Biscotti, NOVA, and Common Sense.

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Who doesn’t like a good biscotti? It’s sweet and nutty and soft when made with enough butter, but firm enough to dunk in coffee. Pictured above are my favorite off the shelf biscotti. Biscotti aren’t healthy, but that’s not why I like them. This traditional Italian delicacy is concentrated sugars and refined carbohydrates softened with butter. Totally unhealthy and completely delicious.

Trying to make them at home is complex. Most recipes use a standard set of ingredients consisting of sugar, flour, nuts, and baking powder. Some recipes call for eggs, others call for butter, still others call for oil. Some even call for dried fruit like the cranberries in my favorite biscotti. No matter which combination of ingredients, however, there is one feature that all biscotti have in common. They are twice baked. And twice baked is too complex for my simplistic mind, so I have become a connoisseur of off the shelf.

Like all packaged cookies my biscotti are ultra-processed. Maybe if I baked them at home with carefully sourced ingredients I could get away with dropping the ultra … but just maybe.

How do I know? Because NOVA says so.

SO WHAT’S NOVA?

NOVA is new way to classify food. It’s a system that examines the extent and purpose of food processing. Originally developed in Brazil, the concept is gaining traction in other South American countries, Canada and France.
 NOVA characterizes ultra-processed foods as industrial formulations made with many unfamiliar ingredients not commonly used in kitchens. These foods are manufactured and designed to be profitable, convenient, and hyper-palatable.

My favorite biscotti fit the description. They are palatable and very tasty. The ingredient list looks mostly familiar with the exception on malted barley flour. But when I check ingredient lists for other brands, I do find suspicious additives like soy lecithin, palm kernel oil, mono- and di-glycerides, natural flavors to name a few.

The product is an industrial formulation. Otherwise, my biscotti would not taste exactly the same every time. The product is convenient too saving me the time and trouble of twice baking every single batch I mix up.

So now what?

NOVA is not well known here in the states but that may be changing. We Americans are big consumers of ultra-processed products, well over 50% by most counts. Our voracious consumption is causing concern among some of my fellow dietitians. Many nutrition commentators agree that a food pattern based on minimally processed real food is the best option but I’ve yet to find anyone willing to commit to a percentage.

As for me, I know that my gut is happier when I eat less highly processed foods. But that’s a personal testimonial and anecdotal evidence doesn’t count for much. So …

IN MY HUMBLE OPINION

Proponents of an evidenced based approach to eating don’t give much credit to common sense. Those folks are scientists and view common sense much the same way as Albert Einstein “… the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” Science moves methodically and slowly and nutrition science is wicked hard. Like a never ending story, the facts of today are subject to change based on new findings tomorrow.

But since we need to make eating decisions every day with or without evidence, sometimes that collection of “prejudices” is all we’ve got. We put something the plate every day. We can’t just stop eating while science is still working things out.

So let’s be patient and let science do its thing. Let’s enjoy our biscotti without fear or worry. We have no common food culture to reference, but we do have our gut and our own common sense. One biscotti will hopefully not be a problem. Eating the whole package should give you a stomach ache.

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Looks to me like my KIND bar is ultra-processed.

photo credit | gourmetmetrics
photo credit | gourmetmetrics

A couple of weeks ago, the word ultra-processed made national headlines when a well done study concluded that ultra-processed food promotes weight gain while unprocessed food does not. This one I said to myself needs further investigation.

After reading the complete study, I linked to another site for clarification on what foods are ultra-processed and ended up at NOVA. There I learned about a Brazilian academic Carlos Monteiro and his novel food classification system NOVA. Links to both study and NOVA provided at the end of the post.

NOVA divides foods into four groups and characterizes ultra-processed foods as follows:

“The fourth NOVA group is ultra-processed food and drink products. These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of group 1 foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.”

Then I went to my pantry hoping to find something vaguely resembling that verbose awkward prose. I didn’t find much until I remembered my KIND bars. I always keep at least one in my pocketbook for emergencies. I’m partial to the apricot almond, so I looked in my pocketbook and there was a KIND bar wrapped and ready to go. The ingredient list is printed on the wrapper: almonds, coconut, apricots, glucose syrup, honey, chicory root fiber, rice flour, soy lecithin, sugar, sea salt.

With the ingredient list in one hand and that prose description in the other, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. Words in boldface refer back to NOVA. Ingredients are numbered in descending order.

#1 almonds, #2 coconut, #3 apricots are familiar foods. I can see the almond pieces and perhaps the coconut shreds in my KIND bar so we’ll call them intact. I don’t see any apricot pieces however. Maybe apricot purée?

#4 glucose syrup, #5 honey, and #9 sugar are sugar.

#6 chicory root fiber is the name manufacturers give to inulin for labeling purposes. Chicory root is an intact food. It looks like a short fat shaggy cream colored carrot with long brown hairs. Inulin is a white powder which is extracted and refined from the root and is considered an isolated non-digestible carbohydrates by the FDA. Manufacturers can count inulin as a fiber on the nutrition facts label. Inulin is not commonly used in culinary preparations, although you can order inulin as a supplement online or buy it off the supplement shelf in a health food store.

#7 rice flour is a stabilizer

#8 soy lecithin is an emulsifier (not referenced above but found in other descriptions of NOVA)

#10 sea salt is salt

So is my KIND bar ultra-processed? It certainly looks that way to my analytic eye. Of the 10 ingredients counted, 7 tract back to NOVA.

Does it matter? Now that’s the tricky question. And over the next couple of years, many smart, knowledgeable researchers are going to be working hard trying to figure out the answer to that question.

Pictured next to the KIND bar is an equivalent weight of dry unsulfured apricots and almonds which I also keep in my pantry. Just two ingredients. Clearly not ultra-processed. Taste is 100% subjective and my preference is the simpler version of fruit and nuts. But when I’m hungry enough to just need calories, the KIND bar is what I reach for.

Here’s a link to the study and a link to NOVA.

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Christmas Dinner 2017

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Pictured above is the center piece of my Christmas meal this year – a roasted rack of pork. You can see from the rib bones that the butcher has employed a presentation technique referred to as “Frenched” and the rack was roasted with the skin on. Those crusty squares you can see on the top are cracklings. They’re delicious. Almost as good as the tender juicy roasted pork.

A center piece needs to be carefully positioned with surroundings to be fully appreciated. Properly selected, the appetizer announces there’s more to come without being too filling or overwhelming. This year, I made an escarole salad with Forelle pear, walnuts, and Parmiggiano dressed with an apple-cider honey vinaigrette dressing. Cooling, refreshing, lightly salted and slightly sweet. A well positioned beginning for what is to come.

Moving on to the main course, let’s consider side dishes. This year, I selected winter greens and baked sweet potatoes. Rapini braised in olive oil and garlic is my dish of choice but not everyone has developed my taste for bitter greens so I always serve steamed green beans along side. I sliced the rack of pork between each rib bone, arranged the pieces on a serving plate with the sweet potato along side accompanied by the two bowls of greens. There was a moment of silent appreciation and then we dug in and I have to admit we did eat well.

To accompany the meal, we offered beer, apple cider, or a red Bordeaux.

The ending of a meal should never in my culinary opinion at least outshine the centerpiece. So I prepared an apple pudding, derived from one of my favorite French desserts – clafouti. And of course a dish of mandarin oranges from my beautiful California. No meal, even a celebration meal like Christmas, is complete for me without some seasonal fresh fruit at the end.

MEAL METRICS

The holliday season is a time for celebrations and my Christmas meal is my celebration of the season. From the beginning salad appetizer to ending piece of fruit, the meal clocks in just a little over 1400 calories.

Like all combination plates, a meal is a mixture of different foods some clearly more healthy than others.

The health promoting aspects of my meal are the abundance of vegetables and fruits (59% plant based by weight), good protein (74 grams), and beneficial fiber (71% Daily Value) from intact sources. On the not so healthy side, we note 21 grams saturated fats, 970 mg sodium, and 18 grams sugar.

Now what I would like to have is an algorithm that would balance the value of the healthy foods against the risks from the not so healthy components and seasonings. My thesis that is in the final analysis, the benefits outweigh the risks. Now I need to find my self algorithm that will do that kind of computation.

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Almond Meal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Guaranteed these little beauties are easy to make and delicious to munch on. My version is adapted from Cuisinicity, a recipe website developed by Catherine Katz. Definitely worth the time to check out especially if you are looking for vegan / vegetarian options. Catherine is a lovely, creative, energetic cook who write recipes that work.

I got to know Catherine when I did some metric re-engineering on some of her recipes. She’s French and has many followers from Europe who appreciate metric measures. Catherine’s original version is made with agave syrup instead of maple syrup. I used maple syrup because that’s what I had on hand and the recipe worked just fine. Reading through the comments I can see other adapters used honey. So it’s really up to you.

When I bake, my preference is to use my digital scale because to my way of thinking it’s easier. Before I start, the oven gets set at 350 F. Next I put a medium sized mixing bowl on the scale and zero out. Now comes the fun. Weight out each of the 4 ingredients directly into the bowl zeroing out after each addition. No mess. No extra spoons or cups to wash. No waste.

  • 100 grams almond meal  | 2 2/3  cups
  • 80 grams canola oil | 6  tablespoons
  • 120 grams maple syrup |  6  tablespoons
  • 100 grams chocolate chips | 3/4  cup

Remove bowl to counter and mix thoroughly.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, form dough into 24 little balls, and press each one down to flatten out into a fat pancake. Mine bake them for about 17 minutes, longer than Catherine recommends, or until lightly browned. Then cool on a wire rack and store in an air tight container or freeze.

INGREDIENTS – I’m particular about ingredients and am willing to pay a higher price for more specific and detailed ingredient credentials. But that’s me and I’ll okay with other folks choosing other options because just making your own cookies is such a big step towards eating healthier.  One caveat. Almonds and real maple syrup are not inexpensive and these cookies will cost $11 to $12 dollars per pound.

• Ground almonds come in two forms. Actually it’s three forms if you count grinding them yourself. The major provider of ground almonds is Bob’s Red Mill and he makes two versions: almond meal and almond flour. The meal is made from almonds with the skins on whereas the flour is made with balanced skinless almonds. I prefer the whole meal but either type will work.

• Canola oil comes in two forms too. Conventional or nonGMO. I use the nonGMO version. Not because I have concerns about genetically engineered ingredients – I remain neutral in that volatile issue – but because the oil is expellor pressed. Conventional canola oil is heat processed and expellor processing is a gentler way to get the oil out of the rape seed. Consider price and choose the one that works best for you.

• Maple syrup comes from the north east mainly Québec, New York, and Vermont. I use New York State dark syrup because I live in New York and buy local when I have the choice.

• Chocolate chips are the easiest to source. My preference is bittersweet or the darkest chip I can find. The ones I use for these cookies are the 67% cocoa Whole Foods house brand.

NUTRITION – Healthy has a very specific meaning as per FDA regulations and up until recently there’s no way I could label them healthy. Things are beginning to change which is, in my opinion, a positive and long overdue move.

The nutrition tag reads as follows: 140 calories per cookie, 11 grams fat (1.2g saturated), 9g carbohydrate (2g dietary fiber, 6g added sugar), 3g protein. Recipe analyzed using Bob’s Red Mill almond meal.

• Fat Profile. Don’t be concerned when I share with you that 72% calories come from fat. That fat comes from almonds, canola oil, and chocolate chips. I still can’t label these cookies healthy but one of the changes recently introduced by the FDA allows me to talk about the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats. I won’t be able to calculate that ratio until Bob revises the nutrition facts label and lists mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, but I can tell looking at the total fat and the saturated fat that the ratio will be very favorable. In other words, most of those 11 grams fat will be coming from “healthy” unsaturated fats.

• Carbohydrate. Both added sugars and dietary fibers get counted as carbohydrates. Each cookie has 6 grams added sugars about half from maple syrup and the other half from chocolate chips. I used USDA bittersweet chocolate chip for my calculation which breaks out the added sugars. Each cookie also has 2g dietary fiber from the almonds because I used almond meal which includes skins.

• Protein. Well we all know we don’t eat cookies because we want protein. However nuts are a source of protein and these cookies are almost 50% almonds, so it’s not surprising that one cookie delivers 3 grams.

ALLERGENS – Tree Nuts

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Let’s see if I can count the added sugars in my jam.

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Pictured above is one of my favorite jams. Lingonberry Jam. The berries grow in Sweden and this jam is imported from Sweden. It’s not too sweet and that’s why I like it so much.

With sugars rapidly replacing fats as the nutrient of the day to avoid, lots of folks are paying more attention to how many sugars are added to whatever they eat. So I thought I’d try to figure out how many grams were in my jam.

Currently as per the FDA, manufacturers will need to add a line item on the nutrition fact label indicating how many sugars in their product have been added. But for now we’re on our own. So let’s take a look

First I checked the ingredient list.

Lingonberries (48%), sugar, water, and fruit pectin. Ingredients must be listed by weight in descending order, so the list tells me that the manufacturer used more lingonberries than sugar, water, or pectin. But I still don’t know what fraction of the sugars come from added sugar and what fraction comes from natural sugars in the lingonberries.

Then I tried to find a food composition table for lingonberries.

Lingonberries grow wild in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, as well as Canada, Sweden, and Finland. I’ve never tasted a raw wild lingonberry but from what I can tell based on a couple of internet searches, these tiny, round berries are a distant relative of cranberries and share the same bitter flavor.

Checking my favorite food composition database, I actually found a reference to raw, low bush cranberry or lingonberry listed under American Indian /Alaska Native Foods. The record is incomplete. Carbohydrates are listed but no detail is given on how many are sugars or complex carbohydrates and dietary fibers. It’s a safe assumption to assume the number of natural sugars is pretty low just like the natural sugars in a cranberry but I still don’t have the number of added sugar grams.

Then I looked for a lingonberry jam recipe.

I’m sure recipes exist in Swedish but I can’t read Swedish. So I tried a substitution. It’s my understanding that red currants are similar to lingonberries so I set out to find a recipe for red currant jam. I want a European source because I need a weight based recipe. I have a good collection of French books and checked Conserves Familiales by Henrietta Lasnet de Lanty. Confiture de groseilles: 700 grammes de sucre par kilo de groseilles. In English: 700 grams sugar and 1 kilogram red currants. Those proportions correspond to the Swedish label which listed lingonberries first, sugar second.

But after all this I still don’t have the number of added sugar grams.

So the answer to the question is no. I can’t calculate the grams of added sugar in my jam without having the proportions used by the manufacturer.

Okay, I can’t do it. But I do know this. There is less sugar than fruit. The last thing I checked was the USDA Standard Reference food composition table. I pulled up about two dozen berry jams. Most of these branded jams list sugar first and fruit second.

And here’s my take away.

We may not be able to calculate the actual grams of added sugar until the manufacturer updates the label in 2018. But I do know what I need to look for on the ingredient list. Fruit listed first and sugars in any form listed second.

 

 

 

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French Macarons and Added Sugars

 

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris. @gourmetmetrics

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris.
@gourmetmetrics

 A beautiful pastry selection. Wouldn’t you agree?  We took the picture during a recent trip to Paris. And yes the pastry selection really was in McDonalds. And yes that McDonalds really is on the Champs-Élysées just about a block down from the Arc de Triomphe.

Now check out those 6 plates in the center. Those are plates of French Macarons. See the two plates in different hues of green. Then a plate of vibrant pink. And two more plates of chocolate-browns and one of cream. All beautifully sculpted and artfully arranged. All perfect. And all tasting deliciously sweet.

If you were standing in front of that gorgeous display, how many would you eat? Just between you and me, I don’t have a well developed sweet tooth so a good French macaron is almost too sweet for me. One or two is all I can eat at a time.

Now if you have a well developed sweet tooth and are feeling an irresistible urge to indulge, here’s the good news. You don’t have to go to Paris to savor the delicacy. There are stores in New York and other metropolitan cities dedicated to Macarons. Specialty manufacturers have picked up on the trend and providing packaged Macarons in stores and via the internet. Websites like Food Network or Epicurious also feature recipes for making Macarons at home.

The cookie is sweet, light, airy, and dainty. Made with sugar, almond meal (no flour and therefore no wheat), egg whites, cream, butter, and flavorings, the list of ingredients is straightforward and simple.

Had I been at a McDonald’s here in New York, calories for these Macarons would be easy to access. Several cities including New York City require it and McDonald’s has decided to be proactive posting nutrient information in restaurants and online. But Paris has no such municipal regulations so no calories and no other nutrient data.

Based on comparing data from boutique providers and recipe nutrient tags, here’s my guesstimate for my two French Macarons. Weights can vary of course but depending on selection one can expect 5 to 6 Macarons per 100 grams. So for calories let’s say 70 to 80 per each or 140 to 160 calories for two.

As for sugars, it’s safe to assume the carbohydrate is all added sugar. The other ingredients (almond meal, egg whites, cream, butter) are not carbohydrate sources except for just a whisper of lactose from the heavy cream. Good news for celiacs and those with a wheat allergy because Macarons are both gluten free and contain no wheat. Bad news for folks with a nut or milk allergy.

But who really cares? I do. But I’m a self confessed nutrition nerd. So who else cares?

A group of committed health professional food activists care. They believe their duty is to help others eat better and healthier. They care a lot. Then there’s a group made up of food manufacturers and restaurants. This group cares too but for completely different reasons.

Now you may be asking what does all this have to do with French Macarons?

Like so many other packages on the shelf, there’s added sugars in French Macaron. Quite a lot of added sugars actually. Sugar by weight is over 40% of the macaron’s total weight. Or calories from added sugars are over 40% of the total calories. However you measure it, that’s a lot of sweet.

The government has already spent significant resources constructing the new regulations. Manufacturers are now being asked to spend significant dollars to research and update their labels. Soon it will be our turn. Were consumers willing to invest the time to read and understand labels, the investment would be easy to justify. Especially if the information transmitted resulted in a decrease in obesity rates.

But here’s the catch. Will listing added sugar grams on the label discourage folks from eating too many French macarons? That’s the crucial question. Personality, I don’t think so.

Do you think the folks who just love these sweet delicate little treats will pay much attention and eat less?

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Which would you choose for dessert? Panna cotta. Valhrona chocolate cake. Ice cream. Or something else …

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Imagine you’re sitting in a popular Manhattan restaurant. The meal you’ve just finished was worth every calorie invested and every dollar spent because of culinary excellence and ingredient quality. Now it’s time for one more decision. Do you want dessert?

The dessert menu comes and three items catch your eye. Homemade ice cream – a couple of scoops made with heavy cream from grassfed cows. Panna cotta – an Italian creation made from cream, sugar, sometimes buttermilk and molded with gelatin for spectacular presentation. Valhrona chocolate cake – one of the world’s finest chocolates mixed with almond meal and wheat flour, sugars, butter, eggs, and finished with a dark chocolate glaze.

So which one would you go with?

There is always the option to skip dessert of course but when you’re having a meal out with a special person and the wine that you drank with dinner has gone ever so slightly to your head, and you love desserts, most folks just don’t skip this “best part of the meal”.

My choice is none of the above. I ask in my most polite professional manner if the restaurant can provide a fruit plate. And I’m not surprised when most of the time the response is we’re really sorry but we’re not able to do fruit plates.

Most restaurants in or out of Manhattan are not set up for fruit plates. Sometimes restaurants put a little fruit on a cheese plate, but that’s usually considered an appetizer. Fruit also appears in tarts or pies or ice cream flavors. But ripe seasonal fruit beautifully presented on a plate is not readily available in most restaurants. And I understand why.

Fresh fruit is perishable. Stone fruits and berries have a finite shelf life and bruise easily. Apples need to be under constant refrigeration and humidity once they are picked. Melons will keep okay for a while until you cut them open … To sum it up, most fruits, with the exception of citrus, grapes, bananas, or pears, are just not good keepers.

Now my preference for a fruit plate has nothing to do with the calories. Although the difference is dramatic. A piece of the Valhrona cake could run as high as 400 calories in an elite restaurant. Not too bad compared with say a slice of chocolate cake from the cheesecake factors at 1500 calories. But still a hit after good meal and a glass of wine. The panna cotta would be less intense and would run around 250 calories for a serving. And the ice cream depending on the size and number of scoops will clock in between 250 and 500 calories. That fruit plate above at most 120 calories.

The reason for the dramatic calorie difference is of course the water content. Count about 30% water for the cake, 65% water for the panna cotta, 60% for the ice cream, and almost 90% for fresh fruit.

And that’s exactly why I choose fruit. Love that refreshing wonderful slightly acidic water, especially after a restaurant meal. Cool, wet, refreshing, and sweetened with natural sugars. Guess you can figure out where that beautiful picture came from. And the fruit was as good as it looks. Down to the last raspberry.

BUY GOOD STUFF.   Nectarine. Grapefruit. Peach. Blackberries. Raspberries. Buy good stuff even when you eat in a restaurant

COUNT WHAT MATTERS.  Here’s how a nutrition label would look:  120 calories, 1 gram fat, 21 grams total sugars (includes 6 grams fiber, 7 grams sugars, 0 grams added sugars) and 1 gram protein. If you check the food composition for fruit, most of the weight is water weight. Not just any old tap water weight but naturally rich vitamin mineral infused water including potassium plus phytonutrients depending on the color of the fruit.

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When healthy makes you gag!

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Fall is the season for so many good healthy vegetables. Brassica like kale, rapini, cauliflower, sprouts. Celeriac. Onions. Late season storage carrots. And squashes like butternut, spaghetti, pumpkin, and acorn.

My CSA Keeps sending me squashes and I have a problem. Acorn squash and speghetti squash make me gag.

All vegetables are healthy but some vegetables are more healthy. Pigment color is the marker for certain phytonutrients. Red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetable are rich in carotinoids. And winter squash is nothing if not deep orange. That deep vibrant color marks heavy concentrations. So I have tried on many occasions and failed. Acorn squash just makes me gag.

Besides there is no point in signing up for a CSA and then not eating what arrives each week. Or at the very least giving it away.

Pictured above are two acorn and one sweet dumpling. And I anticipate more squash next week. It’s squash season.

So last week I put on my creative cooking cap and came up with the following solution. Every Thanksgiving I make pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is a squash in the same family as acorn so what would happen is if I just substituted the same amount of steamed acorn for canned pumpkin?

And my good idea worked beautifully. Acorn squash makes an excellent pumpkin pie. We can’t say my pie is as healthy as a serving of the vegetable because the squash comes along with added sugar and more refined carbohydrate which dilute the phytonutrition. However it’s fresh, local, and delicious. I can eat it without gagging and not a single squash will go to waste. Each of my acorn squash pies makes 6 servings so at 340 calories per piece, we are going to need to keep our eye on portion size and frequency.

Here are the proportions I used:

1 2/3 cup purée (pumpkin, acorn squash)/ 400 grams
2 eggs
3/4 cup turbinado sugar / 150 grams
2/3 cup milk / 150 ml
1 tablespoon flour
2 1/2 tablespoons butter / 30 grams
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 prepared 9 inch graham cracker crust

Steam acorn squash or open the canned pumpkin. Melt butter. Assemble ingredients. Combine squash or pumpkin, eggs, sugar, milk, flour, butter, vanilla, spices, salt in mixing bowl. Whisk just enough to blend thoroughly. Pour into 9 inch graham cracker crust. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350F and bake addition 40 minutes. Remove and cool at least 2 hours before serving.

Cheaper, better, healthier cookies.

rolled oat, Zante raisin, walnut cookie | photo gourmet-metrics

rolled oat, Zante raisin, walnut cookie | photo gourmet-metrics

Culinary judgment works better for savory than for sweet. That is because sweet usually requires baking and baking requires precision.

Or does it? My mother-in-law remembers her mother’s family, raised in Central Europe, baked without recipes or measurements. This makes sense to me. Practice and experience build good hands and knowing how the dough is suppose to feel goes a long way to getting the proportions right.

Doesn’t really matter because baking illiterates like me need guidance. So when I decided the time had come to bake my own cookies, I went out looking for a recipe or at least a set of proportions to start from.

Rather than page through the tens of thousands cookie recipes available with a key click, I went to the source. Michael Ruhlman wrote a neat book called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. My first batch used Ruhlman’s basic butter cookie ratio = 1 part sugar : 2 parts fat : 3 parts flour.

What followed was a year of experimentation. I played around with healthy stuff like whole grains, nuts, dry fruit. I kept the butter because butter just bakes the best. Two eggs, some vanilla, and a pinch of salt got added along the way. One year later, I ended up with a cookie that looks and tastes very different from where I started.

ROLLED OAT, RAISIN, and WALNUT COOKIES

100 grams walnut halves (1 cup)

100 grams white whole wheat flour (7/8 cup)

100 grams rolled oats (1 cup)

100 grams Zante currants or raisins (2/3 cup)

100 grams unsalted butter (7 tablespoons)

100 grams turbinado sugar (1/2 cup)

2 each large eggs

2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon flake style salt

Weigh out walnuts and coarsely chop. Place walnuts in bowl, place bowl on scale, and zero out. Now weigh out flour, oats, and currants. Add a pinch of salt and set dry ingredients aside. Next weigh out butter and sugar. Cream butter. Add in sugar, then beat in eggs and add vanilla. Gently fold in dry ingredients. Divide dough into three pieces of equal weight and make rolls. Wrap each roll in plastic and chill until firm. Note that the rolls can be frozen at this point to be used later. Prepare baking sheet or use silicon liner. Cut each roll into 12 pieces and flatten. Bake at 350 degree until the cookies start to darken and fat starts to sizzle around the edges. Cool on rack; store in air tight container. Makes 36 moderately sized cookies.

So what do I have to show for my year of experimentation besides multiple, albeit tasty, mistakes?

A better cookie? That one is hard to call. Taste is 100% subjective so it all depends.

Certainly a cheaper cookie. I used the best ingredients I could find. Walnuts are expensive and I used a generous amount. Organic oats, white whole flour, real vanilla, and Zante currants also add up. Sugar and eggs are reasonably priced. Although tempted, I drew the line at organic butter. The last batch I made cost $9 which works out to between $6 to $7 per pound. Hand made artisan cookies of comparable quality would have cost me upwards of $15 per pound here in New York City.

Certainly a healthier cookie. Whole grains are healthier than refined flour. The fatty acid profile is more favorable because I increased the walnuts (unsaturated fat) and decreased the butter (saturated fat). It’s a dense, filling, satisfying cookie that does not invite gluttony. I weighed two cookies at 35 grams and calculated 160 calories.

And certainly a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction. This is my ratio. The recipe works just the way I want it to and the proportions work by weight. If I have to measure, my preference is round numbers on my scale. Easy to measure and easy to make. But that’s just me and my simplistic mind.

Baking illiterates often don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But even I have to admit that a couple of cookies mid afternoon with coffee or tea is very satisfying.

Apple Clafouti

 

my apple clafouti
my apple clafouti

The aroma of baked apple, sweet custard, and cinnamon perfumes the air about forty minutes after this apple flan / clafouti goes into the oven. Easy to make, forgiving for beginning cooks, and appreciated by everyone. I have tried many varieties from the sourest green to the sweetest, mushiest red and have yet to find a variety that does not work.  Apples pictured here are red delicious, granny smith, golden delicious, and honey crisp – all organic.

Recently I went back to my original source, Francoise Bernard’s Les Recette Facile, and compared her version with mine. I have rationalized her metric measures, kept the basic ratio for milk and eggs, and significantly reduced the sugar. Probably because French sour cherries are really sour and American apples are sort of sweet.  English translations of her recipes were most recently published in 2010 and can be found at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Cuisine-Everyday-French-Home-Cooking/dp/0847835014

FOR 4 SERVINGS

300 grams apples, 2 medium cored, trimmed & sliced or about 2 generous 2 cups
50 grams flour, about. 7 tablespoons
50 grams sugar, 1/4 cup
3 eggs
300 ml milk, about 1 1/4 cup
15 grams butter, 1 tablespoon
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

sugar & flour | photo by gourmet-metrics
sugar & flour | photo by gourmet-metrics

  USING THE SCALE

Pre-heat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).  Weigh out or measure sugar, flour, milk, and butter. Wash, quarter, remove seeds and cores from apples.  Slice in a food processor using the thin slicing blade.  Leaving the skins on adds flavor, fiber, and other good things, so whenever possible use organic apple.  Combine flour, milk, eggs, cinnamon, pinch of salt, and sugar to make a thin batter.  Place sliced apples in baking dish and push them down.  Pour  the batter over the sliced apples and distribute remaining butter on top.  Cover the dish and bake for about 50 minutes or until, an internal temperature 85° C / 185° F.  After about 40 minutes, the aroma of baked apple and sweet custard lets you know baking is almost done.  Serve hot, tepid, or cold.  Garnish with a sprinkle of fresh cinnamon.

Per  Serving: Calories 270, Fat 8g, Saturated Fat 4g, Sodium 115mg, Carbohydrate 42g, Fiber 4g, Sugars 29g, Protein 7g