Vegetable Cakes | Ysanne Spevack
By Ysanne Spevack
Intro: Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Ysanne : My name's Ysanne and the cookbook that I've written is Vegetable Cakes, the most fun way to five a day.
Suzy Chase: So, we have our carrot cake, our Pumpkin Pie, and the good old Zucchini bread. Personally, I thought that was great until your cookbook came along. And, then I got to thinking, why aren't we using more vegetables in desserts?
Ysanne : To be honest, I have no idea why forever, people have been making carrot cake and Zucchini bread and Pumpkin Pie and they've not though what to do with all of the other guys that are in the fridge.
Suzy Chase: When did you first get the inspiration to write a cookbook about vegetable based desserts?
Ysanne : So, I've been writing cookbooks for 20 years now. My first one was published in 2001 and there's been like 13 and I wrote a book for Rizzoli about food at the ranch in Malibu where I was based. I was the gardener. I was the head of the edible estate so, this beautiful place in the Malibu Mountains. And, so for like a few years I was in the garden, hands on with the vegetables, getting to know them on a personal basis on the vines and you know, that book was really vegetable centric and was exploring beautiful vegetables in plant based healthy contexts like salads and you know, vegetables and no strange ways. And, you know, really, I was not thinking about cake back then. But, I got to know the veggies really well. And, then the follow up to that, the one before vegetable cakes was a book of desserts so it was everything without refined sugar.
That was kind of the angle for that book. It was called the No Sugar Cook book or Baking and Desserts, but I forget the name, but it was a no sugar book. And, then after that one, I was chatting with my publisher of that the book, Joanna, and we were just kind of chatting around what I might do next and really she sparked my inspiration. I'm going to go to give props to Joanna, she just had this kind of idea of like, "well, you know, you know vegetables and you know, cakes, so what do you think of like following that idea?" And you know, my initial thing was just like, this is so stupid. You know, I was going to be like, "I'm not in the business of gimmicky." That's kind of really the how to resistance around that. I was just like, you know, I create sensible, beautiful, elegant books. Why would I want to do something foolish?"
And, then, but you know, I also am having an open mind and I guess that's almost the main promiser of this book almost is about, you know, helping people to open their minds in general. Honestly, that's kind of a theme for it because it's like, everyone including myself has so much resistance in initial thing. But, when when you go there is, I know you have, you know, and you've tried some of these recipes and you know this, there's really nothing silly, but when I was, you know, coming up with this thing, you know, I sat there and did that. I just kind of explored a bunch of vegetables and desserts in my kitchen and really got to understand that that's the flow between, the Rizzoli book about the ranch, which was, you know, caramelizing things and looking at how flavor balances with different herbs and how the vegetables kind of work and as the star of another kind of dish and then the no sugar book where it is just looking at, you know, baking and how to enhance sweetness and textures as well as flavors.
And, so I kind of pull that stuff together in vegetable cakes, it's gonna, you know, help people open their minds to the most familiar things being in a different context in maybe every area of your life really. You know, the idea is like, "wow, it changes your perspective."
Like suddenly things that you really were familiar with, you might be like, "well, maybe, maybe my preconception isn't necessarily the case." I mean, why not?
Suzy Chase: I had another cookbook author recently explain Aquafaba to me, aka bean water. For people who aren't familiar with it, it's the water in your can of beans. Now what do you do with your bean water?
Ysanne : I've included it in a few recipes. I kind of wanted to give a tip that you can't over whip it. So, this is why one of the many reasons it's awesome.
With egg whites, you can over whip it, right? You can put your electric whisk in and buzz it up and it'll go fantastic and if you keep going it will turn back into mush. But, with Aquafaba that will not happen. Once you've got it up into the same thumb, the same peaks as egg whites. And, if you keep going, you wouldn't destroy it, it will just keep going. So, there's no reasons to hold back on whipping. And, so I always go over, I always whip it as far as it goes to being peaks, which is usually about, sort of six or seven minutes, that's longer than egg whites and then go another minute just in case. So, I would suggest eight minutes as a minimum. So, I've used it as the base for a pavlova for a radish pavlova recipe in the book, which I'm really happy with. And, I took like a month experimenting, by the way, that was the recipe that got the testing more than any other, every night for about a month. I was living in Brooklyn. It was winter, there was no going out anyway.
Every night I sat there and whisks Aquafaba be will to a minimum of eight minutes and then incorporated it with various ingredients and stuck it in the oven and every night for a month, pretty much it failed until finally it didn't fail. And, that's the recipe that you have in the book to enjoy. But, sugar, that's the one recipe in the book that has refined sugar and you really shouldn't change that. Refined sugar is essential in my experience for Aquafaba, bean water, to become a pavlova like a serious large meringue.
It's something to do is the structure of sugar. You know, how it works. It's not just a sweetening agent. Refined sugar is also the basis of so many of those kind of spun sugar kind of things. And, there's something around that. I believe that scientists actually haven't figured out yet why bean water does work in a similar way to the protein of egg whites that nobody really understands what's going on there yet, which is kind of exciting. But, yeah, that's how you bean water in this context. It's like a large amount of whisking. And, if you're using it for a pavlova, you have to use refined sugar. Do not sub that out for any kind of non refined sugar sweetener.
Suzy Chase: On page 34, you have an asparagus sesame cake. Talk to me about the texture of this cake and your decision to incorporate full spears of asparagus into this cake.
Ysanne : So, the texture is, squishy, Asparagus for me, it's so celebrated in Japan. I mean, so many cultures enjoy asparagus. And, I was tempted to go to a kind of Italian kind of thing but I just, I'm intrigued still. It's just such a different flavor palate than the one I was raised in in London or the one that I live with now here in the states. And, so for me it's, intriguing. So, yeah, I wanted to draw from Japanese culture, Japanese cuisine, they do use barley flour a lot more and it has such a gentle sweetness and then much is visually, it bumps up the green. I kind of, I've used it in a couple of recipes in here, but also the bitter kind of flavor I think in a cake context is really interesting. And, then black sesame seeds as well visually on the flavor of that, it goes so well with asparagus.
And, then I went to chili flakes, which is, I guess the unusual ingredient in this cake, asparagus is not already unusual. So, I was just, you know, I figured, let's try, I mean, why can a cake not have a little kick while we're at it? So, there's a tablespoon of chili flakes there. It's, you know, it's a sizable amount. And then I went to shiso leaves because I can never resist shiso leaves in cocktails in anywhere. So, yeah, shiso leaves are in. And, then I kind of was like, at this point I want to bump it into the cake while, so vanilla is a go to, but anything tasting sweet and smelling sweet. And, then I wanted to put some almonds in there as well. So, yeah, that that makes a squishy Japanese kind of cake where you can see the asparagus spears. I've not blended them. So, you know, there's a visual, that's , I think, quite elegant to look at. Excuse me.
Suzy Chase: Is it a cake or is it a sculpture? Um, no, it's your Godzilla cake. I can honestly say this was a first for me. Please describe this cake.
Ysanne : So, I'm hoping that all of your listeners know what a Romanesco cauliflowers is because if they haven't, like, seriously guys, you need to look this up. Go on the internet. If this already one thing you look up after this podcast it's Romanesco cauliflower or sometimes it's called Romanesco broccoli. Same thing. Look it up. Have a look at the images on your browser. And, you will agree with me that, you know, I mean, I've never met a Romanesco cauliflower, but I didn't want to frame and hang on the wall as art. Kind of thought I have to do something in a cake with a whole one because that I'm not pulverizing that thing.
I'm not telling you to take that beautiful Romanesco and shred it. No, I'm like, let's frame it with a cake. So, that's the Godzilla cake. The name Godzilla cake because once I've made this thing, I was like, it, I mean, it's a Godzilla. It's like a monster's coming out of the cave. First reaction is the comedy reaction. Like, the first reaction is the, "Oh my God, what is going on here?" But, then see, because it is so overwhelmingly pretty, this vegetable, you know, there is that, that there's, you can't help but admire it. And, there's, you know, the, again from the cognitive psychotherapy kind of place, it's like weird because it's green. Okay. So, automatically your brain is in a non compute, but that kind of again works in our favor because it's kind of suspending disbelief. There's like a, it's just so strange that they can't resist.
And, I'm talking about children but also like it's quite an adult flavor profile for the adults, I mean there's the coconut and that I'm so coconut and cauliflower, you know, think about it goes together. It just does. And, then from the savory kind of, you know, it's kind of taken also from the whole baked cauliflower thing. That's the thing right now, kind of the cauliflower steaks kind of idea, which was actually in my book for Rizzoli, the ranch, we had cauliflower steaks and you're looking at whole cauliflowers and baking them. So, instead of doing it with olive oil and salt and pepper and whatever, and doing, you know, the savory thing, I kind of took cardamom but I've kind of covered the cauliflower with a coconut oil but then I bumped up with cinnamon 'cause cardamom and cinnamon they go together, right?
So, I've kind of drawn from the classic flavors of a savory cauliflower bake kind of thing and then bumped it up. There's maple syrup and coconut and cardamom and cinnamon. Like, hopefully your mouths are watering by now. Like it actually is. Delicious. It's an elegant flavor profile and kind of quite fashionable as long as it's like on trend with coconut stuff.
Suzy Chase: On Tuesday I made your recipe for Red Radicchio cake on page 32, this was one of my most surprising recipes I've made on this cookbook podcast. Briefly go over what goes into this cake and then I want to talk about it.
Ysanne : So, the ingredients are, we have, coconut yogurt, excuse me, 'cause I wanted to make it dairy free. Everybody does not want to make it dairy free. You can use regular yogurt but coconut yogurt, is what's in there? And, then we've got the zest and juice of half a lemon. I think I mentioned earlier about my thing about organics, but it's so important use and organic lemon if you're zesting. And then your olive oil. So, so far we're kind of making a dressing, right? And, then you've got radicchio leaves. So far it's a salad. Then you got some eggs because we're making a cake and coconut sugar 'cause I love coconut sugar. I kind of wanted to talk about that after. Yeah, that's in there.
A gluten free, plain flour, all purpose. You know, just that mix that you can get. Again, if gluten free isn't a thing he can use just regular flour. Personally I'm a fan of inclusive desserts, so that's I guess why there's a lot of gluten free, dairy free, sugar free stuff in my life because I really love to make a dessert that everybody at the table can eat the guy that loves his donuts. The girl that's like Paleo, Vegan, super skinny, doesn't eat anything. I want all those people to eat together when it comes to dessert. So, yeah, inclusive means high on flavor. Deliciousness, sweetness. So, the donut guy is going to want it, but you know, free of anything that might be an allergen, or in some way nasty so that she'll eat it too.
So, yeah, those things with polenta, dry tarragon, I mean at this point, you know, really it's still a salad and then we've got like some cinnamon, we have black pepper because it's basically salad and some sea salt or pink Himalayan salt I prefer, and some baking powder. And, then you're just going to decorate it with some tarragon, some fresh sprigs of tarragon, and so it's a very salady cake.
Suzy Chase: I thought it was going to be the savory salady, polentay cake and that little tiny bit of coconut sugar sweetens it so nicely. It's a fooler if you ask me.
Ysanne : Thank you. I'm so glad that it fooled you.
Yeah, no, I mean that's quite an honor. The uses is as somebody who knows what you're saying in the kitchen. I guess the cinnamon helps bump it up as well. I mean you can use cinnamon in a savory context. I think, everybody's thrown it into a bolognese sauce at some point, you know, but like it's basically from the sweet kingdom, cinnamon, even though by itself it's not sweet, right? It's not sweet guys, like lavender isn't sweet, but it's all about context?
But, yeah, this is basically a salad that I bumped up. Then so the coconut sugar, I did kind of want to briefly mention why I love coconut sugar so much. So, it's a traditional ingredient. This is not a new fangled thing. My favorite ingredients are always traditional. In fact, you know, kind of steer away from anything unless it's been tested on at least a couple of generations if possible.
So, coconut sugar has been going for a millennia. I mean it's at least a thousand years old, probably older. In Indonesia. the coconut trees there, or palms, forever, a guy has been tying a rope generally a guy, I think always a guy actually, tying a rope between his ankles, shinning up the coconut palm and before the coconuts come and they have long skinny ones over there, well you know, every kind of palm, but those ones are super long, skinny. So, it's a very skilled job. Shins up there with a knife, slits the flower, the blossom that's up there, a little piece of the blossom, just a quick one cut to drain off the nectar in the flower. Really important that he doesn't damage the flower because if he does, no coconut's right? I mean it's like any fruit, there's a flower first, then that gets pollinated, then it becomes the fruit in that case, the coconut. So, you really don't want to damage the flower that you can drain off some of the nectar and the bees will still come and pollinate that thing. You'll still get your coconuts.
And, so he'd drain off the nectar shin all the way back down the palm, carrying the nectar in a little pot and then tip it out into a long narrow tray and the sun then evaporates off the water and in the bottom of the tray you're left with are kind of sticky toffee kind of residue. And, you the then grind that up and that is coconut sugar and so it's basically flower nectar of the coconut plant full of nutrients. So, many minerals in there, such a slow release of sugar. It's got a much lower glycemic index than any of the different cane or beet sugars. So, it's a really beautiful old traditional ingredient that we can now get in the states.
It's not everywhere, but it is, it's fairly easy to find now. So yeah, that's one of my favorite sweeteners.
Suzy Chase: So, I'm dying to hear about your other love, music. Talk a little bit about how your food and music perspectives intersect.
Ysanne : I've been writing cookbooks since about 2000, but music is definitely the thing I'm best known for. I guess the easiest way to explain it is I smashed pumpkins and bake 'em. I'm a composer and a conductor and a musician and I've toured and recorded with artists, including the Smashing Pumpkins, Elton John, Tiesto, Christina Perry, I guess Hawkwind back in the mist of time in my early years. And, simultaneously like so many musicians I have been passionate about food. You know, as I mentioned earlier, I was in Japan, music brought me to Japan, but you know, while I was there, and this was a long time ago, it was the late nineties. So, yeah, there were traditional foods there, it was incredible to land and discover this whole world of food while I was there for music.
And, I guess also you're more likely to go to a fancy restaurant at some point, so get exposed to stuff at that end and you're more likely to go to a super non fancy side of the road, you know, while the tour bus is stocked kind of joint. I mean I went to the Royal College of Music and studied composition and conducting with violin, and so that was the first thing. But, you know, I was writing about organic food from a political perspective actually. It was, absolutely not about flavors in the 90s. It was looking at, you know, how farm workers are treated and how animals are treated. And, looking about how organic, you know, really does address a lot of those issues for people.
You know, I was vegan for a few years and for me, organic was the thing that allowed me to eat non plant foods because the cruelty just isn't there. And, the toxins aren't there and if you're treating animals with respect, you know, that was a whole world. So, yeah, it was always the conceptual ideas and the history, food and the future of food, which is kind of my latest book. And, it's all that as much as just, you know, enjoying eating your food. And, and that's the same with music really. It's the same ideas that, I mean, the Smashing Pumpkins are known for conceptual ideas, right? I mean all of these artists that I've been associated with and have worked with and have, yeah, I spent time with, we're talking about ideas and history and the future and how these things intersect. So, for me, it's, it's one continuity like being a composer and being a writer. It's really two sides of the same coin.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Ysanne : I mean, I guess chocolate with coffee, right?
Suzy Chase: Sure.
Ysanne : Thanks.
Suzy Chase: So, where can we find you on the web and social media?
Ysanne : So, I've got three presences that the main one, for you guys is tastecolors.com. That's my food world. My music world is, Ilovestrings.com, strings as in violin and things. And, then I have a third entity, which is a music and food all at the same time, and that's yntegrity.com and that's with a Y.
Y-N-T-E-G-R-I-T-Y.com and my socials, I do all of the socials, well, the platforms and they have links from those three websites. So, tastescolors.com, Ilovestrings.com and yntegrity.com
Suzy Chase: Well, you have certainly encouraged us to widen our perspective and enter into a brand new parallel world of possibilities. Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Ysanne : Thank you so much for having me, Susie. Glad to be here.
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