Tag Archives: baking

Sweetness (part 2): Challenges in Sugar-Free Baking

8 Sep

[From Rachel]

You might remember how I have pledged to experiment with using no cane sugar in a few recipes this month.  Now, I love to research and I really like when things work out as I had anticipated.  Thus far, with local-only sweetened baked goods, I’m having less of the perfection I anticipated for someone who has been reading up on baking with honey, fruit juice, fruit puree and maple syrup.

My first idea, on 9/1 was a peach upside-down cake.  Originally I thought of something like an applesauce cake that would just be sweetened by the peach puree.  However, the peaches didn’t really sauce down as I had hoped, but by then I had changed the plan to use peach JUICE as a sweetener.  You can find some recipes that call for fruit juice concentrate (i.e. the stuff that comes from a factory and is made from who-knows-what-country’s grapes or apples).  This peach juice was pretty sweet, so I crossed my fingers.  Rustic cakes like this are pretty forgiving.  I decided I was nervous to convert a recipe from white sugar to fruit juice, though I’ve read that you can substitute 3/4 cup juice concentrate for 1 cup of sugar in regular recipes and reduce the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons. I found a recipe that simply called for juice anyways.  I also used butter since the sunflower oil taste is pretty strong.  I spread the cooked-down peaches below the batter, then sprinkled more on top.  While it was in the oven, it smelled like I’d been making belgian waffles.  And it actually tasted pretty good, but not super-sweet.  It seemed like a great breakfast cake/quickbread, that could even be spread with some nut butter (nuts are one of my “cheat” foods, and Once Again is the only nut butter I’ll use…September or otherwise).  I was pleased enough to have this in my evenings, and my taste tester seemed to enjoy it, though agreed it wasn’t very sweet (his portion, however, disappeared within a day).  The bigger upset was not that the cake was less dessert-y, but that (duh!) a cake with no cane sugar in it is thus not “preserved” in the same way.  In other words, the last 1/3 of the cake molded within a few days at room temp.  OOPS!  Here’s the recipe, aptly titled.

Peach Upside-Down Breakfast Treat

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted/OR 1/4 cup oil
  • 2 tablespoons yogurt
  • 1/2 c. Unsweetened fruit juice (I obtained peach juice while cooking down peaches into a compote)
  • 1 1/2 c. flour–find local if you can!
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Cooked-down fruit (start with about 4-5 peaches, slice, cook over low heat for a while, ladling out juice until you have about a cup)
1.  Combine the egg, butter, yogurt and fruit juice.
2.  Combine the flour, baking powder, soda, salt (and any spices if they fit within your challenge rules)
3.  Add in the liquid to the dry and stir just to combine–don’t overmix!
4.  Place 1/2 the cooked peaches in the bottom of a round or square pan that has been oiled or greased
5.  Spread the batter on top.
6.  Strew the rest of the cooked fruit over the batter.
7.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Cool and serve–it holds up well, a very moist cake.  However, it should be kept in the refrigerator after a day.
On 9/6, I moved on to a cookie recipe.  Another charming character trait of mine is starting with very complicated things (I started with things like home-made chocolate eclairs from scratch when teaching myself about pastry, etc.).  So I’m sure there are simpler cookie recipes that use honey (my selected sweetener for this experiment), but I wanted to make a zucchini cookie today.  I found an abundance of zucchini-oatmeal recipes online–they were generally dubbed as healthy but that’s not the point of a cookie, and 1 cup of processed cane sugar and 1/2 cup of butter don’t equal healthy in my mind.  Given that I had a big bag of beautiful freshly rolled oats from Pennsylvania Yankee Mercantile, this sort of recipe seemed perfect.  I settled on an oil-based recipe since organic butter is a bit costly for a first attempt with unknown probability of success.  I used the basic honey-substitution principles I had learned: for every cup of sugar, use 2/3 to 3/4 cup honey.  Yeah, it’s a lot of honey (but that’s also a LOT of cane sugar, we just can get it for way too cheap these days).  I go to the local foods co-op and get my New York State honey in bulk–I just chill out next to the honey tap while a gorgeous golden river of honey flows into my mason jar.  This reminds me of a locavore tip, by the way, if you aren’t used to purchasing all these foods that you’re being challenged to eat this month.  They can be really inexpensive if you find a co-operative grocery store or natural foods store with a bulk section.  Call ahead, learn what their bring-your-own vessels policy is (you may need to have them weighed upon entry to the store, etc.), then set on your adventure for some bulk beans, grains, honey and maple syrup.  Anyways, the recipe seemed conducive to the conversion.  I knew I’d need to reduce liquid by a few tablespoons, but since the only other liquid in this recipe was oil, I figured I’d just go light on that.  Fast-forward to what ended up like a cake batter.  ANOTHER cake.  However, I really love zucchini bread (which is cake, don’t kid yourself there), so I’m not that disappointed.  It does have quite a sunflower flavor, which again, I don’t mind.  I’m just grateful that we have local sunflower oil so I don’t have to use so much expensive local organic dairy when doing these experiments.  So I guess I’m still on the quest for a local-sweetener recipe for actual cookies.  I can’t well dunk slices of my zucchini-oatmeal-honey cake into a glass of my (homemade) soy milk.  It’s sweet enough that it may count as cake, which I don’t feel I had achieved in the peach cake experiment.  With this pattern, the next thing I try to make won’t be a cookie, but will turn out like one, right?  Here’s the recipe, because it is good.  Make your choice on the oil vs. butter issue again, and if you get the ratios of ingredients right to make proper cookies, PLEASE post your comment.  I’m sure it’s just about paying more attention to the liquid and dry ingredient ratios.  The moisture content of the zucchini probably didn’t help matters…Like I said, I start with complicated stuff.

  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup corn oil sunflower oil, less a small amount to reduce liquid
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar  2/3 c. honey (222g) for 1c. total sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour farmer-ground wheat flour, increased by a few tablespoons in an unsuccessful shot at making a cookie dough, not a cake batter
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 1/3 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup finely grated zucchini
  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees (less 25 degrees for honey–> 325). Beat together the egg, oil and both sugars until well blended.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture. Add the oatmeal and zucchini and mix well.
  3. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet, placing them about 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 minutes or until golden brown. Makes about 2 dozen.  Scratch head, sigh because you have a perfect cake/quick bread batter that smells like sunflower seeds.  Pull out a rectangular pan and make cake that you can cut into squares instead.  Bake for about 40 minutes, or until risen and golden.
A few resources on honey and bees in our region:
Rochester Honey/Standard of Identity
2007 New Yorker Article Highlighting NYC Beekeeper David Graves
Queen of the Sun (Movie) Information Site
American Honey Producers Association
Cooking with Honey
As you can see from some of the recent media attention (perhaps there has not been enough), it is important to learn about the source of your honey.  Since honey is a product artfully collected and marketed across our state, there is less of a challenge of finding local honey, and honey you can feel confident is not contaminated.  However, many some producers not only keep their own bees and bottle different varieties (from bees collecting nectar from different flowers, or a mix of them), but also source quality honey from other parts of the country, due to those locations’ particular plants (orange blossoms in Florida, for example).  If you want to be sure that not only the honey business but the actual honey is local, you may need to ask for clarification.  This is your great opportunity to get to know beekeepers–a very well-informed and talkative bunch, I’ve found!  Next time you are at a market with a honey vendor, make sure you engage (politely) with the vendor about the different sources of their honeys.  If the vendor doesn’t carry a local product, you could explain that you are challenging yourself to think more about the mileage behind your food this month, and that you would love to purchase locally-sourced honey from them in the future.  Your conversations and commitment to the Locavore Challenge could be the tipping point for that vendor!
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Teaching Friends and Family to Be Local (vs. feeding them for a day or a meal)

29 Aug

From Rachel:

As a constant locavore, the challenge is often in explaining my convictions and trying to bring loved ones over to this side of things.  Taste and economy usually win people over faster than my nagging could.  I imagine many people taking this challenge are less challenged by getting a high percentage of their food intake from within 250 miles of where they live, but more challenged by getting friends and family to join the movement.  They may ooh and aah when you bring that delicious roasted heirloom tomato, zucchini, eggplant, herb and black bean casserole to the group dinner, but then still wonder why you aren’t super-excited that they’re slicing up kiwi and washing grapes (and I don’t mean hardy kiwi and NY grapes) to go on the table next to your painstakingly-sourced and prepared dish.  I’m talking from my experiences last weekend, by the way.  Still, I learned in a teaching course to avoid scolding, nagging, telling people they’re wrong and you’re right, etc.  That won’t win anyone over (politicians might take note).  A better path is to highlight the good, and find the teaching moments.  So that’s how I ended up teaching a friend to make bread yesterday.  Though the ingredients weren’t 100% local (still finishing up some non-local flour), they easily could have been.  For the record, we used NY Sunflower oil, NY maple syrup, salt, yeast, Organic Valley Nonfat Dry Milk Powder, parts generic Organic All-Purpose flour, stone-ground Organic Whole Wheat flour, and Small World Bakery’s All-Purpose Whole Wheat flour.  So, minus the yeast and salt, the loaf could easily be made with all local flour.  Still, I am less concerned with going to the 100%-local sourced ingredients this month.  It’s all about sharing the joy of making things that celebrate the local foods, and discovering that our default practice can be making things by hand with our local ingredients, versus going to the store and relying on a corporation to source and create our foods in a giant factory.  I’m not knocking local bakeries by ANY means, I’m just saying that enjoying the preparation of foods that seem difficult to make, such as a loaf of bread, can be a serious gateway into pursuing other locavore/local-economy habits.

The friend I baked bread with is already a supporter of farmers through shopping at farmers markets, and definitely enjoys foods made with local ingredients.  Still, this was his first time kneading home-made bread dough, after I’d repeatedly told him how fun and easy making bread can be, and after sending numerous examples of simple recipes (why wouldn’t he just dive in and start baking?).  Believe me, I was relieved that this loaf turned out so beautifully (I have a legendary habit of over-ambitious baking experiments ending in tears and ingredients tossed into the woods).  You have to be confident, relaxed and breezy about preparing local foods with newbies, or they will likely remember how hard or intimidating it was!

For any newbies to the baking arena, I definitely recommend the King Arthur Flour recipes online (they publish a fabulous cookbook as well).  They’re well-tested, come with lots of tips, and you don’t have to use their branded ingredients for fantastic results.  If you own a digital ingredients scale, you’ll be happy to know they also offer most recipes with weight measurements.  The recipe we used is the 100% Whole Wheat Loaf (though we used a combo of flours to make up the whole amount).  You could easily skip the dry milk powder, or use local milk in place of water to get the nice bread-softening effect that milk gives.  These simple ingredients combined into a gorgeous, tall loaf that we were quite eager to rip into and spread with some of my jam made earlier this summer.  Yum!

The ripped crumb with beet juice from the knife we used is evidence we were too hasty in letting the bread cool down.

I encourage you to start off Locavore month by arming a friend with a technique-perhaps as simple as how to evenly chop veggies, or as complicated as canning some crazy multi-fruit-and-herb jelly.  Locavorism isn’t about isolation in your kitchen, hiding from well-meaning relatives or friends who notoriously feed you asparagus in November or only have bananas and citrus fruits in their northern-climate kitchens.  It’s about sharing the joy in the slow food and local ingredients, and through that joy and enthusiasm sustaining a regional food system of farmers, artisan food producers, small-scale processors and distributors, restaurants, and more.  Giving a friend a local-foods experience memory is much more valuable to their decision-making process than scolding or whining at them about their choices.  Next time my friend looks at supermarket bread, I imagine he’ll at least value the fact that he knows how simple and delicious homemade bread can be.  Maybe he’ll forgo the purchase and seek out some local flour instead, or maybe he’ll just nag me to show him again.

Sweetness (Intro to Rachel’s personal Locavore challenge)

23 Aug

Sweetness! (Rachel looks into sweeteners as part of her personal Locavore Challenge: Introduction)

Rachel’s Locavore challenge: Investigating how some of our luxury/cheat items are produced and make it to our stores and plates, and seeing what alternatives we might choose for everyday use. I love to make things the “old-fashioned” way, and I love to research the path of foods to our plates, so this seems like a great personal challenge for me. The 250-mile diet challenge is less of the issue for me this month, though I’ll be working on that as much as I can. It’s less of a stretch, however, for someone who attempts that year-round. For me, the challenge is about highlighting what is available around me, and forgiving myself for not being able to be perfect at it, while simultaneously figuring out what steps I can take to have a positive impact on my local food/farm economy. My major cheats, I already know, will be nuts/seeds/exotic dried fruits and probably tea, some spices (though I’m going to use less since we have such fantastic local herbs and seasonings right now) and coffee.

When I have a local-ingredient question, I grab the oldest cookbook I can find. Usually that will give me a hint about what might be substituted for an expensive or exotic ingredient when it’s not a special occasion that necessitates use of such an ingredient. In my Rochester apartment, it’s a very quirky Mennonite cookbook (see here: Mennonite Community Cookbook) that seems really old, but which was apparently published in 1992.  It includes recipes from the Mennonite (and Amish, I believe) communities in the Eastern United States—Pennsylvania and Ohio especially.  [A bit of personal history: my family history is centered in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My childhood long weekends were spent in the midst of some of the East’s most fertile farm land, waving at horse-drawn buggies clip-clopping down the highway in front of my Aunt Barbara’s house (an Amish family lived across the street), buying baked goods, cheeses and jams from the Mennonite, Amish and “Other” farmers at the Lancaster Central Market on weekends, eating my grandfather’s simple, elegant home-cooked foods. My grandfather grew up as a foster child on a farm in the Great Depression; even as a self-built wealthier man, his food never seemed to stray too far from these roots (which he’d pronounce “ruts”). There was always something from a jar on the table, even if it accompanied store-bought foods and shrimp cocktail.]

I feel that I can trust that whatever is in this cookbook is based in a tradition of non-excess, values similar to my own, and a locavore/eat-from-your-land mentality. Then there are strange convenience foods thrown into the mix, but I’ll overlook that since those are mostly dinner/casserole dishes that I wouldn’t use from this cookbook. The recipe proportions are generally off, and rely on the fact that you should know what looks and feels right, even with chemistry-based baking!  Basically, I treat this cookbook as cultural reference/interesting reading, though there are some winning cookie/cake recipes once I learned to trust my instinct on measurements.  On the question of sugar, it seems these traditional-esque recipes (the recipes are generations-back-passed-down sorts of recipes) still call for things that are luxury imports (spices, sugar). Sometimes molasses is used, which I’m learning could be made by farmers melting down sugar from their beets…but probably isn’t what was used even a few decades ago when this was published. Sometimes it’s honey or maple syrup, but generally it’s white and brown sugar, even corn syrup (though I have heard that this was considered the cheapest and least-quality sweetener, and you could base poverty on “not even being able to afford Karo syrup”). Obviously, this cookbook doesn’t go far enough back to a time when sugar was extremely limited, but my investigations are not even close to done!

Sugar is an interesting character on our pantry shelves: it’s a non-local luxury, but we treat it as a very necessary ingredient and accept its usage in our homes and in the foods we buy in restaurants and from store shelves. It’s in every jam, jelly and fruit-canning recipe I’ve ever seen (though with some pectins you can substitute honey or use much less sugar). In terms of the Locavore Challenge, we can at least start by trying to limit our consumption of sugar-using sweet treats, and we can certainly eliminate sweets (and even savory foods) from packages that use more refined/processed sweeteners. That’s usually my modus operandi, anyway.

In September, I’m challenging myself to at least look into this sugar question, see what the options are for alternatives (specifically for baked goods, as I find it’s pretty simple to do a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup in otherwise savory dishes), and of course reward myself with some baking. The experimental subjects will be: a cake, a cookie, granola and a confection/candy type thing. I have some lucky or unlucky friends and coworkers. Too bad my cat is too picky for any horrible results. Stay tuned for results of this and other installments of Rachel’s Highly (un-) Scientific Ingredient Experiments throughout September!

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