A Barefoot Cookin’ Christmas

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Over the past few years, Christmas has become a sort of annual festival of cooking and family.

We’ve been doing ‘Christmas Baking’ for as long as I can remember, originally watching my Mum bake, later joining in and in more recent years it has become the realm of my sister and I. We have a cider, crank some tunes and churn out baked goodies as fast as my new 90cm oven can cook them.

This year we toned it down a bit, producing 24 fruit mince pies and 83 choc-dipped shortbread biscuits. We’ve been using the same recipes and the same SAWA 2000 biscuit press the whole time. Sarah and I have acquired our own SAWA 2000s over recent years, courtesy of op-shops and ‘trash and treasure’ markets.

83 shortbreads

83 Shortbreads

With Christmas Day forecast to be over 30 degrees, the sheer firepower of my oven and the prospect of about 15 people in the living area of my house, I decided that I would do all the oven cooking before the day. December 23 saw me roasting a turkey for the first time. My old oven would never have accommodated a whole turkey, so I had never cooked one before. It was basically a matter of taking the (free range, of course) turkey out of the packet, putting it on the rack of the baking dish, covering its wing and leg tips with foil, roasting for the prescribed time and dismembering it once it was cool.

turkey

Turkey was the easy part

As someone who doesn’t eat sugar, I usually accept the fact that there just won’t be pudding for me, but Sarah had the bright idea of finding a pumpkin pie recipe that would suit both my sugar-free self and our gluten-free mother. Since I had the week off, sourcing ingredients and baking the pie on Christmas Eve became my task. I started with a whole pumpkin, which I cut, cored, peeled, boiled and pureed, and ended up with what I assume is a fairly decent impersonation of a pumpkin pie. It was enjoyed by those with and without restricted diets.

pumpkin pie

Sugar-free, gluten-free pumpkin pie

In the lead-up to Christmas I also made a sugar-free cheesecake slice with home-made goat milk ricotta, and some excellent alternatively-sweetened dark chocolate with locally grown hazelnuts. Plenty of sweets for me this year.

Any meal at my place is not complete without an extensive board of home-made and hand-picked cheeses. This year we had my goat milk gouda, a dish of chevre, Mersey Valley aged cheddar, Unicorn double brie and a traditional English blue Stilton. The troops gave it a fair work-over, but there was still a good bit left for a Boxing Day serving to try out my new cheese serving set from Mum.

cheeseboard

Nom nom nom…

I pre-made a coleslaw to dress on the day, and did a stocktake of my salad ingredients. Christmas morning I made a green salad.

We had a quiet Christmas morning, just the four of us who live here. I received a really lovely tea set, which was made around 80 years ago. We had our traditional Christmas breakfast of croissants, eggs and bacon.

 

Lunchtime preparation began in earnest when the last to arrive sent a message from town asking for my address. I made a warm potato salad with homegrown spuds, garlic, butter and grated gouda. Mum brought out the container of pork that she had pre-roasted, and Sarah presented a leg of excellent locally-grown free-range ham. Brother Matthew arrived with his containers of prawns. We set it all out on the table, with a jar of beetroot relish replacing cranberry sauce, and everyone tucked in.

lunch

EAT ALL THE FOOD!!!

After mains was pretty much finished with, we cleared up and set out the desserts, including the aforementioned baked goods and featuring Nana’s famous trifle.

What seemed like a fairly disjointed lead-up culminated in a perfectly-executed buffet-style Christmas lunch for 12, with something for everyone and no oven required on the day. Great work team!

 

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Sugar-Free Eating – The Greatest Hits

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I’ve been eating refined sugar-free for a while now, and if there is one thing I have learned it is that not all sugar-free recipes are created Equal.

Just because a recipe claims to be a sugar-free version of something you love, does not mean it won’t rely on highly processed or artificial sweeteners. Or that it will taste anything like the thing you hope it will taste like.

My replacement sugars of choice are maple syrup, honey and stevia powder. Stevia powder is the pick of them, but it is very expensive. It contains hardly any energy and is basically the powdered leaves of a plant. It comes in a few forms, but the volume-boosted measure-for-measure sugar substitutes are the easiest to use. It doesn’t have much of a taste, so it is great in subtle things like iced tea, or in recipes where you don’t want to mess with the liquid content by adding syrup or honey.

Maple syrup is great in that you can only really taste it at room temperature, so for sweetening hot drinks or anything you will consume cold the maple-ness won’t be an issue. I mix it into a paste with cocoa to make hot chocolate. It is also good for making ice cream as it will not clash with other flavours you might use and will not crystallise and make your ice cream grainy.

Honey is great for baking, and is generally the go-to substitute in muffins and cakes. It does tend to retain its flavour, so keep that in mind when adding it to recipes.

White sugar does things in your cooking that most less-processed substitutes are not quite able to replicate. That crunch in your apple crumble. The fluffiness in your muffins. And the ability to sweeten without messing with the flavours. But you can get around all this by trying different sweeteners in different situations.

I find maple syrup to be the best sweetener for home made yogurt. The culture did not like the stevia powder and I ended up with runny yogurt, but the maple worked out just like regular sugar. I like yogurt I can stand a spoon up in, and you can achieve this with plenty of milk solids (late lactation/high fat milk, or a top-up of powdered milk) and a tablespoon of maple syrup.

I use stevia powder in my iced tea. I make a variety of teas, some with very subtle flavours, and the stevia powder mixes in well and doesn’t interfere with the flavour of the tea.

I also use stevia to replace the sugar in things like cheesecake bases and crumble toppings, where you don’t want to add too much moisture.

If you are looking for some tried and true sugar-free recipes, here are some of my favourites.

I found a banana cake recipe that is only sweetened by fruit, it gets quite a bread-like crust on it, which softens after a couple of days, but it is very moist and very sweet.

I used regular self-raising flour instead of plain wholemeal flour and baking powder. I also found that it took quite a bit longer to cook than 35 minutes.

Sugar Free Banana Cake

  • 2 cups wholemeal plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 60gms butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cups pitted dates finely chopped
  • 4 banana mashed ripe
  • 1/3 cups milk

Method

  • STEP 1 Preheat oven to 180C
  • STEP 2 In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and egg with 1 tablespoon of the sifted flour.
  • STEP 3 Beat well, then stir in dates and bananas.
  • STEP 4 Sift flour, baking powder and soda into the bowl.
  • STEP 5 Fold in the remaining flour mixture alternatively with the milk.
  • STEP 6 Spread the mixture into a greased loaf tin and bake for 25-35 minutes.

 

To go with it I adapted a recipe for vanilla cream cheese frosting, as follows:

Cream Cheese Topping

1 cup cream cheese (I used fresh, unsalted chevre)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 tablespoon maple syrup

Juice of half a lemon

Beat or whisk it all together and spread on top of your banana cake. I topped mine with chopped walnuts.

Banana cake with cream cheese topping

Banana cake with cream cheese topping

 

Simple Apple Slice Cake

This one is very popular with my family, with visiting kids asking to take a copy of the recipe home with them.

2 cups self raising flour

1/2 cup stevia powder

3 apples, peeled, cored and diced

125g butter

1 egg

Method

Toss apple pieces with flour and sweetener in a mixing bowl.

Melt the butter, and stir the egg into the melted butter.

Pour butter and egg mix into the apple/flour/sweetener and mix until combined.

Press lightly into a greased and lined slice tin or lasagne dish.

Bake at 180C for 35 to 40 minutes.

Apple Slice Cake

Apple Slice Cake

 

Banana and Berry Muffins

This is my favourite muffin recipe, the one that I make a batch of to freeze for my snack at work.

3 large ripe bananas

1 cup frozen berries (I use a mix, but you can pick just one variety if you prefer)

4 tbsp honey

2 tsp vanilla extract

4 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp linseeds

2 1/2 cups self raising flour

2 tbsp rolled oats

1/3 cup milk

Method

Mash bananas. Mix in honey, oil and vanilla.

Add dry ingredients and fold in to combine without over-mixing. Gently fold in berries.

Spoon into greased muffin tins (I use paper cupcake cases)

Bake for 20 mins at 180C

Makes 12 decent-sized muffins

Banana and Berry Muffins (pictured with sugar-free and gluten-free Christmas cake)

Banana and Berry Muffins (pictured with sugar-free and gluten-free Christmas cake)

 

Sugar-Free September

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Today we come to the end of the fascinating social experiment that was Sugar-Free September.

As you know, I generally live a very low-sugar life. I use maple syrup and honey as sweeteners. Sugar makes me feel ick if I eat any meaningful amount of it. And super-sweet foods no longer appeal to me.

But I decided that Sugar-Free September should be a household-wide experiment. Matt was fairly enthusiastic. The children, predictably, were less so.

We started out well, with honey and apple muffins in their lunch boxes. Finding breakfast cereals they liked without sugar was a particular challenge, and there was NOTHING in ALDI that fit the bill. We ended up going to Woollies for Vita Brits for Rohan, while sourdough toast and vegemite was Callum’s breakfast of choice. Most breakfast cereals, even ‘healthy’ ones with wholegrains, are loaded with added sugar.

My own breakfast is usually a kefir smoothie, with fruit and grains. But sugarless breakfasts can be fun too. On weekends we had sourdough pancakes with banana and goats cheese, or bacon and eggs. So many ways to have a yum breakfast without the sugar.

School lunches were fairly easy to conquer, but the wheels fell off on Footy Day, when the PFA gave out donuts. This was the first real taste of deprivation for the boys. Callum bravely declined to order a donut, only to have his teacher set a task involving counting and comparing different colour M&Ms. He ended up giving his share of lollies to a friend. Rohan ordered a donut, probably hoping I wouldn’t bring the subject up, and after much soul searching and actual tears he gave his donut to a friend. Nobody died. We had apple crumble and cream that night for dessert.

What the boys did have trouble with, was telling people why they were declining certain foods. Having to say no to lollies or cake on the school bus was a particular issue for them. Callum reported that some of his friends were ‘being dicks’, waving sweet treats under his nose, but some of them were really good about it. The more supportive kids were the ones he handed his sugary contraband to.

Right in the middle of the month, Rohan attended a sleepover party. We talked ahead of time about what he would do, and I told him to just be mindful and see what options he had. There were no sugarless drinks supplied. Dinner was a barbecue, which he filled up on, but he didn’t want to turn down birthday cake or miss out on a toasted marshmallow. Otherwise he mostly ‘ate heaps of chips’ and left the lollies alone.

When asked about it, the boys reported ‘resisting temptation’ as the most difficult thing about going sugar free. They found it easy enough to avoid sugar at home, but much more of a challenge when at school or out and about.

They were surprised at how many everyday foods had added sugar. But going forward, they both think they will eat less sugary things.

Matt found it fairly easy, for the most part, and was able to stay away from the vending machines at work. I don’t know what the scales have to say, but he definitely looks like he has lost some weight.

For me, it was quite a challenge feeding everyone. It is pretty easy to go sugar-free on your own, but keeping a family satisfied without refined sugar takes some thought and preparation. Breakfast and lunchbox options needed to be re-examined. A hedgehog slice or choc-chip cookies, even home made ones, are full of sugar. The sourdough bread is unsweetened, but breadmaker recipes use sugar as an important ingredient which can’t just be left out.

Sugar-free recipes tend to also be dairy, egg and gluten free. I have no quarrel with wheat flour, and milk and eggs are a big part of our diet. Finding recipes that swapped out refined sugar without getting too far away from the basic recipe was not at all easy. Some I managed to adapt by myself. Some of the natural/organic/raw/paleo type recipes were complete disasters. The honey and apple muffins turned out great. The excellent sugarless chocolate recipe I was given, while high in fat, made a great chocolate substitute and was a very satisfying snack that could knock the munchies on the head with a couple of bites.

Turning a household away from refined sugar permanently would be a huge challenge in this world of fast food, basics that are unnecessarily sweetened and lollies as rewards. I think despite the tears and frustrations we all learned a lesson and got a bit of a look at just how big a place sugar has made for itself in our society. Getting my kids to believe that natural fats are good for you, but sugar is bad for your health has not been easy when the media and food marketing continue to use ‘99% fat free’ to suggest that certain foods are healthy, even if they are mostly made of sugar.

Tomorrow we will go out for ice-cream, I might even have some, and that will be another lesson in the experiment. Will the kids go sugar mad now that Sugar-Free September is over? Or will we all carry that niggling thought that maybe we should put down that chocolate bar, have an apple instead of a muffin and enjoy the natural sweetness and flavour of unsweetened foods?

Making Words From Nothing

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I’ve really dropped the ball in here lately, my writing hands have just gone on strike and I haven’t felt compelled to put anything down in print for a couple of weeks. But it’s that thing about how the more you use something the easier it is, so I’m going to start typing and see what comes out.

It is pouring with rain here and has been for hours. It has rained so much in the last week or so that I have turned on the hoses to drain water from the tanks in the goat areas down and away from their places of shelter. And I think the tanks are still filling faster than I can discharge the water.

The does are very comfortable in the big shed with all the hay they can eat and an indoor water source. The kidding pens have been cleaned out, and just need some straw put down in order to be ready. The two spotty does, Meredith and Juno, are due any time now, but not looking terribly imminent. Kidding is stressful and exciting.

The bucks are not having such an easy time, as their makeshift shelter is smaller and has a dirt floor. I have put down a thick layer of straw and given them a big tub of hay, so at least they an eat and lie down without getting wet.

The chooks have stayed in the big chook house today, it is even too wet outside for them. The ducks and geese, however, are having a grand time.

My cheese fridge lay down and died a few weeks ago, and a part had to be ordered from overseas. I am still waiting for the repairer to come back and fix it. I want to make more cheese!

Yoga has become my exercise of choice, with Hot Yoga slightly edging out the regular Hatha. The heated environment is a great comfort when it is five degrees outside, and the extra stretch afforded by warm muscles is also a bonus. But I think what really attracts me is that slightly altered state that comes from working quite hard in the heat. It takes the mind/body benefits of yoga to a higher level.

I am becoming stronger and more flexible, even three weeks in. I can now do poses that were actually not possible when I first started. I can maintain a full plank for more than two seconds.

My sugarlessness is going well, although pretty much everyone thinks it is a silly idea (there is sugar in everything, do you eat fruit? there is sugar in that, everything in moderation I say), I find it beneficial for me and that is all that matters.

I am slowly adjusting my attitude to fat in my diet, and while I still wouldn’t eat a packet of chips, there are some high-fat foods that I am starting to eat more of and at the same time I am fitting back into my size 8 jeans that I haven’t been able to wear for ages. Something is working.

I had my hair cut by an actual hairdresser and she was very complimentary about the general condition of it. That is six months without shampoo, and going strong. I will need to colour it again at some point, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. The protein hair masque that my sister made is pretty well magic, and fixes that straw-like feeling when my hair gets too dry.

I am yet to go back to the razor, and you would think that if anything would reveal hairy underarms as being a source of unbearably bad hygiene it would be hot yoga, but your argument is invalid because deodorant. I am no more or less smelly than I was when I did shave, so ner to all the people who think hairy armpits on women are ‘gross’. If you don’t like it, don’t grow yours.

I did read an interesting comment about how because women are taught to remove their body hair from the day it starts to become noticeable, many of us have no idea what we even look like with such hair. And I was like, bloody hell, I’m 36 years old and I have no idea how long my underarm hair will even grow if I let it. What a sobering thought about the expectations that society imposes upon us. We don’t even get to see what our body hair looks like before removing it, we just remove it because of imposed standards of beauty and justify it by saying it is our choice.

Maybe it is just a phase I’m going through, but I spent many years not feeling like I wasn’t really allowed to be myself, so now I am trying on different things to find out what it is I really want to do when it comes to my own body. I definitely do not want to alienate anyone who does shave or wax, because there are a lot more of you than there are of me.

There are a lot of things I do or don’t do that are different choices to those that most people make, but they don’t change the sort of person I am. If you saw me in the street and didn’t know me you would never guess that I don’t eat sugar and I don’t watch TV and I wash my hair in home-made goat milk soap and I don’t wash my clothes in detergent and I don’t shave or wax the parts that most women do. You would never know if I didn’t tell you.

I live in a fairly isolated little bubble. The only time I really link with a peer group of sorts is during goat showing season. And my goat friends all understand the pros and cons of an alternative lifestyle. It doesn’t matter what makes us different – what matters is what we have in common, what links us. As I begin to interact a bit more with the local Permaculture group I am starting to feel a little less fringe and a little more like part of something bigger. I hope to extend this link over time.

So now all I have left to do is decide what dinners to make over the next few days. And do a bit of baking and make some yogurt. And do a couple of loads of washing. See, I am just like everyone else.