Vegan Caramel

Since discovering my dairy intolerance two years ago, I've been on the search to find dairy-free replacements for many of my former beloved butter and cream-filled desserts. Cakes and cookies were easy to convert, ice cream and confections were a bit more challenging, but I've managed to eat and eat while since. Though I found my intolerance curse in the beginning, I have made due with the cards I've been dealt.

The first major victory for dairy-free replacements was vegan whipped cream. It put up a brief fight, but relented when a can of coconut milk came to the rescue (as it so often does for dairy-free alternatives). Eager for a second victory to add to my list, I chose to tackle caramel next. Certainly, this could not be more difficult, I told myself, as I started working on my first batch. 

Oh, but it was. 

For the next month, each weekend I created a new batch and, shortly thereafter, tossed it directly into the trash. As it turns out, dairy-free milk alternatives do not hold up like heavy cream; the fat structure is too dissimilar. The coconut milk caramel, once cool, developed a look quite similar to bacon fat. The soy milk caramel was lumpy and dropped off the spoon like heavy rain drops. It seemed, for a short time, that my dreams of dairy-free caramel would have to be tossed in the trash as well.

As I let the idea simmer in the back of my mind, it occurred to me that I might have to rethink the caramel in a more drastic sense. With a helpful bit of research, I went back to the ever faithful can of coconut milk. Instead of adding it to molten sugar, as I had done before, I simmered the milk down to a thick sauce with brown sugar to prevent the fat from separating. The brown sugar lends a caramelized flavor and the coconut milk provides the sticky, perfect-for-drizzling texture. I would suggest using light brown sugar instead of dark (or, ideally, a mixture of the two)—the dark brown sugar (pictured) is on the edge of becoming too bitter for the final product.

While the vegan caramel tastes like real caramel to my dairy-free palate, it was described to me by dairy-lovers as "coconut butterscotch." Drizzled over ripe pears or apple slices, I doubt many would notice or care about the differences.  

Vegan caramel is created from a mixture of coconut milk and brown sugar simmered down until it forms a thick syrup. It may be a different take on caramel but, for those with food restrictions, it is a dream. The caramel pairs well with fresh fruit and can (and should) be drizzled over pastries and bowls of ice cream. For a smooth final product, I recommend running it through a fine mesh strainer. 

For those of you who love the classics, this basic caramel recipe may be more your style.

One Year Ago: Classic Apple Pie
Two Years Ago: Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Scones, Brown Butter Pear Muffins, Pumpkin Espresso Bread, and Triple Coconut Cookies
Three Years Ago: 3 Milk Coconut Cake, Blackberry Lemonade, Garden Tomato & Basil Tart, and Peaches & Cream
Four Years Ago: Butternut Squash Custard, Pumpkin Bread Pudding & Caramel Rum Raisin Sauce, and Banana Nut Bread

Vegan Caramel

Yields about 1 cup

14 ounces (397 grams) full fat coconut milk
3/4 cup (150 grams) light brown sugar, packed (or a mixture of half light brown/half dark brown sugar)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large saucepan, whisk together the coconut milk and brown sugar. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, reduce temperature, and simmer for 25 to 35 minutes, or until it thickens into a syrup. It can be simmered longer for a thicker sauce. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.

For a smooth sauce,  run the caramel through a fine mesh strainer.

Cookies & Cream Ice Cream

Growing up, I thought ice cream trucks were a concept from movies, widely seen in theaters, but rarely present in reality. Ice cream trucks were as mysterious to me as superheros, talking animals, or something going smoothly for the main characters in a movie just once. Along with the other remnant misconceptions from childhood, my disbelief in ice cream trucks held strong into my teenage years. A truck overflowing with popsicles, ice cream, and frozen treats seemed too good to be true; it must certainly be another trick that parents and television producers played on their children.

It wasn't until I saw an actual truck ambling down my very own street, loudly playing such hits as Turkey in the Straw and The Entertainer, that I began to accept that perhaps ice cream trucks were not as fictional as I once thought.

The ice cream truck rolled down the street earlier this week, calling the children over with a round of Oh! Susanna. Even though it was just before dinner, and a few of the parents were grumbling about the timing, the children still ran around, eating popsicles and chasing each other down the road.

Even though I didn't get to enjoy these things when I was younger, I'm happy to watch the neighborhood children get excited about it, dragging their parents by the hand to pay for a little piece of happiness.

Cookies and cream ice cream seems to fall distinctly into the realm of childhood desserts. Even so, I don't believe that should stop the adults from partaking in the fun. After all, no one grows too old for a good cookie. This particular version is dairy-free, made with coconut milk instead of a combination of whole milk and heavy cream (though certainly those ingredients could be substituted in to make a more traditional ice cream). While the coconut flavor is noticeable on the first bite, it seems to hide from then on, as your palate adjusts to the cookies' sweetness.

This ice cream was a dangerous one to keep in the house. I could never seem to forget about it and often stole spoonfuls before breakfast and dinner.

As a side note, I will be in France(!) for the next two weeks as I spend time in Paris, travel through Provence, and end in Nice. I will be posting pictures and stories throughout the trip. If you'd like to keep up with my adventures, you can follow me on instagram, twitter, or facebook for updates! 

Cookies & Cream Ice Cream is a sweet dessert to enjoy any time of the year. The cookies soften in the ice cream, helping the ice cream retain a smooth texture. The flavor, however, is quite pronounced in each and every bite. For best results, allow the ice cream to thaw on the counter for 10-15 minutes before serving—the rest time transforms the texture from icy to smooth and creamy.

One Year Ago: Mint Sugar, Frozen Strawberry Bars, and Coconut Sorbet (a personal favorite!)
Two Years Ago: Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies, Coconut Nutmeg Pudding, and Lavender Lemonade
Three Years Ago: Citrus Roasted Rhubarb, Roasted Cherry Dark Chocolate Brownies, and Honey Peach Bubble Tea
Four Years Ago: Margaritas, Chocolate Chip Raisin Oatmeal Cookies, and Mocha Frappuccino

Cookies & Cream Ice Cream

Yields about 1 quart

28 fluid ounces (828 ml) full-fat coconut milk
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup (112 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
15 chocolate sandwich cookies (180 grams), lightly crushed*

In a large saucepan, bring the coconut milk to a simmer over medium-high heat.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt. When the milk is simmering, add a small amount to the eggs and whisk quickly to incorporate. Do this a second time to temper the egg yolks. 

Transfer the ingredients back into the saucepan and simmer over medium to medium-low heat until the milk thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Refrigerate mixture until cold.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker, following the manufacturer's instructions. In the final minute of churning, add the crushed cookies and shut off the ice cream maker when incorporated. Transfer ice cream to a plastic air-tight container and freeze for 3-4 hours before serving.

* Use a dairy-free sandwich cookie, like Oreos, to keep the ice cream dairy-free.

Chocolate Espresso Custard

When I gave myself the gift of summer, I hoped for adventure and I hoped for leisure. While adventure is on the horizon (I'm headed off to France in two weeks!), this week was spent catching up on a year's worth of much needed relaxation. I pulled a deck chair out into the sun, slathered on the sunscreen, and read my way through a couple good books. With a tall glass of ice water at my side, it felt very much like a dream.

I have been savoring these little moments, taking them in and bundling them up for a rainy day. When summer ends and the responsibilities start up once again, I'll take one of these memories out, smooth out the edges, and remember the feeling of the sun and the smell of the grass.

Custards are among the things I do not need to be reminded to savor. As a part of my own tradition, I use the smallest spoon in the drawer. Eating it slowly, one small bite at a time, letting the flavor linger. These custards are simple to prepare, an afterthought to create after dinner, but they can be enjoyed for several evenings after.

Chocolate and espresso go together effortlessly and it shows in this simple dessert. Perhaps this can be your own reminder to slow down and take in the moment with a little more awareness than before.

Chocolate Espresso Custard is a sweet, cool treat to enjoy any time of the year. While this version is dairy-free, utilizing coconut milk and coconut whipped cream, I have added substitutions to make it a bit more traditional. The smooth flavors of chocolate and espresso are both pronounced. When garnished with whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and chocolate covered espresso beans, this custard will disappear in no time.

One Year Ago: Rhubarb Ginger Bars and Nutty Rhubarb Oatmeal
Two Years Ago: Coconut WafflesDark Cherry Fruit-On-The-Bottom Yogurt, and Mocha Granola
Three Years Ago: Creamy Grape SaladCornmeal Parmesan & Poppy Seed Crackers, and Piña Colada Cupcakes
Four Years Ago: Chocolate Orange Miniature CakesSimple Rhubarb Jam, and Twix Cookies

Chocolate Espresso Custard

Yields 4-6 servings

14 ounces (400 grams) full-fat coconut milk (can also substitute half and half or whole milk) 
1 tablespoon espresso powder 
1/4 teaspoon salt 
4 large egg yolks 
4 ounces (113 grams) bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped finely 
1 teaspoon vanilla 
Coconut Whipped Cream (or regular whipped cream), optional 
Shaved chocolate, optional 
Chocolate covered espresso beans, optional

In a large saucepan, whisk together the coconut milk, espresso powder, and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium to medium-high heat. Turn the heat down to low.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Pour a small amount of the milk mixture into the eggs and stir quickly to prevent the eggs from cooking. Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and whisk everything together.

Turn the heat back up to medium and continue cooking, while stirring. Once the pudding thickens enough to thickly coat the back of a spoon, about 5-10 minutes or more, remove from heat.

Stir in the chopped chocolate until the pudding is smooth and completely melted. Stir in vanilla extract. Pour pudding evenly between serving dishes, cover, and place in the refrigerator to cool.

Just before serving, garnish with coconut whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and chocolate covered espresso beans.