Cappuccino Blondies and The Potluck Conundrum

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image by Ian Sargent

Before I develop an intolerance to modern wheat, I almost never brought something sweet to a party. Instead I brought salads, spanakopita, crudités.

I try to include vegetables with every meal and I find that they are often underrepresented at social gatherings, limited a few slices of mealy tomato and the sparse confetti of peppers and onions tossed into a bowl of cold pasta. It’s sad because vegetables can be so sexy. But as much as I love them, even the most alluring veggies have a hard time competing with dessert.

I can be perfectly happy with a handful of strawberries at the end of a meal, but only if I’m not surrounded by people noshing on brownies and mini cheesecakes. And this is often the situation I find myself in, one where an entire table is dedicated to sweets, but not a one is safe for me to consume. So, now I bring desserts.

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Ian Sargent

These blondies were a hit at the cookout where they made their debut. They’re sweet, chewy, and just a little bit unusual. While I love to experiment with odd flavors—like the pineapple, star anise, and sunflower seed granola I made last week—I keep it classic when serving a crowd. These blondies have espresso powder, white chocolate chips, and oatmeal. I made them with spelt flour which has a hearty sweetness and rich color that complement the white chocolate. Whole grain flours make desserts feel more satisfying and make me feel a little less guilty for abandoning my beloved vegetables.

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Ian Sargent

Cappuccino Blondies

 1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup + 2 tablespoons whole spelt flour (or 1 cup whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 cups white chocolate chips
1 tablespoon coarsely ground coffee beans (optional)

 

Heat oven to 350° F. Line a 9” x 13” baking pan with foil and grease lightly.

With a mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add egg and vanilla and mix until thoroughly combined.

Dump in espresso, salt, baking soda and spelt flour and beat until thoroughly incorporated.

Stir in oats and chips with a spatula or spoon until evenly distributed through batter.

Pour into prepared baking pan. Sprinkle coffee beans on top if desired and press into the dough.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the top is set and no longer wet looking.

Magical Objects: My Great Grandmother’s Spoons

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Most modern meals require a fork, but they lack the simply beauty of spoons. Spoons are for stirring, scooping, serving, tasting. Spoons are symbolic: silver ones for prosperity, “spoon fed” for having it easy, “greasy spoon” for a diner. I collect spoons; for me they are a totem. It started with my Great Grandmother. She had two racks of decorative spoons hanging in her dining room. Some of them were from places she had traveled, others may have been gifts. When she passed my sister and I each inherited eighteen spoons.

My Great Grandmother lived 96 years. Until the end, she had rich auburn hair, wore pearls, and lived alone. She was the smartest woman in my family and the most liberal, an avid reader, news junky, who could beat anyone at cribbage. She was elegant, a dainty eater who loved beautiful serving dishes and always put a bendy straw in my Coke.

I wish I had started my own collection earlier, mapping out my travels with coffee spoons like J. Alfred Prufrock. Instead, there are haphazard additions: a spoon my sister brought from Rome, one decorated with a confederate soldier’s cap found by a friend at a thrift shop here in Georgia, a blue one salvaged from the beach at Dead Horse Bay.

When I inherited the spoons I examined each one, imagine the places they came from, noticing the fine details. One is adorned with a tiny pair of clogs, another has the raised veins of a leaf. Their beauty enchants me. I imagine them laid out on the tables of kings, traveling over the ocean, carefully wrapped in towels. I love the way they’ve aged, the dark rainbows of tarnish. I imagine their stories, as if each was a tiny world like a snow globe encapsulating a piece of my grandmother’s history.

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Blackberry Rhubarb Bran Muffins (Vegan) and Striving for Better-ness

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“In a time of destruction, create something.”
          —Maxine Hong Kingston

I’m job searching right now—or “on the market,” as they say in academia, which sounds a lot more optimistic. Revising my CV, compiling samples and writing cover letters raises questions about the line between self-acceptance and self-improvement. Is that article really cringe-worthy or am I just having a bad day? Should I include a photo? Do I need a more attention-grabbing format?

These are worthwhile questions, but under them lurks a sinister subtext: am I good enough? If I don’t get this job is it because I didn’t try hard enough/write well enough/present myself confidently enough? This self-doubt often comes when we strive to be better. Improving requires humility, an admission of flaws, room for growth. And there always is, but there are also pieces of every circumstance that are beyond our control.

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When it comes to my health, I generally try to accept my stomach issues. I stay away from trigger foods, but I try not to blame myself when I have a rough day. Still, I like to think that it is possible that one day I’ll be symptom free. So every so often I do something different, hoping for improvement. Currently I’m trying a month without dairy.

These muffins are adapted from a recipe shared by Deb on Smitten Kitchen. I’ve made mine with oat bran, whole grain spelt flour, a flax egg, and almond milk soured with a tablespoon of cider vinegar. For fruit, I chose seasonal rhubarb and not-so-seasonal blackberries. These feel just right for early spring, hearty enough for cold mornings with tart sweetness.  I eat them warm with a dab of vegan butter.

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Blackberry Rhubarb Bran Muffins
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 1/3 (315 ml) cups almond milk
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 flax egg (1 tablespoon ground flax + 3 tablespoons hot water, mixed and rested for 5 minutes)
1/3 cup (80 ml) coconut oil, melted
1/4 cup (50 g) packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups (90 grams) oat bran
1 1/4 cups (175 g) whole grain spelt flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon Turbinado sugar
1/2 cup chopped rhubarb
3/4 cup whole blackberries

Heat oven to 425°F. Put a dozen muffin liners in a standard sized muffin tin.

Stir vinegar into almond milk and prepare flax egg. Mix together in a large bowl with coconut oil, sugar, vanilla, and lemon zest.

In a separate bowl combine oat bran, spelt flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir wet into dry and mix until no lumps remain.

Scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter into each muffin cup. add a layer of fruit, sprinkle with half the sugar, then top with remaining batter and dust with the rest of the sugar.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, testing frequently with a toothpick. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before serving.

 

 

Let’s Get Together

I’m feeling a real longing for community lately. I think it may have something to do with the current political rift, but it’s also a plight of the writer, creating in seclusion. To combat this writerly isolation I’ve decided to join bloglovin’. My hope is to follow my favorite blogs more consistently and to find some new ones, to feell more a part of the blogging community. Who are some of your favorite bloggers?

<a href=”https://www.bloglovin.com/blog/18505259/?claim=xvsrcpx3e6t”>Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

 

Illness and Idleness

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(www.edwardhopper.net)

I’m sick and I’m reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The book is an exploration of loneliness, an examination of how loneliness informs art, how difficult it is to express. Laing writes about the isolation of living in New York, about the anxiety of Edward Hopper’s paintings, Andy Warhol’s awkward silences, all kinds of solitary experience. Laing talks about the repulsiveness desperation of loneliness, but by talking about celebrity examples she overcomes the distastefulness of her subject. She explicitly links the artists’ biographies to their work, making direct connections between experience and expression.

There is something comforting in it as I lie here in bed, head cloudy with congestion, intestines aching. What is more isolating than sickness? Illness is internal, impossible to share. But it isn’t just pain that makes illness isolating. Sickness is disabling. While other do, the ill rest, sleep, hurt. They must conserve energy that others use. The ill do not take chances, do not challenge themselves, do not strive. Illness is boring, stationary, inactive. From the outside illness looks like apathy, but from the inside it feels like war. Each of us inhabits a single body and our experience within that body limits and defines our interaction with the world.

Imagining the experience of another body is the ultimate form of strangeness. Most of us simply can’t do it, like the narrator in Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral.” His encounter with the blind man in the story makes him uncomfortable and combative. When the blind man invites him to close his eyes, he chooses to keep them open, opting for the comfort of his familiar sight over the potential revelation of experiencing the world without it. He chooses not to engage.

It’s a privilege, this choice. The blind man doesn’t have the option of seeing; he is separated by something outside of his control. He cannot experience the world as the other man does. Sometimes empathy is not an available option. The sick cannot choose to inhabit the experience of the well, as much as they may long to.

Illness limits choice; it removes options. Often from the outside, these limitations seem negligible, they also seem like fussiness or obstinacy. Sometimes even from the inside it can seem that way, especially when symptoms are at a minimum and self-care means saying no to your job, friends, or family. With IBS, I can no longer be spontaneous. Feeling okay throughout the day requires a 3.5-hour morning ritual of exercise, hot drinks, a light meal, supplements, and a heating pad. It’s a rigid ritual, and it has taken away morning, which used to be my favorite time of day.

Difference is loneliness, lacking shared history, shared language, shared interests. As Laing points out in her discussion of Andy Warhol’s use of repetitive images, sameness is comforting, or in Warhol’s own words “all the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” Conditions that make conformity impossible feel antagonistic, oppressive. When one is too ill to do, and must simply wait, it is easy to feel not only lonely, but purposeless.

In these moments of inactivity, to fight despair, I think about fairy tales where the heroine is frozen in place or locked in a tower, where she searches the earth or becomes lost in a forest, for years, decades centuries. For all that time, she is simply lost, waiting, dormant. I try to wait just as patiently.

All Better

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When we say someone has healed, there’s an implied permanence, a sense that the sickness or injury is gone forever. Like “happily ever after,” healed is an impossible promise. And yet, we believe in healing. Healed is a word doctors won’t use with diseases like cancer that may return. For tentative restorations, there’s a different vernacular. We talk about remission, reduction. We fear false hope, being caught unawares.

But does impermanence negate recovery? My IBS symptoms wax and wane, and every once is a great while, they disappear. Yet even in symptom-free times, in my mind, my condition lingers. I don’t think of myself as well.

Unlike the relief I feel waking up after a lingering cold and finding that my head is clear and my breathing easy, with my stomach, feeling well is not enough.  I cannot shake the worry that I may get sick again. I do not simply enjoy being well. I get fixated on permanence.

It isn’t just in matters of physical health that fixedness matters. When it comes to loss, grief, or heartbreak we also speak of healing as if it is a single process, something that leads to a definitive moment when we are cured. But I’ve found that much like my IBS symptoms, my emotional discomforts increase and lessen, but are never wholly negated. I learn to deal with certain triggers, but the underlying tendencies find new outlets. Things improve for a while and then get difficult again.

Obsessed with patterns, I track these recurrences, their cyclical nature. Sometimes I feel that I have improved, matured, but this may be more a matter of stabilizing my environment than developing internally.

It’s the holiday season, a time of traditions and memories, when past and present blur. As adults, we return to our childhood homes. We return to our pasts, old symptoms, old habits, old feelings, return. My parent’s house evokes complex feelings. Sometimes I enjoy the familiar rooms, other times I find myself angry or forlorn. Uncertain of what to do, of how much freedom I am allowed, I lose confidence. I lose maturity, insight, autonomy. I feel old pain. Wounds that I thought had healed reopen.

Does this mean that I never healed, that my mettle is a matter of distance, that my poise is only a lie? If my answer is no, then I must rethink what healing is, to allow the possibility that to be wellness is always momentary, that a relapse of sickness does not negate the moments of health and comfort. Instead, it makes illness and wellness transitory states, both of which, will pass.

Let’s Tell True Stories; Hear Our Voice

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It is tempting to tell happy stories, to bend our lives into pleasing shapes and end them with happily ever after, but these stories, though well-meant often do more harm than good. They isolate us, shame us, silence us.

Here is a story: I hosted thanksgiving dinner at my apartment. Friends from near and far joined me, each bringing a dish to share.

On social media this story is a picture of me trussing the turkey and another of two dogs begging, a recipe for cranberry sauce, a joke about tryptophan-induced comas.

The true story is a bit more uncomfortable. The day before the holiday I get into an argument with my boyfriend. It’s not a new fight, but it sends me into a crippling bout of flash-back fueled anxiety. I’m so anxious that even playful disputes between my two canine guests leave me shaking and anxious. I stay busy because I know that if I let myself process the whole dinner will fall apart and I want desperately not to ruin the day for myself or any of my guests. I cook, and play hostess, and the guests come, but instead of enjoying the meal I critique and criticize myself. I am frustrated with everything that isn’t just how I planned, just what I wanted. I hide how I feel as well as I can and hope that no one can tell I’m not at my best.

There is nothing particularly compelling or noteworthy about this story, but it illustrates the dissonance between our lives and our stories, between the narratives that we tell and our authentic experience.

We need to return to the truth, to tell stories that matter. I believe that the upcoming Women’s March on Washington (https://www.womensmarch.com/) is a story that needs to be told, which is why I’ve signed on as the producer of a film documenting the event, Hear Our Voice.

 

Hear Our Voice is not just the story of one person’s perspective on the march, it’s a story of diverse perspectives. We are seeking footage from people attending the march and those who cannot attend. We are seeking true stories about women’s issues, inequalities, and injustices. We need your help. Learn how you can get involved https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hear-our-voice-a-documentary/x/15560188.

New Discoveries and New Intentions

 

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An early, and none-too-impressive attempt at a gluten free baguette.

I spent all day yesterday in the kitchen. I baked a delicate, slow-rising spelt and einkorn bread; roasted a sheet pan full of beets and sweet potatoes; caramelized a crunchy crust onto some freshly-foraged pecans; tossed together a caper-flecked tuna salad; broke down some raspberries into chia seed jam; blended steel-cut oats with pumpkin and spices; and simmered parmesan rinds to make a flavorful stock. I will use these things for meals throughout the week, and in that sense they’re practical, but making cheese stock and slow-rising bread for twelve hours are not sensible choices, they’re indulgent ones.

I loved cooking before IBS, but I kept my homemade meals simple. If I wanted something extravagant, I’d treat myself to a night out. Now, it’s eating out that’s an exercise in self-restraint. The bread basket, list of pastas, and dessert menu are off limits. I indulge at home. I’m getting better and better at creating meals that approach top-tier-restaurant quality. I experiment with things I would never have attempted when I knew someone else could make them for me. Some things (here’s looking at you, bagels) still fall beyond my abilities, but I’m getting better and better the more I practice and experiment. Making decadent food at home creates a new need for self-restraint. I can’t purchase a single cookie, instead I bake dozens. This has made me pickier about what I chose to make, and mindful of my consumption.

I started this blog with the intention of adding a fresh perspective to the gluten free dialogue, one that understood wheat free diets are essential for many people who don’t have celiac disease, and one that didn’t rely on pre-mixed flour blends. But I’ve discovered that a lot of gluten free baked goods don’t agree with me. I’m not sure if it’s the xanthan gum, a few of the specific flours, or the extra eggs and/or dairy that many gluten free recipes call for, but eating gluten free doesn’t always leave my tummy happy.

Gluten free baking is also really hard. With sweets, it’s not so bad, but most of my baking is more savory: bread, crackers, pizza crust. Gluten free versions of these things are not great, and have very little shelf life.

Recently I’ve been experimenting more with “ancient” hulled wheats, ones that haven’t been hybridized and genetically modified. These forms of wheat: spelt, einkorn, and farro (emmer) don’t cause the symptoms I associate with wheat. In fact, they leave me feeling better than gluten free baked goods do. They also taste better and have a longer shelf life. I’ve been eating small amounts of ancient grains for a while, but despite my lack of symptoms I’ve limited my consumption based on the idea that I tolerate these grains because they were low-gluten, not gluten free. Since I believed my digestive issues were tied to gluten, I thought that my tolerance of these grains was tied to my eating them with restraint. Then, just last week I encountered a new study on non-celiac wheat sensitivity.

I know that eating wheat makes me sick, but not eating it makes me feel privileged and guilty. Like my IBS, my wheat sensitivity is comprised of a number of severe symptoms but for a long time my experience was unsupported by a medical diagnosis. I’d read dozens of articles telling me that I was crazy, unhealthy, and dumb for avoiding wheat. Michael Pollan, my long time local-food guru suggested that it was yeast, not wheat that was the problem, so I tried a locally made sourdough, but it caused all the usual symptoms. I knew that eating wheat made me bloated, tired, dizzy, shaky, and gave me vertigo, but my doctors and friends insisted that, since I don’t have celiac, there should be no reason why I couldn’t eat wheat.

Just a few days ago I encountered a new explanation, a substance known as ATI (amylase-trypsin inhibitor), which may be the real cause of non-celiac wheat intolerance. ATI is a type of protein that only exists in modern, free-threshing, non-hulled forms of wheat. It’s an explanation that makes a lot of sense to me. It explains why some forms of wheat don’t trigger symptoms while others do. Since learning about ATI I’ve been eating more einkorn and spelt and less gluten free food and I’m feeling better than ever.

I’m telling you all of this for two reasons. First, because it hasn’t been that widely publicized and I want to spread the word to other people who might benefit from this information. Second, this is going to change the way I bake here on the blog. There are way more sites exploring gluten free baking than there are using hulled-wheats. I plan to shift my focus toward ancient wheats, though I’m sure I will still use a variety of flours. I look forward to sharing a new stretch of my food journey with you.

 

 

The Gift of Baking

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When you can eat anything, food often seems like a cheap show of affection. Before I got sick, my mom sent cookies for Christmas, my birthday and Valentine’s Day. It was nice, but not particularly moving, not when cookies were a regular treat easily made and easily indulged in. Then, a year and a half ago, I discovered that my body had developed an intolerance to wheat. Now making cookies for me involves buying unfamiliar expensive ingredients and trying out new unpredictable recipes. My mother hasn’t tried it. She still bakes for me, but she tends to select familiar recipes, opting for flourless chocolate cake over rice flour cookies. Her hesitancy to venture too far into the unknown is reasonable; wheat free baking often goes wrong. It’s part of what keeps people so tied to the same old wheat-based recipes even as more and more of us find ourselves no longer able to enjoy them.

 

With a restricted diet, food gifts take on new layers of meaning. When a friend made coconut flour pancakes for brunch I couldn’t stop thanking him. I almost cried when my friend Shannon presented me with half a dozen chocolate chip cookies to celebrate the completion of my thesis. I felt deeply loved when my mother baked my favorite spelt bread recipe when I visited this summer, allowing me to eat lunch with the rest of the family. The fact that it was overmixed and slightly burnt, barely registered; I was too delighted to be eating a sandwich.

 

it’s hard to imagine these days, but there was a time when gifts of food were the epitome of extravagance. Queen Elizabeth’s suitors were as likely to win her affections with marzipan as with jewels. Sugar and spices were once luxuries, things truly valued. Now, for most of us, a cake is easier to acquire than a carrot. But when I stopped eating wheat, I once again began to appreciate baked goods as treats, rare and decadent things. I know exactly how much time and effort goes into a loaf of bread, a pie crust, a cracker. To eat these things, I have to make them.

 

Most of the baked goods in my life now come from me. I make my own bread and cookies. It’s a time consuming hobby, but one I enjoy more than I would have imagined. On the weekends, instead of binge-watching TV, I press corn tortillas and bake sheets of homemade granola. I’ve gotten to know the different types of flour, discovered favorite new recipes. It’s taken time to learn how to work with spelt, einkorn, and gluten free flours. I often share the things I make, but there’s no denying that the baking is for me, that I do it mostly for my own pleasure.

 

My enjoyment of cooking used to come only from the product, my joy in the results of my labor. But wheat free baking is often unsuccessful, and through my tests and failures I’ve learned to love the process itself, to enjoy making food, to understand that doing so is a gift.

Travel, Exploration, and Wanting What I Can’t Have

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Have you seen that psychological experiment with the kids and the marshmallows? It goes like this: a child is given a marshmallow and told that they can eat the marshmallow right then or, if they wait, they can have two marshmallows.

Few children can resist that first fluffy ball of sweetness, although many of them try. YouTube videos and internet sites have filmed replicas of the test showing children squishing, licking, and petting the sugary treats before sneaking their first nibble. These videos usually end with frightening claims about how the lack of self-control these children show will inhibit their potential for the rest of their lives. But they’re over-simplifying, showing only one part of the test. Later segments explore the effects of distracting activities like playing with toys, visual distance, and imagination on the choice to delay gratification. The experiment shows increased willpower when the marshmallow is covered with a bowl or when the children are told that they can imagine it’s not there.

Before IBS and its accompanying food intolerances, vacations were an opportunity for boundless culinary exploration. I loved trying new dishes and indulging in old favorites. Whatever rules or restrictions I usually followed where placed on hold. I ate whatever I wanted. I ate pancake breakfasts and late night French fries—ignoring the constipation that I experienced every time I travelled. I wouldn’t be held back. I was proud of my culinary exploration. (It never occurred to me how much of this supposed diversity relied on a single ingredient: wheat flour.)

Now that I’m on a more restricted diet, I still find plenty of delicious options, but somehow I still feel deprived, especially when traveling. Its illogical, feeling this way. I’m luckily not a celiac, and don’t have to worry about cross contamination. I can even eat ancient grains like einkorn and spelt in limited quantities. At home, my food options don’t seem limited, but away from home, it’s difficult. Not because there’s nothing I can eat, but because I’m surrounded by food I can’t eat, reminders that my choices are limited.

On a recent long-weekend trip to Atlanta I enjoyed succulent Indian lamb, a crisp-edged turkey burger on a gluten-free bun, pulled-pork enchiladas, creamy grits topped with shrimp and tomatoes, and even a gluten-free brownie. And yet, despite this decadent array, I found myself longing for flaky French pastries, chewy middle eastern flat breads, and pillowy Japanese steam buns. Calorie wise, my vacations are still an indulgence, and yet I often end up feeling hindered.

I’ve developed tricks to keep myself from partaking in forbidden foods: moving the bread basket further away from me on the table, not reading sections of a menu dedicated to sandwiches and pasta. I used to allow myself a single bite of pizza crust or dinner roll. But when you allow yourself one bite, it’s hard not to have two and while sometimes a small indulgence wouldn’t lead to symptoms, other times it would. Besides, I think it’s worse somehow to know exactly what I’m missing. Now, I abstain, unfailingly. And yet, I struggle. I watch my friends tearing into buttery garlic nan or my boyfriend slicing into crisp waffles and I hanker for what I can’t have. And yet, I have so much.

I know this, that my deprivation is laughable, minimal, negligible. I have never been malnourished, deprived of sustenance. But even my paltry restriction is illuminating. It gives me a tiny window into true longing and deprivation.

I am not strong enough to overcome my own unsatisfied wanting, at least not yet, but I do feel great admiration for those who resist more, have less. The shrimp and grits pictured above are from Cafe 458, a nonprofit which funds programs for the homeless, a setting that helped subvert my normal mental whining.

I may not always be able to feel the appreciation my privileged life deserves, but when I return home, back to the comforts of my own kitchen, I am truly grateful.