Monday, November 19, 2007

A Smilin' Box, Hip-Shaking, and Crossing the Line

Those folks at Amazon really know what they’re doing! I don’t know any other box that makes me so happy. That smilin’ box, full of goodies fresh from the Amazon warehouse, makes me smile like nobody’s business. The anticipation of an Amazon delivery nearly drives me crazy; every day I rush home from school: “Is it here? Is it here?” No, not yet. Better luck tomorrow. But then one fine day, IT’S HERE! OH JOY! I think I order from Amazon just for the rush. It would be so easy to wander over to Borders, buy my books, and find immediate satisfaction. But as with so many things in life, the pleasure is heightened by the wait. My late neuroscience professor, Dr. Ned Garvin, hypothesized that anticipation triggers activation of the brain’s pleasure centers. Annecdotally, I am sure he was right.

Luckily, my Amazon order arrived just in time. Inside I found a new CD set which immediately got my hips shaking: A State of Trance Vol. 2 by Armin Van Buuren. Electronic music fans, be warned: this one is addictive. I love it. Actually, I haven’t made it through both CDs yet because I keep replaying the first few songs. But oh my, this man is a genius. I have to dance while I’m listening, which is fantastic because it lets me eat big chunks of Banana Bread with Chocolate and Cinnamon Sugar (topped with a dollop of plain yogurt) and then shake my hips to Halcyon (Track 3, CD 2), thereby offsetting any effects of said Banana Bread on my waistline. I think it takes approximately three repeats of hip-shaking to Halcyon to burn off one slice of this stuff—good deal!

Armin was just one part of this order. My smilin’ box also delivered me a brand-new copy of Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back…& How You Can Too by Shauna James Ahern. Shauna is a Seattle-based food-blogger and author, and I bought her book for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is my desire to support the writing efforts of a fellow blogger. Her blog, Gluten-Free Girl, is quite lovely, but I have just skimmed the surface of it. Her style is friendly, passionate, educational, and sentimental. Her book, which I am enjoying thoroughly, is layered like a casserole: part memoir, part cookbook, part guide to celiac disease, part guide to eating gluten-free. If you are wondering, “What the heck is gluten? What the heck is celiac disease?” then you can follow the link here to Shauna’s website for more info.

I did not buy her book because I am avoiding gluten, nor did I buy it because I have celiac disease. I bought Gluten-Free Girl to expand my cooking horizons by experimenting with new and different flours. I want to tinker with my favorite homemade baked goods to come up with new creations and improve the nutritional content of old standbys. It’s part of my secret plan to write a cookbook about the methodology behind recipe improvement. Oops, I shouldn’t have typed that last part! It was supposed to be a secret! Unless you happen to be a cookbook editor looking for a new author, in which case we should chat…

But this dream of mine has led me to cross the line. Brace yourselves: I paid fifteen dollars for one pound of flour. Seriously. I’ve never paid that much for a pound of anything in my entire life! But it wasn’t just any old flour. I bought a pound of rich, nubbly almond flour from Bob’s Red Mill. I have two recipes in mind for this flour, one of which I will present here.

Remember when you were a kid, and school got out at 2 or 3 PM, and you would run home for an afternoon snack? Perhaps your snack was milk and cookies (always a favorite of mine), or juice and pretzels, or even those delicious bite-sized pizza rolls that come in the freezer case and you throw them in the oven for a few minutes until they are all nice and hot and gooey inside. Whatever your snack was, chances are your body craved it for good reason: snacking helps keep our blood sugar levels even, especially if dinner arrives six or seven hours after lunch ends. Even blood sugar levels help us concentrate more effectively and they keep our mood more consistent. After all those years of afterschool snacking, it has taken me years to realize the wisdom behind this phenomenon, but now that I have, I incorporate it into my day, even though now I don’t leave school (aka THE LAB) until 6 or 7 PM. My general strategy is to have a piece of fresh fruit and something sweet around 4 PM. Ideally, the “something sweet” has a good balance of carbs, protein, and fat, thus making it fairly substantial, nutrition-wise. One of my favorite sources of recipes for afternoon snacks is Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café, a breakfast-themed book that I use more often for snack-making. Inside this lovely cookbook, I have found glorious recipes for homemade granola, ricotta-infused muffins, and homemade protein bars. I liked the homemade protein bars in their original form, but I have always been a little skeptical of Ms. Katzen’s use of soy protein powder in this recipe. While this powder does add protein oomph to baked goods, is it wise to eat large amounts of soy protein isolate? How do our bodies metabolize this nutrient in isolation from all the other nutrients that we find in a whole soybean? I don’t think we know the answers to these questions, and if given the choice, I’d prefer to eat a more “whole” food than the isolated parts. My hypothesis, which I have "borrowed" from a number of other people, is that our bodies get maximal nutritional benefits from eating whole foods: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if we eat a whole apple, we get all the vitamins and minerals from the flesh and lots of fiber from the peel. If we just drink apple juice, we miss out on all the fiber and nutrients in the peel, and eating fiber is thought to satisfy our hunger longer because it takes longer for our digestive systems to process it.

To put two and two together, I wanted to continue making these delicious protein bars, but I wanted to replace the soy protein powder with something different. Behold, almond flour! Since almond flour is made by grinding blanched almonds, this flour is fairly close to being a whole food, certainly closer than soy protein isolate. It makes delicious protein bars, especially when paired with my favorite duo, peanut butter and chocolate. The recipe I give below is closely adapted from the recipe Ms. Katzen gives in Sunlight Café. It is a great basic recipe with which you can tinker to your heart’s content. I encourage you to find a copy of Sunlight Café to check out the original recipe for lots of ideas on variations.

Nutty Energy Bars
Makes one 9 x 13-inch pan’s worth of bars (yield depends on how big you cut the bars)
Adapted from Homemade Protein Bars in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café

These energy bars are tasty and nutritious, perfect for afternoon snacking. Note that they are not leavened, so the dough won’t rise when baked. Don’t be alarmed! The texture of these bars is nubbly from the oats, somewhat similar to oatmeal cookies but not as sweet. Nonetheless, they are a sweet snack and will definitely tide you over until dinnertime.

Nonstick spray
1 c. almond flour, such as the almond flour made by Bob’s Red Mill
½ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 c. rolled oats
½ c. oat bran*
½ tsp. cinnamon
¾ tsp. salt
2/3 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ c. plain yogurt
½ c. peanut butter, crunchy or smooth as you prefer
2 tsp. real vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a 9 x 13-inch pan and a large cookie sheet (preferably bigger than 9 x 13 inches) with nonstick spray.
2) In a big mixing bowl, mix together the almond flour, all-purpose flour, oats, oat bran, cinnamon, and salt. Add the brown sugar. Stir in the chocolate chips. Set this mixture aside.
3) In a second mixing bowl, mix together the yogurt, peanut butter, and vanilla. Blend thoroughly.
4) Pour/scrape the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix wet with dry until everything is thoroughly blended together. The mixture will resemble a cookie dough at this point.
5) Scrape the dough into the 9 x 13-inch pan and smooth the surface with your mixing spoon. Bake the bars for 18-20 minutes. The goal at this baking step is to bake the bars into a soft solid without burning the edges, so you’ll want to keep an eye on them after the 15-minute mark or so. When the center of the bars is solid (but still soft) and the edges are chestnut brown, the bars are ready for the next step. I check the center of the bars by touching with my finger, but if your fingers are more sensitive to heat than mine, you can tap it lightly with a spoon to check the consistency. Remove the bars from the oven.
6) Keep the oven on. Let the bars cool for 5-10 minutes, just long enough so you can handle them easily in the next step. Use a table knife to cut the bars into any shape you like. Use the knife and and pancake flipper to ease the bars out of the baking pan and onto the baking sheet. The bars are fairly delicate at this point, but once you have one bar out of the pan, it’s much easier to get the rest out. If the bars fall apart a little bit, you can just smoosh them back together and they will bake into one bar in the next step.
7) Once all the bars are on the baking sheet, place them back in the oven and bake for about 10-15 more minutes until golden and the edges are light to medium brown. Try not to let the edges burn.
8) Remove the bars from the oven and place the sheet on a cooling rack to let the bars cool. As the bars cool, they will firm up, but the texture will remain soft and a bit cakey.
9) Store bars either at room temperature for a few days or in the freezer for longer-term storage. I find these bars taste better the day after they are made, and they freeze beautifully.

*Yes, oat bran is not a whole food, seeing as how it has been isolated from the rest of the oat. If you prefer not to use it, you could try whirling some oats in a blender to make ½ cup whole oat flour to use in place of the oat bran. Or you could try leaving out the oat bran, but I have never left it out, so I can’t tell you what the results will be. Hurray for experiments!

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