August 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Jack LaLanne was a man ahead of his time… do you think we’re healthier now than when he made these broadcasts?
June 7, 2011 § 8 Comments
Rhubarb is one of those funny New England fruits- like gooseberries or husk cherries- that sound adorable and quaint to the uninitiated, rather like something our grandparents might’ve made into a buckle or a fool. Then there are the devoted fans who know: there are few things better than an ice-cold slice of rhubarb pie. We have two rhubarb plants in our gardens- they’ve been here way longer than any homeowner- and every year we look forward to the first rhubarb pie of the season the way others look for the first robin sighting or the first blooming lilacs.
Rhubarb and I go way back. My mom used to make rhubarb pie when I was growing up, which is kinda weird, since we lived in the suburbs. I used to think she picked it from a plant in the backyard like we do now, but she recently told me that no, she bought it at the market- the plant we had was too sour, even for rhubarb. No matter. I still have my Mom’s recipe, complete with her perfect five-minute Cuisinart crust, and I make it every year with an almost religious devotion: for me, eating that first bite of rhubarb sweet-sour pie is reliving a moment of childhood happiness.
Oh, and did I mention the sugar? Oh yes, the sugar. A cup and a half of the sweet stuff to balance out four cups of the sour-red-celery-like stuff. My cousin Nan likes to tell the story of the first rhubarb pie she ever made: “I couldn’t believe it really needed that much sugar, so I cut it way back.” She recounts that when the pie came out it was utterly inedible. “Yup,” she’ll say laughing “rhubarb r-e-a-l-l-y does need that much sugar!”
So of course, as soon as the stalks were up from the ground this spring, I set my sights on dear old rhubarb pie for our May monthly dessert. It almost came to a food fight though: our eleven year old wanted Coconut Vanilla Pudding Cake and our six year old has her heart set on a batch of sugar cookies. Nurturing my inner tyrant, I decided that since neither of those choices was seasonally dependent, plus the fact that I had the distinct advantage of being the one who would actually make the dessert, rhubarb would prevail. Caesar lives.
The funny thing about so many pies is how much better they can get after a day of sitting in the refrigerator, getting chilled and letting all those sweet and sour and buttery flavors rest and meld together. Rhubarb pie is a classic example of this: out of the oven it is really, really good. Our of the fridge the next day? Ridiculous. Amazing.
Not to miss out, we had it both ways- the first night warm, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and the next night cold. It was heavenly… there it was again- a bite of my childhood, all the best parts in one single taste…
Something was amiss. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, and finally I realized it was this… this taste in my mouth… like the aftertaste you get from drinking a diet soda. Bleh! What was that? Then I knew: it was the sugar. Sugar and I, it seems, are now like old friends who haven’t seen each other in so long that when they get together it’s fun, but… a little awkward.
Nobody is more surprised than me about this turn of events. I expected a lot of things in our Year of No Sugar project: to gradually lose cravings for sugar (which I have), perhaps to lose a few pounds (which I haven’t), to notice sugar’s effects much more dramatically (which I have). For some reason, though, I didn’t expect to lose my taste for sugar itself. Does this mean (shudder) no more enjoying treats… ever?
(Cue the ominous music: Dun dun dun DUN…)
Meanwhile, I’ve been exploring the online work of Australian author David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, who I am going to insist on mentioning repeatedly until you go out and buy his book, because he’s a freakin genius. (If you do buy his book, be sure it is by Gillespie; in America there is a book by the same name by Dr. Janet Hull which focuses on the evils of aspartame).
It was in Gillespie’s book that I first heard about the possibility of using dextrose as a sweetener. Dextrose isn’t fructose; it is recognized by the body as glucose, which means your body knows what to do with it. Could this be? I wondered. Could we really have a dessert that didn’t have sugar in it or taste like bananas? And was actually good? I fairly salivated at the prospect.
Finding dextrose, however, isn’t as easy as wandering down to your local health food store. After looking high and low I gave up and ordered a ten pound container of the stuff online for about twenty dollars. At last the box arrived and it was… enormous! The orange plastic jar is roughly the size of a beach ball and is packaged similar to those colossal jars of weight-gain powder you see in mall vitamin stores. Seriously? I wondered…
Spurred on by what is left of my sweet tooth, I tackled David’s online recipe for “Strawberry Ricotta Cheesecake.” I was fully prepared to be deeply disappointed. I reminded the kids this was “an experiment” and might not be as wonderfully delicious as the name might suggest. But it did look pretty great in the oven, rising and browning just a bit on the top… and the smell was a warm, faint strawberry-inflected sweetness, distinctly dessert-y.
It cooled on the stove and sank a bit while we had dinner. After dinner, I eyed the “cheesecake” with great trepidation before finally cutting into it and distributing the plates. It sure did look good…
One bite, however, and my skepticism evaporated. In it’s place appeared surprise. Also, delight. I smiled big. I looked around and saw that the kids were smiling big too- in between big bites of white fluffy dessert- dessert that contained no fructose… effectively no added sugar. And it was GOOD! Really good!
If this was a made-for-TV movie, this would be the exact moment that the soundtrack featuring the Hallelujah chorus would break in, playing jubilantly over jump-cuts of us stuffing our faces with the fluffy treat. I couldn’t stop exclaiming how good it really was! I mean, it wasn’t S-W-E-E-T !!!… but it was quietly sweet- which at this point seems to be what we really prefer anyway. We all polished off our plates. The kids immediately were getting ideas: could we make ice cream with dextrose? How about sugar cookies?
Although I am old enough to be suspicious of anything that promises to be a panacea, I can’t help but wonder: would it work- and equally important, would it be heresy- to attempt a dextrose rhubarb pie?
May 20, 2011 § 1 Comment
The other morning I asked if my younger daughter would like some bananas on her oatmeal. It was the kind of question we ask that is a total formality, in the vein of “Would you like to have an after school snack?” or “Would you like to go on that roller coaster?”
But Ilsa stopped me in my tracks. “No.” she said.
I was pretty sure I had misunderstood, so I asked her again.
“No,” she repeated. “Sometimes I like to have it without.”
Instead of asking her “who are you and what have you done with my six-year-old” I watched her eat an entire bowl of oatmeal with milk. Plain. And then, as if the forces of the universe hadn’t toyed with my sense of the proper order of things quite enough, my eleven year old came in and proceeded to do the very same thing.
This brings me back to the thought that I had a few months ago when we began our Year of No Sugar, namely, that contrary to our assumptions, perhaps children may have an easier time with the omission of sugar in their foods, since they haven’t had as many years to get addicted as us tall people.
However, if that isn’t sufficient evidence, I hereby present exhibit B: the popsicle experiment. Both kids have been mentioning that not having ice cream this summer is going to be one of the hardest parts of the project. Therefore, when I saw some plastic make-your-own-popsicle molds I jumped at the chance to replicate an ice-cream-ish-experience in our own no-sugar universe.
Our oldest, Greta, was especially excited and asked to make them… repeatedly. Folks, this child has the determination of a jack hammer. After a few days of not making popsicles I, in desperation, ran out and bought the ingredient we had been lacking: yogurt. We raced home and mixed up a batch of banana yogurt popsicles that were- hooray!- frozen by dinner.
You know where I’m going with this: they love them. The kit makes six popsicles, so we were set for a satisfying “dessert” for the next three nights. Next time around I tried to be a bit more creative, adding in fresh strawberries so they turned pink in the blender, (turning anything pink is always a good move in a house with two girls) and then adding some frozen berries to float randomly about like little prizes. Again- super big hit. Huge.
But here’s the kicker: the other night I tried one and- don’t tell the kids, but- I’m not as impressed as they are. They’re good, but… very icy. Like sucking on a milk icicle. And not… forgive me… sweet enough. Gasp!
So there you have it. I have officially become fussier than my kids. Which is a relief, because at least for the moment I can relax that I’m not ruining their lives… in this way. Of course, I plan to continue my groundbreaking popsicle research in the interest of making zingier cold treats, but basically that’s for my benefit. The kids are perfectly happy. Go figure.
February 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Once again, I’ve been attempting too much around here (baking all our bread, making every meal from scratch, leading after-school activities, learning to bungee-jump in my spare time, re-grouting the bathroom blindfolded) and it started to get to me again. The other night I went to bed at 9PM! Which to my mind means that pretty soon I’ll be showing up for the early-bird special at the all-you-can-gum buffet. Beyond feeling old, I’m feeling incompetent too, because it seems that nothing is getting done around here except the things that don’t stay done for more than a few minutes.
Let me give you a for-instance: on Sunday I mixed up a nice batch of no-knead bread, only to have to pitch it last night when I discovered it fermenting in a soup on top of the toaster-oven, a good 24 hours after I should have turned it out onto a lightly-floured surface and let it rise an additional two hours before baking for 30 minutes at 450 degrees. Instead of a lovely loaf of crusty chewy bread, I got a slimy mess to scrape into the trash, before piling the gooey bowl on top of the desert island of dirty dishes we’ve been amassing in the sink.
Meanwhile, our family has been much anticipating our special Valentines Day dessert. Our family-agreed upon once-a-month confection being… (drumroll please): chocolate mousse! Now, I’ve never made chocolate mousse before, so this places more than a little bit of pressure on the chef… I mean, what if it turns out awful? Or deflates? Or does whatever it is that goes wrong with mousse? As one of only twelve official desserts of our family’s YEAR, that would be, to put it mildly, an enormous disappointment.
Nonetheless, I set out Monday night— after a long day schlepping to BJs warehouse to push around a shopping cart larger than a Volkswagen and read ingredients with a magnifying glass, then leading a two-hour after-school activity, and finally driving two additional kids to their corresponding homes, while picking my younger daughter up— to find the only chocolate mousse ingredient my pantry lacked: heavy cream.
Dutchie’s in West Pawlet? Closed Mondays. Sheldon’s in Pawlet? No heavy cream. Mach’s Market down the road? Yes! Heavy cream hiding on the top shelf behind the half and half… score! We hurried home so I could heat up the potato pizza leftovers from the night before and concentrate on making a beautiful Valentine’s Day dessert to show my family how much I loved them and make their tummies feel all happy and full. Despite the deprivation of the “Mommy’s idea” no-sugar project, this was one of only twelve nights this year I could indulge my affection for my family in the form of a sugar-containing treat.
That was when my older daughter Greta, in an effort to be helpful, read out loud the pivotal part of the recipe that I had somehow missed: “must chill for a minimum of two hours.” I stopped. I wilted. The dish mountain in the sink loomed at me like Kilimanjaro. The potato pizza had not been a hit the night before and was not likely to inspire more confidence on it’s second trip to the dinner table. There was no bread. No time to make dessert. And everyone was hungry.
I wanted to lie down on the couch and cry, but it was covered with a huge pile of unfolded laundry. So instead, I stood still in the middle of the kitchen and looked lost. Fortunately for me, Steve came home at precisely that moment, recognized the look on my face and took over: he took steaks down from the freezer for dinner, heated the potato pizza for a side dish, and handed me a pink bag with a pretty pink dress in it: Happy Valentine’s Day. He might as well have been wearing a cape and tights.
We all felt much better after eating dinner, despite the fact that the laundry and the dishes didn’t magically disappear. The kids were disappointed that our special dessert would have to wait, but I explained to them that- sugar project or no sugar project- there is only so much that Mommy can do.
Remind me to write that on my mirror, or my forehead, or something, would you?
February 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve never been very good at improvising. Despite my established status as a crafty-arty person, I am, I’m afraid, heartbreakingly literal in some ways- especially when it comes to food.
Just ask Katrina. She’s the friend who made me realize it was, perhaps, just a teensy bit rigid of me to time the pasta cooking to the second, just to make a pot of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. Have I made this mom-staple three thousand times? Yes. No matter: it takes an extreme force of will to get me to dump the pasta out a few seconds early, and it would plainly never occur to me to dump the milk in unmeasured. Gasp!
I’ve been known not to make a recipe at all for lack of a single, tangential ingredient, such as ½ tsp of tarragon. After all, I reason, that might make the dish! And why go through all the effort to make something not as good as it is supposed to be?
Over time, I have learned to loosen up somewhat- but it is on the No Sugar Project that my improvising wings have been forced to take flight, for better or worse. It started with me bravely leaving out a teaspoon of sugar here, a tablespoon of honey there. And so far everything had been- fine! I baked baguettes without ¾ of a teaspoon of sugar, cheddar cheese soup without Worcestershire sauce (couldn’t find a no-sugar version), and sweet potato biscuits without 2 tablespoons sugar.
But I’ve been feeling… empty lately: hungry not just for food per-se but for richness and variety in our diet. My older daughter mentioned that she could not eat another hard-boiled egg for breakfast and I know just what she means. So, following a certain degree of success with the somewhat unconventional apple-raisin cookie recipe I found online, I’ve decided to branch out and experiment in the name of enlarging our no-sugar dessert possibilities. After all we’ve given up sugar, not sweet.
So last night I tried making an apricot bar recipe that we have loved in the past, but omitting the ¾ cup of brown sugar called for in the butter and flour crust. Now ¾ cup is a lot more than a tablespoon, and I realized some sort of replacement would be necessary to round out the crust, and provide it with the correct density and stick-together-i-ness.
I ended up deciding to try ¾ cup mushed banana. I felt very adventurous, and half-sure we’d end up with an inedible mess.
Good news! The apricot bars weren’t just edible, they were actually good! I mean, the kids ate them up, which is really the true test. Turns out the banana pulp provided just the right amount of stickiness to form a proper crust and emitted a delicious sweet smell while baking. Of course, the bars weren’t nearly as sweet as before, but they were sweet, primarily due to the cooked apricot filling; despite the smell, the banana taste wasn’t very detectible in the end product. I cooked them a little longer in an attempt to get them to brown on the top in an appetizing way, but in the end I thought maybe adding an egg to the crust next time would do more to help in this regard.
Isn’t that nice? I’m ridiculously proud of myself, and am happy to have sent that empty feeling packing for the moment. I’ll have to remember this moment for times in the future when I’m hacking failed experiments into the trash with an ice pick.
For those of you who’d like to play along at home, here’s the recipe as modified from the original “Lemon Date Bars” found in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home:
Eve’s No Sugar Apricot Bars
- 2 cups chopped dried apricots
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 3/4 cup mushed up ripe banana
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 cup rolled oats
Preheat oven to 350
In a saucepan, combine the apricots, lemon juice and water. Cook, covered, on low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a bowl, cream together butter and banana. Stir in flour, salt and baking soda. Add oats and mix well, using your hands. The dough should be crumbly, but hold together when squeezed. Press two-thirds of the dough into a buttered 8 or 9 inch square pan. Stir the apricot mixture and spread it over the dough. Crumble the remaining dough on top. Bake for 40-45 minutes. Cool in the pan. Cut into bars.