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?
August 6, 2011 § 5 Comments
August is here and as usual my summer begins to feel a bit panicky right about now. Summer is so very fleeting here in Vermont, that I never feel like we can fit it all in: picnics and swimming and puppet shows and berry picking and parades and the Farmer’s Market and the circus and- and- AND! Technically it’s just the beginning of August, but when I look at my calendar all I can see is a high-speed runway leading directly up to the first day of school.
But this year the summer to-do list includes a few new items: experimenting with recipes, cooking at home more than ever before and finding clever ways to avoid summer staples like store-bought ketchup, mayonnaise, and hamburger buns. (And don’t even get me started on the S’mores “kits” they sell in our supermarket… as if you need to be a rocket scientist to assemble the ingredients for S’mores.)
So the other day I answered a question that’s been bothering me since we began the No Sugar project: how important is sugar to a bread recipe? I’ve been a royal pain-in-the-tookas on this one, refusing bread in restaurants over the protestations of well-intentioned waitstaff that the amount contained therein was really, very, very small. Always, there was the implication that the bread simply couldn’t be made without the sugar. I wondered, was the sugar somehow necessary to proper yeast growth? How much better would bread made with sugar really be?
I set out to find out. Using my King Arthur Flour cookbook, I prepared two batches of bread dough: one adding the called-for tablespoon of sugar in the yeast-proofing stage, the other not. During the process of the rising, kneading and baking I became convinced the sugar-containing bread would win in a walk. The yeast looked bubblier, the dough rose better, the final loaf had a better browning on the crust.
But it was like the story of the tortoise and the hare… despite looking somewhat sad and anemic throughout the entire making and baking process, in the end I found that the no-sugar loaf caught up. By leaving it in the oven a few minutes longer I got the desired browning on the crust… the loaves looked indistinguishable. When I held a taste test composed of my family and some friends, two preferred the sugar-bread, one preferred the no-sugar bread, and one said they tasted the same. Clearly the difference was subtle. Can you make good bread without that tablespoon of sugar? Yes.
Then this week I returned to a snack/dessert recipe I’ve always loved: Apricot-Lemon-Date Bars. I had made these much earlier in the year, substituting banana for the brown sugar, which works fine, but results in a very banana-date-y taste which- if you sweeten everything with bananas and dates for a while, like I did- gets pretty monotonous after awhile. I returned to the recipe, this time armed with my giant container of dextrose. The first time through, however, was disappointing: making the recipe by simply substituting dextrose for brown sugar resulted in a pasty, overly crumbly mess of a bar, which tasted okay but didn’t hold together nicely and didn’t brown in an appealing way.
Back to the drawing board. Between the dextrose and the dried apricots and dates the bars were plenty sweet, but what would make the crust hold together better and brown better? I decided to try adding one egg to the crust and see what happened.
Now, this is kind of a big deal for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a recipe follower; I’m very literal. I’m the kind of cook who waits the last ten seconds on the timer before dumping the pasta water out. Experimenting is entirely outside my comfort zone. However, I am living proof that being hungry and sweet-deprived will do wonders for one’s adventurousness in the kitchen.
You know what? It worked! The egg added just the right cohesiveness to make the crust crumbly rather than dusty, and the browning was perfect. They’re not just good- they’re really good! I am so proud of myself that it’s kind of ridiculous. You’d think I just invented the S’mores Kit.
Eve’s Apricot Lemon Date bars
(adapted from the Date Bar recipe in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home)
- 2 cups chopped pitted dates and dried apricots
- juice of one lemon
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup butter, softened
- ¾ cup dextrose
- 1 egg
- 1 ¾ all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup rolled oats
Preheat oven to 350.
In a saucepan combine dates, 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 the butter and dextrose. Add egg and continue to mix. Stir in flour, salt and baking soda. Finally, add the oats and mix with your hands. Press two-thirds of the crumbly dough into an oiled 8 or 9 inch square baking pan. Spread fruit mixture over the dough. Crumble remaining dough on top. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool in pan. Cut into bars.