Slashing Sweet. (No-Sugar Coconut Granola)

Do you dream of sweets?  Do you go through your days thinking about desserts, when you can make them and how often you should eat them?  Do you read entirely too much information on how sugar reacts to your body, your child's body, the bodies of laboratory animals?  Do you wonder if you are truly addicted to sugar and if you really could cut it out of your diet completely for 30, 60, 90 days, or maybe even a whole year?

That's me.  I don't want to think that I have a sugar problem, I don't want to think that I shouldn't maybe eat sugar each and every day but sometimes I wonder if all the sugar reduction hype holds some water.  The latest book I read on the subject, I Quit Sugar, tells me that as an adult woman, I should eat no more than 6 teaspoons a day - and that the sugar involved is not just refined sugar but the sugar present in fruit as well.  It was nothing I haven't read before, in many different places and formats, but the simplicity of the information did make me consciously want to reduce my sweet tooth again.  It's hard for someone who dreams of sweets.  I wish I were one of those people who don't have a sweet tooth.  I don't know about those people; I just can't understand them.

My natural approach to life, gifted to me no doubt by my beyond wonderful parents, is one of moderation.  Eat some cake, just eat one you made yourself and don't eat the whole cake.  And don't eat the whole cake you made yourself every day.  But even in my moderation sometimes I feel like I just can't get sugar out of my head, like it truly is an addiction.  During those times, I like to reduce even more than usual.  I like to see if I can go a whole day or two without any sweet stuff at all.  Maybe even longer.

That happened recently and I switched to green smoothies and cut out desserts completely.  If I felt deprived (and I did) I grabbed a soup spoon and set out for the jar of coconut manna.  Seriously.  It helps.  And I also made a variation of a granola recipe in the I Quit Sugar book, which is a surprisingly great granola all by itself, sugar reduction or not. 

no sugar granola

The story of the coconut granola actually goes back a month or so ago when my neighbor asked if I had tried Dang Coconut chips.  I hadn't.  I actually didn't want to tell her that it's not in my budget at all to buy prepared or packaged snacks.  But the same day we talked I did go out and buy a bag because she said they were awesome, and she also said that it was something we should be able to make.  She was right: they were awesome (though, truthfully I thought they were almost too sweet), and I did think that for sure it was something I could produce from my home kitchen.  I didn't put the thick cut coconut chips on my bulk grocery list until I read about this granola however - the flavor profile fittingly similar to Dang's being salty, sweet, crunchy.  I think it's a win.

Sarah Wilson makes this granola without the oats, but I'm not about to go grain free when cutting out sugar... and besides I have a hard time thinking about a granola without rolled oats.  It almost makes me sad.

Coconut Granola (adapted from Sarah Wilson)

makes about 7 cups

  • 3 c. thick cut coconut flakes
  • 2 c. cashews
  • 2 c. rolled oats
  • 2 T. chia seeds
  • 1 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1 t. ground ginger
  • 1/2 t. kosher salt
  • 1/4 c. melted coconut oil
  • 1/4 c. brown rice syrup

Preheat oven to 325.  Mix all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix well to coat.  Spread evenly on a parchment lined baking sheet and place in the center of the oven.  Start checking at 20 minutes for doneness: you want the granola to be deep golden but not burnt.  Stir a few times as you see fit.  It will seem very wet and you'll wonder how it will ever be crispy but it will.  After it's golden brown, remove from the oven.  Use a spatula to scrape it into a mound and let it cool completely.  Then store it in glass jars in the freezer, where it will stay extra crisp until you eat it.

chia seed

There is should always be a voice of reason when reading diet related information.  We all know sugar isn't the best for us, but is it really that bad?  Do I really feel that much better when I'm not eating gobs of it?  I do, I'll admit.  I enjoyed the posts that Local Kitchen did on sugar last year, and it made me feel confident that a moderate approach to the topic is all that I really want for myself.  And maybe when I start  getting that sugar-junkie feeling creep up on me, then I dial back and choose non-sweet alternatives, crunchy, barely-sweet alternatives like this granola for a few weeks and then I feel much better.  And then I can go back to dreaming about desserts.


On The Addictive Nature of Breakfast Cereal.

I live a moderate life. I usually insist upon whole, from scratch foods (especially in my own home), but I will stop for an ice cream cone once in a while. I will eat greasy pizza that I know has dough conditioners, and I will eat canned "baked" beans - but those are all occasional indulgences, part of the philosophy I grew up with to "do what we can, and trust God with the rest".

I also read a whole lot about health and diet, but am slow to jump on the latest trend. I never was sold on Atkins, The Zone, South Beach or other low carb or carb-free diets. I can, however, see valid points to "real food" diets such as GAPS, Paleo and what is usually referred to as the NT or Nourishing Traditions diet. Nourishing Traditions ("The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats") is a book I've had on the shelf for several years now. I got my copy after running into an old boyfriend's parents in the health food store. His mom saw the canola oil in my cart and said innocently, "You are still eating canola oil?" Within the month, a copy of that book found its way from her generous zeal to my hands. I opened it and scoffed at the shear ridiculousness of the length of it, the unbelievable attention to detail, the amount of information also crammed into into the margins, and the simplicity of the numerous recipes.

To that point, I had never heard that canola oil may not be good for you, that whole milk and full fat dairy were not actually the things that clogged arteries were made of. I couldn't be bothered with crazy, time consuming diet ideas when I had a 2 year old kid to chase around. But little by little I read that book, and found supporting information in many other places around the Internet. Gradually, I became one of the crazy people who actually think that what we put into our bodies has a huge outcome on our general health - from skin and hair to dental and digestion. My moderate lifestyle was altered even more by gradually cutting back on sugar and caffeine, and especially changing the way I think about whole grains.

In particular, I no longer buy breakfast cereal. What? But breakfast cereal is the staple of my generation, the stuff we all learned to get ourselves in the mornings before school. I'll bet the vast majority of Americans still choose a box from a shelf to validate themselves as a "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" type. Breakfast cereal is still my Kiddo's most favorite thing, and given the opportunity, he will eat huge amounts of it and request it for every meal. That alone could be why I just stopped buying it. Now I get him a single box for special occasions and limit him to one smallish bowl per sitting. Even though boxes haven't been entering my house for at least 2 years now, he still loves the stuff - and I'll admit that I still occasionally long for the crunchy, quick staple too.

But why are the health food nuts like me demonizing breakfast cereal? It all boils down to processing. Any quick Google search will show you in a number of places that all grains contain phytic acid, a naturally occurring acid that prevents the minerals in grain from absorption into you body. You can unlock the nutrition in whole grain by giving it the time to soak in acidulated liquid (like buttermilk, yogurt, or whey), or by first sprouting the grain and then dehydrating it and grinding it into flour.

Just typing that last sentence in seems like a lot of work, but consider how fast paced our lives are now. Traditional foods dictate traditional time, and when you have no t.v. show or Facebook to get to, gobs of time suddenly appear. This is the opening paragraph of Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions book:
Technology is a generous benefactor. To those who have wisely used his gifts, he has bestowed freedom from drudgery; freedom to travel; freedom from the discomforts of cold, heat and dirt; and freedom from ignorance, boredom and oppression. But father technology has not brought us freedom from disease. Chronic illness in industrialized nations has reached epic proportions because we have been dazzled by his stepchildren - fast foods, fractionated foods, convenience foods, packaged foods, fake foods, embalmed foods, ersatz foods - all the bright baubles that fill up the shelves at our grocery stores, convenience markets, vending machines and even health food stores.
Breakfast cereal is the definition of fractionated food: it is made from grain that is treated harshly with heat and pressure, coatings to keep it crunchy and artificial colors and flavors. Even the added vitamins are from suspicious sources - most of which are not even viable after the heat and pressure treatments. Grains are reduced to liquid form and extruded into shapes, and as Fallon mentions in this article, it costs pennies to produce and sells for $4-$5 a box, making it one of the highest profit margins in the food industry. Skeptical as I can be about the latest health crazes and claims, it seems fairly logical to me that something that makes so much money for so many involved is hiding and harboring all kinds of things that consumers don't want to know about. (Like the recent reveal of GMO's in Kashi...)

real breakfast cereal

But enough on boxes of processed cereal. We can eat real breakfasts! We can even eat real breakfast cereal once again. I just finished making a big batch of this cereal I recently read about on The Healthy Home Economist. It's good. It's really good. And even the Kiddo liked it.

The best thing about this recipe is that it is basically a cake that is crumbled up and dehydrated. Not only can you just enjoy it as a cake the possibilities are endless for cereal flavor variations. I'm thinking even a chocolate version could easily appear sometime in the near future. I dehydrated this because I have a dehydrator, but Sarah bakes hers at a low temperature until crisp and dry.

Real Cold Breakfast Cereal (the Healthy Home Economist)

(my yield was 2 half gallon jars of cereal)
  • 6 c. freshly ground organic flour (I used about 3 cups each of soft wheat and spelt)
  • 3 T. whey added to enough water to make up 3 cups
  • 3/4 c. coconut oil, melted prior to measuring
  • 1 c. maple syrup
  • 1 t. maple extract
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 T. cinnamon
  • 2 t. baking soda

In a very large bowl, mix the flour with the whey/water until it is smooth and well combined. Cover with a clean towel (I like to also top it with a lid from a large pot to prevent a skin from forming on the top), and let soak at room temperature for 24 hours. (I have read elsewhere that as long as you soak 7 hours or longer, the enzymatic change has taken place in the grain. I let mine soak for about 20 hours.)

After soaking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir very well until well mixed. Batter will be very sticky will kind of form a single mass. Divide the batter into 2 9x13 glass pans (no need to grease them, and no need to be exact), and bake for 20-30 minutes until a tester comes out clean.

Cool the cakes in their pans, then crumble them into small pieces. Spread onto dehydrator trays and dehydrate at 147 degrees (or as hot as your dehydrator goes) until fully dry and crisp - this was just overnight for me. Time will vary with heat and the size of the cake pieces. When dry, you can crumble the pieces further if you like. Store in glass jars or a zip top bag - it's recommended to store in the fridge, but I have some space so I may pop my jars into the freezer for optimum crunch preservation. I would recommend storing without dried add-ins, and adding them directly to your cereal bowl.

real breakfast cereal

This cereal tastes exactly like a raisin or "All-Bran" type cereal, and was especially great with raisins. I'd recommend storing it out of sight quickly, because it's really easy to keep on munching on it dry. If you eat at a moderate pace, it keeps fairly crunchy in milk too. I'd really like to sneak some ginger into the batter, but may have to settle for a few cubes of crystallized ginger in my own bowl since the Kiddo doesn't share my taste for it.

Also, earmark this recipe as a really great cake in its own right: it reminded me of the soaked and sourdoughized applesauce cake I've made in the past. Add in some raisins and nuts prior to baking, and you're in business! (I may recommend using half the recipe, unless you need 2 9x13 cakes...)

real breakfast cereal

It's easy to want to grab a quick breakfast before running out to start our harried, modern days, so it's easy to see just why marketed boxes invade our homes. My challenge to myself was just not to buy any cereal, and then I was forced to make and eat real food for breakfast. I usually just have a smoothie fortified with chia, but it's definitely more of a challenge to satisfy a child without the aid of the almighty cereal box. But time has passed enough now that we don't miss cereal as frequently as we once did. Now with the revelation of "dehydrated cake as breakfast", the upcoming school year may have one more breakfast option on the menu. I'll take the long waiting times to produce my own convenience food, it's definitely worth it!

That Vegan Cashew-Cheese Frosting Experiment. And On Diet.

I did take that leftover cup of cashew "ricotta cheese" from yesterday's adventure and tried to turn it into delicious vegan frosting. I felt that I succeeded, but then I really did want it to taste just a bit like butter. I didn't add any mind you, but here is what I did:

I was obviously in an Aleppo pepper kind of mood...

First, I made some vegan chocolate cupcakes. Then, with my immersion blender, I took 1 cup of leftover cultured cashew cheese from Tal Ronnen's recipe and blended it to near perfect smoothness. It took me a few minutes. He does include recipes in his book for actual Cashew Cream and Whipped Cashew Cream, but I figured that I didn't want to waste (or end up eating entirely myself) a rather large amount of cashew cheese and besides we all know that I'm always up for tinkering around in my kitchen. Had I started with one of these, I would have had a smoother product from the beginning, and certain success.

After smoothness was obtained, I began to think about sweetener. I do have some agave syrup that I needed to use up (and do not and will not purchase it again after reading so much on it's huge amount of over processing. A quick search gave me this article - as it pertains particularly to vegan eating - that sums up quite a bit of what I've been reading elsewhere...), so I added maybe a tablespoon or two and tasted. It was a bland and awful taste, quickly corrected by about a 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar. Now I was getting somewhere! A heavy pinch of salt, a pinch more brown sugar - and still immersion blending... It was beautiful, thick, and creamy, but frosting-like it just was not.

I added 1/2 cup of Spectrum Organic Shortening and switched to a hand mixer, and then, I decided that the flavor was just too strange, so I added the last of my cocoa powder, maybe a 1/4 cup. Now I was REALLY getting somewhere. It finally had a bit of character, and the cocoa masked any strangeness that I was getting before. Cocoa powder works hand in hand with espresso powder in my kitchen, so I sprinkled some of that in as well. My final decision was that I am indeed a sugar addict, and yes I know it is something I need to work on (and I am!), and I added more sugar, this time I used confectioner's sugar. I figured the cornstarch in it would act as a bit of a thickener. I called it finished, and filled a piping bag to give it the proper test:

It still looks a bit granular, but really, it was very creamy and mousse-like. If you are looking for a way to use up leftover cashew cheese, I'd recommend tinkering with it. I let the Boy-O eat one for dessert, and he had no qualms, proof that perhaps I was over thinking (and over tasting) the entire project.

Vegan Cupcakes with Chocolate Cashew "Ricotta Cheese" Frosting? Pretty edible and tasty for a vegan cupcake... but I'm not suggesting that you rush out and make them instead of the real deal. Unless, of course, you are vegan - then I would say do it now!

I'm trying to identify what it is about vegan and non-vegan foods that appeals to the practitioners of each style. Vegan foods seem so noble and clean, minimal and beautiful. Conventional "American" diets seems by comparison seem fat-laden and heavy with both wheat and sugar, which I know they really are. While vegan cookery is very appealing to me, strange vegan dessert preparations that feel like they are just lacking something in my mouth do not. I know there is someone that can prove me wrong, and I'm sure I'll try many more things and let you know if I manage to prove it to myself.

This obsession of vegan foodstuffs is really causing me to stop and think if nothing else, about all of the flaws in my own diet. My copy of Sproutman's Kitchen Garden came this afternoon, and it would be worth noting this paragraph which is sticking out in my brain (I was actually one paragraph, I just split it up for emphasis):
The "Standard American Diet" suits its acronym, S.A.D. It is synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle. It is founded on what looks, smells, and tastes good... ...We are most concerned with its presentation and convenient availability. We freeze it, can it, preserve it, artificially flavor it, color it and otherwise separate it into parts and reassemble it in different ways to pique our interest and pry open our pocket books. Advances in technology serve mostly to improve production and distribution. We have largely ignored the multitude of ways that food influences our health. America's most popular foods are steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, poultry, cold cuts and canned tuna. We are also dairy and refined wheat addicts. We consume excessive amounts of hard cheeses...

...We drink milk well beyond our ability to digest it and consume mountains of ice cream. In regard to wheat, we have taken an important grain and over indulged it. Our bodies respond to this excess with all kinds of alarms and signals: chest coughing, nose blowing, sinus dripping, palate itching, skin breaking out and pimpling. What does it take to get our attention?...

... Breads, cookies, crackers, cakes, pretzels, pastries, bagels and pizza are not poison. But their ubiquitous presence and the daily intake of such low quality wheat products takes its toll. Bread companies proclaim the virtues of their brand by the number of synthetic nutrients they add. What irony that we remove natural vitamins and then seek praise for replacing them with synthetic substitutes. Breakfast cereals also make the same claim. America literally wakes up and launches the day with a cup of coffee and a bowlful of sugar and refined flour in designer shapes. Then, at dinnertime we pat ourselves on the back for eating a meatless meal in which we again consume refined flour, this time in curls, squiggles and pillows with excess salt instead of sugar. It never dawns on us that pasta, pizza, pretzels, crackers, cookies, breads and cereals are different forms of the same food.
Sproutman (a.k.a. Steve Meyerowitz) wrote this book in 1983! Yes, I know that he has a broad and generalizing view and not everyone in America eats this way, but I know I am guilty of eating more sugar than I know is good for me. Part of it is because I love baking, but part is because it is an addiction. Sproutman goes on to say that the typical American diet consists of 42% fat, 12% protein, and 46% is made up of carbohydrates - of which more than half comes from sugar! Wow. Serious thinking needs to be done.

I know this seems like a huge soapbox for me to be up on, but really it is a funny topic to me. It would be easy for me to seem piously against all of these things, but sometimes, I do just want to walk into a joint like Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and chow down and not worry and wonder about the detriment of my diet and how it is affecting both myself and others. I want to be connected to the American food culture that varies from state to state. I want a hamburger, and I want it without having to think about factory farming. I am reminded of this scene in Barcelona (which I haven't seen in like 10 years, and due to the miracle that is the Internet, I can find the scene and insert it here!):
Take hamburgers.
Here, hamburguesas are really bad.

It's known that Americans like hamburgers,
so again, we're idiots.

But they have no idea
how delicious hamburgers can be.

It's this ideal burger of memory we crave...

...not the disgusting burgers
you get abroad.

We can't even call ourselves Americans.
I guess where I'd have to go with this, since a wrap-up should be in sight, is that I really do need to go sit in a corner and chant my Mantra. To "do the best I can and trust God with the rest", as my Gram always said. She also once told a doctor who asked what was the secret to her good health: "I don't drink or smoke, and eat all the ice cream I can hold". That was the quote I liked most when I was younger, and I guess I still do. In fact, I whipped up another ice cream base this evening, just before all of this vegan talk... To add to my moderation, I suppose it is best that I am eating ice cream I make myself. Zero preservatives, and with organic milk, fairly low in chemical pesticides, and truth be told, I cut the sugar in half. I'll let you know how THAT worked out for me. I sure didn't cut back in this frosting.