sugar-free January

Carrot-Banana Muffins (The New, Improved, and Sugar-Free Year)

I can't believe it's already a week into the new year.  I just got my decorations put away today, after a week of procrastinating and bewilderment at how easily exhausted I get recently.  I have good energy until about lunchtime, and then I seem about shot for the day.  The good news is that I have finished reading an actual novel, and I read about 4 new to me cookbooks.  The cookbook reading is nothing new of course, but my healthy title choices were timely since Julia and I decided to go for year #2 of Sugar-Free January

Last year, I felt like I was going through sugar withdrawal.  Every single day seemed like a trial, I tried hard to find sweet replacements so I didn't feel the pangs of deprivation.  But a weird thing happened after January of 2012 bit the dust:  I had recalibrated my sweet tooth.  Instead of "needing" sweets, I came to appreciate them in much smaller doses - and I thought carefully before choosing and baking for myself.  I have to say that trend lasted throughout the year too.  But even though this Christmastime saw only 2 batches of cookies coming from my kitchen, when they were added to the sweets that congregated at the farm for my Christmas break, I definitely felt like I overindulged for the final week of the year.  Sugar-Free January is always a good idea I think.

carrot banana muffins

This year, I easily went 2 days without even thinking I was missing something sugary at all.  Then, a few, well chosen social situations found me making polite exceptions... but even then, I didn't overdo.  I ate a small square of coconut cake that barely weighed anything and reminded me of being 8.  I had a similarly tiny morsel of peanut butter rice crispy treat with a thick topcoat of chocolate.  I ate the last brandied cherry some friends dropped off as a gift.  Not all at once, just perfectly curated and well deserved if I have anything to say about it.  My goal this year isn't to be as militant as last year, but rather to continue on my path of continual sweets reduction.

Over the past year, I have come to realize that it isn't even eating the sugar that appeals so much to me, it's the baking and making with it.  I'm happy just tasting something and giving 90% away, and I really just adore any reason to fire up my oven and feel organized in my kitchen.  After 20 trips up and down the stairs carting ornaments, lights, and laundry I took a break this morning to make some muffins that almost any diet (except the unfortunate nut allergic) can appreciate: Carrot-Banana Muffins.

They come from a new cookbook written by healthy diet and living guru Dr. Weil (compiled with help from a chef and a restauranteur, Michael Stebner and Sam Fox).  Most times when reading Dr. Weil, I just really want to hire a private detective to see if he occasionally stops in at a donut shop in a moment of weakness.  I don't subscribe to a life of monastic purity, instead I strive for balance and moderation - and donuts when I feel like it.  In the cookbook True Food, there is plenty of inspiration for healthy eating featuring ingredients that are fairly straightforward (except the sea buckthorn, which I confess I had to look up).  It's easy, seasonal food that is photographed well and infinitely appealing to a generally healthy eater like me.

But I didn't get truly excited until I read the recipe for these muffins which not only fit nicely into a sugar-free regimen, they also are gluten and grain free - and full of enough decadent but healthful ingredients to convince you that you've had a slice of cake.  And I suspect with a well placed dollop of cream cheese frosting, you would have just that.

carrot banana muffin

I ground the last of the almonds I had on hand, which miraculously turned out to be the correct amount.  I didn't have the finest almond meal, which was okay with me, and added a great texture to the finished muffins. I also cut back slightly on the cinnamon, walnuts, and dates (on the dates only because I wasn't so lucky with the last of them).  They are moist and sweet, like the best carrot cake you've ever had, but better since they aren't hyped up on sugar.  You might never suspect there isn't a single granule of refined sugar in these.

Carrot-Banana Muffins (barely adapted from True Food, Dr. Andrew Weil, Sam Fox, and Michael Stebner.  Stebner's wife Ally is credited with coming up with this genius recipe.)

makes 12-16 muffins depending on size
  • 2 cups almond meal
  • 2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 c. unsweetened, shredded coconut
  • 4 oz. butter, softened
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 bananas, mashed (my bananas were huge, so I used 2)
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1 t. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 c. pitted and chopped dates
  • 2 medium carrots, shredded
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 325, and line a muffin tin with papers.

In a large bowl, combine almond meal, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and coconut and whisk well to combine.  In a separate large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer (or by hand) until creamy and soft.  Add eggs, bananas, honey, and cider vinegar and beat until well mixed.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and stir well to combine.  Fold in the dates, carrots, and walnuts.  Portion into muffin cups (you can fill them quite full, there isn't a lot of rise), and bake for 35-40 minutes until a tester comes out clean.  Cool in the tins for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

 Even better than the flavor and texture of these muffins, is the appreciation that comes when finishing one.  Normal muffins have me craving a second as soon as I finish the first - and these were satisfying enough to stand at a single muffin portion.  Perfect as the great sugar contemplation of 2013 is fully underway.  

I haven't quite decided how I will store them.  I suspect I'll keep a couple in the refrigerator for a few days since they are so moist I think room temperature could be quickly detrimental.  The rest will go into the freezer, for tucking into my bag when I'm not sure how long the errands will take, or for snacks at the movies that I hope to get to sometime soon.  I am looking forward to seeing how they age!

Whole Wheat 'Burger' Buns, and a Healthier New Year.

A brand new year, and a fresh blank page: it seems that with each passing year, that happens more and more quickly. I remember this daily now as I think back to when I was the same age as the Kiddo and Christmas hung in the air for what felt like 6 months. The anticipation of Christmas Eve, when our Mexican Feast filled my Gram's little red log home to capacity, was the crown jewel of my year. The week between Christmas and New Year's Eve where we were pretty much free to do whatever and stay up as late as we liked was the best micro-climate of my youth . Even as I got older, I still held Christmas week sacred, using up what vacation time I had to take off most of the time between the 24th and the 31st, to just relax and not do anything related to my normal, routine life.

My week this year did not disappoint. I spent it in the company of some of my favorite people, my Parents. We ate frequently and too much, I whined about my sugar consumption, and made my first vow to lay off it for real. We took naps and watched movies. I did my Amish errands to pick up my egg, flour, and sugar staples, and I even ate lunch with my old boss and some long lost 90-year-old friends. I relaxed so much I didn't even have to feed my sourdough starter, since I had fed it and put it into my fridge the day before I left.

It's only been a few times now that I haven't traveled with my starter, and it still feels a bit like I'm leaving something behind. When I have that living thing on my counter every day, it's a good reminder that "if I take care of you, you'll take care of me". I really do love sourdough baking, and since I have ready access to well fed starter, it's become almost easy to calculate exactly how long until a wild bread can pop out of my oven. But every once in a while, it's so exciting to have the versatility of commercial yeast at my fingertips...

whole wheat burger buns

My Mom and I went to a thrift store over the break where I found a copy of Lukas Volger's Veggie Burgers Every Which Way. I read the whole thing cover to cover before I even got back home, and did so even though I was so full during most of my reading that the tempting combinations didn't even pique my appetite. I read a lot of cookbooks, and I haven't been this infatuated with almost everything in a book I've read in quite a while. I want to make everything! The man has a beet and brown rice burger! (And, a cauliflower burger!) It's infinitely inspiring I tell you, and all of it is healthy. While you are waiting for your copy to arrive, you can check out Lukas' equally inspiring website, like I did for a good chunk of my morning...

After a few new days of austere eating (and I've been without sugar now for 3 whole days - outside of a few bites of cream soda creme brulee on New Year's Day), I actually am rewarded with ravenous hunger and appropriate appetite, and those recipes are now completely dogging my every step. When I had only a heel of hybrid sourdough left from two days ago and needed an accompaniment for our soup dinner tonight, I decided to give one of Lukas' burger buns a go - and I am not sorry I did. His headnote states that he's "happy to eat them without anything sandwiched inside", and I would full-heartedly agree. So would both of my picky boys, who ate them and asked for seconds. I made them with the express purpose of having some leftovers for some veggie burgers for tomorrow, but they ended up fueling my excitement for non-wild yeasts!

hybrid sourdough (soft crust)
my first loaf of 2012: hybrid sourdough - but I baked this one in cast iron...

My problem with baking now is that I sometimes don't pay close enough attention to what I'm doing. I was mixing up this dough intending to use whole wheat (strong) flour and bread flour and accidentally opened the jar of AP flour. To a gorgeous caramel colored slurry of water, milk, molasses and a hint of maple syrup, I added 1 cup each bread flour and AP flour, and then added in all of the whole wheat flour as I mixed. My dough was the color of unbaked light gingerbread, and smelled wheaty and slightly sweet - a scent that with 3 days of sugar-freedom I was highly aware of. The recipe below has the flours as written with very few changes from me. Just be careful not to add too much flour, and these should be some of the softest burger buns you've ever had.

rising bun

Lukas Volger's Whole Wheat 'Burger' Buns (very slightly adapted)
yield 10 buns
  • 1 c. warm water (less than 115 degrees F)
  • 3 T. warm milk (I used cold milk, and slightly hotter water to warm it up
  • 1 T. maple syrup
  • 2 T. molasses
  • 2 T. olive oil, plus additional for coating the bowl
  • 2 1/4 t. active dry yeast
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 1/2 - 2 1/2 c. bread flour
  • 1 1/4 c. whole wheat flour (I used a high protein whole wheat)
  • 2 1/4 t. kosher salt
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 T. water or milk for eggwash (I used egg whites, since I had a number leftover from the creme brulee), optional
  • mixed seeds for garnish (I used poppy, sesame, rolled oats, wheat bran, and chia)
In a small bowl, combine water, milk, maple syrup, molasses and olive oil, and stir well to mix. Stir in yeast, and let stand for 5 minutes, until the yeast looks foamy and activated.

In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, stir to combine 1 c. of the bread flour, 1 c. of the whole wheat flour, and the salt. Add the activated yeast mixture and mix well. (Volger suggests using a paddle attachment at first if using a stand mixer, but I did it by hand with a Danish whisk, and then switched out to let the dough hook do my kneading.) Add the additional flours to feel (add the whole wheat first, since it's only 1/4), being careful not to make too stiff a dough. Knead 10-12 minutes by hand, or 8-10 minutes with the stand mixer. The dough will feel smooth and elastic, not really sticky. Form the dough into a loose ball.

Coat a large bowl with a bit of olive oil, and place the dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to double in size, 1 to 2 hours. (It's very cold here today, and I actually did my first rise at 90 degrees in my dehydrator! It worked great, and the dough doubled in one hour.)

After the first rise, divide dough into 10 portions (I weighed it, each roll was 89 g. or about 3 oz. - a perfect size for a burger), and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. (Place them at least 3-4 inches apart if you don't want them to touch at all, this is 8 rolls for a standard quarter sheet pan) Cover with a lint-free cloth, and let rise until the buns are doubled in size, another 1-2 hours.

Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 400. Just before baking, brush each roll with the eggwash and sprinkle with seeds if desired. Bake the rolls for about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through.

seedy topped.

I know I shouldn't be so surprised when something turns out great, after all shouldn't most published recipes be great? And, don't I know how to bake bread? Why shouldn't I just expect the bread is going to turn out? These could be some of the mysteries that prevent so many people from the the joys of bread baking. But, with each bread attempt, I still learn something. These taught me to realize that I don't care much for heartier Anadama bread, with larger amounts of coal black molasses. I like the flavor of molasses in bread much more when it is tempered to caramel goodness, and soft. Soft bread does have it's place on my table once in a while.

soft wheat burger bun
a sharp eye will notice the middle of this is just a bit damp. that's because I was too excited to wait for this bun to cool before slicing into it.

It is my goal to go without refined sugar for the entire month of January. (Julia and I have a dedicated Sugar-Free January Facebook page here, if you want to check it out or participate.) The blackstrap molasses I used today is maybe technically refined. It is a by-product of the cane sugar industry, but it's not unlike boiling down apple cider into cider syrup, or boiling down pomegranates into pomegranate "molasses". My goal for this month isn't to berate myself and get upset, it's only to be more mindful of my sugar consumption - and this includes my fruit intake too. I love vegetables, but fruits do seem easier to grab this time of year. I'm hoping a book like Veggie Burgers Every Which Way will continue to inspire me to eat differently and appreciate different flavors. Judging from just this first recipe, I have no doubts really.

When the month and the year are new, and I feel the same blank slate that many do this time of year, I am happy for the variation in my diet, and thankful that I have the ability to be so choosy about what I eat!

This post has been Yeastspotted.