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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.”]  

 

 

 [This week’s Lucky Comestible is sweet potatoes.  Here’s the last part in the series.]

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Okay, everyone, pour yourselves a glass of wine.  Now, raise it with me and yell, “Pancakes!  Pancakes!”

 No, I haven’t reached that breaking point where I’m finally guzzling alcohol at breakfast.  The reference above is one that comes courtesy of The CFO, and one I always think of when I eat those delectable breakfast cakes. 

 Here’s the story:  when The CFO graduated from college, she and her best friend decided to take a summer off and backpack it across Europe (My!  What an original idea!).  And, like so many other 18 year-old women on their own across Europe for the first time, they had a blast, meeting other young people from various countries and doing things that make them cringe today.

At one point, they found themselves in a tiny Greek village, at the local bar, imbibing far too many drinks while surrounded by a group of eight or so young, virile, 20-something local males. After a couple of hours and several pitchers of beer, one young lad decided to toast the two nubile lovelies. “Geiá mas!” he cried, hoisting his beer stein aloft.  Told that the words meant “Our health” in Greek, the women remarked how health seemed to play a role in most toasts. 

“And how do your people say it a toast in your country?” the swarthy young fellow inquired.  

At this, The CFO and her friend exchanged a quick glance.  These country bumpkins had no concept whatsoever of Canadian mores, Canadian culture, or Canadian colloquialisms.  Without skipping a beat, The CFO responded, “Pancakes!”

And so, dear readers, that is how a packed table of raucous, muscular and very self-satisfied young Greeks whiled away the evening with two cute Canadian gals, repeatedly raising their glasses and shouting out, “Pancakes!” at the top of their lungs, till the wee hours of the morning.

Now, I may have mentioned before that breakfast is my favorite meal (I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Enough with the breakfast already!”).  But have I mentioned that pancakes happen to be my favorite breakfast food? And with sweet potatoes as my favorite vegetable–well, it was bound to happen.  Sweet potato pancakes. 

 When I went searching for a sweet potato pancake recipe, Google was happy to oblige, and served up quite a collection.  Most of these, however, turned out to be a sweet potato-based version of regular potato pancakes, or latkesswpotpancakesingle.jpg Now, I have nothing against latkes, but that just wasn’t what I had in mind.  Then I remembered a post I’d seen on Tummy Treasure, in which Erika played with a recipe from the ubiquitous How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. (Seems Mr. Bittman’s book is so ubiquitous, in fact, that a copy has now made its way into my own collection!)

 The basic ingredients are very simple, and Erika suggests playing with the recipe to suit your own tastes.  Using Bittman’s generic proportions, I substituted sweet potatoes for the pumpkin that Erika used, and added a bit of extra flour for a fluffier interior.

 The result was a light, airy, absolutely irresistible cake.  The sweet potato added body and substance to create a filling breakfast, which was perfect with a little 100% fruit jam or maple syrup on top.

If you’re in the right mood, you might even have them with a glass of white wine or champagne Mimosa.   Oh, and hey–“Pancakes!”

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

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Driven by Distraction

January 8, 2008

I wouldn’t have believed it myself if it hadn’t happened to me personally (why, yes, you’re absolutely right, that does sound like the opening line of a letter to Penthouse Forum! But sorry, it’s not).

Two whole days, and I have consumed not one single sweet. No cookies.  No cake.  No muffins, even.  But best of all:  no chocolate! My small intestine is saying, “thank you.”  My gastric juices are whispering, “we appreciate the time off.”  My liver is chanting, “Bless you, my child.”  The scale is even winking at me in gratitude. The Girls–well, they’re not as thankful.  (“We really do miss getting the leftover bits of those oatbran banana muffins, Mum.“)

How did I accomplish such a feat, you ask? Well (like so much else in my life, unfortunately), it wasn’t a conscious choice.  I have discovered since our new semester began this week that it is just soooo much easier for me to eat healthfully when I have some distraction.  During the past two days, I’ve had distraction squared.  Exponential distraction.  To wit, dozens of students emailing with questions, numerous pieces of coursework to put into place, several meetings with colleagues, coordinators and Chairs (and chairs, too, actually), a cooking class to present in a major grocery store, a doctor’s appointment, and myriad other little errands and domestic tasks that I’ve left by the wayside for too long (hmmmm. .. why don’t we see just how long we can live without unpacking the second half of our kitchen, still in boxes from our recent move?)

On some level, I guess I know that my dietary habits are curbed by being busy, so I tend to overbook myself, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.  But hey, I like it that way; I get too stressed out when I’m not so busy that I’m stressed out.

It just seems that the ability to exert willpower over poor dietary choices is much more effective when I have many things to occupy my time and mind.  This fact tends to convince me that my eating is, indeed, emotional, as I am able to easily ignore even the most insistent rumbling of my stomach during times that I’m involved in what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I swear, that’s his real name) would call a “Flow” activity.

I guess I’ve always been someone who requires structure and consistency to be comfortable and stave off anxiety. As an undergraduate, I was exceedingly organized, so much so that I could work part time, go to school full-time, be a teaching assistant part-time, and still have a social life.  I was one of those annoying students who elicited the gag reflex in others by always having her course readings done (with notes) before class, and always finishing essays long before the due date (though I never actually handed them in before the due date, because I didn’t want my professors to think I hadn’t used the maximum time allotted, thereby designating me a slacker).

When it comes to my eating habits, however, I tenaciously resist the idea of structure.  Why? There have certainly been times in my life when I did diet according to “Diet Rules,” whatever fashion dictated they were at the time. 

Ah, nostalgia: I remember clearly when The Nurse first explained to me (a mere tyke at the time!) about the concept of calories. The rules were easy:  it didn’t matter where you got your calorie buzz as long as your sinful activity never exceeded a certain number per day (I think it was 1000 at that time).  You could eat anything you wanted, no matter how decadent, and you’d still lose 5 pounds a week as long as you followed the rules. But if you went too far, or enjoyed too much, you’d pay for breaking those rules by growing fatter and fatter, and your friends would ultimately reject you. So we went on a chocolate cake diet, eating one slice of it for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner in order to lose weight. (Come to think of it, that was also about the time she explained the birds and the bees to me as well, so maybe I’m getting those two sets of rules mixed up.)

Later on was the “same thing for each meal” diet (not to be confused with the previous one, which is technically the “same thing for every meal” diet).  In its second incarnation, the diet prescribed a bowl of corn flakes with skim milk for breakfast, a salad and orange for lunch, and chicken and vegetables for dinner.  At that time, I was working lunch hours in the high school cafeteria, so I’d get my orange and salad for free (I know, I can get my entire lunch for free, and what do I pick?  Salad and an orange).  Back then, in my early teens, that diet also worked beautifully. I did lose weight, my first large weight loss.  Unfortunately, I also lost my period and felt pretty crappy most of the time.  (Oh, and losing the weight didn’t help me get a boyfriend, either. Bummer.)

I could go on (but I’ll spare you).  Suffice it to say that, over the years, I tried sundry and various ways to lose weight, always keeping it off for a short time (except my one big “lose,” after which I maintained my slim self for about a decade).  But eventually, I gained back the weight in the most cliched fashion, even surpassing the previous “high” weight.

Lack of success in the past may explain why I’m diet-shy at the moment and bristle at any mention of counting points, calories, carbs, fat grams, or anything else that would cause me to practise my rusty addition or subtraction skills before eating.  I am truly thankful that I haven’t felt the urge to consume anything unhealthy in the past two days, but I’m still not entirely sure why that’s been the case. 

What I’m aiming for, eventually, is to regain the power in that equation (there’s that darn math again!), allowing me to assume conscious control of whether or not I lean toward the slice of chocolate cake or the scrambled tofu for dinner.  And judging by the last couple of days, it would make sense to examine just what it is that distraction offers.  Because in the end, I think it’s far preferable to meander through your days, relaxed and aware, than to rush through a predetermined schedule just to avoid the temptation of unhealthy eating.

Remembrance of Foods Past

January 4, 2008

As our man Marcel so eloquently illustrated, it’s pretty much natural for most of us to be flooded with sensory memories when we inhale the aroma of some beloved or long-forgotten food–images come flooding back as quickly as a montage in a rap video. 

The scent of hot chocolate?  Of course: that was studying for high school metriculations, 1978.  The wafting aroma of eggplant parmesan?  That dinner party with my wacky room mate (ah, yes, the one my friend Ed said had a revolving door in her bedroom) in 1981.  The tingly, acidic rush of champagne bubbles on the nose?  The first New Year’s Eve with my HH, way back when.  Oh, and the next one.  And also our anniversary.  Oh yeah, also my birthday.  And the following New Year’s.  And this past one. . . .

Yes, food certainly elicits memories for most of us.  What’s weird about me, I’ve since discovered (among all the other things) is that the opposite is also true: memories elicit food.  What I mean is, I tend to recall past events according to the food that was present at the time.

Just the other day, my HH and I were discussing how sweet my friend Gemini I is, to always invite us to her cottage for major holidays like New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving.  “Yeh, too bad we didn’t make it this past year,” my HH remarked. I thought for a moment, then realized we had, indeed, been there. 

“Sure, we were there, don’t you remember,” I said.  “It was the first time my gravy came out perfectly, no lumps. And Gemini II made that amazing Caesar salad in her huge salad bowl on the stand.”  (Okay, it’s true, I didn’t call her “Gemini II,” but I did say the rest of it.)  My HH had no recollection whatsoever of this.  When my HH remembers places or events, he remembers them as normal people do:  according to what happened, or where the place is, or who else was there.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t recall those types of details as well.  It’s just that, for me, it seems major events are distinguished by the kind of food that was present.

During our first rocky summer together, my HH and I split up twice.  I will forever remember the second split, since we were at a favorite restaurant and ordered, respectively, linguine with seafood, and veggie pizza (before the days I couldn’t eat wheat).  As I sat, tears streaming down my face, my HH shoveled food mechanically into his mouth as a way to stave off the rising emotion at our impending separation.  Back in those days, untrained in how to emote (or even have a discussion with someone who was emoting), my HH seemed unable to utter the simple words, “But I don’t want to break up.”  As a result, I sat there, immobile, crying, but not touching my food. 

After a few minutes, the very solicitous restaurateur approached to inquire whether the food was not to my satisfaction (No, no it’s great, sniffle, I’m just not hungry, whimper whimper, thanks anyway, boo hoo sob sob), and then proceeded to return to the table every five minutes thereafter, sweetly attempting to encourage me to eat–anything–by placing one after the other free dishes on the table before me (I declined on the antipasto, garlic bread, and cheesecake, but did accept the wine–hey, even heartbroken, I’m no fool). 

When I think of that breakup, I always think of the food involved.  (In the end, that’s sort of what brought us back together again:  I wrote about the incident in the newspaper, and after reading it, HH contacted me to give it one more try.  In the end, what I assumed was no more than a several-night stand has endured more than a decade.)

Almost every major event I’ve experienced is somehow associated with an attendant meal, or at the least, a dish.  My ultimate date with my first love, way back during the Me Generation and Excessive Everything, was a phenomenal meal at a Detroit restaurant called The Benchmark (no longer in existence, alas).  A very posh place, far beyond the budget of a sweet, romantic History major trying to impress his girlfriend, they sure did know how to treat a couple. Led to wait for our table at the upstairs bar, we became so engrossed in our conversation (I know, youthful amour can do that to you) that we completely lost track of time and, before we realized it, more than an hour had passed.  When we inquired whether our table was ready, the horrified maitre d’ apologized profusely and offered us a free bottle of champagne as compensation for the time lost. (That brand remains my favorite). 

Later, I remember vividly the most delicious, velvety, slightly pungent and salty Cream of Olive Soup I’ve ever tasted.  Was it the company that made the soup so spectacular?  Or the fact that, as a starry-eyed twenty-something with very little experience in restaurant protocol, I was bowled over by the incredible opulence and extravagant service of the place? Who knows.  But whenever I think of ol’ Spaghetti Ears, that dinner isn’t far behind.

And what can I say, my family is weird.  (Actually, that has nothing to do with food-related memories, just a random factual statement). My sisters and I define memories based on food.  Which birthday was it?  Oh, yes, that’s right, the one with the Bo-Peep birthday cake.  Or remember when The Nurse’s boyfriend managed to quit smoking for a year and we baked him that “Happy Healthy” cake?  For years afterward, all my friends wanted a Happy Healthy when they, too, quit smoking (because in those days, everybody still smoked). 

And speaking of healthy, what about the evening–the first after I’d started on my naturopath-decreed cleansing diet–that I shared a dinner with my friend Mark? We’d actually found a restaurant willing to honor my new restrictions and serve me plain, steamed, organic vegetables and steamed basmati rice–no seasonings, no flare whatsoever.  Mid-meal, I sensed some lightheadedness and attendant dizziness.  Within minutes, the room spun and I wasn’t sure I’d make it home.  It was mid-February, snowy, and visibility was almost nil as I inched my way along the roads, gripping the steering wheel for dear life, moving no faster than 20 km per hour (that’s less than 12.4 mph, my American amigos), desperate to avoid an accident before getting back to my house.  I was so weak by the time I arrived home that my HH actually had to take my shoes off for me, before I collapsed in a heap on the bed and fell into a fitful slumber for 18 hours. My first (and only negative) detox experience.

I’m not sure why I evolved this way; maybe it was the constant parade of homemade foods in our house, the kitchen as the fulcrum of our family life, the genes I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. 

Whatever; I’m hoping I can establish a novel trend in 2008 and begin to associate milestones with healthy food, or–shockers!–nothing to do with food at all.  How about baked sweet potatoes (one of my favorites) linked with our 11th anniversary? Or a great trail-walk with The Girls encapsulated by raw Fig & Cherry Bars (recipe in a future post)? Even better, I’d love to relate significant events to other activities entirely (and no, they don’t have to be “that” kind, you naughty ones!).  Wouldn’t it be great to have strong associations with other things besides food?

Food is great, I love food, and it’s always been at the forefront of most aspects of my life, but I’ve come to learn that’s not the healthiest way to be for me.  Food will always remain a central part of most social events, but maybe in the future, it can be tempered with other important markers as well.  The next time I face a major challenge or triumph, I’d like to be able to connect it with something else, by making a conscious effort to focus on the people, or the place, or the things that contribute to that memory. 

Still, I’ll always have a soft spot for champagne and olive soup.

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.”). 

Silence, Snow, and Sweets

December 16, 2007

Two suburban blocks sure can make a difference.  I swear, we moved north–two blocks north–and suddenly, we’re living in the arctic.   

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This never seemed to happen at the old house: the snow is swirling madly about my window, displaced drifts gusting in a constantly shifting veil of wayward flakes. It looks like some crazy subterranean god just sneezed, big time.  Down on the ground, the drifts by the driveway have virtually enveloped my car entirely, and the street itself is obliterated.  I can make out the ambiguous shape of a neighbour’s pickup truck, snow plow at the helm, rhythmically rocking frontwards and back as he attempts to clear his own driveway.  Why bother?

I’ve not seen so much snow since I was a little girl, when it settled up to our shoulders and my sister and I spent hours digging out forts and spelunking through the intricate tunnel systems that evolved in our front yard.  (Well, given that my shoulders were a little closer to the ground in those days, I suppose it’s possible that today’s is actually more snow).  My mom would squeeze us into our snowsuits (mine was a briliant hunter green, I recall), hoods up and scarves wrapped tight across face and forehead so only a slit for eyes remained. 

She must have known we’d quickly wrench the scarves from our mouths, impatient to get going and uncomfortble with the frost that formed into crystals, almost instantly, where our breath had been. So as an added precaution, she’d smear Vaseline over our cheeks to prevent chapping or frostbite. This allowed us to stay out for hours, protected from the harsh elements and their effects on our tender faces. (It worked great, too; if only I were still willing to exit the house with a mug covered in greasy, glossy petrolatum, I could have perfectly smooth, not-in-the-least-bit-dry, skin over the winter months). 

snow2.jpg In a way, I’m not sorry the city is blanketed, even though it’s virtually immobilized and you can be sure that nothing at our house will take place outside these brick walls today.  (Now, the last time our city saw so much snow was probably in 1999, when we were hit with a similar massive storm, and the mayor called in the army to dig us out from under it . And, as I recall, for which he was relentlessly mocked by mayors in other, equally snowy, cities across North America).

For me, the insulation of snow creates a calm and quiet workspace (the perfect surroundings in which to post my Holidailies entry).  Thank goodness I don’t have to be anywhere else today.  What I do have to do is bake, bake, bake, something I’ve been missing since I started my marking marathon last week.  

The past few days have brought a few orders from regular customers trickling in, and I’ve been itching to do some of my own baking as well–new recipes to try out, experiments to endeavor, old standards to mix up so my HH can have his favorite Orange-Pistachio Scones or Lemon Bundt Cake over the holidays.

So, with the backdrop of tender, fluffy flakes settling on the windowsills; with Stravinsky’s Firebird filling the air (we’re supposed to hear it live, courtesy of the Kirov Orchestra, tomorrow evening–IF the roads are cleared by then); and with The Girls settled in front of our new fireplace (“We don’t care that it’s fake gas, Mum, it’s still pretty and warm!”), I’m off to the kitchen to fulfill orders and whatever other confections my heart desires. 

Hope you’re all warm and toasty today.

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