Are you intimidated by ingredients like yeast or tofu? Have you ever cooked with almond milk instead of whole milk or eggs? Baking classic desserts like banana pudding or chocolate pie for your friends and family with health restrictions and allergies may not be as hard as you think.
This post is the result of discovering how much I loved food photography from my vacation in South Carolina this summer and being inspired to write some recipe reviews.
This semester I am in a feature writing class that has challenged me to go beyond communicating facts. My professor has encouraged me to go big and work on depicting situations in a creative, descriptive way that remains subjective. Last week we had an assignment to write a review on anything that we wanted, and I took it as an opportunity to experiment in a slightly over-the-top way with description and breaking away from facts while reviewing one of my favorite recipes: Chicken Tortilla Soup by the Pioneer Woman. Here is the review I wrote:
Whether the cool fall breeze has finally turned into a crisp winter chill or the unwelcome germs jumping from person to person via doorknobs and keyboards just think it has, the Pioneer Woman’s chicken tortilla soup recipe creates the perfect combination of warmth, filling nourishment and delicious flavor to perfectly complete any winter evening.
Ree Drummond lives in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma on a cattle ranch with her husband, children and basset hound, but she has made herself known nationwide as the Pioneer Woman because of her blog and, primarily, her cookbooks and shows on the Food Network.
The Pioneer Woman cookbooks are unique and put together, in many ways, like a blog post. The biggest advantage is that each step is explained and shown through pictures. Yes, there is a picture of every step in every recipe in her cookbook.
Even for good cooks the idea of having well-lit photography illustrating each step of the cooking process removes doubt and replaces it with unmerited comfort and confidence, especially when making a recipe for the first time.
Bad recipes are rare for the Pioneer Woman, but one of the best is her chicken tortilla soup. It may be a basic take on the well-known classic, but it is a well-crafted foundation of flavors that allows for personalization.
The base flavors of cumin, chili powder and garlic powder coat the other ingredients in a Mexican-flare that is not too spicy, but definitely do their job. The substance of the soup is made of shredded chicken, bell peppers, onion, Rotel and beans in a bath of chicken broth and water.
After experimenting, shredded chicken really is the most satisfying form of chicken for the soup. It may all taste the same, but there is just something about shreds of tender, juicy chicken amongst the small, diced vegetables that sits just right. Diced chicken works fine too, but it just doesn’t sit in your mouth the same way; much more chewing is required.
As a personal preference, replacing the beans with corn better suits the Tex-Mex flare and texture of the other ingredients. In reality, beans make any dish less appealing; this is no exception (I hate beans).
Cornmeal, tomato paste and corn tortilla strips are the only other ingredients in this soup. Tomato paste can be bought in small quantities, but cornmeal — what will that even do for a bowl of soup — is usually left out when it is made in the Ledbetter household. The corn tortillas, I am sure a key component in chicken tortilla soup, are usually replaced with fresh corn chips as well since they are much fresher with leftover bowls of soup.
Speaking of leftovers, it is worth mentioning that this soup is so much better after it has had some time alone. The best way to assemble it is in the crockpot a couple hours before when the flavors and vegetable have time to really marinade and soften.
Even though those are the only other technical ingredients, the options don’t stop here. At the bottom of her recipe, Drummond makes suggested garnishes for each individual bowl of soup as the consumer sees fit. These suggestions include sour cream, red onions, avocado, Monterey Jack cheese and cilantro.
If you want my opinion, to properly enjoy it, let this soup with shredded chicken and corn simmer in the crockpot for a few hours, then sprinkle diced avocados, shredded Monterey Jack cheese and chopped cilantro across the top with a plentiful helping of On the Border corn tortilla chips on the side. Curl up under a blanket on the couch (with a hand towel for spills and drips), enjoy a bowl of warm Tex-Mex perfection and continue your latest Netflix binge.
After writing this review last week just before coming home for Thanksgiving, I was inspired to document and review the recipes I used this week in preparing some vegan, gluten-free Thanksgiving sweets.
My boyfriend, Alex has been vegan and gluten-free because of health restrictions for the majority of our dating relationship, which has been almost five and a half years. Over the past couple years, especially at the holidays, I have experimented with different recipes in order to make him food and desserts that isn't so different from what everyone else eats.
While some of the recipes and ingredients have been intimidating, and some of them don't always turn out the way I want them to, I have found several recipes that I have tweaked and perfected to a place that we both enjoy eating them. That is saying a lot because I am much more particular than him (some might call it picky); I also have quite a sweet tooth while he enjoys more veggies (crazy, I know).
Some of my favorite things I have made for him over the years include Oreo balls, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin pie, chocolate muffins, fresh bread and banana pudding. This Thanksgiving my family helped provide a lot of his meal including asparagus, brussels sprouts, fresh corn, sweet potatoes and chili, which allowed me to take more time of desserts (my personal favorite).
To add to the Thanksgiving menu, this year I made...
I know what you are thinking; how do you make pudding with no milk, no whipped cream, no sweetened condensed milk... but it's possible, and it's actually delicious. The pudding sets up firm like it should and the vanilla taste is strong, sweet and delicious, and that is coming from a true lover of banana pudding. The underlying flavors of almond and coconut are faint, but add so much depth to the flavor of the pudding — not to mention the banana part.
I made this for the first time last year during the holidays upon request from Alex. I didn't think it was going to be possible, but the more I looked online the more I realized that all the basic ingredients in the recipe have replacements that have proven successful and liked by the health food fanatics. I looked at recipes and decided to follow a normal recipe with each ingredient tailored to my preference of a vegan, gluten free version.
I made my own sweetened condensed milk and vanilla wafers and everything else was straight off the shelf in Kroger and into the bowl. Here's how I made it:
For the Vanilla Wafers:
Depending on when you need the pudding ready by, the wafers need to be baked and cooled before the dessert is assembled. I made them the morning before I needed to assemble the pudding, which was the night before we ate it.
- 1/2 cup of Earth Balance butter non-dairy alternative
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1 egg worth of egg replacer
- 1 Tbs vanilla extract
- 1 Tbs almond milk
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/3 cup + 1 Tbs all purpose gluten free flour
Beat together butter, sugar and salt for 4-5 minutes until well combined and light and fluffy. Then add egg, vanilla and milk; mix and slowly add the flour and baking powder, mixing until combined.
Refrigerate for two hours, then bake small rolls of dough, spaced out by at least an inch, on parchment paper for 13-14 minutes at 350 degrees. The edges should just be lightly browned. Remove from sheet pan and let cool.
For the Sweetened Condensed Milk:
This piece of the pudding must also be done a few hours ahead of assembling the pudding; it takes a couple of hours and it must completely cool before using as an ingredient in the final product.
- 5 1/2 cups of almond milk
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
Put the milk, sugar and salt into a saucepan and simmer the liquid on the stovetop for 2 hours, carefully making sure it doesn't burn or boil over. Stir occasionally, and keep your eye on it. I did this while I was working on my vanilla wafers so I was in the kitchen where I could keep my eye on it often. Don't let it boil too much; you just want it to simmer. I left mine on medium heat until the last 30 minutes, and it was sufficient.
After about two hours, measure the remaining liquid. When you have 2 cups, stir in the vanilla and put the sweetened condensed milk in a separate bowl and refrigerate it for a few hours, making sure it is cooled and chilled before using in assembling the pudding.
For the Pudding:
If your wafers are cooled and your sweetened condensed milk is chilled, you are ready to assemble the pudding. I made my own cool whip from coconut milk the first time I made this recipe, but I bought pre-made coconut based cool whip. It was excellent. My homemade cool whip did not turn out near as well.
- 1 5.1 box of vanilla dry instant vanilla pudding mix (that's the bigger box)
- 1 1/2 cup of almond milk
- 2 cups of sweetened condensed almond milk
- 3 cups coconut cool whip
- 5 large bananas sliced
- 1 batch of vanilla wafers
Whisk dry pudding mix, milk and sweetened condensed milk until smooth. Let sit for 3 minutes, and fold in cool whip until smooth and combined.
Then it's time to assemble the pudding. It's much more rewarding when it is in a clear serving dish, in my opinion. Lay one third of the wafers along the bottom, then one third of the bananas. Top that with half the pudding. Add another layer of wafers and bananas then the rest of the pudding. I always like to put more wafers on top and any of the leftover bananas as a garnish.
The pudding needs to sit in the fridge for two hours at the minimum to allow the pudding to set up. I prefer to make it the day before and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
The recipe for vanilla wafers was adapted from GF Jules, sweetened condensed milk recipe from veganbaking.net and pudding recipe adapted from the Novice Chef.
Having never made this recipe before, I was nervous. Not to mention one of the main ingredients was tofu, which I was totally turned off by, but it seemed to be one of the best recipes I could find. It was so easy and quick to make, and I was immediately pleased with the result. The texture might not have been perfectly smooth, but I am highly sensitive with good textures, and I thought it was delicious. I even saved a couple slices for myself rather than sending all the leftovers home with Alex like I usually do. It was sweet and chocolatey, but it was not too sweet, which is perfect for Alex. Even though I used a store-bought gluten-free graham cracker crust and it was delicious, I considered using an Oreo crust, which would also be delicious in the pie filling to mask the texture a little bit (that's was my mom's idea — thanks, mom). I will probably try that next time I use this recipe, just for kicks. Like I said, I thought it was delicious. Here's how I made it:
For the Filling:
1 12 oz package of extra firm silken tofu
1 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract
1/2 cup of almond milk
1 cup of cool whip (to texture preference)
1 pinch of salt
1 1/2 cup vegan chocolate chips
Open the package of tofu. Make sure it is silken; that is the key to the texture of the filling. Drain the tofu and pat it dry before placing in the mixing bowl. Add the vanilla, salt and the almond milk to the bowl before melting the chocolate. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave 30 seconds at a time or in a double boiler, and work quickly to mix the chocolate and other ingredients together once it is melted. Using a hand mixer, blend the filling for several minutes until you are pleased with the consistency. When done, fold in cool whip to make it a little more creamy. I used the same coconut whip cream that I used in the banana pudding. When you are pleased, pour the mixture over into the pie crust and put in the freezer until the filling is frozen.
A hour or so before serving, remove the pie from the freezer and top with the coconut whip cream. I also saved a few chocolate chips to garnish the pie and label it as "chocolate" for our family gathering. Since the filling is frozen at this point, I left the pie out of the fridge to thaw enough to cut and serve, but it is better chilled than served room temperature to keep the filling firm enough to slice cleanly.
The recipe for the filling was adapted from recipes by Minimalist Baker and Gena Hamshaw on Food52.
For bread, I have found the best and easiest solution is buying Mina's Purely Divine Gluten-free bread mix from Kroger. It is in a blue and yellow package, comes with yeast and only requires 2 tsp sugar, 2 tsp cider vinegar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1/2 cup almond milk and 1 cup water. I have never had a problem with it rising, and the texture is much better than any other gluten-free I personally have ever had. Just be sure not to get it to dry.
The finished product is a little dense, but has that fresh bread taste and a similar texture. It also goes great with my dad's deer chili, which is pictured below as well. All the ingredients in the chili were organic (wild) and non-processed. The meat came from a deer my dad killed himself. That may not be vegan by traditional definition, but it follows the rules that Alex eats by, so it works for us!