My name is Caroline and it has been at least 3 weeks since my last blog post.
When I started this malarkey, I resolved to post twice a week. Then I found out how much time goes into the writing, photographing, faffy formatting (yes - believe it or not, this page could be uglier!) and that goal became more of a weight on my shoulders. Combine that with the ongoing double-bathroom-refurb saga, which gobbles up loads of my online time, a touch of home redecoration and the usual toddler craziness,...well, I hope you'll forgive the delay.
If you follow my facebook page, you'll already know that I've been doing a lot of research into all things sugar. I decided almost a year ago now to cut out all "packet sugar", thinking that was a simple enough definition, but now I am having doubts and a fair level of confusion.
[My 'big article' on sugar and sweeteners is still to come. I e-lost about 85% of it somehow. The words that came out of my mouth were pure filth and I will leave them to your imaginations.]
A while back, I read Davina McCall's book Davina's 5 Weeks to Sugar-Free. I enjoyed it but - let's get this clear - she uses plenty of sugar. It is generally in the form of dates (I use a lot of them too) and other dried fruits, along with plenty of maple syrup and honey, but that is still sugar. Not "packet sugar" though.
Since then, I've discovered that there's a sugar-free bakery in North London. While I can't find any info online about the content on their bakes (their website is being tarted up...pun intended...) but how on earth can they be sugar free? Unless they use only no-sugar sweeteners like stevia but then everything would taste like diet coke and tumbleweed would be blowing through the place before you can belt out that Masterchef "buttery biscuit base" song. I see a lot of fruit dotted around the photos and there is probably a lot that I can't see, in the form of fruit purées, so there's a hit of fructose right there. Not "packet sugar" though. Don't get me wrong: the concept and the products intrigue me and I'd love to visit. I just don't
get what you can get away with calling "sugar-free". (That the bakery looks gorgeous and is open until 10, 11 or even 12 at night does enhance my Big Smoke envy though.)
But why does it even matter? I'm not trying to go sugar-free; what I am trying to do is avoid highly-refined foods of any sort. I suspect that this is what the term sugar-free means at the moment, but its increasingly widespread use does confuse me as to whether I'm opting for something packed with artificial sweeteners - which is what I associate the term with in a supermarket yoghurt, for example - or something that may contain plenty of sugar but only in its naturally-derived, lightly-processed form.
Most recently, I borrowed Susanna Booth's Sensationally Sugar Free from the library (there's that Scottish frugality again). She, too, focusses on using fruit, dried or otherwise, vegetables, nuts and milks to create those elements that our tastebuds require to accept 'sweet' items, but she also uses stevia and some pretty interesting techniques to replicate the sweetness that would traditionally have come from packet sugar. She makes no claim to remove the wheat or fat from her recipes but, even so, some are free from those too. I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. The latest recipe that I've tried is her Chocolate Tea Cake. That's a chocolate cake with your cup of tea in it, not merely one to eat alongside it (although you can do that too).
It has a deep, dark and interesting warmth about it (perhaps the touch of cloves that you should keep in even if, like me, you generally hate the things) and keeps well for a few days. I know this because I made it for my mother-in-law's birthday and, between a postponement and a certain someone omitting to actually take it to her house, we didn't even cut the thing until two days after it was made. Oh, and no packet sugar.
Chocolate Tea Cake- very lightly adapted from Sensationally Sugar Free by Susanna Booth
makes about 12 slices
what you'll need
a teabag (she suggests Earl Grey but I was out so used standard Punjana, incidentally and by far my favourite 'normal' teabag)
110g pitted dried dates (the sugar part)
100g unsalted butter, very soft
75g wholemeal spelt flour
30g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of salt
50g (no-added-sugar if you like) dark chocolate, plus extra for decorating
a loaf tin (22x11x7cm) lined with a silicone liner, greaseproof paper or lightly buttered
a stick blender (or food processor but it'll not be so quick)
a small saucepan
what you'll do
- IN ADVANCE: make a strong wee brew (in case that gets lost in translation, make a strong cup of tea) with about 150ml boiling water. I made myself a cup in the process too and reserved 150ml for the recipe. Any excuse for Punjana.
- soak the dates in 125ml of the tea for as long as you can, and ideally for at least 4 hours or overnight. I use the tall, slim jug that came with my stick blender for this. It makes pureeing them much easier than chasing them around a bowl. Keep the other 25ml of tea for later.
- THE BAKE: when the dates have drunk up most of the tea and are soft and squishy, blitz the mixture with a stick blender (or food processor) until totally smooth and bit-free
- heat your oven to 160°C and prep your loaf tin
- scrape the date mush into a small-ish mixing bowl (or keep it in your processor), add the eggs and softened butter, and blitz them together briefly.
- sift in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cloves and salt. Fold or mix gently until just combined.
- spoon the mixture into the loaf tin and flatten the top with a spatula or knife
- bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin.
- THE TOPPING: while the cake is cooling, melt the chocolate and reserved tea in a small saucepan over a gentle heat. Once the chocolate is almost all melted, remove from the heat and stir well, until all the chocolatey lumps have gone. Pour into a small bowl and chill in the fridge until set (about 20 minutes).
- when the cake is cool enough to cover, beat the ganache until spreadable (you might need to warm the bowl a tot in your hands / over some warm water / in the remnants of the oven's warmth / in the microwave but only for a few seconds, to get the ganache moving) and spread over the cooled cake. You can then top it with some chocolate curls shaved from a bar with a veg peeler, or whatever else you fancy.
- wrap and leave in the kitchen until the day after you needed it...hmm...