Cake… it’s a bit of an obsession of mine. My adoration of cake pinpoints the only addiction I have: sugar. It is my one true vice. I gave up drugs, nicotine and caffeine a long time ago and although from time to time I will have the occasional tipple, I never crave it like I long for a hit of the sweet stuff. Cakes, chocolate, pastries… Of the homemade variety preferably, none of the dry, processed kind (although occasionally a dark chocolate digestive will hit the spot if nothing else is to hand). I love food, cooking and most of all baking and I come from a circle of friends and family that love it just as much… if not more. My husband blames his weight gain on the baking marathons that sometimes take place in our respective homes (I on the other hand think it is because of his general greed and love of KFC). Well… maybe he has a point. We do bake A LOT. His sister is a baking legend in her own right and her book Eat Me! is a homage to all things sweet.
But like all addictions I battle against my love of sugar. I know it is doing me wrong. In the rest of my culinary life I am a bit of a purist and a health freak. I am a Gemini so perhaps this is how I justify this massive contradiction. I hate junk food, especially fast food and supermarket ready meals. My daughter has never eaten at a fast food outlet and claims to hate McDonalds (oh dear the brainwashing actually worked) but because of my sugar addiction I think she has one too. I am wracked with guilt. At the same time I let myself off because I think, well, what is a childhood without sugar? Something pretty miserable… no penny sweets to fill your paper bag at the corner shop, no chocolates to nibble at whilst watching your favourite tv show, no ice creams on super hot days, no birthday cake… no birthday cake!? What would life be without birthday cake?
Of course sometimes you can have your cake and eat it. There is such a thing as a sugar free treat, or something close. After Lila was born I experimented with recipes like these. I made flapjacks sweetened with dried fruit and bound by soya milk, sugar free banana bread, bran muffins sweetened with date puree. At that time I was going through a general de-tox. Post birth I experienced a lot of health issues: mouth ulcers, bloating, stomach pain, achiness, tiredness, recurrent infections. I felt like my body was under attack. My doctor referred me to a rheumatalogist to check that I didn’t have a serious autoimmune disease. This was a wake up call. I examined my lifestyle and corrected all the things that I thought might help my body heal itself. I gave up caffeine, alcohol, wheat, dairy, sugar and red meat. I found a low cost therapy centre where I was able to have acupuncture and reflexology treatments. The acupuncturist said my stomach was full of fire and it made sense. It was as if my digestive system, my entire body, was at war with itself. The stress of Lila’s difficult birth and a poor pregnancy diet (due to morning sickness coupled with the lazy, basic cooking skills most of us have in our 20’s) had resulted in me feeling terrible most of the time.
The dietary changes and complementary therapies helped, as did not doubt a few other major factors: more sleep, becoming happier in my relationship, going back to college and cementing the beginnings of a career. I was cured. I have not had another mouth ulcer since.
But slowly over the years, despite staying true to most of the changes, sugar has slowly but surely crept back into my diet. What can I say? It is my one addiction. I have not been totally cured. Every now and then I test myself and try and abstain from all things sugary. I usually last a couple of weeks until it lures me back into its sticky sacharine grasp. So what? You might ask. Is sugar that much of a problem? Well yes. Unfortunately. It really is as toxic as Nutritionists claim. And there is no point in kidding yourself that it is just the cheap, white stuff that can be destructive: raw cane sugar, muscavado, honey, fructose... all of these are just as bad. They will all set your insulin levels racing and possibly lead to major diseases: diabetes and heart failure (not to mention tooth decay). Doctors and Nutritionists are now also discussing the link between sugar and cancer. There are some who believe that in years to come we will view sugar as we now regard tobacco: as a highly addictive and harmful substance.
Yes I know, alarming stuff but also something of a nuisance, because ultimately who wants to give up their teatime treats? The other problem with sugar is that it is hidden in almost everything we buy from the supermarket: sauces like ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce, cereals, yoghurts, bread, pasta sauces, fruit juices. The way I see it: savoury things should be savoury and sweet things sweet. There is no need for sugar in your dinner but in pudding, well yes, that is something else (and if you can make it naturally sweet then all the better still).
It is possible that I could curb my sugar addiction if I wasn’t so in love with baking. There is something decidedly therapeutic about baking a cake, especially when it’s a good one and people find it moreish. I find any excuse to bake: birthdays, anniversaries, Valentines day, cupcake sales (my daughter’s first business). People love it when you bake them something; it makes them feel cherished. And yes in this day and age there is something terribly emotional about chocolate and other treats. We eat them to make ourselves feel good.
Elvis is now six months, another six to go before his first birthday. I will have to unearth my old recipe books with the no sugar recipes I gathered when Lila was little. I need something decidedly sugar free, because at least until Elvis is older and becomes aware that mummy hides chocolate in the cupboard, he can live in blissful ignorance of that old devil called sugar.
In the meantime, for those of you who are wavering between junking in the sweet treats or never giving up at all, here’s a few of my favourite sugary and sugar free recipes:
Nigel Slater's Orange and Honey Polenta Cake
(not sugar free but wheat free for any gluten intolerance)
220 g butter
220 unrefined sugar
300g ground almonds
3 large eggs
1 tsp baking powder
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
12 cardamon pods
For the syrup:
Juice of 2 lemons, 2 oranges plus 4 tbsp honey
Oven at Gas Mark 4
Crush cardamon pods to release seeds and grind the seeds until fine.
Beat butter and sugar until creamy
Add ground almonds then eggs
Add polenta and baking powder
Add zest and juice
Line a bread tin with baking parchment. Pour in mixture and bake for 30 minutes. Turn to Gas 3 and bake for a further 25/30 minutes.
For the Syrup:
Boil lemon and orange juice. Dissolve honey. Skewer holes in baked cake and pour syrup over top.
Cousin Joy's Banana Bread
Courtesy of Amanda Johnson via her cousin Joy in Miami- delicious and so easy to make- I make this at least once a month.
1 and quarter cup wholewheat flour
1 cup unrefined sugar
half tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 very ripe bananas (chunked not mashed)
50g dark chocolate broken into pieces.
Optional quarter cup walnuts or pecans.
Mix all dry ingredients..
Mix all wet ones in another bowl.
Bake for 1 hour in a lined bread tin at 180
Deluxe Muesli Yoghurt
This is my idea of the ultimate breakfast but you can eat it any time of a day as a good pick me up.
Plain (unsweetened) yogurt
Homemade muesli (I use oats with sunflower seeds, chopped almonds, dessicated coconut and raisins)
Chopped banana and/or orange
Pureed apricots to drizzle on top.
To make the pureed apricot you need a large handful of unsulphered dried apricots. Soak these in water for ten minutes. Afterwards boil in water for 30 minutes. Blitz. This puree is also great on its own with yoghurt.
Use a trusted pancake recipe (plain flour, milk, eggs). I tend to make the measurements up as I go along but they never fail to come out great. You can replace wheat flour with buckwheat flour and dairy milk with soya milk if you want your pancakes wheat and/or dairy free.
Instead of slathering the pancakes with Nutella or sugar and lemon, try the following:
-Cooked apples with cinammon and creme fraiche.
-A little 70% dark chocolate melted and mixed in with greek yoghurt.
-A drizzle of Maple syrup... one of the less toxic sweeteners around but still try and go easy on it (as much for the sugar value as its outrageous cost!)