Tuesday Reviews-Day: Vegan Desserts in Jars

Tuesday Revews-Day


Expanding my skill-set in the kitchen is always my goal. Just like I learn something with every knitting or sewing pattern I follow, each recipe offers up a golden-brown opportunity to learn how different ingredients interact, how they taste in combination, and how–in some cases–they work in the place of another. When I started Low-FODMAP cooking and baking I got a crash course in all the hoops we have to jump though to bake without wheat, and these days I feel pretty confident about what I serve my friends and family, knowing there’s a better than good change they won’t know it’s lacking wheat (or whatever else) by taste or texture. But I also knew my substitution skills were lacking in one key arena: vegan baking.

So, when I was given the opportunity the try out Kris Holechek Peters’ Vegan Desserts in Jars, I figured it was just the kick in the pants I needed to clear the vegan baking hurdle.

Thanks to the plethora of alternative ingredients out there, it’s possible to find vegan dairy substitutes (margarines, milks, even cream cheese) in many large grocery stores. Sweeteners (other than honey, of course) are usually considered safe but I was recently made aware that part of the refining process uses cow bone char, so check the brands or packages before cooking for  your vegan guests. Eggs, though, they can be a bit trickier to substitute for, depending on which properties are key to the dessert. Thankfully Peters includes a great chart in the book listing the different egg replacers (from applesauce, to tofu, to flax seed) and the best time to use each.


The first recipe we tried was the Lemon Pudding Cakes (p.34) that started with a lemony cake in the bottom of the jar, topped withe a zest and sugar layer and then a lemon juice and water layer. While baking a curious alchemy occurred that placed the liquid components below the cake, the idea being that it would bake into a pudding beneath. In our case it was less pudding and more of a lemon sauce that formed, but it still made for a tasty sauce when combined with the cake.


Still craving tart citrus, I had to try the Lemon Meringue Pie (p. 47) which also uses the Flaky Pastry Crust (p.43) as well as the Meringue Topping (p.116)–the latter striking my curiosity most of all! As far as the pie goes, it was a case of too much crust for the filling–if I were to make it again I’d halve the crust and double the filling. The topping, though, talk about a challenge! First you have to cook the flax seed and let it sit, then strain it (it took 2 sieves and quite a bit of elbow grease to get the majority of the albumen-like goo separated from the seeds), and then finally whip it to within an inch of its life–do not try this without a stand mixer. The recipe directs you to serve immediately, but I found the pies that sat overnight in the fridge to taste even better, so don’t fear the leftovers.


Moving away from the zester, the next recipe we gave a go was the Chocolate Vanilla Puddin’ Cups (p.14). Let me state for the record that it’s nigh on impossible to screw up chocolate pudding, vegan or not. Chocolate’s natural properties make it excellent at getting puddings and mousses to gel, so I wasn’t worried about that half of this recipe. The vanilla, on the other hand, is a lot more dependent on each ingredient–one alone cannot carry it. The vegan vanilla pudding does not hold a candle to its egg-enriched counterparts, but it was tasty enough and paired well with the chocolate in it’s layered cups. If you were to make this recipe, I’d suggest you use a non-dairy milk that is fairly mild, as stronger ones can overshadow the delicate vanilla flavor.


Finally, we went back to the Cakelettes chapter for the Cream-Filled Carrot Cakes (p. 24)–rich, dense carrot cake accented with Cream Cheese Filling (p.111). Aside from making this wheat-free, the other substitution I made was to use mashed banana instead of applesauce (since apples are a High-FODMAP food). The banana did get a little pushy, flavor-wise, but the cake was still quite moist and the filling made it the best of the recipes we tried, so far.

Vegan baking may seem like a case of simple substitutions, but it takes that familiarity with ingredients to know what will please the palate. If you’ve wanted to eliminate some of the animal products from your diet or are simply entertaining the vegans in your life and want to be more inclusive in your cooking, Vegan Desserts in Jars  presents simple, straight-forward recipes to do just that. And the fact that they’re all made in canning jars–not only cute, but great for sending home with guests or delivering to coworkers’ desks–is just icing on the vegan cake!

Vegan Desserts in Jars is published by Ulysses Press. I was provided a copy for the purpose of review; all opinions expressed are entirely my own.

Baking the Low-FODMAP Way


As someone who very much enjoys cookies, cakes and other confections (I was a pastry chef, after all) this whole no wheat thing really had me concerned–especially when so many gluten-free baked goods are gritty or crumbly or just plain miss the mark. And since we started the testing portion just after Thanksgiving, I wanted to make sure I could make desserts and sweets that family and coworkers would enjoy that were also safe for me.

It was, thankfully, a lot easier than I thought it would be, and it’s mainly due to a book I’ve mentioned before: the Favorite Brand Name Gluten-Free 3 Books in 1 put out by Publications International Ltd. As I mentioned before, I picked it up on the discount rack of Marshalls or TJ Maxx, so it might be tough to find in your regular store, but if you see it, it’s definitely worth picking up.

That said, here’s the two most important things I got from that book: replacement flour blends, one for quick breads and cooking making, and one for yeast breads.

Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Blend

1 cup White Rice Flour
1 cup Sorghum Flour
1 cup Tapioca Flour/Starch
1 cup Arrowroot
1 cup Coconut Flour

Mix together and store in an air-tight container. Refrigerate if you bake infrequently.

Gluten-Free Flour Blend for Breads

1 cup Brown Rice Flour
1 cup Sorghum Flour
1 cup Tapioca Flour
1 cup Arrowroot
3/4 cup Millet Flour
1/3 cup Instant Mashed Potato Flakes

Mix together and store in an air-tight container. Refrigerate if you bake infrequently.

The original recipes list cornstarch but I use arrowroot because it’s easier for more people to digest and it dissolves and thickens faster, so I like to have it on hand anyway. You can use almond flour in place of coconut flour if you’re just looking for gluten-free, but almonds were recently found to be even higher in FODMAPs that originally thought, so really should be used sparingly. Same goes for bean flours–Bob’s Red Mill, for instance, has an all-purpose gluten-free baking mix but it’s primarily bean-based, which would make it high in FODMAPs, and not a good option for this particular lifestyle.

The thing about these flour blends and why they work is that each ingredient performs a certain function that wheat flour does on it’s own. The grains alone (rice, sorghum, millet) won’t really give you the same results without the addition of some sort of starch (tapioca, arrowroot, cornstarch) and even those two components together aren’t doing much in the way of protein (which the nut flours contribute). The other benefit to these blends is that no one ingredient takes center stage in either texture or flavor. So even though coconut flour tends to be very coconutty on it’s own, when it’s in the blend it’s not very noticeable, and when the baked goods are finished you can hardly tell it’s there at all (unless you’ve got sensitive taste buds, like me).

What about commercially available blends? So far the only gluten-free and Low-FODMAP flour blend I’ve been satisfied with is Gluten-Free Bisquik, and even then it tends to be a little more on the gritty side than I prefer. More times than not I use the blends above and have far better results than any of the mixes or pre-fab products I’ve tested.

collection of Bob's Red Mill products on a kitchen counter

Not all of these go into my flour blends, but many do!

Now, when I go to put together batches of these flours, it tends to look like a Bob’s Red Mill love-fest on the counter. Simply put, they are the best resource for these specialty flours and I’ve been known to hunt through 4 grocery stores to find all the components I need on any given shopping trip. That said, they are not the only resource for certain flours as I’ve recently discovered that our local Indian market carries bags of white rice and millet flours for a fraction of the cost of BRM. Granted, BRM takes every precaution to prevent cross-contamination of their flours and other products so if you’re concerned about that, stick to them. But if you’re less concerned about being strictly gluten-free (as gluten itself is not a FODMAP), then that might be an option for you. Plus, they carry powdered coconut milk, which is fabulous if you’re wanting a substitute for powdered milk that is lactose-free and isn’t heavy on the soy. (I’ve searched for a good powdered rice milk but all the ones I’ve found have FOS or other high-FODMAP additives.)

There’s one other thing you need in order to successfully bake gluten-free and/or Low-FODMAP: Xanthum or Guar Gum. Gums get a certain amount of smack talked about them, but they are the best way to prevent the crumbly, mealy texture so common in wheat-free baked goods. Xanthum gum is usually made from corn while guar gum comes from a bean. Both are used in such small amounts that neither are likely to impact digestion to any large degree, but use whichever you feel most comfortable with. I use xanthum gum because I had it on hand from a previous ice cream experiment (it’s commonly found on low-fat or fat-free dairy products to improve texture, though too much will make the end product more slippery than anything else).

The general rule I follow when working with a new recipe or substituting the above flour blends is this:

  • For Yeast Breads or Pizza Dough use 1 tsp of Xanthum Gum per cup of replacement flour
  • For Cakes, Muffins, and other Quick Breads use 1/2 tsp of Xanthum Gum per cup of replacement flour
  • For Cookies or Bars use up to 1/2 tsp of Xanthum Gum per cup of flour

I didn’t write down where I found that but it’s come in handy as I’ve converted old recipes to my new lifestyle. Xanthum gum is also the only ingredient I keep in the freezer to preserve it as it’s one of the more expensive ingredients and gets used up so slowly.

Did I succeed that first Christmas in making delectable goodies for friends and family? Yes. So much so that most didn’t realized they were eating anything out of the ordinary. I’ve continued to bake with these flour blends, and use them in stove-top preparations like roux and gravies, for the last half a year and my friends routinely comment that if the commercial products came out like mine, no one would mind going gluten-free (or whatever) when necessary.

Confection with confidence!

Baking By the Numbers


This weekend I needed to check out a recipe I’d concocted awhile back, a bread recipe that I’d adapted from various sources and while it worked, I wasn’t 100% happy with it. Thinking the blame might lie equally with the method as well as the ingredients, I decided to just start over and then compare the two recipes.

For the second trial I went back to my Professional Baking textbook from school. Deceptively thin, this book has just about everything you need to know about baking in it, but the recipes aren’t exactly what you’d call standard.

Baking is, for the most part, chemistry. All cooking is, to an extent, but while you can thicken a runny soup or bump up the seasoning of a stir-fry at will, baking is one of those things that if you’re ratio of wet to dry or leavening to mass is off, then you might very well end up with hockey pucks instead of rolls.

And no one wants hardtack on their plates.

So there’s math involved. Especially if you only want to make 1 small loaf of bread and not 12 of them.

Professional Baking is pretty much geared towards a production kitchen, after all.

But because baking is chemistry and science and math all rolled up into a tasty loaf of fresh bread, it’s fairly easy to figure out how much of everything you need if you use baking ratios.

Ratios, for those whose math skills are a little more than rusty, are a way of comparing items based on a single unit of measure. Think 4 parts flour to 1 part sugar, where part can be grams, ounces, or pounds depending on how much of something you’re trying to make.

Baking ratios are determined be considering the total weight of the flour as 100%, and all the other ingredients in relation to that. So if you only want to make a loaf of dough that uses 2 cups of flour, you can use the ratios to find out that you then need 1.2 cups of water, .075 cups of yeast and so on and so forth.

White Pan Bread baking ratios from Professional Baking with lots of margin notes

Cookbooks are the only books I regularly write in

Granted, having to figure out what .075 cups is equal to in the real world is a bit of a pain (.6 ounces or, roughly, 1 Tbsp + 1/2 tsp), having a scale with a metric function is incredibly helpful when doing any sort of baking conversions. Just weigh the flour you want to use in grams and base the rest of the ingredients off of that (also in grams, very important!).

Of course, it’s not a perfect system, mostly because there’s plenty of opportunity for human error.

Like when I figured out I needed 56% of something only I wrote it down in the wrong spot, thought it was the total grams needed of flour and ended up with a 3 oz “loaf” of bread dough. Oops. But, hey, if I ever need to make only 1 or 2 dinner rolls, now I can!

And that’s kind of a neat trick in and of itself.

Breaking Bread


“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” –James Beard (1903-1985)

Is there anything better than the smell of fresh-baked bread? The sight of butter melting on it or the chewy feel of it between your teeth?

I think not.

But it is, in many circles, a lost art.

Common theory is that baking bread is too hard. Nonsense. It’s a very basic skill to learn but there are some pitfalls that, once learned, making your chances of success that much better.

When it comes to dealing with yeast…

  • Proofing yeast (mixing it with warm water and a little bit of sugar) is not essential these days with the easy access of commercial, but it does jump-start your dough and can’t hurt.
  • Liquid too hot (140 degrees F) will kill yeast.
  • Liquids added to yeast for proofing should be between 90 and 110 degrees F while rising is best done in an area in the 70 to 90-degree range.
  • To slow down rising, it’s okay to pop the dough in your refrigerator.


  • Flour is often listed in a range because the water content of the flour can change from bag to bag, day to day based on the flour and the relative humidity.
  • Weights are more reliable that volume measures and a good digital kitchen scale is a low-cost investment that will pay off exponentially!
  • The ratio of dry ingredients to wet is pretty important. If you’re going to mix anything into a basic bread recipe, wait until the first rise has completed if there’s any chance it’s going to throw off that balance.
  • When doubling a bread recipe, only use 1.5 times the amount of yeast.


  • Develops the gluten–protein framework–of the bread which gives the bread that chewy texture.
  • The sturdier the finished product, the more kneading it requires.
  • Under-kneaded dough won’t have enough support for the rising that will happen in the oven, resulting in flatter loaves with uneven texture.
  • Can be done with the hook of your electric mixer but it’s a really good arm workout, too.
  • Be careful of adding too much flour during kneading, you’ll weight the dough down too much–just enough to keep it from sticking to the counter-top and your hands for the first few minutes of kneading, after that it should no longer be sticky (unless it’s a sweet dough, that will stay sticky–don’t fight it!).


  • Want a golden crust? Add at least 1 Tbsp sugar to the dry ingredients to get that great caramel color. Alternately, an egg wash will give you a nice, glossy surface.
  • Always preheat your oven and don’t over-crowd. Individual items and pans should have a minimum of 1 inch of space around them so air can circulate.
  • Rotate your pan(s) half-way through cooking but, otherwise, don’t open the oven if you can help it.
  • To get that quintessential thick and chewy French-bread crust, place an empty pan on the bottom rack of the oven as it preheats, then add cool water to the pan when you place the dough on the rack above. Steam during the initial baking phase is what makes French bread, French bread.

It’s interesting that, back in the old (very old, feudal old) days, the finer the society, the finer the flour. Whole grains and mixed wheat was the bread of the commoner while the fine, white flours were the stuff of luxury. Granted, those “whole grains” were usually the leftovers of the milling process bulked up with sand or other things (seriously, you don’t want to know), making for hard, dark loaves–but the hardier grains they did include were basically healthier than the more expensive white flours of the nobility.

These days the tables have turned.  A loaf of refined white flour, cushy and soft is still available for a buck or just over, making it more accessible to the lower-income brackets while whole grain breads are now prized for the health benefits and, generally, carry a price tag triple of it’s over-processed, bleached brethren.

Bread gets a bad rap these days–it’s carb central, after all. But, as more and more are learning, all carbs are not created equal, and whole grains provide a powerhouse of nutrients and energy that our bodies need. Bread doesn’t have to be the bad guy if we make smart choices and keep it in moderation.

Just a little food for though whether you’re making or buying your daily bread.


Have any bread-baking horror stories? Share in the comments and I might just have a solution for you. Also welcome are stories of triumph, love for your bread machine or questions about baking in general.

Way Cool!


Have you ever thought about what happens to food when you freeze it? Have you ever wondered why some foods don’t look or feel the same once they’ve been defrosted? Have you ever asked if there was a way to make this work for you instead of against you?

This is one of my favorite food-science factoids.

Did you ever have to look at things like cork or onion under a microscope? Meat, vegetables, breads and cakes–everything is made up of thousands of little cells and each cell contains at least a little bit of water.

If you’ve ever put a bottle or can of soda in the freezer to chill and forgotten about it, you know first-hand how frozen liquids take up more space than in their non-solid state. Not only does it take up extra space, ice has sharp edges that poke through delicate cell walls that get in their way.

Which is why, when you defrost some frozen vegetables before cooking them, the formerly perky produce seems a bit deflated and mushy: the ice melted and the cells couldn’t hold in the moisture with their now-perforated walls.

Ways to work around this:

  • Cook frozen foods without defrosting them–the shock of heat will turn the ice to steam as the cell walls solidify during the cooking process
  • Pre-cook food before freezing to shore-up the cell walls (and eliminate some of the moisture, depending on the food) before the ice has a chance to do it’s thing

Way that this can be beneficial:

  • Freezing fruits for smoothies and sauces means part of your work is already done for you, the fruit will break down quicker and you’re recipe can be completed sooner
  • Dense baked goods (like pound cake) actually undergo an amazing transformation in the freezer as the ice action helps break down the heavier textures into a more delicate finished object
  • Release the oils in citrus zest for future use

A couple weeks ago I was making fruit salad and rather than throwing the orange peels away, I trimmed off the pith (the white spongy stuff with a bitter taste) from the zest (the colored rind packed with oils). Rather than chop or grate it then, I left it in large pieces, about 2 inches long by 1 inch wide, and stored it in a freezer bag in the freezer.

Last week I decided to make some oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and added some of the reserved orange zest to the mix. Not only was it nice to have the zest on hand, the frozen zest was a breeze to chop and smelled absolutely divine. In the finished cookies you definitely tasted the orange flavor, even though only a tablespoon of zest when into 3 dozen cookies and that’s when it hit me:

When the water in the orange peel froze and then melted, the oils in the cells were given free reign to mix and mingle with the rest of the batter, spreading that flavor all around.

Even though freezing has always been a great way to store foods for long periods of time without spoiling, I’m liking the more immediate ways the freezer can be of help in the kitchen!