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The Ones that Surprised

By Luci

At the end of a year, we usually look back at the high points. As for food, my taste memory immediately focused on three dishes. They had in common being wonderfully delicious when I did not expect them to be.

Vegan Chocolate Cake with Vegan Buttercream Frosting

Let’s start with dessert. For a vegan friend who adores chocolate, I reluctantly made a vegan chocolate cake, expecting something that would be okay for chocolate lovers (disclosure: I like but am not a nut about chocolate) but nothing wonderful. Never did I dream that this recipe would yield a chocolate cake so utterly scrumptious. Guests raved, most declaring it was the best chocolate cake ever. 

I used this recipe with a few changes: Many recipes for desserts that lower the sugar content use apple sauce rather than sugar. I always use processed pears instead. My love of pears in desserts dates back many years when Billa ended a dinner party with a pear cake. Love at first bite! Ever since, I’ve been a fan of pear cakes and always substitute processed pears for apple sauce. In addition, I added almond extract to cake and frosting because chocolate and almond do so well together.

Cake Ingredients

1 cup unsweetened almond milk

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar 

2 cups all purpose flour

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup melted coconut or neutral oil such as canola

2/3 cup processed pears

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract. 

1 tablesloon almond extract

1 cup boiling water

Frosting Ingredients

1 cup cocoa powder

1 1/2 cups Earth Balance (my favorite) vegan butter, softened4-5 cups powdered sugar

1/4-1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 teaspoons almond extract

Cake Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Use vegan butter to grease two 9-inch cake pans. Line them with parchment and lightly flour.

  2. To the almond milk add the tablespoon of vinegar. Stir slightly and set aside to curdle.

  3. In a large bowl put the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk together.

  4. Add the oil, pears, vanilla and almond milk/vinegar mixture. Mix until well combined. 

  5. Carefully pour in the boiling water, continuing to mix into the cake batter until combined. The batter will look very runny but that’s how it should be.

  6. Divide the batter between the cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. After 10 minutes of cooling in the pan, carefully remove the cakes from the pans and let cool completely before frosting.

Frosting instructions

  1. Add the cocoa powder to a large bowl. Whisk well to remove any clumps.

  2. Add the softened vegan butter and mix until well combined.

  3. Add half of the powdered sugar and half of the almond milk. Mix until combined. 

  4. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and the rest of the powdered sugar. Mix until fluffy and well combined.

  5. If the frosting seems too dry, add more milk, a tablespoon or two at a time. If the frosting seems too wet and doesn't hold its shape, add more powdered sugar.

  6. Place the bottom cake layer on your cake plate. Spread the buttercream over the layer and out over the edge of the cake so just a bit is hanging over the edges.

  7. Carefully place the top layer over the bottom one. Spread the buttercream over the top. Spread the frosting over the sides, working from the bottom to the top. Smooth it all out.

White Chicken Chili

Exploring recipes from the NY Times, this one struck me as homey yet admirably healthy - not a pretty dish, but full of virtue. There is good fiber and nutrients. It’s easy to put together as there is little chopping or other pre-prep. Yet another appealing advantage - you can use leftover chicken or, as the Times suggests, even a rotisserie chicken. What about taste? Five stars. It’s savory, as spicy as you like, full of flavor (suggestion - top it with lime to brighten and pull flavors together) and quite satisfying. Make it a few hours in advance or the day before so the flavors meld. It freezes beautifully.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 large jalapeño pepper, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped

2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 5 cloves)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon sweet paprika or chili powder

Pinch of cayenne pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste (such as Diamond Crystal)

Freshly cracked black pepper

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2 (4-ounce) cans diced green chiles

2½ to 3cups cooked shredded chicken (from 1 roast chicken or rotisserie chicken)

1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

Half a lime, plus lime wedges for serving

Suggested toppings: Shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, pickled jalapeño slices, diced avocado, sour cream, chopped fresh cilantro and crushed tortilla chips, for serving (optional)


  1. In a large Dutch oven or pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and jalapeño and cook, stirring often, until the onions are tender, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant.

  2. Add the chicken broth, cannellini beans and diced green chiles with their liquid; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the broth has reduced by about half, 18 to 20 minutes. Off the heat, use a wooden spoon to mash some of the beans against the side of the pot. Continue mashing the beans until the broth is noticeably thicker.

  3. Return the pot to medium, stir in the chicken and corn, and cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. Juice the lime half over the pot, then taste for seasonings and add more salt, black pepper, and cayenne, if desired.

  4. Serve the chili in bowls topped as you like with a lime wedge, shredded cheese, pickled jalapeños, diced avocado, sour cream, chopped fresh cilantro, and/or crushed tortilla chips.

Bone-In Roast Pork From Pastosa on Forest Avenue

When I served this dish at a dinner party, guests could not praise it enough. It was almost embarrassing, but I could not take credit. It’s exceptionality was due to the quality of pork. I’ve become a devoted fan of the meats (and cheeses) offered by Pastosa on Forest Avenue. Their heritage pork is expensive compared to pork from super markets, but well worth it. But this particular roast was extraordinary. I can’t tell you why, only that everyone (emphasis-everyone) thought it the best pork roast they’d ever eaten. To gild the lily, Shawn, one of Pastosa’s butchers, prepared it perfectly. He frenched the bones, started the cuts between bones and tied the roast for easy serving. Thanks, Shawn.

I prepared two sauces to accompany the roast, one a classic horseradish, the other used pomegranates. Both sauces are spicy and tart, to contrast and complement the mild taste of the pork. 

Ingredients for 8

2 roasts of pork loin, each 4 chops. Using two, rather than a single roast of  8 is the way to go. First, many people love the ends of a roast for the crunch and deep flavor of the burnished ends; using two roasts doubles the number of ends. In addition, two smaller roasts mean more even cooking. 

You will also need olive oil, salt and pepper.


  1. Bring the roasts to room temperature. Rub with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place in your roasting pan.

  2. Preheat the oven to 400F. When ready, put the roasts in for 60 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325F and continue roasting for about 30-40 minutes.. Roast is done when a meat thermometer shows 145F.

  3. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and let rest 10-15 minutes. Serve the sauces separately.

The Sauces

Horseradish Sauce

A favorite for beef roasts, horse radish sauce is equally excellent with pork roasts. It’s got a kick that resonates in the mouth and sinuses - how much depends on the heat of the horseradish used. Some can be mild, some intense. Most of us find it easy to use bottled horseradish which comes in mild and hot versions. All that heat is tamed by creamy additions such as sour cream or mayo.

Do-Ahead: Up to 3 days. Refrigerate.


1/2 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons bottled horseradish, drained

2 tablespoons mayo

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon chives, finely chopped


Mix together all ingredients. Serve at room temperature.

Pomegranate Sauce

Fruit and pork go so well together. I favor a classic Cumberland sauce (red currant and orange are the fruits used) with a pork roast but tried a quintessential fall fruit, pomegranate, for this occasion. Tart, sweet and spicy flavors complement the sweetness of pork.

Do-Ahead: Up to 3 days. Refrigerate.


2 cups pomegranate juice

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons cold water

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds


  1. Mix together the first 7 ingredients (pomegranate juice - black pepper in a medium sauce pot. Stirring often, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

  2. Mix together the cornstarch and cold water. Whisk into the pomegranate mixture and continue whisking until the mixture is just thick enough to coat a spoon.

  3. Take off heat. Stir in the pomegranate seeds. Serve warm.


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