December 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without cookies, would it? As much as hanging our stockings and running out of Scotch tape, cookies have become an intrinsic part of the way our culture celebrates the holiday season. Every family I know has their own unique and highly personalized cookie tradition.
When I was growing up, it was jelly thumbprints and chocolate chip meringues. Maybe this doesn’t sound very Christmasy to you, but all I have to do is taste that buttery dough with a bit of raspberry jam and I am instantly transported to the Christmases of my childhood. I have since realized that making those two cookies together also represented an ingenious way to not let any eggs go to waste: thumbprints got the yolks, meringues the whites. In my husband’s house it was- and still is- his mother’s amazingly addictive sugar-cookie cut-outs with icing and sprinkles. The famous family story about them involves Sharon making them far in advance one year, in an attempt to get ahead of the holiday mayhem, only to find that the boys had discovered her stash and eaten ALL the cookies in advance- perhaps also to get a jump on the holiday season.
When I grew up, I learned from my cousin Gretchen that our family had a much older cookie tradition that had been brought over from the old country called “Flettin.” Every November, weeks before the holiday season really got underway, the family women would convene and proceed to spend the entire day rolling, cutting, and frying dough. After being sprinkled with a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon, the delicate little things would be wrapped in linen and stored in the attic (!!) for several weeks to let them “age,” which presumably made them even more crunchy and crispy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure in my house the attic mice would do a number on these cookie baskets similar to what my husband and his brother did to his mother’s big green Tupperware bowl.
Nonetheless, in recent years our family has revived the Flettin tradition. It’s more of a production these days, since everyone is coming from all across New England rather than from down the block or across town, but all the planning pays off when we finally arrive at one of our houses and settle in to tie on the apron strings. Even with the dough prepared in advance- a very strange recipe involving lots of sour cream, separated eggs and kneading (who kneads cookie dough?)- it takes pretty much all day. We always set up an assembly line with the Flettin veterans at the fryers and novices and kids on cookie cutting and sugar-sprinkling detail.
For years Gretchen had been threatening to send the story of our Flettin tradition to the King Arthur Flour’s magazine The Baking Sheet– with hopes they would finally resolve some of our long-standing debates: has anyone else ever heard of this recipe? Do we really have to separate and whisk the egg whites, only to knead and pound the dough after their addition? And honestly, was that aging in the attic thing a real step, or yet another clever strategy for getting a head start on the holidays?
Gretchen really did send our story in, and, amazingly, they published it in their 2011 holiday issue. If you find a copy, you can read all about it, see pictures of our family, the cookies, and find out what they thought about our quirky family recipe. We all thought that was pretty cool.
But that’s not really the point, I think. Cause you know what? Flettin are a lot of work, part of our family history and a wonderful Christmas tradition, but psst!… they’re not THAT good. I mean, they’re good. But is that really what we drive several hours for? What we slave over a hot fryer all afternoon for? “Linen in the attic” instructions notwithstanding, in my opinion they always taste best that day, warm from the fryer, freshly sprinkled and eaten while surrounded by family, some of whom you won’t have the opportunity to see again till we do this next year. We don’t have much in the way of family heritage, so Gretchen and I are holding onto Flettin tight: it’s not really about the cookies as much as about the fact that they’re our cookies.
As it turns out, this year the family didn’t manage to get together for a Flettin day, so I didn’t have to confront what it would mean in light of No Sugar- too bad. Instead, I’ve been creating some oxymoronic recipes at home such as No-Sugar Sugar Cookies and Dextrose Gingerbread. They’ve so far gotten good reviews from my helpers and harshest critics- the kids. Thus, despite all our fretting, I have a sneaking suspicion that a No Sugar Christmas will work out just fine. Sugar or no, the most important part of these cookies will be the fact that we baked them, and ate them, together.
October 22, 2011 § 2 Comments
Recently I was talking to my mom on the phone and she said “How much time do you have left on this thing anyway? Two months?”
And it hit me- she’s right. We’ve been on No Sugar for ten months now… which means we’re, uh… we’re… five-sixths of the way done!
It does make me glad to know we’ve made it this far, and that, despite several dreams I’ve had to the contrary, I haven’t suddenly forgotten the project and ordered a hot fudge sundae, only to suddenly, panic-stricken, remember- gasp! The Project!- half-way through eating it. (Yes, I’ve really had those dreams. Sometimes they’re petit fours. I don’t know why. I’m like, “Petit fours? Really?”) I’m also glad, of course, because some days No Sugar can be a certified pain in the tookas.
Looking back lo those many months ago when we first started out though, I can discern in myself a bit of the wide-eyed zealot, which I think you kind of have to be in order to attempt a project of this magnitude, and truthfully, obnoxiousness. I had some weird degree of fun in finding the sugar where we least expected it… as if to say: look! See? I’m not crazy! They’re the ones that are crazy!?! See! Ha ha! Why are you all looking at me funny?
Nowadays, I know the drill. I know it so well it can be maddening. I could play parlor tricks with my wealth of fructose knowledge. (“Go ahead, check the ingredient list. It’s there. Yeah, I’ll wait.”) We rarely make rookie mistakes anymore, no longer bring home things we haven’t read the teeny-tiny ingredient-print of closely enough. We know which items on the restaurant menus are safe and which are verboten before we even ask. Our lapses aren’t the exciting “Whoops, I had a chocolate eclair!” variety, but rather the mundane items we know better about: my husband Steve looks the other way while I eat a sandwich roll which undoubtedly was made with some minuscule amount of sugar… and I try not to look askance at him while he leaves the bacon pieces on his restaurant salad. Bless me father for I have sinned… I had impure thoughts about my neighbor’s shrimp cocktail sauce.
Nonetheless, it’s been a year since I’ve had a glass of juice. Or a candy bar. We’ve been to cotton-candy-less circuses and cider-doughnut-less days at the apple orchard. Do I still crave these things? Yeah, but it’s different. The loudspeaker demand in my head has shrunken to a wistful sigh. When we visited the orchard and smelled the cider donuts in the air I deeply inhaled the smell, appreciating the sweet, sad, fall-ness of it. It was lovely. Then Steve said, “Let’s get out of here- that’s torture!”
I can still get excited about the project though, just in different ways. Right now I’m trying to replicate the lemon-sesame seed cookies we get at the health food store from GoRaw, (inspired, in part, by the “What-are-these-covered-in-gold-leaf?” price tag.) I love how excited everyone gets in our house when I make No Sugar desserts: the kids jump up and down and yell “cookies!! cookies!! C-O-O-K-I-E-S!”
When the very first batch came out of the oven my six-year-old Ilsa came to grab not one but two, and I asked her “It’s a new recipe- How do you know you’re going to like them?”
She gave me a look that said she’s pretty sure I couldn’t possibly be that stupid.
“They’re cookies, Mom!” she patiently explained.
I felt bad, then, when she had to come back and spit the cookie into the sink.
February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
You can’t spell “A Year of No Sugar” without “cookie”… at least as far as I’m concerned. So a few days ago I decided to shoot for the moon: I printed out a copy of “the real, the original, the authentic Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe,” and immediately began to dismantle it for my own selfish purposes.
This was by far my most ambitious recipe tampering to date. Not one, not two, but in fact three major ingredients would have to go (white sugar, brown sugar, and chocolate chips), replaced by something that, ideally, would resemble them in taste, texture, and bake-ability. (When you start messing with established recipes, you get to make up cool kitchen science-y words like “bake-ability.” Also, you get to wear a shrewd, “I’m thinking about complex food algorithms right now” facial expression with your white apron.)
Since I’d already established with my apricot bars that mashed banana made a very passable sugar substitute, I figured it would do for the ¾ cup of white sugar called for; that still left the ¾ cup of brown sugar, which after some deliberation I decided in my no-sugar universe we would call “chopped up dates.” Lastly I replaced the chocolate chips with one of my new favorite health food store finds: carob chips.
You know what? They were good. I mean, not “the-best-cookie-you-ever-ate” good, but good enough that every kid I gave them to said “yummy” and ate the whole thing. (I feel kids are the most dependable taste testers because they’re the ones who have no qualms about spitting a cookie out on your linoleum, whether it hurts your feelings or not.)
Inspired by my lack of spit-out cookies, my husband Steve decided we needed to have a no-sugar peanut butter cookie as well, but he decided to make them gluten-free also, in part because our friend Katrina is gluten-free and she was coming over that night. He followed a recipe we had and used mashed banana in place of the sugar and rice flour in place of the all-purpose. The first batch was good-ish… kind of like a peanut butter flavored biscuit. I didn’t care for them especially at first, but over time I started really liking their mild, sweet cake-i-ness (see? More new words and food algorithms.)
Then Steve upped the ante. Yesterday he tried a new batch with less rice flour, shorter baking time, increased peanut butter and the addition of ground peanuts as well. He also put in a truly obscene number of bananas. The result is really quite impressive- soft and mildly sweet and very peanut buttery; more cook-y less cake-y.
It was really nice to be able to put a cookie in each of our kid’s lunches this morning; like so many times in the past when I’ve sent sugar desserts, I felt like I was sending them a little edible love note. Isn’t it funny how we can so easily translate giving them a little treat- a little something sweet- as love?
Eve’s Bizarro-Chip Cookies
2 ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks, ½ pound) butter, softened
¾ cup mashed bananas
¾ cup chopped dates (lightly dust with four before chopping, so they don’t stick as much)
1 tsp vanilla extract (make sure no added sugar)
2 cups (12 ounce package) carob chips
1 cup chopped nuts
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine four, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Beat butter, banana and dates in large mixer bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in carob chips and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased baking sheets.
Steve’s Gluten-Free, No-Sugar Peanut Butter Amazings
2 cups peanut butter
2 cups peanuts, chopped
2 large eggs
2 ½ tsp vanilla
6 large ripe bananas
2 sticks butter, softened
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups rice flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix butter and bananas in mixer for three minutes. Add eggs, vanilla, baking powder, baking soda and mix. Add peanut butter slowly. Add rice flour and mix. Last, add two cups chopped peanuts and mix.
Roll golf-ball sized balls of dough in your palms, place on cookie sheet and then make fork indentations criss-cross to flatten: they should be ¼ to ½ inch thick. Bake for nine minutes- no longer!!! They will dry out if over-baked. Cool completely before tasting (they are sweeter after cooling.)
February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
Hooray! One month down; a mere eleven more to go. I thought this might be a good moment to pause and reflect on some of the things that are working for our family so far:
-Popcorn! We’re big on snacks around here, so in addition to the ever-present bowl of apples (local) and clementines (decidedly not), I’ve found popcorn to be a reliable no-sugar option. Whereas we used to buy a box of microwave bag popcorn at the supermarket fortified with about four-thousand mysterious ingredients, now we buy popcorn kernels by the pound from Ryan- a vendor at the Dorset Farmer’s market. We pop it with a little canola oil, add olive oil or butter and salt and voila! I never used to be a huge popcorn fan, but now I’m a new convert.
-Hummus!! The kids are big fans of this chick pea and tahini dip which never tastes right when we buy it from the store- I make it myself in the Cuisinart from a can of chick peas, some garlic, olive oil, salt, lemon juice and tahini. Paired with corn chips or crackers it goes so fast around here that I have yet to put any away in the fridge for later.
-Oatmeal made with milk and topped with fruit has become a breakfast staple. Sure, it’s a pain having to turn the stove on and actually cook before I’m even fully awake, but I’m getting used to it. In the last month we’ve tried oatmeal with fresh cut-up strawberries, blueberries and frozen organic raspberries on top. Raspberries seem to lend the best juicy sweetness to the oatmeal.
-Steve’s famous banana ice cream has been a lifesaver when we’re feeling deprived and in need of a dessert option. In the last month we’ve had it at least three or four times. We’ve lucky to have the Champion Juicer in our appliance arsenal, because I’m not sure how else one would achieve that soft-serve texture that it creates from the frozen banana flesh. We’re SO excited about it that we tried to make some for a friend and her kids a few nights ago even though we didn’t quite have enough banana-freezing time, and thus ended up with more of a banana pudding- which actually I thought was almost as good. (Our friend and her kids however- who aren’t as sugar-starved as we are apparently- seemed less than impressed.)
-Raisin cookies! In my mostly-fruitless search for some genuine no-sugar dessert recipes online, I found this recipe for cookies made with raisins and apples. You have to work a little harder than with most cookie recipes- the fruit gets cooked before being added to the dry ingredients, and the mixed batter must then chill in the fridge overnight… but it really does result in a cookie! Without sugar! Okay, this might be the banana pudding effect at work again; I probably wouldn’t try to stack these up against Nestle Tollhouse or anything, but for a no-sugar dessert these are sweet and chewy and definitely cookies. I wasn’t sure how I’d make a whole year without cookies!
–Anything to not feel deprived. One pivotal thing I’ve learned over the last month is that so much of our battle is psychological: we’re often fine eating at home, but when we are surrounded by friends at school or skating or movie night at the school, all having snacks or treats we aren’t, suddenly things get exponentially harder. Therefore, when we’re at skating I make it a point to let the kids buy an apple or banana from the snack bar. No, the fruit isn’t organic, in fact it doesn’t even look very good, and yes, it is ridiculously expensive ($1.50 for an apple, anyone?) but when I suggested to my six-year-old that we could bring better fruit from home she objected immediately. “It’s more fun to buy it here, Mommy.” Okay. We aren’t buying the soft pretzels or hot cocoa or french fries or gatorade that everyone else is- but at least we can buy something from the concession stand too. And sometimes that can make all the difference.