Tailgating: Crispy Treats & Caramel Corn Remix

caramel corn - sugar free and vegan

Well, while the weather is still warm it’s pretty hard to deny that fall has arrived. Network TV shows are slowly making their way back into the primetime lineup, the days are getting just a bit shorter, and there is a noticeable chill in the air at night.  But what the arrival of fall really means to me is that football season has arrived, and my weekends will consumed with football for the foreseeable future.

Since moving back to Michigan, Gennaro and I have had season tickets for football at the Big House. We met and fell in love as students at Michigan (albeit a few years apart grade-wise) and got married in Ann Arbor. So heading back there has a special significance outside of the fact that we’re returning to our alma matter. And for these reasons and many more, Michigan football Saturdays and all of their surrounding traditions have carved out a special place in my heart.

caramel corn remix

Since we normally spend our time before games as guests at other people’s tailgates, I thought that for this past weekend’s game against Notre Dame — which had an 8 p.m. kickoff and thus a long day of tailgating prior — I would actually contribute something of my own making, rather than just buying pre-packaged food or drinks to share. Not to mention I love an opportunity to make and share vegan-friendly tailgating treats.

I decided to make some well-loved sweets that have been popular among varying taste buds in the past: caramel corn and coconut-almond rice crispy treats. However, I made some (successful) changes to both recipes that I wanted to share here.

While I usually get lots of compliments whenever I bring my rice crispy treats anywhere, the one problem with them is that they do tend to fall apart a bit when left unrefrigerated for long periods of time. Keeping in mind that this recipe would have to survive a day of tailgating in warm weather, I made the following changes to adapt to a tailgating setting (as well as some other minor new touches). Here’s my Rice Crispy Treat Remix (original recipe here):

  • I used a full cup of almond butter instead of half a cup, just to help things stick together a bit more
  • I used a tip from my mom and used Eastwind no salt creamy almond butter, which just seems to have a really nice, sticky texture for making these stay together really well.
  • I toasted the coconut in a dry skillet until golden and fragrant before adding to the mixture, for added flavor.
  • I tasted for sweetness and added just a tiny bit more coconut nectar to balance out the almond butter.

vegan, sugar-free, gluten free rice crispies

As far as the caramel corn goes, when I originally made the recipe it was intended to be an anti-candida diet friendly sweet, as it is sweetened with very low glycemic yacon syrup and zero calorie stevia. However, I’ve found that yacon can be difficult to find, even at many health food stores, and is quite expensive for a small bottle. Stevia, on the other hand, varies in taste and sweetness between brands, making it imperative that only one brand be used in my recipe, as any others would render it way too sweet.

My mom (again — ah, what would I do without my mother?) told me that she likes to use my original recipe and substitute coconut nectar for the yacon syrup and forego any stevia. I decided to follow her lead, while making some other changes as well. Here’s my Caramel Corn Remix (see previous recipe for reference): 

  • I used coconut nectar instead of yacon in my updated recipe, but basically doubled the coconut nectar to about 1 1/4 cups (versus much less yacon syrup previously) and spread it out over about 10 cups of popcorn (as opposed to about 16 cups in the original recipe). You can add more coconut nectar to taste for a sweeter, well-coated mixture.
  • I opted out of using any stevia.
  • I used about 1/3 cup of buttery spread, which was a bit more than in the original recipe (especially considering I spread it over less popped popcorn).
  • I used whole raw almonds in place of the pecan pieces (though any nut, including cashews or walnuts could be used).
  • I baked the caramel corn at 275 degrees instead of 250, as my mom did say that it took her longer to get the recipe crunchy using the coconut nectar. Just watch it carefully and toss it often to make sure nothing gets too browned.
  • After the caramel corn had cooled slightly after cooking, I added fruit sweetened dried cranberries for a tart and sweet finish.
  • I made sure the caramel corn was completely cool before packaging up for the tailgate (just an added tip).

So, how did everything turn out? Well, unfortunately my efforts proved superfluous and there was SO MUCH food to be had at every tailgate. However, those who did try my contributions gave thumbs-up! And Gennaro ate the entirety of the leftover caramel corn at about 2:30 in the morning, which was when we actually returned home from Ann Arbor following Saturday’s night game. As I told one of my fellow Wolverine friends the next day: next year, I’m going to wear a t-shirt I saw someone else sporting that says “I’m too old for night games”, because that’s how I felt after Saturday. But something tells by next year I’ll be just as excited to spend a day in Ann Arbor, tailgating with old friends and snacking on vegan treats (contrary to popular belief, the two are not mutually exclusive!). Go Blue!

tailgating

No, those aren’t overalls. It’s an apron I was temporarily wearing while pretending to know how to mix drinks. Thankfully, no one asked for one, or they may have been sorely disappointed. And yes, I am wearing shorts underneath! The scene was much less scandalous than this looks…

 

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Chewy, No-Bake Chocolate Cookies

My aunt gave me the idea for these chewy, almost-raw gluten free cookies from a recipe she uses. Hers incorporated melted chocolate chips, for a decadent yet easy vegan treat. I decided to use the extra coconut nibs that I had on hand instead of the chocolate chips (for some reason, I keep buying cocoa nibs yet fail to find viable everyday uses for them. Looks like I found a solution in these cookies).

These cookies can double as an after-school or midday snack. They’re sweetened with date and coconut nectar, which makes for a healthier, lower-glycemic treat. What I didn’t account for was the fact that both of these ingredients lend an ultra-chewy texture, evoking a decadence that belies the super healthy ingredient list.

I’ve also struggled as of late to come up with some dessert ideas that are simple enough to satisfy any dessert craving at a moment’s notice. When I was living in New York City, I had the luxury of a sugar-free, vegan ice cream shop in my neighborhood that also sold sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan baked goods. Therefore, on the off-chance that I wasn’t in the mood for any more baking — or cleaning the kitchen, for that matter — I could send my husband walk a few blocks and purchase something perfectly-suited to my diet nearly whenever a craving stuck (alas, there were some 2 a.m. cravings that could not be satisfied).

Living in the midwest again has fostered a new sort of creativity in the quick-fix dessert department. Although these should chill in the refrigerator for maximum firmness, I’ve never been one to not lick the spoon and bowl, which is just enough sweetness to get me through the hour, before the rest of the batch is ready to eat.

Yield: approximately 15 cookies

No Bake, Chewy Chocolate Cookies:

1 cup gluten-free quick-cooking rolled oats*

10 medjool dates, pitted

½ cup cocoa nibs

¼ cup coconut nectar**

½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

2 tablespoons almond butter

Directions:

Place everything in food processor and process until clumps form and “batter” holds together. Form heaping tablespoons into a smooth sphere, then press into parchment-lined cookie sheet. Repeat for remaining cookies and chill in refrigerator for approximately an hour.

* As I always mention when I include oats in my recipes, even the purest of gluten-free oats cannot be tolerated by some people with Celiac Disease. Be sure you’re one of those people who can tolerate them before using. Alternately, if you are not gluten-intolerant, feel free to use regular quick-cooking rolled oats, as they tend to be cheaper.

** I’m sure brown rice syrup would work fine. Less sure about agave nectar but I would imagine it would yield a slightly sweeter, less chewy result.

 

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Gluten-Free Quinoa Cookies

I realize that in the world of Celiacs and those who are gluten intolerant, “oats” can often be a controversial subject. Between the cross-contamination issues and gluten-like properties, oats have a reputation for bringing on many of the symptoms that we in the allergy-free world try to avoid. Still, there are very few things I can think of that are quite so comforting as a warm, chewy oatmeal cookie. And I’ve been craving them recently. My craving for oats brought on some experimentation with what I thought might be a passable substitute: quinoa flakes. But when I made my first batch of quinoa cookies, I realized that I had thought wrong. Quinoa flakes were more than just passable; they might even be better.

Rich and chewy, with the slightest amount of crispness around the edges, these cookies have the unmistakable nuttiness of quinoa. My dad — ever the Top Chef judge at heart, even if he doesn’t know it —  referred to their flavor as “subtle yet complex.” I, for one, love the flavor, but also don’t mind the fact that quinoa packs a punch of protein in a way oats never could. It’s a great excuse to sneak these as a mid-afternoon snack.

Oh, and my apologies to anyone who has a coconut allergy. I realize I’ve been on a bit of a coconut streak lately — I’m admittedly craving it in pretty much everything I make. I will concentrate next week’s baking efforts on something that is coconut free.

Yield: 20-24 cookies per batch

Quinoa Cookies:

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Flour

1 cup quinoa flakes*

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

1/2 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut

1/3 cup coconut oil, liquified

1/2 cup coconut nectar**

1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup fruit-sweetened dried cranberries or raisins

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, quinoa flakes, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, xanthan gum and coconut. Add coconut oil, coconut nectar, applesauce and vanilla and stir gently to incorporate, then use hands to form ingredients into a cookie dough. Dough should be slightly sticky but workable. Add cranberries/raisins and fold in with hands.

3. Taking large tablespoonfuls of dough at a time, work dough with hands to form evenly-sized balls. Place on parchment or silpat-lined cookie sheet a few inches apart and slightly flatten with palm of your hand, creating evenly-shaped round cookies. Bake in preheated oven for about 15 minutes (longer for a crispier edge), or until bottom of cookies are golden brown.

4. Gently remove cookies immediately to a wire rack to cool. Cookies will harden more as they cool, but should still remain soft and chewy. Enjoy!

* For those who can tolerate oats, 1 cup instant oats can be substituted for the quinoa flakes

** If you can’t find coconut nectar, you can TRY experimenting with other sweeteners. In my experience, substituting agave, at least, yields a drastically different texture. So experiment at your own risk! Lately, I have been finding coconut nectar at just about all of my local health food stores. I know it’s quite pricey, but it’s definitely the best choice for these cookies.

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Raspberry Brownie Bites

I’m one of those people who likes Valentine’s Day more than I should admit. While feigning apathy and even disdain for this so-called Hallmark Holiday, I secretly love the idea that there is one random night every year where you are justified in splurging on a date night dinner, even when the remaning 364(ish) days of the year are spent with dinner plates on your lap while watching T.V. on the couch (not that I’m thinking of any particular couple here…)

Gennaro has always had a knack for the sweet but not gushy or sentimental. He has also, at times (ok, only once), had a knack for shooting himself in the foot when it comes to V-day plans. A fews years ago — my first Valentine’s Day living out in New York — he made reservations at a new “it” spot in the West Village. It was overpriced and underportioned, and we both left hungry and one of us left a few hundred dollars poorer. All in the name of love!

The following year was more successful, to say the least, and illustrated what has always been quite clear about the man I married: he gets me. Around 11 p.m. on February 13th, I was presented with a “menu” for the following day, complete with breakfast, lunch and dinner plans at my favorite spots around NYC. Curly’s Vegetarian vegan pancakes for breakfast, Caracas for lunch, and a new Mexican spot I’d been dying to try for dinner. Gennaro also threw in “snack” plans for a trip to Babycakes for some gluten-free cupcakes and brownies, but needless to say we were so stuffed after lunch (which was a stretch after our hearty breakfast as it was) that we nixed those plans in favor of a nice stroll around the East Village on that unusually warm February day. Did I land an awesome guy or what?

As you may have guessed, I made these brownie bites as a nod to Valentine’s Day — a day that it not entirely complete without a little chocolate. Ironically, these were inspired by those served at Babycakes, the one spot we never made it to on our February 14th NYC eating tour a few years ago.

Photo Courtesy of Linda Wan Photography

Raspberry Brownie Bites:

Yield: 24

Brownies are a contentious subject among many. I like mine super chocolately and not super sweet, kind of like a morsel of good, dark chocolate. If you refrigerate these they get even more fudgy, so feel free to do so. Note: for best results, use silicone muffin cups, which allow you to pop the brownie bites easily out of each cup after baking. 

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Flour

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup liquified coconut oil

1/3 cup coconut nectar

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/4 hot water

1/4 cup brewed coffee

a few tablespoons raspberry fruit spread

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 325.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add remaining ingredients except for fruit spread and whisk until just incorporated.

3. Spoon tablespoon-sized scoops of batter into mini muffin cups (I used silicone cups, as the brownies pop out really easily this way). Using a 1/4 teaspoon rounded measure, scoop out raspberry fruit spread and place on top of each brownie, pressing in gently.

4. Bake in preheated oven until tops begin to crack and bounce back slightly when pressed, about 10-15 minutes (brownies, I find, can vary greatly depending on preference and oven). Set on a wire rack to cool, about 10 minutes, before removing from cups.

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