Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chocolate chip cookie attempt #2

While my first attempt at veganizing chocolate chip cookies didn't go too badly, I still need something better.  I wasn't crazy about the aftertaste from Ener-G egg replacer, plus I didn't feel the cookies had enough depth of flavor.  So on with my search for a better vegan chocolate chip cookie recipe I went.

Surfing and googling led me to this recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies that looked promising for several reasons. First of all, no Ener-G egg replacer; instead it calls for 1 flax "egg" (1 tbsp ground flax seeds mixed with 3 tbsp water), so it hopefully won't suffer from that chemical-y aftertaste.  Second, the flour component is a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat pastry flour - I was interested in what extra flavor interest the use of whole wheat pastry flour might impart, plus with a lower gluten content relative to all-purpose, I wondered how it might also enhance texture. Third, it calls for cinnamon and molasses - great ways to improve the depth of flavor which was lacking in my previous attempt. Very promising recipe!

It's very straightforward in assembly. No biggie there. My only substitutions were regular vegan cane juice sugar for the brown sugar it calls for, so I added a little bit of extra molasses to create "instant brown sugar" in the mixer. It also calls for vegan buttery spread, but since I had Earth Balance in stick form I used that instead.

After 14 min (just as advised on the recipe if you're baking them on a Silpat), they were ready.

Texture-wise, they were chewy and moist without feeling too greasy, unlike my veganizing of the Nestle's Toll House cookie recipe. I'm not sure that the whole wheat pastry flour made a huge difference as far as texture goes. These weren't any lighter than a regular chocolate chip cookie, which in itself isn't a tough cookie at all to begin with (well, unless you over-bake them).

Flavor-wise, I was very pleased with these. The best way I can describe the cinnamon is "I could hear it in the background, at a distance." These were not cinnamony, which I was glad for because I tend to be a traditionalist for traditional things - too much changing around of a classic and it's no longer the classic; call is something else, then.  I felt the same way about the molasses. Both of these ingredients weren't the least bit overpowering to where they took center stage. But together they added a certain depth of flavor that made these anything but bland. The flaxseed "egg" could be detected but again, nothing overpowering. The cookie had a very nice, hearty flavor, and not too sweet, either.

If I were to change anything about these, I would change baking soda and use baking powder instead to see if they would rise a little more.  After all, the original Toll House recipe calls for baking soda but it also calls for eggs which contribute to leavening. While the flax "egg" helps with texture and binding, as far as I know it doesn't contribute anything in the rising department.

Overall, I found these better than the straight veganizing of the Toll House cookie. I'm hanging on to this printout!

Saturday, February 11, 2012


One of the things I love most about my line of work is the opportunity to meet, interact and build friendships with people from all over the world. Over the years I have come to know people from France, Lebanon, India, Italy, Nigeria, Turkey, Israel, Argentina, Egypt, Venezuela, Palestine, Mexico, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China... This may not be listed among the formal list of benefits by my employer but it is the one I cherish the most thanks to being in science.

People have great pride in their country and the evidence for this is never lacking. Whether it's during down time in the lab while you're waiting for an incubation or while setting up something repetitive which may not require strenuous concentration, we engage in conversation about customs, habits, holidays, history and most certainly food from their country of origin. And if you're sitting down to lunch with them, they waste no time in sharing little glorious tidbits of their ethnic foods with you for you to try.

One such sharing happened this week with one of my coworkers, who comes from Israel.  I noticed an interesting little dip he was using. He offered some for me to try but it looked so creamy and silky white that I had to quickly point out that I'm vegan so don't do any dairy. I was certain that it must have had either sour cream, yogurt, or some other such dairy product since it looked so rich and creamy white. Nope, I was wrong! Tahina is made from ground up sesame seeds. Certainly I could taste it, then. Oh!! :-)

After much oohing and aaahing over it (it was so yummy mixed with my brown rice and veggie stir fry), he later sent me the recipe, along with some pictures of the starting base to purchase. That same night I made myself my first batch of tahina.

The Tahina base
Getting the brand he recommended, I came home that night with my own bottle of the base. A few ingredients are added and pretty soon you have your own dip for pita bread, flatbread, chips, or to put in just about anything, like my coworker does.

To this base you add the juice of 1 lemon, water, 2 or 3 crushed garlic cloves, and paprika.

Tahina base with lemon juice just before stirring. 
To measure the water, just fill the now empty Tahina jar, cover and shake (that way you can also rinse off the base that stays behind coating the inside of the jar). You'll need to add the water a little at a time, then whisk it in. Measuring the water this way, it takes almost the whole jar of Tahina base in water. You want it to get thick and creamy, like a thick ranch or blue cheese dressing. After that you then add the crushed garlic and paprika to taste. And voila! Tahina for you!

My finished Tahina.

The total yield came out to be around 2 1/2 to 3 cups or so, judging from the 4-cup container in which I stored it. 

Next, what to have with it? I felt like the rosemary flatbread recipe I discovered a few months ago and which I make frequently would go really well with it. It's so quick and easy to make, so why not?

Within a half hour, I had the whole flatbread recipe all baked and ready to be broken into pieces for dipping.

 And with that, I had me my own little Tahina party.

Maybe I'll have some with my brown rice for lunch today, while feeling so lucky and thankful for this wonderful benefit of exposure to cultures from all over the world that comes with my line of work.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Interesting ingredient

A few weeks back I ended my post titled "Sunday randomness" with a picture of a vegan parmesan cheese I found at Whole Foods which includes 'love' as one of its ingredients. In what seems to be a trend of wholesome, loving foods, imagine my delight when tonight I discovered yet another loving product:

Abdallah's wheat pita bread
At first glance, perfectly harmless, wholesome pita bread. But look closely:

Ha! This one doesn't just contain love, but centuries of it. I wonder how many more calories per serving that comes out to.

Another perfectly vegan product. :-)

(You'd think that after listing stone ground whole wheat flour and untreated wheat flour that the whole "contains wheat" thing would be self-explanatory.)

Boca burger

OK, so Boca burgers have been around for a while. They're not as obscure as some of the other stuff I've been eating. So why haven't I had one yet?!

Boca has a whole variety of meatless patties and crumbles, but I gravitated towards the safest choice:

I like how it's the perfect size for a standard hamburger bun, and not too thin.  I'd definitely do these on a skillet to give them some crispiness.

Sizzling with a little olive oil.

Best thing is, they don't shrink like meat burgers do.  With this, you pull out something that looks like it's going to fit perfectly on your bun, and that's how it stays.

I used Vegenaise, ketchup, and a slice of Galaxy Nutritional Foods Vegan cheese, american flavor, which I melted on the patty in my toaster oven. This cheese doesn't melt nearly as well as Daiya does. In fact, it kind of puffed up and it ended up looking like a square pillow on my burger. I wish Daiya made sliced versions of their vegan cheese. I might just sprinkle Daiya shreds on it next time and melt those.

On a whole wheat bun with a little Vegenaise, first went the burger with cheese, then a little romaine lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, and more romaine.

So... did it taste good?

I got ZERO points for presentation tonight.

Honestly, I thought it was pretty good. I think they could up the ante a little more with herbs and flavorings, though. I have to find a Morning Star equivalent and compare, because I've been a fan of the latter brand of vegetarian morning sausage patties for ages. But these are perfectly doable.  I can live with them.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

First vegan cake

OK, so technically it's a cupcake. But if I were to pour the batter into a single large pan, then it'd be a cake.

I found this recipe for vegan vanilla bean cupcakes with chocolate ganache that looks really good and which I've been anxious to try. So finally today this baker got to make her first vegan cakey thing!!

They were super easy to make, though the batter came out way runnier than I'm used to.  Instead of a vanilla bean I used the equivalent of vanilla bean paste, which is 1 tablespoon. It worked great.

I also welcomed the lack of Egg Replacer, which is another reason why I was so curious about how this recipe would turn out. I'm not crazy about that chemical-y aftertaste Egg Replacer imparts on stuff. This recipe uses cornstarch as a thickener, and canola oil for the fat. It leavens not only with baking powder but also with baking soda and almond milk curdled with apple cider vinegar.

As the recipe promised, it would yield 12 cupcakes, and that's exactly how much batter there was. Using an ice cream scoop is the way to go when pouring batter into cupcake cups.

After 20 min, out from the oven they came.

Although they look a little 'wet', they were all nicely cooked through.  I just haaaaad to taste one right away to check for things like moisture, texture and, well... flavor.

These cupcakes are super-duper moist. So much so that the paper cupcake liner comes out a little saturated with oil. I don't see the need to spray them with non-stick spray. And the vanilla paste worked great as far as taste goes.  They're also not very sweet. These are the type of cupcakes that you can just eat directly, without having to make an icing or anything for them, they're that moist. A sprinkling of vegan powdered sugar might have even been enough. I really enjoyed their moisture level and that nice and strong vanilla bean taste.

For the ganache I used vanilla-flavored coconut milk instead of the almond milk in the recipe. I finished the almond milk carton for the cake, had the coconut milk carton already open, and I love the mix of coconut with chocolate.  So I thought "What the hay, use coconut milk." I used vegan chocolate chips and pure maple syrup like the recipe calls for.

I'm not sure why but my chips didn't melt as evenly as I would have liked. I don't know if it's because they're vegan chips, or maybe my heat was too high, or what. Normally classic ganache is made by bringing cream to a boil and adding it to the chopped chocolate (or chips if that's what you're using) and then mixing so that the chips start to melt right away from the hot cream.  These were melted into the boiling milk at low heat. So I'm not sure if it was the vegan chips or just something about the amount of heat, or maybe that I used coconut milk instead of almond milk.

I did love the way maple syrup gave the ganache sweetness and cut into the bitterness from the chocolate without making the whole thing taste like chocolatey pancake syrup. I thought the use of maple syrup was perfect.

Chunky ganache. Gotta work on that.

Despite my chunky-ish ganache,  taste and texture-wise these vegan cupcakes were really, really good. I'm impressed with the moisture and texture of the cupcake. I'd be curious to try melted Earth Balance butter in place of the canola oil.

Oh, and I need to work on my vegan ganache some more.  :-)

Jam-packed stir fry

After having grocery-shopped this weekend I came home with so much produce that I filled 2 "crisper" drawers and the one wide, "party platter" drawer in my refrigerator and I still had to store stuff out on the shelves. It's time for a stir fry.

I also wanted to try the Bragg Liquid Aminos that I bought this weekend.

The final mix of vegetables that went into this:

  1. broccoli
  2. cauliflower
  3. carrots (these 3 from a frozen mix)
  4. green onions
  5. asparagus
  6. onions
  7. red bell peppers
  8. green bell peppers
  9. Napa cabbage
  10. mushrooms

For my "protein":

  1. seitan
  2. tofu (firm)

For cooking/seasoning:

  1. extra virgin olive oil
  2. garlic
  3. fresh chopped cilantro
  4. hot sauce
  5. Bragg Liquid Aminos
  6. garlic powder
  7. freshly ground kosher salt
  8. Mrs. Dash "Southwest Chipotle" seasoning
  9. vegetable broth
  10. blue agave nectar

First, my protein. I sliced seitan from my last batch (with the Italian Blend herbs and liquid smoke) and the tofu into little strips. This was sauteed in a little olive oil with garlic and green onions. To that I added Mrs. Dash seasoning, a few dashes of hot sauce, a little garlic powder, and a small handful of the chopped cilantro. Tossed and tossed then transferred to a bowl where it waited to be added to everything else.

Moving on the the veggies. I worked in my Dutch oven just because I didn't feel like hauling my heavy wok (it's an iron wok brought straight from China). I did have so many veggies that I had to cook them in batches so they'd cook evenly.

Starting in the same way as for my protein, I heated olive oil with garlic and green onions. The first batch was the onions, both kinds of bell peppers, Napa cabbage, asparagus and mushrooms. In went the liquid aminos, hot sauce, Mrs. Dash, garlic powder, chopped cilantro, vegetable broth and agave nectar, with a little kosher salt to taste. Then transferred to a bowl to wait after they were done. I had to do 2 batches of these.

Then the broccoli - cauliflower - carrots mix was treated in exactly the same way, transferred to a bowl to wait once they were done.

All of the seasoned, brothy mix remaining in the pan was then brought to a boil and reduced a little. Meanwhile, in a great big bowl all of the veggies were mixed together, and finally in went my seitan and tofu.  To top it all off, the reduced flavored broth was drizzled all over and they were all tossed a few times to finish the dish.

As for the liquid aminos, I found its flavor much more subtle than soy sauce, and not as salty.  With brown rice, whole wheat orzo, quinoa, or couscous, this stir fry is sure to be a hit.

Final numbers

Formal challenge concluded, I finally got around to compiling all of my numbers and generating all my charts. So here it is, the final data from my Vegan Challenge experiment.

1.  Average Numbers

In general, in the course of 31 days, there weren't remarkable differences in blood pressure or blood glucose level.  There was a decrease in average total cholesterol after 31 days vegan of 24.75 points relative to my baseline control average. The other endpoints - blood pressure and blood glucose - remained fairly comparable.

(Note - in my post "Control Month Is Over" I already included links to sites like the CDC and the American Diabetes Association, showing the recommended guidelines for what the healthy ranges of these numbers should be.)

In order to look at the behavior of these endpoints throughout the month, I charted the weekly averages of each one separately.

2.  Total Cholesterol

Oops - forgot to label the Y axis. Units are "mg/dL" or milligrams per deciliter.

This is how my total cholesterol behaved throughout both my control and vegan months. These aren't weekly averages since I only measure cholesterol once a week. In other words, the point on week 1 is from one measurement, rather than an average of "X" number of measurements for that week. The Week 5 data point shown only on the vegan diet curve refers to the fact that I have continued a vegan diet beyond the month of January. I plan to extend the vegan diet curve beyond the time frame shown above so as to chart what hopefully will be a continued decline in my total cholesterol values. Interesting how there was a drop on both months between weeks 2 and 3.

On week #2 my total cholesterol reading was 313, not too far from my highest reading in my control month of 324.  My first reaction was: "What??" seeing how I hadn't ingested a single molecule of anything from an animal in a week. I talked to some people at work about this and the consensus was that precisely because I suddenly stopped ingesting dietary cholesterol, this might have triggered a metabolic feedback mechanism whereby the body's cholesterol synthesis system 'over-reacted' to the sudden drop in dietary cholesterol by turning on cholesterol synthesis. Analogous to the body's reactionary nature to preserve everything it has if you put it in starvation mode, for example, the body may have 'overshot' cholesterol synthesis as a reactionary measure to the sudden drop of it in the diet.

3.  Blood Pressure

Here the Y axis is "mmHg", or millimeters of mercury, the unit used to measure blood pressure.

Here's how my blood pressure numbers behaved throughout the month. The top two lines are systolic, the top bottom lines diastolic, blue and orange sets for control and vegan months respectively. Unlike total cholesterol, the data point for each week here is an average of measurements for the whole week. In this case both the control and vegan months have a 5th week data point referring to the fact that, since I take this endpoint measurement daily, there are a few trailing days in a 31-day month (a week would technically be 28 days), which both my control and vegan months were. Therefore, the final 3 days would be like starting a 5th week, and it is those last few numbers that are plotted here for "week 5". I can always extend the vegan lines as I gather more measurements during my second vegan month and continue the comparison with my control month. Basically, I don't consider that there was any significant difference after 1 month vegan relative to my control month as far as blood pressure goes.

4.  Blood Glucose

As with total cholesterol, the Y axis here depicts "mg/dL" as well.
These are weekly averages as well, as was the case for blood pressure. I take 4 weekly measurements for blood glucose. These certainly look all over the place, don't they. Overall it appears as though blood glucose was a little higher during my vegan month relative to my control month, while still remaining under the threshold level of 100 (phew! :-) ). On the other hand, during my control month the range was more 'spread out', from a lowest week average of 78.75 (week #2) to a highest week average of 89.5, for a difference of 10.75 mg/dL. The range for my vegan month, however, seems a little tighter, with a lowest week average of 85 (week #3) and a highest week average of 90.67 (week #4), for a difference of 5.67 mg/dL overall.

I'm not sure how to explain the general trend for my vegan month numbers to be grouped higher (i.e. the chart is higher up) relative to my control month numbers.

5.  Weight - I didn't plot weight because I wasn't good with the exercise. I exercised a lot more during my control month than my vegan month. Just for accountability's sake: while in my control month I gained 8 lbs (!), I lost 4 lbs during my vegan month, hardly doing any exercise at all. If I get my act together and become serious and consistent about this requirement (and get myself at home at a decent hour), I imagine weight loss will kick in more seriously. And I hypothesize that exercise could very well play a role in my blood pressure and total cholesterol numbers as well.

So... what does this all mean?

Objectively speaking, either a) my numbers weren't that grave to begin with so in one month you're not going to see dramatic changes in them, b) a vegan diet does nothing for blood glucose or blood pressure, c) it takes more than one month for a vegan diet to dramatically, steadily, and consistently improve these numbers, if it's going to do so at all.  Basically, either there won't be significant changes or it takes more than 4 weeks to see them. In order to answer this quandry, it's a great idea to keep going for at least another month, if not longer.