Wednesday, July 23, 2008

oh so sugarless..

Refined, white sugar pisses me off. It doesn't irk me or frustrate me, no. It doesn't make me hot under the collar or insufferably indignant, it's not something I am passionately or morally opposed to, no, not anything nearly as eloquent as that. Refined, white sugar just plane pisses me off. These days i'm usually an everythinginmoderation type person, but this is one issue I just can't seem to budge on. Not only is white sugar a nutritional null and void that is full of useless calories, but this ubiquitous little beast is also an aging, acidifying and crass addition to almost all the food you eat that comes from a package or a restaurant kitchen. Cancer needs an acidic blood profile to grown in a body and white sugar is one of the most acidifying 'foods' you can consume. Acidic, processed foods make you age quickly, they interrupt hormonal balance, they make you fat, lethargic, allergic and sensitive, they ruin your ability to focus and think and remember, they also give you sallow and congested skin. Short of stirring some cocaine in your daily flat white, refined sugar is one of the worst culprits that exists in the modern diet. I know, I know. You come here for foodie tales, not to hear about how to achieve a glowing complexion, but this is exactly my point: refined, white sugar tastes like crud. It doesn't blend well with other flavours, it's like an attention-starved-only-child thats constantly going lookatmelookatme. Sweetness in food is a glorious experience that I have no desire of depriving anyone, least of all myself, of. So the idea of this post was to share with you all the wonderful ways I have found to add sweetness to my life when I have needed it. This is going to be a tale of baked, burgundy pure maple syrup, heady with sticky toffeeness and trace elements. A story of exotic raw, translucent honey, thick with the floral remnants of distant summers and faraway suns. A history of moorish molasses and beautifully burnt brown rice syrup. An amazing account of agave, of celestial tricklings of pear juice over porridge. A rapture of rapadura and muscovado sugars. Yes, this is going to be a narrative full of syrups and juices and nectars and spices, the dizzying plethora of natural, nutritional sweeteners, ones that not only nourish us but drown us in nuances of taste and carry us, far, far away. Tastes that range from toffee sweet and nutty sweet to subtle, slow thick, sweet, spicy sweet and secretly sweet. Yes, a veritable, vanilla-honeyed, saccharine, olfactororgy. So, sit back, and relax, this is a drunken journey down, down, down into the delicious, dusky depths.
God. I am utterly convinced that all people in the history of mankind who have ever committed suicide never tried really, really, good, organic and pure maple syrup. Surely Cobain would've hung around for a few more years if he was waking up to some beautifully thick greek yoghurt, lush and creamy, scented with vanilla bean paste, a few slightly roasted, golden hazelnuts and a drizzling of incandescent maple followed by a nice pot of Pennyroyal. Maple syrup, for those of you who have not been briefed, is a syrup made from the sap of maple trees, and like cartoons, the really good stuff usually originates in Canada. First I am going to tell you what it is in, then I am going to try to, with the poor adjectives available to me in the paltry English language, describe to you the taste. Maple Syrup has less calories and more minerals than honey. This ambrosia in amber is a remarkable source of manganese, which is a strong cofactor in the enzymes that effect antioxidant activity. There is also a decent amount zinc, great for hair, nails, skin and immunity. But that aside, the, so divine. The first time I purchased some Shady Maple Pure Maple Syrup i was in for a little shock, I went to pour it into some yoghurt and mistook the consistency of this stuff for the maple syrup I was used to trying as a child with pancakes. I spilled nearly 1/3 of the bottle discovering that good maple syrup is not thick, it resembles a juice in the way it pours. Unlike spilled milk, you do cry over spilled maple. Maple syrup is the reason Tatsu and his sisters are addicted to my brownies, it lends so much depth to other flavours like vanilla and chocolate, it's not like you taste the sweetness and then the chocolateness, you taste some wonderful amalgam of the two that remains perfectly intertwined on the palate. It can be expensive to cook with, so use it in moderation or combine it with other sweeteners when baking, a little does go a long, long way. If you bake alot then buy a good quality syrup in bulk, Whole Foods House carries a great one that they sell for just over $25 for a liter. I love a little in poached pears, on porridge or with yoghurt. It's so delicious and I only use less than a teaspoon each time for a really beautiful, deep sweetness that generously infuses a whole bowl of chilled/steaming-somethingorother .
My Dad is 70. He looks not much over 60 (and acts a good deal younger). Johnny's beauty tip? Honey. He honestly eats about a metric half cup of good, thick, raw honey in one sitting with some chewy bread on most days. I once told him that they found some ancient honey in the pyramids that was still apparently good to eat, I could see the look of longing in his eyes. Good honey and honey are two entirely different things. Good honey is not heated, it is raw and thick and slow to pour, most commercial honey is heated to make it more spreadable and then processed to make it sweeter, all the enzymes die in heating and most of the phytonutrients are compromised in the processing. These unecessary 'refinements' also destroy much of the richness and depth of flavour, as well as the quirks of climate and flora that you find in different honey. Honey is full of living enzymes, it also has anti inflammatory properties. If you have the taste for it, its beautiful instead of sugar in black tea. I love it on sourdough with almond butter as well. Manuka honey is one for hardcore honey lovers to try, it's a very rich, sweet honey from New Zealand, if you can find a UMF (unique manuka factor) of 20+, you've got yourself an exceptionally layered, potent and medicinally marvelous food. There are so many varieties and interpretations of honey. You can try it with vanilla, infused with truffle, you can try the darker and the lighter varieties.
Agave syrup/nectar is a wonderful and increasingly popular ingredient that must find its way into your your belly, if it has not done so already. It is made from a succulent plant grown in the Mexican deserts (a plant that also produces tequila) and is sold in 3 varieties, light, amber and dark agave. This is a remarkable little, natural sweetener for diabetics (onya, Kieran!), studies have shown it to have an extremely low GI of 27. This means that agave added to food actually improves the way it digests and its effect on metabolism. It has a very toffee like taste, is sweeter than maple syrup and is divine on ice cream, yoghurt, in porridge and, especially, in beverages. Because of its consistency (it's quite a watery liquid), it works well in wholesome iced teas, smoothies and even in cocktails (not that i'd know, but I hear things and read things!). Try a frappe with blended ice, pineapple, basil leaves and a touch of agave, or a white iced tea with raspberry mint and a little agave. White sugar, who?
Rapadura and muscovado sugars are two incarnations of the sugar cane plant that are much more beneficial, and tastier, than their stripped and bastardized white counterpart. Muscovado differs from brown sugar in an important respect: brown sugar is usually made by adding molasses to refined white sugar, so you're getting the usual crap, just with a fake tan. Muscovado derives both its flavour, moistness and wonderful deep colour from the natural, preferable source: sugarcane juice. It's beautiful in coffee or where it has any strong flavour to reckon with. I use a little of this or rapadura mixed with maple syrup when baking, it delivers a very earthy sweetness. Rapadura is a beautiful sugar I discovered thanks to Jude's cookbooks. It has 75% sucrose as opposed to the 99% found in White Satan. Jude informs us that rapadura comes from organic cane sugar in a process where the juice is filtered and the fiber removed, the remnants being crystalized into rapadura. It's a not too sweet sweetener, with vitamins and nutrients, caramel flavoured and light, beautiful in everything i've baked it with.
Natural apple concentrate and natural pear concentrate are two very handy ingredients to have when you want to sweeten savoury dishes. Jude advises us to add apple concentrate to tomato chutneys to balance them out well. Ive added pear concentrate, the Pure Harvest brand, to my porridges and poached fruit, it has an intense sweetness when added in small amounts and gives an extra depth to what you are creating.

Brown rice syrup is the one to use when you want thick sticky sweet. It's not as sweet as maple syrup, so using the two in conjunction when baking is ideal. Brown rice syrup gives you that thick beautiful consistency that sticks and glosses over everything, and a very, very gentle sweetness. Gorgeous with porridge, perfect for brownie fudgeiness, great to give poached fruit a dreamy, glazey look. And made entirely from brown rice.
Another thing to keep in mind is that sweetness is only one kind type of flavour. Alot of these white sugar alternatives stand out because of the character of their taste (and content). Adding spices or pastes, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, all spice, rind of orange and lemon, muscatels, juices and fruit itself, is a good way to give more personality to the flavour of your food. Even a good quality commercial sugar free jam can add intense and lively, fruity sweetness to baking and simple recipes like yoghurt or oats. Try not eating white sugar in any form for a week and you'll notice some remarkable differences in how you look, feel and see the world. Play around with these alternatives, get comfortable with them, get to know how you like them best. If you're a white sugar junkie and you have made it to the end of this very long and laborious post, rest assured that the ADHD hasn't set in, at least not yet!


Anonymous said...

Do you have any brown sugar substitute suggestions? I have been using agave nectar in my baking as a white sugar substitute, but haven't found a non-chemical tasting brown sugar substitute. I'd even be happy with a combination of spices/herbs/etc! Any ideas?

amanda said...

hey there, depends what youre cooking. i have used sugarfree jam as a sweetener sometimes, but thats not going to give you the caramelness you want from a brown sugar substitution, im guessing. maple syrup is really rich and nutty, i can kind of picture it working. spice was you could get a mix of all the warmer ones going but it wont really taste sweet. hope that helps, but i dont think it does heh xx