Last Minute Christmas Cookie

December 24, 2007

DIET, DESSERT AND DOGS has moved! 

If you’re reading this page, you’ve landed on the old site.  Please visit the new location by clicking here–and don’t forget to update your readers and blogrolls!

As always, thanks for reading.  I look forward to seeing you at the shiny new Diet, Dessert and Dogs!

“Um, Mum, we are coming with you, aren’t we? Because (and sorry to have to tell you this), we actually have more fans than you do on this blog.”]  

* * *

Talk about under the wire.  Here it is, the LAST DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and I’m still experimenting with baking cookies (and still posting to Holidailies).  And guess what?  I think I’ve hit on something.

I’ve been wanting to do a Christmas sugar cookie for years.  Ever since I had to alter my diet and cut out wheat and refined sugars, it’s been a bit difficult to bake traditional treats (though there are so many great cookbooks out there, not to mention a whole lot of blogs using all-natural ingredients, which makes it easier and easier). 

agavecookietray.jpg After baking with agave nectar for the past few years, I felt pretty good about that.  But a sugar cookie?  Wouldn’t it be kind of heretical to take the sugar out of it?  (And what would I call it, anyway–“agave cookie cutouts”?). 

But recently, I also started baking chia seeds (yes, those selfsame seeds that used to grow into little animals in pottery shapes for kids), only edible.  One could say that “chia is the new flax,” since it contains the same healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, only more so than flax.  Further, chia is lighter in color and texture–perfect for a creamy white, snowy “sugar” cookie.

Sugar cookies are also, traditionally, rolled and cut.  When baking with agave, however, the cookie dough is more often soft and most suitable for scooping or smoothing into pans, to be cut later into bars (since agave is a liquid sweetener, after all).  So what to do?  I decided that the combination of coconut butter instead of butter (since it’s also solid at room temperature), and chia as an egg substitute would work best, since the chia would absorb some of the excess moisture in the agave. That way, I would be able to use almost the same ratio of flour to sweetener in a “regular” sugar cookie.

I’m happy to report that the dough came out beautiful!  It was a teeny bit softer than expected when first mixed, so I split it in two parts, and scooped the first half (at room temperature).  These cookies came out just barely golden on the bottoms, uniform in shape, with a beautiful, tender crumb and delicate flavor.  Truly, they were delicious–a great plain all-occasion cookie that’s not too sweet. 

I put the second half of the dough into the fridge to sit for an hour or two and firm up.  I’m going to roll it out later, cut it into shapes (should be interesting, as we haven’t yet unpacked all my baking supplies, and I’ve got neither a rolling pin nor my cookie cutters), and bake it that way; I’ll post those photos as soon as they’re ready.

[Edit, December 2008:   The dough was perfect once chilled–firm and easy to roll.  Here’s what the cookies look like rolled out, and cut with cookie cutters:]

sugarfreesugarcookie1

In the meantime, I’ll share this recipe for those of you who may want to play around for next Christmas!

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Ricki’s Sugar Agave Cookies

TO VIEW THE COMPLETE RECIPE, PLEASE VISIT THIS PAGE ON THE NEW DIET, DESSERT AND DOGS, BY CLICKING HERE.

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It’s Not Okay to Be Fat

December 23, 2007

Am I a glutton for punishment?  (or maybe just a glutton).  No, I’m not talking about Holidailies.  What I’m referring to is a topic so highly polemical that I am probably setting myself up for all manner of excoriation by discussing it.  But this issue has been weighing on my mind, and the rest of me.  May as well just spit it out: I may BE fat, but I really don’t think it’s okay to be fat.  Let me explain.

I am an avid reader of Kate Harding’s blog about fat acceptance.  I love the quality of the writing and its bang-on tone, with just the right mix of snark and smart.  I almost always laugh when I read it,  and I definitely always come away with something interesting to think about. I may not consistently agree with what’s being propounded over there, but that’s perfectly okay with me.  I believe we can all agree to disagree. . . and isn’t that what acceptance of any kind is all about?

I am also fully aware there’s a powerful movement toward fat acceptance out there. And on so many counts, I am right behind it.  I come from a long line of women–mother, aunt, older and younger sisters, cousins (and let’s not forget me!)–who have all struggled with a lifetime of overweight and have all been technically obese at one time or another.  Did their girth make me love any of them less?  Respect them less? Value them less?  No, of course not. 

Do I concur that society foists an unrealistic and virtually impossible standard upon young women today, primarily through the media but trickling down through essentially every other aspect of our lives?  Why, yes; yes I do. And we’ve become so accustomed to these edited, nipped and tucked, revamped versions of women’s faces and bodies, as well as the unrealistic expectations from (mostly) men, that we begin to forget that the perfection we seek is not really “normal.”  I believe we’re wrong to judge someone because of her looks, or tease her, or reject her, or fire her, or not hire her in the first place, or insult her, or devalue her, simply because of excess avoirdupois.  At the same time, does that make it okay to be fat? Sorry, I don’t think so.

To paraphrase Cher (or Sophie Tucker, depending on how far back you want to go): I’ve been slim, and I’ve been fat.  Slim is better.

Now, I do not mean this in a subjective, what-I’ve-been-brainwashed-by-the-media-to-believe sense.  I mean this in an entirely objective, what is actually better for my body, sense.  (Which, by the way, still may not coincide with what my mind finds preferable).

I’ll put it this way:  when I was slim, yes, I thought I looked better, and well, yes, men objectified me more.  I enjoyed being able to wear mini skirts and fishnet stockings without irony. But that’s not why it was better.  It was better because my body moved more easily and fluidly, my aches and pains went away, I could climb stairs without panting, I didn’t have heart burn as a constant companion, my back didn’t go “out” on me every fortnight, I woke up feeling light and capable most mornings, and, in addition, I liked the way I looked.  But even if I’d been unable to look in a mirror that entire time, I actually felt better.

I am well aware that it’s possible to be overweight and still be healthy (as I mentioned, I do read Kate’s blog).  But I have to tell you, most of the overweight women I know, unlike Harding herself, do not eat nutritionally sound foods, exercise regularly or do yoga backflips. When I gain an unsightly amount of weight, it’s not because I’ve acquired too much muscle from my workouts or ate too many brussels sprouts. No; when I’m overweight, I am keenly aware of my excess heaviness, in my legs, my stomach, my back; in the way I lumber across the parking lot in winter, the way I have to maneurver out of a cozy chair, the way my thighs rub uncomfortably together in summer; in how my waist oozes out over the tops of my pants (and woe betide, sometimes even my elastic waist pants); and by way of so many other lovely indices. It’s just not a fun way to live. 

But what’s worse, for many of us, fat can bring with it devastatingly bad health consequences.

Oh, my.  I can almost feel the portentous clouds as they gather, the skies about to slice open with a jagged bolt as it makes a beeline for my very heart.  But let me reiterate:  I am NOT suggesting that fat people in any way are deserving of the derision to which they are so often subjected, that overweight people are not “okay” as human beings, or that they ever deserve to be the target of constant ridicule (as I was, mercilessly, when I was a teenager).  No; that’s not what I’m talking about at all.  But I think we need to clarify just exactly what it is we’re accepting when we recommend fat “acceptance.”

Years ago, my therapist tried repeatedly to get me to “accept” that I was fat.  And I just didn’t get it; I could never bring myself to say it was okay.  “But I don’t WANT to be fat, so how can I accept it?” I’d whine, then go home and eat a pound of chocolate brownies. 

These days, I finally recognize that I misinterpreted what she meant by “accept.”  Accepting one’s excess bulk doesn’t necessitate also enjoying it, or embracing it as good, or liking it.  In other words, I can accept the FACT that I am fat, choose not to berate myself about it, yet simultaneously wish that I were slimmer, and even make a concsious effort to achieve that goal. 

After many years of struggling with my weight, these days I acknowledge the current reality that I am overweight; it’s who I am (right now), and I don’t want to put my entire life on hold until I do, or do not, lose the pounds.  I’ve lived that fantasy in the past:  just lose 20 pounds, and I’ll get a boyfriend; lose the weight, and I’ll have a book published; drop a couple dozen kilos and I’ll travel; and so on, and so on.  In the past, when I finally did lose a whack of weight in my early 20’s, I was bitterly disappointed to find that life did not suddenly become perfect, and even when I DID find a boyfriend, I still had the same emotional problems I’d always had before meeting him, despite my svelte body.

Like anything else, if you wait to achieve an imagined goal before beginning to really live your life, you’ll be putting life on hold for something that might never happen.  Not a good strategy, especially if you aren’t convinced that there is something else after this life. So I believe in doing what I can, now, to the fullest extent possible.

However, if you are carrying extra poundage and kidding yourself that it’s okay, that’s another story entirely.  I can’t help but think of my mother, for instance, and her older sister, both obese, and both Type II diabetics.  My mother never accepted her weight, and struggled her entire adult life against it.  She was filled with self-loathing, was an emotional eater, and continued to regularly eat foods that didn’t have her body’s best interests at heart.  My aunt, on the other hand, also ate unhealthy foods, but never suffered psychologically as my mom did, as she had an equally hefty dose of self confidence and self esteem to carry her through life.  Did my aunt live a happier life without all that angst?  Yes, she certainly did.  Did she even live several years longer than my mother?  Yes, again.  Did they both ultimately die of complications of a chronic, degenerative disease that caused a protracted, achingly slow and gut-wrenchingly sad demise in the intensive care unit as their devastated families looked on, helpless?  You betcha.  And quite simply, that’s not okay.

My dad, on the other hand, has never been overweight, exercises regularly, and at 87 is in great shape.  He has always walked for about an hour a day, engaged in fairly strong physical exercise, and, long before it was fashionable, ate a low-fat, whole foods diet. He is one of the only men in his “Golden Agers” club who can still trip the light fantastic with his (second) wife, and he maintains an incredibly positive outlook on life.  And here’s another irony: even with my excess pounds, my last visit to the doctor’s office for an annual physical proved the theory that fat doesn’t equal “unhealthy.” My cholesterol levels, triglicerides, blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and all the other test results were stellar (thank God).  I am relieved to know that I’m not killing myself the way my mother did, at least not now. But still, at this weight and size, I just don’t feel my best.

I realize this is an age old debate.  And really, if you honestly feel okay with yourself just as you are, whether that’s with a BMI of 25 or 35, slim or chubby, overweight or not, who am I to suggest otherwise? I applaud you. In fact, I’m entirely envious.  I just know that for me, looking good is bound up with feeling good.  When I feel good, it extends to both physical and emotional realms.  So aiming for a slimmer, healthier physique, even if I acknowledge it’s not the one I’ve got right now–well, that’s something I can accept. 

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Every year, when my sisters and I were kids, for our birthdays we each got a made-from-scratch, personally decorated birthday cake for our party.  One year it was Little Bo Peep, another it was Barbie, still others it was a pretty array of colorful frosting flowers splashed across a chocolate rectangle.  Cake, always cake; but never can I recall having cupcakes for my birthday.

Well, times have changed. In just a few years, cupcakes have become all the rage.  Little cupcake-only shops have sprouted in every major city; and my friend Angie tells me that, in Dallas, they’ve reached a peak of price and exculsivity. One might even say that cupcakes are poised to take over the world!

And so, this season, though I’ve been asked to bake for several children’s parties and an at-home Christmas celebration, in every case I’ve been asked to bake up a batch of cupcakes. 

As a vegan baker who uses neither refined sugar nor margarine, I can sometimes find it incredibly difficult to come up with substitutions that will approximate the same look and taste as conventional recipes (even though I own, and have carefully persued, every page of Isa and Terry’s phenomenal book, and send major kudos their way–especially for the agave-based vanilla cupcakes).  I find it fairly easy to substitute organic coconut butter for margarine, but sugar really is one of a kind, especially when you’re talking buttercream.

So, while I continue to experiment with an agave-based buttercream frosting (and to post to Holidailies), I am left with my old standby, agave fudgy frosting, for cupcakes.  Though delicious and thoroughly chocolatey, it’s not airy in the least, and not as easy to pipe into ruffles or scallops or drop flowers. It tends to sport a high-gloss finish, and can be a bit stiff, sometimes firming up so much that it won’t agree to be piped at all.  When the vanilla version is colored for decorations, it resembles the type of gel-like icings you buy in little tubes in the grocery store–not much fine detail to work with, there. 

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[cupcakes with a scoop of frosting, waiting to be transformed. . .

So, when I received an order for some last-minute cupcakes decorated with a holiday theme, I wasn’t sure what to do.  Without any formal training in cake decorating (which, I’m fairly sure, wouldn’t be much help with this type of frosting, anyway), I had to improvise.  So I thought about simple line drawings of bells or bows that I could pipe onto the cupcakes, or how I might fill in an outline with colored frosting, which would then be smoothed flat, with something like a stained glass effect.

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[The blank canvas waiting for inspiration] 

Well, in the end, I would say the experiment was a semi-success.  You can tell what I was trying to achieve, but the icing just wouldn’t smooth out, so my holly leaves have little bumpy ridges on them.  Still, they tasted great (what? I couldn’t very well give them away without sampling to ensure quality, now, could I?), and I know that the kids who’ll be eating them will be thrilled. 

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[chocolate and agave holiday cheer] 

With precious little time left before the holiday and so many people on the lookout for Christmas recipes, I’ll contribute one more festive cookie.  These are a dense, chewy round that combines a peanut butter base with chocolate chips and cranberries.  If you bake them the full suggested time, they’ll be crispy on the edges and soft but dry inside.  Bake a little less, and they’ll cool to a moist and chewy goodness.  These are actually better the second day, as the PB flavor intensifies.

Hmm.  Peanut butter, chocolate and cranberries. . . I may just have to bake some of these myself. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on that sugarless vegan buttercream.

Holiday Cranberry Chippers

 

TO VIEW THE COMPLETE RECIPE, PLEASE VISIT THIS PAGE ON THE NEW DIET, DESSERT AND DOGS, BY CLICKING HERE.

Eat Dessert First

December 21, 2007

Years ago, during one of my very first visits to Toronto (and long before I lived here), my best buddy Ali and I spent an evening at the famed Pickle Barrel restaurant (in fact, the last time I went there was during Ali’s most recent visit to Canada from England, last summer–when I was rather unpleasantly surprised to note that the restaurant still offered basically the exact same, unappetizing, menu that it had in 1981). 

But back then, we were hyper, we were chatty, we were callow twenty-somethings who really were more interested in catching up with each other than any food we might consume (ah!  if only I could recapture that mindset. . . ).  We scanned the menu, chose something for dinner, and ordered.  We already knew that we wanted the killer chocolate layer cake for dessert, so we ordered that, too.  With the server still standing before us, we realized that dinner might take a few minutes, at least, and what we really wanted was that chocolate cake anyway–so we asked her to bring that over first.

After she recovered her composure (very professional of her, I thought), she nodded and trotted away, soon to return with two huge hunks o’ chocolate cake, which we consumed with lip-smacking zeal and thoroughly enjoyed before starting on our main courses.  In other words, we chose to eat the best part of the meal first.   No deferred gratification. No saving the best for last. No self-denial in the name of good health.  And then, because we wanted to, we still got to eat a darned good dinner, too.

One of the things I’ve always had trouble with is “living in the moment.”  Years ago, as a way to deal wtih anxiety attacks, I took a course called “Mindfulness Meditation.”  It was terrific, really, and I’ve written about it before.  It allowed me to be present with my body for those 45 minutes or so as I meditated, and it worked wonders.  Problem was, once I returned to the “real” world and incompetent drivers; cashiers who can’t count if the register’s computer is broken; telemarketers who don’t understand “I’m not interested, thanks”; sour (soy, or any other kind of) milk, already poured over your cereal; automatic parking lot payment machines that swallow your Mastercard whole; malevolent ice patches hiding under that soft, thin patina of snow; puppies who eat kleenex and then vomit all over your hardwood floor–and about 7,352 other daily annoyances–I lost all my Eastern calm and was thrown immediately back into a welter of Western, frenetic living, anxiety and all. So how to recapture those wonderful feelings of mindfulness?

One of my goals this year, as I attempt to lose my superfluous 50 (oops, forgot: 45.5) pounds, is to gain a sense of inner peace (okay, I’d settle for a sense of inner not-freaking-out-daily) and purpose, by identifying the things that are truly important to me.  I’ve been working away at my little organic baking business and teaching holistic cooking on occasion, setting aside time to spend with my HH and beloved Girls, writing at every possible opportunity, and making a very concerted effort to pay more attention to what is going on in my life (especially during the month of Holidailies).  This latest house-move seemed the perfect catalyst to start afresh, in so many areas.

chasereatcup.jpg So I’ve decided to try to adopt more of the same approach that Ali and I fell into that faraway evening at the restaurant, only this time, I’m going to make a conscious decision to “eat dessert first.”   I don’t mean this literally (well, not every time, anyway), but simply as a way to ensure I do the things that are most important to me; that will bring the greatest sense of satisfaction and gratification; that, years down the road, will make me smile when I remember them–first.  If at all possible. 

In terms of dieting, this philosophy logically extends to literal eating of dessert first as well. If what you really want is the slice of chocolate layer cake, and eating it will effectively remove the desire for anything else, why not have that cake, and eat it, too? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the standard diet advice to “eat something else and wait 10 minutes” when you have a craving to be totally useless.  I eat something else, then go have the thing I was craving, anyway.  By eating the cake first, I omit the second course.  Is that really so bad?

As we enter the final phase of the holiday tempest of parties, buffets, dinners, open houses, brunches, cocktails and all other manner of food-related gatherings, it may be the perfect time to pay attention to what you really, truly would like, right now, in this moment, and then just go for it. 

In other words: march on over and stand proudly under that mistletoe.  Take off those heels and just boogie. Send that heartfelt card to you-know-who. Or, if it’s what you are really craving,  just dig right in and enjoy the fleeting, sweet satisfaction of a tall piece of chocolate layer cake, right this minute.

Quick and Easy Tofu Masala

December 20, 2007

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed today, what with an order for 56 frosted cupcakes due by noon, as well as an article on cooking with avocado expected by this afternoon.  Yikes.  Therefore, today’s Holidailies post will be short and sweet.  Or, in this case, short and spicy.

This recipe for Tofu Masala is quick and easy, despite the long list of spices that need to be ground into a curry. I’ve adapted the recipe from the fabulous cookbook, Green, by Flip Shelton.  When I saw it in Chapters, I loved the modern, clean look of the book and bought it on impulse, but must say it’s become one of my favorites because of the recipes. 

Maybe it’s my lifelong enchantment with Australia (and New Zealand) that drew me to it, but the book itself is a definite winner, filled with fresh, delicious, quick dishes that have, so far, always come out just right.

This recipe was one of my first ventures into homemade curries, and I was a bit intimidated by all the spices the first time I made it; my mother’s spice cupboard, in contrast, contained exactly one jar each of garlic salt, paprika, onion salt, and white pepper.  All I knew about fenugreek at the time was that it’s commonly used in Ayurvedic cooking, and is supposed to help keep blood sugar levels even (enough of a reason right there to try it, I guess).  But the spice mixture here–and it’s a powerfully hot mix, so beware if you’re timid about hot spice–is the perfect blend to offset the otherwise bland tofu, the al dente vegetables, and the brown basmati rice. 

Sorry I don’t have a photo of this one; we made it at my last cooking class and consumed it before I remembered to snap a picture.  I’ll add one in next time we eat it over here at D,D & D. 

Easy Masala Curry with Veggies and Tofu

This dish is truly a snap to make, despite the long list of spices.  And you can alter the mix of vegetables to your taste, or according to what’s on hand in the fridge!

1/2-1 small jalapeno pepper, finely chopped

 4 cloves garlic, chopped

1-inch piece of ginger, minced

2 T. chopped cilantro

1 tsp. coriander

1 tsp. whole black peppercorns

1 tsp. black mustard seeds

1 tsp. fenugreek

1 tsp. ground turmeric

1 tsp. Sucanat or 5 drops stevia

Pinch sea salt

Juice of one lemon

1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

About 400 g. (1 lb.) firm or extra-firm tofu, cubed

1 cup green beans, cut in half, or green peas

1/2 red pepper, chopped

2 small Japanese eggplants, cut in disks

1 cup button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

4 medium tomatoes, chopped 

Place the jalapeno, garlic, ginger, cilantro, spices, sucanat, salt and lemon juice in a small food processor or coffee grinder and blend until you have a paste.  Set aside. 

Heat the oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat and add the onions.  Saute for two minutes, or until just soft. Add the chili paste and stir until the onion is well coated. Add the tofu, and stir to coat.  Add remaining ingredients, reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.

Serve over brown basmati rice. Makes 4-6 servings.

*Or, “Everything I Know About Eating, I Learned From My Dogs”

As we all know, dogs are great role models for living in the moment.  And boy, do they love their food.  In fact, sometimes I think I’m nothing but a food dispenser for my Furry Girls.  (“That’s so unfair of you, Mum, really.  Don’t you know that we also rely on you for shelter and walks?).  

From what I’ve observed living with two dogs, this is how they eat:

  • Be Willing To Eat Anything.  In other words, if it’s organic (I mean that in the “derived from living organisms” sense, not the “no-pesticide” sense), they will eat it.  In Chaser’s case, she’ll even occasionally eat something that isn’t food at all, such as thrown-out tissues (“But they were in the garbage beside the food, Mum.”). Lesson for People:  Go out on a limb and be willing to try new foods once in a while.  My HH is totally open when it comes to anything made of animal parts, for example (such as organ meats or more exotic forms of sushi), but has become less willing in recent months to try some of the vegan ingredients that I love (such as teff, or a sprinkling of nutritional yeast over pasta).
  • Eat fast.  Dogs just hoover up that chow as quickly as they can; no mindful eating here, no taking time to appreciate the subtle flavors of the P-Nuttier biscuit versus the Freshwater Trout  one. After all, you never know when another cur will drop in and want what’s in your bowl, so better be sure there’s nothing left for them when they arrive.  Lesson for People: If you live with dogs, you’ve surely been exposed to the various smells associated with that kind of guzzling and its effects on digestive systems. Do yourself a favor: avoid the same rumbling, bloating and eau du flatulence by chewing food properly and eating more slowly.
  • Eat it all. No leftovers with these Girls. Since you never know when you’ll next be fed, better eat it all now. This rule may not apply as much for domesticated dogs, as my Girls seem to be keenly aware of dinnertime. I can always tell when it’s 4:30 PM, more or less, from the rhythmic poking by a gentle wet nose against my thigh as I sit at my computer around that time of day (“Well, we’re just being helpful, Mum, just in case you forget.”Lesson for People:  Since we have the advantage of being able to tell time and we can head to the cupboard any time we please, it’s better for our health to stop when full, rather than continue eating until stuffed.  (Reminder to self: Must. Work. On. This. One.) 
  • Eat with Gusto.  Dogs put their all into dinnertime, as if every bowl is the last meal they’ll ever ever eat.  They focus entirely on the food, and attack it with enthusiasm.   Lesson for People:  Here’s where we can definitely learn something of great value from our canine companions. Eating with alacrity and paying attention to all those wonderful sensations we experience while feasting is the perfect way to appreciate our food.

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I recently read something somewhere (sorry, I’ve forgotten where, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on Holidailies ) that linked binge eating to anxiety.  In other words, bingeing can be interpreted an outlet for the anxiety, and one that occurs due to fears about whether we’ll have sufficient food in the future.  On some level, this theory does make sense to me; if you’re subconsciously worried that the universe will be insufficient to provide for your needs–emotional or otherwise–you may be inclined to use bingeing as a release (and a way to “stock up” in case you’re bereft later). 

Since dogs don’t have control over when or what they eat, for the most part, and since they aren’t aware of our (humans’) reliability as food dispensers, could it be that they eat that way to allay their own anxiety about foods?   

Possibly; but I doubt it.  Even when my dogs are calm, submissive, and totally anxiety-free, they are apt to gorge themselves on whatever is around. They just want to eat, and eat, and eat.  Take Chaser, for instance, who was rushed to our vet’s one afternoon a few weeks ago after consuming the entire contents of our mini-composting bin in the kitchen, which, on that day, contained the remains of some chocolate birthday cake I’d made for a customer, blue frosting and all.  Agave-based or not,  that called for immediate action. I whisked her to the vet’s and they did whatever was necessary to void her little tummy. 

Luckily, I had caught her in the act, and, apart from a few moments of whining, she was back to normal in no time. (“Oh, right, Mum.  I also forgot to mention earlier that we rely on you to save our lives whenever we do something  stupid, too“).

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[“Sorry about that cake thing, Mum.”]

A Sweet Alternative

December 18, 2007

What was I thinking, agreeing to post an entry a day for a whole month? True, I have really been enjoying the whole Holidailies event, but given the whirlwind of events that are generally going on this time of year, coupled with the fact that I’ve been fighting some kind of weird virus the past two weeks (hope it’s not some alien quinoa I ate, or something), and this whole idea of posting to a schedule seems insane.   

And so, I’m going to chuck the schedule tonight and write about something else entirely, instead of the pre-planned “diet” post.  True, the title of my blog includes this very word, AND it is so often foremost on my mind that I may as well have a “diet” tatoo emblazoned on my stomach (where, of course, no living soul will ever see it if I can help it). Still, I am, every so often, occupied with something other than diets.  Like dessert. Or dogs, for example.

These days, when I make or bake desserts, I tend to use organic, natural, unrefined sweeteners.  That wasn’t always the case.  I grew up in a home with an immigrant father who’d been raised on a dairy farm and was quite accustomed to home-baked desserts (not to mention everything else made from scratch as well).  As it turned out, my mother was a dessert lover herself (the ultimate cause of her death, I’d wager) and an excellent baker.  So we always had homemade goodies in our house, and my sisters and I would come home from school to cookies, cakes, or whatever else my mom had whipped up.

Growing up in a house like that was both a blessing and a curse.  I knew how to bake by the time I was six or seven, helping my mother and aunt (who was also a professional baker and happened to live right upstairs in the same duplex).  On the other hand, all the females in my family have or had weight problems, and struggle with sugar addictions.  (My father, in contrast, is now in his eighth decade, has never been overweight, and just doesn’t understand how it can happen.  “If I feel my belt getting a bit tighter,” he says, “I just stop eating dessert for a couple of days, and I go back to my normal size.”  There’s no point telling him that (a) he doesn’t have an eating disorder, so of course he just “stops eating dessert”; and (b) he’s male, so all he has to do is have one less sip of coffee a day, and he’ll probably drop 10 pounds in a week.

The curse part is being so attached to dessert that I’m unwilling–perhaps unable–to cut it out of my life entirely, despite the deleterious effects I witnessed growing up. Even when my naturopath put me on a rigid diet that excluded all sweeteners for two years (including all fruits for the first 3 months), I eventually found a way to make dessert. I’d grind nuts with fruit puree–once the fruit was allowed–along with carob and spelt flour, shape it into patties and bake it; my HH called them “Dust Cookies.” 

So maybe I just need to accept that baking is something I’ll always do, like writing, or patting my dogs, or brushing my teeth every night.  I can live with that, as long as I’m not harming my health in the process.  And that’s where the alternative sweeteners come into play.

It’s true that all “real” sweeteners will be converted to glucose in the body, thereby raising blood sugar levels.  But there’s a huge difference between the immediate BOOM of sugar (converted quickly) and something like agave nectar, (converted slowly, more like a whole fruit would be, allowing for a more even rise in blood sugar levels).  The lower GI (glycemic index) of agave also supposedly makes it appropriate for diabetics (if only it had been available when my mother was younger!). 

It was a huge challenge at first when I began to bake with alternative sweeteners (not to mention the shift from regular flour to mostly spelt flour, from using eggs to no eggs, from butter to vegetable oils, and myriad other small changes).  Eventually, though, I learned how to substitute healthier (for the most part, liquid) sweeteners for the sugar. 

I use a variety of natural sweeteners now, but agave is by far my favorite. Somewhat like honey with a lighter consistency, it has a delicate flavor that won’t overpower the other tastes in your dessert (so, for instance, while I will use maple syrup in baking, I opt for agave when I’m making something light, like a lemon cake or banana cupcake). It’s also less sticky than honey, so it won’t cling to the bottom of the jar when it’s almost empty (just invert and wait a few seconds, and every last drop makes its way out).

If you haven’t tried it and would like to, here are a few quick tips for converting your existing recipes:

  • Agave is about 1-1/2 times sweeter than regular sugar.  So if you’re replacing sugar with agave syrup, you can start with 2/3 to 3/4 cup agave for each cup of sugar. 
  • Since agave is a liquid sweetener, simply substituting one for one with sugar will alter the chemistry of the batter by adding more liquid.  To compensate, either cut other liquids in the recipe (say if it calls for 1 cup milk) by about 25%.  In other words, if the original recipe used 1 cup sugar and 1 cup milk, change that to 2/3-3/4  cup agave and 2/3-3/4 cup milk.
  • If the original recipe didn’t use much liquid, you can still compensate for the agave by increasing the flour.  Add about 25% extra flour for each cup flour (in other words, if the original recipe calls for 1 cup flour, use 1-1/4 to 1-1/3 cups with the agave).
  • Baked goods made with agave may be a little heavier than what you’re used to, so you might want to increase any leaveners. If the original recipe calls for 1 tsp. baking powder, I usually up it to 1-1/4 or 1-1/2 tsp.
  • Finally, agave browns faster than sugar (just as honey does), and so should be baked at a slightly lower temperature for best results.  If the original recipe uses 350F, I will bake an agave-based recipe at 325F.      

Baking with agave allows me to create sweets that I’m willing to eat (that is, things that are actually tasty), without causing terribly unhealthy swings in blood sugar levels.  And I do believe that dessert can be part of an overall weight loss eating plan (see, I didn’t say “diet.”).