Watch 60 Minutes: Is Sugar Toxic?

If you have a sweet tooth, like me, you won’t want to miss this 60 Minutes special on sugar and find out why doctors and scientists are cutting back on sugar:

Sweet treats made with organically-sourced sugar are one of my few dietary indulgences, but I’m realizing it’s time to face the music and limit my sugar intake. What about you?  Does this special change the way you think about sugar?

The original segment is published here: 60 Minutes: Is Sugar Toxic?

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The History of Red Velvet Cake & A Retro Velvet Cake Recipe

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day! I have always loved the concept of Valentine’s Day, and whether you’re single or partnered, I hope you do, too. Valentine’s Day doesn’t need to be commercial, it doesn’t need to be expensive, and it doesn’t need to be limited to romantic love. This year, think of Valentine’s Day as an excuse to show your love for the people who matter most in your life.

Since I love to bake, I decided to bake red velvet cupcakes for my Valentine. The only problem? Red velvet cake recipes call for red food coloring (ie. Red #40 and/or Red #3).  Red #3, also known as disodium 2 (2,4,5,7-tetraiodo- 3-oxido- 6- oxoxanthen-9-yl) benzoate monohydrate, has more recently been replaced by Red #40, a chemical derived from petroleum, also known as 2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-, disodium salt, and disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate)These don’t sound like foods, do they?

Since artificial food coloring has been linked to ADHD, thyroid cancer, chromosomal damage, asthma, migraines, and a variety of other symptoms, artificial food coloring is an additive I try to avoid. So I set to work researching red velvet cake to find out how I could create it authentically and naturally — without the use of artificial food coloring.

The origins of the first red velvet cake are as mysterious as they are romantic. As Southerners tell the story, the red velvet cake came about in the South during the Civil War. The cake has certainly become something of a Southern tradition, showing up at Juneteenth celebrations and even making appearances at traditional Southern weddings.  New Yorkers claim the cake was invented in the 1950s at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

Wherever the cake originated, recipes for Red Devil’s Food cakes began appearing in American newspapers in the 1930s. What do a 1938 Los Angeles Times recipe, a 1946 Joy of Cooking recipe, and a 1956 Betty Crocker recipe all have in common? They don’t use food coloring. The deep red color we know so well today was not part of the original red velvet tradition. There is speculation that the name came from a reaction between alkaline ingredients (baking soda or powder) and acidic ingredients (natural cocoa, buttermilk, and vinegar) that produced a subtle, earthy, rust-brown hue.  Another theory suggests that brown sugar, which was originally called “red sugar,” was a prominent ingredient in the original recipe, and thus influenced the name. One thing is for sure: Red velvet cake was not born red. The color may seem important today, but recipes dating back to the late 1800s for Velvet Cake make no mention of the color red. Velvet was a reference to the fine crumb texture.

The most likely story for the roots of red-colored velvet cake as we know it today comes from a food coloring manufacturer, The Adams Extract Company. To combat slowing sales during The Great Depression and encourage consumers to find new uses for food dyes, The Adams Extract Company advertised their red food coloring under large color illustrations of red-colored cakes, and included a cake recipe with every purchase of a bottle of Adams Red Color.

My search for dye-free red velvet cakes returned recipes calling for beets instead of red dye, and bakers’ claims that lemon juice can preserve that beet-red color during the baking process. Please let me know if you find an all-natural recipe that actually produces a color you identify as red. I read reviews of countless recipes, and concluded that the only way to achieve that deep, blood-red color without artificial coloring is to use so much natural coloring (pomegranate juice, beet roots, etc.) that you risk altering the flavor of the cake.

But if you love red velvet cake, you know it’s not about the color.  Red velvet cake is known for its sweet, tart, and savory taste. This Valentine’s Day, let’s not take the name too literally.  Be retro, be traditional, be old-fashioned — be natural. Make that red velvet cake brown.  Recipe below.

Tips to achieve a reddish-brown hue naturally:

  • Choose a recipe that calls for both distilled white vinegar and buttermilk. (The chemical reaction is said to deepen a reddish tint.)
  • Use all-natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder.
  • Replace the food coloring with a mixture of pureed beets and lemon juice (at a ratio of 4:1, beats:lemon juice).

redvelvetcupcakes

[Dye-free Retro Red Velvet Cake]

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups white flour
  • 3/4 cup organic cane sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder *
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 large cage-free egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 1 tsp white distilled vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup cooked beet (about 1 small beet, boiled and pureed)
  • 1 tbs lemon juice

* For a more authentic rust-brown hue, be sure to look for natural cocoa powder and avoid Dutch-processed.

[Cream Cheese Frosting]

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz. cream cheese (1/2 package), softened
  • 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup organic powdered sugar (Trader Joe’s sells organic powdered sugar.)
  • Optional Garnish: strawberries or chopped pecans

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line 12 muffin tins with cupcake liners.
  2. Puree (cooked) beet.  Add lemon juice and mix.  Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder.
  4. In a large bowl, mix softened butter, buttermilk, (beaten) egg, vanilla, and vinegar.  Add beet-lemon mixture.
  5. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix until smooth.
  6. Divide equally into 12 lined muffin tins.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely.
  8. To frost: Mix cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until smooth.  Slowly add powdered sugar and gently mix until incorporated.  Beat until light and fluffy.  Frost.

Now, don’t forget to share your cupcake creations with your Valentine(s)!

5 Tips for Healthier Baking

A while back, I bought a package of dried wild blueberries from Trader Joe’s. They were exceptionally sweet and impossible to eat plain, so I finally got around to using them in a batch of blueberry muffins this weekend. Since few recipes meet my health standards, I tweaked this recipe to create my own.  The blueberry muffins I made — with whole wheat flour, wild blueberries, and evaporated cane juice — turned out beautifully.

Although I don’t eat much bread, every now and then I have a craving for homemade baked goods.  Since I live alone, this often means I am eating a large portion of the batch myself over the course of the next week or two (though my boyfriend helps!).  If you eat cookies, cakes, sweet breads, or any pastries, I highly recommend you take the time to bake yourself some treats from scratch.  Baking gives you a visual understanding of how much sugar and butter you’re consuming next time you have a craving for cookies.

Here are five tips to health-ify your own recipes:

1.  Choose recipes that call for healthy ingredients.  The easiest way to bake something delicious and healthy is to let someone else design the recipe!  Choose well-reviewed recipes that call for healthy foods like oatmeal, fruit (bananas, apple sauce), milk, dates (a natural sweetener), nuts, peanut butter, etc.  Choose recipes that have less butter and sugar.  Note: If you’re baking for others, keep in mind that butter and sugar are usually the keys to impressing with your baking skills, so you probably don’t want to leave them out completely.

2.  Replace white flour with white whole wheat flour.  I buy whole wheat flour at Trader Joe’s, and I use it to replace white flour in any baked good that can be considered a snack (muffins, breads).  Replacing white flour with whole wheat flour is a simple fix that requires no other changes to the recipe.  I’ve successfully used whole wheat flour to bake banana bread, pumpkin bread, applesauce bread, and blueberry muffins.  Note: Not all recipes lend themselves to whole wheat flour.  I once baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies with half whole wheat flour, and yes, they were edible, but I felt like I had to apologize for them every time someone ate one, and explain, “I used half whole wheat flour!”  They just weren’t chocolate chip cookies.

3.  Replace white sugar with evaporated cane juice.  I buy evaporated cane juice from Trader Joe’s, where it’s labeled “Organic Sugar.”  When using evaporated cane juice, you can use less sugar with the same effect; start with approximately 25% less.  I haven’t tried replacing brown sugar with evaporated cane juice, but I’ve heard that you can use a combination of evaporated cane juice and molasses — please leave a comment if you’ve had success with this.  Be aware that evaporated cane juice gives baked goods a deeper golden color, so if you’re baking something that must be white, you will need to use regular granulated white sugar to achieve that lily white appearance.

4.  Replace vegetable oil with butter.  This may seem counter-intuitive if you haven’t reviewed the science on fats recently, but most reputable health experts today believe that all-natural butter is healthier than highly-processed vegetable oils or margarine.  So throw out the vegetable oil and never use it again!  The fats/oils you should keep in your cupboard: butter, olive oil, and coconut oil.  Bonus: Butter gives baked goods that comforting baked-by-Grandma, perfectly-soft texture.  I’ve never had a problem replacing oil with the exact same amount of melted or softened butter (1/3 cup of vegetable oil = 1/3 cup of butter).

5. Last but not least, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!  Experiment with recipes.  Taste the batter.  Take a photo of your creation.  Eat slowly.  Bring a friend an unexpected plate of something tasty.  Some recipes call for white flour and white sugar, and that’s okay.  (Hey, at least you’re not buying chemical-laden pastries at the grocery store!)  Save recipes that require white flour and white sugar — like cookies and cakes — for special occasions (birthdays, congratulatory celebrations) that are shared with guests, visitors, or friends, and make them a real treat!