Monday, August 25, 2014

Product Review: Vegan, Gluten-free Ice Cream Sandwiches by The Cookie Counter

It was an happy accident. I was stumbling along the trail of the Hopscotch Festival in Central District on a Saturday afternoon and came across the cutest little VW van I've seen in awhile. Converted and adorable, the owners Chris and Chelsea were seated inside the blue van behind, yes, you guessed it! A cookie counter! With Chris' smiling face and Chelsea's deft hands, this team is well suited for a mobile culinary adventure.

Chris and Chelsea in Ice Cream the Van

The brains behind the cookie scheme, this Seattle duo made a culinary confection come to life. With flavors like Snickerdoodle with Chai "ice cream" (all the "ice cream" is a coconut milk-based frozen treat), Cookies n' Cream, Chocolate with Coffee Ice Cream, PB&J, Earl Grey with Lemon Zest, S'mores, Chocolate with Mint Chip, and more, these little frozen goodies are something you want to stand in line for. Go hunt down that blue van. 

Ice Cream Options

Chris and Chelsea came up with the concept for The Cookie Counter three years ago and through rigorous creation and product testing (how bad can taste-testing be?), they have completed the circle with help from a whole lot of friends on Kickstarter by converting their blue van into a mobile gourmet ice cream truck unlike anything else in Seattle. With all vegan ingredients, most of them organic and natural (read: no artificial or animal anything), and a mix of traditional wheat cookies and gluten-free options too (read more about their kitchen here), Chris and Chelsea have turned the ordinary ice cream sandwich into a culinary delight. Traveling to fairs, street festivals, one-day events, and even to someone's very own home, these guys are worth the find. 

Now, what about the tasting? How good are these? Well, I certainly wanted to find out. Chris tipped me off to a little deal they had going with the store they were parked next to, Two Big Blondes - a plus-size consignment shop and one of their Kickstarter supporters. Buy something inside and get a free sammie! Now, that's a deal! Kind of like a two for one! 

After finding a really great deal inside the store (they had discounts of up to 95% off!), I got my coupon for my free sammie and proceeded to Chris and Chelsea's van. They had four gluten-free options to choose from and four or five wheat cookie options. I chose their GF special of the day: Cookies n' Cream. Chris handed me (with his signature smile) a cute little wax paper package sealed with their logo sticker. I unwrapped the treat and headed to my car, ice cream happiness in hand. The Oreo-ish cookie was crunchy and cold with a nice chocolate flavor, very much like an Oreo. The cookies n' cream vegan ice cream was creamy, smooth, with a nice mouth feel and little chunks of cookie embedded all through. It was yummyness. 

A little package, a little van

Wiping my face and hands as I walked, I enjoyed each very cold bite (they store the goodies on dry ice), letting it melt just a bit so I could feel the textures and enjoy my sammie. I got to my car and kept thinking about the GF Snickerdoodle with Chai Ice Cream. How can you make a proper review only trying one thing? More product testing would make for better accuracy, wouldn't you say? 

So, I headed back to the blue cookie van, this time in my car, found a nice shady spot (it was a remarkably warm day in Seattle) and handed Chris my crisp $5 bill. He handed me a GF Snickerdoodle ice cream sandwich and a couple of wet wipes they keep in a jar on the cookie counter. I meandered slowly back to the car, not really wanting to waste time or potential cookie eating moments, and tore open the second bag. I hadn't had lunch, so this counted, right? 

The GF snickerdoodle was soft, yet crunchy with a slight sandy texture from the sugar-cinnamon it had been rolled in. The flavor was outstanding. Oftentimes, when you eat a frozen cookie, the flavor gets a little lost either in the ice cream or just from being frozen. But here, it stood out bold and proud. The vegan chai ice cream was soft and creamy with a beautiful chai-cinnamony-cardamomy flavor. It was perfection. 

Happily filled with yummy vegan treats, I headed back towards home in my warm car with a ice cream-cool tummy and a smile as big as Chris' on my face. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nutter Butters - the gluten-free, dairy-free version

For those of you who read my review of Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer, we are going to keep this recipe short and sweet...peanutty sweet. If you haven't, you can read my review here.

This delectable book is where this peanutty-good recipe comes from. I reviewed the book and as with all cookbooks, the only proper way to truly review them is to start cooking - or baking, as it may be. I love Jennifer's book - the concept is awesome (who doesn't love a little sweetness in their life?), the treats are beautifully photographed (we all know that makes it better, no matter if they are real or not), and to make it that perfect book, the cookies - even made gluten- and dairy-free - were amazing!

A few notes on the baking of these beauties:

~ I used two pans lined with silicone baking mats and I used them a lot. My oven isn't convection, so I baked with one pan and filled the other. When the first was done, I took it out, placed the next one in and waited a few minutes to let the cookies cool. I then placed those on a baking rack and refilled the still-warm baking sheet. Normally, this is a major no-no in baking, but there was a lot of dough and a lot of cookies to bake. I had to keep the line moving. Somehow, it didn't seem to mess with the cookies much this time. Probably because they are a crunchy bunch.

One ready for baking, one just out of the oven. 

~ You can also put these guys closer together than two inches - they don't spread much at all, which is great. They hold their shape well and as we all know, making gluten-free cookies that require being cut out can be a challenge if the dough doesn't have the elasticity of gluten in it. They tend to break, fall apart, crumble, etc. These did great! They are rolled quite thin, so I used a fish spatula (very, very thin spatula) to transfer them to the baking sheets. I also prefer the scoop and drop method (scoop with the spatula, flip over the baking sheets and gently persuade them to drop onto the baking sheet by pushing through the slots in the spatula) for cookies like this so they don't get all bent out of shape. My first few, I tried to slide off the spatula. It worked okay, but I would recommend the less moving, the better. I wanted them to look like hearts, Picasso-versions of hearts.

~ I didn't find that I needed to flour the fork to prevent sticking when making the crosshatch. Use your best judgment. Maybe flouring the spatula would have been a good idea. Either way! Also, I was surprised at how far I could push the fork down, which seemed like they would go nearly through to the mat, and still have a cookie come out intact after baking. These guys are champs!

Just rolled, ready to rock. 

~ The recipes calls for a cooking time of 11-13 minutes. For my hearts, which I chose based on what I remember the size of a Nutter Butter to be, that would have been too long. Eleven minutes was a border-line deep brown and a minute longer, they would have burned. After the first batch baked for eleven minutes, I cut down the bake time to 10 - that was perfect. Use your judgment. If your medium-size cookies is the same size as my medium-size, aim for 9-11 minutes. If you have slightly bigger, aim for 11-13. If you are at high altitude, adjust accordingly, which is usually less, but that's a whole other can of worms.

~ See my note below about peanut butter choices, but whatever you choose, make sure it's at room temperature. All ingredients for this, and most baked goods, are best at room temperature.

~ About the filling: you may consider doubling the filling recipe. I've included the recipe in the book, but based on how many cookies I made, twice as much filling would have been better. Still good, but a thicker stuffing would have been more accurate to the memory of the Nutter Butter.

~ And lastly, I used a pastry knife to spread the filling onto the cookies. It was a very thick filling (which I thought was perfect and spot-on), but I wasn't sure how it would actually go through a pastry bag. This is what can happen with different peanut butters. Not a big deal. Still tasted awesome.

All teamed up, ready to spread. 

So, without much more ado, here is the recipe that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Yum!

Happy baking!

Nutter Butters - the gluten-free, dairy-free version

A little nibble...

Adapted from Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer

Hands-on time: 50 minutes
Total time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Makes 22 sandwich cookies (according to the recipe - I got 44 sandwiches!)

*Note: I used a natural no-sugar peanut butter that I buy, then add some Spectrum shortening or Earth Balance to, along with a little bit of sugar, if I'm feeling like making it sweet. If it's not fine sugar, powdered, or liquid (ie. honey, etc.), the sugar crystals won't dissolve. I'm okay with this. You can also buy natural peanut butter that has everything in it, just like the classic Skippy or Jif without the hydrogenated fats. In fact, Skippy and Jif now make their own natural peanut butters in chunky or smooth. Use smooth for this recipe. 

For the cookie: 

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter or Earth Balance, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter* at room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups gluten-free flour with 2 tsp xanthan gum (the recipe calls for bread flour, so I used 3/4 cup millet flour, 3/4 cup cornstarch, and 1 cup fine brown rice flour)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

For the filling: 

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter, room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter or Earth Balance, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Pastry knife, butter knife, or pastry bag

1. Make the cookie dough: In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, mix the butter, sugars, and peanut butter together on medium speed until just combined, about 30 seconds. Add eggs, one at a time, then add the vanilla, mixing just until incorporated.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the gluten-free flour(s), the xanthan gum, the baking soda, the baking powder, and the salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour to the butter mixture in two or three batches, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl occasionally, mixing until the dry ingredients are incorporated well. (Mix any remaining pockets of dry ingredients in by hand, but let your mixer do it's job. This is gluten-free after all. You won't be messing with the potential gluten toughness here. You don't want to overdo it or underdo it). Shape the dough into a round and slide it out onto a piece of plastic wrap (I used a small glass bowl with a lid). Wrap the dough tightly, shaping it into a 1-inch disk, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

3.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

4. Unwrap the dough and place it between two pieces of waxed paper or parchment paper. (I used natural parchment and it worked very well.) Roll the dough out to a thickness of slightly less than 1/4 inch.

5. Using a bikini-shaped cookie cutter (the top of the bikini to make a peanut shape) or any medium-sized cutter, cut out the cookies and place them 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Use the tines of a fork to gently score the top of each cookie in a crosshatch pattern. You should flour the fork first, or else the dough will stick to the fork and the cookies may well break. Bake for 11-13 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies just begin to brown. Let cool completely on wire racks. Repeat, if you have more dough.

6. Make the filling: Turn half the cookies upside down. In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, beat the 1/2 cup peanut butter and the 1/4 cup butter together on medium speed. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, powdered sugar, and the salt, and mix until smooth. It will be thick. Scoop the filling into a disposable piping bag/pastry bag or use a butter/pastry knife for spreading.

7. Pipe the peanut butter mixture around the perimeter of the upturned cookies first, then fill in the outlined area, using about 1 tsp per cookie; you don't want the filling squishing out the sides. (You can use a butter knife or offset spatula instead to carefully spread it.) Top each frosted cookie with one of the plain cookies to make a sandwich. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Book Review: Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer

As part of Blogging for Books, my second book selection came in the mail about a week ago. Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer is a fantastic collection of vintage desserts, snacks, and confectionables that most people have only been able to find in the grocery store in a little cardboard box. Think back to childhood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s – what was more prized in your Care Bear lunchbox? A Ding Dong? Maybe a Ho-Ho. Or maybe some Nutter Butters, Raisinets, or a MoonPie? Or crunchy, cheesy, Cheez-Its? Any of the above were delicious, coveted, and easily traded, if you were truly willing to depart with it for somebody else’s lunchbox treasure.

As time has gone on and we have become adults, these confections are still coveted, by us and the children around us, but with the rising concern about health and the food we consume, many of us want to find a better alternative to the saturated, trans-fats, excess sugar and salt, and oftentimes, lower quality ingredients that most of these desserts and snacks are laden with. Enter Jennifer Steinhauer.  Her unique book filled with fun facts, baking tips that parallel America’s Test Kitchen-quality knowledge, and beautiful pictures is not only filled with 70 mouth-watering recipes, but the actual writing is quite delectable, as well.

Jennifer has been writing for twenty years at The New York Times (where else can you truly earn your chops?), as well as a weekly food column for called Weeknights with Jenny (where she actually writes about chops). But this is only part of what makes her book so special. The food, the pictures, the writing, the ever-so-desired treats and snacks that we all love, but no one wants to eat without feeling guilty. Not anymore.

Now, I’m not a fan of eating with or without guilt. I say, eat what you want. Everything has its place, unless you are literally living on Twinkies. Your shelf-life may end up being as long as the Twinkie’s itself, as long as you’re preserved and full of cream. But there is an alternative…and Jennifer Steinhauer is releasing it to the world. Cupcake lunches, here we come!

Okay, enough sweet treat soapboxery. We all know that sweets in moderation might prove to be okay, as long as you balance them out with a long list of healthy other-things. And Jennifer is the first to point out in her introduction in Treat Yourself that some of the recipes have less calories/sugar, some have more. This isn’t about making these treats healthy by hiding fruits and veggies in them (unless the original did), but the book is all about deconstructing and reinventing the beloved classic snacks from Pinwheels to Ritz Crackers to the ever-loved-by-nearly-all-children popsicle. Now you can rest assured that life is good and so is your food when you bake a little sweet something right in your own kitchen. And in my kitchen, that means gluten-free and probably dairy-free.

So, here is where the true test begins – how are the recipes?

Jennifer’s recipes aren’t gluten-free, nor dairy-free. But over the years, I have mastered the art of gluten-free baking, for the most part. Yeast doughnuts are tricky. So are cinnamon rolls. But as I pawed through her new cookbook, I could tell most of these would easily translate to gluten-free (the trickiest part), and dairy-free has become pretty much a piece of cake. I had so many that I wanted to try (can you say, Chicken in a Biskit?!), but I chose something where I already had everything on-hand – Nutter Butters.

Oh, I used to love a Nutter Butter every now and again. The peanut-shaped cookies sandwiched with a soft, yet firm peanutty filling. Just like an Oreo, I’d peel the two cookies apart, lick or roll the peanut filling off the inside, then eat the two cookies separately or with milk. They were as much fun to eat as they were to taste. I haven’t had a Nutter Butter in years.

Until yesterday.

Now, here is how I can tell a cookbook is truly legit. If the gluten-free version is as good as the Nutter Butters were, the glutened version will be equally outstanding. The texture, the taste, the quality was just like eating a Nutter Butter right out of the package, gluten and all. I was truly amazed. I never really know how a recipe is going to turn out (although usually I can tell by the ingredient list ratio); most of the time, you just have to give it a try. The recipe will tell you what it’s worth. And this one is worth about a million bucks. Okay, maybe more like $19.99, or probably less on Amazon.

The cookies were crisp and peanutty, but not like a peanut butter cookie exactly. And I used a combination of gluten-free flours, xanthan gum, and natural peanut butter to boot. They reminded me exactly of a Nutter Butter. Even if I haven’t had one in a long time, the memories came flooding back. And who cares, anyway? These cookies were outstanding! I’d eat the cookie by itself.

But then, there’s the filling. A soft, peanutty, slightly salty flavor with just the right amount of rollability. Because that’s important. The one downside to this whole baking experiment: the recipe says it makes about 22 medium sandwich cookies (to which she used the top part of a bikini cookie cutter – I used a heart cutter) with enough filling to fill them. I made 44 medium-heart-shaped sandwich cookies. And no, it wasn’t 44 individual cookies, hence the 22 sandwiches – I had 44 sandwiches when I was done. Great! Some to share. This made not quite enough filling and it would have been an easy double, but I ran out of peanut butter. Not complaining. They were still freakin’ awesome! But double-filling is so good too. Just look at the Double-Stuf Oreo. Twice the trans-fatty goodness. Unless you make Jennifer Steinhauer’s.

Back to the Nutter Butter. These cookies were spot-on. The texture was great, the flavor was incredible, and I adore them. So far, no complaints from friends either – gluten-free or not. That’s how I can tell this is a great book. Gluten or no gluten, the cookies rock. I am excited to try a few more recipes. Maybe every single one.

Happy eating! 

Finished product with a little heart-y bite. 

Check out the Nutter Butter recipe here

*I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.