About six months ago, my mom took the plunge. She went vegan.

For the most part, this has no effect on me. We don’t live together, so I don’t need to watch what I buy at the grocery store. When she visits and we go to a restaurant, it’s pretty easy for her to find vegan options on the menu (guacamole tacos, 86 the cheese, anyone?). When we make homemade pizza, I just leave the cheese off half the pizza, and no one misses it anyway. Over Christmas, we just made sure there was guacamole at every function, just to make sure there was a vegan option for Mom, but it was no big deal. When my great-aunt made stew at my grandparents’ house, I just moved a bowlful to a smaller pot before the ground beef was added.

Thankfully, Mom isn’t one of those pushy vegans. (I’ve actually known several vegans, and none of them are pushy. But you hear about “pushy vegans,” so I feel like I should point out that my mom isn’t one of those vegans. She’s a normal vegan. Anyway.) She just eats what she wants/ can, and will chat with you about The China Study if you bring it up. So most of the time, she just orders the vegan option and is quiet, and I’m happy with that.

vegan chocolate cupcakes

But birthdays are different. Everyone deserves to have a delicious, gooey, rich, delectable, messy, awesome, makes-you-slap-your-mama chocolate cake on their birthday, even if they don’t eat butter anymore. I baked chocolate cupcakes for her birthday a few years ago, and since she drove all the way to Austin to visit me for her birthday, I felt like a vegan baking challenge was in order. Chocolate birthday cupcakes that still tasted like “OMG”, but with no milk, no butter, no eggs.

I set a few requirements: I have no intention of going vegan, so I wanted to avoid as many specialty ingredients as possible. I wanted these to be basic pantry cupcakes, cupcakes no one (including me) ever has to stress over. I want to be able to make these without thinking when I have a party to go to and I know a vegan friend will be attending, or when Mom comes back for a visit and we feel celebratory. I wanted these to be easy. A few hours of recipe reviewing later, I found my recipe.

These cupcakes are moist, super chocolatey, dark, delicious, and definitely feel like a birthday cupcake. My sister said, “Wow, these don’t taste vegan!” My mom took some home to share with friends. I promise you: If you make these cupcakes and take them to a party, no one will know your dirty little vegan secret.

Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted from Epicurious
Makes 12 cupcakes

You will need:
1 1/8 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 c. canola oil
1 tsp. white vinegar
1 c. cold water

Preheat oven to 350. Line a muffin tin with 12 cupcake liners.

Whisk together all dry ingredients into a large bowl.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together all wet ingredients.

Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, whisking until just mixed. Do not overmix. The batter will be very wet, but that’s okay.

Distribute the batter evenly among the cupcake liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean, about 25 minutes. (Note: My cupcakes didn’t really “dome” the way that cupcakes usually do, so I nearly overbaked them. Test them before you think they’re ready, in case you have the same problem.) Remove from the oven and let cool completely before frosting.

Vegan Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from About.com Dairy Free Cooking
Makes 2 cups, enough to frost 12 cupcakes
Note: The frosting was a little thin, but I think I could add more powdered sugar next time to bulk it up, or just chill it before frosting the cupcakes. It came out more like a thick ganache than something you could pipe through a pastry bag, but still fit the bill nicely.

You Will Need:
2 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. dairy-free soy margarine, softened
1/4 c. plain unsweetened almond milk or soy milk
3/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. vanilla

With an electric hand mixer, beat the powdered sugar with the margarine until well mixed and thick. Add the rest of the ingredients and beat until smooth.

I live in a rosemary factory.

D and I decided to give up the plot in our community garden. It’s sad to see it go,  but honestly, it’s been nice to not have the obligation of driving several miles each weekend to work the soil, as pleasant and rewarding as that was. Our lives are a little busy right now, something had to give, so it’s bye-bye garden.

We were able to transplant the sage, lavender, and arugula into containers outside our apartment, and since we had barely planted anything for the winter at all, nothing else was too great a loss. Except the rosemary.

palmful of dried rosemary

We had two four-foot-tall rosemary plants that were strong and gorgeous. I nearly couldn’t bear cutting them down. Instead, I cut them into 2-foot sprigs (more like branches, but whatever) and took a huge armload home with me to dry. That bushel of rosemary was painstakingly rinsed, branch by branch, and then draped inside a boat frame that hangs from the ceiling. (If you know me, then you may know that my life partner has been building a canoe… for four years.  I’m finally grateful that he hasn’t finished it.) It smelled like a pine forest for three days, and two weeks later, the rosemary was ready to harvest.

orange rosemary olive oil cake

Except, do you know how much dried rosemary comes from a bushel of branches? Out of four branches, I got two cups of dried rosemary. No one needs two cups of dried rosemary, least of all me and my 700-square-foot apartment, and I have (approximately) 300 more branches to go. Surprise! Everyone’s getting rosemary for Christmas!

I’m now on a mission to put rosemary into as many things as possible. If you’ve never thought to include rosemary in a dessert, fear not! The combination of this aromatic herb and some sharp citrus is a clear winner.

orange_rosemary_cake 032_ed

Orange Rosemary Olive Oil Cake
Adapted from Patent and the Pantry
Makes one 9 x 4 loaf cake

You will need:
4 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 small navel orange
1/2 cup regular or extra-virgin olive oil (or use canola oil)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbps. dried rosemary, chopped, plus more for decoration

Preheat oven to 350. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper, or grease it.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs about one minute, until frothy. Add sugar and beat another 3 minutes, until pale yellow. Add orange zest and juice and beat again for 30 seconds.

In a separate, larger bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, salt, and rosemary. Add egg mixture and stir until just combined. Pour batter into loaf pan and sprinkle with more rosemary, if desired. Bake 45 minutes, or until golden brown and a skewer comes out with small crumbs attached.

Cool completely before serving.

orange rosemary olive oil cake

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I’m not fully recovered from Christmas yet, so I don’t have any new projects, posts, or recipes for you. What I do have is what I’m eating this week! 

D and I are embarking on a financial cleanse this month, wherein the goal is to spend as little money as possible. We’re meal planning with whatever’s in our pantry and freezer, and aiming to spend as little as possible at the grocery store. (Bonus: our bodies get to recover from a solid week of delicious, rich dinners, sweet and decadent desserts, and way too much fast food on the road!) 

I keep track of our weekly dinner plan with a post-it app on my desktop. If you could scroll further down the post-it, you would see the grocery list, and some ideas for next week. (Singapore noodles!) Some of the dishes on the post-it look complicated or expensive, but that just goes to show you how much we have in the freezer that we need to eat! 

  • Monday: Nachos. A riff on spicy tequila nachos, but without the peppers. We’ll use pickled peppers instead, and add a sauteed onion for freshness. What I’m using up: The rest of some canned beans we opened last week; the last of the cheddar. 
  • Tuesday: Tomato pasta with bacon. What I’m using up: The remains of a can of crushed tomatoes from last week’s homemade pizza. 
  • Wednesday: Butternut squash risotto. I made chicken stock this weekend with some veggies and a chicken carcass from the freezer, and we still have a mountain of butternut we grew in our garden. 
  • Thursday: Teriyaki salmon. Ok, this isn’t teriyaki, per se, but I can read my own mind, so it’s cool. A long time ago, in a grocery store far, far away, we bought a huge whole salmon on sale and stuck it in the freezer. Then we forgot about it. This week, we find out if it survived freezer burn! We’ll roast some squash and cook some rice to go with it. 
  • Friday: Shrimp scampi pasta. Hooray for a buttery, starchy, fast Friday night meal, and we had the presence of mind to buy frozen shrimp on sale several weeks ago! 
  • Saturday, we have plans. We get to leave the house! 
  • Sunday: Homemade pizza, on which will go more of the butternut squash, plus a potato and maybe a leek. 

I have to say, even on our super low-budget meal plan, we are eating pretty well. This week isn’t super heavy on the fresh vegetables, but in my defense, we did conquer a whole head of cauliflower last week, and there is some sort of thing-that-grew-in-the-ground at every meal. It could definitely be worse. 

I’ve been drowning in wrapping paper and ribbon for the past few days. Since I’m giving a lot of homemade gifts this year, and I insisted on decorating all the jars, my wrapping responsibilities have tripled: in addition to wrapping gifts, I have to decorate a few jars to go in the gifts first. Which means I’ve been watching every Christmas movie and musical I own or Netflix will show me so I have some entertainment as I make a mess every night in my living room floor.

It also means I can’t wait until Saturday, when I get in the car to start the first leg of my holiday journey and stop wrapping. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to be in the car a LOT this Christmas break. D and I will drive 6 hours, then 4 hours, then 12 hours, then 12 hours again. That’s a lot of hours in the car, and a lot of opportunity to catch up on some pleasure reading and let the paper cuts heal. So here’s what I’m reading!

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A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, reminds me of a more contemplative, richer version of the Harry Potter series (and it predates it by about 30 years). This novel, the first in a series, follows young Ged as he trains and then begins working as a wizard. One of the most powerful young wizards in the world, his adolescent competitiveness leads him to unleash a dark shadow on the world, which follows him as he is forced to confront the darkness within him and his own mortality. I’m about halfway done with it, and really enjoying the fullness of the universe, and the richness of the story.

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Justin Cronin’s The Twelve is the follow-up to The Passage, which I read when it was first released. The trilogy is not your average vampire novel; the first novel had more in comment with World War Z than with Twilight, which was part of the reason I liked it so much. The Twelve picks up where the first novel left off and follows a group of survivors of the “virus” as they lead an offensive against the virals (vampires). I have to say, I’m apprehensive about this one; the first novel was really gripping, but this follow-up has received tepid reviews. Then again, what do critics know? And Justin Cronin sure does know how to spin a plot.

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The Outlander series has been around awhile, and I’ve had the first book downloaded on my Nook for awhile, but I’ve yet to open it. A Facebook conversation last night persuaded me to give this one a try soon, though. A friend with very similar taste in fantasy-esque fiction (think the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the Discovery of Witches series) asked for recommendations on similar fare, and Diana Gabaldon’s series was overwhelmingly recommended. A time-traveling love story? Count me in.

What are you reading in the car over the holidays?

Today, I’m going to let you peak behind the curtain. I don’t have photos for the hot mess that I’m about to share with you (my hands were covered in curry powder, so pardon me for not running to grab my Canon), but I have a description.

Picture this: a recipe for gingered, curried almonds, the perfect salty/ savory/ spicy snack to add to your gift baskets. A three-pound bag of almonds in your freezer that you bought so long ago, they feel free. You assemble the ingredients: almonds, butter, sugar, and spices, and get to work.

jarred spicy almonds

Guys, I followed the recipe exactly. I don’t know what happened. Or rather, I know what happened, but I don’t understand why it happened. See, the recipe said to add the sugar and spices to the butter and melt it all together for about 5 minutes on the stove, until the sugar dissolved. It was supposed to make a glaze.

Instead (and I’m trying to paint a word picture here, so bear with me), what happened was this: The mixture bubbled and separated. The sugar and spices all clung to one another, refusing to dissolve or emulsify. The butter swirled around, failing to incorporate the spices. Eventually, I took the “glaze” off the heat and poured it over the almonds, hoping that adding in the almonds would mean things would sort themselves out.

spicy almonds, close-up

They. Did. Not.

As I used my hands to toss the almonds with the glaze, the butter separated from the other ingredients even further. It was like the spices and sugar were seeking each other out, eager to huddle together for refuge from the butter and almonds. Eventually, I had buttery almonds and a huge, Play-Doh-like lump of spices in the middle of the pan.

Four years ago, I would have panicked. I would have thrown it all out, cried, and never made roasted almonds again. As it was, I still needed to call in reinforcements to know how to proceed, but I was pretty sure all was not lost. D is a lot better than I am at rescuing that which threatens to be lost, so he helped me redirect this project, suggested a spice mixture, and even suggested an explanation that made this strange paste failure not my fault. (Yes!)

Instead of the original recipe, I wound up with something radically different, but still complex and delicious. And now you all know that what happens on this blog isn’t magic, or even talent. It’s success, over and over again, snatched from the jaws of defeat.

spiced almonds

Sweet and Spicy Roasted Almonds
Makes 2 cups
Note: The chile and cayenne powder measurements are approximations– use more or less to your taste. Don’t be afraid to taste an almond to see what you think you need to do. Feel free to substitute another spicy mixture– curry powder, Thai spices, or pumpkin pie spices would also be great here, even with the cayenne.
Also, I wish I had cooked mine longer, as I really wanted them to be more crisp than they were, but I was afraid of burning them. Use the timing here as a guide, and don’t let the nuts burn, but err on the side of “more done.”

You will need:
2 cups raw almonds
4 tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 c. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. chile powder
1 tbsp. cayenne
Kosher salt, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350.

Spread almonds in one layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Roast almonds, dry, for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine sugar, chile powder, and cayenne in a small bowl and set aside.

Let the almonds cool until they are cool enough to touch. Pour the melted butter over the almonds and toss with a spoon or your hands to coat.

Using a spoon or your hands (I just got messy), sprinkle the almonds with the sugar-spice mixture and toss again. Shake the pan so that the almonds are again in one layer.

Roast another 15-20 minutes, until almonds are dry-ish. Sprinkle with kosher salt while still warm, then let cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 1 month.

This is the first year that I’m being hard-core about homemade gifts.

collection of jars

I’m totally going to toot my own horn right now: I’ve eaten enough of my own canned goods to know that they’re pretty tasty. There are some talented canning bloggers out there who have yet to steer me wrong. I’ve also not hospitalized anyone, and the few “test” jars I’ve given to friends and family have received great reviews, so I’m going bigger. Almost everyone who receives a gift from me this year will receive at least one jar of something I’ve canned this year.

Like so many other bloggers, including Ring Finger Tan Line, who gave me a box of her goodies a couple weeks ago, I’m sending boxes of goodies to college buddies and family members. Those lucky people will get an assortment of sweet and spicy roasted almonds, jams, pickled peppers, and candied clementines.

pickled pepper close-up

I haven’t published posts about everything I’ve canned this year, but here is a round-up of the various jars my friends and family will be receiving, just in case you’re wondering which recipes I wound up deeming “gift-worthy.” Enjoy!

As you can see, things are pretty heavy on the peach-strawberry side this year. I may try to get in a batch of something with apple or pear before the weekend, to mix things up a bit, but it’s also nice to have the taste of summer when it’s cold outside. (If you’re not in Austin, that is.)

jar labels

Now, let’s talk about packaging. I went pretty simple with my jars this year. I tried the whole “fabric under the ring” thing, but it just isn’t me. Instead, I got craft paper gift tags, plus a stamp, from a  craft store, and stamped each label with the “Homemade for the Holidays” stamp. On the back of the tag, I either signed my name or suggested ways to use this particular preserve. Then, I tied a bow around the ring with raffia and attached the gift tag. For the lids, I wasn’t a fan of my Sharpie scrawl on metal, so I cut out circles out of craft paper (tedious, but pretty) and used adhesive spray to attach the paper to the lid. Then, I labeled the jar with the  contents and the month/ year I packed the jar.

Maybe next year I’ll get even braver and there will be a Christmas giveaway!

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