Comfort Food for Times of Change

2018 is a year of ch-ch-changes! I'm not ready to disclose the extent of them quite yet, but part of the news is that I have decided to return to offering more content in my blog posts. Some of you have asked for recipes, and I listened, so here goes. 

Although I generally subscribe to the theory that change is good, change is life, major changes rarely come without added stress. Managing that stress will, I'm sure, be my main health challenge over the upcoming months, as events unfold and until things settle.

Lately, especially in the afternoons when blood sugar levels tend to drop, I have been craving sweet. I'm generally not big on sweet; a small piece of very dark chocolate usually does the trick, and I will always go for a savory treat over a sweet one. But these days, maybe because winter is seeping into spring (today, as I write, is the first day of spring and it's grey and rainy in the Bay Area), or because I'm still trying to get my energy back after recovering from the worst flu of my life, I have been drinking sugary beverages like chai tea lattes and kombucha on a daily basis, and craving baked goods (which, when you can't have gluten, is not all that easy). 

Banana Nut Bread

Banana Nut Bread

From experience, I know that sugar and refined carbohydrates are not the best way to keep my energy levels in check, and that when I overdo sugar, it can wreak havoc on my digestion. Nevertheless, I'm not fully on board with the demonizing of sweet prevalent in the contemporary nutrition world, a world that tends to demonize a substance of choice, which varies over time (sugar, salt, fat, etc.). Along these lines, I'm devouring (pun intended) Ruby Tandoh's new book, Eat Up, somewhat of a manifesto against orthorexia (the obsession with eating healthy, which I wrote a bit about here). Who doesn't love a sweet treat every now and then? One of the problems is that processed foods have produced a shift in our palates: sweet is now sweeter (and more processed) than ever before. 

Baking at home is the solution I've found works best to satisfy my hunger for sweet without the ugly aftertaste. As I tell my kids, "sure, you can have something sweet, as long as you make it yourself". My beloved Yotam, a chef credited with getting people to eat more vegetables, recently published a book on desserts, and says that he doesn't see sweet as a contradiction to eating healthy. I love this non-dogmatic attitude. Sugar has become so massively divisive, he states, but when you rationally exclude something, you want it all the more irrationally. Eating less sugar is the right idea, but not by avoiding it at all costs. In a recent interview, he declared that the best way to eat less sugar is to bake a cake, then eat a slice. That will be utterly more satisfying, and help avoid the hidden junk and added sugars in processed foods. 

Countless variations on banana bread have been the mainstay (changing up the flours, with extra additions like cacao nibs, different sweet spices, nuts or seeds; something like this beauty from Green Kitchen Stories is next on the list), and here is the one that I liked the best of all so far. It combines the sweetness of bananas and a moderate amount of maple syrup (by far my favorite sweetener) with the slightly bitter, fatty goodness of tahini (this brand is my absolute favorite, but beware: it's so good that there's no turning back, you'll easily down the whole jar with a spoon) and the natural sweet fat of hazelnuts, the main flour in this recipe (I order it in bulk from this family-run company in Oregon). The bread is gluten and dairy free, but still feels rich and indulgent. It's also a great way to use up those super-ripe bananas you forgot to eat and are on the verge of going bad. 

I have been enjoying this treat in the afternoons with hojicha tea from Japan, perfect for that time of day and the cold weather, as it is lower in caffeine due to being roasted at high temperatures. The roasting also gives it a caramel nutty flavor, less astringent than sencha (which I also adore, in due context). Hojicha is mild enough to be consumed in the late afternoon (and in Japan it's given to children), but if you are fervent on sticking to herbal, then something gingery would also pair nicely. 

Banana Nut Bread
yields 1 loaf
2-3 ripe bananas
4 Tbsp maple syrup
1/3 cup tahini (make sure it's  a runny, Mediterranean style tahini like the one I mention above or similar; the raw thick pasty brands can be way too bitter)
1 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 cups hazelnut flour
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp vanilla extract (or 1/4 tsp vanilla powder, I am using one from Oaktown Spice Shop). 
1/2-1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 350ºF. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl with a handheld mixer, blend the bananas with the maple syrup.

Add in the rest of the ingredients gradually, except the walnuts. At some point you may decide to switch to a spatula; the dough should be thick.

Spread the dough evenly into a prepared loaf pan and place the roughly chopped walnuts on top.

Bake 40 min. or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely before slicing. Lasts a few days covered airtight in the fridge, and great heated up in the toaster oven for breakfast or afternoon-crashing snack.