Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

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Vegan Custard? I Have Doubts.

The cushaw pie right out of the oven.

The cushaw pie right out of the oven.

The cushaw pie set-up pretty well. But I let the pie cool completely before cutting it. I think that's crucial to avoiding a sloppy mess.

The cushaw pie set-up pretty well. But I let the pie cool completely before cutting it. I think that’s crucial to avoiding a sloppy mess.

I have been trying out vegan recipes. I am curious about how you replace stuff like eggs in baked goods. Rather than screw around with a garden variety brownie, I went straight for the dairy holy mother of desserts. Custard. I opted for pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie filling is basically custard… with pumpkin in it.

Technically, I made a cushaw pie. I happened to have pureed and drained cushaw; cushaw is also a winter squash. It doesn’t exactly taste like pumpkin, but it has a flavor that plants it clearly in the gourd family. It’s flavor is more mild than pumpkin or butternut squash. It’s most defining taste is that of creaminess.

I used this vegan recipe, except I used cushaw puree spiced with nutmeg and allspice. Basically the recipe replaces the eggs and evaporated milk or cream with cashew cream. The cashew cream was easy to make, and whipping up this pie filling was really simple. The batter was considerably thicker than pumpkin pie filling.

The pie came out of the oven looking good. My partner said it tasted better than the cushaw pie that I made with dairy. The filling set-up well. The spices and flavors were good. But something was missing.

Relevant detail. I LOVE CUSTARD. There is no greater blaspheme than putting harsh vanilla extract in vanilla custard or crème brulee. When I order crème brulee, while I am rarely disappointed, I often think I could have made better. At the root of my devotion to custard, is pumpkin pie. I didn’t understand why pumpkin pie was my favorite type of pie until I understood it as a pumpkin custard.

The context has been established; I am a custard nut. If I had ethical or dietary constraints around avoiding dairy this pie would be a fine substitute. It’s good. But as a custard nut, I found it lacking. First, the texture of the pie was considerably more dense than its eggy counterpart. In addition, it was missing the subtle richness that only egg yolk can impart. Do you love a vegan? Make them this pie. Do you have no ethical or dietary issues preventing you from consuming eggs? Use the eggs and make custard with all it’s egg and whipping cream goodness.

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I Want to Swim in a Pool of Black Raspberries Like Scrooge McDuck

Given that we attempted a little too much when we picked and canned blueberries, we restricted the scope a bit when we picked and canned black raspberries. A number of details made our raspberry day a little better than our blueberry day. You know, stuff like not attempting to make more than one pastry.

We set out to make a sugar-free jam, a regular jam, 4 quarts of pie filling, and one pie. Aside from making only one baked good, We’ve made all of the recipes aside from the sugar-free jam before. Plus, with our first clear jel adventure behind us, we were prepared for it’s oddities.

I picked Ali up at 7. We arrived at the farm around 8:20. Picking and sourcing local produce it a bit of an adventure. The process is something like this. You drive out to a isolated location. Then you approach an unfamiliar and often poorly marked building that most likely looks like a stereotypical old farm house. Then you knock and hope that Google maps has directed you to the correct and precise location. The person that greets you, and by greet I mean a spectrum anywhere between a barely intelligible grunt to a very warm long-lost family-member greeting, might give you directions that are easily understandable or nonsense. The point is you don’t know what you’re in for. To our delight Dale Stokes Berry farm has a sign out front. We crossed the first hurdle, which is not encountering a man with a shotgun accusing us of trespassing.

The gravel driveway seemed exceptionally long, but eventually we spied a small white hut. Investigation of the hut revealed a tween girl inside who confirmed that we were in the right place. She gave us pallets and instructed that we continue on the gravel path to porta-lets. You recall the point that I made about bizarre directions earlier? Yes. After turning a corner, porta-lets were in sight. I parked behind the porta-lets to avoid blocking the gravel path. A boy on a tractor confirmed we were in the right spot and instructed that we walk down a row until we see the girl. At this point, you might think that we are being lead to our deaths in sacrifice to the god of The Children of the Corn. But tucked up against a black raspberry bush was a young woman. She then instructed us to go further down another row to the stake with a plastic tie. Once there, we were to pick as we wished.

We arrived at the plastic tie. After walking down their rows of black raspberry bushes, it was clear that they had extremely well-kept fields. The raspberry bushes were excellently trimmed and pruned. The abundance of berries, seems to indicate that they are meticulous with their care. And the berries. The berries tasted incredible.

My grandma had wild black and red raspberry bushes in the back corner of her property. High summer was my favorite time to visit grandma. I would scamper off before dinner, spoiling it completely, by eating as many black and red raspberries that I could stuff in my face before I was called to dinner. I thought I was being sneaky about it, but I must have been covered with berry juice and scratches due to the abundance of thorns on the bushes. It was a mystery to my five-year-old self how the first words out of my mother’s mouth at seeing me were, “You were eating raspberries, huh?”

Standing there in the patch entering a zen place while picking and eating raspberries, it makes me feel close to that five-year-old. It bubbled up from my memory, that the best way to pick black raspberries was to have gentle fingers. This both protects from impaling a digit on a wayward thorn, and feeling the berries dropping away from the plant ensures that you are taking the ripe fruit. It was a clear, sunny day. I was lost in my physical experience of picking berries. It was wonderful.

We were done picking by 1030. This enabled us to have a solid brunch before we went on to can and clear the berries. Eating lunch. That’s one of the improvements we made over our blueberry marathon. Upon returning home, we set about making the Sure Jell recipe for black raspberry jam. We also set about making this recipe for sugar-free jam. The jams went off without a hitch. We canned them in a standard water bath and moved on to pie filling.

We followed the same clear jel process that we documented in our blueberry blog. The only difference in the recipe is that we put in a quarter teaspoon of Siagon cinnamon. Note that Siagon cinnamon is a little more savory tasting than the cinnamon you would typically find in a grocery store. The only difference in the process was that we didn’t blanch the fruit. That resulted in a slightly longer processing time.

Finally, I made the pie. I used the vegan pie crust recipe with my own home made vegan butter. These recipes can also be found in my blueberry blog. There are many things I could say about this pie. I will leave it at this; that pie was my “Mona Lisa” of pies. I pulled out one of our canned quarts, and made a black raspberry pie for my family reunion last week. My dad said that it was just as good as my grandma’s, which is basically the highest praise my father can give regarding pies, given that grandma made thousands of pies over her lifetime. Practice makes perfect. I can verify that this much is true about pies.

What did I learn? First, I will return to that farm to pick every year. Second, I will be canning more black raspberry pie filling next year. Third, black raspberries are the most magical fruit on the face of this earth.

Beautiful fruit from heaven.

Beautiful fruit from heaven.

These fields were gorgeous.

These fields were gorgeous.

The berries were plentiful.

The berries were plentiful.

How would my mom have known that I was picking raspberries?

How would my mom have known that I was picking raspberries?

Yep. That's nearly 10 lbs of berries.

Yep. That’s nearly 10 lbs of berries.

"Mona Lisa" pie!

“Mona Lisa” pie!


Vegan Reubens and Vegan Rhubarb Baking

After weeks of searching we finally found rhubarb. I talk about my hunt for it here. Our plan was to make the following recipes.

This is what ten pounds of rhubarb looks like.

This is what ten pounds of rhubarb looks like.

We started out with ten pounds of rhubarb. We probably had about three pounds left after making a double batch of jam and single batches of everything else listed above.

Rhubarb. That's what it looks like.

Rhubarb. That’s what it looks like.

I made the muffins a few days before everything else. Putting them together was pretty easy. Since I cook and bake quite a bit, I had nearly all the ingredients in my kitchen. I had to make a trip to pick-up sour cream and a fresh lemon for the zest. These muffins were spectacular. The streusel with fresh lemon zest and almond extract was outstanding. The muffins were tender and only slightly sweet, and the bits of rhubarb added just a bit of zip to each bite.

Rhubarb jam prior to cooking.

Rhubarb jam prior to cooking

We put the jam in the slow cooker to leave more space around the stove top. After some hours on high with no signs of boiling, we transferred it to the stove. I’m not sure why the slow cooker wasn’t able to bring it to a simmer. Perhaps all the fiber and pectin in the rhubarb? We don’t know. Once the jam came to boiling, it thickened right up. We sanitized lids and jars, and filled them with the jam. Then we canned them in a traditional water bath. We finished with the jam after a long day of cooking. I was too exhausted to taste it before we canned it. I will come back and comment on how well it turned out after I open the first jar.

Vegan pie, pre-baking.

Vegan pie, pre-baking

I mastered the difficult art of making pie crust. Making a vegan crust was a new challenge for me. I had two concerns about the vegan pie crust recipe that I linked to above. There are two things that I know about consistently making excellent pie crust. Rule number 1: if the dough is easy to roll out you have without question added way too much water. Rule number 2: the dough needs to be as cold as possible all the time. The vegan recipe above breaks rule number one egregiously. I know the point of adding the vodka is so that it evaporates and leaves you with less moisture in the finished crust than only water would. But my no-fail non-vegan recipe only calls for 3 tbs of water against the 1/4 cup of water in the recipe above. And then you add an additional 3 tbs of vodka. I used half as much vodka and water in my dough than what the recipe called for.

Second issue I had with the recipe was the fat to flour ratio. As compared to my usual recipe, there was about 1/2 a cup more fat. I decided to follow the recipe here. I was thinking that perhaps the vegan butter had more water in it than butter, and hence required a higher fat to flour ratio. You will have to keep reading to find out how it turned out.

Here's the rhubarb that ended up in the rhubarb upside down cake, while it was being caramelized.

Here’s the rhubarb that ended up in the rhubarb upside down cake, while it was being caramelized.

We modified the rhubarb upside down cake in the following ways to make it vegan. Where the recipe called for butter, we used vegan butter. Where the recipe called for milk, we used soy milk. Where the recipe called for eggs, we used flax eggs. You can read about flax eggs here.

Tempeh and Tofu after the marinade.

Tempeh and Tofu after the marinade.

For the reubens, we used marinated tempeh and tofu. We just sliced both of them up and let them marinade. After they soaked up some flavor, they went into the oven on a baking sheet to get a little texture to them. I also made a vegan 1000 island dressing for the reubens. I used the silken tofu recipe here. I whipped this up in the food processor. The resulting mayo was pretty good. It was a bit more runny than regular mayo, and I could taste the missing egg yolk. But I don’t think anyone would notice the difference once spread on a sandwich. I added the relish and ketchup to taste and didn’t follow any recipe.

The poorly-rhubarb upside down cake. I should have been something like rhubarb upside down scone or some such.

The poorly-named rhubarb upside down cake. I should have been something like rhubarb upside down scone or some such.

The rhubarb upside down cake was not sweet. It was more like a biscuit with caramelized rhubarb on top. In fact, it would almost be a savory dish. I was expecting something sweet so I was a little put off with it at first bite. Once I realigned my expectations, I thought we made a damn good vegan biscuit. Would I make this again? Probably not. It wasn’t bad, but plain old biscuits would have suited me just as well and are less work. The flax eggs made the biscuit taste like it was made with some whole wheat flour. I don’t know that flax eggs would work in most other sweet pastry settings, but it was excellent for this savory biscuit.

The braised rhubarb was weird. It was extremely tart. Tart, I could have lived with, but the texture of the rhubarb was not to my liking. Cooked celery keeps it’s body, unless you cook it for ages. The rhubarb managed to be completely limp and stringy all at the same time. I don’t know how else to put this, but the texture just wasn’t for me. The flavor of the spices was nice. The tartness I could live with. Limp and stringy, I cannot.

The two biggest successes were with the reubens and the vegan rhubarb pie. I’ve learned that for me, the critical reuben components are sour kraut, 1000 dressing, and excellent bread. The other ingredients don’t make or break the sandwich. The tempeh and tofu were good, but they didn’t stand out. The vegan 1000 island dressing was excellent. We ran out of the reubens. I now know that my craving for reubens can be met without out eating any animal products.

Vegan rhubarb pie.

Vegan rhubarb pie.

The pie was spectacular. The crust turned out wonderfully. It was flaky and yet held it’s shape when sliced. We were only left with three pieces for Ali and I to share. I thought I was going to have to fight Jenn for the piece and a half that I brought home.

Here’s what I learned about vegan cooking and baking. It’s not that hard. In fact, I think it would be a lot easier to cook and bake vegan at home that it would be to eat out. I liked it so much that I might start making my own vegan butter and working that in to my cooking from this point forward. This will be the first of many adventures.