Saturday, April 2, 2011

Vegan Shabbat Dinner

Our friend Jessica, who is vegan, joined us for Shabbat dinner last night. She assured me that I could merely do a vegetarian dinner, but I liked the idea of trying to create a fully vegan meal. I decided on challah, manicotti, pureed cauliflower, steamed asparagus dressed with sea salt and a spritz of olive oil, and a chocolate strawberry cake.

My normal challah recipe is Maggie Glezer's Chernowitzer recipe, which is nearly as rich as brioche. But I've been wanting something less decadent for a while now, and thought this would be a great excuse to fool around with a water challah recipe. Incidentally, I use King Arthur flour and Florida Crystals sugar in all my baking. They are vegan, having not been bleached with bone char. After playing for a bit, here's the recipe I came up with:

1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) yeast
4 cups flour
225 ml (1 cup minus 1 tablespoon) warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Mix the yeast, salt, and one cup of flour in a bowl. Add the water, whisking until a smooth sort of sludge forms. Allow it to sit for about 10 minutes, or until it looks rather puffy. Then add the remaining ingredients. Knead either by hand, food processor, or stand mixer until a smooth, satiny ball forms. It should be slightly sticky, like Play-Doh. Sprinkle with some more warm water if too stiff, or a few tablespoons of flour if too sticky.

Place dough in a clean, warm bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise about two hours, or until at least doubled in size. A good idea is to run the dishwasher, then let the dough ferment in the wet heat with the door shut after the cycle is done.

Shape the dough as desired (I do two three-strand braids) and allow to proof on a baking sheet. The loaves are ready when they have roughly tripled in size, and the dough doesn't spring back when poked with a finger. Bake for 20 minutes at 350F.

The results were so good that this now going to be my new go-to challah recipe. I may try baking it at a lower temperature though, maybe 300. I'm also eager to see how it works with whole wheat.

Now the manicotti. Naturally, I wanted a filling that would be reminiscent of ricotta cheese. I thought a combination of silken tofu and cannellini might do the trick. I drained and rinsed a can, then added them to the food processor with a block of silken tofu. I also put in one tablespoon each of dried oregano and dried basil. My daughter sampled the results and pronounced them "too beany." Alas, I had to agree. It was disappointingly hummus-like. So then I used a potato masher to roughly crumble a block of extra firm tofu. I folded the crumbles along with two teaspoons of unflavored almond milk into my bean puree. Success! The texture was awesome, and the flavor was mild, herbal, and ever so slightly sweet. Next time, though, I think I'll just puree half the silken tofu and crumble to other half with the firm.

I boiled the manicotti for 7 minutes then drained and rinsed them. Using a pastry bag, I filled 14 with my faux ricotta. I then spread about a cup of tomato sauce (I like Muir Glen's basil one when I'm too lazy to make my own) over the bottom of a 9x13 glass pan. I nestled the filled shells in, then topped them generously with more sauce.

Because I made them early in the day, I covered the pan with foil and stuck it in the fridge. I later reheated the covered pan for 30 minutes at 350. The results, if I may say so, were delicious. My son at two shells and my daughter ate three.

Pureed cauliflower is one of my favorite sides. It has a similar comfort-food quality to mashed potatoes, but without the starch and fat. The flavorings are a matter of personal taste,but here's my favorite combo.The measurements are approximate.

Begin by thawing two 1-pound bag of frozen cauliflower florets. Put them in a pot with about 1 cup of vegetable stock, and simmer until the cauliflower is tender but not soft. Add the stock and cauliflower to the bowl of a food processor, pureeing in batches if necessary. Add the juice of one lemon, 1/4 cup olive oil, pepper, and a pinch of kosher salt to taste. Puree until smooth. Serve warm.

I knew I wanted a decadent chocolate cake for dessert. I had once read a recipe for a vegan chocolate cake in a 40's cookbook (eggs and milk were scarce) and remembered it being extremely moist. I used Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder for the cake and frosting, as the dutched powder adds so much depth and flavor, a particularly good idea when not using eggs or butter.

I found this recipe online, and it is identical to the one in that old cookbook. I doubled the recipe and made it in my Kitchen Aid. I poured the batter into two round 9 inch pans, and baked it for 30 minutes. The top was quite sticky, but a toothpick revealed the crumb to be firmly set.

The frosting was a bit trickier. Many vegan frosting recipes contain margarine, which I strongly dislike. A little hunting turned up this one, which seemed quite promising. After reading the user comments, I decided to turn the burner off as soon as the mixture came to a boil so that it wouldn't get too thick. This turned out to be a wise choice, as it was sill slightly thick and required thinning with a bit of almond milk. But I must say, the flavor was excellent and the texture silky-smooth. I could detect some of the corn starch flavor, but no one else picked up on it. Still, I may try it again with 5 tablespoons instead of six.

I spread one cooled layer of cake with the frosting, then added a layer of sliced strawberries.

I added a very thin layer of frosting to the top of the strawberries for glue, then placed the second layer of cake on top. I covered the whole thing with frosting, the decorated the top with fresh strawberries.

It was an outstanding cake. It was velvety and moist with rich, fudgy frosting and a lovely crumb that sliced beautifully. I advise trying it even if you're not vegan.

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