Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Little Bites

"Exotic" one-bite millet bars. Recipe below.

            In case you haven’t noticed, we in the United States are surrounded by abundance … and obesity. I love to eat, but I’ve always felt I wouldn’t achieve the body mass that others have. Genetics are in my favor (my parents and most of my grandparents were slender), and I love muscle-powered sports – in fact I can barely tolerate sitting still. So it was with dismay that I saw the scale my last physical check-up.  At 5 foot 9 I did not want to be 165.

            How did I get this way? How do most? Eating more than the body needs is the simple answer, but in order to undo the unwanted,  it’s smart to know which, of the many foods in my diet, was the biggest culprit.

            I didn’t have to contemplate too hard. In fact I knew what was happening as it happened. (Don’t we always?) Dessert was the problem. Rather: desserts.

            In the 9 years since I’ve been bitten by the gluten-free perfectionist bug I’ve worked daily to make great bread, but as I stir and shape and weigh and bake, I mentally wander into sweeter terrain. All those ingredients I don’t use – fats, sugars, dairy, eggs, chocolate – are not only luscious, but the stuff of most baking. And so I sometimes take the plunge turning out chocolate quinoa cupcakes, buckwheat shortbread cookies, buttermilk coconut pie, sticky buns and layer cakes.
weighing millet puffs 

            Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with desserts per se. A world without them would be a grim place. The vast majority of humans can eat butter and chocolate and eggs and sugar without consequence, as long as we don’t overindulge. Desserts add immensely to the joy of dining. The problem is simply one of abundance: too much dessert.

            The abundance problem in my life is amplified by the fact that I inhabit a household of two. Dessert recipes for such a “family profile” are virtually non-existent.

            It’s true that I can make big quantities of dessert, then share the bounty. When I was employed at the C.C., my students loved when I performed this feat of calorie dumping, and the skinny figure skaters at the rink where I practice still do. Alternatively I can store leftovers. Cookies keep, pies can be frozen, etc and etc. However, neither of these strategies remove the temptation of abundance. If I make a lot of dessert, I eat more than I should.

            This presents an intriguing problem (well, intriguing to me): can dessert recipes be invented that will produce very small quantities that are nonetheless richly satisfying? It’s an art-and-science problem involving careful measurement,  calculation (all ingredients must be in proper ratios), creativity and an eye for the unexpected (eg: what impact does the volume of heated oven air have ?) Baking is more like architecture than meets the casual mind. To make the thought parallel: if a suburban home is designed as a shrunken version of Chicago’s Sears Tower, will it stand up? Will the elevators run? Toilets flush? Circuit breakers function?
28 grams of chopped walnuts
            I’ve decided that my next home baking project is to find out. This will undoubtedly occupy many months of culinary fun, all of which I’ll share on these pages. With a little luck I’ll end up with enough material to create a cookbook. With even more luck I’ll not end up with excess adipose tissue. After all, what would the point be if my efforts turned out unhealthy?

            Since one of the biggest scaling and ratio problems will be eggs, the first dessert I’m making does not use them. It’s my take on an old classic, and I present it in two versions – Plain and Exotic. Plain may seem familiar. It’s basically a Rice Crispies treat that I had to stop eating because the cereal contained malt. I’ve now grown so accustomed to the less-sugary millet that I prefer it. The resulting flavors just seem more grown-up. Exotic relies on a product you’ll have to smuggle into the US – Turkish mastic. Plain uses domestic flavors. I hope you try both.
Melting mastic and sugar in corn syrup.

            Oh, and about eggs    Eggs are an ingredient in so many baked goods it’s difficult to count. They provide crucial structure, and I have no intention of creating food without them. However, when  it comes to ratio and quantity, we can be stymied by the fact that dividing a recipe down to two units might leave us using 1/2 or 1/3 or even 1/5 an egg. I’ll be suggesting ways around this in future blogs. Today we’re just skipping the issue.

Plain and Exotic Cereal Bars
Makes 8, two-bite bars or 16 one-bite bars


Exotic                                                  Plain

10 grams millet puffs                              10 grams millet puffs
28 grams chopped walnuts                      28 grams chopped walnuts
70 grams almond butter                           70 grams chunky peanut butter
pinch fresh-ground nutmeg                      2 TBLS granulated sugar
2 TBLS granulated sugar                         2 TBLS honey
3 TBLS Turkish mastic                            1 TBLS light corn syrup
1 TBLS light corn syrup                         60 grams bittersweet chocolate
60 grams bittersweet chocolate               60 grams caramel
60 grams caramel     (Caramel is available at King Arthur Flour)                                                      
1/2 tsp espresso powder


Line the bottom of two  4” springform pans with baker’s parchment. Spray the insides with spray oil.
Springform pans with parchment added

Using a medium bowl, put puffs and walnuts together and stir to mix.

Place sugar, cornstarch and mastic (honey) in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat and, stirring continually, heat until the sugar melts. Add almond butter (peanut butter). Stir to an even consistency. Add cereal mix and stir to blend. NOTE: mix will be heavy and hard to stir.

Turn hot mix out into springform pans, dividing equally. Press down with the spoon back to achieve a smooth surface. Set aside.

Mixture pressed into place
Add caramel to a small, heavy-bottom saucepan and place over very low heat. Stir and heat until caramel is melted. Add chocolate, small bits at a time, stirring continually. When all chocolate is melted and mixture is well blended, pour onto puffs in pan. Smooth with spoon back and place pans in refrigerator.

After about 45 minutes, desserts can be removed and cut. Return to refrigerator and allow to cool completely before serving.

Store in a cool place, or refrigerate.

Coated and ready to chill

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