I'm beginning to think I understand why those who work such long and hard hours bake. I think it's because cooking has become a chore, just another daily struggle. So for many of us working long, long hours when we do choose to cook we want to bake. We want a little pleasure, a little joy in our lives. Life always demands balance.Christmas is one of the few times in the year that we as a society obsessed by 'healthy' food, consider sweetness to be an acceptable part of eating. Cookies (biscuits), slices, cakes and treats adorn magazine covers - indeed whole editions are dedicated to them at this time of the year and we actually allow ourselves to say, "Yes thank you I will make that. I will eat that!"
That's a rarity these days as it seems the whole idea of sweetness has become a 'very bad thing'. I think we have some very skewed ideas about what healthy food is - we certainly do about sweetness. I'm a huge believer that in pretty much every case, it's not actually the food ingredient itself that is bad, it's how we grow it and then what we do to it.(But, of course, let me make the point here I'm actually talking about real food - there is no redeeming feature for fake food).
Shall we talk about sugar? It's a pretty popular subject right now running along a demon path picking up more demon points as it goes.
In general, the sweetness in most plants comes from its sap or nectar(our human sap could be considered to be plasma and again it's sweet). When we grow cane sugar in a nutrient-rich soil this sap itself is a rich source of those nutrients, including calcium. During our refining process, we remove all trace of those nutrients and concentrate the sucrose. We sell the nutrients as the health supplement molasses while we only eat the pure sucrose. In most cases, it is bleached and then some percentage of the by-product molasses is added back, except in the case of very white sugar. A two year old or your dog could tell you that's not going to work in your body the same way. But there are more traditional ways of processing that sap which provide us with a nourishing food, when eaten in balance and moderation.
Known by the name Rapadura, but also many others (Panela is a common name for it), the cane is pressed without heat to release the juice which is then filtered, the fibre removed and then simmered over a gentle heat to evaporate off the water. That's important, because the more water there is, the quicker it will go off - ferment. Reducing the water preserves it.
Brands vary; some are quite moist, some are quite dry. Darkly coloured and flavoured, these granules retain the valuable vitamins and minerals, which are essential for the digestion of sugar and include calcium, phosphorous, chromium, magnesium, cobalt, copper, zinc and manganese. In its traditional home of Latin America it is even considered nourishing to the body - it also contains vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B6, niacin and iron. These minerals and vitamins, along with polyphenols, help to slow down the absorption of sugars, giving it a naturally low GI. Rapadura contains approximately 73-83% sucrose, compared with 99% sucrose in a white sugar.
The production of sugar as we commonly know it, white or brown, is very different. Boiled under vacuum (to achieve high temperatures without caramelising the sugar) to evaporate the water, sugar crystals are formed; it is a crystallised sugar. All traces of molasses and goodness are separated off, and it is then bleached. Any darker sugars are simply a white sugar, with carefully controlled amounts of molasses, and in some cases, polyphenols and/or sugar syrup sprayed back on. This is the case even if it's organic. Organic doesn't actually mean the way it's processed, but the way it's grown.
One of the problems baking with Rapadura presents is the colour and flavour that the molasses imparts - it's not always what you want. This is when I turn to the slightly more refined cane sugars, but still with varying amounts of goodness intact.
Commonly labelled as "Made from Unrefined Cane Sugar", these new, slightly more refined sugars are still crystallised, but much more molasses is left on during the processing path. Some are washed and/or centrifuged to remove the molasses, but a wide range of these unrefined, less coloured sugars is available. In Australia, the most common brand that does this is the English Billingtons.
They vary in crystal size,from the very fine icing and caster sugars (known as Golden Icing Sugar and Golden Castor Sugar) to the larger all-purpose varieties, including the robust and chunky Demerara sugar. They include the moist and sticky, very small sugar crystal, light to very dark brown sugars also known as Muscovado. They are never the same as the more body-compatible product that is Rapadura, but used in moderation are an excellent compromise from time to time. I am particularly fond of the Golden Icing and Golden Castor Sugars; they are wonderful when you want more sweetness, less colour and less flavour than a rapadura.
I know health professionals who think sweetness in your eating is a bad, bad thing. I don't. Life in all its many aspects is about balance, and this includes things like:
*sit down to eat
*stop living a crazy stress-filled life
*include more joy in your life
*stop eating only carbohydrate
*eat food grown in good soil
*stop eating packaged and processed foods (fake in most cases and filled with additives) and
*stop being afraid.
Actually, as I write this, it pretty much sums up my grown up real food activist Christmas wish. I remain fortunate that I'm of an age where I've known healthy people who lived well into their nineties and remained active (namely pretty much our parents' and grandparents' generation) and that's what they did.
They ate some sugar, mostly white, and it didn't kill them or send them nuts. Because when they sat down on that Sunday afternoon to eat the sponge cake with cream and passionfruit, they stopped. While somewhat refined, the ingredients they used were real, they were with friends and family most often and those aspects my friend are powerful, powerful medicine. Joy, comfort, time out and deliciousness are powerful nutrients.
As the year rounds again to its end, I say again to you, thank you. You read me, you cook from me, you nourish yourself and others. You are helping to build a healthy and wholesome human community. It's hard work sometimes, I know. I'm so proud of you. If it was up to me, you'd be Australian of the Year. Your work has value, hang in there. Blessings to you and your loved ones.
Jude Blereau is a wholefood cook and writer based on Perth. www.wholefoodcooking.com.au