Monday, November 25, 2013

Chocolate Chip Tahini Cookies

I saw an episode of Cupcake Wars that had a taste challenge with Middle Eastern flare. Contestants had pistachios, rose water, oranges, and tahini , among other delicious ingredients, to choose from. I really wanted someone to make tahini cupcakes! Sadly nobody did, and I sat there thinking how easy it would have been to use the tahini in place of the flour and then I thought, “Why don't I do it?” Now we aren't a big cupcake household but we do love our cookies. I knew chocolate and tahini went well together so I thought I'd make a sophisticated twist on a classic. Today I am happy to bring you Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies. These are naturally gluten free and can be made vegan. Also they are super simple and have a surprisingly mild sesame flavor. I'm not totally sure about all the points of the “paleo diet” but I think these would also be paleo, maybe without the chocolate chips, or to keep with the theme, pistachios in place of chocolate chips! This is a small batch but it easily doubles. If you need another reason to make these remember that tahini (sesame seeds) are abundant in vitamin E, B’s (especially folate), and calcium; and it’s the healthy kind of fat with a protein and fiber kick to boot. Enjoy guiltlessly!

Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies

Gluten free, vegan
Adapted from this recipe 

1/2 cup tahini, unsalted*
2 tbl honey
1 flax egg (1 tbl of ground flax mixed with 2 tbl of water)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/3 cup gluten free chocolate chunks or chips

Mix all of the ingredients, except the chocolate chips, in a bowl until a batter forms. Stir in chocolate chips. Scoop onto a parchment lined baking sheet and press down lightly. These cookies will spread a little and rise well. Bake on 350oF  for 12 minutes or until golden brown. Let them cool slightly before trying to remove from the sheet, as they will be soft at first. I got 6 cookies, but you can make them any size you like.

Notes and Substitutions
  • * I used store bought tahini, if you make it yourself you may want to add a tablespoon of coconut oil or sesame oil to the recipe. If you have salted tahini then just omit the salt in the ingredients.
  • You could do maple syrup or any other sweetener  
  • You could do a real egg or chia egg instead of flax

Do you have any fun flavor combinations you like to make, or any twists on classics?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Baby Is Mobile, Now What?

Our little guy is 9 months old now. It has its perks. Like he called me “mama” (excuse me for a moment while my heart melts) but we have also come across some new challenges. Mostly its that we have a crawling and curious baby. He’s been crawling/rolling for a few months now but just recently he’s gotten quick and pretty vocal about wanting to explore. Today I want to give you 3 quick tips/tricks to help with a moving baby.

   1) Baby Proof – This sounds like a no brainer, yeah that’s what I though too, but it actually takes a little consideration. You have the general stuff like outlet covers and cabinet locks but you wouldn’t believe all the other things they find to get into. Try crawling around at their level and you’ll see other potential hazards. My mom always tells me “if it crosses your mind then it definitely crosses theirs”. Also just keep and eye out for their “favorites”. At this age babies do have some memory and they often have spots they like to play around. Our guy loves the pet water bowl so when I see him crawling off at lighting speed I know just where he is heading. Always keep in mind that no amount of baby proofing should make you feel safe enough to leave your baby alone, but they could play safely nearby while you cook dinner, veg out on the couch, or write a blog post. Oh excuse me, I have to go catch a baby from a water bowl.
    2) Puffs are magic – Maybe that old song was about something different, but I’m talking about cereal puffs. Though normally I wouldn’t give a baby anything packaged or processed these are pretty neutral and to me it wasn’t a bad trade for a little break every now and then. I found an organic, gluten free, and fruit juiced sweetened brand. If you don’t want to do packaged any small-diced finger food will do. It takes baby awhile to pick up and eat the food. Sometimes I put our son in a high chair but more often I sprinkle a couple puffs on the ground and it’s a good distraction and good practice for him. Yes, our son eats floor food sometimes and you can roll your judgey eyes but you’ll do it too and you’ll think damn she was right, it sure is nice to sit down for a minute.
  3) Keep it novel- Our son can have 10 toys in front of him and instead he’ll go for my phone or the computer every time. Like all humans, babies want what they can’t have. They get bored with their toys quickly; they’ve touched it, they’ve put it in their mouth, and now it’s old news. You could constantly buy new toys, yeah right, or you can rotate toys. I put up some toys for a week or two and then bring them back out and BAM new again! I also give him bag clips and kitchen utensils, anything that he can’t normally get to. If I’m cooking dinner I will move some magnets to the lower part of the fridge and let him figure out how to pull them off. Sometimes I put him in the empty bathtub while I’m getting ready and he thinks that’s hilarious.

The best thing to remember is: just be creative and keep changing it up. As baby grows what they can reach changes and so does what interests them. When baby becomes mobile, you will become mobile too. Sometimes instead of trying to contain them just follow them around and you’ll have a game of chase in no time.

Do you have any go to moves for crawling and cruising babies?

Sugar Blues

I stole the title for this post from a book by William Dufty. It is a great book about the historical, social, and medical impacts of refined sugar in our diet and it's a pretty quick read. Mr. Dufty takes a strong stance against refined sugar because of his personal experience with diabetes, but the book is well researched and worth reading in your spare time. The history alone in the book was very interesting. For me it definitely helped to end an era of organic cane sugar in our household. It took a lot of experimenting but I have had no recipe that I could not find a substitute for the sugar. I started a new rule for our kitchen; if I can't make it myself or get it direct from nature, then it is not going in our food. No I'm not keeping an apiary these days, but it helped me clearly define what was refined and what was not. You may be wondering what difference it makes. After all maple syrup and honey may still rock your insulin levels like refined sugar, but (1) they are natural and (2) they contain health benefits that you simply don't get from regular sugar. Here is my guide to some common sweetener alternatives. There are numerous others than the ones listed below but I either do not know much about them or would not recommend them.

Maple Syrup
No not that brown colored high fructose corn syrup, but real and pure maple syrup. If you have never had it then you are truly missing out. It has a rich bourbon-like flavor that will vary depending on where it is from. Check the label, it should be grade A or B 100% pure maple syrup. Grade B is darker and has a stronger flavor. It will likely be a product of the U.S and Canada (if you are state side), however if you are geographically lucky and can find some local flare then I recommend going with that. As always try and support organic or small farms. Maple syrup will still kick up your insulin, but not as much as table sugar and it is full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; and it is sweeter so you can use less. Now for it's cooking uses, they really are endless. My husband likes to sweeten his coffee and chai tea with maple syrup. It is much sweeter than regular sugar and it pairs nicely with the bitterness of teas and coffee. I also use it to sweeten our homemade nut milks. Usually 1-2 tablespoons for 2-3 cups of liquid will more than suffice. You can also use it in baked goods. It will add moisture so you will have to adjust the other liquids when substituting (reduce the liquid by about 3 tablespoons for every 1 cup of maple syrup) and remember it is sweeter (so 1 cup of refined sugar can be replaced with about 2/3- 3/4 cup of maple syrup). It may cause the baked good to come out slightly darker because it caramelizes at a lower temperature than sugar, you can reduce the baking heat by 25oF or just enjoy your darker treat. I like to use it in sweet breads (it goes perfect with banana bread), and cookies (especially oatmeal cookies). It can also be used to sweeten sauces and dressings. A tablespoon added to homemade balsamic dressing is really nice. It also works well for honey mustard dressing (I guess maple mustard dressing in this case) and if you normally sweeten your soups or spaghetti sauces then this is a nice substitute.

We all really should be thanking the bees. Not only do they pollinate the majority of our food crops (for free) , but they also provide us with some of the most nutrient packed products on the planet (Go ahead and search propolis and royal jelly, I'll wait...) My favorite bee product though is honey. It has long been believed that eating local honey will help with allergies, it also has antifungal and antibacterial properties (I often cleanse my face with a mixture of honey and garlic, and I have been known to lather it on a cut), and surely you've heard it is good for a sore throat?Another great property of honey is that is can be caramelized like sugar. I like to make hard candies by cooking honey until it reaches the hard crack stage and then roll the taffy into balls. You can also cook it to the soft ball stage and use it for binding rice bars and other treats together. Honey can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for maple syrup so read above for substituting tips. For me it leaves a stronger taste than maple syrup so consider the flavor of your dish and decide if a little honey flavor will go nicely with it. Speaking of honey flavor, it comes in many varieties. Honey gets it's name like wildflower or orange blossom based on what plant is in majority and closest to the hive. This is not a guarantee though, your hive of bee's next to a field of wild flowers will still likely pollinate some other angiosperms (SCIENCE!) around, so the name only divulges what the majority of the honey will be made from. This gives honey unique flavors, you should try out different one's to see what you like. Always try to buy local honey and it doesn't hurt to learn about the apiary practices; honey bee's are on rapid decline because of the use of modern insecticides so I try to find companies that are taking care of their bees and working toward the greater effort of global bee conservation. Also make sure you get raw or unpasterized honey, and check the ingredients, it should only contain one.

Agave Nectar
I'm not sure if this plant is more famous for tequila making or agave syrup but it is pretty cool either way. The agave plant is called the century plant because it stores up its whole life for one big reproductive event and then it dies, somtimes it can wait a whole century. This life strategy is why agave is full of sweet sap, but don't be fooled into thinking that store bought agave nectar is pulled straight from the plant, its not. Actually the juice from the agave plant is filtered, heated, and then concentrated. What's a shorter way to say that? Refined perhaps? Yes I know maple syrup is heated and concentrated but the difference here is that agave nectar is made from the juice not the sap of the plant. It takes a lot more proccesing to get the final product. I'm not totally anti-agave but it is my least favorite of the alternative sweetners. It is much sweeter than sugar and even a bit sweeter than honey so you can use less. Also, like maple syrup and honey, it has a lower glycemic load than regular sugar, but I still wouldn't feed it to diabetics. It is good for vegans (who do not want to eat honey), and you can also find raw agave that is heated at a much lower temperature that is supposed preserve the enzymes. I have found that it has a much milder taste than honey or maple syrup so consider it for dishes that you would not want any extra flavors in. It also works great in drinks, a small amount can sweeten tea's or, in the perfect pairing, a margarita. Be careful when baking, I haven't used agave for baking but I have always heard that it can cause your baked goods to burn more quickly.

Date Syrup
This is one of my favorite alternative sweetners. Not to be confused with date palm sugar (which is made from the sap of the tree that bears this fruit) this is actually just a simple syrup that you can make from dates. You can use either rolled coconut dates or just regular dates (just take the pits out). Soak them for at least 30 minutes (if you have an awesome blender, which I do not, you can probably skip this step) then mix with water and blend until you get an even consistency. There isn't a recipe to it, if you want a sweeter syrup just add more dates.You need enough water to be able to blend it so just adjust as you go. This sweetner works really nicely in baked goods, raw desserts, and for nutmilks and smoothies. The date flavor is generally mild, but if you don't like the flavor try using a mixture of this and another sweetner like maple syrup. Dates are pretty sweet so you don't need as much syrup as you would regular sugar, also they are a great source of fiber and pottasium, two things most people do not get enough of in their diet. They are really a dessert on their own, you can stuff pitted dates with just about anything you can imagine and eat them whole; I'm not a fan of this because they are way to sweet for me, but a lot of people really enjoy it, and it makes for some fancy appetizers. You also don't have to make a syrup, sometimes simply chopping them or giving them a spin in the food proccesor will suffice. Blending with other ingredients like nuts, cocao or coconut in the food proccesor will cause the ingredients to stick together, you can make great energy bars and "truffles" this way. You can sometimes find "date sugar" which is made from even more dehydrated and gound dates, but really, just make it yourself. You can also try raisins, prunes, dried apricots, cherries, and blueberries.

Date Palm Sugar and Coconut Sugar
These sugars are made from two different plants but packaging often confuses the two ( coconut palm sugar - what?) I put them together here because though they are different plants the resulting sugar is very similiar in use. The sap from the date palm or the sap from the coconut palms flowers is collected and then heated to concentrate the sugar. You can find it in little blocks or all ready nicely ground into a tradtional sugar crystal consistency. These sugars are great to use in tempromental dishes that really require that sugar crystal consistency. These do have an almost caramel taste and are darker in color than plain white sugar, it is more like a brown sugar. I made lemon meringue pie with this sugar and though the flavor turned out great, it was a brown color, which really throws people off of the "lemon". I don't use this sweetner much now, but it is easier when you are first switching off of regular sugar because it can basically be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for most recipes. I recently read and article about the sustainability, or rather lack there of, of date palm sugar. Definitely get this one fair traded, fair traded not only insures that farmers are paid a fair price but there are also standards for sustainable stewardship of the land.

Fruit Juices
Real 100% juice is a great way to sweeten dishes. Pineapple and apple are some of the sweetest and go really nicely in sweet breads, smoothies, and sauces. I can make a mean BBQ sauce with pineapple and orange juice. When using juices for baking it is best to use some juice and some other sweetener as juice is not as sweet as the other more concentrated sugar alternatives. Also you'll need to reduce the liquid in the recipe. Make sure your juice doesn't contain added sugars and be creative; pineapple juice in zucchini bread, apple juice to sweeten a smoothie, and cherry juice in brownies.

Black Strap Molasses
Okay so this one is kind of sugar. Molasses is the leftover product of sugar refining; regular sugar has all of the nutrients removed but they are left in the molasses. It is a great source of iron, manganese, copper, and many others. It definitely has a strong flavor and I would not use it often but it is essential to some recipes, like ginger snaps; it also tastes great on beans and I have used it to sweeten a smoothie in a pinch. Definitely use 'black strap' and always check the label to make sure no corn syrup is sneaking in.

I do not actually know a lot about stevia but I put it here because it is an important and popular low calorie alternative sweetener. It is also used by some diabetics because they find it does not interfere with their blood sugar. Stevia is not biologically a sugar at all, it is made from the leaf of the stevia plant and it taste sweet (a lot sweeter than sugar). It has a bit of an herbal taste and it typically comes in liquid (extract) and powder (green and white) form. Not that many years ago it was only sold as a supplement but now it  is approved by the FDA to be sold as and in food items. I don't use this sweetener because (1) I don't need the reduced calories nor am I diabetic and (2) it kind of freaks me out. Let me explain that second one, whole leaf stevia, which is often in mixed tea bags seems fine to me, but the super sweet liquid that has no calories and doesn't spike your blood sugar levels sounds to good to be true. In my experience if it sounds to good to be true then it is. That being said I'm open to looking at research as it comes out and I would definitely recommend using this over any other artificial sweetener (those dangerous little blue, pink, and yellow packets of chemicals). I have read both negative and positive studies on the side effects of stevia. A quick internet search on the subject brings up some cases of people feeling dizzy, having muscle pain, low blood pressure, and general ill-digestion issues after consuming stevia. Since I all ready suffer from dizzy spells and low blood pressure I try to avoid this sweetner. I am not trying to scare you, it really is just personal choice and whenever I come across a recipe using stevia I am always able to substitute honey or maple syrup for it. One of my favorite bloggers regularly uses stevia and she has a great post about how it is healthy.  If you want to use stevia packaging should provide more information on substituting.  I do hope more research is done with stevia so I can feel more comfortable about using it.

 In general, I TRY not to stress to much about sugar. The greatest thing about reducing your sugar consumption is that your tongue will become more attune to the natural sweetness in food. To me almonds and coconuts are very sweet on their own and I even find pure apple juice a little to sweet. Believe me this is coming from someone who really had has a sweet tooth, my tooth just has a different view of sweetness now.

I would love to hear about other alternative sweeteners. What's your favorite? 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Oh the Holidays- A Healthier Baking Guide

Fall is my favorite time of year in Georgia. The weather is a perfect balance of cool and sunny and the air is refreshed from gentle breezes. The garden is in full giving mode and even the days are still long enough to enjoy plenty of down time in the evenings. On our first beautiful day here I begged my husband to stay home from work so we could go hiking, drink hot apple cider, and eat fresh baked cinnamon pumpkin bread. He did not stay home from work, but we sat on the porch that evening sipping apple cider and picking at a slice of pumpkin bread. As we nibbled our treat, I couldn't help but think of the one thing I don't like about this time of year. Everyone is in the mood to bake and it becomes a non-stop sugar, hydrogenated oil, and refined flour fest.

Over the past year I have been learning how to bake without adding conventional sugar. I have experimented with dates, fruits and juices, agave, honey, maple syrup, and date palm sugar. I have had mishaps along the way ( my sister still cringes when I mention Chia Pudding), but over all I have found ways to make delicious sweet replicas of most of those childhood treats that lay so fondly in my memory this time of year. I have also learned and formed an opinion about the best "natural" sugar options. Here it is: My favorite sweetener to use is dates or other fruits, some will argue that these still contain a high sugar content; true, but (one) I'm making desserts that are to be enjoyed with great moderation and (two) they also contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so you are not just eating empty calories. There are occasional recipes where fruit alone just won't do, and in these cases I like to use maple syrup or date palm sugar (Maple syrup whipped with heavy cream makes the perfect pie topping). Date palm sugar is relatively new to me, when they got it in at the local CoOp I decided to give it a try because it touted a low glycemic index and still had a granulated texture. I don't use honey often when baking, but it has a distinct flavor that lends well to some recipes. I gave agave a fair squeeze but after learning more about it I now consider it a refined sugar. As for diabetics I think stevia is the best option. I admit that I don't have much experience with it; in my little experience I do have I always ended up with a weird herbal after taste (which is better than that chemical after taste you get with artificial sweeteners). To see my extensive breakdown of sugar go to my Sugar Blues post).

Once I figured out how to better sweeten our desserts, my next goal was to remove the ridiculous amount of animal fats and hydrogenated oils. When my husband and I first starting dating I would cringe watching him throw a pat of butter into everything we cooked. He is from the rural deep south and he laughs now because he thought "thats how you flavor food!" My mom, aunt, and sister still keep bacon grease to cook fried rice in (and yes it is delicious that way). Look I'm not anti-butter, however I do pay attention to quantity and quality. Butter and oils lend great flavor to food, if you don't believe me then go ahead and make those brownies with apple sauce instead of oil and tell me how they taste. This brings up a good point though, yes oils flavor but they are not necessarily essential, and there are some noteworthy options available. First, if you are going to do animal fat go for grass-fed butter or ghee, it really does taste better and those fats from healthy animals will be so much better for you, just always in moderation. Some great oil alternatives are apple sauce, avocado, or pumpkin puree, but of course these come with some flavoring and do alter the outcome a bit. There are some healthier oils I love to use. Coconut oil is the go to in our household, we use it for sauteing, frying, baking, and as a beauty product (you would have thought my husband found the holy grail when he realized he could use coconut oil as a facial moisturizer). There is some slight coconut taste (which we found is delicious with eggs) when using it as a saute oil but no taste when using it for baking. Some may be quick to point out that coconut oil has a very high saturated fat content, but the current science tells us that because it is mostly medium chain fatty acids, it does not have the same detritus health affects as the saturated fat in animal fats. It is important to buy unrefined virgin coconut oil so that it has not been hydrogenated (fair trade and organic don't hurt either). However if you still have some health concerns then olive oil is a good choice; it does have a stronger flavor and may be noticeable in some lighter baked goods. I encourage you take a stroll down the oil section of your local natural food shop and look at all of the wonderful options now available; pumpkin, walnut, and avocado. Oh My!

The final bear of holiday baking that I had to tackle was the flour. Before Noah was asked to go gluten free, even switching from refined to whole grain flour was a slow process for us. I started by going half and half and slowly increased the whole to refined ratio until our taste buds got used the heartier flavor of whole grains. The benefit of using whole grain flours is that they contain fiber (making your treat more filling) and the 'husk' of grains contain the majority of vitamins and minerals. I recommend the gradual approach, whole grains have a more dynamic flavor profile and richer texture that is noticeable, but it is something that we learned to enjoy about our baked goods. Adding to the nutrition of the flour was also my goal. I routinely add ground flax or chia to to my baking which can decrease the amount of oil needed and often can replace eggs altogether. Ground flax has a particularly nutty a flavor and gives texture and depth to breads and cookies. Though I make whole-grain breads and treats for others we are generally a gluten free household. Gluten free baking is still always an experiment for me. I like to use almond and coconut flour, which generally require eggs to give them a good texture. You don't have to purchase expensive flours, you can simply grind your own out of almost any nut or shredded coconut. I also love using plantains as the flour. They make the perfect pancakes and breads. Buckwheat and oats are another good gluten free option. One warning: beware of the faux healthy gluten free mixes and packaged product. A lot of those things have binders and fillers that are hard to digest and no better than their white flour processed counterparts. Instead of stressing about making something gluten free try just making it without the gluten part; crustless pumpkin pie is still delicious! 

Overall I have been amazed at the amount of substituting you can do and still reach holiday table worthy results. I have even found some wonderful raw deserts. When it comes to 'cleaning' up your baking just remember: don't be afraid to experiment, I have thrown out plenty of buckwheat blueberry muffins. Also, if your using new or expensive ingredients make a small test batch so you can taste and adjust; the batter will typically taste sweeter than the final result so keep that in mind and don't forget about the power of toppings. Granola, chopped fruit, or some simple maple syrup can fix an under-sweetened or overly fibrous dessert.

Happy Baking!