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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Weirdness in the Name of Health

I collect recipes - no surprise there. I have nearly 1000 cookbooks and I am constantly on the look-out for interesting recipes from various blogs and such. I have to say that I am perplexed by the mainstreaming of recipes that claim health benefits. OK, I get it if you have celiac disease and you need to avoid anything with gluten. But, most people have no problem digesting gluten, so baking up some gluten-free "bread" or "cookie" achieves what? I've seen claims that gluten causes obesity. Some of the recipes will hardly help your waistline, gluten or no gluten. They are calorie bombs. I recently saw a gluten-free bread that works out to 250 calories a portion. Seeing as a slice of bread has between 100 and 140 calories, this doesn't sound like an improvement unless you absolutely can't tolerate gluten. Just because something is gluten-free doesn't make it healthy. And, I know that there are gluten-free breads out there contain calories comparable to regular bread, making them a far better everyday choice than a slice of pseudo bread that clocks in at 250 calories.

And, while I'm griping about nonsensical food, how about the love affair with "natural" sugar, like honey or maple syrup or agave nectar? I would probably put maple syrup on the list of foods I would want on a desert island. I spent childhood vacations in Vermont and once you taste the real stuff, you can't go back. But, maple syrup is sugar just like white sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave nectar, corn syrup (high fructose or otherwise). They are all made from plants that are manipulated to increase the concentration of the natural plant sugar. Except honey. The bees do the manipulating of the plant product (nectar) for us, but the end result is still something really, really sweet. The process used by bees is very similar to the manufacture of maple syrup - it's called evaporation. Corn syrup is the exception in that the sugars are tied up in long chains and without the help of some useful enzymes, we humans can't get at the sugars until the starch molecules are well past our taste buds (though if you chew starchy foods long enough, the amylase in saliva will liberate the sugar). Fact is, we humans shouldn't get a lot of highly concentrated sugars. It's lots of calories with no nutrition. Calories are not something most of us have trouble getting enough of these days. That said, I think sweet dessert is a wonderful thing and I refuse to live without it. :-) I just don't eat it everyday.

Enough of my griping. How about a recipe? How about some sweetened gluten? It's blueberry season, so here's a simple blueberry cake. This is a straightforward cake - if you can measure, mix, and follow instructions, you can make this cake.

Warm Cinnamon-Spiced Blueberry Cake
(makes one 9" cake, 8-10 servings)

The Cake:
6 oz. all-purpose flour (1 ⅓ cups)
½ teaspoon baking powder (¾ teaspoon at sea level)
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
3 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature (6 Tablespoons)
8 oz. sugar (1 cup)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
⅔ cup sour cream

The Topping:
1 cup blueberries, rinsed and well dried (about 5 oz.)
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Position the rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour the bottom and sides of a 9"x2" round cake pan. Tap out the excess flour and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until well-mixed and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined after each egg. Add the vanilla and beat in. Fold in dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with the sour cream (so, ⅓ flour- ½ sour cream- ⅓ flour- rest of sour cream-rest of flour). Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 10 minutes.

While cake is baking, make the topping. In a small bowl, combine all the topping ingredients. Use a fork to lightly crush the blueberries.

After the cake has baked for 10 minutes, distribute the topping evenly over the top of the cake. Continue baking until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes longer. This is a fairly wet dense cake so it can take a while to bake.

Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside edge to loosen the cake. Place a rack on top of the cake pan and flip the pan to remove the cake. Place a serving plate on top of the cake and flip again to get it top-side up. Serve warm or at room temperature. Warm is best. If you have leftovers, wrap it in plastic wrap. It will keep for 2 days at room temperature or 5 days in the fridge. Definitely heat it up if you store it in the fridge.

Excellent with a cup of coffee or tea. Even better with a dollop of whipped cream or a little scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Adapted from The Weekend Baker by Abigail Johnson Dodge, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.