Orange Cranberry Sauce: The citrus twist every cranberry sauce needs

Happy turkey day! Or happy tofu-turkey day if you’re vegan. This Thanksgiving, my family and I traveled to El Paso to visit my mother’s side of the family. Like everyone else, I love to spend time with family I don’t get to see often. It’s especially fun coming back to my west Texas hometown because it gives me the opportunity to shake the rust of my Spanish. I consider myself bilingual, but let’s just say my Spanish needs a little bit of work. Besides speaking Spanish, I can also expect to see every member of the family contribute to the feast in one way or another. Obviously cooking is more difficult when you aren’t in the comfort of your own kitchen but I wanted to feel like I contributed in some way. I decided to lean on my trusted orange cranberry sauce recipe. I have made it the last three years on this holiday and it couldn’t be easier to do!

 

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In the spirit of this holiday centered around food, I decided not to take the healthiest approach with this classic Thanksgiving dish; mainly because I wasn’t in my own home and I didn’t have access to very many ingredients. So what’s unhealthy about it? It contains the devil of all ingredients: half a cup of white sugar. I hope you health freaks can forgive me, but just in case you can’t, I will be suggesting a couple of healthful alternatives towards the end of this post. Plus, if I’m being honest, the cranberry sauce was too pretty not to blog.

It starts with bringing half a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, half a cup of sugar and half a cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. You can use bottled orange juice but make sure you look for one with no added sugar; the sauce could be too sweet if you go for a sweetened version. When the orange juice, water and sugar mixture come to a boil, add a 12-ounce package of fresh cranberries, thin slices of orange peel and a teaspoon of nutmeg. I like to add the peel of about half an orange and while that may sound like a lot, it does not overpower the sauce. Once the ingredients are added, bring the sauce back to a boil. Lower the heat to medium/low once you see that most of the cranberries have burst. I also like to remove the orange peels at this point. (Tip: keep the orange peels on the bigger side so that they are easy to find. This makes removal easy. Trust me, no one wants to take a bite of forgotten orange peel!) Continue to cook the cranberry sauce until you see it has thickened, then turn the heat to low and let the sauce cook for 3-5 minutes more, ensuring that anymore unecessay liquid is evaporated. (Tip: Remember that this is still a sauce so there is going to be some liquid at the end and because it is hot, evaporation will continue even after it is taken off the heat. Don’t let the sauce turn to a paste!) You can then turn off the heat and serve immediately or store in the fridge for later.

This sauce is sweet and tart with a pleasant citrusy note that takes this classic side to the next level. This is definitely a family favorite that won’t disappoint and because sugar is the only unhealthy ingredient in this recipe, you health freaks have a couple of options. You can start by simply lower the sugar amount until you feel comfortable with the sweetness for a tarter version. You can go even farther by completely cutting the sugar amount in half and adding a couple of tablespoons of stevia to subsidize the sweetness without the additional calories. While completely substituting the white sugar for a natural sweetener is another option, you can also go half and half with the white sugar and natural sweetener for a lower glycemic index. No matter what route you take with the sweetener, one thing’s for sure; you’ll never settle for regular cranberry sauce again!

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Honey Roasted Almond Clusters: Fail proof?

thumbnail_IMG_2273Like usual, I was in my kitchen thinking of something sweet to get my hands on. It was one of the chiller nights of the year and the thought of roasting came to mind. I definitely associated roasting with the winter and although it was not winter by any means (it was 65 out) it was a bit breezy and therefore I qualified it as a fally, slightly wintery evening.  All I could think about was my grandma’s roasted, candied pecans at thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Sweet, crunchy and satisfying. Well maybe satisfying isn’t the right word, considering I tend to eat them until the container is empty, but definitely sweet and crunchy.  These particular pecans are awesome, but I knew I didn’t want all the added sugars that came with making them. I decided to take a more wholesome route without the brown sugar and corn syrup: Honey roasted almonds (almonds were the only nut I had handy).

Although this was my first time roasting almonds (or any kind of nut), I knew this wasn’t going to be just another honey roasted almond where the honey is the seventh or eighth ingredient on a label where sugar is the second or third. Honey was going to be the star of this show. Because roasting is a slower process, I set the oven temperature to 240. To make covering the almonds easier, I put about half a cup of pure, organic honey in a medium saucepan on medium heat and brought it to a boil. When the honey was bubbling, I added a splash of vanilla and a little bit of sea salt for taste. Then went in about two cups of whole almonds. I stirred the almonds in the thin honey until the almonds were completely coated in the golden substance. After greasing a baking sheet, I dispersed the almonds evenly throughout the sheet. I then proceeded to put a very good amount of effort into making sure I got every last drop of honey out of the saucepan. I sprinkled some cinnamon and gave the almonds a stir before throwing them in the oven.

thumbnail_IMG_2274  I kept in eye on the almonds, checking up on them every 30 minutes or so. To be completely honest, I wasn’t even sure what to look for. I saw that they were definitely getting darker in color, but I knew that that could be misleading because of the caramelization of the honey. At about an hour and a half I decided to get them out and let them begin cooling.   I would have left them in there longer had my roommate not insisted we watch a movie upstairs. I also figured that undercooked was better than overcooked aka burnt and playing it safe was the route to go. I sprinkled more cinnamon and waited for them to cool. It didn’t take long for the honey to start hardening around the almonds. After about 15 minutes the honey was still tacky, similar to the texture of caramel. When I was ready to go to bed, the almonds were still a bit malleable so I spooned them into an air tight container.

The next day I went to grab a couple and to my surprise they were rock solid; the almonds had hardened in the shape of the container! With a couple of breaks, the almonds were now in sweet, bite-size clusters.  The earthy taste that comes from roasting emphasized the almond flavor beautifully. The honey created a glossy, sweet coating with great crunch and the cinnamon was such an excellent addition because it took the flavor to a whole new level.  Then again, when is cinnamon ever a bad idea? I was hooked instantly; I could not stop eating them. Beginners luck maybe?

thumbnail_IMG_2270Beginners luck or not, the almonds were a complete success. I will be making this recipe again soon and will be trying it on different nuts throughout the holiday season. What better snack to bring to Thanksgiving dinner than some naturally sweetened almonds? I advise evenly distributing the roasted nuts when they are slightly cooled and still malleable into a cupcake tin for uniform, perfectly sweet (and easy to eat) nut clusters.

 

Spontaneous Vegan Brownies: Was it a success or a failure?

After a busy day full of classes and a couple of hours of studying, my roommate and I decided to have a relaxing Thursday evening to ourselves. After all, it had been a long week; we deserved it. Danielle and I decided we were going to lay in bed and watch some of our favorite childhood movies… and make brownies??? As soon as Dan verbalized this awesome idea, we knew there was no going back. Shrek and a fudgy dessert? Thursday suddenly became my favorite day of the week.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetNow, as some of you know, Danielle is a vegan. Obviously, the brownies couldn’t just be a product of your typical Betty Crocker boxed brownie mix; (although you can never go wrong with a Betty recipe) the brownies had to lack in animal products and not in taste. We googled vegan brownie recipes and clicked on the first one we saw. All Recipes was a trusted website of mine because I had used many successful recipes from this exact site while going through an extreme baking phase. The vegan recipe seemed simple enough: all-purpose flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt, water, vegetable oil and vanilla. In fact, I was shocked at how uncomplicated the ingredient list was. No flax egg, chia seeds or apple-cider vinegar? I realized I was mistaking the ingredients in a brownie for the components necessary for a light, airy vegan cake.  While cakes are meant to be fluffy, brownies are a much heavier baked good that don’t require as much attention to detail as a cake because there is not as much of a concern associated with the product’s rising.

Still, the recipe’s simplicity was interesting to me and I saw room to modify its Processed with VSCO with c1 presethealthfulness. I told Danielle that we should try substituting whole-wheat flour for all-purpose flour and coconut sugar for the white sugar. I didn’t know much about either ingredient besides the fact that whole-wheat flour was denser and less processed than AP flour and coconut sugar was lower on the glycemic index than white sugar. Since both ingredients were healthier options, I took the little knowledge I had of them and ran with it. We also decided to get chocolate chips in order to take the indulgence level up a notch. (Here’s a quick tip: When modifying ingredients in a recipe, especially baked goods, it is important to research the effect the new ingredient will have on the finished product. Baking is a very exact science because it is all about the chemical reactions of the ingredients. Changing the measurements of the ingredients or the ingredients themselves can result in an epic fail. Trust me.)

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetWe drove to HEB and bought a 9 x 13 inch baking pan and the ingredients to make the brownies. After a surprisingly quick trip to the grocery store, we returned home and got to work. We grabbed a bowl and began measuring out the dry ingredients. We decided to do a one for one ratio with the flour and measured out two cups of the whole-wheat version. The recipe then called for two full cups of sugar. After measuring out one cup of the coconut sugar and seeing the amount that it was, Danielle refused to put anymore. “We definitely are not putting another cup of sugar!” she said.  I couldn’t help but agree with her; that was a lot of sugar, even for a sweet treat like brownies. After trusting that half the amount of sugar that the recipe called for was all the dessert needed in order to be sweet, we finished adding the cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. We then grabbed a measuring cup and whisked the water, oil and vanilla extract together.

We combined the wet and dry ingredients until the batter looked exactly like thick pudding and added a hefty amount of Lily’s Dark Chocolate Premium Baking Chips. We then dispersed the brown ooey-gooeyness in a greased 9×13 inch pan. Of course, to top it off, we sprinkled more of the vegan chocolate-chips over the distributed batter.

The recipe said to bake the brownies for 25 minutes but I was skeptical. Everyone knows Processed with VSCO with c1 presetthat brownies are better underdone! To be safe, we put the oven timer at fifteen minutes. I checked the brownies at twelve minutes and to my surprise, the brownies appeared done. With a closer examination I saw that the brownies had lost their wet, sheen and were now a dull brown color. This was a good sign since the recipe said they are done when “the top is no longer shiny.” I removed them from the oven after they passed the final examination: the clean-toothpick test.

While the brownies cooled, I got inspired by the leftover chocolate chips. It was time to make a spontaneous ganache! I took half a cup of the chocolate chips and added about a fourth cup of almond milk. I then put the chocolate in the microwave for thirty second intervals, stirring after each time until the chocolate was completely melted and smooth. Lastly, I added some vanilla and a couple of teaspoons of cocoa Processed with VSCO with c1 presetpowder. Because these particular chips are lightly sweetened and cocoa powder is extremely bitter, I also added some agave.

After covering the brownies in the decadent ganache, it was time to give them a try.

The brownies  were lightly sweetened with intense chocolate flavor. The ganache also added a delicious, creamy richness to the baked good. The flavor was there (it didn’t even need more sugar!) but something was off about the texture. Even though the brownies only baked for half the time, they were still more crumbly and dry than your typical, ideal brownie. Why was this?

I immediately questioned the biggest modification to the dessert: the whole-wheat flour. Processed with VSCO with c1 presetAfter researching the differences between all-purpose and whole-wheat flour, I came across some surprising information.  Because whole-wheat flour is less processed than AP, it has both a much denser and coarser texture. According to this Chowhound article, not more than 25 percent of the total flour should be substituted with whole-wheat flour. Yikes. This new information also explained the extreme difference in the recommended cooking time stated in the recipe and the actual amount of time it took for the brownies to cook. In summary, the whole-wheat flour changed the recipe a lot. Were the brownies good? Yes, in fact Danielle was obsessed with them. Could they have been better if more research had been done prior to baking? Yes. Nonetheless, was our sweet-tooth satisfied? Absolutely.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetWhile these brownies were neither a success or failure in my eyes, they did teach me some valuable lessons about the difference in flours and the importance of researching ingredient substitutions. I will be trying this recipe again soon and fortunately for this time, I’ll be more informed.