If I can’t join your club I’ll start my own! Or baking “apprentice” style…

Andama Bread

Andama Bread

I noticed a new baking group forming, and it really caught my eye. This group, spear-headed by Pinch My Salt, is going to bake their way through Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. When I first saw Natalia post about the group I thought, “How cool! I want to join!” but after a quick glance at my “to-do” list I shook my head and said, “Yeah, because I need one more obligation to add to the list.” and brushed it off like a crumb from my lap.

It was but a few days later I found myself looking at my copy of Apprentice, wondering what I would like to bake…I mean, I’ve already made a few things from it, but I’ve spent the past 9 months doing so much testing for up-coming and newly-published cookbooks, it hasn’t gotten much attention. I’m not complaining mind you, it just wasn’t a priority.

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papa bread & mama bread

Needless to say, I had second thoughts, but by the time I got my tail over to sign up the “club” was closed to new members. Well, hump! I don’t need no stinking club to bake my way through Apprentice, so there!

This Andama bread was probably the best tasting bread I’ve baked to date. I’m still such a newbie when it comes to yeasted breads…but I’m starting to feel more like I have a tiny idea of what I’m doing. If you’re wondering about the different sizes, well, one of my pans is silicone and breads always poof out like that. Whatevah.

I have Natalie of Gluten A Go-go to thank for introducing me to Reinhart and his books. We were trying to think of a Daring Bakers challenge last summer and she mentioned his name. Since I was on holiday in the U.S. I decided to check out his books, and found myself sitting on the floor of the local bookshoppe devouring Apprentice with my eyes. As a novice baker, this looked like holy scripture sent from the gods to guide me through the valley of dead yeast.

I’ve submitted my lovely loaves to Yeast Spotting, your weekly rendez-vous for baked goodness, brought to you by the talented and kind Susan at Wild Yeast.

The Sweetest Thing…Sweet Freedom is here!

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the exciting news…my friend Ricki who blogs at Diet, Dessert and Dogs wrote a smashing book of vegan sweets called Sweet Freedom and the waiting is over!

Last Autumn a very lucky group of foodbloggers and Ricki’s friends were able to test the recipes in this book and it was indeed a privilege to get a sneak peek at everything that Sweet Freedom has to offer. Using all natural ingredients and avoiding so many of the processed sweets that traditional desserts rely so heavily on, Sweet Freedom gives you all the goodness, without the “junk”. Here’s the book description from Ricki’s blog:

Ideal for anyone with dietary restrictions because of allergies or food sensitivities, for kids whose diets must be free of additives, chemicals or any other artificial ingredients; for vegans; and for anyone following a kosher diet (everything is parve). Sweet Freedom’s recipes are all lactose free, casein free, low gluten or gluten-free (about 25% of the total are entirely gluten free) and refined-sugar free.

I was able to “virtually” sit down with Ricki and ask her a few questions about her thoughts on Sweet Freedom. It’s not every day that I get to interview a famous, internationally-known cookbook writer, so I’m still feeling pretty special.

1. Do you have a favorite “alternative” ingredient for your baking? You know, one that most home bakers have never heard of – or wouldn’t think to use?

I’d have to say that my (current) favorite ingredient is agave nectar. It’s gaining popularity, especially since it’s low glycemic and suitable for Type II diabetics, but many people still don’t know about its charms. Agave is sweeter than sugar or even honey, it has a milder flavor than honey (so it won’t overpower subtle flavors in baking, like lemon or vanilla) and it never crystallizes the way honey does—a real plus for me. I love the flavor and texture it confers to baked goods and non-cakey desserts like the Spiced Millet Pudding in the book.

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Easiest Almond Cookies

2. Of all the recipes in SF, which one is your “go to” recipe when you need to make a tasty treat in a hurry?

Of course, my mind always goes to chocolate—so my most-baked recipe in the book is probably the Chocolate Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies. However, there are actually other recipes that are even quicker and easier, such as the Easiest Almond Cookies or the Orange Tea Cakes. Hmmm. . . I guess I like them all!

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Chocolate Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies

3. What led you to write Sweet Freedom?

The reason I wrote the book was twofold. First, I began to bake this way because of my own dietary issues, and was so happy with the results that I wanted to share. I already had a huge collection of recipes from my baking company, Bake It Healthy, so all I had to do with those was convert them for the home baker. But it wasn’t until Bake It Healthy closed and customers still kept asking me if I’d bake a birthday cake for them, or supply treats for a baby shower or anniversary party, even though I wasn’t technically doing catering any more, that I realized there was a real need for this type of recipe. I wanted all those people to be able to reproduce the desserts in their own homes.

4. If you were a dessert, what would you be and why?

That’s a tough one! Whatever it is, it will have to be yeast-free (and probably chocolate) 😉

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Glazed Almond Bars

5. When did you first start eating vegan? What were your motivations?

I became a vegetarian as an undergraduate living in residence. It was partially chance and partially personal preference. Having been raised by a father who was a butcher, I was fed meat at home almost every day. However, because of his occupation, my father was also quick to let my sisters and me know (whether true or not) that any meat we ever ate in restaurants or cafeterias was of the absolute worst quality (in fact, my family almost never ate in restaurants for that reason). When I saw the first “mystery meat” in the school cafeteria, I knew I couldn’t eat it. I have also naturally gravitated toward vegan food—I’ve honestly never tasted anything vegan that I didn’t like, but there were plenty of non-vegan foods I didn’t like. It was a natural progression. Then, when I was treated by a naturopath years later, she vetoed dairy and eggs for the first phase of my diet. Eventually, that just felt natural—and I felt so much better physically that I just continued to eat that way. So I guess my motivations were connected to improving my health—and eating food that tasted good to me!

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Butterscotch Blondies with chocolate chips and dried cherries

6. Is there a common cliché or stereotype you’d like to dispel concerning “healthier” baking and desserts?

When I used to sell my baked goods in health food stores, sometimes I’d do demos where I stood at a table with plates of my desserts and offered them to customers passing by. At first, I’d ask, “Would you like to try some healthy desserts?” The answer I got most often was, “Healthy?? NO WAY!” as if I were proffering lead-based paint to eat. For some reason, the general public still believes that “healthy” equals “tasteless.” After a while, I’d simply say, “Would you like to try a brownie?” or “Would you like to try a chocolate chip cookie?” Inevitably, once they tasted the baked goods, they were sold.

7. After so many years as a conventional baker, how did you manage the transition, and how difficult was it?

Learning to bake all my favorite desserts without the usual all-purpose wheat flour, eggs, butter, or milk was a huge challenge at first. I went through a lot of experimentation and many, many flops. But once I got a feel for the “new” ingredients, I was able to convert pretty much any of my older recipes (there’s a chapter in the book devoted to ingredients and conversions). After that, it was a natural step to begin creating my own, original, recipes.

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Vegan Butter Tarts

8. How do you know what substitutions to use in alternative baking?

I began by checking the types of substitutions used by other vegan bakers, whom I consider the experts in replacing eggs and dairy in baking. Once you know the basics, you can apply them to almost any recipe. I’ve discovered a few new ones along the way (avocado as an egg substitute, for instance). Nowadays, I don’t think of those ingredients as “substitutes” for something else any more, but rather as integral elements of each baked good in their own right.

9. Which recipe was tested the most?

By far, the gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free whipped cream is the most-tested recipe; I went through at least 60 attempts before I hit on the one I liked. I had a version on my blog that worked, but was really, really time-consuming and fussy. I streamlined the process for the cookbook and created something almost identical to the blog version with less time and effort. So far, it’s always been a hit with anyone who tries it, whether or not they normally eat dairy.

10. Are your desserts low-fat?

While many of the desserts would be considered low-fat, that is not the aim of Sweet Freedom. My goal was to create healthier desserts that contained real, whole, unprocessed and all-natural ingredients. Without eggs, dairy or refined sugar, they are also lower in allergens than most desserts out there. As a result, the desserts in Sweet Freedom actually provide healthy nutrition as well as great taste.

Thanks so much Ricki for taking a few moments to hang out at the Fishbowl! I’m sure you’re just biting at the bit for your very own copy of Sweet Freedom – and I can’t blame you! So where can you get your very own copy? Just click here to order.

Peanut Butter Goodness Galore!

If you’re not a fan of peanutty goodness, this post will probably not interest you very much at all! It’s all about the peanut butter and here you’ll find it stealing the show decked out in some fabulous baked goodness…these glorious recipes will be in Celine and Joni’s upcoming vegan opus, 500 Vegan Recipes. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait!

Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Quick Bread

Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Quick Bread

This dense & delicious loaf has just a hint of boozy goodness. I added bits of dehydrated bananas (but you could add any dried fruit!), and it was the perfect breakfast with a dollop of jam. This is one of my favourite tester recipes by far! POST UPDATE – CELINE JUST POSTED THIS RECIPE ON HER BLOG! NOW YOU CAN ENJOY THIS AMAZING BREAD!

Peanut Butter Sconey Biscuits

Peanut Butter Sconey-Biscuits

Don’t let the “work-in-progress” name detract from their absolute deliciousness! These are peanut butter goodness incarnate. With just hint of sweet, these are a lovely marriage between a scone and a biscuit. Perfect with a cup of tea for an afternoon knosh or with a smear of jam for breakfast.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Oat Quick Bread

Peanut Butter & Jelly Oat Quick Bread

It’s not the bread’s fault I’m a klutz…despite being a crumbly mess (I tripped when moving it from oven to cooling rack), it was a fun breakfast treat – complete with oats, peanut butter and jelly – you just need to add a cup of joe and you’re set!

My oven is going to mourn the end of recipe testing for 500 Vegan Recipes…it’s going to be a long wait until November! If you just can’t wait, don’t forget to visit the flickr group – but don’t even try it on an empty stomach!

I Just Love Cheese Cake! A very “Sweet” Daring Bakers Challenge (and a 60-Day Project update)

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Before I get to this month’s delicious Daring Bakers challenge, I’d like to say thank you to three wonderful bloggers and participants in the 60-Day Project for my mother’s 60th’s birthday: Tacha of Haines, Jessica of Awesome. Vegan. Rad, and Miss V of Miss V’s Vegan Cookbook. It would be impossible for me to articulate the joy this project has brought my mother. Her fragile health has really isolated her from the “outside” world, and these bits of happiness coming from all over the world are such a ray of sunshine.

I wish I could make you each a lovely vegan cheese cake to thank you. I could make you a vegan cheesecake, but I doubt it would survive the post from France to you! I guess I could eat it for you, too (yes, I would do that for you. I’m a giver). If I did make you a vegan cheese cake, I would want to make you the most delicious, and healthy cake possible, because I like you and I want you to have your cake and be healthy, too.

Making a delicious vegan cheese cake isn’t really very difficult : you can make any number of tofu variations, mouth-watering raw “cheese” cakes, and if you don’t mind the hydrogenated oils, you can make vegan cream cheese versions, too. When this month’s Daring Bakers challenge was announced, I was rather excited, because I love cheese cake. It’s one of my very favourite desserts, and I’d like to thank Jenny of Jenny Bakes for offering us such a straight-forward and honest challenge. A cheese cake is like a blank canvas – you can make it as elaborate or as basic as you wish.

I considered many possibilities to fancy this up : key lime or lavender flavoured cake, or maybe an elaborate coulis to add a touch of sophistication, finally settling on one of my family’s favourite cheese cake recipes, by one of my very favourite bloggers (and good friend) Ricki of Diet, Dessert and Dogs. This recipe makes a beautiful, “genuine” cheese cake in all it’s authentic-tasting glory. It’s like a good friend or your favourite pair of jeans : it just feels right. It doesn’t need any fancy sauce or flavouring to state it’s case – it stands on its own two feet with grace.

sweet-freedom-cheese-cake31This luscious vegan cheese cake usually has a lovely lattice top crust, but my sous-chef (a.k.a. Guppy) thieved my reserved dough and ate it. Sigh.

I first made Ricki’s cheese cake last summer for my family when I was visiting them in the United States. They have very high cheese cake standards, because my mother’s Omni cheese cake is nothing short of phenomenal. Suffice it to say they were all “bluffé” as we say in French – bluffed – by the light as chiffon texture in tandem with the deep, rich, lemony cheesy taste this cake has to offer. This has become one of my family’s “classic” cheese cake favourites and easily found a home in the rotation.

You can find the recipe here, and it will be appearing in Ricki’s up-coming cookbook Sweet Freedom, available May 15th! Sweet Freedom is more than just another vegan dessert book! It’s about the freedom to enjoy desserts even if you normally can’t due to allergies and dietary restrictions, with about a quarter of the book featuring gluten-free or grain-free recipes! Ricki shows you that you can snub refined flours and sugars and still rub elbows with mouth-watering treats – yippie! You can read more about the cookbook here, or visit the official Sweet Freedom blog to drool over the amazing photos and check her Diet, Dessert and Dogs blog where she has shared some of the upcoming recipes.

Now do go check out all the Daring Baker loveliness around the net, and let’s not forget the official lingo of the month :

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Lenten Confessions : WWRD? (What Would Rita Do?)

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Cinnamon-Sugar Loaf, aka Easter Weekend Breakfast

I guess it’s time for confession, which is a rather Catholic thing to do, is it not? I’m not Catholic, but as you know, I decided to give up baking during the Lenten Holiday to honor the memory of my grandmother (a practicing Catholic). I was a very good girl during those long weeks of Lent, and I’m feeling rather proud of myself, too (which somehow negates the good behaviour, right?). Random urges for baking powder biscuits to go with homemade soup? Denied! Cookie cravings from Guppy and Monsieur Fish? Ignored. Thankfully I live in the country of the baguette, so at least fresh, cheap and tasty bread made up for the yeast-ban chez nous.

Besides being a positive way to honor her memory, this little break from baking was a wonderful reminder for me to ignore my “inner three-year-old”. Though I’ve only been baking (or cooking, or preparing food requiring more complex food preparation than slicing bread and boiling water) for a hair under two years, I’ve really taken to it. I relish in the DIY aspect of home food preparation, feeling like an artist, a craftsman and a renegade against the machine of forced consumerism. And it’s tasty. And so much healthier.

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Check out that cinnamon-sugar layer!

However, even those of you who like me have but a rudimentary understanding of physics know : energy doesn’t just disappear. Equal and opposite reactions and all that – sound familiar? When I broke my foot/ankle last November, something rather strange began to happen. The time and energy that I so carefully poured into my training had to go somewhere, and it seemed to find its way into the oven. I wasn’t actively aware of this happening initially : for me it was about recipe testing, holiday baking for gift-giving and get-togethers, etc. but as the holidays came to a close I still found myself wanting to bake. Needing to bake.

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You can see the cinnamon-sugar layering magic here, too

In retrospect, I believe that baking helped me reclaim a feeling of control I felt I’d lost. I couldn’t control my leg being in a cast or incompetent physical therapists, but I could control proportions of flour to sugar to yeast. Healing times eluded me, but baking times became as natural as my running rhythm.

I’m thankful that I didn’t chose a more self-destructive outlet for that pent-up energy (says the former smoker), but I felt like it was time to gently step away from the oven mitts and remember what brought me to wanting to bake in the first place : a desire to create healthful deliciousness for my family and friends.

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Oh delicious Molasses Bar, just unwrapped and ready to be eaten!

Lent technically ended on Easter Sunday, but I admit to ending my Lenten baking fast nearly 5 days prior. That being said, I don’t feel guilty or ashamed about breaking out the cupcake tins. Guppy was having a party at school, and I was having Spring parties for two of my children’s English classes. The idea of purchasing pre-made baked goods for these events briefly flashed before my mind – and then I just laughed out loud as I often do when I think about my Grandmother, known as Rita Pita. I found myself asking the question : WWRD*?

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Whole Wheat “Quickish” Bread with a slab of Chocolate-Agave Frosting.

Just typing the words makes me smile, because I knew Rita Pita, and I know how ridiculous she would think my not baking would be. Don’t get me wrong, she’s looking at me from somewhere and is touched that I honored Lent for her (and secretly feeling puffed-up for all this blog attention), but she was the last person on earth who would condone calorie restriction, or not eating sweets, in her name. She would have scolded me for not baking, probably asked to “just lick the spoon” (a no-no as she was a long-time diabetic and fought against weight problems her entire life) and a cupcake making we would have gone.

So I made. I left the camera in the other room, and decided to only make enough for the parties, meaning for Guppy’s school and for my students. If you’re still deciding if I “sinned”, do weigh in the fact that I made them, and taught/hosted the parties, with a 38.5c fever, so it’s like it was a big punishment anyway (ha!).

As the drugs began taking effect, I decided that it was the long weekend, and I wanted to make something fun and tasty for us so on Good Friday I made the Cinnamon-Sugar Loaf. And it was Good. I also made some Molasses bars that I wrapped up and froze to use as quick breakfasts for me. The last of the holy trinity of baking was the “Quickish” Whole Wheat bread that was so easy to throw together and bake it felt sinful. Just be be sure I made up a batch of Chocolate Agave Frosting, using hazelnut flavouring and we slathered this “faux-Nutella” all over that wholesome Whole Wheat loaf. So good to be bad.

In case you haven’t guessed, the Cinnamon-Sugar Loaf, Molasses Bars, Whole Wheat “Quickish” Bread and the Chocolate Agave Frosting are indeed all recipes which you’ll find in the up-coming 500 Vegan Recipes, to be released in less than a year! Testing is almost done, and now I shall find myself also asking WWSE? What will Shellyfish eat?

Oh the extetentialist ponderings of the universe…

(What would Rita do for those of you lucky enough to have dodged this little phrase which to me was the epitome of the hypocrite’s guide to religious marketing “What would Jesus do?”)*

“Swell” friends : More 60-Day Project Love & Yummies & thank heavens for good medical coverage.

My mother just keeps reveling in the birthday love – thanks to you! A hearty muchas gracias go out to the lovely and talented Robin of Robin in Reality and to everyone’s favourite Swell Vegan, A-K!

Robin sent my mother a gorgeous handmade scarf, huckleberry tea from her native Montana and a beautiful card. Cookzine writer A-K sent her the most delectible homemade raw goodies! And have you seen how cute she looks showing off her new Swell cookzine? She’s being added to the Vegan-Cutie Hall Of Fame fo sho! She’s selling these little babies for only 3USD! 5USD for we freaky European kids. I can’t wait to make every one of those recipes – and eat it all – that Spicy Tahini Stew sounds really good right now…

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And now for the Yummies! This Maple Flax Loaf was a pre-Lenten test recipe for 500 Vegan Recipes. So simple and so delicious. Miam! It was as delicious as it was beautiful!

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I know the blogger police should arrest me for such a terrible flashy picture, but I’d get myself off the hook when I offered the coppers one of these heavenly Quince Chewies Cookies. If you’re at all familiar with Celine’s blog, than you know she is the cookie queen, and these babies will not disappoint! (Hey, I took the darn photo back in February when it was dark outside at 4pm!). 500 Vegan Recipes is of course going to be rocking your tastebuds! Don’t forget to sneak a peak at the Flickr Pool for eye-candy galore!

I know that I’m oh-so-behind on blog reading and emails. I’m sorry, kids, but after trying to fight a stupid sinus infection without drugs (because I hate the drugs!), I finally caved and sought medical treatment (mostly because I couldn’t fight anymore). Thanks to my tenacity stubbornness I also won two free cases of bronchitis and laryngitis. Yippie!

Would you believe that up until Spring of 2007 (when I moved to this humidisville) I’d never had a sinus infection in my life? I seem to be getting the infection of the century once in the Autumn and once in the Spring. I do live in a very humid area – near the largest forest in France (and one of the largest in Europe), but still! 800mg of antibiotics every morning plus cortisone (yuck – Shellyfish no likey) plus a bunch of other meds should be making me feel better soon. I’d actually be in bed, I want to be in bed, but the cortisone has me wired like a crazy vegan warriorfish and though my eyes and brain are very tired, I can’t sit still.

I do need to say, however, that I am so thankful for our medical system here in France. My generalist was out Wednesday so I called the “traveling doctors” and though it took a few hours, I had a doctor in my home at 11 p.m. He even gave me cortisone right then to help ease my ickyness until morning when I could get to the pharmacy. Oh, and it cost 23E, 22 of which will be reimbursed by Social Security. Next morning at the pharmacy everything was covered, and I didn’t need to pay a centime.

While it’s true that people in larger cities or who chose to go to private clinics may have a slight edge, health care is not considered a “product” or a “privilege” here – it is the basic right of every human being. My little family has had some financial close-calls this year, but never once have we had to “budget” a doctor visit or wait before refilling a prescription – an absurd reality I know so many families face.

I just think that kicks ass.

I’m done now.