Winter baking and sweet treats without sugar shock

The colder it gets, the more my urge to bake crawls up to the surface. It’s very hard to ignore the desire to heat up one’s kitchen and make comfort food. A few winters ago,  I went on a quest to make the perfect oatmeal-cranberry cookie,* and the perfect red velvet cupcake. I learned a lot, gained weight, and had fun, but I spent a lot of time eating ugly, flavorless red velvet cupcakes. I kept eating them by the dozen, dragged in by the addictive nature of complex carbohydrates, even though they tasted like chalkboard erasers.  I’d eat them, wondering what went wrong in the baking process, then I’d have to pass out, then I’d wake up three hours later, and eat more of them***.

The beagle-basset hound in its preferred native habitat.

“I would definitely like a cookie, please.”

This winter, I’m trying really hard to avoid the complex carbohydrate roller coaster. But I still want to crank up the oven, warm up the kitchen, and put effort into something which will result in a tasty comforting treat for my loved ones and myself. Particularly when you write for theater, and you’re putting effort into something with no clear concept of how it will pay off, cooking can be very affirming.  Making batches of cookies is ridiculous, in my opinion. Vince will only eat so many, I’m not a good enough baker to take my cookies to others, and leaving sugary carby snacks around me is like leaving heroin around Kurt Cobain.** But, I have a new tactic.

My dear friend Shelle, who blogs over at BatCookies, recommended Bob Harper’s book The Skinny Rules to me a few years ago. I haven’t followed it strictly, but I like the recipes a lot. One of his easy snack recipes is roasted sweet potatoes.  Through trial and error and negotiation with my oven, I adapted his recipe to suit me. Basically, I chop up sweet potatoes into chunks, put them in a bowl, toss them with oil, garlic salt and whatever else on the spice shelf looks good, and then put them on a baking sheet lined with foil in a preheated oven at 375 for about 20-25 minutes.

Oven-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Left: Sweet potatoes tossed with olive oil, Goya Adobo Light seasoning, and Indian Curry Powder. Right: Sweet potatoes, buck naked.

Harper’s recipe is lower in salt than mine, and I’m sure his oven has less heating issues than mine does, so if you’re on a weight loss trip, go get his book and read it because it’s reasonably good. Also, at this time of year, sweet potatoes are not expensive, and they’re even cheaper around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I got 5 lbs. for $4.40 a few weeks ago at my local supermarket, but my local produce vendor normally has them for 3 pounds for a dollar. If you want a warm, tasty, crisp on the outside yet soft on the inside sweet-salty-savory snack,  try this.

WebMD has a detailed article explaining not only the nutrient profile of sweet potatoes, but also how they are frequently confused with yams and the differences between them. I thought I was buying yams at the supermarket, because they had reddish skin and were labelled “yams.” I was wrong.  However, from hearing me talk about it, my dogs now put the word “yam” in the same category of understanding as “walk,” “treat,” “cookie” and “bed.”  Trying to explain the difference between a yam and a sweet potato to them at this point won’t work.

ME: Bebe, I need to explain something to you.

BEBE: You woke me up, this better be good.

ME: Okay. Just so you know-

BEBE: Holy crap that’s a yam, gimme.

ME: No, I need to explain something first.

BEBE: What’s to explain, gimme. Yam. Now.

ME: This is to a yam, it’s a sweet potato. Yams are native to Africa, whereas sweet potatoes are native to South America.

BEBE: As long as it emigrates across my tongue, down my gullet and into my belly, I don’t care where it’s from. Gimme Yam.

ME: Yams also are dark brown and hairy and can grow up to 100 pounds. So they usually don’t have them in supermarkets in the US.

BEBE: I’m brown and hairy. Quit accusing me of look-ism. All tasty treats are welcome. I have a very liberal immigration policy in Bebestumistan.

ME: So, you understand, right? It’s a sweet potato, not a-

(SNAP)

ME: Thank you for not chomping my fingers, Bebe.

BEBE: You’re welcome. Thank you for the yam.

So we have to use the word “yam.” That’s all there is to it.

I do make sweet potato treats specifically for the dogs, thanks to Thug Kitchen’s Sweet Potato Dog Treat Jerky Recipe. It occurred to me that maybe letting the dogs mooch off my garlicky, salty sweet potato chunks was probably a terrible idea, so I make them buck naked.

My friends who have kids are falling into the “baking cookies” trap as badly as I have; it’s cold, you have to entertain some bored kids; voilà, bake cookies. Teach them measuring and procedures and chemistry and science and cooking and follow it with tasty tasty sugary snacks. But, I’m wondering baking sweet potato slices or chunks could be just as entertaining. True, you don’t want to give the kids knives, but what I’m wondering is if you cut the potatoes into wide, long slices, bake them for fifteen minutes to soften them, then cut them into shapes with a cookie cutter, then put them back in the oven for another ten or 15 minutes, if that would solve the problem of the cookie trap?

Or would kids say, “Don’t fucking try to fake us out, now come across with the cookies?”

——

* The Quaker Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Recipe. Accept no substitutes. Except that I substituted cranberries for raisins, because Vince doesn’t like ’em.

**Recomended Reading: The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, MD. An approachable yet scientifically sound  and fascinating book about the human brain, biochemistry, and how we manipulate ourselves and each other to over-eat, keep eating, and never be fully satisfied.

Also, for what it’s worth, I love Thug Kitchen so much. There is something about those recipes that flip a switch in my brain and I get a level of  satisfaction from flavor and nutrients and mouthfeel that is as deeply profound as scratching a seven-year-itch.

*** For what it’s worth: I tried a lot of different recipes for Red Velvet Cupcakes. Of the best I have ever tasted, which I did not bake, they have come from Philly Cupcake at 1132 Chestnut Street and Cookie Confidential at 5th & Gaskill.  I have not tried Flying Monkey‘s red velvet cupcakes, though I have tried their other cupcakes and they are amazing and delicious.

Of the ones I have baked:

All box mixes I tried were chocolate cake dyed red. NO.

Paula Deen’s recipe was the worst. The recipe called for 1 & 1/2 cups of vegetable oil, but no butter, which seemed really odd to me. But I went ahead with it, and followed instructions. They were rubbery and sad and I hated them and myself for bringing them into this world.

The most successful recipe I used was one which I found online and now can’t find again. However, The Parsley Thief’s Recipe for Red Velvet Cupcakes seems to be the closest to what I remember.

Good red velvet cupcakes, apparently, are supposed to be balanced between sweet and bitter and tangy. They’re supposed to have a hint of chocolate taste to them, but they’re not supposed to be a chocolate cupcake dyed red.  From what I can figure, if it’s a cake recipe which cuts no corners, but also includes unsweetened cocoa, buttermilk, baking soda and distilled vinegar (and requires that you do the vinegar-baking soda trick when you make it) you’re as close to a true red velvet cake recipe as anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line will let a Yankee.  I think the popularity is due to the challenge and controversy of how to properly make one, and how easy it is to get it wrong.

And now, as you can see, I’m still completely obsessed, and will have to content myself with roasted sweet potato chunks.

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About manifenestration

Lindsay is a playwright, arts advocate, and a candidate in Temple University's MFA program in Playwriting. She lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA, with her husband, three cats and two dogs. Someday, she hopes to not have to vacuum.

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