A Year Of No Sugar: Post 72

Birthdays are a bitch. I mean, not in the traditional sense of “oh, crap, I’m getting older” (which, just between you and me, I find a little whiny. Getting older, I always say, beats the alternative).

No, for me the problem is that, in our culture there can hardly be a celebration so inextricably bound up with sugar as the birthday. Not to indulge in a piece of a friend or relative’s birthday cake, it seems, is tantamount to rejecting that person altogether. (“Who me? Oh no, no cake for me. I don’t even like Gertrude!”) If you aren’t having a piece of that sugar-infused baked good, you had better have an excellent reason, such as being deathly allergic to birthday candle wax, or suffering from a temporary but severe case of salivary gland paralysis.

When Banana Cream Pie Goes Wrong

Even then. You’re on the outs- you are not partaking of the gastronomical expression of birthday bliss and somehow, in some way, that means you didn’t really celebrate. This year, for us, that has resulted in some choppy waters for us to navigate in the birthday ocean. And- in case you hadn’t noticed, somebody is ALWAYS having a birthday.

Consequently, in the interest of not completely wrecking my children’s childhoods, I’ve instituted the “birthday party” policy, to wit: “If five or more children are ALL HAVING THE SAME TREAT AROUND YOU SIMULTANEOUSLY, you can have it too.” This rule is motivated largely by an experience I had at one of our own birthday parties here at the house years ago, at which one poor child brought her own vegan cupcake which she picked at miserably, while the rest of the children enthusiastically dug into their cake slices. She might as well have been eating sawdust. I vowed that day never to do that to my children.

(This rule, alas, does not apply to Steve and I, who supposedly have the fortitude to stand by and chat smilingly while everyone else around us enjoys styrofoam cups full of Ben and Jerry’s Double Fudge Apocalypse.)

So Greta and I did enjoy S’mores on last week’s Sixth Grade Camping trip, (my most egregious transgression of the year) followed by two bites of cake at a communal birthday celebration held for not only Steve and my impending birthdays, but also three other Virgo friends as well.

Only two nights later we were celebrating Steve’s actual birthday and his special request for our official monthly dessert was an exciting challenge: ever since we had it at one of Emeril’s restaurants years ago, I’ve promised to recreate his signature Banana Cream Pie. But I’ve been intimidated… it’s a complicated recipe, on top of which I’ve been told by my cousin the pastry chef that the pastry cream filling in Emeril’s cookbook recipe doesn’t “work.”

So Monday afternoon I set out on my quest to conquer the Banana Cream Pie. First you make and bake the graham cracker and mashed banana crust; then you make the pastry cream (I used a Martha Stewart recipe in place of Emeril’s) which has to chill for two hours; after that you place alternate layers of sliced bananas with pastry cream in the crust, then chill another two hours. Before serving, you concoct a caramel sauce of sugar, water and heavy cream on the stove, and whip the heavy cream with vanilla and shave the chocolate… each of which gets ladled or dolloped or sprinkled on top just before serving.

Are you getting all of this?

In between steps I made our actual dinner, which seemed incidental. Finally, we had eaten dinner, opened presents, boiled the caramel, whipped the cream and sprinkled the chocolate. We sang the birthday song, and it was time to try the pie.

Oh. My. God. Was it SWEEEEEEEET. It actually made my teeth hurt. I mean, go figure, right? There was only sugar in every one of those- what- four separate recipes that were concocted and combined… from crust to cream filling to whipped cream to caramel drizzle. It’s a wonder we didn’t all pass out from Complete Sugar Shock.

Actually, I almost did. I felt awful. A few bites in and my head began pounding in earnest- as if it were being squeezed in a vice. The pie didn’t taste right either… it was just not right at all: in addition to being heart-stoppingly sweet, the texture was too goopy. After my entire afternoon’s investment of time I was deeply disappointed. I couldn’t finish my piece. Physically, I felt awful. I lay down on the couch and, exhausted, feel asleep.

It didn’t help, as it turned out, that I was coming down with a cold. Still, I wondered, have I changed so much? Contrary to what many have assumed, I’m not trying to wipe desserts from the face of the earth… just making the argument that we need them to truly be special. Had I worked so hard avoiding sugar only to have my love for that special dessert ruined? Is it really a case of all or nothing? I hated to admit it to myself, but lately I seem to have become the kind of person who gets much more enjoyment out of a “Dirt Cookie” (as I think of my bland, Dextrose-sweetened, oatmeal-raisin cookies, that only our family would love) than a well-made piece of pie.

Then again, I think, isn’t that what this year is all about? Changing our taste-buds? Realizing that we don’t “need” nearly the amount of sugar we regularly consume? Did I expect to get through the year completely unchanged? And if I did, would that be a good thing?

Oh, but change is hard.

The next day, despite my memory of the sickly-sweetness- I tried a bite of the leftover pie from the fridge and it was… good! Whoa- really good! THIS reminded me of the pie we had at Emeril’s. After the extra hours in the fridge the correct texture had finally been reached, and the coldness had additionally softened the sweetness. I was relieved: perhaps I hadn’t lost my ability to enjoy a good sweet after all.

Later that night after dinner, I shared the last pie slice with my husband. I should’ve stuck with the one or two bites- after that it started seeming too sweet again. Afterwards I had to go brush my teeth just to get that overpowering taste out of my mouth. And the headache came back.

Who knows- maybe the legacy of this No Sugar Year for me will be a two-bite limit on all desserts. Although my body would surely thank me for it, I have to admit… I’m a little ambivalent about that.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 67

We all have some funny coincidences in our lives. Personally, I happen to have a lot of birthday coincidences: my husband and dear friend Katrina share the same birthday… three of my bridesmaids were all born in February… my younger daughter was born just one day after my mom’s birthday… and so on. Perhaps the oddest coincidence of all is that in August my dad’s birthday falls just one day before… my mom’s boyfriend’s birthday. Ahem. Now, I don’t know much about astrology, but it seems to me that there is something going on there.

So this year the girls and I traveled to celebrate both of these birthdays, and fortunately for us my mom and dad don’t live too far apart for that to be possible. But if you’re like me you’ve already realized the unique conundrum this posed for us this year: birthday cake.

Dad's Dextrose Poppyseed Cake

Yes, what would be our August dessert? I pondered this. My brain resounded with the immortal wisdom of Highlander… “There Can Be Only One!!” What would we do? Uh…could we eat a half a piece of cake at each celebration? Would we skip dessert at both celebrations? Certainly we couldn’t shun dessert at one birthday- that would be like choosing sides, and worse… be tantamount to Birthday Treason. (They might be forced to read us our Birthday Rights- “You are under Birthday Arrest. You have the right to remain loud and silly. Anything goofy you are photographed doing can and will be used against you on Facebook…”)

I mean, these are two people I love in very different ways. They are apples and oranges. I’m grateful at least that their birthdays had the decency to fall one day apart so I always have the opportunity to celebrate everyone- but this cake thing presented a new, unprecedented problem. For the first time in our entire Year of No Sugar I had a choice to make: whose birthday got celebrated with sugar, and… whose did not. Ack!

Ultimately, I used my understanding of the two birthday honorees to figure it out. My dad is pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and always willing to question tradition in the interest of trying something new. I know he is interested in our family’s No Sugar project- we’ve had a series of conversations on the subject of what-the-heck-we’re-up-to.

On the other hand, John, who has been with my mom for the last twenty-five years or so, is more of a person who knows what he likes and likes what he likes. For his birthday dinner, for example, we were going to the Italian restaurant that has been his favorite for the last few decades. He also has a very live-and-let-live philosophy- he is entirely neutral on the subject of our No-Sugar adventure.

Then there’s my mom. Like Dad, Mom is supportive of our family project in spite of the fact that I’m pretty sure she’s worried I fell on my head before coming up with the idea. Mom’s the one who reads all my posts practically before I can even press “publish.” Yet, she’s also the one from whom I got my love of celebrations, and my implicit understanding that there are just certain things you do to celebrate a birthday. You have a special meal. You have decorations and presents and sing the birthday song. And you have a fabulous cake.

So it was decided that Mom would order a fabulous cake with a New Orleans theme, and that would be our *official* August dessert. Meanwhile, I was planning to make dinner for Dad at his house, so I would make him his longstanding favorite for dessert: poppy seed cake.

With dextrose.

God help me if it turned out awful. I know Dad wouldn’t mind, but I’d feel terrible.

But you know what? It didn’t turn out awful. Dad loved it. Everybody loved it. I was astounded. No one even asked if there was sugar in it! Afterward I told everyone that there was, technically speaking, no fructose/sugar in the cake at all. It was Dad’s turn to be astounded. My seventeen year old brother’s reaction was along the lines of “uh, yeah, whatever.” He didn’t care. Does it taste like cake? Must be cake. What I cared about was that he had eaten the whole piece- everyone had.

Now, truthfully, the cake wasn’t quite as “floofy” (that’s a technical term) as usual, but I think playing with the amount of dextrose might fix that. And while we’re being picky, the cream cheese frosting seemed, if anything, a bit too sweet to me- another thing which could be tweaked. All in all, I counted it a success.

John's Real Deal Cake

And of course, the next night we had cake- again! Except this time it was the real-sucrose-deal. We picked up the gorgeous confection from the Riviera Bakery where they are famous for fun things like Dr. Seuss-inspired shapes, edible candles, and cakes that look like giant hamburgers. John’s New Orleans cake was a vision in purple, green and gold, complete with white-chocolate Mardi Gras masks, and Fleur de Lis. Inside, three thin chocolate layers were interspersed with “cookies & cream” filling. It was literally a work of edible art.

Perhaps predictably, it seemed overwhelmingly sweet to me. I was surprised to find that I couldn’t finish my slice, and then noticed that neither could the girls. It was very good, but good in the way candy is good- you only need a few bites and it’s enough.

So in the end we were able to participate fully in both birthdays… apples and oranges. And we certainly got our fair share of cake. Thank goodness.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 55

I’ve been experimenting with brownies, and no, not that kind. Sheesh. I’d really almost forgotten how much I LOVE to bake. Sure, once in a while I get to make our Monthly-Agreed-Upon-Sugar-Containing-Special-Treat… but that is like dispensing water to a goldfish with an eyedropper.

I miss everyday cookies. I miss after-school cakes. I miss just-because pies. I miss having something sweet for no particular special occasion at all. Is it really just the sugar? Or is it something more metaphorical than that?

I’m not sure. But now I have my elephantine-size jar of dextrose and the world of treats is opening up again. First, I made Strawberry Ricotta Cake- whose recipe is available at David Gillespie’s website howmuchsugar.com- and the angels sang. Then, last week I began playing around with brownies in the hopes of bringing something to my daughter’s fifth grade class that wouldn’t invoke any gag reflexes. I was shooting high- I didn’t want to fall back on banana-and-raisin cookies, which I imagined the kids- who haven’t yet learned how to be as aggressively polite as grown-ups- would be tentative and lukewarm about. I wanted something more dramatic than that… something that looked and tasted like something they’d choose for themselves… on purpose. Something they might actually be surprised to know contained no added sugar.

So of course I went a little overboard, baking three different batches in two days. Everyone in my house was delighted with the sudden flood of brownies and repeatedly being asked to (sigh!) taste them.

The first two batches came from David Gillespie’s website again, but this time from a paid subscription portion of the site, which is to say that if I gave you the recipe I’d have to kill you. That’s okay, because unlike the Ricotta Cake, I didn’t have lots of luck with the Chocolate Fudge Squares Recipe: they came out undercooked and pudding-y inside, and my attempts to bake them longer did result in a better brownie, but a tad cakey and dry.

For the third attempt I decided to be truly daring and improvise a dextrose version of my favorite King Arthur Flour brownie recipe- you can imagine my shock when it actually worked and they were quite good. As in: if-you-didn’t-know-it-was-a-dextrose-brownie-you’d-never-know-it-was-a-dextrose-brownie-good. I’ll post the recipe here. If you read the last post you know that the kids ate them up, no questions asked, nary a surreptitious napkin spitting in the bunch. I was so proud you’d have thought I invented a cure for Fruit Loops.

Most recently, I tried the other day another howmuchsugar subscription recipe: Coconut Cake. As you may recall, we have a coconut pudding cake recipe that is much beloved in our house, but has yet to make it onto our Desert Island Dessert list… so this seemed like a good next attempt.

And how. Seriously, the kids were so excited by the wonderful smell of baking coconut and warm cake they couldn’t wait for it to cool completely before attacking the top with spatulas full of dextrose-cream-cheese icing. It was a bit of a runny mess as a result, but boy was it good! And it was so nice to have this ordinary, everyday-feeling cake, without having to feel required to go crazy and make the Mona Lisa of desserts since it would be a-whole-nother thirty-some days to till we got to have another one.

So dextrose is starting to look a lot like our friend. I can’t lie to you and say the desserts which result from it are just as sweet as what our culture is used to: they’re decidedly not. At thirty percent sweetness of traditional table sugar, you basically can’t fit enough dextrose into most traditional recipes to achieve that level of sweet-iousity. To us, however, with our recalibrated taste buds, they taste plenty sweet, maybe even preferably so. We don’t have to feel quite so completely in denial of all things sweet-ish, which is lovely.

Now, we just have to work on the image problem: dextrose just sounds too clinical, too science-y. I don’t care how good they are, you won’t find “Dextrose Coconut Cake” on the menu of your favorite restaurant anytime soon, and “Glucose Coconut Cake” is even worse, like something astronauts might eat in space. So how about it people, suggestions?