I’ll admit it. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. I look at my blog and sigh with disappointment at the lack of consistency in posts and pictures. I’ve been operating sans camera since December, as many of you know, so I rely solely on my flash-less iPhone 3GS and am never satisfied with the lighting or quality of my pictures. Unfortunately for my blog and for you, dear reader, this often means that I won’t bother posting. I settle for sighing and letting the world think that I lapsed into a baking lull and have forgotten all about you [and baking]. That couldn’t be farther from the truth!
I’ve been pushing myself out of my comfort zone for the past eight weeks by taking a food writing class taught by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan. On the most basic level, it’s forced me to write. I walked out of grad school doubting both my ability to write well and my love of the written word. I couldn’t read fiction for months and I wouldn’t even touch my journal. To take something that I truly loved–food–and combine it with something I had such anxiety about–writing–was absolutely mortifying.
Ultimately, it was curiosity that kept me from dropping the course. I had no idea what to expect. Part of me hoped it would just focus on better ways of describing food and how to approach a restaurant review. Another part of me hoped we’d get to see the face behind the baguettes. A larger part of me, one way deep down in the recesses of my brain where I keep silly things like “courage” and “self-confidence,” wanted to stay in because I knew that the class would force me to be uncomfortable. I’d have to email talented chefs about their restaurants or contact strangers about bees they keep in their backyards. Most intimidating of all, I’d have to start expressing my opinion and sticking to it (not to mention, I’d have to back it up with vivid details and some catchy prose–no pressure, really!). It wasn’t asking me to do the impossible, but because I had kept myself muted for so long, it felt exhilaratingly wonderful to break away from all of my doubts and finally enjoy both the act of writing itself and the subject behind the prose.
Looking back at my initial hesitation to take the course, I realize that it had a lot to do with perfectionism. Like baking projects that never reach the blogosphere because of bad pictures or writers block, I was reluctant to take the course because I was scared to put out something less than what I was capable of. I won’t post if my kitchen lights aren’t cooperating or my photos are too blurry. If too much time passes between baking and me composing a post, it suddenly becomes “irrelevant” because time has distanced all the feelings I initially associated with the post [I'm an emotional baker, don't forget!]
Last night, I almost slipped back into perfectionism mode. I wanted to try making RaspberryCrumb Breakfast Bars from the Baked cookbook. I had measured out and combined nearly all of the dry ingredients before realizing I was short on brown sugar. After a whizz of my food processor I realized that I only had half of the amount of butter needed. I thought about throwing in the towel, chucking the cinnamony mix of oats, sugar and flour in the garbage and calling it a night, defeated by a lack of foresight and recipe reading.
As this post clearly evidences, I did not quit. Rather, I put a flour-dusted palm up to a frazzled forehead, leaned my elbow onto an equally flour-dusted counter and relaxed. After a minute, it dawned on me–I had two sticks of vegan shortening in the fridge, just enough to substitute the butter in the recipe. Vegan baking generally scares the pants off of me, as I’d name my first-born Egg if I married someone crazy enough to let me. There was huge potential for failure–the shortening could be too greasy and make the bars unappealing, or conversely, it could not have enough fat and leave the bars a dry, crumbly mess. Further still, in an effort to give the shortening the same baking properties as real butter, it could leave a funky unnatural taste [I'll spare you my tirade against artificial sweeteners].
Like my food writing course, I’m glad I faced my vegan baking fear. I couldn’t tell the difference between these bars and something baked with butter! The crumb was spot on: just moist enough to pat down but not overly greasy. The cinnamon in the recipe hid any hint of “artificial” shortening taste. Plus, I used blackberry jam that my mom and I made so the bars had the most important ingredient of all: love.
[all together now: AWWW!]
These vegan blackberry breakfast bars may have gotten a little squished on my bike ride to work and my poor iPhone may not have captured them in a light to rival a food stylists’, but they were unexpectedly delicious and, most importantly, made their way onto a published (though not perfect–and that’s perfectly okay) post.
For the crust
1 1/2 C all-purpose flour
3/4 C firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 C white sugar [note, you can adjust or omit the white sugar depending on the sweetness of your jam. I originally used 1/2 C and found it to be a little too sweet]
1 1/4 C rolled oats
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon (I added 3/4 tsp, but I’m a cinnamon-fiend!)
3/4 C (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter OR vegan shortening, cubed in 1″ pieces
For the filling
10 oz blackberry jam (you can also use strawberry, raspberry, apple, apricot…the possibilities are endless and delicious)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Line a 13×9″ pan with parchment paper. Grease parchment paper with vegan shortening if you’re going the vegan route (I like to use the shortening wrapper and schmear [yes, that's the techical term] the shortening remnants all over and rub them around) or if you’re down with dairy, feel free to use butter or cooking spray. Greasing the parchment paper will prevent the bars from sticking to the parchment.
3. Combine flour, sugars, oats, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon in a food processor. Pulse until combined. Add butter or vegan shortening and pulse until loose crumbs form.
4. Reserve 1 cup of this mixture and set aside (you’ll use this for the lovely crumb topping later)
5. Pour the rest of the mixture into the pan, using your hands to gently press it into the pan to create an even layer. Do not press up the sides of the pan (we’re going for bars, not a pie or a cheesecake!). Bake 12-15 minutes until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes
6. Once the mixture has cooled slightly, spread the jam over the crust, creating an even layer. Tip: it’s okay if the crust is slightly warm, as it will make the jam easier to spread. If your crust has cooled completely, you can also let the jam come to room temperature to make it easier to spread.
7. Top the jam layer with an even sprinkling of the reserved 1 cup of crumbs. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and the jam bubbles at the edges.
8. Transfer to a wire rack. Let the bars cool completely. Cut into squares and serve with a glass of milk (almond, soy, goat or good old cow).
Bars can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 days, but if you’ve got friends who like to eat, chances are, they won’t last that long :]
Wishing you happy baking accidents & much culinary courage!