I bake year round, because I have a houseful of people, who are always hungry, and I’d rather give them wholesome baked goods than buy processed, prepackaged cookies from the grocery store or expensive baked goods from local bakery. I am not above the occasional purchase of a package of Chips Ahoy. But I like to keep it occasional, at best, because I know that anything I make at home is going to be far better and healthier than Big Food. That is not a brag. I am not that great, but I believe anything home made by anybody is better than most of the stuff on supermarket shelves. So bake I do, and dealing with the attendant dirty bowls and pans is something I don’t mind that much. Suddenly with the cooler weather upon us in the Northeast, my mind is going more and more to baking yummy treats for my family. I will gladly leave the birthday cakes to the experts, but I find the alchemy of making something at home for the people I love to be both a creative outlet and a stress reducer. As long as I am not under pressure to produce, baking is actually a Zen moment for me.
I am not a fancy baker….drop cookies and fruit crisps are divine to my family and easy to make. I will occasionally make a chocolate souffle when I feel like going through the hassle of separating eggs. But its usually the simple stuff that elicits the most joy. Although I’m not a fancy baker I nevertheless have high standards with the ingredients that I use. The main point of home baking, besides the enjoyment, is one of quality control. Below are some of my tried and true products for better, healthier baking:
1) Rumford Baking Powder-I have been using this for 20 years. It is aluminum free and the cornstarch in it is GMO free as well. It is inexpensive and widely available at many supermarkets.
2)Farmer’s Market Organic Pumpkin-If I am not going to make my own pumpkin pie puree (a rarity, I will admit), then I use this instead. The liner of this can is BPA free and it’s organic. Actually, when I went to purchase a few days ago in Wegmans Bridgewater, NJ, it was $.30 less expensive than the same size non organic Libby brand of pumpkin. At $1.99, it is a bargain and a time saver.
3) Almond Flour from Honeyville Grain Company- We are not completely gluten free, but I like to bake with almond flour frequently. Honeyville Grain’s 5 pound bag is $34.99 and they have sales a few times per year. Sign up on their website for their coupon club to be notified of sales. Sadly, I have been unable to find a source for organic almond flour.
4) Simply Organic Brand of Vanilla Extract- This brand is superior to typical mass market brands of vanilla extract. It is just vanilla bean, water and alcohol. Many mass market brands contain caramel color. A big downside is that it is very expensive. So, if you don’t want to pay big bucks for a 4 ounce container of vanilla extract, you can make your own by soaking vanilla beans in vodka for 6 months.
5)Celtic Sea Salt-there is a world of difference between real salt and sea salt. Refined, iodized salt has had its minerals removed and has been bleached to give it the white appearance that we are accustomed to seeing with salt. It is the fine, white salt that is available at almost any restaurant or grocery store. Sea salt has not been put through a harsh chemical process and retains its original minerals. I find it to be potent in flavor and often use half the amount of salt that a recipe calls for when using celtic sea salt. I use the fine ground version.
6) Kerrygold Butter or Natural by Nature Butter-both of these brands are far better than mass market butter. They are made from the milk of pature raised animals. I always use unsalted butter when baking. It has a purer, cleaner flavor and salted butter can affect the outcome of the finished product. Unfortunately, these products are expensive. To cut down on cost, I will often sub in a half cup of white bean puree or even pumpkin puree when using butter in a recipe such as chocolate chip cookies.
7) Eggs-I always use large eggs in baking. I almost never buy my eggs from the grocery store. In the book “Never Be Sick Again”, Raymond Francis says that 90% of feedlot chickens have cancer at the time of their slaughter. That gives me pause. Whether or not that transfers to us as humans is a point I can’t even begin to debate. I want to know that my eggs come from grazing chickens, not caged up, artificially enlarged birds that are kept in inhumane conditions .Those of you who have seen the movie Food, Inc, will know exactly what I am referring to. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly reccomend it. I like to buy from a local farm or CSA. Third option is to buy from a natural food store.
8) Shredded Coconut-My favorite place to buy shredded coconut is online, at Tropical Traditions. Shredded, unsweetened coconut is a health food, while the sweetened, bleached, coconut that is typically used by holiday bakers is a harmful food, far removed from its original source, the coconut.
9) Jelly- My favorite donut growing up was a jelly donut, and after that it was a Linzer cookie. So, naturally, I love to use jelly in little thumbprint jelly cookies or in a bar recipe. I adore the Wegmans Jammin’ brand of organic jelly in either the raspberry or strawberry flavor. So delicious, and knowing that it is organic is important, being that berries are one of the highest pesticide laden fruits when not farmed organically.
10) Sugar-The ground zero of healthier baking, I have left for the last point. If you are a reader of my blog, or you know me, you know that I do not eat many sweets. But I like to bake. I do use sugar, sometimes even white sugar….but not frequently and when I do use it, I reduce the amount in a recipe by at least a third. Most recipes are written for people who have a dominant sweet tooth. I want to taste other flavors in my baked goods, and have sugar play a minor supporting role, so I ALWAYS reduce the amount called for, or I re-configure the recipe completely to use a healthier sweetener. Even with healthier sweeteners, I use less. My feeling is that if you are in general good health, your body can probably handle an occasional sweet treat. However, I do not think it is good practice to finish each evening or each meal with a little sweet. An alternative sweetener that I have been using lately with much success is coconut sugar. It substitutes nicely for brown sugar.
While this list is not exhaustive, I have listed some of the main pantry items that I am never without. I can put together almost any cookie or crisp with this list of ingredients. Here is one of my recipes that is in heavy rotation. My 15 year old asks for it by calling it “the good recipe for chocolate chip cookies”. I think he likes the way these cookies puff up and are cakey. I also like knowing that they are getting some protein and fiber in a cookie. http://juicygreengirl.com/2012/05/a-tollhouse-departure/