June 12, 2014 § 9 Comments
Can we talk about chocolate? First of all I’ve discovered that, apparently nothing rhymes with it. According to the unerring wisdom of the Internet, it rhymes with charming words like “slut,” “butt,” “gut” and “mutt.” This is probably why we don’t see any chocolate candy bars with cute rhyming names because they’d have to be something like: “Glutbutt’s Chocolate Nutty Sluts”!
But we all know chocolate doesn’t really rhyme with “nut,” because if it did we’d pronounce it “choc-LUT,” as opposed to “choc-LET.” (My computer goes on to insist that chocolate also rhymes with blanket, beechnut, carrot and zealot. My computer is, apparently, a moron.)
It seems nothing really rhymes with chocolate. Likewise, nothing really can take its place. During our Year of No Sugar I found lots of sugar replacement strategies that worked great, or at least pretty well. I managed to make banana ice cream, shortbread, brownies and coconut cake all of which passed effortlessly for sugar-containing (read: fructose-containing) treats.
But not chocolate. Chocolate, we came to realize during that sugar-free year, was the one thing we simply could not have, or even approximate.
Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of “Sugar Free,” chocolates on the market to choose from, but in the marketplace “Sugar Free” usually means traditional sugar has been replaced with one of two things:
- fake sugars (Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose which are marketed as Nutrasweet, Equal, Sweet n’ Low, Splenda)
- sugar alcohols (usually Maltitol but also Xylitol, Sorbitol, Isomalt etc.)
Because of reported possible side effects ranging anywhere from gastric distress to infertility and cancer, our family chose to away from both of these categories as well. So “Sugar Free” chocolate was also out.
Instead, we fed our inner chocolate lover with baked goods made with unsweetened cocoa. And those were good, often really quite good. But nothing ever came close to replicating the experience of a bite of actual, snap-when-you-bite, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate. Accordingly, at the end of our Year of No Sugar, when we all chose a special treat to have at midnight- what did I choose? A Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Ahhhh- chocolate at last.
So you can imagine how intrigued I was to find out recently that some friends of ours have recently taken up the pastime of home-chocolate making. Immediately, I wanted to know: could they make chocolate with a non-fructose sweetener? Could one make chocolate with… dextrose??
Now I’ve been down this road before. Similar to chocolate, sugar has some unique, magical properties that can’t always be replicated. Not only does sugar sweeten, but it also preserves, it thickens, it fills, it transforms things from one state to another. Therefore, using an alternative ingredient in sugar’s place may meet one need of the recipe, but not another. Exhibit A: Dextrose Jelly. In my book, Year of No Sugar, I tell the story of how I tried to make Concord Grape Jelly using dextrose in place of sugar, but suffice it to say that (spoiler alert!) I ended up with quite a few jars of an only just passable grape sauce instead.
Nevertheless, in the case of chocolate, my friends Tom and Robin were game to try. So one day recently I arrived at their home armed with my beach-ball-sized, orange, plastic barrel o’ dextrose.
Let me just say right now: making your own chocolate is unbelievably complicated. It’s the kind of thing that’s so convoluted that half-way through you begin to wonder how on earth it ever got invented in the first place. It’s not the kind of thing I would do to relax in my free time at home, any more than I would choose to build a particle accelerator out of matchsticks and used chewing gum in my backyard. But nonetheless this is Tom’s hobby.
Tom began by taking cacao beans he had already roasted and running them through a Champion juicer. Immediately, I was in out of my depth. Tom was talking about “volatiles” and “acetic acid” and “particles below 20 microns.” There was vocabulary, which being a word-person I can handle, but there was also lots of chemistry, which, being a word-person, makes me vaguely nauseous.
I tried to keep up. After grinding, the cacao bean “nibs” are separated from the husks via a complicated winnowing apparatus known as Tom’s hairdryer. Then back into the juicer they go, for a second grinding, which turns the nibs into a cocoa “liquor,” a rich-looking brown paste. The paste then gets ground by another specialized machine- a “melanger”- which refines all the grains down to a smooth consistency.
Then came an important moment- the step in which we would add the dextrose powder in place of sugar. But when we did, Tom was not pleased with whatever was happening in the melanger. He wondered aloud whether the mixture would “seize,” which definitely sounded like a bad thing, and made repeated frowning faces into the revolving mixer.
“It’s behaving very differently,” he said raising an eyebrow. “Well… we’ll see.”
“How does it taste?” Robin asked when he sampled some.
“Not very good,” he said matter-of-factly.
At this point I was quietly fearing for the life of the Dextrose Chocolate, who without warning was now under 24 hour surveillance in the chocolate ICU. Doctor Tom didn’t seem to like its chances for survival, and even if the patient survived, I wondered: what kind of quality of life could it possibly hope for as a chocolate that doesn’t taste good? And who does one contact to administer last rites to a blob of cocoa paste?
It would be awhile before we found out the answers to these questions: the melanging step lasts hours– I came back the next day for the final steps, which included “tempering” the now super-smooth paste by heating it in the microwave to exactly 120 degrees. Once the correct temperature is reached, you quickly reduce the temperature to 81 degrees. This is accomplished by spreading some of the paste on a marble slab and working it back and forth with a spackle thingy. (That’s a technical term.)
Patiently, Tom smoothed the chocolatey blob back and forth like the world’s most delicious wall plaster until he could tell from experience it was ready to “seed” the rest of the batch. Tom was talking about the four different types of butterfat crystals and the fact that the time-length for heating is not linear because of the changing crystal structure. He also said, and I quote, that “chocolate is a non-Newtonian liquid.” If you figure out what this means, please do not tell me.
Then back to the microwave! Are you with me? Now that the correct chemical whatzit had been reached we wanted to reliquify our chocolate to allow for spreading it into the bar molds. After this was accomplished, Tom checked carefully for evidence of any “bloom” which would’ve required the tempering process be done all over again. Incidentally, this is the point at which many chocolate makers kill themselves.
So do you want the good news or the great news? The good news is that the chocolate worked– the consistency was right, the liquid turned into actual, snap-able bars, tempered properly with no bloom and everything. The better news? It’s not only good- it tastes like… chocolate! Real chocolate! After licking one of the spoons used to portion the bars, Greta was fully prepared to arm-wrestle Robin for dibs on the spatula. It was very dark, yes, less sweet, yes. But no weird aftertaste, no “gastric distress.” There’s no fructose in sight and yet- it is nonetheless, undeniably real chocolate.
Who would’ve guessed that chocolate might rhyme with… dextrose? I mean, besides my computer.
June 22, 2012 § 17 Comments
Can you believe how much sugar has been in the news lately? Between Mayor Bloomberg’s soda embargo and HBO’s high profile documentary on obesity in the US, not to mention the new statistics coming out weekly pronouncing sugar responsible for everything from hemorrhoids to hammer toes (Sugar makes you fat! Sugar makes you stupid! Sugar makes you really, really annoying at parties!) it seems to me a wonder that we all haven’t started treating the stuff like rat poison rather than our favorite ingredient for summer fun.
But it is our favorite ingredient for summer fun (and spring, fall, and winter fun) and it all goes to show how terribly addicted we all are- both biologically and socially- to this ingredient which has been proven comparable to cocaine in the effects it has on our brain. As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, ever since our family’s official Year of No Sugar concluded, I’ve been living the strange life of a reformed addict… like the alcoholic who is convinced they can drink “occasionally,” or the rare person who can smoke the “once-in-a-while” cigarette without getting hooked. Can one have “just a little” sugar? The slope is sooooooo slippery that I continue to be unsure.
I’ll give you a for instance: a few days ago, I took our two girls strawberry picking. I was in a panic because strawberries have had a rough year- what berries there are have almost been picked out of our area farms already. For a good hour the kids ran up and down the rows exclaiming over especially big or funny-shaped examples… it was like a perishable treasure hunt. In our enthusiasm we picked two full flats- a good $45 worth of the pretty little orbs. It was a great fun. Once we got them home, however, I was forced to contemplate what on earth we would, in fact, do with all of them.
Sure, we’d eat a lot of them plain, or sliced on our cereal and oatmeal. But what else? In the past I would’ve made a host of pies, breads, scones and muffins. With the remainder I would’ve made steaming pots of strawberry jam. In short: sugar, sugar, and LOTS of sugar. This year…? In the midst of my sugar identity crisis I’m paralyzed by indecision- and thus the strawberries sit undisturbed, taking up a ridiculous portion of our fridge, and not getting any younger, mind you.
I’d like to pick up where I left off last year experimenting with some no-sugar jams using Pomona pectin, or maybe attempting some no-sugar freezer jams/fruit spreads… but these things take time and patience. These days those things are in short supply as I’m frantically packing our older daughter up for her first-ever week of sleep-away camp and (by the way) trying to finish this little book I’ve been working on entitled A Year of No Sugar (remind me to tell you about it sometime…) so here’s my Official Prediction: in a panic at the eleventh hour I’ll wash and freeze the lot of them, discarding a depressing amount that have already shriveled while I was having my extended Hamlet moment of indecision (To bake? Or not to bake? That is the question…).
Meanwhile, summer rolls onward and sugar pops up on a regular basis to say “Boo!” In the last week our family has celebrated a graduation, a birthday, our anniversary, and Father’s Day not to mention the arrival of the local carnival and, of course, summer itself. Even without this celebratory traffic-jam, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t confront the Sugar Question: lemonade at the farmer’s market? Cotton candy at the fair? Chocolate buckeyes by the register at the local sandwich counter? Ice cream? Ice cream? Ice cream?
Is it good enough that we don’t drink soda (now in garbage pail size!), don’t buy candy bars (still legal!), don’t buy processed or added sugar foods (now, with more ingredients than ever!!)? Maybe. It’s something I struggle with every day while the world keeps spinning around me, largely oblivious, despite the increasingly scary statistics and revelations.
Even if the bucket soda ban and the HBO series aren’t perfect, and of course they aren’t, they’re terribly important by virtue of the fact that they’re trying to begin the conversation. They’re sending up the first real flares that something is amiss- that we need to take a cold hard look at what people consider “food” and what its doing to our bodies as a result.
Meanwhile, I’m back to the drawing board on another important problem: my strawberry surplus. Anybody have a good recipe for strawberry soup?
February 13, 2012 § 7 Comments
We found one of the hardest things about eating No Sugar for a year was finding good products and snack foods that didn’t have added sugar hiding in them somewhere. Whenever we came upon a good one, we have held to it fast. Here are just a few of our favorite things…
Above is a very recent find: Freeze Dried Crunchies! One and two ingredients snacks with a bit of sweetness… no ingredients save the fruit and (in the case of cinnamon apple) cinnamon. Our family unanimously agreed that the Cinnamon Apple are by far the best. We found them at GNC in the mall, of all places.
These days, whenever possible, I spend a fair amount of my weekend cooking, baking, and drying. This weekend I made a no-knead bread recipe and dried pears- both are extremely easy, but just require TIME to sit, rise, dry, whatever. (The pear slices, for example, took seventeen hours on the dehydrate setting in my oven.)
My most recent Farmers Market discovery: apple-only applesauce! Who would’ve thought No Sugar applesauce would be SO hard to find? (remember: added fruit juice counts as added sugar!) Ryan and Rachel Yoder make this pretty sauce and sell it alongside their homegrown dried beans and popcorn at the Dorset Sunday market.
Dried fruit is very tricky since so much of it has added sugar- try finding dried cranberries without added sugar and you’ll see what I mean. However, you can find it, often at the local health food store. I recently tried these Calimyrna Figs and realized they tasted just like …. what? Fig Newtons, of course!
We’re lucky to have friends who let us get in on a bulk organic produce order once a month or so. It’s truly amazing how much more produce you’ll consume when you know you have a ready supply on hand. We fill up our fridge with organic apples, oranges and pears (above) and store the overflow in our basement at about 55 degrees. Aluminum cans with holes drilled for airflow keep them fairly well.
Any extra fruit I worry might be going bad (such as these pears above) gets dried into fruit chips on the dehydrate setting in my oven. As I mentioned, it takes forever, and means the oven isn’t free for quite a while, so perhaps a separate dehydrator appliance is in our future someday… They never make quite as much as you think, and they never last long- but aren’t they pretty?
Another favorite snack has been fresh-popped popcorn, usually with melted butter and nutritional yeast sprinkled on top. Since we’ve been eliminating teflon from our kitchen, and ALL poppers seem to use it, I’m next going to try popping in a pot on the stove. (This is Ryan and Rachel Yoder’s wonderful popcorn.)
Homemade yogurt isn’t as much of a pain as you might imagine- just heat on stove or in microwave, add starter (a heaping spoonful of existing yogurt), and (if you have a nifty Donvier machine like we do) put in the cooker for a good 16 or 17 hours to cook. After that cool in the fridge for 3 hours. Voila! This fridge shot is a rare sight- this stuff disappears in our house like you wouldn’t believe.