A Cookie to Rely On

One of the [many] things I love about baking is how wonderfully reliable it is.

Now matter how gray the sky is, or how tired I feel, or how many times I dropped my pen in a 10-minute period, I know that I can mix butter, sugar and flour together in a very specific combination and it will make something wonderful. I love that.

It is that passion, in fact, that is what got me interested in vegan baking. Just because someone exercises their personal right to not consume animal products do NOT mean they shouldn’t experience that same reliable joy that a cookie or cupcake can bring. It just shouldn’t.

And so as I tiptoed into the realm of vegan baking, I came across Dreena Burton, author of three quite successful vegan cookbooks and a fantastic blog. I made her chocolate cake and fell in love. But what drew me to her first were these.

Super-Charge Me! Cookies.

Sick and tired of the hydrogenated-oil filled, high fructose corn syrup-ridden, over-processed cookies that are all the rage on grocery store shelves, she got down to the business she knows so well and created a cookie as delicious as it is healthy.

For me, it was love at first bake. The recipe involves OATS, one of my favorite foods, and yet was still adaptable in terms of flavor combinations and add-in variety. Most importantly, they taste.so.good. I kept a constant stash in the freezer and looked forward to whipping up a new batch when the last one disappeared. They made a perfect pre-gym snack, early morning my-stomach-is-not-awake-yet bite, accompaniment to tea. And I can’t remember how many times I would finish a batch and have to make another after the plate of fresh cookies “mysteriously” disappeared when a wanderer happened by the kitchen.

I played around with the recipe a lot, but here is my basic go-to mix when my stash starts to get low. I always play around with the spice combination, add-ins, and nut/seed butter, and every batch turns out just a little differently. You can make them wheat-free (with spelt flour) if you’d like – this recipe actually introduced me to spelt flour and I’ve kept some around ever since!

Ingredients:

1 c. rolled oats

2/3 c. spelt flour OR scant 2/3 c. whole wheat flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. sea salt

1/2 – 1 tsp. cinnamon (I always use more like 1 tsp because I’m a cinnamon addict)

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp cardamom

3-4 Tbs chocolate chips (I use vegan chips because they taste the exact same and are cheaper at Whole Foods)

1/4 – 1/3 c. dried fruit (cranberries are my fave, but anything will work – you don’t have to add any at all, if you’d prefer!)

1/3 c. ground flax

1/2 c. maple syrup (or any kind of liquid sweetener; maple seems to have the best texture)

3 Tbs. nut/seed butter

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (can also do combinations of vanilla + almond, vanilla + rum, etc)

2 Tbs oil (olive, canola, sunflower…walnut oil makes one amazing cookie!)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. I always forget that part, and then I have to use all of my will power to not eat all of the dough…don’t do that to yourself.

 

Mix the oats, flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium-large bowl.

Then add the chocolate chips (or butterscotch, or peanut butter…) and the dried fruit and mix it in.

Next in a smaller bowl, mix your wet ingredients: flax meal (yes, I know, not really ‘wet’, but it has just enough moisture that it works better mixed in here), maple syrup, extracts (vanilla and whatever else – I’m a fan of rum extract myself ;), nut butter, and oil. Not gonna lie – I’ve used half oil/half applesauce before for various reasons (walnut oil is, um, a tad pricey), and it works [almost] just as well.

I highly recommend experimenting with different nut butters – even the brand makes a difference in flavor. I’ve used different peanut butters, almond butters, and most recently sunflower seed butter (one of my roommates is deathly allergic to nuts). Nutella is next on my list…

Looks weird, tastes great. Go with it.

You probably know where I’m going with this: wet —> dry!

Mix it all together, put it on a silpat mat/parchment papaer/aluminum foiled/greased baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes – check it then. They can dry out, but in my experience they need more time in the oven rather than less.

And while you’re waiting….lick the spoon.

These freeze really well, and I’ve found they last longer if I freeze them after letting them cool for about an hour.

And by “last longer,” I mean it becomes slightly more difficult for me to eat 4 in one sitting.

Do let me know if you make these and come up with a particularly amazing combination – I’ll do the same.

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Unexpected Austin

Wednesday, August 11th 2010: Wake up far too early for a sunny day in August. Eat some melon. Head to airport. 
Destination: Austin, Texas.
Purpose: Training as a Peer Mentor for Academic Programs International.
[Just wanted to set the scene for y’all. Why the James Bond writing style?…If I told you, I’d have to kill you.]
Once I passed through security – always a barrel of laughs, that process – I proclaimed it breakfast time. And whaddya know, but there was a UFood Grill in the American terminal. I have heard of this particular restaurant and have always wanted to go, but all its Massachusetts locations are in downtown Boston, and it’s not easy to just hop down there. (Mostly because I refuse to drive in Boston. I value the lives of myself and my car far too much.) It’s a super casual dining place that features all health-focused fresh foods – AND tart frozen yogurt. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I have a frozen yogurt, erm, problem. The problem being that I love it and will get it at pretty much anytime of the day or night, irregardless of actual hunger. It’s usually worth it.
But, I also saw they offered smoothies, and that sounded perfect so early on in the day. I grabbed a yogurt and the Mango Madness smoothie – mango, banana, and orange juice.
It was a little heavy on the OJ flavor, but it was pretty tasty. And it made me happy to see a substantial healthy breakfast option in the airport. It made me smile.
I had a layover at OHare in Chicago, and was equally as successful in finding a healthy lunch option!
It was lacking in the protein department, and was seriously screaming for some avocado, but it was really fresh and tasty. The cilantro made ALL the difference, and I was really impressed that it was even there! When I think of airports and herbs together, I see a flight attendant asking me if salt counts. Go OHare and cilantro!
Got to Austin and eventually found the other 3 Peer Mentors who were with me – we were on the same flight the whole time!
I’m just going to say it now: I have never, EVER in my life experiences humidity like I did in Texas. It was what I think rain forests and green houses are like. It was intense and inescapable. But I actually kind of liked it – the air conditioning never felt too cold! 
Despite all the heat, we still saw plenty of runners and bikers and strollers out and about, sweaty and smiling. It was impressive. Insane, but impressive.
After getting to the hotel, my roommate Gab and I chilled in the room and literally talked for 2.5 hours straight. She had studied with the API Toscania program, and it was absolutely incredible to share our mutual Italy experience/adventures. In fact, the entire time in Austin was like the best therapy I could have asked for in the transition back to home life. I loved hearing about everyone else’s experiences and even though we all went to different places, we all had the common ground of loving every minute of it and it was amazing to connect with that. It was just the coolest group of people. I kinda wish we got to work together more as Peer Mentors. But before I get too wish-washy…
On to the FOOD. We definitely ate well in Austin. The first night, we went to a Tex-Mex place. As we should have.
 
[Insert here bowls of some seriously delicious salsa, guacamole, and queso. I always thought queso was just glorified melted Veleveeta cheese….I was wrong. It’s amazing.]
I went with the fish tacos for my entree. It was a tough choice, but I’ve always wanted to try them, and I do love me some grilled tilapia. It was a good choice 🙂
The corn tortillas were soft (my fave!) and tasted homemade, and I never thought I would say this, but the best part of the dish was the Chipotle Ranch dressing drizzled on top. I usually opt for no dressing, because the plate typically arrives drowning under a cloying, bland, cheap-tasting white goo. But this was unlike no other ranch I’ve ever tasted. It was light but wonderfully creamy, well-spiced but not too hot, and accented the dish without taking any other flavor away. Basically, exactly what a sauce should be. One of the best tex-mex experiences I’ve ever had. (The only one that was better was a seafood enchilada in downtown Boston when I was around 9. It remains in my head as one of the tastiest seafood dishes yet to reach my mouth. I could eat one right now.)
After dinner, the group of us wandered around downtown Austin (ha! that rhymes with Boston!…maybe I need to get out more.). Austin is such a cool city! It reminded me a lot of Charlotte, North Carolina which I was totally not expecting. Most of our group ended up doing a bit of bar-hopping on the [in]famous 6th street, but my 20-year-old status and very tired self prevented me from doing the same. Luckily, my roommate and one other girl were also still 20, so I wasn’t alone. Yay for the youngin’s!
After a none-too-restful night, I awoke groggy but excited to get started. It was so great to actually meet the people I had emailed obsessively and see the building where that rather hefty check was sent to. The API Staff is just awesome. And a lot of them are Gillianasana readers, which just makes me grin like an idiot to know. [Hi everyone!!!] And the office decor is SO cool. The creative director Mark is, well, creative. It’s really colorful and fun, and I have plans to decorate my future apartment a la API. You’re all invited to my housewarming party. Bring chocolate.
We went out to lunch & I had my first one of these:
A fried pickle! And the consensus was that it tastes like…um, a fried pickle. Yep.
Dinner was really exciting. Like, really really exciting.
Italian! What else would get me so excited?
[That was some delicious focaccia. Nothing like the focaccia I had in Italy…but delicious nevertheless. Crispy, cheesy, chewy. God I love bread.]
Remember my first garganelli experience? I loved the shape, and when I saw it on the menu simply done with a tomato & basil sauce, my mind was made up quite quickly.
Simple is always a good way to go.
The dining experience in Austin was really fun. Great food + great conversation. It was, well, great!
And lo and behold, what was across the street from this Italian restaurant but a frozen yogurt shop. I was all over that like white on rice.
This was my first experience with pay-per-ounce fro yo, and I must say, I am jealous of those of you who have one nearby. Although my wallet sure is happy without them.
But who can say no to this??
Not I. 
I went the next night too.
The next and final day, we all gave our presentations about our personal study abroad experiences. It was so much fun to hear everyone’s, and made me want to go back. And then go everywhere they went. Global tour, anyone?
Earlier, we met with our program managers, aka the person I stalked via email for 3 months when I was dealing with the massive amount of paperwork involved. [Note to all those study-abroad hopefuls I just scared: most of it is now done online. I am jealous.]. Mine was absolutely awesome, despite the fact that I emailed her 3 times in a row in a period of 10 minutes, and it was so cool to meet her (and see a pic of her adorable son!). 
Another highlight was lunch.
Turkey+sprouts+lettuce+tomato+mustard+”avocado”. Apparently in Texas, when you see avocado on a menu, it means guacamole. Only one more reason I love Austin. More places should adopt that principle.
But dessert basically eclipsed everything else. There is a “cookie delivery service” nearby that the office orders from often, understandably. But the kicker? The cookes are delivered fresh from the oven.
In one word? GENIUS.
That was hands-down the best M&M cookie I’ve ever had. It was all gooey and melty and warm and if I didn’t have enough reasons to up and move to Austin, this would do it. I want to open a fresh-from-the-oven cookie delivery service. Seriously. Possibly one of the best business strategies I’ve ever heard of.
After our training was all over (*tear*), a small group of us decided to check out Barton Springs Pool, which is a public outdoor swimming area with natural water. (I don’t know how else to describe it; by “natural,” I mean not chlorinated. So before you start giggling about the concept of “unnatural water”…shutup.)
[I love that there is an award for “Best Swimming Hole.”]
We ran back to the hotel and I fought with the hotel printer, and before I knew it, it was dinner time! We met at a tapas bar (we were going for barbecue, but the was an hour-long wait, and it was already 8 o’clock. Not happening.).One of the group studied in Barcelona, so needless to say, we asked him for recommendations. I
went vegetarian.
It was some fresh bread with some of the best grilled veggies I’ve had – and I have had a lot! It was leeks, artichokes, and asparagus in smoked olive oil + sea salt. The leeks literally melted in my mouth. That romesco sauce on the side was none too shabby, either. I wanted to partake in the bottle of wine, but that pesky age limit and my conscience stopped me. Oh, to be in Italy again.

It was really a great trip. Even better than I expected, and I was pretty excited to begin with! The job will be a lot of work, but studying abroad is something I’m pretty passionate about & I think it will really be fun. 
That wasn’t the only surprise; the trip seemed to trigger a bit if reverse culture shock. Perhaps it was all the talking about living in our respective countries and how much we loved and grew from it, but either way, I came home happy but a little hurtin’. But what it really did was remind me of what a crazy, confusing, beautiful experience studying abroad is and, for me, was. And I’d do it all over again.
Thanks, Austin!
I think I’ll be back 😉
~Namaste~
[P.S. – if anyone read this earlier, my mouse clicked the “Publish” button of its own volition when I was halfway through writing it. Hate it when that happens.]

Chocolate Anger, Green Contentment

 I mentioned a slight kink to my lovely day in the sun yesterday – a sudden cloud cover, if you will. Downright stormy in fact. But this was not a storm of hurricane winds or torrential rain. This was a technological cloud of doom – my internet was gone. Now, you might say “oh, kids these day, they  lose their precious internet for an hour and think the apocalypse has come” – but I am NOT finished. My internet was gone because there was supposedly another person using my internet account, and of course that sent me into a tailspin of questions, like “if they got my internet password, what other passwords could they have??!!” My dad later explained that it was probably just a router reboot issue, and the “other user” was probably me, it just hadn’t logged me out correctly – but this was not something I knew to consider. Angry and powerless, I turned to the one thing that always helps: baking.
Some people run when they get angry. Others listen to loud music. I make cookies.
These were the cookies we made in my first cooking class and they were so incredible, I’ve been craving them ever since. We had all the ingredients on hand, and thanks to my mom who sent me my food scale, I was all set. A little too much flour (they were a little bread-y), but I halved the recipe so I think the proportion may have been off. Instead of dark chocolate chips, I chopped up some of my egg left over from Easter. Delicious, brownie-like, and not even very damaging from a nutritional standpoint. I felt quite a bit better.
I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on the internet issue anyway because tonight we had tickets (thanks to my study abroad program) to MoMix, a modern dance company performance! We had heard that it was awesome, and very much like Cirque Du Soleil (which I adore), so I was pretty excited! It was a very interesting performance – modern dance goes a little over my head, but I can usually get it for the most part. It was just such a cool experience to see it! The music was really good, and the dancers really did a beautiful job. I think I like Cirque a liiiittle bit more, but this was really cool. Such a fun way to spend a Wednesday night!!
After that, I convinced the roomies to get gelato because they had yet to try Perche No!, which is where my other roommate and I went over Spring Break and declared it our favorite Florentine gelato so far (although Vestri may tie up the competition…).
After falling in love with their soy vanilla flavor, I tried the soy chocolate – and was not disappointed! It was very cocoa-y, which I love. Sometimes when I’m having a chocolate craving, I just have a little spoonful of cocoa powder. It sounds weird, but it works – my theory with chocolate is, the darker the better! I also got mango because, well, I’m pretty much obsessed with all things mango. SO good!
We came home and sampled my cookies (I think they were approved of…), and then my internet issue came flying back at me. I was not in the best of moods. And it only got worse when I broke my tea mug, and then seconds later remembered I had a report for my cooking class due tomorrow, which was actually today as it was already past midnight. Not gonna lie, I had a bit of a breakdown. I pulled it together (although another cookie may have been eaten), cleaned up the mug shards, wrote the paper, and got to bed. Unfortunately, that didn’t leave me much pillow time, and I am feeling it today.

BUT, Italian was more or less painless. I left actually pretty excited because yesterday we gave oral presentation about our favorite books and I chose:

Ruth Reichl is one of my very favorite authors. This book is about her time as The New York Times’ food critic, and it is just a completely charming, funny book. I’ve read her others, which I like almost as much as this, and just started her newest one, Not Becoming My Mother. ANYway, my Italian teacher went out and bought it after she heard me talk about it! I love spreading the foodie love 🙂

Today continued to make up for last night’s ick-factor when I came home, made a big cup of coffee, and discovered my internet to be restored. And all was well again. Honestly, I think my issue last night was lack of sleep more than anything else. It’s just been a bit of a tough week sleep-wise. And really, when I look back on my semester here, I am not going to remember the internet-less nights of stress; my trip is going to be marked by my sunny afternoons spent lazing in Piazza Indipendenza, making fun of the pigeons and talking to the dogs.

The ladies who lunch sit.

Lazing in the piazza is exactly what I did today – after my cooking class, of course! Today was a “green class”   – lots of antioxidant/fiber-filled goodness!

Patate agli spinaci
This was very interesting. We took boiled potatoes and peeled them–you want to boil vegetables with skins on because if you peel them first, the water will take and dissolve all the nutrients! Of course, you can do this to create a vegetable stock – all the nutrients seep into the water. But for this purpose, boil-and-peel! The potatoes were then riced (I am pretty sure it was a ricer?) –you could probably grate them too– and mixed with spinach that had been sauteed shortly with olive oil and garlic. This mix was put in a pastry bag and squeezed onto a baking sheet into perty potato-spinach flowers and sprinkled with parmesan cheese (which got all crunchy and golden and delicious!), and baked. They were pretty tasty, although I feel like they could have used a bit more oomph. More salt maybe? I feel like potatoes and spinach are two more or less bland-flavored veggies (don’t get me wrong, though, I love eating both!) and they needed more than just the herbs and cheese to make these really *pop.* Ok, I just talked about potato-spinach flowers for about five minutes, NEXT plate…

Trofie al pescatrice e pesto
Holy WHOA this was SO yummmmmmy!! We used trofie, a type of pasta that looks like it’s been stretched and then twisted, and is popular in Liguria which is near Genova where basil is grown for pesto! Nice little linkage there, no? We made the pesto, but instead of using water like last time, we used some ricotta cheese to make it creamier. Normally I don’t like super creamy pesto, but it went so perfectly with this dish! Into the pasta also went cubed pieces of fresh swordfish…oh dear, how I love fish. I’m pretty sure my eyes lit up when he said we would be making fish! The fish taste was not at all overwhelming and was perfectly balanced by the sweet and creaminess of the ricotta-pesto, and the pasta choice of trofie worked really welll. Something about the thin shape and soft denseness really seemed to accentuate the pesto flavor and the alternate texture of the fish. Definitely had 2 servings of this! Could have happily drowned in it.

Foccacia agli spinaci
They made the foccacia from scratch, of course, so the chances of this being amazing were pretty good from the start. We used mozzarella instead of the usual scamorza, because the mozzarella is fresh and less fatty. They sauteed the spinach in olive oil and garlic and then stuffed it inside the foccacia (btw – that is not an easy to word to spell) and baked it. Towards the end of baking, Marco (our teacher) brushed olive oil and white wine on the top so that it would turn a nice golden color. The secret to making foccacia in under an hour? Use a pinch of sugar in the dough. The yeast loooves sugar and will grow faster with the addition of the sugar.
This was out-of-this world good!! It was just salty enough and suuuper doughy (a very good thing!). I had extras on the crust because it was just. so. good. I just love bread. You start with yeast, flour and water and yet the variety of different results you can get from those simple ingredients is infinite. So cool.

Finally, my team’s dish:

Bet you can’t guess!

Sfogliatine di pomodori verdi (con sorbetto di limone)
This is basically a jam made of green tomatoes, lemon juice, and cane sugar inside puff pastry. We de-seeded and cubed the tomatoes and cooked them in a pan with the sugar and juice of half a lemon, and towards the end of cooking added crumbled pieces of panbrioche (a sweet bun, basically) to thicken it. We brushed milk (instead of egg yolk) on top of the sealed pastry triangles and sprinkled them with a little more cane sugar. Pop them in the oven for 20 minutes or so, and you’re good to go. We served them with a “dollop” (my teacher was very proud he remembered that word) of lemon sorbetto, which put these over the edge! It may sound very odd, but it worked so well. The green tomatoes are higher in acidity, and paired with the sweetness of the sugar and the sweet-sour sorbet (plus that hot/cold contrast), this was one of the most uniquely tasty dishes I’ve ever had. The jam was SO easy to make; definitely worth a try on my own! (Or your own – if you want the recipe, just leave a comment!)

After class & said-park lounging, the roomies and I decided on aperitivo for dinner. I have given up trying to takes pictures in Kitsch because it’s just too dark, but just image a nice glass of prosecco and various little appetizer tastings. Always lots of food and nice prosecco for the low low price of 8euro. Hard to beat.

We have make-up classes tomorrow  – whatever classes we didn’t have on Monday (we got it off for Easter). I know I am going to the market for my Food & Culture class to walk around and talk to the vendors. Should prove to be quite interesting at the least!

~Namaste~