Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Archive for December, 2010

Recipe Hack: Lower-Sugar Christmas Treats!

One of the things I love about Christmas is the excuse to start baking and keep it up beyond what would otherwise be considered the bounds of reason. Although I love to cook family favorites for the holidays, I also love the excuse to be experimental and somewhat “fussy,” making the types of putzy things I never have time for during the rest of the year.

This past week, I experimented with a few new items while looking for some lower-sugar options for diabetic friends and family. I call this a “recipe hack”; cracking the chemistry of cooking to understand what gives a recipe its yum and consistency while also making it work for what you need. In this case, the need was less sugar! Sadly, all this hacking leaves me pressed for time to take and process pictures, but, since I modified existing recipes, please feel free to go admire the pictures on the recipes linked below! This is going to be a quick and dirty explanation, just to give you an idea of how you can play with recipes on your own to work with your guests’ needs and preferences.

First up: Savanna cheesecake bars by Paula Deen.

Yes, Paula is usually more known for decadent yumminess more than healthier options, and no, this isn’t a health food, but it does have several redeeming qualities over many other holiday baked goods. My version packed the cookie crust with pecans and whole grain flour, I used lower-fat Neufchatel cheese instead of cream cheese in the cheesecake part, and I slathered the completed bars with a homemade fresh cranberry glaze spiced with ginger and cinnamon. We love cheesecake, and I have a thing for fresh cranberries; this one was a big hit in the taste testings in our house.

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What would it mean for you to be blameless?

Although thoughts of new Christmas cookies are still dancing in my head, I’m going to take a breather from the kitchen to share some news. As the year begins to wind to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the path I have walked this last year, focusing especially on where I have chosen to allocate my time and where I have not. More and more, as the world in Wisconsin has grown snowy and still, I have been mentally refocusing on my creative priorities. A big part of that has been reflecting on the immense strides that two of my friends have taken this year as artists. Most recently,  Jessica Fox-Wilson done gone and published a manuscript. It’s called Blameless Mouth, and I can’t wait to read it. Her collection of poems is focused around issues I explore over and over again on this blog and off it: hunger, consumption, and satiety. I focus on these themes often—but not always—literally, but Jessica blends the literal with the metaphorical: hunger for food, for possessions, for the intangible; and she highlights what we consume in the quest to satiate that hunger.

A large part of ourselves and the environment we have built can be illuminated if we are bold enough to identify hunger in our lives, critically examine our consumption, and cultivate a sense of satiety that perhaps doesn’t depend on consumption, at least not in the sense of exhausting resources.

For quite a while now, Jessica has used her own blog to make public her journey as an artist. She invited us in as she moved from concept to concept, from one stand-alone piece to another. Over time, she has nurtured a series of poems that have grown like a tangle of flowering vines from a single common root. Last week she posed a challenge to those of us who have been watching her build her narrative one verse at a time.

Tell me, she said, what would it mean for you to be blameless?

This is a question with heft and jagged edges. It’s the kind of question that must be handled gingerly, or it cuts. Often deeply. At the same time, it is a question that yields nothing if not grasped firmly with both hands.

It’s a question I have avoided answering for the past week.

Part of me believes that to be blameless is to be inhuman. We are all of us bruised and corrupt and angry and selfish at times. We are all of us careless and hasty. All of us understand what it is to begrudge another. All of us have been supremely worthy of blame at different points in our lives. What would it mean to be blameless? I collect even the most minor missteps I have made in my life. In my memory are dozens upon dozens of monuments to my fallibility, all of them gleaming dully like trophies. I don’t visit them regularly, but they’re there. Whenever I believe myself to be at fault for yet another infraction, I find myself there, surrounded by the collected errors of a lifetime on display in my mind. I run over and over and over them. I know all their shapes and weights and textures by heart.

I cannot be blameless. Over the years, however, I have come to understand that each and every one of the times that I have found myself to blame has been essential to beauty, to growth. Understanding the consequences of haste, the opportunity that comes with weakness, the wisdom that comes from recognizing the hurt I have caused to another—these are pieces of my life worth treasuring. Not only do they have a great deal to offer, but they also have been bought at a price. This is, perhaps, what it means to be blameless. To walk through life acknowledging when I have done wrong, avoiding similar missteps as best I can, and holding the insights from these moments as precious because of the cost at which they were bought.

To be blameless is also to be fearless, particularly where our voices are concerned. Frankly, our mouths are known to get us into trouble. We hunger for food, people, things, love. Sometimes, our mouths are full of a bitter truth, an unpopular opinion, or a call to action that demands we give up our own comfortable apathy. Too often, especially as women, we are berated or berate ourselves for speaking truth openly or for hungering, for wanting more than what we are generally allowed. Being blameless means accepting hunger as a necessary part of living and fearless speech as necessary part of living well.

Ultimately, to be blameless is not to be free of blame. It is simply to forgive ourselves and to understand that so much of what is good and beautiful in us is there not in spite of our flaws, but because of them.

I love that Jessica’s first widely public manuscript is Blameless Mouth. With each poem, with each day well-lived, with each misstep, Jessica has been growing more fearless. Although she may not know it, I have been growing more fearless alongside her. Today, here she stands in a crowd of loved ones and strangers, her hands weighted with poems.

Her blameless voice is about to be heard.


Let the Christmas Nom-a-Thon Begin!

Like a good chunk of the Midwest, snow dumped on us pretty badly yesterday. We are officially all dug out, however, and now I get to enjoy a day at home straightening up, slurping delicious cocoa, and starting on holiday sweets. I love giving gifts of treats at Christmas, and I’m feeling adventurous this year. Adventurous enough, in fact, that I am going to blog today’s kitchen sweatshop extravaganza here. Keep checking back for updates on this post!

For anyone who has missed the writing on the wall, I am an experimental cook. So, in all honesty, my Christmas goodie-fest actually started two days ago when I made mint chocolate “fudge.”

I knew full well that messing with fudge was to tempt fate since fudge, like caramels and other types of candy, is a chemistry project first and foremost. For that reason, I attempted to respect the protein, sugar, and fat ratios as much as possible while also trying to replace half the sugar with agave nectar and cutting the overall sweetness of it. I knew full well I wasn’t guaranteed fudge, but I figured I’d wind up with something interesting. And I did: a delicious, soft, creamy concoction that could be scooped and keep its shape. I had, I quickly realized, the perfect center for a minty truffle. So today, that’s where I started. I scooped the filling into balls and popped them into the freezer for about 15 minutes while I melted dark chocolate over a very low heat on the stove. I then smoothed out the minty bits, rolled them around in the dark chocolate until covered, and popped them onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper to harden.

Quoth the Unicyclist: “A smooth and tasty little minty treat.” A flop if you had your heart set on fudge, but a total score as an all-natural, reduced-sugar chocolate truffle.

Since I still have chocolate on the stove, I think I’m going to go right into the predictable-but-delicious world of chocolate-covered pretzels. Then, however, I’m going to get really nutty. Cranberry caramel tarts, rosemary pine nut cookies…who can say? Stay tuned for updates and pictures!

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