On Baking

Little heavy handed on the drizzle but hey, when is more chocolate a bad thing?
Little heavy handed on the drizzle but hey, when is more chocolate a bad thing?

Before I really started cooking, I baked. I’ve learned to appreciate cooking – it’s more flexible than baking, less fussy, and there’s something that feels really nice about mixing up a big pot of something warm and nourishing. I like the repetition of chopping vegetables and the knowledge that what I’m making will do good things for me. But baking will always be what I love.

I love how you can mix together simple ingredients – flour, sugar, butter – and create something else entirely. There is a certain specificity to baking that appeals deeply to the Type A part of me. If you put all the pieces together in the right way, you get what you were expecting. It’s chemistry at it’s finest.

My favorite thing about baked goods is that although they are usually not the best for your body, they’re good for the soul. In my family, food has always been an expression of love. You bring dinner to friends who are going through hard times and give chocolate bars on birthdays. The best part about baking? Sharing with those I care about.

In college, I’ve noticed that I’ve moved a little bit away from baking. I definitely still bake – it’s one way that I cope with stress – but I make more muffins and less cakes. I don’t want to eat an entire batch of cookies by myself, I don’t have enough faith in my self control to keep them laying around, and as much as I love to share, I have to face the fact that I am on a budget now.

Baking has started to feel like a waste of time, money, and ingredients that could be used to create nutritious food instead. I’ve been combating this is by modifying my baking to make it healthier or by cooking instead when I feel the urge to bake.

The other day, I made cupcakes with plenty of white flour and butter and so much sugar. These vegan chocolate cupcakes with chai buttercream. Make them, they are delicious. I only ate one (and loved it) – the rest were gifted away. It felt incredible, but I can’t afford to do this frequently, especially since I like to buy high quality ingredients.

For now, my plan is to continue with healthy baking but try to occasionally incorporate decadent baking in as well. Fiscally, it may not be the smartest decision but I’m starting to think the happiness it brings me is worth the money.

Do you have any creative tips for how to better manage a baking habit?

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Food allergies

February in California
February in California

I’m writing this from the quad, where I’m surrounded by students lounging in the sun. It’s February and spring is already starting (one of the many reasons why I love California). As the weather warms up and the trees begin to bloom, many of us will start to cough and sneeze. As annoying as hay fever is, it is nothing compared to food allergies.

Food allergies are immune responses to chemicals in foods. When people with allergies consume a food that they are allergic to, their immune system falsely sees it as something dangerous and responds accordingly.

Our immune system is designed to protect us by killing things that could harm us. When there is nothing there to protect us from, an immune response can hurt instead of help us. This is the case with allergic reactions – your body is attacking something that isn’t actually there (think Don Quixote fencing with windmills).

For people with moderate allergies, this can mean itching, swelling, and hives but for people with severe allergies, their airways can close up and they can die. One of the scary things about allergies is that your immune system is always learning. Every time it is re-exposed to an allergen, it gets a little smarter, and the next reaction is stronger.

In allergenic foods, the foods contain what are known as endogenous toxins. This means that the toxins are made naturally and as part of the food. For this reason, you can’t just remove the allergens from foods – people have to be very careful not to eat foods that they are allergic to.

This makes food allergies especially difficult to regulate from a food safety perspective. The same food might be fine for one person and deadly for another. My high school stopped serving peanut butter in order to protect several students with severe peanut allergies and there was an uproar. It would be unreasonable to ban all common allergens on a large scale but it’s also important to keep those with food allergies safe.

For this reason, we have settled on an educational model. Foods with common allergens, such as peanuts, are clearly labeled and people with food allergies have to be careful to make sure they don’t consume anything that would be dangerous to them.

We don’t know exactly why some people have allergies and others don’t. Part of it is genetic, but part of it is also based on exposure. There is a lot of research going on about the cause of allergies, especially looking at infant exposure and the link between allergies and the bacteria in our gut. It will definitely be interesting to see where the research goes and hopefully, we will be able to prevent food allergies in the future.

So for those of you with food allergies, please be careful! It’s a pain to be paranoid about ingredients, especially when eating out with friends, but it’s so important. If your doctor has prescribed you an EpiPen, make sure you carry it with you and know how to use it. For those of you without allergies, I highly recommend taking a first aid class and learning how to use one anyway – it could save someone’s life.

The best food is safe food, so be careful and enjoy!

Cookie dough, the safe way

Me and my sister. I'm on the left, she's the one with the cheeks
Me and my sister. I’m on the left, she’s the one with the cheeks

Growing up, people always thought my little sister and I were twins. In many ways, we are the same – our core values and the ways that we see the world are almost identical. We also have a million tiny habits that set us very much apart.

As a little girl, I used to love baking with my mother while Tanya would rather read. As soon as the dough was mixed though, she would scurry into the kitchen and sneak as many bites as possible before Mom could shoo her away. I would roll my eyes, preferring to wait until the cookies were out to the oven to try one.

My ambivalence about raw cookie dough was largely due to taste preferences but the more I’ve learned about food safety, the more I’ve realized that it is smarter to wait than to put myself at risk of food borne illness.

When bacteria gets into commercial cookie dough, the results can be disastrous. In 2009, Nestle found that some of their popular Toll House Cookie Dough was contaminated with E. coli (you can check out a news article about it here).

If the dough was baked into cookies, as intended, the bacteria would be killed and it would be perfectly safe to eat. But so many people eat cookie dough raw that Nestle issued a voluntary recall. This is a perfect example of how food producer play a role in food safety. Nestle chose to protect their brand and ensure that it was associated with safety instead of food borne disease. Check out other ways of regulating food safety here.

For those of you who love your cookie dough, it is still possible to enjoy it without getting sick – vegan cookie dough is perfectly safe to eat raw. I have a couple of vegan cookie recipes that I love but the following Carrot Oat Cookies are really something special.

One of my favorite things about these cookies is that the dough and cookie taste totally different but equally delicious – it’s like getting two treats in one. The dough is slightly oily and has a sharp ginger taste, while the cookies are soft and fluffy. And of course, since they have no eggs it is safe to sneak as many bites of the dough as you want.

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Carrot Oat Cookies

If you don’t have coconut oil, olive or canola oil works well too. 

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks Carrot Oatmeal Cookies 

Time: 30 minutes (20 minutes prep, 10 minutes baking)

Yield: about 2 dozen

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1 cup finely grated carrots (about 3 medium carrots)
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375° Fahrenheit and grease a baking sheet with oil or butter.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, oats, baking powder, and salt) in a large bowl.
  3. Add nuts and carrots.
  4. Mix wet ingredients (syrup, oil, and ginger) in a small bowl.
  5. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until just combined.
  6. Use a tablespoon to drop spoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheet.
  7. Bake for about 10-12 minutes. Cookies should be golden brown on top.

Kitchen safety

Making sure the food you eat is safe is one of the most important parts of cooking, and of eating. We don’t tend to pay too much attention to food safety – it’s not pretty or tasty or even remotely trendy, but it is so important.

Food borne illness is a major issue, both in America and around the world. We tend to think of it casually – you get food poisoning, throw up once or twice, and you’re better the next day. But food borne illness can cause life long damage and even kill.

Food safety is managed at three main levels: government, producers, and consumers.

Government

Starting with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, our government has made an effort to keep the American food system safe.

Food safety is a difficult thing to regulate. After all, the government must constantly evaluate the risks and benefits of certain foods for a very diverse population. It’s easy when the risks are clear and the benefits are small but if the scale is a little closer to the middle or if there are only risks for certain groups, the issue becomes murkier.

The USDA, FDA, CDC, FSIS, USPHS, and EPA are all government organizations that play a role in food safety. They work to ensure that food is safe through all levels, including production, processing, preparation, and consumption.

Since there are multiple agencies responsible for food safety, it can be difficult to fully regulate all foods and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. It takes careful communication to ensure that the government is working together to keep food safe.

Producers

Producers play a vital role in keeping our food safe. After all, it’s beneficial for them too – no one wants to buy food from a company that has the reputation of getting their consumers sick. Many major brands are extremely dedicated to maintaing the safety of their product, and their reputation as a safe company.

Consumers

Finally, consumers also control how safe their food is. This can be especially difficult in a college kitchen. Money and time are both tight and as inexperienced cooks, it is easy to make mistakes but difficult to throw away potentially good food. I know I’ve definitely used food that is a little over the expiration date. Whenever I do this, I tell myself it will probably be fine and in all likelihood, it will be, but it really isn’t worth the risk of getting sick. As my professor succinctly put it, “When in doubt, throw it out”.

Here are a couple basic tips to make sure you’re keeping your kitchen as safe as possible. Most are obvious but some (such as thawing food on the counter) took me by surprise. Read more here if you’re interested.

  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands a lot. Use soap. (Note: One of my biggest pet peeves is going into a public restroom and watching someone walk out without washing their hands. It’s disgusting and gets bacteria everywhere. Don’t do it. Wash your hands.)
  • Keep your kitchen clean.
  • Pay attention to expiration dates. I keep a Sharpie by the fridge so I can write the date when I open things on them.
  • Don’t use dented cans.
  • Don’t wash meat/poultry. This just spreads bacteria around your kitchen and if the meat is cooked to the correct temperature, it will kill all the bacteria anyway.
  • Don’t thaw food on counter. Bacteria love room temperature. Instead, use a microwave, leave it in the fridge, or place it in warm water.
  • Wash fruit and veggies, even if you’re going to peel them. It’s easy to get contaminants from the outside onto the peeled surface.
  • Make sure your food is properly cooked. A meat thermometer is a good investment.
  • Put leftovers away within an hour or two – again, bacteria love room temperature.
  • If you’ve made too much food and don’t think you will be able to eat the leftovers within a day or two, give them away or freeze them.

Cooking and eating good food is wonderful. Food borne illness is not. Make sure you’re taking the necessary steps to keep yourself well fed, happy, and healthy.

Adding some color

photo 2

Vision is an important aspect of how we enjoy our food. Of course, eating food that looks nice is more enjoyable but vision  plays a larger role in consumption.

Historically, we used to use vision to tell if a food was safe. The difference between an old moldy strawberry and a fresh one is instantly visually clear. We also use our vision to tell when fruit is ripe – again, picture a green strawberry versus a bright red one.

However, it important to note that vision is not always correct when it comes to food safety/ripeness. There are plenty of pathogens that are not visible to the eye.

Modern technology has also made our vision a less accurate measure of food quality. Stores know that people value the way their food looks and are more likely to buy produce that looks nice. They choose produce that has been treated with pesticides and waxes to make it look as appealing as possible, which does not always translate to tasting good.

When it comes to organic produce, vision is sometimes deceiving. Since it is not sprayed for pests, there are often more blemishes on organic produce. A lot of visually flawed organic produce tastes just as good, if not better, than its conventional counterpart. One of the stalls at my local farmer’s market has a special box for “cosmetically challenged tomatoes”, which are sold at a discount price. They taste wonderful, and its a nice way to get quality produce on a college budget.

One way that vision still helps us to eat well is that a colorful diet is often healthier. Eating a variety of colorful fruits and veggies makes it easier to get in all the vitamins and minerals we need. Studies show that people who consume more fruit and veggies tend to live longer. This may be because the produce replaces other things in the diet, such as sugar and saturated fat, or because fruit and veggies contain compounds that promote health.

One theory is that this is due to phytochemicals, which are chemicals in plants that have beneficial health effects but are not technically necessary for our survival. Phytochemicals are thought to help prevent disease, resulting in a longer, healthier life.  A lot of these phytochemicals are pigments that give plants their color, so eating a colorful diet is a great way to get them. If you’re interested in reading a little more about them, check out the fact sheet from UC Davis here.

Sometimes, especially during winter, it’s hard to fit enough color into your diet. I took a look back on my meals over the last week and realized that most of them were varying shades of brown – not so good. This week, I’m making a bigger effort to get my veggies in. I’ve been eating big salads and cooking up batches of veggies to nibble on throughout the week. I’m also going back to a summer favorite: green smoothies.

Green smoothies have gotten a lot of hype lately, and for good reason. They’re a great way to squeeze in some extra veggies without really noticing. Milder greens, like spinach, are best to start out with – you hardly notice the taste. Spinach is also easier for the standard college blender to handle than tougher greens, like kale. The amount of spinach you can put in may surprise you at first (it’s a little scary to see a blender half full of spinach) but it blends down to almost nothing.

For me, there are two main types of smoothies: meal smoothies and snack smoothies. Meal smoothies are thicker and more calorically dense. Usually, I eat my meal smoothies with bowl and spoon. On the other hand, snack smoothies are meant to be sipped. They’re light and refreshing and are a great supplement to a smaller breakfast or alone as a snack.

The following smoothie is one of my favorites. The sweetness of the spinach and banana go perfectly with the kick from the ginger and spices, resulting in a beautiful green smoothie that tastes a little like chai. It’s bright and invigorating, the perfect way to start off your morning.

You can use unfrozen banana if you like but freezing your banana first will give you a much creamier texture. I usually keep a container of peeled, sliced bananas in my freezer, which I can use later for smoothies or banana bread. Whenever I have one on the counter that is starting to brown, I just slice it up and toss it in.

I think of recipes for smoothies as more of guidelines. I tend to eyeball the measurements and tweak them to suit my tastes. I have tested the specific amounts given below and I love the smoothie this way but feel free to play around with it.

If you’ve never tried a green smoothie before, this is a great one to start off with. And if you drink them every day, this is a nice new mix of flavors. Ether way, give it a try!

photo 1

Chai Spiced Green Smoothie 

Adapted from pictures pups and pies

Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1-2 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 handfulls spinach
  • 1 banana, sliced and frozen
  • 1 thin slice fresh ginger (you can peel and grate it if you like, but you really don’t need to – the blender will do the work for you)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • pinch of cloves
  • dash of black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 ice cubes
  • 1 1/2 cup almond milk

Instructions:

  1. Throw everything into a blender, with the greens at the bottom.
  2. Blend up and enjoy!

Pop!

Stovetop popcorn and peanut butter caramel
Stovetop popcorn and peanut butter caramel

Stovetop popcorn is the perfect snack. It’s customizable, portable, low calorie, and a whole grain. Win-win all around.

Making popcorn on the stove instead of in the microwave is one of those things that sounds a little intimidating but really isn’t at all. It’s a healthier alternative than microwave popcorn and doesn’t require an air popper, which makes it perfect for the college cook.

You can leave your popcorn plain or add toppings. One of my best friends is gluten intolerant and uses her popcorn as a naturally GF “cracker” to dip in hummus. If you want to get fancy, Peanut Butter Carmel Corn takes a few minutes extra and is worth every second. I made it as a snack for a study group the other day and had to kick my roommates out of the kitchen so they wouldn’t eat it all first.

One of the fun things about making popcorn is that it forces you to use a sense that isn’t usually associated with food: hearing. As you heat the corn kernels, the water inside them changes from a liquid to a gas. The gas takes up more volume than the water and increases the pressure inside the corn kernel until it becomes too much and it explodes, with an audible pop.

Hair cells inside of our ears pick up sound waves and turn them into signals that our brains can understand. As we get older, we slowly start to lose our hair cells and the range of sounds we can hear shrinks (this how high pitched ring tones designed to be heard by teenagers, but not teachers, work).

So enjoy the full range of sound you can hear now. Listen to music (but not too loud). Chat with a friend. And make some popcorn to share.

Basic Stovetop Popcorn

I’ve given measurements but this is one of those things where I usually just dump it in. Just remember that a little bit of popcorn goes a long way. 

Time: 5-10 minutes

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp oil (coconut, canola, or safflower work best — olive oil has a lower smoking point and tends to burn but can still be used if you’re careful)
  • 1/3 cup popcorn
  • salt

Instructions

1) Pour oil into a heavy bottomed pot with a lid.

2) Toss three corn kernels into the pot, put the cover on, and heat over medium-high heat until all three pop.

3) Remove the pan from heat, pour the popcorn in, replace the cover and wait 30 seconds (this allows the popcorn to heat up so when you put it back on the stove, it all pops at once and you don’t have a million unpopped kernels at the bottom).

4) Put the pot back over medium-high heat and shake the pot back and forth, holding on to the lid.

5) The popping will gradually slow. When you hear several seconds between pops, your popcorn is done! Take the lid off right away to stop your popcorn from getting soggy and pour it into a bowl.

6) Salt to taste.

Toppings
-olive oil, sea salt, lemon zest
-hot sauce, lime juice/zest
-grated Parmesan
-nutritional yeast
-chocolate chips, slivered almonds
-raid your spice cabinet and go crazy

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Peanut Butter Caramel Corn

The amount of popcorn is flexible, use more if you want lighter caramel corn and less if you’re really just into the carmel. 

Adapted from Healthy Food for Living 

Time: 45 minutes ( 5 minutes prep, 30 minutes baking, time to cool)

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

  • 8 cups plain popped popcorn
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup liquid sweetener (brown rice syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave, or a mix)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp salt (can use less if using salted peanut butter)

Instructions

1) Preheat oven to 250˚ Fahrenheit.

2) Combine oil, peanut butter, and sweetener in a small pot over medium-low heat. Heat, stirring, until it becomes smooth (about 2 minutes).

3) Remove pot from heat. Mix in vanilla and salt.

4) Mix popcorn with caramel and spread in an even layer over two baking sheets. You can mix the carmel and popcorn in a bowl or be lazy and do it directly on the baking sheets.

5) Bake for 15 minutes.

6) Remove popcorn and stir.

7) Bake for another 10-15 minutes. I start checking mine around 10 minutes and if it looks like its starting to burn, I pull it out earlier.

8) Let cool (although sneaking a few while its still hot is completely acceptable).

Midterms

Midterm stress baking. Wonderful buttery scones, right after a nutrition midterm
Midterm stress baking. Wonderful, buttery, slightly demented scones, right after a nutrition midterm

First, a short disclaimer: I am so very grateful to be in college right now. I’m studying something I love, at an amazing school and I fully realize that there are many people who don’t have the same opportunities I do. Being a student is such a privilege, and I am very thankful.

That being said, midterms are pretty awful. The stress and time spent studying can easily take away from from your food, health, and general quality of life. Here are a couple things, in no particular order, that I’ve found make midterm week hurt a little less. Some of these seem pretty obvious, but sometimes the obvious changes are the hardest to make.

1) Cut yourself some slack. I used to stress out even more during midterms because I wasn’t eating well or exercising enough, which was completely unproductive. I’ve learned to accept that I can’t do everything, all the time. Midterms mean I might not be able keep up my usual standards, and thats okay.

2) That being said, try to squeeze in some exercise. It decreases stress, helps you focus, and keeps you happy. This doesn’t have to mean spending two hours at the gym – take a short walk as a study break or do few minutes of yoga. When I start feeling tired and burned out, getting up and moving around is a great way to refresh.

3. Find a way to study that works for you. Everyone learns differently, so play around with different studying methods. Here are a few worth trying:

  • Flashcards. Quizlet is an awesome online flashcard website that my mom, a language teacher, likes to recommend. My roommate uses a similar program called Anki.
  • Rewrite your notes. Go through and condense them or write them in your own words to make sure you understand them. This is a great thing to do after every lecture if you have time.
  • Take practice tests. Studies show that testing yourself is an efficient way to learn.
  • Study with friends. Quizzing each other is one of my favorite ways to study.
  • Teach someone else. It can be your roommate, your parent, or your pet. Figuring out how to explain a difficult concept to someone else can help it stick better.

4) Keep your space clean. My mother would laugh if she was reading this – my room has always been notoriously messy. Lately, I’ve realized that she is right and that having a clean space makes my brain feel less cluttered.

  • Make your bed. It’s often the biggest thing in a college bedroom and when it looks clean, the whole room feels more put together.
  • Keep your desk clean. You need space to work.
  • Put things where they belong ( I always think of Monsters Inc – “Put that thing back where it came from or so help me…”). It sounds simple but putting things back right away helps SO much. It’s much easier to hang up one sweater than clean up a room covered in clothes. Once you start leaving stuff out, the clutter multiplies, so stop it before it starts. One rule that helps me is that I try not to put off anything that would take less than a minute to do (rinsing out a bowl, folding a shirt, etc.).

5) Create an environment that is conducive to studying. This is highly individual. Some people need quiet, others like background music. I always make sure I’m wearing comfy clothes if I’m going to be studying for a while. Lately, I’ve been trying to make my studying feel a little more special by lighting a candle or making a pot of my favorite tea.

6) Get enough sleep. I think this one is even harder to do during midterms than finals. At least during finals week, all you have to worry about are your tests. During midterms, you still have all your other lectures, homework, and any other work/internships/sports/extracurriculars you may have. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time to get in all the studying you want to do. If I have a paper due, I’m willing to sacrifice sleep to get it done. However, for tests I try to make sure I get at least 6 hours of sleep and preferably 8.

7) Laugh at something. Watch a dumb cat video, hang out with your roommate, go read a funny book. Laughter is a great stress reliever. Cuddling works too.

One of my favorite cuddle buddies
One of my favorite cuddle buddies

My friends and I often joke about how we are studying a health science, but our own health goes down the toilet during midterms. It’s important to remember that midterms are just a few weeks – if you can’t meet your normal standards for health for a couple days, thats okay. However, if I don’t take care of myself during midterms, I feel sick and gross and often less productive. Here are a couple ways I keep myself feeling good that don’t take up too much time:

1) Keep a couple meals in the freezer for emergencies. Whenever I make soup, I try to stick a jar or two in the freezer so I have a quick meal to heat up later in the quarter. I also like to keep some frozen veggies on hand to quickly throw together.

2) Keep it simple. When I’m in a hurry, I fall back on whatever combination of carbs, protein, and veggies I have laying around to fill me up and keep me feeling good.

3) At the same time, try to eat food that tastes nice. Midterms are miserable enough that it’s good to have some happy moments thrown in.

4) Plan ahead. I have lots more to say about meal planning later (basically it is the best thing ever) but for now, all I’ll say is try to make some sort of plan for food during midterms. If I know I’m going to have a rough week, I’ll cook some staples (and treats) on the weekend to get me through.

5) Eat out. Try to find a couple restaurants that have relatively healthy food that you like. My go to is a salad bar called Pluto’s – it’s a great way to get some veggies in quickly.

6) Cook as a study break. By nature, I’m a stress-baker which is all fine and well but I’m trying to make sure I cook healthy food when I’m stressed too.

7) Enjoy sweets, but in moderation. It’s so easy to overeat when you’re stressed out and miserable but binging on sugar will only make you feel worse. I’ve found that if I include small treats throughout the day, like a couple squares of dark chocolate, I’m less likely to go crazy when I’m cramming for a midterm later that night.

Midterms are no fun at all, but thankfully, they’re temporary. Take a deep breath, study hard, eat your veggies and you’ll be just fine.