Believe it or not, I was actually quite the Betty Crocker back in the day. As a young girl who would do anything to get her grubby little fingers into a bowl of batter, I used to happily assist my mother every year in her Christmas-cookie bakeathon. I also once made a pretty impressive batch of vegan cookies for an ex. (Although, in hindsight, said cookies may not have been entirely vegan. And in hindsight, I totally don’t feel bad about it.)
Anyway, with Christmas less than a week away, now seemed as good a time as any for me to get back in touch with my inner 6-year-old glutton. And, as the most animal- and allergy-friendly bakery in town, Sweet Freedom seemed like the perfect place to learn how to make a festive dessert suitable for sharing. Not only does the Center City bakery boast a creative assortment of baked goods, but they’re all 100 percent free of gluten, nut, soy, corn, egg—even refined sugar. In other words, you can give this stuff to even your fussiest family and coworkers.
As a first-time customer, I was naturally a teeny bit skeptical whether their treats could stack up to the traditional dairy-based desserts I love so dearly. This worry was squelched the second I got a whiff of the bakery’s heavenly cake-in-the-oven aroma. Had I stared at their Samoa cupcakes any longer, there would have been a trail of my saliva running down the glass display counter.
So what’s their secret? Well, Sweet Freedom owner Jen Kramer could tell you, but then she’d have to kill you. “We certainly try to keep a pretty tight lid on the majority of our recipes,” she says. “They’re tricky and took a lot of time and patience to develop.” Fortunately, the bakery was willing to share the not-so-secret recipe for their thumbprint cookies—and so, with the ingredients already sifted and portioned, Sweet Freedom’s head baker Ryan Hatt and I got right down to mixing.
I hounded him with questions, since, with the exception of vanilla extract, all of the ingredients were completely foreign to me. Who knew there were more than 20 different types of flour? Instead of your standard all-purpose flour, we used brown rice flour and garbanzo bean/chickpea flour. Instead of milk and eggs, we used coconut milk and coconut oil. Instead of baking powder, we used baking soda and cream of tartar.
Generally, Hatt notes, these substitutions are interchangeable when making other desserts or dishes, depending on your dietary preferences or restrictions. However, this is not the case with these particular cookies—so don’t try to improvise—adhere to the precise recipe. As most people are unlikely to have all these fancy-schmancy organic alternatives already sitting in their cupboards, Jason recommends checking the health-food aisle of your local supermarket for Bob’s Red Mill individually packaged products before making a trip to Whole Foods.
Once the dough was thoroughly mixed, we scooped it into perfect little balls on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, then used our thumbs to make a crater for the fruit puree (the back of a spoon also works). More important than the type of fruit puree you use is that you not be stingy with it; think quarter instead of dime. If you’re looking to be festive, stick to strawberry and/or raspberry, and maybe even roll a few in coconut flakes first. For the finishing touch, we sprinkled coconut sugar around the edges of each cookie to add “an extra bit of sweetness and crunch.” The rest was a piece of cake: Place a cookie in each corner of the sheet to keep the parchment paper in place. Pop the sheet in the oven for seven minutes then rotate and bake for another five.
Aside from the perplexing ingredients, these were the easiest dang cookies I’ve ever made. As for how they tasted, I’m not going to lie—they don’t taste like the artery-clogging, processed cookies you may be accustomed to. They were just sweet and creamy enough to feel indulgent, but just bland enough that you could devour all three-dozen in one sitting and not feel guilty. The fact that the fruit center was still warm made it even better.
“Vegan doesn’t mean flavorless; it just means free of animal products,” Hatt says. He also points out that a lot of popular sweets and snacks are actually vegan: Sour Patch Kids, Cracker Jacks, Mike & Ike, Cry Babies, Dum Dums, Oreos, Swedish Fish. Wow. So I guess vegan also doesn’t necessarily have to mean “organic.” Got it.
Find this week’s cookie recipe, and all the dishes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far, online at forkingstupid.com
Being the generous Italian that he is, Chef Kristian Leuzzi, owner of both Kris and Stogie Joe’s in South Philly, most certainly wasn’t going to let me leave my personalized cooking lesson, or his restaurant, without a solid lunch in my stomach: a braised veal short-rib sandwich with a side of gnocchi.
With cold and flu season kicking into high gear, what better dish to tackle in my second cooking lesson from a Philly chef than a comforting bowl of chicken dumpling soup? And who better to guide me than Jennifer Sherman, the executive chef behind Prohibition Taproom’s hearty menu?
PW's Taste of Philly 2014