Review: Fran Costigan's Essential Vegan Desserts Course Through Rouxbe

I was so excited to learn that Rouxbe had partnered with Fran Costigan to create the Essential Vegan Desserts Course (EVD), an online course that is based on Fran’s Vegan Baking Boot Camp.  Last year, I graduated from Rouxbe’s Plant-Based Professional Course (PBP) and it has changed my life. I was an “okay” cook before the taking the course and by the end of it, I learned how to properly use a knife, how to properly sauté vegetables, how to make homemade pasta and a variety of cooking methods. My family greatly benefited from me taking the course—suddenly, I was able to proficiently prepare nutritious and delicious meals.

I love taking online courses because I learn best by reading. Rouxbe’s courses are designed so that you can work at your own pace. While the PBP was 9 months long, the EVD was 90 days in length. The course is divided into units that cover a specific topic. Within the unit, you are reading about technique, watching videos about technique, completing assigned tasks and submitting photos/description for grading and then taking a unit assessment at the end of each unit.

I always do the “book work” first. In this course, I spent the first month reading, watching videos and taking the assessments. The “book work” for this course was extremely challenging for me. Sure, I had baked cookies and cakes as a kid, but now I was learning the difference between baking powder (single acting AND double acting) and baking soda, the difference between Dutched and raw cocoa and how the heck you can achieve leavening without eggs. I was learning the difference between unsweetened, bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate, how to temper chocolate, and the different protein contents in various flours (and which ones to use for various recipes). Did you know about the variety of rustic fruit desserts? There are cobblers, crisps, crumbles, slumps and grunts. I learned that you should place a cake in the refrigerator or freezer before frosting and to put a first layer of frosting called a crumb coat. I learned where to place the oven rack for the optimal outcome. In the PBP course, I felt that since I had been cooking plant-based meals for quite some time, the course helped me refine my techniques. There is so much flexibility in cooking. In the EVD course, I was in uncharted territory, learning things that I didn’t know before. Baking is much less forgiving than cooking. You need to measure accurately and timing is everything.

Once I tackled the book work, it was time to move onto the tasks. There were quite a few graded tasks in this course and to complete it on time, you have to keep up the cadence. There are 21!!! tasks that need to be completed. Each task requires that you show proficiency in the technique that you learned. You submit photos of your mise en place (translates to everything in its place—ingredients measured out), the recipe in progress, the plated dessert and a thorough description.

Unit 1 was an intro to the course and the opportunity to make your go-to dessert. I made Coconut Macaroons. My husband loves these and the vegan options at the grocery store are quite expensive. This recipe has only five ingredients, is simple to make and delicious.

Unit 2 covers the vegan pastry kitchen. It covers the basics about ingredients, equipment that will be used and how to measure. I was feeling confident about my progress. The task in this module was a kitchen reset—I got the pantry organized.

Unit 3, which covered key ingredients and functionality, was a wake up call and my head was spinning because there was so much to learn. I learned about flours (including gluten free options), fats, sweeteners and sugars, acids, fruits, dairy alternatives, gels and thickeners, and egg replacers and leaveners. The assessment quiz was challenging and I found myself going over my notes to ensure that I had absorbed everything. This module had some basic tasks—roasting fruits and working with agar.

Unit 4 was all about chocolate, non-dairy creams, aquafaba and puddings/mousse. We explored drinking chocolate, ganache and meringue. My absolute favorite task in the unit was Baked Alaska. My family agrees that this was the best dessert that I produced in the class. I remember my mom made it when I was a child. Her version was a thin layer of yellow cake that was about the size of the rectangular carton of ice cream. You place the ice cream on the cake, cover with meringue and then place in the oven until the meringue starts to brown. I made my version in individual ramekins. The cake was Fran’s Chocolate Cake to Live For. I froze the cake and then torted it (cut in half lengthwise), and used cutters to cut a round to fit the ramekin. The next layer was homemade peanut butter banana “nice cream”, followed by chocolate ganache. Finally, I piped meringue made from aquafaba (bean water) on top, sprinkled on some sugar and torched it with a handheld torch. The smell of the sugar when it is torched is like toasting a marshmallow. As I said, this was a huge hit!!

Unit 5 covered quick breads, cookies and bars. This included muffins, scones/biscuits, rustic fruit desserts cookies and bars. I felt most comfortable with the work in this unit since I had done a lot of baking in my lifetime. I still learned a lot because there were activities that took me out of my comfort zone—like making tuiles. So many favorite tasks from this unit were lemon poppy seed muffins, drop biscuits, berry cobbler, lace cookies and homemade graham crackers (yummy!). (See below in the final showcase for some photos of this type of work.)

Unit 6 was all about cakes. This was a fun unit and I loved learning about piping frosting. It truly is an art! My technique still needs some work, but I feel confident in showing off in the future. My best work here was the black forest cake. My daughter and I celebrate our birthdays together and I made this for us. I made two layers of chocolate cake and torted them. Between each layer was a simple blackberry filling and buttercream frosting. Wowee was this sweet and we could only have a very thin slice! I froze some of the extra pieces to enjoy in the future.

I was (rightfully so) scared of Unit 7. This unit covered pies and tarts. I don’t think I have ever mastered making pie dough and even after this course, I feel that I still have a lot to learn. I will continue to practice technique.

Unit 8 was my opportunity to create a dessert showcase and invite my friends to enjoy and experience what I had learned. I spent quite a bit of time preparing for the showcase and was so pleased how it turned out. The feedback that I received was great and I consider the showcase a success! It is hard to pinpoint the favorite but high marks were given to the chocolate cake with peanut butter mousse, the strawberry biscuits with coconut whip and the blueberry crisp.

The choco tacos were made with lace cookies, chocolate ganache, coffee banana nice cream and chopped peanuts.

The chocolate cake with peanut butter mousse was made with Fran’s chocolate cake and a peanut butter mousse that included coconut cream, peanut butter and powdered sugar.

The strawberry shortcake with coconut whip was made with the drop biscuit recipe from the course. The whipped cream was so simple and having the ISI whipped cream dispenser is a nice touch that produces airy cream topping.  This was a huge hit and the folks that gave up sweets for Lent felt that they could enjoy this because it seemed more like a breakfast dish.

strawberry shortcake.jpg

As I mentioned the blueberry crisp was a favorite. Could it be because of the cute little cast iron pans? My dessert preference is for something fruity and this hit the spot.

Most of my guests has an 18 mile run that morning, so the calories were well deserved. There were hardly any leftovers. I produced this recipe book to share with all who attended, so that they could enjoy these desserts at home.

Just as the PBP course changed my life, so did the EVD course. Fran was so supportive throughout and she truly knows desserts. I feel confident in the skills that I learned that I am able to prepare a variety of desserts that are dairy and egg free. If you are ready to take your cooking or desserts skills to the next level and wow, your family and friends, I highly recommend Rouxbe. You can find Fran here and Rouxbe here. Enjoy!

Sprouting

Since the weather is starting to cool, it is time to start sprouting again! Sprouting in the summer doesn’t go very well here in Texas because the sprouts grow so fast and there is so much moisture in the air that the sprouts can spoil quickly. Even though the weather has cooled, my most recent sprouts grew pretty quickly and I got to enjoy them sooner than I would during the winter months.

Why sprout?

Where do I start? Sprouts are one of the most nutritious foods that you can eat. They are a living food and when you consume them, you are taking living energy into your body. How perfect is that? Sprouts are loaded with fiber, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids and protein. When you sprout a seed and eat it, the vitamin content increases up to 20 times. Did you know that cancer thrives in an acidic environment? Sprouts are alkalizing to the body and an alkaline body is a healthy body. Sprouts are also incredibly inexpensive to grow. If you paid $4.00 recently at the grocery store for a small container of sprouts, you will be shocked to learn that you can grow four times that for 50 cents. Yes, it is true. Lastly, growing your own food is so fulfilling. Sprouts grow right on the countertop in any season. Many people wrinkle their noses at sprouts, but when you grow your own with organic seeds, you will finally experience how absolutely delicious they are.

What is a good beginning sprout?

The easiest thing to sprout is alfalfa. It only takes a few days and the taste is mild. I could eat a whole bowl with my special recipe for spirulina dressing. I love broccoli sprouts. This is the all-star sprout and has 30 times the cancer resistant chemical sulforaphane. You only need to eat a small quantity to get the full benefit. (It is quite beautiful, too.) My other favorite is chive sprouts. These pack a ton of flavor and you can put a little nest of them on top of your salad instead of scallions. Other options are beans—garbanzo and mung beans are common beans to sprout. I have tried a bunch of other seeds—mustard, radish, turnip, cabbage. Keep in mind that the sprouts will have a much more intense flavor that the full grown vegetable. I am a hard core veggie lover but I would never be able to eat a whole bowl of radish sprouts—they are incredibly intense. So, if you sprout seeds that are pungent when full grown, use them as a garnish rather than a full nest or base for your salad.

What kind of fancy equipment do I need?

This is the best part. You most likely have everything you need in your kitchen. I use glass quart canning jars. You need a screen for the opening and can use cheese cloth or buy special metal screens. If using cheese cloth, you simply need a rubber band to hold it in place. With the metal screens, you will want plastic rings to hold the screens in place. The reason for plastic is that the metal rings that come with canning jars will rust with the metal screens. In the instructions below, I will assume that you will use what you have on hand, after all, you want to try it to see if you like it.

Where do I get the seeds/beans?

Dried beans can be bought at the grocery store. If you want to start there, pick up some garbanzo or mung. The garbanzo beans can be used to make hummus and mung beans can be used in a stir fry.

My all-time favorite source for other seeds is Sprout People. This is where I really learned how to sprout. They have a huge selection of organic seeds for purchase along with all of the equipment that you need if you want to get serious about this.

Always buy organic!!

How do I get started?

  1. Select the seed that you want to use. I will use alfalfa in this example.
  2. Place 2 tablespoons of alfalfa seeds in your quart jar. (Be sure to take in the beauty of the seeds—they are nature’s art. Every time I get a new bag of seeds, I am in awe!)
  3. Cut a piece of cheesecloth—enough that will fit over the mouth of the jar times 2. Fold the cheesecloth in half and secure it on the jar with a tight rubber band.
  4. Clean: Pour water through the cheesecloth into the jar, covering the seeds. Swish it around and then turn the jar on an angle and allow the water to pour out. Repeat a few times until you do not see any more residue rinsing off.
  5. Soak: Fill the jar about half way with water, completely covering the seeds and place out of direct sunlight on the counter. The seeds need to soak for 12 hours.
  6. Rinse/swish/drain: After 12 hours, pour the water off and then rinse, swish and drain a few times. After the soaking phase, we don’t leave any water in the jar and place the jar on an angle with the mouth facing down so that water can drain out through the cheesecloth and the seeds can get some air to grow. You can put them in your dish drainer or find another way to place them on an angle. (I bought a cleaning product caddy and put my jars at an angle in it).
  7. Rinse/swish/drain/repeat: Every 12 hours, you will repeat this process. You will start to see the seeds crack open and sprouts will start coming out. Each day, twice a day, rinse, swish and drain. As the sprouts grow, the jar will get crowded. When you add water to rinse, swish the sprouts around to break up the mass. If you need to, you can open the jar and use a knife to break it up.
  8. De-hull (optional): After about 4-5 days, your alfalfa sprouts will be ready (each seed is different—go to Sprout People for guidance). The outer coating of the seed is called a hull and some people choose to remove as much of it as they can. I skip this step because it is extra work and doesn’t make a difference in the taste. To de-hull, place the sprouts in a bowl and fully cover with water. The hull will float to the top of the water. Use a spoon to scoop the hulls out and dispose of them. The sprouts then go back into the jar and you can move to the next step.
  9. Drain for 24 hours: When the jar is nice and full of sprouts, I allow it to drain for a full 24 hours with no rinsing.
  10. Spread/dry for 12 hours: After 24 hours, I pull the sprouts out of the jar and spread them out in a bowl. They will be really compacted together—don’t be afraid to pull them apart—we need to get them as dry as possible before storing. I let them air dry for about 12 hours, out of direct sunlight.
  11. Store/enjoy: Transfer them to a storage container—this could be a zip lock bag or even back in the jar with the regular lid. They should be fully covered with a lid and stored in the refrigerator and consumed within a few days.

It really is a simple process and the reward is so great. It becomes a routine for me to rinse and drain at breakfast and again at dinner. If you forget to rinse and drain or have a conflict that keeps you away from home for one rinse/drain, it really isn’t a big deal. The sprouts still have water and air circulating and will be fine. Just pick back up where you left off. Please note that some seeds/beans need to sprout in a dark area, like the pantry. Mung beans are one of these because you don’t want the green plant to start to grow. As I mentioned earlier, Sprout People is a wonderful resource for all things sprouting.

Happy sprouting!

Dates – the Perfect Snack During and After a Run

Runners continuously question what to eat in order to have the best performance. The answer is dates! They are easily digested and primarily glucose so are perfect for the boost of energy that you need during a long run. You can simply slip some seeded dates into a plastic baggy and store in your running belt for easy access. Plus, below is a link to an AMAZING recipe that you can make to eat after the run. But before that, let’s get into the health benefits of dates:

  • High in fiber, prevents LDL cholesterol absorption and moves waste through the body. In turn, there are reduced risks of colitis, colon cancer and hemorrhoids
  • Anti-inflammatory—helps reduce the risk of arthritis, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s
  • Anti-oxidant and offers some protection against colon, prostate, breast, endometrial, lung and pancreatic cancer
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stroke risk
  • Strengthens bones
  • Boosts nervous system health and improves brain activity
  • Alleviates seasonal allergies because they contain sulfur
  • Perfect supplement for people suffering from anemia--increasing energy and strength
  • Contain vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, riboflavin, folate, A, B6 (improves brain performance) and K
  • Contain minerals potassium (controls heart rate and blood pressure), iron (helps carry and balance oxygen in the blood), calcium (required for muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve impulse conduction), manganese, magnesium (anti-inflammatory and required for bone growth), phosphorus, sodium, zinc and copper (required for production of red blood cells)

What is there not to love about dates? Seems like the perfect food to me. Check out my recipes for Date and Nut Balls.

Celery Juice – the Natural Way to Replace Natural Electrolytes

Do you ever reach for your electrolyte replacement drink only to pucker up because the drink is too salty or worse, way too sweet? Have you looked at the list of ingredients and scratched your head, wondering what some of those mystery ingredients might be? As a runner, we are so careful about the food that we put into our bodies…don’t you want to be just as careful with your fluids?

Experienced runners know how important electrolyte replacement is. During a run, you lose sodium and potassium through sweating. You must replace these minerals so that you can replace and retain the fluids that you just lost.

You all know that I am the juicing queen and my go to electrolyte replacement drink is so simple—celery juice! Did you know that every cell in your body is bathed in a salt solution? If there is an imbalance, dehydration can occur.

Celery juice has these amazing health benefits:

  • Replaces lost electrolytes and rehydrates the body
  • Contains potassium and sodium to stimulate urine production
  • Reduces inflammation—an added bonus for runners and for people with chronic anti-inflammatory conditions
  • Promotes healthy kidney function to eliminate toxins
  • The sodium in celery is very safe for consumption, even for people that are salt sensitive or are on a reduced salt diet
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Alkaline so helps balance the pH of the blood
  • Contains anti-cancer compounds
  • Eliminates and prevents kidney and gall bladder stones
  • Has a natural laxative effect
  • Natural calming effect—leading to better sleep
  • Contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and C
  • Contains minerals potassium, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and sodium

So now that I have you excited about celery juice…how do you get started? Many stores these days carry fresh squeezed juices. But if you make it at home you are assured of the freshness and get the most nutrients out of it because you are drinking the juice immediately after juicing. If you are new to juicing you might not want to go hard core like me and drink straight celery juice (or maybe you do!). Below are some yummy recipes. Just put all of the ingredients in the juicer and in no time you will have a delicious drink.

Recipe 1

  • 8 stalks of celery
  • 1 apple
  • ¼ inch piece of peeled ginger

Recipe 2

  • 6 stalks of celery
  • 2 carrots
  • ½ peeled lemon
  • small bunch of parsley

Breville sells great juicers but if you want the mother of all juicers, check out the Norwalk 280. We bought ours about a month ago and it is everything that I imagined. I read about it in the book The Gerson Therapy--a great book that I will write a review about in my next blog post.

Just try it--you will be amazed how great you feel when you have this immediately after a run. So refreshing and the cells in your body will thank you!

Flavored Popcorn that is Healthy

Let’s face it….it is hard to resist a salty snack. I am a confirmed potato chip addict (is there such a thing as Potato Chip Addicts Anonymous?). I go through periods of time where I eat chips every day and then others when I put myself on restriction. I recently did a juice cleanse for 3 days and decided to make some healthy changes at the end—which means no more potato chips. I have been looking for a healthy savory snack and I have found it!

You all know I love kitchen gadgets. The Cuisinart Easy Pop Popcorn Maker came to the rescue! I know that people love the convenience of microwave popcorn, but did you know that it contains carcinogens? In fact, microwave popcorn is one of the unhealthiest things you can eat. The Cuisinart Easy Pop Popcorn Maker is effortless to use! Simply add two teaspoons of oil (I use peanut), 1/3 cup of organic popcorn kernels, turn it on and wait a few minutes for freshly popped corn. YUM! Did I mention that it is easy to clean? All parts fit in the dishwasher.

Now to add some flavor without any calories….check out my recipe for healthy cheesy popcorn. (Guess what….it is vegan too!)

Be sure to make a generous batch so that you have some on hand when that salty craving hits. Now sit back and enjoy.