Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sugar-Free January

Right now I'm in our basement, which is actually the coziest room in the house. There's a wood stove right next to a rough-hewn bar, and a very 70's style rec room that has the TV, a dart board and an old Wurlitzer organ, the Funmaker edition. I like to call it the Honeycomb Hideout, for those of you oldsters who remember the old cereal commercials. The rain is coming down, freezing and slushy, drumming on the metal Bilco doors that go to the backyard. It's a miserable January day, which I'm not all that disappointed in, as the days have been quite forgiving of late. Since the new year, we've been taking hikes down along the Hudson river and up on the Shaupeneak Ridge, favorite local walks of ours. My son's latest fascination is ice, so we've been finding safe spots to poke with sticks and crunch with our boots.

Another thing I've been doing is staying the course on my New Year's detox. I have been given up meat, dairy, alcohol and the biggest one for me, sugar. The sugar rules are this: for two weeks, nothing but fruit sweetened things. At week two, I will introduce honey and maple syrup. I was encouraged to go a full month without refined sugar by Rebecca at Cakewalk; originally my goal was two weeks. We set up a Facebook page in order to discuss our sugar-free month. It's a place where we can post links to recipes we can make, or recipes we are looking forward to making when we can eat sugar again. Or maybe complain about how badly we are craving something. Or talk about the dreams we have about food. So far, I've had dreams about eating blackberry jam filled donuts and a large spread that included charcuterie and cheeses. My dreams lately have been fairly obvious.

Let's also note that as I've removed these foods from my diet, my son and husband are still eating them. That means, I'm still cooking things like chicken and dumpling soup, and personal pizzas that I can't eat. It sounds horrendous, doesn't it? But it's really not that bad. I just keep on thinking about how quickly two weeks pass. On New Year's Day, I made pan-seared duck breast with quince jam, and I didn't eat it. Not sure if I'm stupid or strong, but I really didn't feel denied. I had sauteed kale with preserved lemon and baked french fries, and they were incredibly savory.  (Did you read Mark Bittman's article and recipes in the Times magazine on going semi-vegan?)

I'm most fascinated by giving up sugar, probably because I've never done it before. Never crossed my mind! What's most interesting about it is how many things there are that you don't think have sugar in them. Like some of my homemade pickles. Oops! Forgot they have sugar. Or almost all condiments, aside from mustard and soy sauce or tamari. I realized that I pop a piece of gum or a pastille more often than I thought. And I knew this, but coming to terms with it was hard: how many muffins, pancakes, cookies or sweet breads I eat. I don't think the baked goods I eat are entirely bad for me, as they are homemade and I always lower the sugar, but they are pervasive.

One of the reasons I gave up sugar is that I need to be more responsible with it. This idea comes from watching my son start to have a similar relationship to sugar. I was starting to see how most of his diet was in some way sweet: toast with jam, peanut butter and jelly, yogurt with fruit. He used to eat everything, but slowly he's begun to refuse the savory items. In the short time I've giving up sugar, he's most certainly been eating better too.

I think the best thing I've learned, so far, from giving these things up, especially the sugar, is that you become more thoughtful about them. I think a big problem with how people eat today is that they are attached to craving something. People used to eat the same thing everyday, with special things every once in a while. Now we can have those special things every day, whenever we want.

Another benefit of cramping your style is that you get out of your cooking ruts. I found that when I needed a quick snack I would most often melt cheese on top of something. If you're concerned at all about your weight, you'll agree that this is not a good idea. Now I keep a container of brown rice in the fridge. My quick indulgent snack is rice with avocado on top, sprinkled with a bit of tamari. (Not that I will ever give up grilled cheese sandwiches. They are one of the best things in life.)

The foods that I am allowed are better than I ever thought. The other night I was craving a sweet and I ended up with a banana. And it was one of the best bananas I've had in a long time. There's no doubt that the reason being was because of giving up sugar. My palate has been cleansed. My best friends for the first two weeks have been fruit and dried fruit. And it's amazing how sweet they are. Now I'm on to honey and maple syrup, and I must say I am breathing a sigh of relief. It's really easy to make things with those two, and I won't feel so denied. However, I'm still dreaming of that jelly donut.

Here's some of the things I had to sweeten things up:

Apple Cider Syrup: This is a brilliant thing to have on hand. Lots of recipes add sugar, but really all you need to do is boil down apple cider. I used 8 cups and boiled it down to almost 1 cup. It's not super sweet, and has tons of deep apple flavor.

Applesauce: I like to make a chunky version with a few pounds of mixed apples, a little  more than a splash of apple cider, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The vinegar boosts the natural sweetness of the apples, and, along with the cider, also deepens the apple flavor.

Dried Fruit and Nut Balls: Sounds dismal, right? A handful of apricots and a handful of almonds thrown in a food processor, with a little cider syrup to bind are just amazing, actually. There are a ton of variations on the internet. I'm going to make some with some cocoa added today.

Banana Cocoa Muffins: This link is to a great article on NPR about baking with sweet alternatives. I made the muffins, scroll down to see the recipe, and they were great.

Fruit-Sweetened Jam: Whoah, this was a revelation for me. We eat jam everyday. It's my profession now! But you know what, that's a lot of sugar in there. I just made a strawberry raspberry jam with Pomona's pectin, and it does the trick. I can't believe I've never done this before. Now, our everyday jam is no-sugar, and my regular jams (for my personal stash I use about 60% sugar) are for special times.

Vegan Fruit-Sweetened Applesauce Cake: I ate this so quickly that I didn't even take a picture. My son loved it too! I want to develop a banana bread and carrot cake version, too.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a square 8"x8" pan.

2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1 cup of applesauce
1/2 cup of cider syrup
1/4 cup of raisins

Add mixed wet ingredients to mixed dry ingredients quickly. Pour and smooth in pan, bake for about 30 minutes.

Did you give anything up? Have you given up sugar? What did you eat? I'd love to know.

My besties, clockwise from right: dates, prunes, apricots, and swoon, dates covered in coconut.


  1. I think the best thing of going sugar-free has been the mindfulness. I hardly realized how many times a day I popped something sweet (homemade, yes, but still sugared) into my mouth. If nothing else, I am encouraged by just the simple act of paying attention to what I eat, eating it slowly and with the respect it deserves. I feel better, and have an improved appetite.

    I do still kinda want sweets, but not nearly as much as I did in the first few days. I'm so glad we did this together, since I feel more accountable! Before even liking the spoon of *whatever*, I think twice, and all that adds up!

  2. I have been trying to cut out the refined sugar in our diets and replace it with honey, maple sugar, or sucanant and you are right, it is not easy. SO MANY things have sugar in them :( And most especially my home canned goods!

  3. I cannot believe all you were cooking without tasting. You've got the power, Julia. I'm better with focusing on "eat more this and that" than "eat less this and that". These are the games I must play w/ myself...

  4. I've not officially given anything up, but my husband's given up meat (except fish), dairy, and eggs, and most sugar (we do use honey and maple syrup), so my diet's kind of changed by his. We've been loving some vegan "brownies" that are about 1 c dates, 1 1/3 c walnuts and 1/4 c cocoa run through the processor. I'll have to try that applesauce cake!

  5. Rebecca - It's so true. The mindfulness has been a really big thing for me. It does all add up! And the whole family has benefited from my mindfulness. (It was my secret plan all along!)

    Allison - I know! Everything has sugar in it. I stocked up on a few things that I figured would be good treats, neglecting to look for sugar (a red pepper dip, and an eggplant dip- both from Trader Joe's) and when I went to grab for them, I realized I hadn't really checked. Sure enough: sugar! Only a little, but still. Sugar is pervasive.

    Denise - I was, and it was really, really hard! Thankfully, Steve, although he has good taste, is easy to please.

    I respect your way of moderation and wish I could apply it to myself, but I get so out of control it's only real severity that will get me back in line!

    Joy - hey, those brownies sound good! Are they on your blog?

  6. This cake looks so light and appealing! I'm laughing because I don't think it's at all hard to give up sugar if you can eat all the fruit and honey you want. Dried fruit is practically pure sugar. I challenge you to go a couple of weeks without any of that! You'll notice that the pounds come off and your palate is truly transformed.

  7. Laura/GfL - It's so true, that's why I gave up honey and maple syrup as well. It seemed way too easy. Being able to have dried fruit, and fruit juice (apple cider!) was certainly not that incredibly hard. But gol dang, I really, really don't think I can take you up on your challenge. This was huge for me. A few weeks of absolutely no sugar would be a true feat for me. Baby steps, says I. Although the gauntlet you throw down will stay with me. Maybe next January?

    I have to ask: how long have you gone without anything sweet?

  8. Julia, I am with you on the sugar free thing so far this year. I've done it before ( for years acutally) and it's so rough at first, but, like you said, you do get used to it and surprisingly end up enjoying new things - like your banana;) Right now, dates are seriously my best friend. I giggled when I saw your first photo - that picture tells the tale.

  9. Now I am up to speed! Plus, I want to make that cake and the dried fruit and nut balls. A friend gave me something like that the other day -- dried figs and cherries rolled in nuts. She called them truffles, which made them go down even better. I respect what you're doing, Jules!

  10. Erin - Really? Cool! I wonder how long you do it for. I've got so much to learn!

    Shae - That sounds SO good. Shae. I'm on it!