Sunday, January 30, 2011

Muesli: Breakfast Powerhouse

I’ve eaten cereal and milk for breakfast nearly every day for the past 45 years. As breakfasts go cereal is particularly serviceable, especially when a day’s work lies ahead and I don’t have much time. Preparation is quick and undemanding, and the combination of protein from the milk and carbohydrates from the cereal lays a nutritious foundation for the remainder of the day.

There's powerful stuff in that bowl.

As an American kid growing up in the 1960s, I opted for high-sugar cereals like Frosted Flakes, Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops, which I ate happily and without question. In my 20s and 30s, as my awareness of good nutrition grew, I turned to healthier packaged cereals like those from Kashi and Nature’s Path. They’re still good choices, but now I’m in my 50s and I expect (and need) even more from my breakfast cereal.

In a nutshell I want: high fiber, low fat, low sugar, low sodium, and all natural ingredients that don’t have long chemical names. Oh, and it should taste good too. Packaged cereals with these specs are available, but after a while I found myself regularly turning to the same three or four, which got boring. Then one day I was perusing a book called Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce (highly recommended if you’re interested in whole-grain baking), and spotted a recipe for muesli that changed my thinking about breakfast cereal.  

Broadly speaking, muesli is a mixture of oats or other raw grains, fruit and/or dried fruit, and nuts. Muesli is similar to granola, but there are differences. Granola is usually baked and contains vegetable oil and a fair amount of added sugar, such as honey or brown sugar. Muesli tends to be uncooked with no added sugar. The only fat in muesli is from the nuts and grains.

I started with the recipe from Good to the Grain but pretty soon my wife became interested, and we added this and that until we had a cereal more to our liking (see recipe below). Which leads to the next point: the ingredients and proportions are extremely flexible. If you can’t find thick-cut oats, use all regular oats. Substitute barley flakes or wheat flakes for part of the oats or rye. Leave out the quinoa. Use whatever nuts and dried fruits you like best or have on hand. Experiment until you find the balance of grains, nuts, and fruits you like best, or make every batch different.

I eat muesli like any other cereal: plop it in a bowl and pour milk over it. My wife soaks her serving of muesli overnight in fruit juice or milk to soften it, adding a large spoonful of yogurt right before eating. I can see how the raw grains might be too chewy for some, so if that’s the case you’ll probably prefer the softer, soaked version. Muesli can also be cooked like oatmeal to soften it even further.

You've probably guessed that muesli is an exceptionally healthy food. It’s an excellent source of soluble and insoluble fiber, whole grains, and healthy fats. It’s lactose-free, suitable for vegans, and can easily be made gluten-free or nut-free. Muesli is good for those trying to lower cholesterol, keep blood sugar levels steady, or increase their intake of dietary fiber. Basically it's everything I’m looking for in a breakfast cereal, with an earthy, honest flavor I don't get tired of.

If you want to find out more about the nutritional benefits of muesli, here’s a link to an excellent article with additional recipes:

About 18 servings, 2/3 cup each

3 cups thick-cut oats (not Scotch oats)
3 cups regular oats
1 cup rye flakes
1/2 cup quinoa flakes
1/4 cup flaxseeds
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup wheat bran
2 cups almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, or a combination,

     raw or toasted, coarsely chopped
1 cup raisins, dark or golden
1 cup dried cherries, dried cranberries or other dried fruit,

     chopped if necessary
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut, raw or toasted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Store in airtight containers at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Will keep two weeks at room temperature, a month or more if refrigerated.

For each serving
Place 2/3 cup muesli in a bowl. Top with yogurt, milk, cream, soy milk, rice milk, or fruit juice as desired. Eat right away or let sit for several minutes to soften. (Alternatively, top with milk or juice then refrigerate overnight.) Top with fresh fruit, and honey or maple syrup if you’re inclined.

To toast nuts
Spread nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350º F. for 12-17 minutes, or until the nuts darken slightly. Stir once or twice during baking. Let cool, then chop and mix with the other ingredients.

To toast coconut
Spread coconut in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350º F. for 5-8 minutes, or until very light brown. Stir once or twice during baking. Coconut burns easily so check it frequently while it’s in the oven. Let cool before adding to the other ingredients.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vegan Cupcakes

Am I wrong or is there a cupcake renaissance going on? The local bakery downtown has a big sign in their window declaring “We have cupcakes!” as if that would really get people excited, and maybe it has. I’ve noticed cupcake ads in a few other places so perhaps they’re the latest craze in the world of bakery treats.

Of course, with their paper or foil wraps, cupcakes are just portable pieces of cake, and that's probably part of the attraction. A cupcake is easier to eat walking down the street than a slab of cake in a styrofoam container. Also commercially-made cupcakes can be very photogenic, piled high with their swirls of brightly-colored frosting and sprinkles. They make good eye candy but, not being a fan of big piles of frosting, I would probably prefer a brownie.

Anyway it was my wife’s birthday this past week and to celebrate she decided that instead of a regular cake she’d rather have a few cupcakes, which would make our enjoyment of birthday treats more manageable and of shorter duration. Like me she’s trying to stay healthy but realizes the importance of letting go occasionally (key word = occasionally).

A few days before the birthday I purchased three cupcakes from the downtown bakery to see what all the fuss was about. Knowing the standards of the establishment I’m sure the cupcakes were well made with good ingredients (i.e. butter instead of hydrogenated shortening), but we found them rather ordinary and, at $3.00 a piece, a bit pricey as well. Of course this just stoked my desire to make some REALLY good cupcakes for my wife’s birthday.

My wife is lactose intolerant, so it was preferable that the cupcakes contain no cow’s milk or butter. This is where the “vegan” part comes in.

There’s a spunky little book called Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero that we often rely on when we want to make scrumptious treats without the lactose found in milk products. We’re not vegan but because vegan recipes contain no milk or dairy they fit in with my wife’s dietary restriction.

The really newsworthy point is that these vegan cupcakes are some of the best cupcakes we’ve ever tasted, period. The recipes are not difficult, nor for the most part do they call for hard-to-find ingredients. You can confidently serve these to even the staunchest non-vegans, who will only know that they’re eating something delicious. Vegans, of course, will be appreciative. Well done, Isa and Terry!

The cupcake recipe below is adapted from a recipe in their book. I did not use the recommended icing because my wife wanted a very pronounced coffee and chocolate flavor for the top, so I used a different recipe. Because the frosting needs to sit for a while to reach spreading consistency, you may want to make that before making the cupcakes.

I also insisted on making 18 cupcakes rather than the 12 yielded by the original recipe. Being healthy is great, but birthdays only happen once a year, right?

Vegan Coconut Chocolate Cupcakes with Mocha Frosting
Makes 18

Coconut Chocolate Cupcakes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 1/8 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons coconut extract
3/4 cup unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 350º F. Place 18 cupcake liners in muffin tins, or spray 18 muffin slots with non-stick spray. Stir together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Place vegetable oil, coconut milk, sugar, and extracts in a separate bowl and mix well until sugar loses some of its gritty texture. Add flour mixture to wet ingredients in 3 or 4 batches, beating well after each addition. Mix until smooth, then fold in 3/4 cup shredded coconut.

Fill cupcake liners or muffin slots about 2/3 full. Bake about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Let cool in pans for 10 minutes, then place on wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

Mocha Frosting
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, etc.
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine sugar, cocoa, and soy milk in a medium saucepan. Whisk to make a thick paste. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture comes to a boil. Lower heat and boil gently for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Let cool, stirring occasionally, until frosting reaches spreadable consistency. Will keep refrigerated for up to a week.

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut, lightly toasted
Chocolate-covered espresso beans

Top each cupcake with a generous amount of Mocha Frosting. Place one or two chocolate-covered espresso beans on each. Sprinkle with toasted coconut.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Real Hot Chocolate

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Paris a few times, and one of my favorite places is a salon de thé called Angelina. One of the historic restaurants of Paris, Angelina was built in 1903 and has a wonderfully ornate interior with high ceilings and large street-front windows. It's usually bustling because it's in a tourist area on the rue de Rivoli, but somehow that doesn't diminish its charm. It’s a beautiful space in which to linger with a beverage and pastry, such as the famous Mont Blanc, a sweet “white mountain” of meringue, whipped cream, and chestnut cream.

Thick, NOT watery.

Angelina offers a selection of high-quality teas and coffees, as well as light lunches and pastries. However the real draw, for me and thousands of others, is le chocolat Africaine, arguably the best hot chocolate in Paris (or the world!). To say le chocolat Africaine is rich is an understatement. It’s one of the most intense chocolate experiences I’ve ever had, like a drinkable chocolate mousse, a high point in the life of a chocolate lover. It's very thick and is served in a small pitcher from which you can pour two or three smallish cups, which is about all you'll want. Appeals to open an Angelina franchise in my midwestern city have, alas, gone unfulfilled.

There's a cinnamon stick floating in there.

When the weather turns cold, I find myself longing for good hot chocolate and turn to the recipe below. It’s not as rich as le chocolat Africaine—and that’s probably a good thing—but it is in the same ballpark. Increase the thickness and intensity by using heavy cream, high-quality bittersweet chocolate, and a little less liquid. Decrease the richness by using half-and-half instead of cream, and semisweet chocolate instead of bittersweet. Either way you’ll have a damn fine hot chocolate.

Very warming with a shot of Grand Marnier or brandy.

I often add a cinnamon stick to the chocolate as it heats, or just sprinkle some cinnamon in the cup. Sometimes, on cold Sunday afternoons when I’m not going anywhere, I’ll add a tablespoon of Grand Marnier or brandy, which is extremely warming. Spoon a large dollop of concentrate into your next cup of coffee to make a Café Mocha you will congratulate yourself for.

Real Hot Chocolate
Makes several small cups

For the chocolate concentrate
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, cut into small pieces

In a small saucepan bring the cream to a rolling boil, then remove from heat. Whisk in the chocolate pieces until melted and smooth. Can be refrigerated for up to 10 days.

For each cup of hot chocolate
1/4 cup chocolate concentrate
1/4 cup milk, coffee, or water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Blend the concentrate with milk, coffee, or water. Heat gently, in a small saucepan over medium-low heat or in the microwave, until warm but not boiling. Add vanilla. Add cinnamon, whipped cream, or marshmallows as you like.