Monday, March 12, 2012

Source for Good Cheap Vanilla Beans

I do a lot of baking and have been making a lot of extracts and flavored vodkas lately. Vanilla beans in the store can be as much as $10 a bean, so I knew I had to find a good source for cheap vanilla. I wanted to recommend Vanilla Products USA to anyone looking to do vanilla related projects. I found them on eBay and have ordered both Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla beans through them. They sell beans for around $26/pound. That's a lot of beans!!! They are high quality, super aromatic and crazy cheap. In the coming weeks I will be showcasing some of the great things I have been making with all these beans...

Vegetarian Gelatin Substitutes

It's not that I love gelatin, but I am fond of some of my Grandma's stand-by family jello dishes and good ol' jello shots at parties. I do just go for it sometimes and try to ignore the fact that there are grody boiled bones in gelatin, but I think it's about time I got a better plan. The following is from PETA's website (yes I know they can be a little radical), but I plan to give them a try. I will let you know my results...


This flavorless gelling agent, derived from cooked and pressed seaweed, is available flaked, powdered, or in bars. For best results, grind the agar-agar in a coffee grinder or food processor and then cook it, stirring it regularly until it dissolves. When used in a recipe, agar-agar sets in about an hour and doesn't require refrigeration to gel. For a firmer gel, add more agar-agar, and for a softer gel, add more liquid. And don't worry if you don't get it right the first time—you can fix a faux pas simply by reheating the gel. Here's a general guide on how to use agar in recipes:

• Substitute powdered agar-agar for gelatin using equal amounts.

• 1 Tbsp. of agar-agar flakes is equal to 1 tsp. of agar-agar powder.

• Set 2 cups of liquid using 2 tsp. of agar-agar powder, 2 Tbsp. of agar-agar flakes, or one bar.

• Keep in mind that highly acidic ingredients, such as lemons, strawberries, oranges, and other citrus fruits, may require more agar-agar than the recipe calls for. Also, enzymes in fresh mangoes, papaya, and pineapple break down the gelling ability of the agar-agar so that it will not set. Cooking these fruits before adding them to a recipe, however, neutralizes the enzymes so that the agar-agar can set.


Also known as Irish moss, this seaweed, found in coastal waters near Ireland, France, and North America, is best when used for making softer gels and puddings. To prepare carrageen, rinse it thoroughly, and then soak it in water until it swells. Add the carrageen to the liquid you want to set, boil for 10 minutes, and remove the carrageen. One ounce of carrageen will gel 1 cup of liquid.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Super Yummy White Cake

Hubby and I were headed to see his ancient (95 year old) but very rockin' Grandpa this past weekend and since we hadn't been over in awhile, I wanted to take something special. My recent Pinterest obsession gave me some pretty good dessert ideas.

I saw this cake and was so wowed that I had to give it a try. My frosting job isn't quite as pro as the example, but it was my first go at the technique and God knows I am no Martha Stewart. I didn't have all of the ingredients to make the vanilla cake recipe, so I had to go on a hunt to find something that would work with what I had. This is the cake recipe I used:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup milk
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9x9 inch pan or line a muffin pan with paper liners.
  2. In a medium bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Combine flour and baking powder, add to the creamed mixture and mix well. Finally stir in the milk until batter is smooth. Pour or spoon batter into the prepared pan.
  3. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes in the preheated oven.

The cake turned out amazing! It was super dense and moist. The only drawback is it made just one round layer. I didn't have any more eggs, but next time I think I am going to make a quadruple recipe and make it a super tall layer cake. I am also thinking I would like a little more flavor, so I am thinking I may try to add some homemade lemon extract to give it a little extra zip.

As for the frosting, I used the following recipe (the same recipe she suggested for the original inspiration cake).

American Buttercream Frosting

1 cup (2 sticks) butter (salted, or unsalted)
1/4 teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (best quality available)
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream, half and half or milk.

*Optional- As mentioned above, I like a cream cheese version of this frosting best. The cream cheese adds to the creamy texture, and cuts down on the sweetness just a bit. If desired, for a very light cream cheese flavor add 1/2 block (4 oz). cream cheese, leaving the other ingredients (as listed above) the same. For a more traditional cream cheese flavor, reduce the butter to 1/2 cup, and add 1 block (8 oz.) of cream cheese. If using a full block of cream cheese, you can reduce the cream or milk to 1 tablespoon total.

Flavoring options- An almost unlimited number of flavoring options can be added in addition to, or instead of the vanilla. Orange and/or lemon zest, citrus extracts, mint extract, coconut extract or the seeds of a vanilla bean are all wonderful options. In most cases I'll still add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla, then 1/2 teaspoon of the other flavoring. For zest, add about 1 teaspoon fresh zest. For chocolate buttercream, add 1/2 cup (good quality) unsweetened cocoa powder.

* In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat butter (on medium speed) until completely smooth (30 seconds to a minute). (If you are adding cream cheese, add it now, then beat until smooth)
* Add salt (if needed).
* One cup at time, add 2 cups of powdered sugar, beating after each addition.
* Add vanilla, or other flavorings and beat to combine.
* Add about 1 tablespoon of cream, and continue beating.
* Add the remaining 2 cups powdered sugar, one at a time.
* Add an additional 1-2 tablespoons cream until desired consistency is reached. If you want to pipe the frosting on cupcakes, the frosting should be nice and thick. Continue to beat another minute or so. The frosting should now be smooth and fluffy.

* If your frosting is not smooth, it is likely because the butter was not fully smooth before adding the other ingredients.
* If your frosting will not hold up when piped on cupcakes, your frosting has too much liquid or is too warm. Put entire bowl of frosting in the fridge for 15-20 minutes and it will stiffen up. If it is still too thin, then add 1/4 to 1/2 cup powdered sugar, beat well.

The frosting was perfect. I usually end up with something that tastes a little too powdered sugary. I made sure to sift my powdered sugar ahead of time and mix it for a really long time. I also added a splash of almond extract. It really complimented all of the vanilla goodness.

I highly recommend the combination of recipes. It was super yummy and a total crowd pleaser!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Glow in the Dark Jello a la Bompas and Parr

I recently picked up a copy of Jellymongers from those British jelly (Jello to us Americans) fanatics Bompas and Parr. They have been making all kinds of wild jello out of cool custom made molds and ingredients for the past couple of years. This awesome cookbook shows some of the jelly art installations they have done, has some techniques and a ton of awesome recipes.

I was having a party this past weekend and decided I needed to come up with something cool so I turned to my new cookbook. They have a recipe using tonic water to do a glow in the dark jello. The quinine in the tonic water naturally fluoresces under a black light for a showstopping effect.

The only problem with my jello was the texture. This is the first time I have made jello in a million years and I didn't get the gelatin dissolved all the way. The book recommends using leaf gelatin, but it wasn't something easily available to me. I think next time I will hunt it down ahead of time or just be a little more careful with my timing to make sure the powdered stuff is totally dissolved.

Anyway, I am just being a show off, so here it is....

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Super Tasty Baked Tofu - Not the Watery Nasty Stuff

When people find out I am a vegetarian, the conversation inevitably turns to the disgustingness of tofu. Many people try cooking it at home for a healthy alternative and, not knowing how to cook it, make a total watery mess of a meal. Many restaurants aren't much better.

Here's my favorite way to make tofu that tastes good and has great texture...

Super Tasty Baked Tofu

1. Cut the block of tofu into large thin slabs. I like to make mine aprox 2 cm
2. Wrap the blocks of tofu in paper towels and place on a plate. Place something flat (like a cutting board) on top of the tofu and then add something heavy on top to weight down the tofu and squish out the water. I like to use a heavy wooden cutting board and my Kitchenaid mixer on top.
3. After 30 minutes, remove the tofu and change the paper towel. Squish it for another half hour. If you are short on time, one round of squishing works pretty well, but the more water you remove, the more the marinade can soak in and give the tofu a better flavor.
4. Marinate your tofu. I like to put mine in a large 9x12 baking dish, add plenty of marinade and let it soak half of the time on one side and half on the other so it has plenty of time to soak in. If I have time, I like to let mine marinate for 24 hours so it gets good and flavorful.

My Marinade

I never make the same thing twice, but I do have several constants.
1. I always use olive oil to help the tofu crisp up
2. I always use veggie stock to help make a lot of marinade with a lot of flavor
3. I always use coarse salt and fresh cracked pepper - great simple and pure flavors

This last batch I made (as pictured above) is Hawaiian BBQ sauce, ginger, tamari, olive oil, salt and pepper, veggie broth and a splash of Tabasco and apple cider vinegar. It was a particularly good!