Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vegan Panforte (Mix One Part Italian Chocoholic with Two Parts Knitting Obsessed)

It's finally snowing. Eleven days remain of this year. I have spent some part of every single day this past week baking. Making this panforte was nearly an all day affair. A perfect way to distract my mind. And frankly after having tasted the result, I can honestly tell you--worth every single minute. It has won the heart of both DH and me. I have sworn to myself to keep a ready supply of this on the kitchen counter through winter.

The Panforte Di Siena is a recipe I came across in one of my all time favorite cookbooks, Dolce Italiano by Gina DePalma. Chocolate is listed in the ingredients, so it had my attention right away. In addition, there's a hefty portion of nuts, dried fruit and sugar--heated to the "soft boil" stage using a candy thermometer--Yes! that scared me. But the overall gist of it is that it's this incredible confection that gets better the longer it sits and you will need to fight the urge to keep from wanting to down the whole darn thing in one setting. Not to mention all of the taste-testing you'll do while mixing, chopping, folding and pressing. (You may be thinking "fruit cake" about now, but please know--this is sooo much more, and quite frankly, not even close.) 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Vegan Red Velvet Cookies (My Best Friend: Thirty-Five Years And Counting And Why I'll Drop Everything To Be There)

The story of this cookie began last week when I received a phone call from my best friend. Sometimes you think life couldn't possibly hand you one more thing. And then it does. The time of the call (early) told me all I needed to know. Something terrible had happened. I'd barely said 'hello', was going down the list: Are the kids okay? Are you okay? Is your mom okay? Dad? Do you have the "C" word. . . what happened?! As it turned out, something horrible had happened. It involved her mother. Which in turn, involved me. Gayle would then travel a thousand miles in one afternoon. I'd see her in six hours. Then we'd travel another two hours to her mom.
This post will be about a bit more than this cookie. It has to. I was drawn to it by way of a tragedy. Like most things involving food and memories, I had to share more than just the food part in telling you about it. Jump to the recipe below if you are so inclined. But I have a story to tell.  

During the crisis, Gayle and I were able to steal brief moments away for "nourishment". Which, given the town we were in did not include Whole Foods. I'll refrain from naming said town. Let me just say it is quite southern in nature. Quite. (At least for this girl's Yankee roots.) But I love the drawl and at times can be heard carrying one on myself. It just creeps in.
 Were you able to raise her? Translation: Did she answer the phone?
I found myself back where I'd gone to high school. Back in the town where my mother drug my sister and I kicking and screaming. Back to where our mother would take her last breath. Just back. But it was here in this town I met my best friend, some thirty-five years ago.  

We settled on The Bread Company (that's what we call it here in St. Louis--because even though the chain has gone "national"--locally, it will always be known as TBC) for lunch during breaks from the hospital. Gayle spotted them first. These cookies. These glorious little packages of red joy. They were the size of dinner plates! I thought I couldn't possibly eat one by myself. Certainly not something under normal circumstances one would eat by oneself. But these were not normal circumstances. We were in major stress mode. Gayle ordered two. Then I ordered mine. There was no sharing. We devoured them.

I cared not whether they were vegan. I was ravenous. We both were. (We both love to bake. Both love to cook.) I said, "I have to veganize these . . . as soon as I get home." On my trip back, I stopped by the store to pick up another cookie to go--one for Dr. Thyme, and for taste testing--just to be sure the food memory stayed with me. He loved them, too. And then I began telling him of all that had happened. The tragedy. The tears. The utter disbelief of it all. Of how fragile and swift life can be. How in one moment, all can be changed. Forever. And it has. 
Apparently red velvet is making a come back. I couldn't be happier. One of my all time favorite red treats were Hostess Zingers (RIP Hostess). Red cake and coconut and creamy filling. What's not to love? So my partiality to red foods goes waaay back. And if you tsk-tsk the use of red food coloring for your eating pleasure, that's a shame. Because to my mind, it's the red food coloring that gives this cookie--and its cake namesake--an unmistakable yum factor. As for amounts--this cookie does not require a full bottle of red coloring. (The cake does.) I was able to to eek by with only 2 teaspoons. 
This is my best friend Gayle. We are in the parking lot of the hospital this past weekend. Both of us wanted a picture of the two of us for our phones. We acknowledged that given the stress, crying and "our age", sunglasses were in order. A moment of laughing was good for us. I sent a copy of it to my sister who said, "You guys look exactly like you always do. . . I've seen this picture a hundred times." And it's true. 

She and I met at a horse barn where her father and my mother both stabled their horses. I was new to town, as was mom and my sister (who is a bit younger than I). Mom came home one day asking if I'd ever met Gayle. The only people I'd "met" were the neighbors, and kids in my classes (junior high--oh the horror)--and briefly at that because I was still super bitter over being uprooted at such a vulnerable age. (This was to be our mother's third husband. Yes. third. And not her last.) Basically, I hadn't branched out "socially" yet in our new home town. Apparently our mother had. More mentions of Gayle and her dad. Then one day, mom brought me to the stables (I grew up riding horses because our mother had an affinity for them). I finally met Gayle. We agreed to catch up some time at school. And that was all she wrote. 

I'm not going to tell you we were attached at the hip. But we were. And as you might imagine in all these years, there have been ups and there have been downs. Moments of sheer joy. Moments of pure hell. Shared celebrations. Shared sorrow. Spans of time without one another. We are both women after all.

When my mom was in the hospital during her last few months, Gayle's mom was, too. I could barely stand watching my mom going through all her "stuff". My sister and I were taking turns nursing to her when we could. My mom adored Gayle. (They shared a kinship of sorts, Gayle was an only child, so was our mother.) When Gayle couldn't stand watching the poking and prodding her mother went through and I couldn't stand my mother's tests (and pain affiliated with them)--we'd switch. I'd go sit with her mom and stand along side for the tests and whatnot, and Gayle went to be with my mom and hang out with my sister. They were in different hospitals. . . at the same exact time. Ultimately, her mother got to leave the hospital. Ours did not. 

But that was one of the many too-many-to-count memories. There is her father's role in my life as well.  After her parents divorced, he would call for Gayle to visit him--she'd always drag me along. (Okay "drag" may be too strong a word-especially for that trip to Denver.) Then on and on life went with both her mother, her father, her aunts, uncles and usually at some point were Gayle and me. In and out of each other's lives so many times.
She called me once and asked if I wanted to go on a vacation together. . . again. I was never much for "traveling" vacations--my jobs in the past required me to be on the road entirely too much. I can't stand hotels to this day. But this time she wanted to do Memphis: Graceland. We did the whole nine yards. Bought the CDs. Bought the Elvis t-shirts. Wept at the grave site. The. Whole. Nine. Yards.
We stayed at the Peabody. Yes. We watched the ducks, too.
On a much earlier vacation--with her mother and her two children (now grown, both in college and amazing)--we all spent eight days on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She took this picture of me. We both laughed about how Kennebunkport this looked. We called it "The Postcard from Dahling" shot. (And yes, I had to go brunette at least once in my life. I wanted people to take me more seriously. It was the only time in my life gentlemen stopped holding doors open for me. So I said "screw this" and went back to being a blonde.) 
She has always had something of an affinity for bikes and things that go varoom-varoom. (She gets that from her father. That's who took this photo.) She owns her own Harley. She will never get me on that damn bike. Okay?

I got home this weekend completely exhausted. I slept for thirteen hours straight. Then woke up and took a nap. I'm still emotionally spent. We all are. There is much to be done. More for Gayle and her family to manage through. I am praying for them all, and I am especially praying for her mom. 

I told her over the phone last night that I'd come home determined to make that damn cookie vegan. Baking was a great salve. DH said he couldn't believe I'd even had the energy to bake. But I did. It somehow righted me. I can't wait for Gayle to try them. And my sister--who will be here in a few short weeks! Dr. Thyme gave them a big thumbs up. Gayle told me she went back for more cookies, took one up to the hospital yesterday and gave it to her mom. The nurses busted her. Hard to hide a giant red cookie in the sterile white backdrop of a hospital! But her mom loved them. 

Vegan Red Velvet Cookies
makes appx. 24 cookies

6 tablespoons unsalted vegetable margarine (at room temperature)
6 tablespoons vegetable shortening (at room temperature)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 teaspoons red food coloring
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (*use the scoop and sweep method of measuring the flours)
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons baking cocoa (*I used Ghiradelli)  
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon Ener-G Egg Replacer mixed with 3 tablespoons water
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1/3 cup white chocolate chips
extra granulated sugar for rolling cookies
extra powdered sugar for rolling cookies

Preheat oven to 350. Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper. Place about 1/4 granulated sugar in a small bowl, and next to it, 1/4 cup powdered sugar. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the molasses, egg replacer and then red food coloring. Mix until well blended. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt and chocolate baking cocoa. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet (in thirds)--mixing just until the dough begins to form clumps. Fold in the pecans and white chocolate chips. If the dough won't form a solid dough ball, add a teaspoon more water. Take a tablespoon of dough and roll it in the palm of your hands to form a small ball. Roll the ball in the granulated sugar first, then the powdered sugar. Place on cookie sheets spaced about 2 inches apart. Bake for 13 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool on trays for about three minutes, then remove to cookie rack to cool completely. Store in freezer for about two weeks. Or store in an airtight container for a week. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

O Vegan Christmas Cookies, O Crocheted Christmas Ornaments!

My cookie jar(s) are full right now. So the eating of said cookies must occur before more baking is to take place. I think the only thing that gets me through December is the food group "sugar", yarn, yarn and more yarn and the fact that Idol returns in January. I am serious. And this heatwave we are having is nice. But snow. Please. 

From left to right pictured above: Speculoos, Nigella Lawson's Christmas Chocolate Cookie (recipe here) and finally, from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Christmas Cookies cookbook, Three Nut Finger cookies. Yum. Yum. Yum.


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