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    This simple roast eggplant, pepper and onion salad is one of the first microwave recipes I ever posted and one of the most versatile.

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    Copyright 2008-13Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

FDA warning on powdered caffeine

The Washington Post carried a story yesterday on a new FDA warning about powdered caffeine’s potential for a lethal overdose. Caffeine is relatively unregulated as a dietary supplement and companies have been selling it mixed into “energy” drinks and “shots”, inhalers and other forms, including pure powder, through Amazon.com and other internet venues.

Most of the stupids (I mean, more politely, naive consumers) who buy caffeine-laced “energy” products are teenage boys and young men–no great surprise. Guys in that age range tend to have trouble getting up in the morning and being alert for class. The proliferation of the iPad, the smart phone, and game apps isn’t helping. A cheap, legal and potent stimulant seems like just the thing to counteract the effect of late nights and early exams. Combine that with a pitch about “energy” and fitness–mostly in the form of weightlifting and bodybuilding, a sector rife with dietary supplement abuse marketing, and wishful thinking about instant “buffness”, as my now-teenage daughter scoffs–and you’ve got a really bad deal.

But it doesn’t take much of the purified caffeine powder to overdose and the difference between stimulated and dead can be as little as a few milligrams–much too hard to measure accurately with a teaspoon or even most kitchen scales.

Caffeine is far from harmless even in limited doses (otherwise, why would we bother to drink coffee?) And it’s definitely a drug–I had to work with it in the lab way back in my radioactive youth. And it’s really inexpensive.

Why the “dietary supplement” label is still allowed to cloak quasi-drug and drug products from FDA control is a mystery to me. It’s a bad deal for everyone eventually, because as more of the supplement compounds are discovered to have harmful effects–think anabolic steroids or some of the “smart” drinks and relaxants added to “energy” drinks over the past decade–Congress ends up having to legislate against them one by one, and the FDA has to go through a torturous combination of warning letters and negotiations with the companies involved and attempt to draw up new regulations–a very expensive and drawn-out process. And it’s usually piecemeal and illogical–caffeine levels in soda are regulated, pure powdered caffeine is not.

In the meantime, hospitalizations from caffeinated energy drinks and other easily abused products have doubled since 2007, and there have been a number of deaths from caffeine overdose, including the Indiana teenager whose parents had no idea he was buying and consuming powdered caffeine when he died at the end of May, and whose case spurred the FDA’s attention this time. The state of Oregon is also currently going after 5-Hour Energy in a lawsuit over false advertising claims about ingredients that actually do nothing much, when the real stimulant effect is due to a dose of caffeine.

But even if you’re not a naive teenage boy, the whole caffeine-laden environment has expanded beyond anything that makes sense. More and more people are finding themselves overdosed (not lethally, usually) but with the shakes or dizziness. Between the Starbucks venti and proliferation of 20-ounce sodas as the new normal serving size, there’s a new source of trouble, because caffeine is showing up in foods we don’t expect to contain it.

Food companies are adding caffeine to candy and snacks these days as never before–even in oatmeal and pancake syrup. The FDA is taking the “negotiate with the companies and hope they back down” approach, as they did with Wrigley for its Alert caffeinated chewing gum a year ago. They don’t currently have the impetus to forbid adding caffeine to foods as they did with alcoholic caffeinated beverages a couple of years ago–the “blackout in a can” as Charles Schumer put it–but they’re at least making noises about getting it back out of foods that children and teenagers are likely to eat. I like the coffee cup graphic up on their Q&A page about it, but will it really change anyone’s mind or make them look harder at the ingredient lists if they’re already buying these products?

Why put caffeine powder in non-coffee foods in the first place? It doesn’t taste like much or stimulate the tastebuds, exactly. But the combination of mental stimulation via caffeine with eating a particular snack food is probably intended to make lackluster processed foods more attractive and even addictive in either the literal or marketing sense. Given the price of caffeine powder compared with almost anything else the companies could add, I’d be willing to lay odds on who’s going to be even more addicted to caffeine than the consumers. Cue the Pavlov effect.

Breaking the Rules: Fish with Red Wine

tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za'atar or "wild thyme"

One way to cook fish well using red wine

Wine is something I drink mostly for taste, not volume–I can’t really hack a lot of alcohol at once, blame my ancestors–but I do like wine tastings, even though I have to limit myself to about three small sips per glass if I don’t want to wobble out the winery door. Focusing on the flavors in a wine, and comparing several side by side, sharpens your palate and makes you think very specifically about what you’re experiencing. It’s rewarding even for someone with my drinking limits.

I also like to cook with wine, maybe more often than I like to drink much of it. Decent wine has such a complex combination of flavors that when you figure out how to do it well, cooking with wine can make even rapidly cooked dishes come off like serious Slow Food.

We hear a lot about long-cooking stews and coq au vin and so on, but many simpler and less time-consuming dishes benefit from smaller amounts of wine. Adding a couple of spoonfuls of dry white wine to mustard vinaigrette tempers the sourness, the garlic and the mustard sharpness a little and gives the sauce a quiet depth. And if my experiment with giant favas marinated in rosé and rosemary was any indication, we should be thinking about wine a lot more often and a lot more creatively as a cooking ingredient.

So I’ve been on the lookout lately for clear and simple techniques for cooking with wine without wasting it, and for doing it in less than a three-hour stew, because to me that’s slow-food-slow in large crowd-feeding quantities, to be attempted a maximum of once a year. I want better, more sophisticated-tasting food fast, using at most half a cup to a cup of wine, not a whole bottle, and preferably without huge cleanup.

But these days, when so much of the cookbook aisle in your local independent bookstore is taken over by Food Network Channel collateral, cooking with wine is almost a lost art. Most of the popular TV chefs aren’t even doing it anymore. Everyone’s gone sorta-Asian (but without Martin Yan’s shaoxing wine-wielding expertise or sense of humor) or sorta-Middle Eastern or bacon-filled-Tex/Mex or wishful-thinking-Indian-or-Moroccan wannabe (if I hear the words “ras el hanout” mispronounced one more time by any TV chef, anywhere…)

Most of those cuisines don’t include wine as a regular ingredient because of religious restrictions against alcohol, which I fully respect, or, in the Tex/Mex case, because wine doesn’t go with football (the true religion of Texas, although if you see the documentary Somm, you might be surprised at how many American master sommeliers and exam candidates are former football players.)

The new vegan and vegetarian cookbooks don’t consider wine at all, as far as I can tell, even though there are plenty of  vegan-approved wines and organic wines touted throughout Whole Foods (and even a few at Trader Joe’s). And a number of seitan and bean or lentil dishes (and certainly Roman-style lentil soup) would probably do all the better for a tinge of red, white, or rosé, either in the sauce or as a marinade ingredient.

Even the French- and Italian-trained chefs don’t use wine on TV very much, and if they do they don’t really explain it–why they chose that particular type of wine, how much to use and why, how to get the best flavor out of it in the dish, what else you could make using the same technique. Or else they’re kind of wasteful about it, using a whole bottle of wine for a single dish. Most people cooking for themselves would balk at that. Should balk at that.

It bothers me that I don’t actually see a lot of solid advice about cooking with wine, or at least not specific techniques that make sense in a home kitchen with a standard family budget.

Where am I going to get this advice? Not from the churn-a-minute Food Network chefs, clearly. Not from Harold McGee, either. To my great surprise, he devotes a total of about three paragraphs to “cooking with alcohol” in his food science books. The most interesting thing he says, other than to make sure and boil out the alcohol (duh) is that tannins will concentrate unpleasantly if you boil down a tannic red wine, but adding a protein to pick them up will tame them.

But since most of my uses for wine so far are to do with fish, I guess I’m already doing that…

As you might expect from some of my odd microwave-centric ideas, I tend to cook fish with wine in ways that probably seem unorthodox to anyone professional. For one thing, I cook several kinds of fish with red wine (sound of Francophile traditionalists screaming, then fainting in shock). Continue reading

Tipping the scales at Whole Foods

From The Los Angeles Times today:

Whole Foods paying $800,000 for overcharging in California

Pricing violations included not zeroing out the container weight when weighing prepared items from the food bar, shorting weights on packaged goods, and other problems.

This of course is bad practice toward consumers, but it doesn’t really address the critical issues with Whole Foods.

Yes, Whole Foods has been fined for pricing violations in California. The court injunction will mean five years of oversight and audits. But the real problem is beyond court remedies: everything’s overpriced and the customers seem to like it that way.

Produce prices that can rise to $10/lb for things like cherries when other nearby supermarkets are charging maybe $4-5. Fish prices in the $30/lb range. Whole Foods trades on a reputation for sourcing more variety than the average chain supermarket, and it does achieve that, but not everything it carries is really so exclusive that it justifies a higher price tag.

And in any case, the real money (other than the food bar, which is up to about $8/lb. across the board, whether for roasted eggplant and peppers or for things like canned kidney beans and flaked tuna and cucumber slices) is in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals parading as dietary supplements (and vice versa). Whenever I go into Whole Foods for a small coffee and a roll, the person ahead of me in line is inevitably ringing up more than 100 bucks worth of things like holistic soap bars at $5-10 apiece (compare “Ivory” bath bar 10-pack at about $6 at the local Ralph’s/Kroger’s) and cases of “vitamin waters” at about $4 per bottle, and dietary supplements with a $40-50 fantasy surcharge per bottle. And maybe a scrawny bunch of kale that they’re not sure how to deal with.

An Appreciation of Lox

bagel with nova lox

Homemade bagel with nova from a local Los Angeles smoked fish company

 

For its annual Mother’s Day brunch, the Men’s Club at our synagogue always serves a surprisingly lavish spread with the woiks–lox, bagels, fruit salad, eggs and mimosas. Although I’m not a huge fan of big and slightly-kitschy gatherings featuring big and slightly-kitschy piano acts, I really deserved someone else making me a lox-and-eggs Sunday brunch right about then. But at the last minute I had to miss it in order to hock my kid about her last oversized ridiculous semester projects for 8th grade (due the next day, naturally). Better mothers complained to the principal, who just smiled nicely but did nothing useful. I just figured we’d get through it all so my daughter never had to be an 8th grader again. It worked–salutatorian, even–so, moving on but not required to give a speech: win/win.

But the lost lox! and the not having to cook or do dishes for Mother’s Day! Then I agreed to chaperone a school science camping trip the last week before graduation and  ended up with sand, grime, KP duty, outdoor showers, iffy Boy Scout Camp-style food, and not just one but 32 whole teenagers preoccupied with their hair and late to class.

So now that it’s all over I’m in serious need of payback.

My local Armenian greengrocer has locally-smoked nova lox (they have sable, too–I was tempted) and I had a bowl of dough in the fridge just sitting there waiting to be used up–so I made a few impromptu bagels the last Sunday morning of the school year, as soon as I’d gotten all the sand back out of everything and my kid was done with classes for the year. The bagels weren’t quite as dense as they ought to be because I used my standard pizza/pita/calzone dough instead of the genuine classic, but they did well enough because the dough was several days old, cold-proofed and straight from the fridge, and I boiled them before baking. And there was lox. Throw in a few once-over-medium eggs and some shmear and some fruit and hot coffee and you’ve got the ideal late-spring/early-summer breakfast, even if you have to make it yourself.

Now I know lox is a high-salt item–even the Nova. I anticipate it not for the salt, which I always think we could do with a little less of, but because it’s lox. A delicacy. Something to enjoy on the rare occasion when you get to celebrate. Something to treat with respect.

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying it, either. In the modern world of food publishing, people are forgetting how to do that. Even Jews. Maybe especially Jews, some of whom act as though our traditional deli and “appetizing” (bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish of all kinds) is suddenly something to shove under a rug or apologize for liking on the grounds that it’s not organic or locally sourced or Whole Foods or food-mag-trendy enough, and because it doesn’t include bacon or pancetta. Or kale.

The idea that enjoying lox simply because it’s lox isn’t cool enough anymore has gained a lot of traction in the past few years of foodieism. A couple of years ago, Martha Rose Shulman committed a serious travesty in the New York Times with “Lavash Pizza with Smoked Salmon” (she didn’t even call it lox). Toasted lavash is perfectly good for other things, but not for lox. Too fragile, and frankly too flavorless. I mean, why not rice cakes, as long as you’re being tasteless? But it wasn’t just the bread choice.

Somehow Shulman had abandoned the Joy of Lox. Shulman actually called her lox on lavash “a great way to work more salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, into your diet.” I have to ask, are most of us really having that much trouble “working in” more salmon? More to the point, does any lox fanatic really want to be thinking about fatty acids of any kind while eating it?

But at least she wasn’t agonizing over it as too Jewish. Mark Bittman pulled this inexplicable self-flagellation-in-print a few weeks ago in the New York Times, apologizing publicly for eating lox and bagels on a Sunday morning. In New York, yet. (Maybe it’s because he moved to Connecticut?) He’s kvetching about skipping his morning run, his usually-so-virtuous-but-betrayed-just-this-once-by-shameful-genetic-temptation stance on (gasp) farm-raised salmon, his devouring of shmear, which he says is too bland for the calories to like officially. He even had the nerve to blame his decision to eat it all on a sudden mental breakdown. And then he went further and called bagels and lox “comfort food.” As though it were in the same low-grade category as mac and cheese or mashed potatoes from a box.

Vey ist mir! I mean, come on. I’m pretty sure Woody Allen still eats lox without apologizing for it.

Bittman should be apologizing for being ashamed of enjoying lox (all the while glupping it). Along with apologizing for promoting pancetta and guanciale while professing a greener and more affordable diet. And for forgetting to add garlic to his recipes. That’s almost worse than deprecating lox.

More recently, Melissa Clark met with one of the scions of Russ & Daughters, which by now you’d think was the only serious lox and whitefish emporium left–it’s the subject of a documentary I just missed at the last LA Jewish film festival. The two laid out a spread for at least thirty or forty very lucky people, by my standards, but I think they were doing it mostly for a few family and friends–maybe 10-15 people–and posing it all on the table for the camera. It was beautiful but way too much. At least, though, she was both thrilled and nostalgic, the right way to be when faced with a complete beauty pageant of smoked fish.

Altogether, I could only think Shulman, Bittman and Clark all grew up in big cities with too much lox around. Because when I was a kid in the small-town South, we could only get lox twice a year when one or another set of grandparents came down from New York.

Other people’s grandparents bring toys. Ours brought pastrami, corned beef, half-sour kosher dills, pickled green tomatoes, real bagels, serious breads you just couldn’t get down South, and lox. All of them were special, not just to us but to our grandparents–real deli was part nostalgia, part roots, part pride, part simply great eats.

Pastrami and corned beef to go with the pickles and the tough, chewy pumpernickel and rye with the union label pasted on the end (you were supposed to fight for it)–these were the working people’s foods of their youth on the Lower East Side and the Bronx,  and they still loved them. And so did we.

My mother’s parents, born in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine, came to America as children and, thank G-d [only instance of poverty being worthwhile], couldn’t afford to go back when their parents got homesick.

Fast forward to the ’70s: My Grandma Thel, short, plump but ladylike, coiffed, and wearing those pale oxford pumps I used to think of as librarian shoes, would step off the little regional plane in Charlottesville loaded down with huge grocery bags full of chewy, crackle-crusted bagels, Jewish kornbroyt or “corn bread” (a heavy European wholegrain sourdough; no actual cornmeal except what’s dusted on the baking sheets to keep the loaves from sticking), rye bread laced with bitter caraway seeds, sometimes a babka, and always, a huge half-wheel of her own light chocolate-flecked sponge cake (for which I’ve inherited the recipe but haven’t tried it yet–will post when I get it right). I hope the other passengers were smart enough to be jealous. The aromas alone should have clued them in. Grandpa Abe, of vishniak fame, was a lucky man.

On the drive home from the airport, Grandma Thel would tell me and my sister how she just managed to argue another customer at Andell’s or Goodman’s out of the last loaf of kornbroyt with seeds because she was bringing it down to her very special grandchildren so we would grow up knowing the real thing, and that the other lady Continue reading

The CDC tries defining “powerhouse” veggies

carrotsareveryhealthytom-ABS“Carrots are very healthy!” “Mmmhm, very healthy, Tom. Good for your eyes. Vitamin A I think.” A six-year-old’s view of carrots and nutrition, courtesy of my daughter from several years ago, and (obviously) influenced by the best of the cartoon world…

The Centers for Disease Control seems to have taken up the nutrition density scoring gauntlet to rate high-value fruits and vegetables for their “powerhouse” value. A research paper in this month’s Preventing Chronic Disease journal derives a nutrient density formula that’s not a million miles away from the ANDI scoring scheme Whole Foods was touting a couple of summers ago. The author presents a table of 41 plain, raw and unadorned fruits and vegetables that made the cut by delivering more than 10 percent of your recommended daily value of a combo of 17 major nutrients for 100 grams of raw weight and/or (this part wasn’t quite as clear) 100 kcal worth of food.

The fact that the CDC is now publishing this kind of study lends nutrient density scoring more legitimacy than perhaps it really deserves.

On the plus side:

  • The author, Jennifer Noia of William Paterson University in New Jersey, is an actual trained nutrition researcher with a Ph.D. in the field.
  • She’s not making a pitch or selling special dietary supplements. Her stated goal is to help the CDC develop practical guidelines for public health reduction of cancers and cardiovascular disease by rating vegetables and fruits for their general nutrition-worthiness.
  • She doesn’t bias her formula in favor or disfavor of her favorite name-dropping superfoods or taboos, as Joel Fuhrman and the admirers who started the ANDI scoring empire did.
  • Avocado doesn’t score big; it’s not even included (too caloric for what it delivers).
  • Noia does not include trendy components with questionable or untested nutritional value, things like  selenium, antioxidants (unspecified groups of) and phytochemicals (unspecified groups of) among the 17 well-tested nutrients she counts in for the composite formula.

So far, so good.

But the specific method she derives is still kind of muddled, and the logic behind the nutrient density comparisons is too.

First, are we going for 100 grams or 100 kcal (also known outside the lab as “100 calories”) as the standard amount of each food for comparison? The article switches back and forth without clarifying and the formula does not normalize to one or the other as a uniform standard.

Second, how does that amount, whichever one is in use, compare with a likely normal serving of the specific fruit or vegetable? Arugula’s way up near the top for nutrient density–but if you ate 100 grams of it, or worse yet 100 calories’ worth, at a sitting, you’d be trying to eat an entire plateful or maybe several platefuls of it. Very bitter. Most people include a small handful, maybe a quarter cup per serving, in a mixed salad for interest, or (as I do) on a sandwich. With mustard or vinaigrette and some other veggies.

Same for watercress. And both are expensive per serving compared with romaine, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, turnip greens…parsley??? Who’s going to eat 100 grams OR 100 calories’ worth of parsley? Scallions? Maybe if you grill them, but then again, 100 grams? 100 calories?

The list is also a little arbitrary and incomplete in terms of what’s included. Green beans make no appearance on the list, for good or ill. Maybe it’s because they don’t deliver a ton of vitamins per se, even though they have some fiber and potassium and are low in calories. Mostly, though, they don’t happen to fit into one of the four broad categories (cruciferous, leafy greens, citrus, and yellow/orange) included in the selected list. That’s not a nutrition criterion, it’s a plant classification criterion, even though it is based on some generalizations that those four categories are the most nutrient-dense of the common vegetables and fruits. But at least the author acknowledges that limitation in her study and isn’t saying green beans have no worth in one’s diet.

Of what is included in the list, the rankings by nutrient density score are a bit counterintuitive. Broccoli and cauliflower are, perhaps disappointingly, rated a lot lower on the scale than watercress–in the 20-25  range, not the 100 (maximum score). So are carrots and tomatoes.

One of the reasons for this is, as Dr. Noia writes, “As some foods are excellent sources of a particular nutrient but contain few other nutrients, percent DVs were capped at 100 so that any one nutrient would not contribute unduly to the total score.”

So the scoring formula is purposely handicapped toward well-rounded performers. Is that realistic or meaningful? Some of the foods that scored lower within each of the four broad categories  may provide large amounts of one critical nutrient–vitamin C or A, or fiber, or potassium, or iron–but perhaps not loads of B vitamins or calcium.

Well–that’s the way it is. Very few single vegetables–and almost no fruits–deliver so many different nutrients at high density in an edible portion. It’s why we eat a variety of vegetables and fruits and don’t just gravitate toward one impossible or hard-to-eat-exclusively jack-of-all-trades food.

And that’s the major flaw in this approach to defining nutrient-worthiness through a catch-all formula. The author of this study, the ANDI Score folks, Dr. Fuhrman and countless others really are looking for a magic bean. They want “AND”, not “OR”, a vegetable or fruit that delivers everything by itself. Even if they think they’re making it simpler for the average consumer to get better nutrition advice, they’re working from a false premise.

Still, at least Dr. Noia isn’t overreaching as much as the commercial popularizers of “superfoods” schemes. She admits the list is limited, and that the formula she’s derived from previously validated major studies is still preliminary. The correlation between her nutrient density score and established nutrients with some cardiovascular disease and/or cancer-prevention effect is predictably high–well, there’s a lot of overlap to begin with, so what it really tells you isn’t a great deal.

But there is some value in looking at the list of what scored at least a 10 out of 100. What can you really learn from this list?

First, “Bitter is Better.” Sort of, anyway. You wouldn’t want to make a whole dish of arugula or watercress, but you might want to throw a good handful or so into your salad or sandwich or pasta.

Notably, though, “More Expensive and Trendy isn’t Necessarily More Nutritious.” Kale isn’t as high up on the list as ordinary unglamorous spinach or turnip greens, or even darker leafy lettuces–isn’t that interesting?

Third, “Green is Good.” Darker greens are closer to the top of the list, and even between broccoli and cauliflower there’s a slight pan-nutrient decrease, though it’s not meaningful enough to start shunning cauliflower. Which I happen to like nearly as much as broccoli, and sometimes in combination with it. And although brussels sprouts are marginally more nutritious than cauliflower, they’re also more of a pain to peel and trim, and there’s a lot more waste.

The real Green Effect here has to do with calories. You notice that none of the citrus or berry fruits are up in the top 10 in the list. Apples and bananas don’t make the list at all, and melon is right out. So are summer stone fruits. Even apricots, which have a fair amount of vitamin A. That’s because the greens on the list are very low-calorie, with almost no carbohydrate or sugar. And because the nutrient density scoring formula accounts for nutrients per 100 calories (at least sometimes, when there are countable calories involved), fruits are naturally going to score lower.

From the perspective of diabetes prevention and weight control, this is a reasonable way of looking at how we get critical vitamins and minerals. The common phrase “fruits and vegetables” leads people to assume that fruits should be thought of first when you shop, and vegetables are kind of an afterthought. But it’s obvious from this kind of scoring that fruits should be considered dessert rather than the major source of vitamins and minerals.

However–given that citrus fruits, berries and stone fruits deliver large doses of vitamins C and A respectively, plus potassium and vitamin E and fiber on occasion, they shouldn’t be shunned for not “doing it all” and doing it carb-free. We need some carbohydrates, and if you eat an orange, a half a grapefruit, or even a nectarine at breakfast instead of a piece of coffeecake, so much the better. Just notice that you’re also eating some carbohydrate in the form of fruit and don’t eat three at a time. Or dump sugar and butter on it and still think it’s righteous because it’s nominally fruit.

I think we can all handle that. Even without calling anything a superfood.

The Devil’s Food is in the Details

Melissa Clark has published an over-the-top cake recipe for the New York Times this week with two frostings and a demo video in her usual breezy style. The devil’s food cake, one of my favorite kinds, is pretty enough, and it looks like a fun idea, but… two homemade buttercream-type frostings? What kind of cake recipe is she using, and how does it compare with my usual (dare I say it) Duncan Hines?

I checked out the recipe itself and did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation on the basic nutrition stats–carbs, fat, sodium, calories–then stared at it for a minute and wondered if I could possibly have been right.

Because the total I was coming up with was scary:  more than 1000 calories per serving for 10 servings. Half a day’s calories crammed into one piece of chocolate cake. It was about twice what I would have estimated looking at the photo. I mean it LOOKS pretty standard, if a little tall, on that cake stand. But 1000-plus calories per slice? Are you kidding? Had to be wrong.

So I went to the recipe nutrition calculator at myfitnesspal.com and tried it again. And it confirmed again that the recipe is indeed over-the-top, and over 1000 calories per tenth of the cake. What’s gone wrong here?

Here’s Clark’s recipe in the New York Times online for reference:

Devil’s Food Cake With Black Pepper Buttercream

and here’s what I saved off the nutrition calculator for everything–the cake plus both frostings:

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark's 2-frosting devil's food cake for 10

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark’s 2-frosting devil’s food cake for 10 people Calculated using myfitnesspal.com, 5/5/2014. Click the image to enlarge as needed, the numbers are still pretty scary.

My crude estimates, based on experience from having to calculate carbs in baked goods for a diabetic kid, were very close to the online calculator totals, within about 2o calories per serving and within 2-5% for each of the other stats.

And although it’s good to know my arithmetic and skepticism skills haven’t gotten rusty in the past month or so of trying hard not to bake, I think the nutrition chart above really tells you what’s going on in the world of popular recipe publishing today, particularly for American baking.

So let’s hit it over the head once more, because it’s still ridiculous: The first thing to think is, geeeeeeezzzzzz, over 1000 calories per serving.

How does Clark keep so thin? Did she actually eat a whole piece of this thing, or just pose for the photographer?

A 1/10th wedge of cake is a pretty big slice to begin with, and this cake is six layers tall–three full pans, cut crosswise in halves–for a standard-diameter round cake. In the accompanying demo video, Clark explains that the extra layers give you more room for frosting. “And isn’t that the best part?” she quips.

Well–I guess if you really like buttercream. She’s got both a vanilla-and-black-pepper buttercream AND a whipped chocolate ganache frosting. Does devil’s food cake really need so much dressing up to be good?

But here’s the added cost per serving: 111 grams of carb (about 2 meals’ worth), 86 grams of which are sugar. That’s 21 teaspoons of sugar per slice. A full day’s worth. 71 grams of mostly-saturated fat. Three full days’ worth.

Pro chefs excuse themselves for this kind of thing by calling their food “indulgent” or “decadent”. But this isn’t just excess, it’s mindless excess that doesn’t really add to the flavor or quality of the kind of dessert it’s supposed to be.

If you look at just the frosting ingredients, we’re talking 4 sticks of butter and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. The cake itself contains another stick-plus of butter and almost another two cups of sugar. So 5 sticks of butter and 4 1/2 cups of sugar total, or about half a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar per person, if you serve 1/10th cake as suggested. That puts it way into Paula Deen territory. Maybe even beyond Paula Deen.

I have to ask: Can’t we do a little better and still be decadent? Do we really need all that excess goo for it to be an okay cake?

It’s not that the frostings or even the cake are terrible-tasting or artificial or bland–she uses a whole real vanilla bean in the buttercream.  But it’s an awful lot of fat and sugar piled up with cake included merely as the excuse for the frosting.

That kind of tells you that the cake itself isn’t so hot. I’d rather have a smaller piece of a really good, really chocolate cake with more intense flavor per bite and no actual need to rely on frosting for interest. Something like Alice Medrich‘s revamped, lower fat Reine de Saba-style cakes (“Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake” and “Bittersweet Deception,” neither of which contain any butter) from Bittersweet, which she’s just reissued as Seriously Bittersweet. Or even David Lebovitz’s chocolate-butter-sugar-eggs flourless chocolate cake, which he’s dubbed “Chocolate Idiot Cake.”

If the cake’s just there as a frosting vehicle, why not be honest? I’d rather skip the cake and make dessert some intense ganache truffles to eat in smaller quantity with strong coffee. And even then I’d cut back on the fat and sugar so I could concentrate on the flavor.

If you are going to try and make some version of Melissa Clark’s cake, you really need to cut it down to size. In my two public performances exploring Continue reading

Breakfast without Matzah Overload

Last night we were very much in the spirit of Pesach–a total rush job at home, to the point where I realized I was supposed to have a boiled egg somewhere on the seder plate just as it was getting pretty far past sundown. Organization isn’t always our strong suit, especially on school nights. Last year I posted my Bart Simpson-style Passover Chalkboard Litany of kvetches and survival tips. This year: how to deal with matzah when they won’t sell you anything less than enough for 70 people for $2.99–such a deal! (well, okay, it is). You could feed nearly the whole Sanhedrin (because in our family, everyone argues about everything and I’m sure my 13-year-old is ready for law school as we speak. Good thing I can’t afford it yet!)

As with any style of food, too much of a good thing is still too much. I think I learn that the hard way every Passover. How to eat mostly vegetables and lean proteins and fresh fruit and yogurt…and not just sit there eating matzah like it’s going out of style? There’s more than enough matzah to go around–even in gefilte fish, especially in gefilte fish, which I’ve lost my taste for over the years since discovering how to cook regular fresh fish well, aka “not-gefilte”  (though I still buy a jar for my noncooking husband for lunches during the week.)

I don’t do matzah kugel, sweet or mushroom (a waste of mushrooms in my jaundiced opinion). I’m not a huge fan of matzah brei (exception: matzah brei “blintzes”), matzah lasagne, mina de espinaca, or any of the other matzah-plus-egg-heavy adaptations of regular food. Although I have seen one attractive-enough looking picture of a mina de espinaca, I’d still do it without the matzah sheets…

I try hard these days not to make matzah balls either, though this year I might make an exception–once–for my poor daughter who never gets any because she’s vegetarian and the “not-chicken” soup at Shabbaton this March didn’t have any flavor and there were no matzah balls in it like there were in the yes-chicken soup. Oy! Maybe it’ll be a weekend project to figure out a good from-scratch version–we have school and taxes this week. A lot of school and taxes.

My mother, who is famous for not cooking more than necessary, taught me how to make pretty-good fresh-tasting haroset Russian Jewish style (’cause that’s what we were). Apples, walnuts (though almond flakes are also just fine with me), cinnamon, sweet wine or grape juice, maybe or maybe not honey, chopped coarsely so it stays crunchy. But I’ve been to a couple of community seders out here in Pasadena where the haroset was mashed down like baby food and to add insult, had matzah meal in it. I know, matzah bits probably started out as a less expensive alternative to nuts, and I can’t blame anyone for that in their own homes. A professional caterer is quite another story. There’s really no excuse in California, where nuts are pretty plentiful (both the human and the arborial kind).

Well, anyway. Second seder is tonight, but what about the rest of the week–after taxes, as it were? Passover brings on a lot of nutritional challenges if you eat dairy or vegetarian. How not to eat too many eggs in a single week? How to stay away from the canned coconut macaroons and other assorted “Kosher for Passover” horror sweets my husband brings home because he thinks that the kashrut labeling makes up for the “nutrition” labeling (which really oughtta say, “WHAT nutrition?! This is pure sugar and potato starch, buddy! And palm oil! And artificial colors and flavors! Almost as good as Froot Loops!”) I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s because he’s a boy, and there’s nothing much to do about it except shudder, put the box of “goodies” in some inaccessible place on a low shelf, preferably behind the broccoli, which is merely green and mysterious or better yet, okra (which he fears more than taxes, and that’s saying something).

Note it down: ALL the packaged cake and cookie substitutes are a bad deal for anyone diabetic or even marginally thinking about becoming diabetic–very, very spiky, and almost never worth it. Also guaranteed to induce repetitive eating and the false sensation that you’re “starving” about three seconds after you eat them. And in the last 20 years, they’ve been faked-up further–even the kichel, a dry, stiff, barely-sweet puff halfway between an empty creampuff shell and a biscotti, has had artificial flavorings added recently–why bother?

Do we really even need such matzah-filled “delights”? Nowhere is this poverty of product more evident than in the kosher-for-Passover cake “mixes” (for which I always hear Julia Sweeney’s line “Where are yer mixes, hon?” from God said, Ha!). Last year’s example, which I’m not letting happen again: the Manischewitz Blueberry Pancake mix box my husband proudly brought home one day “on sale! it was 99 cents!” And naïvely suggested I could make for breakfast–this upon seeing that I’d just finished making cheese blintzes from scratch with real ingredients, and real raspberries. Don’t squint at me like that–he’s still breathing. I just decided his sudden brainfreeze in the wife department had been caused by jetlag, and contented myself with reading the ingredient box back to him.

The man is not a cook and is pretty happy not to be. Still, he does like to eat. And read. Somehow it never occurred to him to read in service of eating by checking what’s actually on and in that pancake mix box. It had 20 ingredients, no nutrition, and no blueberries. “Blueberry bits” contained–are you ready?–food coloring, sugar, artificial flavor, and sodium alginate. So suddenly you can’t tell the difference between berries and blue goo?

I had to go into extra innings with the cauliflower and broccoli and eggplant and asparagus and tomato/artichoke heart salads just to overcome the unusually high crap factor, even though I didn’t use the mix. Just reading it was enough to require emergency grapefruit. I was too ashamed to donate it to a food pantry, either.

So….real is definitely the best way to go with food for the week. Breakfasts can be tricky–matzah and jam, matzah and cream cheese, matzah and almond butter…it gets pretty tired pretty quick. And on the other hand, blintzes are for weekends only and frankly? I’m still annoyed about that pancake mix incident a year later! Nu…

Three relatively low-crap, moderately-low matzah alternative breakfasts that are (most important!) low-labor for those post-Seder mornings when you are Done and Off Duty to your nearest and dearest (except for coffee):

1. Matzah-nola, what it sounds like, ingredients straight from the cupboard or freezer. There is actually a product out commercially this year called “Matzahnola”; my version I invented a year or two ago out of desperation against the nutrition-free Passover version of Cheerios my husband brought home, but I didn’t think it was that good a name–who knew? Anyway, I’m not bitter (though the fresh-grated horseradish is still stinging my sinuses from last night).

2. The old-style Israeli breakfast, not the modern endless hotel breakfast buffets–more like the kibbutz specials where you’re expected to get out there and weed a cotton field right afterward. Which I have actually done in my less cynical youth.

3. The bonus “I can haz CAKE?” breakfast, a favorite of fridge-scrounging champions everywhere Continue reading

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