Chestnut Cherry Upside-Down Cake

I thought olive oil was controversial, but sugar! Yeesh. Bandwagons abound, and you can jump on any one you want with just one minute of Googling your preferred theory. Of course, there's Big Sugar and their infamous corn syrup, which is probably responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization, a posit exhaustively detailed in the documentary Fed Up (which is totally fascinating and depressing, check it out). You've also got the anti-sugar set, who demonize everything from white sugar to fruit, with fructose guarding the gates of hell. Dear readers, we will not be jumping on any bandwagons, but rather, examining the science and making educated decisions for ourselves based on evidence (and yes, gut feelings). Then we will triumphantly make a delicious cake to celebrate. You all know how much I hate when macronutrients are bullied, right?

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I found myself in many a comment section while researching this post, for example, the one attached to this "article" in The Washington Post, because even research presented by journalists about sugar is difficult to take at face value. What I learned that was provable and of value from this random anonymous sampling of the population is: fit people also get diabetes, some people react badly even to fruit, and foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup are pretty much guaranteed to contain other shitty, junk ingredients as well. Lots of things are subjective, genetic, environmental - tune in to what your body tells you after you eat something. Are you gassy or bloated after eating certain fruits, but okay after eating other ones? Do you feel panicked or anxious after eating store-bought cookies? Does your energy crash after having a sweet breakfast? What times of day do you crave sugar, and does eating it then make you feel better or worse?

I'm very sensitive about what I put into my body - if I feel even a little off, I usually go back what I ate first to figure out why I'm feeling that way (this is a great way to avoid confronting deeper emotional issues). At the same time, I LOVE TO EAT. I always, always have. I like to eat something every time I change locations throughout the day. I like to eat something every time I sit down and every time I stand up. Finding the balance between flavor and function is essential for me to walk that fine line between eating enough to be emotionally happy while keeping my body in physical homeostasis. 

I'm re-balancing my intake of carbs right now as I'm not feeling as spunky and light as I used to, and my first step is to be very intentional about when I eat sugar. I do know that white sugar always makes me feel unsatisfied, weary and hungry for still more carbs, and natural sugars don't. I'm curious to see if either bringing down my natural sugar intake overall or completely overhauling my largely sedentary lifestyle in an effort to USE the energy that sugar provides will make me feel better. Or maybe it's the time of day that I eat it that's important! I'll let you know. In the interim, everyone has to pick their battles, and mine is certainly not against dessert with nutritious intentions. Rather, I encourage you to switch to all unrefined sugar (so no soda, no corn syrup, no white sugar, no diluted honey nor Aunt Jemima) and see how that makes you feel. My go-tos are raw honey, maple syrup, yacon syrup, jaggery/panela and dates/date sugar. Some unrefined sugars, like maple syrup, are indeed processed, up to a certain point; sap and juice are reduced from their original form, but not refined after that. White sugar undergoes further refinement via centrifuge to remove molasses, which just happens to be where all of the minerals and nutrients are. Maybe you'll agree after switching to natural sugars that your mood doesn't spike and fall after eating, you're digesting nicely, it tastes better, and you need less. These guys are really rich in flavor!

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Humans need three things to function properly: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. If the body cannot make it by itself, you have to eat it. You have to eat carbs! Carbohydrates fuel our cells, they give us energy. We encounter many kinds of carbohydrates in our daily lives - some are big and complex structures, with lots of sugar molecules linked together every which way, and some are simple, known as monosaccharides and disaccharides, with just one or two sugar units making up their structure. In the end, all carbohydrates are composed of our little friend, the sugar molecule.

The number one ultimate coolest monosaccharide is glucose. Remember the potatoes from our Julia Child extravaganza last post? Tubers are the potato plant's underground storage vessels of glucose (stored as starch, a complex carbohydrate), which the plant gets via its green chlorophyll-y leaves from the sun. Hence, eat potatoes, eat glucose, eat the sun! Yes! That is literally how it works. We humans don't have chlorophyll-y leaves, so we can't glean glucose from the sun. We have to eat carbs! Eating enough carbohydrates prevents our bodies from instead breaking down our protein stores into glucose (and you can be sure I'll tell you all about protein another time - it's too important to be wasted on making glucose when we can so easily get glucose from delicious carby things).

Together, one glucose molecule and once fructose molecule bonded make a sucrose molecule, a disaccharide - the combination that gives us, in varying ratios and chemical bonding, table sugar, honey, maple syrup and fruit. These sugars are simple and small - they are easily digested by the body and provide quick energy. Easy, fast, sounds ideal, right? Wrong. It may seem counterintuitive, but we don't actually want easily digestible sugars and quick energy - we want our sugars packaged with fiber or protein, so the body gains access slowly. This ensures a steady, efficient use of energy and a minimal spike in blood sugar. Having your sugar in a whole form is so important, because the sweetness of fructose serves as a flag to our brains that the thing we are about to eat is nutritionally rich (like fruit). When sugar that has been stripped of all of its nutrients (refined sugar) is just added willy-nilly, you are getting the sweetness flag, but no actual nutrients. Your body is getting all excited and preparing for some sweet, slow energy unpacking, but ends up getting nothing but a sugar rush right into the bloodstream and liver. Additionally, after eating items made with refined sugar (and ostensibly refined every-other-ingredient), you don't end up feeling full, as they are lacking all of the good bulking agents that make up whole foods. Yet, they still taste damn good to your brain, so you reach for more! This kind of over-consumption is a major reason sugar is linked to bad health. 

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Why are our own brains making us act a fool? Early hominids ate mostly fruits and leaves while the species was still centralized in the tropics, where the vegetation is lush, and the weather hot and humid year-round. After expanding outward to the savanna (mixed woodland and grassland), the hominids used their taste buds to determine which of their new food sources were nutritious, and which were toxic. That fructose flag was very helpful to our great ape ancestors. The chemicals that make up the food we eat stimulate receptor cells within our taste buds, which help us decide what is nutrient-dense and what is toxic, and rev up the rest of the body for metabolization and digestion. Taste, combined with smell and touch, equals flavor! The body uses flavor to identify if a food is familiar, or something completely new. Sweetness is familiar, from our early days foraging fruit in the tropics, as well as from those cookies we got when we were good little boys and girls. Lollipops at the bank, ice cream after games - we're programmed early and often. (As a side note, toxic food is usually perceived as very bitter.) Nowadays, at least where I live, we are not using taste to identify nutritious foods in a deep forest of dubious sources of calories, but rather, to sit on the couch and eat the saltiest, sweetest things we can get our hands on, AFTER we've already eaten dinner.

This is how I see unrefined sugar going down in the body. The brain sees sweet food, like an apple or raw honey, and associates it with nutrients and energy. The taste buds experience the sweetness and think the same thing. The energy enters the body packaged with enzymes, vitamins, fiber and/or protein, depending on the source, and the body slowly breaks open the energy packets and reaps the benefits.

natural sugar effects on the body

This is how I see refined sugar going down in the body. The brain sees sweet food, like a cookie or a can of soda, and the same thing happens as with natural sugar. The brain thinks this food will contain nutrients and energy, as do the taste buds. The refined sugar hits the body in an unfortified explosion of energy, which peaks quickly and dissipates. The body is left tired and hungry, usually with a craving for more sugar.

white sugar effects on the body

There is an interesting theory, first proposed by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist (animal behaviorist) Nikolaas Tinbergen, of supernormal stimuli. Tinbergen ran various experiments, like planting large, decoratively-painted, fake plaster eggs among among a bird's real own eggs, and fake wooden female butterflies with exaggerated attractive markings among male butterflies looking to mate, to see which one the animal would choose. In all cases, the animal preferred the fake, or the super stimulus, even though it was actually detrimental to themselves and the proliferation of their species as a whole. For an excellent visual explanation of this theory via comic, go here

When I read about supernormal stimuli, I screamed DUH THIS IS SO REAL and thought hard about Tinder and high-fructose corn syrup. Manufactured food today is without a doubt supernormal stimuli. Food companies have very smart engineers and entire laboratories devoted to pumping their products with the highest amount of salt and sugar possible (while spending the least amount of money possible on the ingredients) to trick your taste buds into forgetting about what we're really eating for: nutrition and quality. Your taste buds don't care about what happens when the food enters the gastrointestinal tract - they've done their job by then and moved onto the next thing. I believe it is possible to become addicted to anything, at least emotionally, and whether or not people are becoming physically addicted to sugar, Tinbergen's work shows that it is possible that we instinctively cannot turn away from this supernomal stimuli. Hyper-appealing foods are another direct link to bad health. By the same psychological token, bear in mind, the concept of "dessert" is a human creation. It is possible we crave sweet things at times when we aren't actually hungry (like after dinner) because we're just used to having dessert.

To hear what your body is telling you, you're going to have to tune out both the people injecting sugar into your food to make money off of your poor health, and the people forbidding you to ever eat sugar again because they want to sell you their newest diet e-book. Be strong out there, friends.

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Chestnut Cherry Upside-Down Cake

Elements

Handful of jaggery or panela

30 cherries, any color

2 medium-large pastured eggs

1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp maple syrup

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp Himalayan pink salt, preferably coarse

120 grams (1 cup) chestnut flour

50 grams (scant 1/2 cup) almond meal

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

 

 

Equation

Lightly oil an 8-inch round cake pan and sprinkle a thin layer of jaggery across the bottom (you can also use a 9-inch, but you will need more cherries).

Slice the cherries in half, using the pit in the middle to guide the knife. Place halves facing up or down in concentric circles, in whatever pattern and order pleases you.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs to break yolks. Add maple syrup and whisk thoroughly. Add olive oil and whisk 45-60 seconds until slightly thickened. Add vanilla and salt, and whisk once more.

In a medium bowl, combine chestnut flour, almond meal, and baking powder. 

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, folding with a spatula until just mixed. Pour batter gently into pan, covering cherries. 

Bake at 300°F for 65 minutes (but do check in on the cake at 45 minutes in), until the cake bounces back to the touch (and the interior does not seem wet or jiggly) or a tester inserted comes out clean.

Allow cake to cool to room temperature in pan. Cover the top of the pan with a plate wider than the pan, and carefully but confidently flip the cake over. Knock on the top of the pan a few times with your hand and lift the pan straight up.

Serve immediately, or let sit, covered, at room temperature, until the next morning.

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The Potato Show Redux

In the first episode of the first season of one of the first cooking shows ever on television, Julia Child croons, "The repertoire is really endless in potatoes."

Boundlessly optimistic, super funny and charming, and best of all, devotedly instructional, Julia Child deserves all of the love and attention that continues to be lavished on her years after her death and decades after her last show or cookbook.

What's great about reexamining these recipes is that we now have six billion times (exact figure) as many options for ingredients in our markets and grocers as Julia did in 1963, when this episode aired, and can thus make comfort food that doesn't have to be so heavy or unusable by the body. My savory alternative to cream is based on the surprisingly luscious roasted whole head of garlic.

I dissected the recipes from Episode 1, "The Potato Show" (go ahead and watch, enjoy) - and do you know what I found out? Potatoes are FASCINATING. They're these vital plant body parts that are secretly packed with nutritious bits. For example, and perhaps not surprisingly, potatoes provide the US population with more Vitamin C than any other single ingredient. This is partially because potatoes have a ton of Vitamin C, and partially because Americans eat a ton of potatoes. The potato loses about 75% of its available C when fried, and 25-40% from baking - but don't despair, what's left is significant. Potatoes also have lots of potassium, with purple potatoes coming in first, and they retain most of it after being cooked. Julia's casserole recipes are better with waxy potatoes, which are able to hold together after being both boiled and baked, but for regular potato consumption, please do explore purple potatoes and sweet potatoes, both of which have even more flavor and nutrients than the white guys.

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The potato is actually a plant organ! Don't let that freak you out. Potatoes provide subterraneous storage of food for the potato plant - like the basement of a house in the suburbs. They are not root vegetables, like carrots and turnips, but a swelling of the plant stem itself - known as a tuber.

Though early South Americans unearthed this buried treasure early on, it was not until the 1600s that testimonies to the hidden ingredient started popping up regularly in letters and books, mostly in reference to the sweet potato. "The nutriment which they yield is, though somewhat windie, verie substantiall...surpassing for nourishment of all other roots and fruits," gushed Dr. Tobias Venner, a well-known physician from Bath, who then offered the delicious suggestion that potatoes be "roasted in the embers, sopped in wine". I know what I'm having for dinner tonight.

What Dr. Venner means by "windie" is just what it sounds like - the tendency of potatoes to cause flatulence. This was not a problem in the 17th century; passing gas was believed to inflate the male libido and promote virility, and the flatulent effects of food, particularly meat, were used to promote them. Both potatoes and sweet potatoes have a very high starch and a moderate fiber content to thank for these magical Venus powers. Humans cannot digest raw potato, so always cook thoroughly and eat immediately!

Potatoes are also the favored lab rat in the realm of agricultural research. In the Netherlands, researchers at Salt Farm Texel have been using an open-air laboratory field to grow potatoes irrigated with saltwater. Their mission is to get ahead of the slow but steady global salinizaton that threatens the earth's freshwater supply (due to rising sea levels, receding land, and dry summers), as well as to open up non-arable land previously considered impossible to grow crops on - and they're succeeding! By watering the roots, instead of the leaves, Salt Farm Texel is nurturing salt-tolerant potatoes (and carrots, red onions, white cabbage and broccoli) on saline farmland in Pakistan, Ghana and Bangladesh. Also, Texel asserts that the potato flavor is enhanced by this process, and you "don't need to add salt when cooking". Two for one - nice. Taking extreme potato-growing one step further, the International Potato Center announced just last month that attempts to grow potatoes in a simulation of the atmosphere on Mars have been successful. Yes, Martian potatoes are in the works and coming to a planet near you.

Now that you're sufficiently impressed and you think potatoes are...tubular, on to the recipe!

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Feel free to veganize this recipe by leaving out the egg and the chorizo. The egg serves to hold the casserole together, so the vegan version will be a little more of a mess to serve, but just as good. Add some more veggies to make up for the missing sausage - something both hefty and umami, like a combo of Swiss chard and shiitake mushrooms. Both the roasted garlic bulb and the garlic cream itself can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.

Elements

1 garlic bulb

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pan

Flaky sea salt

1 shallot, sliced

1/2 head cauliflower, in medium chunks

2 cups water

1 pastured egg

Fresh ground pepper

5 medium waxy potatoes (230 g) (I used new potatoes), thinly sliced

1 chorizo sausage, fresh or cured, thinly sliced

1 small head broccoli (150 g), cut into bite-size florets

Handful fresh parsley

 

 

 

Equation

Preheat oven to 400°F. Oil an 8-9 inch casserole dish. Slice 1/4th inch off the top of the garlic bulb, ensuring that all cloves are exposed. Lay down enough aluminum foil to wrap the bulb, followed by parchment paper, followed by the bulb itself. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt on the exposed cloves, and wrap in parchment, then aluminum. Roast in oven for 1 hour. 

While garlic is roasting, warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan on medium-low heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and shallot and brown in pan, about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower and water, stir and bring to a boil. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer until cauliflower is fork tender (but not falling apart), about 15 minutes.

Pour mixture into blender, and add roasted garlic - squeeze out as much of the soft innards as you can from the skin. Puree until smooth, add egg, and blend for a few additional seconds. 

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to boil, and add sliced potatoes. Cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Blanch the broccoli and any additional veggies by submerging in boiling water for 2 minutes. Layer potatoes, chorizo, and broccoli in alternating layers in casserole dish, seasoning each layer with a scant 1/2 pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Slowly pour garlic cream over entire casserole, being sure to get into the gaps and evenly distribute liquid.

Bake casserole for 30 mins at 375°F on middle rack, then move to upper rack and bake for 15 minutes more. Make sure the chorizo is fully cooked if using fresh sausage. Garnish with additional salt and pepper if needed, fresh parsley, and serve immediately.

Fresh Corn Polenta

Corn. Sweet zea mays. A summer ingredient with a Thanksgiving-y sensibility. Every continent has a distinct agricultural history, but they all have one thing in common: staple foods. 

Before Christopher Columbus washed up on the shores of the Bahamas, the flora and fauna of the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa) and the New World (Americas) hadn't been in contact since the continents were all one giant landmass. As a result of the continental drift, the lands had separate evolutionary trajectories, and the ecologic results made for major cultural differences that propagated into the modern era. Available crops and climate determined whether a tribe would revert to farming or to hunting and gathering. This is known among anthropologists as a subsistence strategy, or the way in which people acquire food and how that characterizes tribal activities (Malpezzi and Clements, 133).

For example, the Moriori, a farming tribe from a tropical Polynesian climate, colonized the Chatham Islands, an archipelago in which temperatures ranged strictly between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here, the farmers were unable to cultivate the tropical crops they were used to and turned to hunting and gathering what was available, like seals and fish. This meant two things: the Moriori had no crop stores to support anyone who couldn't hunt and gather full-time (artisans, military, monarchy), and never had to develop any technology beyond what was required to ensnare their easy prey. The result? They were decimated by the Maori, colonizers of Northern New Zealand, a land warm enough to cultivate tropical crops. The Maori used their own easily-accumulated crop stores to feed armies and craftsmen, developing powerful tools and infrastructure (Diamond, 55-56). 

In 1492, hundreds of millions of years after the continents drifted apart from one another, seven million years after we evolved from the great apes and started hunting animals and gathering plants, and thousands of years after we domesticated plants and animals for farming and production (Diamond, 86), Europe and Africa had never seen an ear of corn. The Columbian Exchange, or the mass exchange of food, diseases, people and ideas following Columbus's voyage, brought the nutrient-dense staple crop to the Old World. The Old World also gained, notably, the potato, which is so rich in vitamins and minerals that it could theoretically make up a human's entire diet, needing only to be supplemented with Vitamin A and D (Nunn and Qian, 163-169). The Irish were already heavy dairy eaters (so there's the A and D), and the potato grew beautifully in the Irish climate. What started as a boon ended in disaster, however; the great potato fueled great population growth, and that potato-reliant population famously floundered when a fungal disease struck the entire potato crop. 

But back to corn. Italians, in 1492, had already been eating grain porridge they called puls for years, going all the way back to the time of the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of what is now Tuscany. Pre-dating even bread in the Italian diet, puls evolved into corn polenta, as Europeans embraced the freshly-arrived maize from the New World, and it maintained its status as an Italian nutritional staple until, ironically, Italians started immigrating to North America in search of a better life, and eagerly abandoned their monotonous consumption of the "meat of the poor", as polenta was known, for a more diverse diet (Malpezzi and Clements, 134).

Making the polenta from fresh corn instead of the traditional dried corn (cornmeal) yields a much sweeter, fresher starchy base for almost anything your heart desires. The mush should have stability, like mashed potatoes. Plan on one and a half ears of corn per serving. Though this is obviously best made with New Jersey's sweet summer corn, you can also use frozen corn - one ear equals about a three-quarter cup of frozen kernels.

Hannah Banana Bread

Banana bread is one of my favorite recipes because it is DELICIOUS and endlessly customizable. Also, bananas are so cheap. Great ingredient. Buy bananas every week, and if by the time they are brown you don't want to make banana bread, just slice them up and freeze them for future banana ice cream. 

A dark chocolate swirl, tahini, coconut; nutmeg, ginger, cardamom; the combinations are limitless! My go-to combo is an extra-cinnamonny version of The First Mess's recipe for banana zucchini bread (the zucchini gives the bread a really great lightness) marbled with my take, miso-cocoa banana bread. I make the full recipe for each loaf, because I am wary of dividing baking recipes, and end up with two loaves! Believe me, you will have no problem finding people to help you finish two loaves. 

Developing my recipe for miso-cocoa banana bread was really a lesson in baking soda and baking powder. Making the loaf fully plant-based, with additional bananas replacing some of the eggs and some of the sweetener, creates a pretty heavy batter that requires some extra leavening and time in the oven. Most quick breads (breads made without yeast and thus without having to wait for the dough to rise) are made the same way: whisk the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another, combine the two until the dry ingredients are just moistened, pour into a loaf pan, and pop it in the oven. If you overmix, the batter will become tough, and you risk deflating newly-forming air pockets. You can take as long as you want playing around with the wet and dry ingredients separately, but as soon as you combine them, get the loaf in the oven, because the wet ingredients are what activate the baking soda and/or powder. 

But what's the difference between baking soda and baking powder you say? I was dying to know too! In a regular loaf of bread, like a sourdough, yeast acts as the leavening. Yeast, which is a living fungus, breaks down the starch that is the bread flour into sugars and consumes them, then excretes carbon dioxide as a by-product, filling the tiny air bubbles already present in the dough (all those characteristic holes!), and the strong, glutenous, elastic dough stretches to contain the gas inside the loaf, but never breaks open.

(Side note: if you are interested in seeing a video in which an amazing Italian chef must recreate a loaf of bread recovered from an excavation of the ruins of Pompeii from a picture given to him by The British Museum, follow me!)

In a quick bread batter, however, along with muffin batter, cake batter, scone batter, etc., we rely upon an intentional chemical reaction between an acidic and an alkaline ingredient, instead of yeast, to make the bread rise almost immediately with no waiting around for the yeast to do its thing (quick bread, get it?). We get this chemical reaction from baking soda and its overachieving younger brother, baking powder.

Baking soda, as the alkaline ingredient, needs something acidic to react with - in baking, this is commonly buttermilk, molasses or vinegar; in my recipe, it is the non-alkaline cocoa powder, raw honey and bananas - and a liquid to facilitate the reaction. The pH scale is used in the science world as a visual representation of the relationships between acid and alkaline substances, which are all assigned a numerical value based on how many hydrogen ions they have in relation to each other and to pure water (neutral). Here is where our ingredients (and a few non-ingredients for comparison) fall:

Baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate), on its own, has a slightly soapy taste and occurs naturally in the earth as a mineral called nahcolite. Not all brands peddle pure mineral nahcolite, however. Whereas Bob's Red Mill describes their product as "deposits of mineralized sodium bicarbonate...extracted by a simple water process that uses no chemicals", and Frontier says theirs is "pure, natural sodium bicarbonate from a mined source", more commercial brands like Arm & Hammer manufacture synthetic baking soda, which is still classified as a certified organic ingredient in North America. I will disclose, I've used them all, and the Bob's Red Mill one really shimmers. Just saying. 

Leavening is not the only thing baking soda is useful for in your batter. Baking soda also contributes to browning, which means literally baking your batter brown and consequently amping up flavor and aroma. If you play around with the amount of baking soda in your recipe, apart from altering the rise of the baked good, you will also get a crispier and likely tastier result. When I read about this, I immediately added another half teaspoon of baking soda to my recipe, which gave it a nice, crackled top that would have been unachievable by any other method except maybe overcooking the entire loaf, but proved to be way too much in addition to the baking powder, as you can see in my failure below. This is a great technique to try for crispier cookies, or even browning/caramelizing onions in a pan.

Baking powder is equally, if not more glamorous. Take that beautiful powder possibly isolated from mineral nahcolite, and add the purified sediment scraped from wine casks after full grape fermentation, and you have baking powder! That sediment is what we call cream of tartar, and it is an alkaline ingredient. That's right, baking powder comes prepackaged with its own alkaline ingredient (and cornstarch to keep everything dry in the container) and needs only to be mixed with a liquid to begin releasing those leavening carbon dioxide bubbles. Baking powder is essential when your batter lacks acidic ingredients, but is often used in combination with baking soda in recipes where there are small amounts of acidic ingredients present, or in non-acidic recipes that need leavening and a touch of crisping. Baking powder itself does not contribute to browning, and, importantly, cannot be substituted one-to-one for baking soda! Remember, baking powder is made up of baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch, so it is about a third as potent as pure baking soda, leavening-wise.

So, are baking soda and baking powder whole food, plant-based ingredients? Maybe not. Do I want to try making yeasted banana bread that needs to rise overnight? Absolutely. Until then, please enjoy this miso-cocoa banana quick bread with a water-foraged nahcolite infusion!

Oiling Philosophic

My absolute favorite pasta sauce is Big Red by Hoboken Farms. I like it so much that as my pasta is cooking I stand at my counter and eat the sauce with a spoon. I usually finish one jar in two nights. My budget can't handle this kind of bourgeoisie behavior often, but pasta on its own can be very cheap (my pasta of choice is local sprouted wheat macaroni elbows in bulk from Whole Foods), so I started making my own pasta topping. The Honeybunch method is quick and super veggie-heavy with a generous amount of red pepper flakes (feel free to tone this down or leave them out if you don't like spice).  Adjust your veggies for the season - the more fresh and local your veggies are, the richer the flavor will be.

Culinary controversy: cooking with olive oil

Aside from the fact that I make this dish every other day and wanted to share it with you, I also wanted to write this post to figure out why people say you should not cook with olive oil. I do not like sautéing my mushrooms and tomatoes in coconut oil, the oil most often recommended by health food bloggers for cooking over a flame - I think that combination of ingredients tastes really funky (bad funky).

Let's look at olive oil for a moment. What makes it good for us? Largely, it is the phenolic compounds - wait! Don't go anywhere! I can explain this to you. 

Our organs are made of tissue, which is made out of cells, which are made out of molecules, like this:

 

Every molecule has a few pairs of electrons. Environmental pollution, poor diet, drug use, radiation, stress, and other unsavory things can cause one of those electrons to be dislodged, leaving a molecule with an unpaired electron. When this happens, ol' one ball becomes a free radical, and he'll stop at nothing to have a complete set of electrons once again. After the free radical steals a shiny new electron from another unsuspecting molecule, that second poor mole-fool then becomes a free radical himself, and so on. Every molecule that undergoes this sneak attack loses its ability to function normally, which damages or even kills the larger tissue cell that he is a part of. This is oxidation! You know what else is oxidation? When metal gets rusty and when apples turn brown. 

The body needs a continually replenishing pool of antioxidative molecules to stop this process. The antioxidants drive down the highway that is your blood vessel and drop off electrons to the free radicals, while magically avoiding turning into free radicals themselves. Frequent consumption of antioxidants stops the destructive, epidemic spread of free radicals and consequently reduces the things that happen when your cells are oxidized, like cancer, heart disease, and signs of aging. Olive oil is chock full of chemical mixtures called phenolic compounds, which act as antioxidative molecules in the body. You know what else is an antioxidant? The protective coating on stainless steel and the skin of an apple.

So what makes olive oil so good for you? For one, it's full of phenolic compounds! How greatly enriched with these compounds the oil is depends on the varietal of the olive, the location in which it was harvested, the degree of ripeness, how the oil is stored and, importantly, everything that happens during the process of extracting the oil from the olive. If too much heat is used in this process, not only is the delicate flavor of the oil compromised, but also the phenolic compounds that we need so badly. It is estimated that 80% of the phenolic compounds are lost in the refining process - the process used to extract any oil that is not virgin or extra virgin. The same is unfortunately true for heating olive oil to cook with. What happens to your tissue cells from oxidation due to poor diet, pollution, etc., also happens to the antioxidant compounds in olive oil due to thermal oxidation, or heat. Oil from a single extraction, at the lowest temperature possible (you may recognize this as the "first cold pressing" from your bottle of oil), drizzled at the end of cooking or eaten raw, has the highest level of polyphenols

All this is great, but means nothing if our body doesn't actually use it. This is called bioavailability, and the bioavailability of olive oil is heavily studied but largely unknown. There are so many factors that affect how our bodies absorb and deploy antioxidants, down to the amount of fat in our individual diets, that human trials attempting to test olive oil's bioavailability have come back with a myriad of results. It is apparent, however, that a person under great oxidative stress, like a cigarette smoker, will make more use of antioxidants than a person under very little oxidative stress. This is attributed to the human body's natural regulation of pro-oxidant and antioxidant reactions, so if you are in good health, you might not be using the antioxidants coming from your olive oil, just because you don't really need em!

Honeybunch recommendation: invest in your extra virgin olive oil - buy the good stuff. Oil that has been carefully and properly extracted from happy, perfectly ripened olives is going to yield the greatest concentration of nutrients. You get the most bang for your buck when the oil is not heated, taste-wise and health-wise. There is so much that goes into picking an olive oil if you get serious about it, and I can't say it any better than award-winning journalist Tom Mueller in his guide to buying olive oil.

Consider also the smoke point. The smoke point, most often a lower temperature than the boiling point, is when the fat begins to decompose into particles that become airborne (smoke!). When your oil is smoking, you know you have lost the nutrients. The freshest oils will also have the highest smoke points. Each time an oil is heated, its acidity level rises, and its smoke point lowers. This occurs with non-extra virgin olive oils, as they are repeatedly heated in the refining process.

If you look at a side-by-side comparison of cooking oils, you will see many oils with a higher smoke point than olive oil. This is where a lot of people get hung up. But, I say, the phenomenal phenolic compounds, decent smoke point, range of price points combined with almost no saturated fat and a good amount of monounsaturated fat make olive oil an excellent choice when you just have to sautee your veggies in a fat. No other vegetable oil is going to give you all of those things in one. 

When I cook this recipe, I keep the flame on the lowest setting (I cook everything low) and my cast iron pan does not reach above 350 degrees, so ostensibly, the oil is still okay. If you have a well-seasoned cast iron pan, you don't even need any kind of fat for the below recipe. Consider the water option: add water by the teaspoon as you saute if you sense things are getting dry, but definitely drizzle on some oil at the end. This recipe will make two servings. I usually eat the entire thing at once, but this also makes for great leftovers - refrigerate what you don't eat in an air-tight container, and reheat for a few minutes in your skillet when you are ready to re-eat! I add the basil and the garlic in at two different points because by doing that, as Mario Batali put so eloquently in this Munchies video, "You capture the entire spectrum...suddenly you understand all of basil's flavor, not just one note of the basil flavor."

 

 

 

Rainbow Bites and Apple Nesting Salad

I'm not religious, and I'm not interested in Jewish law, but I do have a soft spot for my family's traditions. Passover, for us, is one night: both sides of cousins and aunts and uncles gather together around a large table, read the story of Exodus, sing songs and prayers, and eat a massive meal. 

It is forbidden to eat chametz on Passover - any grain that has been allowed to ferment and rise - because, to put it briefly, the Jews had to suddenly pack up everything they owned and flee Egypt before the Pharaoh killed them all, which didn't leave any time for them to let their bread rise (enter: matzah). Some members of my family do keep kosher for Passover, so in planning my own contributions to this meal, I wanted to be respectful and make something everyone could enjoy, and avoid causing this year's bread-related incident (the most memorable of which was when we figured out that the carrot souffle my aunt brought every single year to the seder since before I was born was literally made with bread crumbs). 

I researched the rules of Passover baking, and to my surprise, you can use any (kosher) flour your heart desires, but you can only bake something that will be completely done within 18 minutes of the flour coming into contact with liquid (based on the reasoning that this is how long the fermentation of a grain takes). Which rules out....everything. 

I thought of making my favorite Passover dessert, rainbow cookies (you can easily spot them in the picture above - they're fluorescent). We have them every single year. They are made with matzah meal in place of flour, which I couldn't in good conscience bake with as matzah meal is a white flour refined of its nutrients and shorn of its wonderful hull that helps us digest so nicely, and my mission is to civilize with whole grains! So, I turned to nuts. Here's what I came up with:


Rainbow Bites (inspired by rainbow cookies):

For the base (green):
2 1/2 cups raw pistachios
2 tbsp coconut oil (room temp)
3 tbsp coconut sugar
2 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp fine grain sea salt

For the middle (white), with great thanks to the brilliant Minimalist Baker:
1 cup raw cashews
1 cup coconut cream (you can skim this off the top of a can of unsweetened coconut milk very easily - 1 can yields 1 cup cream - then save the milk for a smoothie!)
2 tbsp arrowroot
2 tbsp lemon zest
1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice (2 large lemons)
1/2 tsp fine grain sea salt
1/4 cup maple syrup

For the top (red):
Box of strawberries (the standard box is 16 oz, and I used about 10 oz)
1/2 bar (50 grams) dark chocolate (I used Green & Blacks 70% because they make the best bar of dark chocolate you can get for around three bucks) or make your own!

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a 9x9 square baking pan or dish with parchment paper (you don't have to go crazy, you just want it to be easy to lift out the entire confection after it has solidified) and lightly grease it with coconut oil. Put the raw cashews in a glass bowl and cover them with boiling water. Allow them to sit for at least one hour, and then drain throughly.

While your cashews are soaking, put the pistachios in a food processor, and process until you have a fine grain. Add the coconut oil, coconut sugar, maple syrup and sea salt, and blend until the mixture starts to clump and hold together (about four minutes). Remove the mixture from the food processor and press it gently and evenly in the pan. The crust should be about 1/4 inch high. Put the pan in the oven for ten minutes to set, and then remove. 

While the crust is in the oven, put the drained cashews, coconut cream, arrowroot, lemon juice, lemon zest, sea salt and maple syrup into a blender (the more powerful your blender, the more luscious and silky this filling will come out - I have a Vitamix 7500 and I recommend it to everyone). Blend the ingredients together until you have a smooth, yogurt-like consistency, with no lumps. At this point, you can add more zest or maple syrup to taste. I like mine lemony and not too sweet. Pour the filling into the pan slowly, smooth it out with the back of a spatula and tap the pan on your counter to get rid of any air bubbles.

Put the pan into the oven for 50 minutes, until the filling is set, but not baked - the surface will be slightly darker in color. Let the dessert rest for ten minutes while you slice the tops off of the strawberries and then vertically from bottom to top. Arrange the strawberry slices in overlapping rows on the surface of the filling (this filling is very delicate and will never be fully solid, so just be gentle). Put the whole thing into the fridge, uncovered, for eight hours or overnight to fully set. 

Remove the entire cake from the pan and slice into 1x2 inch rectangles with a very sharp knife. Set them aside onto a baking sheet or any flat surface that will fit in your fridge, lined with a sheet of parchment paper. Dip the knife into warm water after every slice, dry thoroughly, and be careful not to disturb the strawberries too much. I recommend putting on some pacifying music (I went with the Grateful Dead) and taking this part very slowly. Put the bites into the fridge for ten minutes to firm back up.

While your bites are in the fridge, boil 2 cups of water in a pasta pot and place any heat resistant bowl on the top for a makeshift double boiler (or use a double boiler if you have one!). Break up the bar of chocolate into squares and melt in the bowl, stirring every so often. When the chocolate has completely melted, remove the bowl from the heat. Take the bites out of the fridge and drizzle the melted chocolate on top with a small spoon or spatula to whatever degree of chocolate coverage you desire. I used half of the chocolate bar, but I wouldn't judge you if you went back and melted the other half. Put the bites back into the fridge until you are ready to serve them.

These will keep fine in a covered container in the fridge for five days, but once out of the fridge, they begin to soften pretty quickly. Alternatively, you could freeze these for little frozen treats!


I also made a salad, as I knew raw vegetables would not be making an appearance at this meal. I had this whole plan to make a charoset-inspired salad, charoset being a traditional mixture of apples, nuts, wine and spices that is supposed to represent the mortar that the Jews used to stack the bricks of the pyramids with. I had my wine simmering into a reduction to dress the salad with, and then I zoned out for a few minutes and the whole thing boiled and burned. In my depression over wasting most of a $14 bottle of wine, I just massaged my kale with a few tablespoons of olive oil and the juice of two lemons, arranged my other ingredients (golden raisins, raw pumpkin seeds, and pea shoots) on top, and called it a day. I diced two green apples and two red apples right before serving. 

I've already got a plan for next year, and yes, it involves racing against a timer set for 18 minutes.

Sugar Pie Honey Bunch

What better reason to talk about syrup than this here pie?

There are two syrups in here - maple syrup in the crust, and barley malt syrup in the filling. 

Sap runs through a variety of trees, but maple is the sweetest source - every year the tree moves its stores of sugar from the previous season from its trunk to its cambium, the layer of vessels just inside the bark where the tree gets tapped

According to Harold McGee, before Europeans brought the common honeybee over the ocean, the American Indians were doing just fine maple sugaring for their sweets. They would cut a gash in a tree and freeze the liquid that poured out in sheets of bark overnight, after which they could easily remove the ice crystals from the surface of the concentrated sap. Sugar does not freeze, so a few nights of skimming the ice crystals from the barkful of liquid yielded brown, sweet water.

Using what they had learned from the American Indians, the early colonists began refining their concentrated sap into sugar-loafs - the tall, white conical predecessor to the sugar cube - to mimic the expensive, highly taxed, imported sugar cane of the West Indies and feign salon-style sophistication with the natural resources available to them in the wilds of the Northeast. The goal was to get the syrup as clear and the sugar as white as possible. By the beginning of the 20th century, market shelves were filled with maple syrup diluted with corn and glucose to ensure translucency and delicate flavor. The Pure Food and Drug Act forced truth in labeling, and these syrups were reclassified as "pancake syrups", which have but scant amounts of actual maple syrup in them and command American taste buds to this very day. 

The recipes I use tend to primarily call for maple syrup as a whole food, unrefined sweetener. Pure maple syrup, that is, not Aunt Jemima. Pure maple syrup is expensive, but sweeter than sugar, so you do end up using less. The recipe for this cranberry pecan pie likely called for maple syrup because of it's warm, autumnal flavor notes and appropriate viscosity for the crust. 

The filling, on the other hand, is gooey and thick - the perfect job for barley malt syrup. Be careful: this sweetener has an intense malty flavor edged with bitterness. Though it needs to be refrigerated after opening, it is much easier to use if you let the jar drop to room temperature again before attempting to measure out what you need. Malt syrup has an even richer history than maple syrup - the Chinese were using it as their main sweetener as early as 1000 BCE. As this syrup is simply malted from whole grains, it was much cheaper to transform household staples than to import sugar cane.

Malting: the grain, in this case barley, is soaked until it is ready to sprout, or germinate. Activating the sprouting process causes the grain to shed the dormant enzymes in its outer layer and produce new enzymes. These new enzymes go to work breaking down the grain's network of proteins and carbs, disassembling the packets of starch particles hiding out in the inner layer, the endosperm, in order to repurpose them as sugary fuel for the grain's growth spurt. At this point, the maltster (those who malt!) halts the germination process by drying the grain. These malted grains are mixed with water and additional cooked grains, and the malted enzymes digest the cooked grains, yielding a sugary slush that is then boiled down into the barley malt syrup we know and love!

Week of Freekeh

You guys, THIS was a meal to remember. 

I'm buying one bag of ancient grain at a time, and I want to try them all. So far, I'm most impressed by freekeh. It has an inherent smokiness and pairs so well with Middle Eastern spicing. I made a large batch on Sunday night and dressed the grains two different ways with my current favorite source of green - marinated kale salad, modified from Ella Woodward's ubiquitous Deliciously Ella, the cookbook that made me realize I could eat the way I wanted if I cooked all my own food.

My take on Freekeh:

1 cup freekeh, soaked overnight

1 tbsp Za'atar (I used Israeli Za'atar from the incredible Kalyustyan's on Third Ave, which includes wild thyme, toasted sesame seeds, anise, coriander, curcuma, chickpeas, sumac, and fenugreek)

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted in the cast iron for 7-10 minutes (feel free to use the oven/toaster oven)

Healthy drizzle of olive oil (I used Zoe, which I first had on a second date in Brooklyn at the restaurant Rose Water. They infuse their Zoe with spices and serve it alongside fresh bread before the meal, and it was so unforgettable that days later I finally had to call and find out what I had eaten. Rose Water graciously answered the phone, unlike the guy, who mysteriously vanished. Worth it for the olive oil!)

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

The cauliflower I broke into bite-size pieces and put in the oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes - roasted cauliflower has such a great flavor that I don't feel the need to put anything on it aside from some sea salt and pepper, especially when its sides are so well-dressed!

 

The other winning combo I adapted from My New Roots - I used Sarah's freekeh recipe and added crispy kale and peas (and red pepper flakes of course).

If what Bon Appetit says is true - that every dish needs salt, sugar, acid AND texture, then peas are my favorite texturizer. They hold a firm consistency and then explode with a satisfying burst between your teeth, and the amazing color they add is such a bonus. Peas are the only produce item I buy frozen. Until I'm a millionaire, I need a backup source of green on hand for those lean times, and peas are cheap, reheat amazingly, are starchy and filling, and one of the best sources of plant protein! I also love them in pasta and over baked potatoes. 

Let Me Eat Cake

My first layer cake was the most amazing two-day project. I used Sarah Britton's recipe for Blood Orange Chocolate Cake, which is completely plant-based and features a brilliant frosting made from dates, raw cacao powder and rice milk that successfully mimics the texture of buttercream. 

I had a lot of firsts. My first time cutting cake layers, my first time frosting a cake, my first kitchen crime scene.

I ran into a problem early on, when the recipe called for the flour to be sifted. I am using whole spelt flour by Farmer Ground, and when it is sifted, large flakes of bran are left behind in the tray. I was torn about what to do - I figured Sarah was calling for sifted flour to combine the dry ingredients well and to end up with an aerated batter - but it felt pointless to be using such a nutritious whole grain flour if I was going to leave out the fibrous shell that makes it digestible! With two separate cakes on the agenda, however, it was the perfect opportunity for an experiment.

For the chocolate cake, I left the bran flakes out. For the blood orange cake, I mixed the bran flakes back in after sifting the dry ingredients. I was pessimistically expecting the chocolate cake to be the aerated, fuffed-up winner, but I was pleasantly surprised. The blood orange took the cake (I had to) on texture!

You can see the difference in both the size and the density:

This was not an ideal controlled experiment, as the recipes for the two cakes are different, but they call for the same amount of liquid and dry ingredients, so it is a trustworthy indicator. The bran flakes absorbed the wet ingredients, swelled, and moved aside for those evenly spaced air pockets that made for such a good crumb. 

Best of all, after distributing a few slices amongst family and friends, I had a whole massive half of a cake to eat at my leisure, and because of the 100% whole, unrefined ingredients in this cake, eating it all by myself was not a problem - it is nutrient-dense, totally digestible and won't cause bloating or blood sugar spikes. Perhaps more maple syrup than one person should have in a week, but we all make sacrifices for the things we love, right? 

Zucchini Noodles with Ground Bison

When I'm not living out my Sunday baking fantasies, I work full time and come home tired and impatient. Though I don't have the wherewithal to start sifting flour and zesting oranges, I love to come up with filling combinations that effectively use everything I spent my precious dollars on over the weekend before it goes bad. 

What I made last night...

Zucchini noodles are SO EASY to make, the only annoying part about them is cleaning the Spiralizer (I don't have a dishwasher), but you can always leave that for the next day. Or the day after that. It's a watery vegetable, after all.

I heated my cast iron, tossed in a quarter pound of ground bison that I bought at the farmer's market, and when it was almost brown, poured in some tomato sauce, red pepper flakes, and then the noodles. They only need a few minutes to cook. 

Salt, pepper, and voila!

Pazketti!

I don't eat meat very often, but I love bison. I first had it in burger form at Cafe Hon in Baltimore, where bison is a common menu item thanks to a buffalo ranch right in Baltimore Country. The waitress described the meat as a leaner beef, so I was pleasantly surprised by the robust flavor. It's so good! Now I always choose bison over beef. Luckily, I'm able to get ground grass-fed bison meat at the greenmarket on Sundays. Though on par in protein content with beef, chicken, pork, and fish, bison is significantly lower in fat - so it's best to heat slowly and carefully at a low temperature to avoid overcooking. According to the National Bison Association, regulations in this country prohibit artificial growth hormones and limit antibiotic use to the treatment of natural illness, which is great news for ecological sustainability (and for the bison)! 
 

Variations on a Sweet Potato

The easiest, most filling wintertime supper there is...

 

I used to eat a baked potato everyday, thinking I was doing right by my body by not eating french fries. But, you can do even better. Sweet potatoes give you way more nutrient bang-for-your-buck. Sweet potatoes are famously rich in beta-carotene, which is better absorbed by the body when you add a dose of fat. I gladly douse my sweet potatoes in tahini - it’s an amazing, creamy texture combination - or just slice avocado on top!

The sweet potato is native to Central America and was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage back from the New World. It is totally unrelated to the yam - what is called a yam in the United States is actually a variety of sweet potato. True yams are starchy and dry, and are in the same family as lilies, which flowered from coast to coast way back before the continents separated. After the separation, yams evolved separately in Asia and Africa. 

Because of the ubiquity of the potato in the diet of the world’s poorest nations, sweet potatoes have been a major player in biofortification. Biofortification, or the intentional increase of a certain micronutrient, is used in staple crops to promote health in a more sustainable manner than handing out capsules of vitamins. 

But wait Hannah, you might be thinking, doesn't that make them GMO potatoes? Indeed it does. Biofortification is known as the Achilles' heel of the anti-GMO cause. Just as you should never trust something just because it is labeled "organic", you should also never distrust something just because it is a GMO product - the GMO can be very noble.