Rosella Jam

I can’t believe India even exists in the same world of space and time as New York. At every turn I've been confronted by the confusing idiosyncrasies of Indian culture, and I've finally decided the only way I can possibly understand what is going on over here is to be simply reborn as an Indian.

I chose India as my second stop for the usual reasons: become enlightened, do yoga, eat naan. I imagined feeling sublimely inspired as soon as I stepped off the plane and took a deep breath of that subtropical air. As it happened, the first thing I felt was sheer dismay.

golden temple amritsar

I took a cab from the airport to my hotel and in that time I saw a kid projectile vomiting out of the window of a crowded bus while his mother calmly looked on, a grown man nonchalantly throwing empty liter soda bottles and chip bags out of the window of his car right into the grassy highway median, and cars veering centimeters from one another, honking enthusiastically and often, ignoring any lines demarcating lanes. The thick smog in Delhi hit me immediately and I picked up a nasty cough that didn’t go away until I was miles away from any city in the countryside.

wagah border monks
sleeper train india

I balked against all of it. Nothing is on time, four hour journeys turn into seven hours, hygiene is nonexistent, showers are buckets of water, mattresses are Styrofoam pads, everything has refined oil and milk solids in it, locals throw rocks at puppies, whip their cows, stare you down for having white skin and take sneaky pictures of you with their cell phones, there are mountains of plastic and trash like you can’t even imagine EVERYWHERE. Windows and walls are so thin that you can hear the burping and hocking of every person in the building (noises which are accepted, if not encouraged), along with the ceaseless honking, diesel engines, and howling dogs from the street.


The advice that I received fairly early on, and the advice that I now pass on to all of you if you ever plan to visit India, is to just give in. You have to forget about the past, and forget about the future, and forget about things going according to plan. You have to forget what planning even is. Forget about your manners and your social cues and cleanliness and comfort. Only when I put aside everything I knew to be true about life was I was able to be at peace with my new reality in India - apart from the endless penetrating stares and requests for pictures. I will never be comfortable with that kind of attention and what feels to me like racism. You have to have a great deal of self-confidence, which I don't have, or alternatively, no ego at all, which I don't not have, to normally go about your errands with an entire village staring at you.

That being said, I didn't think I had much patience either (you don't learn anything about having patience in New York), but after some time I started successfully responding to delays and setbacks with nary but an amused shrug. I practiced sitting around and waiting.

passionfruit juice
dog mandala

After touring some of the most spiritual sites in the Himalayan foothills, and consequently beating myself up for not having a full Beatles-in-Rishikesh divine personal enlightenment, for not doing yoga and not meditating LIKE I SHOULD BE DOING IN INDIA, I flew to the center of the country to volunteer at the International Permaculture Convergence in Telangana. This landed me on a huge farm in the middle of nowhere (nowhere being massive cotton fields where local workers file in everyday, cows in tow, to pick the blossoming white tufts with their hands for the world market), made up of large swaths of hostile, dry land and pockets of lush garden, seeded and nurtured by the volunteers who arrived before me.  It was like walking into the den of the Lost Boys in Neverland – people my age from all over the world were running the show, wrapped in gauzy dhotis with handhewn leather belts boasting crude knives and rusting scythes, feathers sticking out of their caps, living in shade shelters fashioned from billowing saris, palm leaves, and coconut rope. They had created everything that supported me in my month and a half on the farm – the showers, the toilets, the gardens, the public spaces. I never once saw the owner of the property step foot in our village nor the vegetable patches – she remained lovely and somewhat cold, gliding in her gleaming white kurta between the dining hall and the permanent residence, called “the castle”, at the foot of the property. The man hosting the convergence, a respected Indian permaculturist with a beautiful ecovillage of his own, showed up maybe once before the event itself.

Bureaucratically, the experience was a horrifying mess – I saw friends get seriously ill and shamefully exploited. There were rumors and untruths and misinformation and secrets. I was still on the farm after the event ended, when teams of workers came in and unceremoniously tore down everything the volunteers had soulfully and achingly built. But it was on that farm that the divine things that I expected to learn in India manifested.

honey roasted peanuts

I slept in a tent for the first time in my life and watched the sun set and the moon rise every single evening. I made up my own constellations, Big Kite and Little Kite, from the thousands of stars in the sky above my head (stargazing is particularly extraordinary to me because you can’t see stars in New York). I picked spinach, mustard and fenugreek and ate them as handfuls of salad, and cooked peanuts and oatmeal and bread and jam over roaring campfires built with coconut husk and eucalyptus sticks. I built my own fires! I seeded coriander and amaranth, tucking them gently into the soil with compost, and then watched them grow. I hid from the relentless sun at midday and was scoped out by curious flies and giant wasps. I was the recipient of shocking amounts of kindness over and over again. Even when I didn’t feel like sharing, my friends shared with me. Wisdom was handed down and insights were organic.

kiwi gothic

Why am I still surprised when reality turns out to be completely different from expectation (and always, much sweeter, it its own crushingly realistic way)? It happens every single time. I don’t know why I even still form expectations. There is no point. Especially not in this country. On the farm, there were no gurus, no schools, no temples, no famed spiritual sites. There were just plants and people.

the demo gardens
vegetable patch golden hour

I was coached on being mindful and present, while mulching baby trees and getting covered in thorns, from my partner in the garden. I learned how to bandage the horrifying wounds of the farm dogs, who kept coming back to us after fights, from one of the guys I built my campsite with. My friends pointed out constellations, made flutes out of plumbing pipes, treated each others’ lesions with crushed up herbs, and built a regenerative system of lodging, sanitation and agriculture to support an international gathering of a thousand people. I remember when I arrived at the farm I was so envious of how scrappy the volunteers were, as I watched them easily build fires to roast coffee and peanuts. When I left the farm, I was doing just that - because they showed me how.

rosella jam and cinnamon

Rosella jam

Makes one medium jar

Rosella, also called roselle, wild hibiscus, or Jamaican sorrel, might be a hard ingredient to find, but not impossible. It grows like a weed on the farm, red buds bursting everywhere. When you cook rosella petals down, they gel up, so this jam does not require any thickener or pectin. Whole, raw cranberries might work as a substitution here. I kept my jam purposefully on the sour side, as I knew I would be serving it with the sweet Osmania biscuits (a very thick shortbread cookie) that the volunteers always had on hand. You can add sugar to taste if the jam is not sweet enough for you.


3 cups rosella petals (removed from the woody inner capsule)

1/3 cup jaggery

5 whole cinnamon sticks


Combine rosella petals and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook down for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. If the mixture starts to burn, turn down the heat.

Add the cinnamon sticks, and continue to cook for another 10 minutes, still stirring constantly.

When mixture has reduced to about a third the size and is jammy, remove from heat and let cool. Transfer to jar and enjoy with something sweet!

The flavor of this jam deepens with time and is best served the next day and beyond. Jam will stay good for weeks if kept in the fridge.


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?


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!

cherry slice

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. 


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 a bird's real 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.


Chestnut Cherry Upside-Down Cake


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




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.


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!

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?