NAUGHTY LITTLE NIBBLES MAKES US HAPPY!

CHOCOLATE FIREBALLS and TAHINI PEANUT CONFECTIONS

Homemade fruit and nut confections are often considered non-glamorous and too homespun by some. True, they may not be perfectly shaped and are a bit out of round, but let’s look from a different point of view. By others, they’re beloved, delicious, and most appreciated because they’ve been lovingly hand-made by someone whose desire is to bring a tasty little treat to the table or to offer as a sweet gift.

I’ve made two happily concocted confections to share on this blog–Chocolate Fireballs and Tahini Peanut Confections. Each one is vastly different from the other, yet they pair well together.

First, the Chocolate Fireballs: Most people find chocolate a total charmer. It’s no wonder–chocolate has compelling flavor that hits the tongue and totally wins you over. I say, “Go ahead–devour the chocolate!” These little treats contain no sugar, yet they’re deliciously sweet with nothing more than the earthy gifts of Mother Nature.

A little heads-up: These babies contain cayenne within the confections and also in the coating. I would judge the heat level to be between mildly spiced to just a tad more–not at the medium level, though. But, since everyone has a different spice tolerance, I thought it would be helpful to prepare you for a delightful little touch of heat and provide a little warning to those with sensitive taste buds.

If you know your guests enjoy spicy foods, say nothing and let the touch of spice be a pleasant surprise. You can enjoy watching them light up when that tiny blast of heat hits those little receivers on the tongue.

One day, when unexpected relatives dropped in for a visit, I reached into the freezer for these treats and arranged them on a dessert platter lined with a doily. Unwilling to wait for them to defrost, the cousins snapped them up and devoured them with gusto. That defining moment revealed that the confections were just as enjoyable eaten at room temperature or taken directly from the freezer. These tasty nibbles also make ideal gifts for the grandparents on your holiday list.

CHOCOLATE FIREBALLS

Yield: about 25 one-inch confections

Confections

1 1/2 cups whole almonds

1 1/2 cups walnuts

3 cups pitted dates, snipped in half

5 tablespoons raw cacao powder or unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon caramel extract

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

5 to 6 tablespoons water

Coating

6 tablespoons almond meal

4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

3 tablespoons organic sugar

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

TO MAKE THE CONFECTIONS, put the almonds and walnuts in the food processor and process until the nuts are finely ground but still retain a little texture. If you prefer a confection with a little crunch, process briefly so the nuts still retain their crunchy nature. Process a little longer for a smoother texture. Transfer the nuts to a large bowl.

Put the dates, cacao powder, maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, caramel extract, pepper, and cayenne in the food processor. Add 5 tablespoons of the water and pulse and process until the ingredients are smooth and creamy or lightly textured as desired.

Pour the date mixture into the bowl with the nuts and use your hands to thoroughly combine the ingredients. If the mixture seems too stiff, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of water and mix well to incorporate it completely. Set aside for 5 minutes.

TO MAKE THE COATING, combine the Coating ingredients in a separate bowl. Using your hands, roll the confection mixture into 1-inch balls or small logs, then, roll them in the coating, covering them completely.

Put the confections in a covered container. If using within a week or two, store the confections in the refrigerator. For longer storage, put them in the freezer. Frozen, the confections will keep for up to 3 months.

There are several ways to enjoy the confections. Some people enjoy them right from the freezer. Others prefer them partially defrosted, about 10 minutes out of the freezer. They’re also delicious served completely defrosted.

Notes:

When preparing this recipe, be sure to snip the dates in half with a kitchen scissors to avoid date pits that might damage the food processor.

 

 

Cocoa Powder vs. Raw Cacao

Most supermarkets sell unsweetened cocoa powder, while natural food markets sell both unsweetened cocoa powder and raw cacao powder. Between them there’s a world of difference.

Unsweetened cocoa powder has shed all or most of its natural fat content, leaving only a minute amount of its natural cocoa butter intact. Raw cacao powder is considerably more expensive, but some cooks consider it worth the extra price. Because it still contains its natural cocoa butter (the magical fat that boosts the flavor of the chocolate), raw cacao delivers richer flavor with more depth.

The two points to consider when deciding which chocolate to buy for baking or confections are flavor and fat content. If you’re aiming for lower fat foods, stick to the unsweetened cocoa powder. If the fat content is not a consideration, go for the more intense flavor and choose the raw cacao powder.

Caramel Extract: Caramel extract is not available in grocery stores. I order it online from J.R. Watkins – https://www.jrwatkins.com

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TAHINI PEANUT CONFECTIONS

If you’re invited to dinner or a holiday party, bring some of these confections along as a hostess gift and watch the recipients beam with joy. With their captivating sesame flavor and date-sweetened goodness, these little tidbits make outstanding holiday gifts. Prepare these well ahead and keep them frozen so you can be ready when the festive season comes along. The act of giving is reward itself, but you’ll receive extra gratitude when you present these treats in an attractive jar or box attractively wrapped in their holiday best.

My hubby is a happy camper when he can reach into the freezer any time year-round and pluck a sweet frozen treat from the plastic container I attempt to keep filled. He claims they taste better when frozen–personally, I think he just doesn’t want to wait the ten or fifteen minutes for them to reach room temperature.

Yield: 45 to 50 confections

2 cups firmly packed pitted dates, snipped in half

1 cup roasted unsalted peanuts

1/2 cup tahini

2 to 6 tablespoons water

1/4 teaspoon caramel extract

Coating

1 cup natural or toasted sesame seeds

TO MAKE THE CONFECTIONS, combine the dates, peanuts, tahini, water, and caramel extract in the food processor and pulse and process until well blended. Longer processing will create a smoother confection. If you prefer a chunkier confection, you can control the texture by shorter processing and stopping the machine frequently to check the results.

Form the mixture into balls, using about one teaspoon for each confection. Roll, squeeze, and use your fingers to form the mixture into balls or ovals.

TO COAT THE CONFECTIONS, put the sesame seeds in a small, deep bowl and roll each ball in the seeds, coating it completely.

IF PLANNING AHEAD FOR GIFTING, put the finished confections in a covered container and store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Be sure to thaw the confections completely before wrapping them for gifting.

TO SERVE THE CONFECTIONS AT HOME for your own family or guests, line an attractive dish with a doily, arrange the confections on the dish, and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint. They’re delicious eaten at room temperature, chilled, or even frozen.

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SOUTHERN PECAN PIE–PERFECT FOR THE HOLIDAYS!

Pecan Pie copyDOWN HOME PECAN PIE

Pecans are native to the American South, and you can bet those creative Southerners put them on the menu every chance they could find. Those delicious little pecans even made the South famous for its pecan pie, an irresistible dessert that makes ex-pat Southerns very homesick.

Many Southern families have their own treasured family recipe–possibly even some handed down from grandma’s or great-grandma’s secret recipe. Years ago, family recipes were so cherished many were kept secret.

I have great respect for those delicious heirloom recipes that bring families together at special times like the holidays. And I also love the way Southerners say pecans– south of the Mason-Dixon line they call them puh cons.

My holiday version has all the eye-appealing and flavorful attributes of its traditional counterpart with the added benefit of being totally vegan. But I must admit that veganizing the recipe was one heck of a challenge.

My first 8 attempts–yes, it actually took 9 tries to get it right–came out too runny or totally soupy. It was maddening and totally frustrating, but I was one determined gal. The goal was to find a way to thicken and bind the ingredients, as eggs would do in the traditional recipe. About the 8th time the top baked perfectly, and I thought I had achieved success at last. But, no! As soon as I cut into it, it was soup.

NutGourmet cover copyTaking the place of the eggs in my successful recipe is a combination of tapioca flour and flaxseeds that gives the pie its unique, creamy texture. The tapioca flour also performs the double duty of thickening the filling as well as providing an inviting glaze that enhances its appeal. The key was tapioca flour –it worked like magic! Now I’m thrilled to share this recipe that’s from my cookbook The Nut Gourmet.

There are many ways to arrange the pecans on the top. Some people simply sprinkle broken pieces over the filling, but I wanted a pecan pie that was pretty darned eye appealing. If you have the time, start by sorting out beautiful pecan halves of similar sizes for the topping. Then arrange them side-by-side in concentric rings beginning in the center of the pie.

At serving time, make way for those wild and crazy pecan lovers. There’s bound to be a mad scramble for a piece of pie!

DOWN HOME PECAN PIE

Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie

Nutty Wheat Pie Crust
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flourPecan Pie copy
1/2 cup almond meal
2 tablespoons organic sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup organic canola oil
2 tablespoons cold water

Pecan Filling
1 1/4 cups coarsely broken pecans

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) dairy-free margarine
1 1/2 cups light or dark corn syrup
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup regular soymilk
1/2 cup tapioca flour, packed

5 tablespoons flaxseeds
1 1/4 cups pecan halves

  1. TO MAKE THE PIE CRUST, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and have ready a large rimmed baking sheet. Combine the pastry flour, almond meal, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl and mix well.
  2. Add the oil and mix with a spoon until all the flour is incorporated. Add the water and stir thoroughly until the mixture forms a soft dough and all the water is absorbed.
  3. Form the dough into a ball and roll it out between two sheets of waxed paper. Remove the top sheet of waxed paper, place the pie pan over the dough, and invert the dough and pan together. Remove the waxed paper carefully and firm the edges of the crust. Trim the excess crust with a knife. Bake the Crust for 5 minutes and set it aside on the baking sheet to cool.
  4. TO MAKE THE PECAN FILLING, put the coarsely broken pecans on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 8 minutes. Immediately pour them onto a dish to cool. When cool, spoon the pecan pieces into the bottom of the pie shell.
  5. Melt the margarine over medium heat in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the corn syrup, brown sugar, and vanilla extract and bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Boil 5 minutes and set aside to cool for about 30 minutes.
  6. Put the soymilk in a small bowl and stir in the tapioca flour. Set it aside for 5 minutes to allow the tapioca flour to absorb some of the liquid. Don’t rush this step. The tapioca flour needs a full 5 minutes to absorb some of the liquid.
  7. Meanwhile, put the flaxseeds in a blender or mini chopper and grind them to a fine meal. Add the flaxseeds and the soymilk mixture to the cooled corn syrup mixture. Stir to combine, and pour the mixture into the blender. Blend for 1 minute, until smooth. Pour over the toasted pecans.
  8. Top the pie with the pecan halves, arranging them in concentric circles, beginning in the center. Bake for 40 minutes. Cool thoroughly before chilling in the refrigerator. The pie will firm after it is thoroughly chilled.

Pecan Lovers Scramble for a Piece of Pie!

DOWN HOME PECAN PIE

Because pecans are native to the American South, they frequently turn up as pecan pie on Southern dessert menus in homes and restaurants. And many home cooks have their own treasured family recipe–possibly even one handed down from grandma’s cherished blend of pecans, sugar, and spices. pecan downhomeI have great respect for those heirloom recipes that bring families together at special times like the holiday season. And I also love the way Southerners say pecans– south of the Mason-Dixon line they call them puh cons.

My holiday version has all the eye-appealing and flavorful attributes of its traditional counterpart with the added benefit of being totally vegan. Taking the place of the eggs that usually bind the saucy ingredients together is a combination of tapioca flour and flaxseeds that gives the pie its unique, creamy texture.

The tapioca flour also performs the double duty of thickening the filling as well as providing an inviting glaze that enhances its appeal.

So when is it the perfect time to serve pecan pie? All throughout the holiday season and any time you can buy gorgeous pecans. The new crop of nuts are harvested in early autumn, around September, so they’re fresh and flavorful. My family tradition is bringing a pecan pie to the Thanksgiving table along with the traditional pumpkin pie.

Converting a conventional recipe to a vegan version can often be an easy swap-out of ingredients. Sometimes, though, it’s just a bear of a task. Pecan pie was my biggest challenge and it took 9 tries with different methods to get the pie to bind together. Many of the versions ended up as too soupy. About the 8th time the top baked perfectly and I thought I had achieved success at last. But, no. As soon as I cut into it, it was soup.NGcover8 copy 2

The key was tapioca flour –it worked like magic! Now I’m thrilled to share this recipe that’s from my cookbook The Nut Gourmet.

You can also create an irresistible, love-at-first-glance pecan pie by taking the time to sort out beautiful pecan halves for the topping and then arranging them side-by-side in concentric rings.

Down Home Pecan Pie

Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie

 

Nutty Wheat Pie Crust

1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 cup almond meal

2 tablespoons organic sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

 

1/2 cup organic canola oil

2 tablespoons cold water

 

Pecan Filling

1 1/4 cups coarsely broken pecans

 

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) dairy-free margarine

1 1/2 cups dark corn syrup

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

 

1/2 cup regular soymilk

1/2 cup tapioca flour, packed

 

5 tablespoons flaxseeds

1 1/4 cups pecan halves

 

  1. TO MAKE THE PIE CRUST, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and have ready a large rimmed baking sheet. Combine the pastry flour, almond meal, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl and mix well.
  1. Add the oil and mix with a spoon until all the flour is incorporated. Add the water and stir thoroughly until the mixture forms a soft dough and all the water is absorbed.
  1. Form the dough into a ball and roll it out between two sheets of waxed paper. Remove the top sheet of waxed paper, place the pie pan over the dough, and invert the dough and pan together. Remove the waxed paper carefully and firm the edges of the crust. Trim the excess crust with a knife. Bake the Crust for 5 minutes and set it aside on the baking sheet to cool.
  1. TO MAKE THE PECAN FILLING, put the coarsely broken pecans on a small, rimmed baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 8 minutes. Immediately pour them onto a dish to cool. When cool, spoon the pecan pieces into the bottom of the pie shell.
  1. Melt the margarine over medium heat in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the corn syrup, brown sugar, and vanilla extract and bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Boil 5 minutes and set aside to cool for about 30 minutes.
  1. Put the soymilk in a small bowl and stir in the tapioca flour. Set it aside for 5 minutes to allow the tapioca flour to absorb some of the liquid. Don’t rush this step. The tapioca flour needs a full 5 minutes to absorb some of the liquid.
  1. Meanwhile, put the flaxseeds in a blender or mini chopper and grind them to a fine meal. Add the flaxseeds and the soymilk mixture to the cooled corn syrup mixture. Stir to combine, and pour the mixture into the blender. Blend for 1 minute, until smooth. Pour over the toasted pecans.
  1. Top the pie with the pecan halves, arranging them in concentric circles, beginning in the center. Bake for 40 minutes. Cool thoroughly before chilling in the refrigerator. The pie will firm after it is thoroughly chilled.

Portobello Mini Pies–a Vegan for the Holidays Spectacular!

Portobello MinisPORTOBELLO MINI PIES

WITH MEDITERRANEAN RELISH

Portobello mushrooms, with their intense, earthy, and woodsy flavor, claim the limelight to offer a platter of richly flavored mini pies with winning charm that has enough pizazz to stand alone. Top the little pies with Mediterranean Relish and they morph into an eye appealing, elegant, and compellingly delicious main dish for the holiday season.

These little mini pies are ideal for a quiet family meal, but they’re also compelling and sophisticated enough to serve your most discriminating foodie guests for a holiday dinner.

Prepare the mini pies and the relish in advance so after a busy day of holiday shopping you can tuck them into the oven for a quick warming. They’ll be ready in minutes.

Add a salad and a steamed vegetable and dinner is done. Then you’ll have plenty of time to relax and share your shopping finds at the dinner table–unless they’re a surprise!

PORTOBELLO MINI PIES

WITH MEDITERRANEAN RELISH

Makes 10 to 12 mini pies 3-inches in diameter.

 

Mushroom Mini Pies

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon flaxseed meal

 

2 to 3 giant portobello mushrooms (about 3/4 pound), or 3/4 pound cremini or button mushrooms

 

1 cup cooked brown rice, barley, or buckwheat

1 cup diced onions

1/2 cup almond meal or hazelnut meal

1/2 cup old fashioned rolled oats

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

Mediterranean Relish

1 (14-ounce) can water-packed artichoke hearts, drained and diced

1 1/4 cups diced fresh tomatoes

10 pitted Kalamata olives, diced

6 pitted Spanish olives, diced

1 green onion, minced

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes

2 cloves garlic, minced

Pinch cayenne

Freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Few sprigs fresh basil

 

  1. TO MAKE THE MUSHROOM MINI PIES, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. and have ready a large, rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the water and flaxseed meal. Mix well and set aside to thicken.
  3. Coarsely chop the mushrooms, put them into the food processor in batches, and pulse until finely minced. Transfer the mushrooms to a large bowl.
  4. Add the cooked brown rice, onions, almond meal, rolled oats, nutritional yeast, salt, and pepper to the bowl and mix well with clean hands to distribute ingredients evenly.
  5. If the reserved flaxseed meal has not thickened, beat it with a fork until it forms a thick slurry or put it into the blender and blend for 1 minute to form the thick slurry, about the texture of cooked oatmeal. Add the slurry to the mushrooms and mix thoroughly to distribute the slurry evenly.
  6. Using your hands, form the mixture into mini pies or patties and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Press lightly on the tops to flatten them slightly. Bake for 30 minutes. Turn the mini pies with a metal spatula and bake 12 to 15 minutes longer until tops are firm.
  7. TO MAKE THE MEDITERRANEAN RELISH, combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Adjust seasonings if needed.
  8. TO SERVE, place the mushroom mini pies on a platter and garnish each with a generous dollop of the Mediterranean Relish. Artfully place a basil leaf on each mini pie and bring the remaining relish to the table.

Note: The mini pies and the relish are also the ultimate convenience foods—prepare them a day ahead and chill them separately. Reheat the mini pies at 350 degrees F. for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. The relish will keep for up to 4 days.

Important: If you’ve chosen to use the buckwheat in the in the mini cakes, you may need to add a small amount of water. If the mixture is too dry to hold together when forming the mini pies, add 1 to 3 tablespoons water and mix well with the hands. The mixture should be firm, yet moist but not watery.

Pattycake, Pattycake, Bring Me Some Chestnuts

CHESTNUT PATTYCAKES

Chestnut PattycakesCroquettes and patties fall into that wonderful zone of ordinary comfort foods we tend to rely on when we’ve collected a few leftovers in the fridge. But patties generously packed with bits of chestnuts, carrots, and onions are anything but pedestrian, even with the leftovers. It’s those precious little chestnuts, with their mystical sweetness, that brings these little cakes to life. Save those scanty leftovers of cooked rice and potatoes—they’re just what these little pattycakes need to hold them together.

These irresistible little patties are just right for a small family meal. If you plan on having an extra guest or two, double the recipe so no one will leave hungry.

Because these delicious patties are fried, I consider them an indulgent treat and save them for a special occasion–and there’s always a special occasion during the holidays. Because chestnuts are available for only a short season (October through December or January) they become one of the tasty treasures of the holiday season.

Cooking a peeling fresh chestnuts is a bit time consuming, so if you don’t want to bother cooking and peeling them, you can buy them already cooked and peeled in vacuum-sealed packages or jars. Avoid the ones that come water-packed in cans. They’re simply awful–they’re mushy and tasteless.

I may be a glutton for punishment, but to my mind, there’s nothing that quite takes the place of fresh chestnuts, and I’m a willing sucker for the laborious task. It actually becomes a seasonal ritual I’ve come to love. If you do want to take the time to cook and peel them yourself, you can order fresh chestnuts directly from the grower. Here’s a link to the post that has all the contact information for several growers in the U.S. Go to the websites and ask to be added to the mailing list. That way, they’ll let you know as soon as the fresh chestnuts are harvested and ready for sale in late September or October. Place your order soon, because they may be sold out by Thanksgiving.

One last comment, these little pattycakes are so tasty on their own, they really don’t need any kind of sauce to jazz them up. But if you’re a diehard sauce enthusiast, try a little vegan mayo, a dab of Hoisin, or a dollop of vegan sour cream.

CHESTNUT PATTYCAKES

Yield: 6 pattycakes

1 cup diced cooked and peeled chestnuts

1 medium carrot, coarsely shredded

 

3/4 cup cooked short-grain brown rice

1/2 cup chopped sweet onions

1 medium white or red rose potato, boiled and coarsely chopped

 

2 tablespoons waterChestnut Pattycakes

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

1/2 to 2/3 cup almond meal

1/4 cup canola oil, divided

  1. Combine the chestnuts and carrots in a large mixing bowl and set them aside.
  2. Combine the rice, onions, and potato in the food processor and process until they are completely pureed. You may have to scrape down the sides of the work bowl, redistribute the ingredients, and process again.
  3. Spoon the rice mixture into the bowl with the chestnuts and add the water, salt, and pepper. Stir the mixture thoroughly with a fork to incorporate all the ingredients and distribute them evenly.
  4. Pour the almond meal onto a flat dish. Form the chestnut mixture into 6 patties, two inches in diameter, and dip both sides into the almond meal to coat them completely.
  5. Pour half the canola oil into a 10-inch non-stick skillet over high heat. The oil is ready when a drop of water makes it sizzle. Cook the patties about two minutes on each side, or until they are golden brown, and transfer them to a serving dish lined with a double layer of paper towels to drain.
  6. Transfer the patties to a serving plate and sprinkle them lightly with salt and pepper.