While we typically think of flour being made from wheat, there are actually myriad different types of flour. The process of making wheat flour starts with the mechanical grinding of wheat berries, which are the individual kernels of wheat. The different types of flour (e.g., all-purpose, whole wheat, etc.) differ by the way they are processed after the initial grinding (and can also differ by the type of wheat used).
  • What is the difference between all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour? If you’ve only ever baked with one type of flour, it was probably all-purpose flour (also called “white” flour or “refined” flour). To make all-purpose-flour, wheat berries (which are composed of endosperm, germ, and bran) are ground and processed to selectively retain the endosperm (the bulk of the wheat berry containing mostly starch and protein) while eliminating the germ and bran. This increases the shelf life of flour because the germ contains oils that become rancid over time. Additionally, removing the bran makes baked goods less heavy and dense. As more emphasis has been placed on the nutritional value of whole grains, whole wheat flours that retain the whole grain (endosperm, germ, and bran) have increased in popularity. Of course, enhanced nutrition comes at the cost of a shorter shelf life and an increased probability of producing doorstops instead of bread.
  • Do you have to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your own flour? Is threshing involved? When I tell people that I grind my own flour, they immediately picture me in overalls and a straw hat, slogging through waist-high fields of grain and violently threshing wheat stalks with a flail. (Or, at least that’s what I think they’re imagining between bouts of laughter.) While grain milling is not common to the modern American kitchen, it doesn’t require any type of wheat harvesting skills, either. Typical home grain mills are either of the hand-cranked variety or are electric mills like the Nutrimill. You simply purchase wheat berries from the bulk foods section at the grocery store or from a reputable source like Bob’s Red Mill, and you put them through the mill.

Here is a picture of freshly ground flour in the Nutrimill:

Now, let’s consider some reasons for grinding your own flour:

Taste: Grain milling devotees often point to the superior flavor of breads made from freshly milled flour. For example, the pamphlet of Nutrimill tips that comes with the mill claims, “The fresher the flour, the more nutritious and better tasting your bread or rolls will be.” As another example, the Great Harvest Bread Company attributes the superior flavor of its products to the fact that they are made from freshly ground, high-quality wheat berries. Employees at King Arthur Flour (KAF) actually prepared side-by-side loaves from either freshly milled flour or a bag of purchased KAF Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour and compared them for taste. While they judged both loaves to be “delicious,” the loaf made from freshly ground flour tasted “sweet” with “no bitter tang.” In researching why bread made from freshly milled flour might taste better, I came across two explanations:

  1. In the same blog post I mentioned above, KAF suggests that the bitterness of breads made from commercially milled flour is due to the rancidity that develops as the wheat germ is exposed to air during storage. Conversely, the germ in intact wheat berries is protected from oxidation.
  2. Alternatively, it could be that freshly milled flour and store-bought whole wheat flour are entirely different things. In a 2011 LA Times article, baker Craig Ponsford claimed that most of the whole wheat flours sold in grocery stores are actually white flour (i.e., wheat flour with the bran and germ removed) to which the bran (but not the germ) has been added back. Since the germ is the “tastiest part of the wheat berry,” he claimed, bread made from freshly milled wheat berries tastes better.

Of course, these two explanations are in conflict because the first assumes that store-bought whole wheat flour contains the germ (which is true in the case of KAF’s Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour), while the second assumes that the germ has been removed. (This Wikipedia article claims that many store-bought “whole wheat” flours have 70% of the germ removed to prevent rancidity.) I should also mention that hard red wheat berries, which are typically used to make wheat flour in the US, contain bitter-tasting tannins in the bran layer. So, we might expect bread made from either store-bought or freshly milled flour to be bitter from the tannins, unless the germ in the freshly ground flour can somehow counteract that inherent bitterness.

Nutrition: In addition to making claims about superior taste, grain mill enthusiasts often extol the nutritional value of bread made from freshly ground flour. The Nutrimill tips pamphlet asserts, “Freshly ground whole wheat flour offers the most nutritional value. Nutrients decrease rapidly after grains are milled.” So, what are the nutrients in whole wheat flour? We can divide them between the three parts of the wheat berry as follows:

  • The endosperm accounts for 83% of the mass of the wheat kernel and consists mostly of carbohydrates and protein.
  • The bran, which is the outer coating of the wheat berry, accounts for 14% of the mass of the wheat kernel and is mostly fiber.
  • The germ accounts for 3% of the wheat kernel’s mass and contains proteins, fats, and vitamins.

The argument that flour made from whole wheat (i.e., the entire wheat berry) is more nutritious than refined flour (from which the germ and bran has been removed) is a relatively straightforward one, although I should mention that refined flour is often enriched with vitamins that were lost during processing. The argument that freshly ground flour is more nutritious than commercially milled whole wheat flour is even more complicated. Those who claim that whole wheat flour loses 90% of its nutritional value within 72 hours after grinding (as stated in this article) are probably referring to the degradation of vitamins and therefore neglect the fact that a significant portion of the “nutrition” comes from the proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber. Given that some vitamins degrade fairly rapidly, the flour will obviously be the most nutritious immediately after it is ground. However, I am not convinced that the loss of vitamin content is a problem, at least assuming that our modern diets don’t rely exclusively on grains to fulfill our daily requirements for vitamins. (This blog post provides a nice discussion about the nutrition of milled flour.)

Creativity, variety: A strong (and much less controversial) argument for owning a grain mill is that you can make flours from a wide variety of grains (e.g., rice, barley, rye, oats, spelt, and dried beans, to name a few). By varying the types of grains you grind and the fineness of the flour, you can access new textures and flavors simply not possible with a limited selection of store-bought flours.

The Experiment

As you can see, it’s not entirely obvious whether grain milling is advantageous, especially from the perspective of taste and nutrition. I am not equipped to evaluate the nutritional value of bread, but the main reason I bought the grain mill was to make delicious whole grain breads. So, I decided to ask a simple question: Does bread made with freshly milled whole wheat flour taste better than bread made with store-bought whole wheat flour? An experiment was in order.

In this experiment, I baked two loaves of bread side-by-side. For both loaves, I followed a simple honey whole wheat recipe, but I made one loaf from freshly ground wheat berries and one loaf from purchased 100% whole wheat flour. Note that I halved the original recipe to make two small loaves.

Basic Honey Whole Wheat Loaf
(adapted from 100 Days of Real Food; amounts shown below are for a small loaf)

Ingredients

  • 266 g whole wheat flour (slightly less than 2 1/4 cups)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 177 g warm water (3/4 cup)
  • 2 T honey
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 1/8 tsp instant yeast

Directions

  1. Stir together all of the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Allow the mixture to rest for 20 min.
  3. Knead the dough by hand for about 5 minutes, adding flour as necessary so that the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers.
  4. Make a ball and put it in a covered bowl.
  5. Allow the dough to rise for 1-2 hours at room temperature. (If your kitchen is cold, you can warm your oven at the lowest setting and then turn it off and place the bread inside to rise.)
  6. Punch down the dough, knead as before, and shape the dough into a ball.
  7. Allow the dough to rise on a baking pan or tray for 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
  8. Gently slash the top of the loaf to allow for additional rising in the oven. Bake at 350F for 30-45 min, or until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 205-210F.
  9. Optional: Spray the finished loaf with a little bit of water after it comes out of the oven to soften the crust.

Observations from the baking process:

First, let’s review the opponents:

  • To Grind: I used my Nutrimill Grain Mill to grind hard red wheat berries purchased from the bulk bin at Sprouts Farmers Market. I ground the wheat berries immediately prior to making the bread. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Nutrimill flour.”
  • Not to Grind: I used a package of freshly purchased 100% White Whole Wheat Flour from Trader Joe’s. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Trader Joe’s flour.” (Spoiler alert: I realize I should not have used white whole wheat flour since I was comparing it to red wheat berries. More about that later.)

Both flours formed a dough after stirring. As you can see, the Nutrimill flour (right) made a somewhat drier initial dough than the Trader Joe’s flour (left). However, both doughs became soft and tacky during the kneading process.

After the first knead, the dough was shaped into balls and left to rise in covered bowls. The extent of rise was similar for both types of flour. The Trader Joe’s dough (front) was noticeably lighter in color.

The second rise produced loaves similar in size and appearance.  Again, the Trader Joe’s loaf (back) was lighter.

The baked loaves were similar in appearance, although the Nutrimill loaf (back) was slightly larger and darker in color.

Looking at the crumb, the Nutrimill bread (left) was less dense and rose slightly higher, while the Trader Joe’s bread (right) was more dense and shorter.

Taste Test: Part 1 – Blind Taste Test with Volunteers

One of my reasons for doing this experiment was that I wanted to justify owning a Nutrimill grain mill. Not only is it a relatively expensive kitchen gadget, but it also occupies a fair amount of real estate in my small apartment kitchen. Considering my bias, I realized that judging the bread myself would have been a conflict of interest. So, I enlisted a small army of hungry volunteers, namely my lab mates.

I decided to make it a blind taste test, so I labeled the loaves “T” for the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour and “G” for the bread made with Nutrimill-ground flour. As you may recall, the question that motivated this experiment was whether bread made from freshly ground flour tasted better than bread made from purchased whole wheat flour. However, I also realized that additional factors, such as texture and moistness, influence our overall enjoyment of a loaf of bread. So, I asked my lab mates a more general question: Which bread do you prefer, and why?

Here’s a summary of my findings:

  • Of the eight volunteers, five preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T), while three preferred the bread made from freshly milled wheat berries (G). I have included a table of their responses below.
  • The primary reasons people preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T) were related to its flavor and texture. Interestingly, two tasters commented that the bread made from milled flour (G) seemed healthier but was less preferable overall.
  • It seems the tasters who preferred the bread made from milled flour (G) were looking for a less sweet bread, excepting the taster who liked it because it seemed more sweet.

Taste Test: Part 2 – Jamie and Bill Sample the Bread

After seeing that my lab mates tended to prefer the Trader Joe’s bread, I was curious which bread Bill and I would prefer. After all, I am trying to justify owning a grain mill that I’ll use to make bread primarily for Bill and myself. Here are the results:

  • Bill: I gave Bill the blind taste test, and he preferred the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour. He said that, while the bread made from milled flour was softer and sweeter (which are good things to him), he didn’t like that it had a funny aftertaste that he described as “yeasty.”
  • Jamie: Since I made the bread and was familiar with how they looked and felt, I asked Bill to help me with a “blind a taste test.” I closed my eyes, and he fed me small pieces of the bread so that I wouldn’t be able recognize which was which by appearance or feel. I honestly assumed that I would prefer the bread made from milled flour since I had read so many good things about how grain milling makes unbelievably tasty bread. (You’ve probably already guessed what actually happened.) As it turns out, I strongly preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour because it had a delicious flavor I described as “nutty.” I judged the bread made with milled flour to have a “weird” aftertaste. When Bill revealed which sample was which, I was shocked.

Summary

In the end, this was an imperfect yet informative experiment. The blind taste test with volunteers revealed that bread preferences are highly subjective. Nevertheless, the generally preferred bread was made from Trader Joe’s 100% White Whole Wheat Flour. I’m guessing the “weird” aftertaste that Bill and I (and some tasters) didn’t like in the bread made from milled flour was the bitter flavor of tannins in the red wheat berry. And herein lies the critical flaw in my experimental design. In purchasing whole wheat flour, I neglected to notice that the Trader Joe’s whole wheat flour is made from white (not red) wheat berries. So, I was actually comparing freshly milled red wheat berries to bagged flour made from white wheat berries, which are an albino variety of wheat berries that lack those bitter tannins.

Now, it actually makes sense that I naively made the wrong comparison. Hard red wheat berries are readily available in the US, while white wheat berries account for only 10-15% of America’s total wheat crop. So, it makes sense that stores are more likely to offer red wheat berries in bulk than white wheat berries. Conversely, since consumers tend to prefer the milder flavor of whole wheat flour made from white wheat berries, white whole wheat flour has become very popular in stores. (Trader Joe’s doesn’t even sell whole wheat flour made from red wheat berries.)

Poor experimental design aside, I learned that Bill and I don’t particularly like bread made from red wheat berries, even when it’s freshly milled. However, I am not yet convinced that grain milling can’t make the most delicious bread ever. This experiment only strengthens my resolve to justify owning a grain mill. Stay tuned for: “To Grind or Not to Grind? Part II.”

I Can’t Believe It’s Nut Butter!

How I spent last weekend turning (but not churning) things into butter

I’ve never had much interest in making butter, as I tend to shy away from any kitchen process that involves slow churning and/or evokes images of lacy bonnets. However, as a result of (1) the recent nut butter salmonella scare, (2) my acquisition of a Vitamix blender (Thanks, Mom!), and (3) a bounty of figs and apples (Thanks, David and Dori!), I have begun to experiment with turning various food items into butter.

Part 1: Almond Butter

Do you remember the recent salmonella scare that led to the recall of a variety of nut butters sold at Trader Joe’s and elsewhere? I had, in fact, purchased two of the products in question and failed to notice the recall campaign alerting consumers to the virulent bacteria potentially lurking inside of them (because I live under a rock). As luck would have it, I left the nut butters (and their potentially pathogenic prokaryotic inhabitants) unopened and went on vacation. During my vacation, I was gifted a super powerful Vitamix blender. Upon my return, I read about the nut butter recall on The Kitchn. This fortuitous series of events could only mean one thing – that it was time for me to make my own almond butter. I returned my questionable nut butters, purchased a bag of almonds, and got to churning.

Okay, the process of making almond butter (or any nut butter, for that matter) doesn’t exactly resemble the slow churning of butter. I suppose you could call it high-speed, motor-assisted churning, though. Basically, you grind the nuts until they turn into a paste. So, how does that work? Although they seem quite dry on the outside, almonds contain between 36 and 60% oil by dry mass. When you grind them up, you initially get a coarse meal called almond flour. Further grinding causes the cell walls to fracture, releasing oils that turn the mixture into a smooth paste.

Almond butter is remarkably easy to make if you have a powerful food processor or blender. Just get a bag of dry roasted, unsalted almonds (about 3 cups), toss them in the blender (sans the bag, of course), and blend the heck out of them, scraping down the sides as necessary. And, voila! Creamy, delicious, one-ingredient almond butter.

Some notes:

  • I was originally dismayed to find that the recipe for almond butter in the Vitamix manual called for the addition of canola oil. Fortunately, I ignored the recipe, and it came out fine.
  • I had a hard time scraping all of the almond butter out of the blender. There was stuff stuck under the blades that was difficult to recover.
  • I read that almond butter keeps in the refrigerator for a week. I have kept the store-bought stuff in the refrigerator for much longer than a week, but I froze part of this batch to avoid rancidity.

Part 2: Apple Butter

I was recently the lucky recipient of a bag of apples from a tree in what used to be my grandparents’ backyard. These apples are a special, non-vegetarian variety, meaning that they potentially contain worms. I had recently come across some apple butter recipes, so I decided it would be interesting to turn these into apple butter (or apple/worm butter?).

Many apple butter recipes call for copious amounts of sugar. However, I took a fairly minimalist approach, as described by Oh She Glows. I liked that the recipe could be accomplished using a slow cooker rather than slaving over the stove for hours.

Here’s how to make it:

  1. Core and slice the apples, taking care to remove the wormy parts. Place them in a slow cooker. (Big slices are okay, and there’s no need to peel them.)
  2. Cover and cook overnight (8-10 hours) on low.
  3. Mash the soft apples (and worms) with a fork. It will look like chunky applesauce at this point. Allow to cool for a little while.
  4. Blend the applesauce mixture in a high-speed blender until it’s smooth and silky.
  5. Pour the pulverized apples (and worms) back into the slow cooker, but don’t replace the lid. Turn the slow cooker to high, and cook (uncovered) for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally. This will cause the water to evaporate and thicken the apple butter.
  6. Add lemon juice and spices if desired. (I used cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and some vanilla.)

The apple butter was quite delicious, and it definitely didn’t need additional sugar. I could have reduced it more to make it thicker, but the thought of eating the equivalent of an entire apple in one spoonful of apple butter seems a little unhealthy. Now, what can you do with apple butter? I have tried stirring it into plain Greek yogurt (pretty good). I also used it to make these muffins (also pretty good).

Part 3: Fig Butter

Fig butter? Really? Okay, so I had never planned to make fig butter. I had a bounty of figs, and Bill kept giving them dirty looks, proclaiming, “These aren’t looking so good. You’d better do something with them.” I really like to eat figs raw, but there were a lot of figs, and Bill obviously wasn’t helping, so I decided it was time for an experiment.

My path to fig butter was rather circuitous. The original plan was to make stewed figs, but they turned out slimy and gross. As I am never one to waste food, I attempted to salvage the figs in a variety of ways. My final inspiration came while I was making the apple butter. Why not make fig butter?

Without further ado, here is how NOT to make fig butter:

Step 1: Stew the figs.

  1. Wash the figs and remove their stems.
  2. Place the figs in a pot and cover them with water (following instructions on the Internet for how to make stewed figs).
  3. Look quizzically at the figs as they float to the surface of the water.
  4. Pour on more water and poke at the floating figs in an attempt to sink them.
  5. Give up.
  6. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  7. Watch as the figs change color from a beautiful purple to a ghastly green and begin to ooze a red substance into the water.
  8. Remark on how closely the green, shriveled figs resemble sea anemone.
  9. Continue to cook the figs until they become soft.
  10. Remove the figs from the red water and continue to reduce the red water into somewhat of a syrup.
  11. Scare Bill by showing him the shriveled, stewed stewed figs bathing in their own red juices.

Step 2: Freeze stewed figs into a giant ice block for use in smoothies.

  1. Freeze the stewed figs with the intention of including them in smoothies.
  2. Attempt to chisel off an individual fig from the frozen ice block.
  3. Give up.
  4. Ponder what you were thinking when you froze the stewed figs in their juices and expected to break off individual frozen figs.

Step 3: Turn the frozen, stewed figs into a strange-tasting fig sorbet.

  1. Thaw the figs partially in the refrigerator.
  2. Blend the figs on high speed until they resemble a sorbet.
  3. You have made fig sorbet. It tastes weird.

Step 4: Turn the weird fig sorbet into a more palatable fig butter.

  1. Pour the fig sorbet into a saucepan, and heat it on the stove.
  2. Reduce the “sorbet” over medium heat. Make sure to stir constantly, unless you’ve decided to go with an “exploded fig” kitchen decor theme.
  3. Add lemon, cinnamon, vanilla, and any other spices you see fit.
  4. Don’t even try to get Bill to taste the fig butter.

The fig butter was not as good as the apple butter, but it was definitely the best cooked version of the figs that I made. I had a fig and almond butter sandwich the other day, which was quite tasty. Bill is happy now that the ghastly figs are gone.

Mmmmm…Liquid Hummus

Curried Lentil Soup … Okay, let’s just call it what it is: Liquid Hummus

Prior to last week’s heat wave in which the Bay Area was subjected to a confusing bout of popsicle and tank top weather, the falling temperatures typically expected after the autumnal equinox were actually getting me in the mood for some hearty soups and stews.

I was looking for something simple and healthy, and Bill and I agreed that a lentil soup was in order. My Internet search for “the best lentil soup ever” quickly directed me to a curried lentil soup thickened with a chickpea puree. Many reviewers lavished praise on this recipe, declaring it “the best lentil soup I have ever tasted” and “magnificent.” With such ringing endorsements, my search was over.

I was especially intrigued by the idea of thickening a soup with a chickpea puree. Bill came into the kitchen while the lentils were simmering and noticed the chickpea puree sitting on the counter next to the stove. When I explained that I was going to add the chickpea puree to thicken the soup, he said, “Oh, so you’re making liquid hummus.” I couldn’t argue with his highly apt soup classification.

Although most legume-based soups are unattractive, this soup was particularly hideous. For that reason, I will attempt to shield you from a full-on view. Here, the soup is artfully obscured behind a decorative bow:

Here, Bill offers a serving suggestion to hide the soup under crushed stale tortilla chips:

This was Bill’s bowl before he went back for more:

Curried Lentil Soup
(modified slightly from bon appetit)

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped, divided
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) curry powder
  • 1 cup French green lentils (I used non-French green lentils.)
  • 4 1/4 cups (or more) water, divided
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges

Directions

  1. Saute the onion and carrot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When the onion is translucent, add half of the chopped garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add 2 tablespoons of curry powder to the vegetables, stirring until fragrant, about a minute.
  2. Add the lentils and 4 cups of water. Increase heat to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. (Note: I had to add another 2-3 cups of water while it was cooking to keep everything submerged.)
  3. While the lentils are cooking, puree the chickpeas, lemon juice, 1/4 cup water, remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and the remaining garlic in a food processor.
  4. Stir the chickpea puree into the lentil soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add additional curry powder if desired.
  5. You can adjust the consistency of the soup by adding water 1/4 cup at a time.
  6. Optional serving suggestion: Sprinkle thinly sliced green onions on top and serve with lemon wedges.
  7. Non-optional serving suggestion: Serve in a very dimly lit room.

Edibility Evaluation

This soup was relatively easy to make and turned out quite edible. Bill and I both happily ate our soup and went back for more. That being said, neither of us found it to be the best lentil soup we had ever tasted. Bill gave the soup an edibility score of 3.0, and I gave it a 3.5. We liked the thickness imparted by the chickpea puree, but the chickpea flavor came through slightly, reminding us that we were eating liquid hummus. I thought the flavor improved after a couple of days in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, its appearance remained the same.

How to Bump up the Clump in Your Homemade Granola

A Granola Makeover Story

I have a confession to make. Although I am proud of the fact that I make my own granola, I am embarrassed to share it with others. “Why?” you might ask. Well, let’s just say that my granola lacks a certain “clump factor” that anyone who has purchased granola from the store has come to expect. I had long since resigned to eating from my secret stash of runny granola when my friend Lucy reminded me about a conversation we’d had about different strategies for making clumpy granola. The challenge piqued my interest, and I decided that it was time to tackle this problem once and for all.

I will now swallow my pride to reveal the “before” picture of my non-clumpy granola:

The Experiment

The challenge of getting granola to clump has been discussed on various online forums, and contributors have proposed a variety of solutions. I decided to test a few of the more popular methods. However, there are certain obvious ways to make granola clump, such as drenching it in absurd amounts of liquid sugar, that don’t jibe with my goal of healthy baking. Therefore, I had to set a few ground rules. First, I decided to keep the same basic recipe that I had been using, which calls for modest amounts of sugar and oil. Second, I wanted to find the simplest, least fussy solution – something that would be easy to do so that I wouldn’t be tempted to revert to my old recipe out of laziness.

Here are the methods I decided to test and their theoretical underpinnings:

Egg white method: Egg whites, which consist primarily of water and protein (mostly albumin), are used to coat the granola prior to baking. As the granola bakes, the egg whites denature and form an interconnected solid network. Oats that are in close proximity on the baking tray will be joined within this network of denatured protein, creating a cluster.

Oat bran method: Substituting ground oats (or oat bran) for some of the rolled oats is a technique that some people swear by for clumping their granola. Presumably, the ground oats soak up the sweetener and form somewhat of a glue that bridges adjacent oats.

The Recipes

Jamie’s Non-Clumpy Granola
(adapted from a recipe posted by The Kitchn)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
  • ¼ cup sliced or slivered almonds
  • ¼ cup chia seeds
  • ½ cup raw sunflower seeds
  • ½ cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300F and place rack in the center of the oven. Line a half sheet pan (18″ x 13″) or two smaller baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients (rolled oats, almonds, seeds, and shredded coconut).
  3. In a small sauce pan, stir together the oil and honey and heat gently. Take off heat and stir in vanilla. Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and toss together, making sure all the dry ingredients are coated with the liquid.
  4. Spread the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet(s) in a thin layer and bake for about 30-45 minutes or until golden brown, stirring about every 15 minutes so that the mixture browns evenly.
  5. After removing the pan from the oven, place it on a wire rack (or the stove top) to cool. You will notice that the granola may still be sticky when it is removed from the oven, but it will become crisp and dry as it cools.
  6. Once the granola has completely cooled, store it in an airtight container or plastic bag. It will keep for several weeks. Store in the refrigerator or freezer for longer.

Variation 1: Egg white method

After coating the oats and seeds with the oil/honey/vanilla mixture, stir in two egg whites. (I didn’t beat or whip them before stirring into the granola, although some recipes suggest to do this.) Bake the granola as instructed in the original recipe, being careful not to overstir. (Update: Actually, not stirring at all produces the clumpiest granola.)

Variation 2: Oat bran method

Substitute oat bran for one-third of the rolled oats (i.e., 1 cup of oat bran + 2 cups of rolled oats) and combine with the dry ingredients. Prepare the recipe as instructed.

Results

The original recipe produces a crunchy, albeit non-clumpy granola. I typically sprinkle it over my oatmeal or muesli, so the lack of clusters is not a huge problem. However, I do have the problem that the smaller components (like the chia seeds) settle to the bottom of the container. You can see how the black chia seeds settle to the bottom of the mixture in this picture taken of the bottom of the bowl.

The egg white method was the clear winner of this competition. It produced nice granola clusters that bound up the smaller components, preventing the chia seeds from settling to the bottom of the bowl.

The oat bran method failed to clump the granola, presumably because my recipe lacks the amount of sugar necessary to generate an oat bran “glue.” You can see the oat bran dust and chia seeds that have settled to the bottom of the bowl.

In summary, the egg white method produced the desired clumpy granola.

When I showed Bill the different containers of granola I had made, his mouth was full of another type of cereal. He pointed at the clumpy one, nodding enthusiastically to indicate his approval. He then turned to the one made with oat bran, frowned, and shook his head disapprovingly. I tend to agree with his assessment.

And now, I triumphantly present the “after” picture of my granola makeover:

And it’s not a makeover story if there’s no “before and after” picture:

Although the egg white method worked reasonably well, there are some future refinements I might consider. First, I noticed that stirring the granola during baking broke up some of the clumps. However, stirring is necessary to ensure even cooking; otherwise, the outer edges will burn and the inside portions will not brown. One suggestion is to add the egg white to the granola halfway through the baking process and then discontinue stirring. Another suggestion is to add the egg white before baking and arrange the granola around the edges of the baking sheet, leaving the center of the sheet empty, as described here. Finally, I wonder if the same effect could be achieved using a “flax egg,” which is often used as a binder in vegan baking.

(Update: I made this again using the egg white method, and I found that it is actually possible to bake the granola without stirring it at all. Just watch it toward the end to prevent burning. The egg white/no stirring method is extremely effective in producing large sheets of granola.)

And finally, some granola tips:

  • Don’t leave the granola out to cool overnight! It will lose its crunchiness. Instead, just leave it out long enough to cool (about an hour or two), then seal it in a container or bag.
  • Please, please, please don’t bake dried fruit with your granola! This produces rock-hard, tooth-breaking, inedible pellets of burnt fruit. Just mix it in after the granola has baked and cooled. Thank you.

Fennel Follies

Roasted Fennel Tomato Sauce … and how NOT to chop fennel

You may recall from our trip to the farmers’ market that Bill and I picked out fennel as our “mystery ingredient.” My challenge was try to cook something with this new-to-me vegetable.

Prior to preparing this recipe, I had definitely heard of fennel and was vaguely aware of its various uses in gourmet cooking as a result of watching highly educational cooking shows such as Chopped and The Next Iron Chef. However, I had certainly never cooked with fennel before. In preparing this post, I gained some knowledge that probably would have been useful before attempting to chop the fennel. But more about that later. Let’s begin with some fun fennel facts I culled from the Internet.

  • Fennel is a plant species recognized by its yellow flowers and feathery leaves, or fronds.
  • Florence fennel is a variety of fennel with a swollen, bulbous stem base that is treated as a vegetable and can be eaten raw or cooked. (See the fennel anatomy diagram below.)
  • In addition to its bulb, several parts of the fennel plant are used in cooking, including the fronds (used as an edible garnish or herb), the seeds (used as a spice), and even the pollen (sometimes used in fine cuisine to impart a very potent flavor).
  • The fennel plant contains anethole, which is a volatile compound largely responsible for the characteristic sweet, licorice-like flavor of fennel and anise, a related plant. This flavor is particularly strong in raw fennel, but it mellows when the fennel is cooked.
  • As it is native to Europe and the Mediterranean, fennel is common in Mediterranean/Italian cuisine. Even if you’re not aware of having eaten fennel, you may recognize it in Italian sausage, which is flavored with fennel seeds. Fennel seeds are also used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.
  • Fennel is in season during the autumn through early spring. In salads, it is often paired with seasonal fruits like apples and oranges.
  • Fennel comes from the same family as the highly poisonous plant hemlock. Although they look similar, the way to tell them apart is that fennel smells strongly of licorice and is edible, whereas hemlock smells nasty and kills you.

I had wanted to use the fennel for multiple recipes to showcase its versatility. But then I became busy writing a grant, and the fennel languished in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for over a week. Finally, I settled on a recipe involving roasted fennel because it seemed easy, and it called for two fennel bulbs, which was exactly what I had. So, what, you ask, made my first experience with fennel such an adventure? The troubles began when the recipe instructed me to “chop and core the fennel.” Unfortunately, I found my Food Network culinary education grossly inadequate in preparing me to chop fennel. Here is how NOT to chop a fennel bulb:

As you can see, I chopped the bulb into slices only to find an amusing assortment of shapes in varying shades from white to green. Perplexed, I began searching in earnest for the part of the bulb that was the “fennel” to put in the roasting pan. As the recipe directed me to core and chop the fennel, I deduced that the solid white circles were the “core,” so I discarded them. I figured that the the light green concentric rings with a ribbed texture similar to celery had a good chance of being the “fennel” due to their sheer abundance, so I laboriously chopped each strip into half-inch squares. I also came across hairy green things that looked more like fronds, but they were inside the bulb, so I threw them into the pan for good measure – just in case they were the actual “fennel.” Here is my chopped fennel(?) in the baking dish:

Due to my insufficient preparation, I was skeptical that the recipe would be any good. If you plan to make this recipe, I would highly recommend watching this YouTube video before attempting to chop, slice, or dice fennel. He makes it look so easy! Interestingly, although fennel is related to celery, you treat the bulb more like an onion for chopping and slicing.

Roasted Fennel Tomato Sauce
(adapted from seriouseats.com)

Ingredients

  • 2 fennel bulbs, cored and sliced (I would strongly recommend watching this YouTube video if you haven’t chopped fennel before.)
  • 2 large onions, peeled and sliced
  • 8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1/4-1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional but recommended)
  • 2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan (optional)
  • 1 pound pasta

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Roast the fennel, onion, garlic, oil, chili flakes, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper in a baking dish for 15 minutes. Stir once or twice during roasting.
  2. Add the whole tomatoes (including their juice) to the roasted fennel/onion/garlic mixture and stir them in, breaking them apart with a spoon. Return the mixture to the oven, and roast for an additional 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fennel has softened and is starting to brown. (Note: The original recipe said to roast for only 5-10 additional minutes with the tomatoes, but my fennel took longer than that to soften.)
  3. While the sauce finishes in the oven, cook the pasta in a large pot until al dente and drain. Reserve some cooking water
  4. Pour the sauce onto the pasta and stir to coat the pasta with sauce.
  5. Serve with shredded Parmesan cheese.

Edibility Evaluation

Despite the fennel follies and my skepticism that the recipe would turn out, Bill and I actually enjoyed it. I made the sauce in advance, and we had it with pasta for several nights. Bill had some extra hamburgers and Italian sausage he had grilled, so we crumbled hamburger in the first batch and made the second batch with sausage. The licorice flavor was noticeable but not overwhelming, and it gave the sauce a fresh taste and smell. The red pepper flakes were a nice addition, giving the dish some interest without being too hot. Bill said he would eat the sauce again and gave it an edibility score of 3.8. I agreed and gave it a 4.0.