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.”). 

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I’m beginning to think this blog should be called “Chocolate, Chocolate and Chocolate.”  I was truly not aware that one person could consume so much Lindt in a 4-day period and still survive. I think they should give me danger pay, or something.

So: what to do about my chocolate addiction? I’ve maintained for years that sugar is just as addictive as any drug, illegal or otherwise.  Only it’s worse:  you can live in a world without alcohol by removing it entirely from your life and cupboards.  But you can never eliminate food entirely from your life (or even dessert, if you live and socialize among other humans). And given that my own mother died of complications related to diabetes, one would think I’d take special care to avoid a similar demise.

But that’s the conundrum:  I am intelligent, educated, nutrition-savvy, quirky (okay, “quirky” isn’t really relevant, but I like that fact)–yet can’t seem to get a grip on my eating habits.  I do know that, like any other addict, if I make it through an initial “drying out” phase and avoid chocolate and other sweets for a period of about a week or two, it will be smooth sailing from then on.  So I’ve tried, many a time, to begin a new, healthy regimen and get past that hump.  Lately, it seems an impossible task.

And so, back to a fresh attempt tomorrow.  No, wait, not tomorrow, but right now!  Just because I ate a bag of Lindt minis today doesn’t necessarily mean I need to stay off the wagon, does it?  I can eat a healthy, nutritious, delicious dinner.  I remember that obese woman, Stacey Halprin, who’d lost the equivalent of a person or two. At one point, she was interviewed on Oprah, talking about what she’d learned after being slim for over a year.  She basically said that you don’t have to blow it just because you’ve eaten something ‘bad.’ She said, “If you wake up in the morning and you’ve been to a buffet breakfast or in my case, have a row of Oreos in the afternoon, I don’t starve because I know by noon, I’m going to tilt back the fridge. . . . What the winners do is they go to the exact next meal, and they start like it never happened.”

And so I shall (update tomorrow). 

(“Good for you, Mum!  We don’t mind healthy eating, either.  Can we have some more of that sweet potato you gave us for dinner?”)