The Moral of Blackberry Tarts

May 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

Everyone who has a kid knows that there are moments when they surprise you utterly. Not like the time you caught them drawing on the wall with a sharpie. Like, in a good way, I mean.

Last night I had one of those moments. I came home from doing an errand to find my 12 year-old, Ilsa, shouting: “Don’t come in! I have a surprise for you!!!”

I know moms everywhere will forgive me for my next thought:


When Ilsa finally allowed us to see the table, though, I stopped in my tracks. The table was set for dinner- which was lovely in and of itself- but beyond this, sitting just to the side, was a beautiful… something. A platter that called to mind perhaps the tarts stolen by the Knave of Hearts. She had even styled it with a sprig of apple blossom, as if the folks from Martha Stewart Living would be stopping by to photograph it for the cover at any minute. They could have, too: it was as pretty and summery as anything I have ever seen.

Now, those of you who know me will recall that Ilsa has long been an improvisational baker. For whatever reason, and despite the fact that her mother is a confirmed recipe-slave, my youngest daughter simply has no patience for step-by-step instructions in the kitchen. Now that she’s old enough to use the stove and oven by herself, occasionally we are treated to her impromptu experiments, which I’m amazed to report, are always edible, and often surprisingly good.

On this occasion Ilsa had outdone herself. The little cake/tarts were moist and perfectly browned; the berry compote-like-mixture on top delicate and jammy. She was skeptical: too much baking soda, she said. I was skeptical right back: “I don’t know,” I said, my mouth full of tart, “These are really good.”

Hmmmm. I thought, as I took another bite, “Ilsa?” I asked. “Did you use sugar in these?”

“Nah” she shrugged. “We didn’t have any, so I just used the berries.”

So. I just want you to remember this story when people tell you kids need sugar. Must have sugar. That denying them sugar is, well, just plain mean. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it till I’m blue in the face, kids need lots of things: Love. Support. Nourishing food. Fun. Failure. They need a lot of things, irreplaceable things, things for which there is no substitute, but sugar isn’t one of them.

I’m not going to lie to you and say my kids don’t ask for dessert, don’t want cookies when they see them in bakery cases, don’t accept when people offer them candies to suck on: they do. Who among us is not conditioned to hold out their hand when offered a treat? But when they get those treats, how often do they say “Ew. This is so sweet!” and throw it away? You’d be amazed.

Just the other day in the parking lot of the school a friend gave us a chocolate eclair from a famed Italian bakery (yes- lovely, deeply well-meaning people still hand me sugar even though I wrote a whole book about avoiding it) and Ilsa clamored from the back seat to try it- terrified the way youngest children always are that she was going to miss out on something amazing. She took one bite and handed it back to me. She did not want any more.

“It tastes like… you’re just eating sugar!” she said disdainfully. “Why would they do that?”

6 Ways To Live Sugar Free

December 9, 2013 § 7 Comments

Year Of No Sugar Sheet

Is it April yet? How about now?

As if receiving the advance reader copies of Year of No Sugar this past Friday wasn’t exciting enough– the wonderful PR people at Sourcebooks are up all night designing lovely things like this “6 Ways to Live Sugar Free” promotional sheet… how cool is this?

Click on the image to the left to see all three recipes.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 69

September 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of our family’s year-long sugar abstinence will be the fact that my children will never entirely forgive me. That they will never again trust me not to take away something as beloved as sweet treats, when they least expect it. Or perhaps they’ll grow up to institute an “all candy, all the time” program in their households, just to balance their childhood out.

This is what I worry about, when I worry.

However, for me, one of the greatest legacies of the No Sugar project will be coming to realize the incredible resilience of my children. I know- I’ve talked before about being blessed with children who are, most of the time, pretty adventurous with food. Greta, my eleven year old, likes to brag about having eaten snails in Paris, and is impatient with the kids’ menu at most restaurants, choosing instead a flank steak or French onion soup or Penne alla Vodka from the adult menu. Ilsa, who is six, is if anything even more enthusiastic: in Italy, where kids menus are nonexistent, we could order her a cheese plate or a “crostini misti”- which includes chicken liver pate- and she’d be happy as a clam in butter.

I’d love to take credit for all this culinary open-mindedness, but honestly I’m not sure: are fussy eaters born, or made?

So here’s the thing: lately my kids have been insisting to be let into the other side of the equation: they want to cook… and they are not taking no for an answer. This is great, right? In theory… but in practice you get into things like sharp knives, hot stoves, and the fact that mommy-can’t-supervise-right-now-because-if-she-doesn’t-get-some-laundry-done-you’ll-both-be-going-to-school-tomorrow-in-bathing-suits. Kids cooking is wonderful, if not always terribly convenient.

And too, if I’m entirely honest with myself, there’s the fact that I often enjoy cooking alone- the peaceful meditation of chopping, kneading, mixing and preparing has become a quiet pleasure I look forward to when I’m not in a frantic rush to produce sustenance NOW. It’s not unusual for me to plan a more complicated meal some afternoon when I know I’ll have a few hours to spend pulling it together, and to look forward to it as “me” time. This is all the more so the case since we began the No Sugar Project, as if to compensate for the lack of sweets, I seem to focus more and more on the homemade, which may be simple, but is definitely not always expedient.

Fresh pasta is a quintessential example. What could be more delicious? What could be simpler? What could be more of a pain in the tookas? Inspired by our recent trip to Florence I had been wanting to find an afternoon to make fresh gnocchi, which I learned to make a few years ago and have only attempted here at home a handful of times. (By the time I forget the consequent mountain of dishes and the several hours of work, it’s usually about time for me to attempt it again.)

This time was different, however; this time the kids wanted to help. Demanded to help, actually. It was one of the last few days before school and I was savoring the luxury of spending the afternoon with them with no place to rush off to- no soccer practice, no ballet class, no library board meeting. And yet I felt conflicted… what if they screwed the pasta up? What if hours of work resulted in a gloppy, unpalatable mess? Then- panic attack- what would we have for dinner? (As you can imagine, between living in the country and being on the sugar project, there aren’t very many quick-fix options open to us when dinner goes, suddenly, horribly wrong.) Now, there are times when me being such a relentless control freak has it’s benefits- this is not one of them.

Another recent kid concoction... sugar free apple sauce!

I took a few deep breaths and decided to get over it. If we’re going to teach our kids about real food, we are going to have to let them learn how to make it, aren’t we? I knew it was time to put my money where my mouth was.

Boy, I’m glad I did. They were amazing! In fact, after I made the dough- kneading together fresh boiled potatoes, flour and egg- the kids did all the work while I sat back and watched. And this is not an inconsiderable amount of work, either: Greta carefully sliced bits of dough from the large dough “loaf,” rolling each one out into a long, 1/4” diameter snake. Ilsa would take over at this point, cutting dozens of tiny gnocchis from the snakes the size of Tootsie Rolls; each tiny island of dough carefully kept separate on the cutting board so as not to have the pasta bits stick together. This was not Kraft Easy-Mac. This took a long time. I was amazed at their tenacity, their patience.

Did everything go perfectly? No. At one point, in what will hereafter be referred to as the Great Gnocchi Massacre of 2011, Ilsa accidentally knocked the wooden cutting board- filled with little cut up gnocchi- just off the counter enough to dump a good three dozen onto the kitchen floor. The three of us gasped. We were hushed for a moment, staring at the floor and thinking about the hard work that- poof!- was gone just like that. Then Ilsa ran off, in tears.

Now, some people have a Little Devil on their shoulder. I have a Little Control Freak. The Little Control Freak whispered in my ear “See? Told you so. All that work. What will you have for dinner now?” Fortunately, I listened instead to the Mom Angel on my other shoulder who said “There’s still plenty of pasta left. Nobody died. It’s fine.” And of course, it really was. Soon, I managed to convince Ilsa of that fact as well and we were back to the pasta factory.

In fact, it was better than fine. We had a lovely dinner that took us all afternoon to make and BOY were the girls proud! And it was delicious- even if they weren’t as ridiculously careful about it as I would have been. I mean, it’s just potatoes, egg and flour, right? Real, homemade food is desperately important- to our health, to animal welfare, to the environment- but fortunately for us, most of the time it’s not rocket science. It just takes a little time. And patience.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 50

May 24, 2011 § 4 Comments

I find myself writing things like “once again, we realize that sugar is in absolutely everything including your sneakers,” and “as I mentioned before, my kids are happily eating their carob chip cookies, and plotting their eventual revenge.”

I feel like I am, how shall I say this? Repeating myself. There are two reasons for this: one, because of the blog format, I can never be sure what the reader reading this sentence right now already knows, so I reiterate a bit to make sure they’re with me to a reasonable extent. The second reason is due to the very nature of eating. I mean, what else do we do as often as eating? Three times per day plus snacks… It’s really a wonder we get anything else done. When traveling it often seems to me as if, for the Europeans, work is just a brief respite between the real business of the day- coffee, lunch, and dinner.

I think often too, about the Little-House-on-the-Prairie days, when it was a full-time job just to get those three meals on the table, day after day after day… The stomach does not take a day off- and neither did Ma.

Which brings up the notion of monotony. In a diet which has added sugar entirely absent from it, variety equals morale; and we need morale or we risk mutiny on the bounty. Whereas in the past I’d relied upon the health food section of the cereal aisle to provide me with variety, nowadays I work a whole lot harder than that. Breakfast is the hardest meal in the no-sugar day as David Gillespie concurs in Sweet Poison. In fact, one of Gillespie’s five “rules” for living fructose-free is: “Be careful at breakfast.” Oooooo! Sounds like a good title for a new diabetic horror movie. SOOOO many breakfast foods are laden with an obscene amount of sugar that it’s no wonder we sometimes get confused: “Hey Mom, is this blueberry buckle for breakfast, or dessert?”

As if this weren’t bad enough, people delight in celebrating with “Sadie Hawkins”-style sugar too- sugar when you weren’t expecting it, such as having “breakfast for dinner”- pancakes with maple syrup- or “pie for breakfast”- which they do as an annual fundraiser in a nearby town. I’m all for fun and variety, but even before our Year of No Sugar began, the thought of having a nice piece of lemon meringue pie for breakfast makes me a little queasy.

But somehow, all this breakfast sugar isn’t supposed to count. No one thinks of having chocolate cake with ice cream for breakfast- ew!- but what is the difference between that and french toast with syrup or- if you’re at IHOP- chocolate chips and whipped cream?

So I work hard at breakfast. In the case of my youngest daughter- who is six and has been clinically diagnosed as “always hungry”- I’m actively competing with the school breakfast which features nifty things like Frosted Flakes and Goldfish Grahams with crystalline fructose (Better than just fructose! It’s like sugar heroin!) If I’m going to get her at least reasonably full before she encounters that sugar buffet, I’m going to have to be creative.

Therefore, whereas I used to sleepily throw three or four boxes on the table with some bowls, now I actively plan a loose breakfast rotation: soft boiled eggs and toast, yogurt with strawberries, oatmeal with bananas, toast with cheese and cantaloupe, bagels and cream cheese with slices of orange… occasionally I brew some peppermint tea, or my husband makes a frothy milk drink we call a “steamer,” (which we grew to love back when we used to make it with maple syrup.) This morning I sprang European “Ovaltine” on them (American Ovaltine has sugar in it) and the results were mixed: they loved it, but … the drink was so good it got them reminiscing about other delicious drinks they only distantly recall at this point: hot chocolate, hot apple cider, juice.

“I really miss having sugar,” Greta, our oldest, said with feeling, “It’s so hard.”

“Me too.” Ilsa agreed, lightly.

Then Greta had a thought which she hadn’t before.

“Hey- what will we do about Halloween? And Thanksgiving? And Christmas?” she was wide-eyed, preparing to panic.

Oh boy. “Well, we’ll have to be creative,” I began, “we’ll…”

“I love Halloween,” Ilsa broke in. Oh boy. Here we go, I thought, melt-down time. Where’s the Kleenex…?

“But,” Ilsa added, “what should I be? Should I be a monkey?”

And just like that, the conversation shifted and panic was averted. For now. I was amazed at Ilsa’s simple, unconscious reminder to me: sure, food is really, really important. But it isn’t everything.

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