Thursday, August 6, 2009

On Tweaking Recipes

It's tough to find good, whole foods recipes. Every once in a while I will find a really useful cookbook. But, it seems like most of the recipes I run across contain ingredients that I am trying to avoid... ingredients that are fractionated, over-processed or man-made.

My overarching principle in selecting and preparing food for my family is to "eat what God made as close to how He made it as possible." In doing so, I serve my family foods that are specially designed with rich nutrients in exact combination with other supporting nutritive factors that are exactly how our bodies need to be fueled. (For more on this topic, read the book What The Bible Says About Healthy Living: Three Biblical Principles that Will Change Your Diet and Improve Your Health by Dr. Rex Russell M.D.)

So what happens on a birthday celebration when my son wants a Coonskin Cap Cake? There is no whole foods recipe out there for that! But, with a little kitchen ingenuity, any basic recipe can be tweaked to fit my health principles. For this one, I started with a Basic Chocolate Cake recipe from a Southern Living cookbook, one that you can tell from the photo is well-worn.

When tweaking a recipe, I take a look at the ingredient list and see what needs to be substituted... things like whole grains for white flour, natural sweeteners for white sugar. Or, for a meal recipe, I will often have to make a from-scratch sauce to substitute for a canned product. If these things seem daunting to you, I recommend just taking an adventurous leap. You may be surprised how quick you learn. And, if you are just starting out, you may want to use 1/2 white flour, 1/2 whole grain as a transition step.

I often substitute applesauce for 1/2 of the butter or oil in a recipe, or I substitute plain yogurt for all sorts of creamy ingredients. I even make yogurt cheese to substitute for cream cheese. I hope to post about a surprisingly healthy and tasty egg substitute very soon. I like to use unsweetened cocoa or unsweetened baking squares instead of melted chocolate chips so that I can add my own choice of sweetener.

So, back to the cake... I melted 4 squares of unsweetened chocolate in a saucepan and set it aside... just like the recipe said. I creamed the 1/2 cup of butter with 2 cups of sucanat instead of sugar, then added the 2 eggs one at a time just like the recipe said. I mixed the melted chocolate into the creamed mixture... just like the recipe said.

Just a side note: I find that darker cakes are more adaptable than light cakes. Carrot cake, Apple Cake, Chocolate Cake, Spice Cakes... they are generally a bit more dense and there are more flavors to cover the more noticeable flavors of honey, maple syrup or sucanat. There is even a Hummingbird Cake in this same cookbook that is a perfect tweaking recipe... it contains carrots, apples, pineapple and nuts.

Next, the recipe called for mixing together 2 cups of flour (I used my freshly ground winter white wheat berries), 1/2 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. baking soda and 3/4 tsp.salt. I use aluminum-free baking powder, found in the health food section of my grocery store, and sea salt. Also, if you are using honey instead of sucanat, you will want to increase the baking soda by 1/4 tsp. for every cup of honey.

In a separate bowl, the recipe called for 3/4 cup of buttermilk, 1 tsp. of real vanilla, and 3/4 cup of water. I prefer not to buy the buttermilk from the store because of the added ingredients, so I used homemade plain yogurt (my dependable standby). Also, it is worth the extra expense to buy real vanilla rather than a chemical tasting like vanilla... did you know that it is one of the same chemicals used in antifreeze for your car? Interesting, huh!

Just like the recipe said, I alternately added in the flour mixture and the liquid mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Then I poured the batter into a big Pyrex bowl. Because I was baking in an nontraditional container, I had to keep my eye out for when it was done. Actually, I pulled it out and thought it was done, only to put it back in again for a while. Rule of thumb, be flexible while you're recipe tweaking, especially with a first time recipe.

So, while the cake was baking, I made the icing. I used a recipe from Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions which was already healthy, but needed to be adjusted for my use. Her recipe for Cream Cheese Icing called for 2 cups of cream cheese, 1/2 cup of butter, 1 Tablespoon of vanilla and 1/2 - 3/4 cup of honey.
I creamed the softened cream cheese until it had no lumps, added the softened butter, the vanilla and the full amount of honey (because I planned to add unsweetened chocolate). Then, I added 1/2 a jar of fruit sweetened marmalade (for the orange kick). It was totally yummy! For each of the shades of brown, I added a different amount of melted chocolate to achieve the right color.

So then I had to put the cake together. I trimmed the upside down hemisphere so that it was the cylindrical shape of a coonskin cap. I cut the cylinder in 1/2 horizontally and spread a layer of icing in between the layers. Then, I used the two trimmed parts, each a semicircle, staggered to make the shape of the tail. Make sense?
I spread the shades of brown in a mottled pattern all over the cap, making sure to leave distinct dark rings on the tail. Then, I made an uneven toothpick comb and tousled up "hair." My husband snapped this shot of my concentration face.

For a final picture of the cake, check out yesterday's post. And, here is what my kids were doing on the other side of the counter... it's blurry, but isn't it a fun picture?

I'll post more about tweaking recipes, but I hope this gives you an idea of where to start. And, I hope it gives you a confidence that you can do it too! The mistakes are part of the adventure, remember?


Noel said...

finger-licking good!

Teresa @ Grammy Girlfriend said...

Sounds great...came over from Lynettes...Just blog hopping and found your glad that I did. I enjoyed your post and will be back to read more. I have a GREAT giveaway going through Sunday night...$100 Surprise Gift....with a little Christmas to go along with it.

Melanie and Josh said...

thanks...I was just about to ask you if there is a rule of thumb about substituting whole wheat flour for ap flour. great minds think alike! :) hope all is well! Happy Birthday to SpiderMan and to Tickle soon!

Kathryn said...

Flax seed meal can create a gel that replaces eggs, but why on earth would you WANT to? Unless you have someone in your family allergic to eggs, that is.

Eggs are a powerhouse of nutrients. They got a bad rap for a while, but that was hype. Eggs are so good for you!

Becca said...

I do a lot of the same. :-) I've begun using kefir in place of buttermilk. Works great.


Andrea Manor said...

I think i might try this recipe, but will make it into a "Little Mermaid" cake for my daughters 4th birthday. I was thinking I could put the sucanat in a coffee grinder to make part of it look like sand. How long and at what temperature would you cook it for a standard size, like 2 8-in. round cakes? Also, thought on food coloring? I'll need to use blue food coloring. Is that bad for you, too? i'm guessing it is since God didn't make it. : )

Amy Ellen said...

Hi Andrea,

Yes. I have put Sucanat in my coffee bean mill before. One suggestion... wait until the dust settles before you open the lid. It can get pretty fine and pretty messy, as in puffs of brown "smoke"! It is the perfect color for sand though!

On the food coloring, it's one of those things that I wouldn't regularly give my children, but for a birthday once a year, I don't think it will do that much harm.

Good to hear from you again! ae