September 17, 2011 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
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?