Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Homemade Vegan Birthday Cakes

The Topic: Homemade vegan birthday cakes that taste great and are budget friendly

The Dish: It’s no secret that I love to bake. I’ve always enjoyed baking, and grew up spending hours in the kitchen making cookies, brownies, cakes, and bars any chance I got. When I went vegan 16 years ago, a whole new world of dessert-making opened up to me, and I learned everything I could about what to use in place of eggs, butter, and cream. I discovered that incredible baked goods can be made without the use of any animal products, and it’s the binder, the fat, and the liquid that’s necessary in the chemistry of baking—not the dairy products themselves. Plant-based alternatives work just as well, if not better, and my baking repertoire now includes everything from egg replacer and white vinegar to non-hydrogenated margarine and soy creamer.

Here at the VegNews offices, we celebrate a lot of birthdays. And what better way to fête someone’s special day than with a homemade, vegan cake in the birthday guy’s/gal’s favorite flavor? After a few years of ordering in cakes for staff birthdays, I realized that the quality would be much better if I made the cakes myself (nothing beats a freshly made cake), and, guess what? The cost to make a cake is at least half of what it costs to buy one from Whole Foods or a local bakery. Yes, it takes time, but if you enjoy baking, I promise the reward will be worth it. It’s a wonderful feeling to give something from the heart to someone you care about, and now I look forward to our VN birthday celebrations all year long.

So what recipes do I use for my cake-baking? I’ve found a few tried-and-true favorites that our staffers seem to love—and then I customize it for the particular person. For VN Office Manager Lyndsay Orwig and VN Editor-at-Large Laura Beck’s recent birthdays (just days apart), I made a vanilla cake with vanilla buttercrème filling and frosting, all topped with fresh strawberries (which had just come in season). For Managing Editor Elizabeth Castoria’s June soirée, I whipped up a cocoa cake with vanilla buttercrème filling and frosting, and topped it with raspberries. And for Art Director Sutton Long’s upcoming celebration (Sutton, don't read this!), I am planning a triple-threat chocolate cake given her love for all-things chocolate. And the cost for each one? A very budget-friendly $12.

Lyndsay and Laura's vanilla cake with vanilla buttercrème filling and frosting, topped with fresh strawberries

Elizabeth's chocolate cake with vanilla buttercrème filling and frosting, topped with fresh raspberries

Here are some of my go-to cake and frosting recipes, all courtesy of the incredible vegan recipe resource, VegWeb.com:

And here's my favorite vegan buttercrème recipe:

Colleen's Vegan Buttercrème
This filling/frosting is easy to make and easy to customize. Add 3/4 cup sifted cocoa powder or three 1-ounce melted squares of unsweetened chocolate for an out-of-this world chocolate version.

Frosts and fills one 9-inch cake

What You Need:
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (I like Spectrum)
1/2 cup non-hydrogentated margarine (I like Earth Balance)
2 teaspoons vanilla or one scraped vanilla bean
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
3 to 4 tablespoons soy creamer

What You Do:
1. In a large bowl, cream together shortening and margarine. Alternatively, whip together in a food processor, but the frosting won't come out as light and fluffy. Add vanilla or vanilla bean until combined.

2. Add powdered sugar, one cup at a time, while beating at a medium speed. When all sugar is added in, add soy creamer one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached. If need a slightly thicker frosting, chill for one hour before frosting your cake.

The Final Word: For a birthday to remember, bake up a customized cake that will be loved by all and is good for the pocketbook. The sky's the limit on how creative you can get, and don't forget the candles!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Good Herb(s)

The Topic: Tasting tasty tastiness with VN Managing Editor Elizabeth Castoria

The Dish: So you know how you can pretty much eat miso every night for dinner without fail because it's there and it's cheap, and it makes you feel good? I'm not here to criticize miso, or any other less-than-exhilarating diet mainstay, because they are staples for a darn fine reason. But I tell you what: even the brokest-as-a-joke-est among us craves the thrill of flavor. Sometimes, a simple soup, even one as tried-and-true as miso just isn't going to cut it. That, friends, is where things get herby.

Herbs are basically little flavor packets just waiting to get tossed into your boring dinner. And then guess what? Your dinner is no longer boring! It's definitely magic. Herbs will run you about $5 for a huge bunch at the farmers' market, and they make just about everything you can imagine taste terrific. Abby's Biscuits are stellar on their own, but with a little boost from fresh herbs, they're even better. So simple, and yet so freaking delicious. Tossing together a quick, weeknight salad? Great idea! Chiffonade some basil and you've turned your salad into something a gourmet would serve. (Not only for the basil, of course, you get extra points for "chiffonade.") 

Want to shop closer to home? Skip the farmers' market and head straight for Trader Joe's, which sells a potted herb garden that can last you through many weeks of mighty fine meals. Or, try out a gardening class at your local Armstrong Garden Center. Not only are the classes free, but you're usually invited to take home the herb of your choice after learning how to not kill your plants immediately.

If, for some unfathomable reason, you aren't able to use all the herbs from your bounty, you should ask yourself two questions:
  1. Really? Because once you get a taste of easy, dreamy Tempeh Sandwiches with fresh thyme, Foccacia Pizza with any herb that tickles your fancy, or even just a quick bruschetta of tomatoes, fresh basil, chopped garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper, it seems likely that your stash will quickly disappear.
  2. If, somehow, you've eaten every delicious thing under the sun and still find yourself rolling in rosemary, take heart. Abby's mom just so happens to have a perfectly wonderful Lavender-Rosemary Scrub waiting to make good use of your leftover herbs—especially if they happen to be rosemary and lavender.
The Final Word: Get ye some herbs. They're abundant this time of year, and there's just no good reason to suffer through a beige, bland dinner. Perk up your most hardscrabble meal with a fresh pop of herbs, and never resign yourself to tired standbys again. Tastiness achieved.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Life's Little Pleasures

The Topic: Enjoying the vegan life with VN Associate Editor Jennifer Chen

The Dish: Recently, a good friend and I were lamenting how busy we are so we decided that instead of working like mad every day, we'd try doing something fun every day, however small. Sure, in any given day, you have 8 million things to do. So here's my simple list of fun activities I'm incorporating so that my life isn't all about work (even though working at VegNews is the best job ever). I'm hoping to inspire you to make your own list of amazing, inexpensive things to do right this very minute, you busy bee.

1) Farmers' market dinner date. Instead of a fancy dinner out, I decided to shop my farmers' market for a special dinner with my husband. I grabbed rainbow Swiss chard ($1.50) and found a pasta vendor who had several vegan pastas, including a Meyer lemon pasta ($7). Since my hubby loves lemon, I thought this would make the perfect meal. Topped with roasted garlic, fresh lemon juice, and olive oil, this was a farm-fresh meal that he loved. Lesson learned: the best romantic dinners can cost you close to nothing at all.

2) DIY beer garden. Another simple date idea? Pick up some beers (or wine, if that's your pleasure) and create your own beer garden. Brendan and I love beer gardens—what's better than sipping a brew outdoors in the sunshine? We picked up a six-pack of Deschutes Twilight Summer Ale ($7.99), a bag of Kettle Tia chips ($3.99), and made our own backyard beer garden. We brought out lawn chairs and enjoyed our brews with our pup laying at our feet. Check out our summer guide to 7 Vegan Beers or barnivore.com for all things vegan alcoholic. Lesson learned: a backyard is a beer garden in disguise.

3) At-home manicure. I am too cheap to go get my nails done so I like doing them at home. But as I mentioned to my friend, I was even getting too busy to do that. Tonight it ends! No more excuses. Beauty Without Cruelty just debuted some new nail polishes and I have the Mermaid nail color at home ($16.95). Yes, it's pricier than drugstore nail polish, but it is free of nasty chemicals that most nail polishes contain. Lesson learned: Spend money on what counts—chemical- and cruelty-free beauty!

4) Get your Groupon. This weekend, I got two vegan cinnamon buns for free and vegan brunch for two for $15. How? Groupon, my friends. Cinnaholic had a $5 for $10 for cinnamon buns and Souley Vegan had a $10 for $25 offer. So how did I get free Cinnaholic buns? Groupon credits! I referred a friend to another offer they had and I got a $10 credit. VN Editor-at-Large Laura Beck got me started on my Groupon addiction. VN Office Manager Lyndsay Orwig recommends coupon sites Living Social and Daily Gourmet as well. On Daily Gourmet, you can specify that you only want vegan offers! Lesson learned: Save a little, get a lot.

5) Read magazines. It's no surprise that I love magazines. Some of my favorites include VegNews, Time, New York, and Bust, among many others. But I've let my subscriptions pile up to the point where I'm several weeks behind on the news. Again, no more excuses. So at our DIY beer garden, I grabbed a pile of magazines and caught up. Lesson learned: Use what you have.

The Final Word: I'll be the first to admit that when I'm busy, I'm more likely to stick to my routine of vegging out in front of the TV, but by challenging myself to do things I actually enjoy without spending wads of cash, I'm a lot happier. So make your own list of fun, creative things to do so that your to-do list isn't just full of errands.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Costco: Surprise Vegan Haven

The Topic: Shopping at Costco, vegan style, with VN Office Manager Lyndsay Orwig

The Dish: After reading this post you may be saying to yourself, "Huh?" And I probably would have thought the same thing about a year ago, but hear me out. Getting a Costco membership is a great way to save money while stocking up on your basic staples. Luckily, I was gifted a membership last Christmas, which saved me $50, but I plan on renewing next year. Here are some vegan treasures that Costco has to offer.
1) Canned Goods. I understand that a lot of vegans prefer to cook their own beans, and use only fresh ingredients. I totally support this, and would do the same if I had the time, but at this point in my life, canned goods is where it's at! On my recent trip to Costco, I bought a big package of kidney beans, which included about 10 or so cans for a very reasonable price. I also picked up diced tomatoes and coconut milk, and now my pantry will be stocked with these items for at least the next several months. You can also find bulk packages of vegan soup from Amy's Kitchen—the package I bought included lentil and vegetable barley soups.

2) Nuts and Nut Butters. You will most likely find a better selection of nuts in the bulk section of your local grocery store, but I guarantee that the selection is not half bad. This is especially true when it comes to the more basic items, such as almonds. My parents bought me a huge bag of raw almonds from Costco last year, and I still haven't finished the package—they are nestled away in my freezer. You can also find a good selection of nut butters, including almond and peanut butter from varying brands. And I want to mention again that these butters come in huge containers—you'll be set for months!
3) Spices. As we all know, spices are really expensive, and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the prices for the bulk spices at Costco. I nearly bought them all, but I restrained myself and bought two of the ones I use a lot, including chili powder and white pepper. Needless, to say, I won't need to purchase these spices again for about a year or so.

4) Miscellaneous. If any of you have ever stepped foot in a Costco, you'll understand that this list could go on for quite a while, so I'll stick to the ones I recently found at my local Costco. For wine lovers, there are big bottles of Yellow Tail wine, whose red wines are vegan. For snackers, there are big variety boxes of Clif Bars and big bags of trail mixes. I also purchased maple syrup, soy sauce, and soymilk—all in super-big quantities!
The Final Word: One thing to understand. When you shop at Costco, you will most likely be spending $100 to $200 on any given trip, but that is a full (and heavy) cart of goods that will last you several months, if not more. This type of shopping may not be for everyone, but it has worked very well for me
so far. As a member, you also receive a book of coupons each month which will offer you even more savings. I would suggest trying it out for a year, if you are able to, and see for yourself! Costco is definitely a unique shopping experience.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Menu Planning

The Topic: Save time, money, and your precious produce by VN Associate Editor Jennifer Chen

The Dish: Going to the grocery store to me is like the proverbial candy shop. I could spend hours wandering Berkeley Bowl West, checking out new products and exploring the bulk bins. I would toss everything that interested in me in my cart (hello, shiittake mushrooms), rack up a hefty grocery bill, then get frustrated that I loaded up on quality organic produce and ended up throwing out mushy veggies or rotten fruit. I came across a handy menu-planning article in Real Simple that changed my life, and will change yours too!

1) Plan ahead. Using this simple checklist, in the menu column, I write down the recipes I want to make during the week. Then I list any ingredients that I'm missing under the appropriate column so when I'm grocery shopping, I know exactly what I need. While the meal planner does list meat, poultry, dairy, and fish, I simply use those columns for my proteins like tofu, tempeh, or beans, and list my non-dairy products in the dairy column. I usually plan over two weeks so that I don't have to shop every weekend. Bonus! Write down the cookbook and page number or website you got the recipe from directly under the day of the week and you'll never have to scramble for it when you're crazy starving after a long day at work.  

2) Divvy up the work. Got roommates, a partner, or even able-bodied kids? Enlist them in your menu planning! In my household, my husband and I divide up our menu based on our schedules so that if I have a busy Tuesday night, he can tackle that dinner. We use our weekends to make our own seitan, cook beans, or bake up a big veggie lasagna. During the week, we pick simple 30-minute recipes and save the fancy ones for the weekend like this Seitan Bourguignon from the Martha Stewart vegan episode.

3) Grow your own herbs. Instead of buying a small $5 container of sage for Biscuits with Creamy Sage Gravy, I simply go to my backyard container garden and snip some fresh sage myself. I'm not the world's greatest gardener, but my mom is slowly teaching me how to be a better one. I have a simple herb garden of parsley, rosemary, tri-color sage, and Italian oregano growing in containers in my backyard. Rosemary and sage are pretty sturdy plants so if you're a newbie like me, you won't kill them instantly like I used to do with basil plants (sorry, basil!).

The Final Word: Spending some time planning out your meals will not only save you from throwing out valuable produce, it will save you the stress of the 7pm mad dash to figure out what you're making for dinner every night. And with all the money you're saving, you can even splurge on a nice meal out with your cooking partner.