Saturday, February 28, 2015

Artisan Vegan Cheeses Review: Gouda, Gruyere, Emmentaler

If you are vegan and ever liked good cheese, chances are you already know about Miyoko Schinner's Artisan Vegan Cheese cookbook. It took a completely new approach to vegan cheese: using bacterial cultures to make the tangy flavors of cheese, rather than simple acids like lemon juice. They're all based on cashews or vegan yogurt or both.

Overall, her cheeses are incredible in terms of flavor, but at the cost of a soft, sort of grainy texture. Regardless, we've made enough of them now I figured it was time for a review.

Gruyere: This is probably my favorite recipe so far. It has a rich, complex flavor, a good spreadable texture, and the ingredients are things we already have in stock (although I realize not everyone has coconut oil or deodorized cocoa butter, we have a ton we're trying to use up). It's great on crackers, and really helped out a kugel we made. The picture below is of crostini with "hard" gruyere (still pretty soft), pears, and red wine glaze (recipe is in her book), which were fantastic.

Vegan crostini w gruyere, pear, & red wine glaze

Gouda: Sadly we don't have a picture of this, but I mixed it with BBQ seitan on sandwiches, for a similar effect as this BBQ pizza I made with commercial vegan gouda one time. It is pretty similar to the hard gruyere, but requires yogurt which I'm not a fan of: Also you have to rub the rind with salt before air drying, which I had trouble with, but it still came out really well. Definitely worth eating.
BBQ Soy Curl Pizza (before baking)

Air-dried emmentaler: We had high hopes for this as Sarah loved Swiss cheese. But it just tasted sour and weird. Basically it tasted like yogurt and sauerkraut (understandably, as those are two key ingredients). We tried a few ways to use this up but in the end gave up and tossed it since it was pretty gross.

In the past we've also made the goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, and sharp cheddar (see the write up of our vegan cheese tasting party for details).

Next steps include meltable Monterey jack, getting a "nut milk bag" to strain vegan yogurt to make air-dried parmesan (!), boursin, and camembert.

I also recently made a vegan brie from a kickstarter, and will try it out tomorrow after it's had a week to hopefully get extra-flavorful in the fridge. Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Double-Blind Taste Test Party

We decided to host a blind taste test party where we would have a suite of arguably similar products, labeled with random numbers in a double-blind fashion (one person assigns a random letter to each sample, a different person replaces the letter with a 3-digit random number and writes down which letter corresponds to which number to be decoded later) so that guests could taste them all and rank / judge them without any preconceptions. An easier approach some people followed was just putting the brand on the bottom of otherwise identical containers. The results are below, and you can get the raw data here if you like.

We collected a simple rank order for each set of samples rather than a fixed scale (e.g. 1-10), but rather than properly normalizing and analyzing the data we just took the mean of the ranks because of laziness. As such, this data should be used for entertainment purposes only. In a minor concession to science we added the standard deviation and a count of how many guests ranked each sample as the best or worst in the raw data.

The grocery store organic carrots won, with conventional carrots clearly the most reviled as bland, and organic CSA carrots in the middle due to their polarizing strong flavor (loved or hated).

Only 4 people submitted data for the 9 flavors chocolates (one of which was partial), partly because the labels got jumbled partway through. But the rice milk chocolate with peanut butter filling was a clear winner, and plain dark chocolate the least preferred overall.

Cocoa Powder
Highly polarizing. The strong and complex cocoa flavor of the Rademaker Dutched cocoa entranced some but others hatred it (but it still nudged into #1), and the same was true of the more metallic / traditional flavor of Hershey’s (a close #2), with the relatively bland Whole Foods cocoa in #3 (which was no one’s favorite).

These ratings were all over the place and the rankings were close (except Malta Goya, the “wild card” which all but one person hated). Overall Giant Cola was the winner, followed by Mexican Coke, Pepsi, American Coke, RC Cola, and Malta Goya in last. Several attendees requested a blind American / Mexican Coke test when it was revealed I (Jon) successfully guessed all colas blind (except switching Giant and Pepsi), and ranked Mexican Coke as #1 but American Coke as #2. However, no other guests successfully guessed which was which, and I probably got lucky.

Cookies (sandwich cremes)
The surprising winner was low-fat Oreos, with Back to Nature just behind in #2 place. Normal Oreos were a fairly distant 3rd, then Glutino (mostly b/c one person gave it the top rank), Joe-Joes, and Newman-O’s a clear last. Note that we unscrewed the top of every cookie so that people wouldn't be able to see the brand name embossed in the cookie top.

Grilled Vegan Cheese
Daiya barely beat out Sheese, with Follow Your Heart in 3rd, but Daiya was another strongly polarizing one due to its strong flavor (either cheeselike or fake depending on your point of view).

Hot Dogs
Lightlight jumbo dogs won out, with Tofurkey dogs just behind. Whole Foods and Tofu Pups were consistently more disliked due to their blander flavor. Tofu Pups was ranked last by all but 2 participants.

Cava Mezze was a clear winner with its nicely balanced flavor. Giant came in #2 despite being generally ranked as bland since the 3# brand (Whole Foods) had a strong tahini taste that 5 attendees really disliked.

Jelly Beans
We didn't collect data on this, but we DID have some Jelly Belly "Bean Boozled" beans, which come in pairs that are identically colored but are good or horrible. On the most benign end, everyone agreed toothpaste was pleasant enough (arguably about the same as Berry Blue), and lawn clippings were fine too. I think skunk and barf generated the most awful faces, but rotten egg was apparently pretty epic too (I didn't try that, nor canned dog food which was reputedly bad but less than rotten egg). Stinky socks and booger were bad but tolerable, moldy cheese was quite accurate which some people didn't mind and others couldn't stand, and baby wipes were scarily dead-on.

This was another surprising one. Cheap old Liptons was ranked 1, followed by the Premium Liptons, followed by the theoretically “better” Irish tea (I forget the brand). I think plain Liptons was less tannic (albeit less flavorful) than Premium Liptons, and the Irish tea was clearly the most bitter. Even odder is that for both Irish and Premium Liptons, the “standard brew” (168F water in a cold vessel and squeezed teabags) was substantially more popular than the “British brew” (rapidly boiling oxygenated water in a hot vessel without squeezing teabags). While the British brew produced more flavor, and all teas were brewed for 3 minutes (not too long), it may be that drinking them without sugar or milk meant that weaker flavors were preferred overall.

Tortilla Chips
Most people couldn’t tell the difference (or not a strong difference), and only 2 people successfully guessed the color of each (this was inevitably a single blind experiment with one person tasting with eyes closed and another person who knows the color passing them each type of chip). But there was a very weak preference for yellow (the most flavorful), then blue, then white corn.

We didn’t have actual Twizzlers, but Target beat out Lolli and Pops (despite costing 1/3 as much) mainly on texture (as the latter was very tough). Several people (but not all) preferred the Lolli and Pops flavor.

Vanilla Vegan Ice Cream
Trader Joe’s was a clear winner with all but 2 attendees preferring it strongly to So Delicious (described as having a more beany taste by several).

Vegan Cream Cheese (tasted with bagel segments)
Tofutti was a clear winner, with Follow Your Heart, Go Veggie, and Daiya basically in a 3-way tie, and the homemade cream cheese coming in last (it wasn’t bad, but was the least like cream cheese).

This was an upset, with Svedka (the middle of the road price-wise) a fairly clear favorite, and Aristocrat (as cheap as it gets) beating Russian Standard (the premium vodka) for 2nd place. Attendees were mostly polarized around whether Aristocrat or Russian Standard was the gross one.

A few things were interesting here. No one (except me) successfully guessed that one of the 5 red wines was a dyed Chardonnay (although some did describe it as minerally, sweet/sour, and oaky, and I knew one of them was a Chardonnay). The relatively fancy Napa Valley 2012 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon was a clear winner, with the same wine heavily aerated (via a milk frother and a few hours of decanting, see picture below) in the #2 place but substantially less preferred. The Purple Moon shiraz was #3, then the dyed Chardonnay (which I have to say was truly dreadful wine), followed by Charles Shaw Shiraz (which was either a bad bottle, or several attendees had convinced themselves was good despite it being crappy wine). If you want to try dying wine, for this bottle I added 25 drops of red food dye, 2 of blue food dye, and 10 of black food dye. It looks pretty good in a clear glass, but brownish against a white background.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Homemade alcohol-free relaxing "beer"

Recently Sarah went on an antibiotic that means she can't drink any alcohol for a while. She is also on a no-sugar kick, so even if it was any good (it's not) fake beer isn't ideal given the malt. It's not the end of the world, but a beer sure is nice at the end of a difficult day, so I figured it was worth trying to see if I could come up with a reasonable replacement. The goals I had were:
1. Good taste
2. As beer-tasting as possible, especially on the hop side (as Sarah likes super-hoppy IPAs)
3. Actually relaxing (not just beer-flavored)
4. Ideally looks / feels kind of like beer too (carbonated and in the yellow-orange family)

Here is the most recent version (iteration 3, with many more likely to come) of the "recipe" I came up with:
1/4 cup dried whole hop flowers (I actually didn't have pure hops so I used a homemade blend of relaxing tea with hops, skullcap, chamomile, and a few other things)
Skullcap extract (I happened to have some we weren't using we got from Mom)
Club soda
1/8 tsp Truvia fake sugar
optional: Angostura bitters or orange bitters (note: these are alcoholic so I used a very small amount, see below)

I start by adding the hops / herbs to ~1 cup of water, bring it to a boil (in the microwave thus far), then remove from heat and let it steep for 15 minutes. I strain the herbs out and end up with about 3/4 cup of tea. Boil this (I put the tea in a glass measuring cup in the microwave) until it is reduced by half (halfway between 1/4 and 1/2 cup). Note that the tea gets a bit frothy as it boils so be sure to use a 2-cup measure or just closely watch it to prevent spillage. Once it is reduced, you will have an intensely bitter / hoppy flavor essence for the base of your beer. Stick it in the freezer or fridge until cool (earlier attempts used ~ 1 shot of tea so the heat wouldn't make the overall beer warm, but this is way better).

Remove the cool hoppy tea from the fridge, add ~ 1 dropper of skullcap and the Truvia and stir until it dissolves. Pour into a pint glass and add 12 oz club soda. Optional: if you want more complex flavor and a darker color, add no more than 10mL orange bitters or 5mL Angostura original (Gentian) bitters. The original bitters add a nice color as shown above, and great flavor, but it is 58% alcohol so it's important to not use much. The nice frothy head goes away fairly quickly, but regardless you end up with a drink that is carbonated, hoppy and bitter (but not too bitter thanks to the Truvia), and relaxes the hell out of you (hops is a soporific that helps you feel sleepy, skullcap in a nervine that makes you generally relaxed).

It's not a true substitute for alcohol, but it's a pretty tasty, pleasant, and relaxing beverage, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to avoid or minimize alcohol but who enjoys beer.

Monday, June 16, 2014

On biking to work - part 1

Sarah n' bike

As an adult, the first job I ever biked to was just two relatively flat miles from my house.  I avoided biking when it rained or when it was cold, and I usually just wore my work clothes since I didn't work up too much of a sweat on the way.  In any case a shower was definitely not required, which reduced the complexity of my bike commute considerably.  I'd throw on my backpack to hold my wallet, lunch, and bike lock, and I was good to go.

When I started looking for a new job, I actually only looked within a 5 mile radius specifically because I didn't want to have to bike any further!  Luckily, by that time my radius was pretty close to the city and I was able to find something just at the five mile mark.  My new workplace had a shower - another requirement I'd had for any new job; and during D.C. summers, you really do want to shower after biking five miles.

Since my new ride was much more urban, I had to contend with cars turning suddenly in front of me, delivery trucks parked in the bike lane, cars stopping & turning without warning, and the worst fear of all - the fear of getting doored.  I'd heard awful, horrible stories about this - where someone opens their car door a half a second before you get there, and with no time to react, you slam into the door full speed, possibly flipping over it, possibly getting thrown into oncoming traffic.  Many things can happen - all bad.  Although in some cases the cyclist can't do much of anything, it's always a good idea to check your brake pads to make sure they're good and thick.  Once they get worn down they provide MUCH less stopping power.  I speak from personal experience as a person who let her brakes get too worn down.  It's really surprising how much quicker you can stop with new brake pads.

I started out carrying my toiletries bag, towel, work clothes and shoes in a backpack.  There was a special bike cage in the parking garage, which was awesome.  One major drawback was my clothes still felt damp after hanging in a locker all day.  There was almost no air circulation, even though I left the locker door open.  Only one piece of clothing - my towel in this case - could be slung over the door of the locker.  I had a cubicle so I couldn't hang my clothes in my office.

I started getting back problems and wondered if it had something to do with carrying stuff on my back instead of in a pannier (a bag that can attach to a rear bike rack).  I went ahead and invested in a rear bike rack, and some slim black Trek bags to carry my gear.  The Trek bags were the cheapest bags in the store, which is why I decided on them.  This decision would come back to haunt me later.

At some point during one work day, the cleaning staff of the women's locker room actually threw away my towel and my expensive REI base layer (okay, slightly less expensive because I'd bought the children's size to save money, but still!).  You can replace a base layer, but that towel was the perfect size and thickness to bring to the gym.  It had worn down enough that it dried really fast, but still had enough wicking power to get the job done.  I was really mad, especially since now I had to close and lock the locker, and there was no chance of my gear getting even slightly dry during the day.

Various things happened, such as:

-Building management threw away my  hair drier I'd left plugged in in the locker room "for legal reasons", even though I'd taped up a sign next to it that said "use at own risk" specifically so they wouldn't remove it "for legal reasons".

-One day the showers only gave out cold water.  I skipped showering that day.

-Building management got a towel service for the locker rooms.  It was awesome, but I'll never forget you perfect towel!

-A woman from my company's upper management showed up in the locker room out of the blue one morning.  You really cannot see management naked or in any state of disrobe ever.  I can't stress this enough, it's just too weird.  Hide in a shower stall or bathroom stall for the next 45 minutes.  You can thank me later.

-I got an office, with a door! I brought in some hangars and hung my clothes behind the door.  They finally got dry during the day.

-I learned how to bike over small patches of ice.  Beats small patches of sand, for sure!

-I went from being a white-knuckled, granny-paced, hyper-vigilant stress ball to actually enjoying myself.

For some reason, when you bike five miles to work, even though you have some evil hills to conquer on the way, no one will be impressed when you say "five miles".  Lie, lie like a rug.  Get some street cred.  Just tell them how long it takes you, and that will sound better.

I'm tired, so that's about all for today.  Next up - how I was betrayed by cheap panniers, the desperate cyclists' commute, winter bike commuting, and more...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mojito Cupcakes

When I saw fresh mint at the farmer's market this past weekend, I knew it was time to make some mojito cupcakes. I got the recipe a few years ago from Vegan YumYum, (who in turn modified the vanilla cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World), although I make the frosting with a lot of extra rum. These are the best. Here's how it goes.

First you infuse some fresh spearmint in soy milk:
Mojito cupcakes

Then you add lime juice and rum to curdle it, and cream with sugar:
Mojito cupcakes

The lime zest goes in with the dry ingredients:
Mojito cupcakes
As usual it all gets mixed together and baked, then topped with frosting once cool. Here's how I do the frosting:
1/3 cup nonhydrogenated margarine (I use Earth Balance)
1/3 cup nonhydrogenated shortening (I use Whole Foods brand)
3.5 cups confectioner’s sugar (you may need more)
3 Tbsp dark rum (I use Barbancourt 5 star)
1 Tbsp lime juice

Beat the shortening and margarine together until well combined and fluffy.  Add the sugar and beat well until thoroughly combined (if too dry, start adding the rum and lime juice, but don’t add liquid all at once or it will splash).  Add the rum and lime juice and beat a few more minutes.  If too runny, add more powdered sugar.  Add to the cooled cupcakes and garnish with a fresh mint leaf (add the mint leaves right before serving so they don’t wilt). I like to drip a little bit of extra rum into the icing right before serving so you get that volatile rum aroma when it comes up to your nose. The result: Mojito cupcakes

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jurassic Park-ty Food / Costumes

When our friend Riley told us he was having a Jurassic Park themed birthday party, we were overwhelmed with ideas to help make it memorable and excellent. Little plastic mosquitoes frozen in pale juice amber? Make a tray for drinks, tape a cell phone to the bottom that is set up to periodically vibrate to make the ripples in the drinks?

It was clear that guests and hosts were going to go all out with costumes, decorations, etc (see the evidence here) so we wanted to do our part. We watched the movie to get more ideas, and in the end decided to do fossil cookie excavation (from the early scenes in the desert) and a cake for the front gate to jurassic park (so we'd have an excuse to incorporate flame). We also made some little dino side dishes from a special effects cookbook we had, a little stegosaurus avocado to go with chips, and an apatosaurus watermelon bowl.

For the fossil cookies, Sarah made a custom dinosaur footprint cookie cutter by cutting up an old catering tray we had:
Homemade Dinosaur Footprint Cookie Cutter

We also made some bone cookies (from a dog bone cutter we had), one person cookie , and then I hand cut a trilobite and a t-rex skull:
Trilobite and dino skull fossil cookies

The fun part was that we then laid out the cookies on a tray, covered
them with cinnamon sugar, and dusted a bit of cocoa on top for color
(so it looked like dirt and sand), and left a little brush on top of
the whole thing to excavate the cookies:

For the cake, since a gate isn't that cool looking, we wanted to add a sound and motion component as well as the flame (we'd done flaming sugar cubes before in other cakes). I found a talking horse birthday card where you could record your own audio and the horse would play the audio while his mouth opened and closed. So here's the plain ol' boring cake before being lit and opened: Jurassic Park Gate Cake

And here's the reveal where we light it and see what's inside:

In the light the roaring looks like this:

We also made a fruit bowl out of a watermelon and cucumbers (it looked better earlier before the legs collapsed as the toothpicks cut into the cucumber), and a stegosaurus out of avocado:
Dino fruit bowl & avocado stegosaurus

The other really serious effort went into Sarah's costume. We didn't want to buy anything, so I just wore a Mexican wrestling mask I had and went as a dinosaur, and Sarah wore a lab coat I had to be a scientist. But she really wanted to be a dinosaur geneticist, so she made this baby dinosaur out of a glass vase, paper mache, duct tape, foil, and brilliance:
Sarah making baby dino bursting from egg

Here is what we looked like at the actual party: El Raptor w/ Scientist

I can't stress enough how fantastic everyone else's costumes and decorations were, you can see more pictures from the party, and there were people dressed as virtually every character, isla nublar beer, dino egg party favors, inflatable dinosaurs, dino kites, test tubes to drink out of, and the list goes on and on. Here is one example of some of the excellent costumes (man on safari being eaten by tiny dinosaurs, triceratops in cocktail dress, and lawyer who got eaten):
Elegant Triceratops w/ Man being devoured by tiny dinosaurs

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cabin, Hiking, and Recipe Planning

We took a few days off to go hiking a few weeks back, and I was quite proud of my recipe planning.  I looked up all the spices for each recipe, at what point they got added to the recipe (to keep those separate), and put them in teeny tiny adorable tupperwares, which I then labeled.  I also measured out the olive oil we'd need and put that in a small jar.  Later, I'll get to all the critical items I forgot.  But for now - let's just admire the cabin.

Below is the cabin we stayed in.  Jon googled and googled until he found a dog friendly place with a fireplace AND a hot tub.  We adored that hot tub.  Perhaps a bit too much, more on that later.

View of cabin from front

On our very first day, we decided to take the short way on forest service roads to a hike.  At first there was occasional patches of snow, then more snow, then deeper snow, until we got totally stuck.   It took us a good 45 minutes of shoveling, dragging our boots across the snow like tiny snow plows, stomping it down with our feet, breaking up twigs and putting them in the path of the wheels, but eventually we made a three point turn on a one lane road in 5 inches of snow with a Dodge Neon.  And we are still married.  In fact, we didn't fight ONE BIT about that!  No, instead we fought over getting the last beans out of a can which were stuck to the bottom while preparing dinner.  Yes, that is what we fought about.  Pro marriage tip: feel free to drive up any narrow snowy mountain roads with a wildly inadequate vehicle.  But avoid westbrae chili beans, they stick to the bottom of the can.

Most of the hikes were on the snowy side, which is harder than normal hiking, because you slide around more on slopes, and it's a little more challenging to walk when your boots are sinking in with each footstep.  The dog agreed, even she walked in the existing bootprints!

One great thing about hiking in the snow was the place was deserted.  We saw no sign of anyone, except for the boot prints of some long gone hiker and many animal tracks (we are so not Teal'c*, we had no idea what made any of the tracks except for the deer and rabbit tracks).

Sarah & Leeta on High falls trail

Note the impending stream crossing, where I will winge and wobble and frantically grasp for Jon's hand.  It's really not a feminist moment.  I actually bought a balance board, which is a device you use to practice balance on, in response to my less than admirable behavior during stream crossings.

Another great bonus of hiking in early March: frozen waterfalls.

"Ice beard" frozen waterfall

These were plentiful on the Otter creek trail.  So were sketchy icy scary parts, and hand holding.  Jon was very accommodating.

Another hike, High Falls trail, had amazing views.  Here's a picture of a majestic, many-hued, stunning landscape that looks like utter crap in the photo.  I can't stress enough how this landscape could bring a tear of joy to your eye, make you believe in a higher power, and make a mental note to learn watercolor painting so you can return and capture it's true essence.  Yet once translated into pixels...well, you see what I mean.

High falls trail

Here's the kitchen, where we cooked like gangbusters:
Kitchen and gas fireplace / heater

Now, onto lessons learned.  One of the meals I'd planned was tacos.  We had recently purchased a bag of Beyond Meat's new burger crumbles, feisty flavor.  (Who was in the focus group for that name?)  Anyhow, I totally forgot to bring them, tacos.  I also planned a thai coconut vegetable curry...and forgot rice.  I'd planned to make biscuits but forgot ground flax seeds for the egg.  However, despite my screw ups, we actually still ended up having too much food somehow.

In a non-food related lesson, 7 hot tub trips in 4 days is one too many.  My skin became really raw and red and dry.  I had no lotion, but we did have warming massage oil, so I tried that instead.  Don't ever put warming massage oil on red irritated skin.  It's a bad, bad mistake that will result in an immediate desperate shower, which will hurt also.

Finally, hiking in the snow is awesome, and I totally want to do it again.  It's gorgeous, peaceful, relaxing, and it you have a dog, especially nice, because they love snow so much, and you get to watch them bound around happily.

*Sci-fi reference