Saturday, November 28, 2020

Thoughts on Sugar, Two Sweet Treats and a Book Report

Nicola Twilley recently had a fascinating article in the New Yorker on the race to redesign sugar. "In 1800, an average American would have lived and died never having encountered a single manufactured candy"...or sweetened yogurt/cereal/drink etc. etc. with added sugar. Well, that certainly changed in a big way and very quickly! The article talks about corporations taking on the challenge of designing a better sugar, "to continue selling countless sweet things in a world that is increasingly wary of sugar".  

Artificial sweeteners have not solved the problem. They don't taste the same as sugar and don't behave the same way as sugar in baking and cooking. The other issue with artificial sweeteners, even for people who don't mind the taste, is that they are not the get-out-of-jail-free-card that they seem to be. Our metabolism is complex and not easily fooled. One of the food scientists quoted in this article says "Anytime we think we've got one over on our biology, there will be collateral damage somewhere"

"The problem is that sugar isn't easy to replace" so the new race is to redesign sugar, and Twilley describes attempts to do so, by restructuring sugar crystals, embedding silica in sugar crystals, and manufacturing rare sugars (rare in nature) commercially that taste sweet but are unable to be digested by the human body. 

And this is what Twilley writes at the end of her article after taste-testing foods made with high-tech forms of sugar-

"As I cleared away the uneaten treats, I thought about all the money and the scientific ingenuity that had gone into creating them, and I started to wonder: "Couldn't we just eat less sugar?" BINGO!! 

"Just as the only good substitute for sugar is sugar, the only way to eat less of it, sadly, is to eat less of it."

As it happens, I've been trying to eat "less of it" for a while now, partly because everyone would be better off eating less sugar but also because of a strong family history of type 2 diabetes and a personal history of gestational diabetes. 

Why not go the whole way and just quit eating added sugar altogether? Many people do just that and are very much happier for it. And depending on my future medical needs, it is absolutely a step I am willing to take. the moment, I am choosing the route of moderation rather than abstinence. Because...well, a bit of sugar does sweeten life. In most cultures, it is a symbol of celebration and festivity. It is fun to make and give and receive and share sweet treats. 

And when I say moderation, I mean true moderation, which takes a bit of sustained and intentional effort in today's sugar-saturated world. Sugar is a good servant but a terrible master. Over the years, I've made my own rules around sugar to "enjoy responsibly" as the booze-makers like to say. 

For one thing, I trained my tastebuds to go without sugar in everyday drinks. I now prefer drinking tea and coffee without sugar. Try this one weird trick to save yourself countless lbs of sugar consumed over the years! I never drank much soda and juice anyway.

The other biggie is not buying cookies and other sweet treats on a regular basis. Amazing how little willpower is required to avoid something that is not in the house. I used to buy cookies "for guests" and then sneak into them. Now I avoid temptation altogether.

When I do make treats, I make them with whole ingredients, using good recipes that I like, and make no effort to look for low-fat, low-sugar, or diet recipes of any sort. But I do cut down the sugar in recipes because I prefer them that way, and I make treats in controlled portions (mini, bite-sized) and share them generously so lots of people can get a taste but no one has a pile of sweets that they feel compelled to over-eat. I avoid cooking or baking with artificial sweeteners- they don't taste good to me and I don't care to have them around. 

But what about self-care and treating yo'self? I have three treats on hand always- (a) fresh fruit, (b) flavored herbal tea, (c) dark chocolate. For this last one, I buy a Pound Plus (half a kilogram to be exact!) bar of Belgian dark chocolate from Trader Joe's and chop it into small bits and stick it in the fridge for use in baking and rare evening treats. 

The nice thing about getting older is that you know your own preferences. I get my joy from quick and simple bakes (see two recent examples below) and it frees me from having to do anything different or more complicated. I can admire confections and baked goods (on blogs, Instagram, bakery windows, baking shows) for their art and creativity without feeling any desire to make them or eat them. 

Perhaps the best thing about eating very little sugar on a regular basis is that when you do eat it, it feels special. And you don't crave it all the time so you are in control. Being trapped in a cycle of cravings and guilt is no way to live. 

* * * 

Years ago, while visiting my sister, I bought a sweetheart rose muffin pan from the Nordicware factory tent sale in Minneapolis. As adorable as this pan is, the nooks and crevices can make it a nightmare to turn out cakes. I used it once, had a frustrating experience and put the pan away. 

Then I stumbled upon a DIY cake release paste- you mix equal parts (say, 1 tbsp) shortening, oil and flour, whisk it into a thick paste and brush the paste thoroughly on the inside of the cake molds. I decided to try this trick on the sweetheart rose pan, and the outcome would decide if the pan stayed or went into the donation pile for some other baker to wrestle with. 

A close family friend turned 78 in October; she was recovering from a double fracture and I wanted to drop off a birthday treat. Here was my chance to try the rose pan. My daughter used a silicone pastry brush to paint the cake release paste thoroughly on the mini rose pan. Meanwhile, I made the batter- my favorite Lemon Bliss Bundt cake recipe from King Arthur Baking. I replaced 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup almond flour. 

The batter perfectly filled this mini rose cake pan plus 12 regular cupcakes. And the cake release formula worked like a charm! A bit of glazing and the baby cakes were ready to be shared with the birthday gal. She was delighted and so was I.

Greased rose molds, and fresh from the oven

A bouquet of rose muffins

* * *

For Diwali, I managed to make one single mithai. I have very little mithai-making experience but also did not have the bandwidth to research this recipe with a busy work week. So I just put a few ingredients together that I had on hand, went for a simple coconut burfi with my daughter's help and hoped for the best. This loosey-goosey approach is not recommended for mithais but I guess I had some beginner's luck.

Coconut burfi in mini muffin cups

1. Heat 2 tsp. ghee in a pan. 
2. Add 1 packet sweetened coconut flakes and stir around on fairly low heat until aromatic (watch carefully because coconut burns easily)
3. Add 1/2 cup almond meal and most of a can of sweetened condensed milk
4. Cook together, stirring often, until the mixture thickens, 10-15 minutes
5. Turn off heat and add 1 tsp. cardamom
6. Let the mixture cool a few minutes. Scoop half the mixture into a lined loaf pan and pat it down
7. Into the other half, put in a few drops of food coloring (totally optional; my daughter enjoyed this) and stir well. Add the dyed mixture into the loaf pan as a second layer
8. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight
9. Cut into small slices or blocks

The mixture looked fairly sticky when we made it, but after a day in the fridge, the two-tone burfi was solid and looked pretty legit. I'm going to make these again for Christmas gifts. You could have fun with the flavors and colors, such as a pistachio layer and an orange layer.

Diwali on the porch

* * * Book Report * * *

Since I wrote my last post, I've more or less stopped watching TV in the evenings in favor of retiring early with a book. The time change throws off my kids' sleeping schedule every single time. Our toddler, already an early riser, started breaking his own records and waking up at about 4:30 AM since the switch to standard time. So I have given up on evenings spent with TV and crafts and instead I just go to bed at some bizarrely early hour and read for a bit before passing out. 

(But I did watch a documentary last month which I absolutely must recommend- My Octopus Teacher, streaming on Netflix, or watch it online here. A burned-out filmmaker dives into kelp forests off the coast of South Africa and forges a beautiful friendship with an octopus. I am not one for animal documentaries but this one was stunning, touching and I hope you get a chance to watch it because it is the perfect antidote to 2020.)

Starting with three novels- At a good friend's recommendation, I read Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Pinto is a humorist and journalist based in Mumbai; I grew up reading his articles regularly in the papers and was happy to read this short novel written by him. Em and The Big Hoom is set in the Western suburb of Mahim, Bombay, and narrated by a young adult son who tells the story of growing up in a nuclear Goan-Christian family with his parents and sister in a typical 1-BHK (one bedroom-hall-kitchen) apartment. The big thing looming in their lives is the mother's mental illness, the latter being an almost taboo topic in Indian society. The family sips endless cups of tea and the children grow up as they chart their way through the mother's bipolar disorder and repeated suicide attempts. This is a wryly touching and unexpectedly funny novel. 

For Task #14 in the Reader Harder challenge (Read a romance starring a single parent), I read One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. This book was a pretty good weekend read, considering that romance is my least favorite genre ever. A single mom in England is juggling two jobs and barely scraping by, trying to do her best to care for her quirky stepson and math wiz daughter. Then the whole family (including an oversized dog) somehow end up on a week-long road trip with her wealthy housekeeping employer. Adventure and romance ensues. If you're willing to overlook the implausible situations, this book is a light and fluffy read. 

Another heartwarming novel that I read last month- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor is a survivor of horrific childhood neglect and abuse. Somehow she finds it within herself to live independently, hold down an office job and go about daily life, even while dealing with extreme loneliness and coping with it in less than ideal ways. Over the course of the book she encounters kindness and friendship and starts repairing some of the trauma.

Over on the non-fiction side of things, I read Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Hans Rosling, who passed away a couple of year ago, was the mind behind the interactive website Gapminder, which is also home to his daughter-in-law Anna Ronnlund's brainchild, Dollar Street. Both these websites are well worth a visit. The idea of this book is to debunk common misconceptions that people have about the state of the world, and the take home message is that things are better than we think, and getting better all the time. The problem with this book is that Rosling can be condescending and some of his conclusions are rosier than what I believe the reality is. But the book has many great examples of global health issues and is insightful, inspiring and fun to read. 

Right now, I'm reading another great non-fiction book, The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson. There is something soothing and escapist in reading about particle physics and universal truths which puts our everyday lives and woes into perspective. Plus nothing can beat quantum physics for sheer wackiness. 

My daughter picked up a book called Diwali Festival of Lights by Rina Singh from the seasonal library display shelf. On first glance, it looked like a generic non-fiction book written for children, with informative text descriptions and stock pictures. But I leafed through it before putting the book into the return pile and loved it. Rina Singh's book is off-beat and written from the heart, and from the perspective of an Indian immigrant celebrating Diwali. There is a chapter on the history of Indian immigration to North America, and how Diwali was celebrated invisibly until very recently. There is a chapter on how Diwali has evolved- from traditional to noisier and more commercial, but also from religious to cultural and secular. Singh writes about a village of widows in North India who upturned tradition and started lighting diyas and celebrating Diwali. About Diwali celebrations in the slums of Mumbai. And yes, the book is sprinkled with colorful pics of diyas and rangolis and burfis and laughing children. If you're looking for a meaningful Diwali book for school-age kids, I would recommend this one. 

We put up this sharing library in our
front yard to swap books with neighbors

Happy Thanksgiving
weekend to everyone in the States! Wherever in the world you are, tell me what you are cooking, watching and reading. 


  1. Happy thanksgiving Nupur! I have been surprised that recently I have been eating more milk chocolate than dark - I think it is a comfort thing but I am assuming it wont last. I can't say I have given up sugar but I agree that sugar substitutes are not the answer (it is one thing that really annoys me about commercial kombucha). I think that if you do reduce your sugar intake then sugary foods can taste really really sweet - in Australia we sometimes comment on how sweet american recipes are but I know some of ours are very sweet too.

    Your book reading is inspiring - I seem to watch tv in bursts but still mostly read at night but this year I have been so tired that I have not read much. there is nothing as nice as looking forward to a good book at the end of the day. I have a stack of them to read now and need to get stuck into it. Perhaps when I have summer holidays in a few weeks. I read the Eleanor Oliphant book and it was very readable with lots of nice moments but the sudden change in her life was a bit unbelievable to me. Now I am rereading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson which I read every now and again - such a thoughtful book about odd characters.

    1. Johanna- Yes! Once you reduce sugar it really wakes up the taste buds. American recipes can be very sweet and I find that I can typically reduce sugar easily without ruining the recipe and it tastes better to us that way.

      I agree that parts of Eleanor Oliphant were very implausible- but a good read on the whole. Housekeeping by Robinson has been on my to-read list for a long time- I'll have to get it from the library soon. This winter will be a good time to get stuck in with some nice novels like this one.

  2. Happy thanksgiving! I cannot/dont want to go off sugar completely. I have a sweet tooth and I need a bit of sugar/sweet everyday. Like you I have my coffee without any sugar on the workdays. One weekends I treat myself to sugared coffee, but I need sugar much less because my sugar threshold has gone down. And to be honest, I seriously dont want to stop eating chocolates (esp dark chocolates). That would be a sad life for me to lead :(. I eat a square or 2 dark chocolate as a snack at 11 with my coffee everyday and that works well. I stay away from sugar post meals (as I have found that gets addictive very quickly!). Plus, the sugar consumption goes up during festivals and december, but that is OK to me. Overall I am glad my sugar consumption has gone down drastically compared to my 20 year old self.
    I started watching The crown on Netflix, which I am liking. Not crazy about it, but it has some really good acting. I am also reading some good old agatha christie (featuring poirot - some of his last cases). Have a great and safe december!

    1. Hi Neha- Like you, I feel that using sugar judiciously can be a nice and sustainable way to live. It is so important to learn about one's own tastes and habits and what leads to cravings/addictive tendencies and what does not. I can't believe there was a time I would buy cookies on every shopping trip, those days are gone gone gone.

      Another friend was just mentioning The Crown too! And also The Queen's Gambit. Maybe at some point I will try watching these. I just picked up an Agatha Christie this weekend (Poirot's Cat Among the Pigeons) because I felt the need for a cozy mystery fix. Enjoy December!

  3. I wrote a little piece this year as a thank you and thought of you - your attempt at live blogging (many many years ago ;-)) your thanksgiving cooking was one of my inspirations to organize my thanksgiving cooking and keep cooking a large feast. At the risk of posting a long comment - here is a thankyou from me to you for your blog -
    When we first moved to the US over 20 years ago, folks would ask me if we celebrated Thanksgiving - my response has been constant - it is a festival where you gather with family and friends and cook and eat a feast - what is not to celebrate.
    We embraced the tradition and over the years it has morphed from creating Indian variations of the classics at home to a 3 meal extravaganza that spans the entire four day weekend. One friend cooks a turkey and we take some sides and drink and eat and laugh together. Another friend and I research and plan a plethora of dishes for weeks before and cook and meet and hold hands and say grace and watch our extended brood of kids grow up together. Finally, we pick a new restaurant and go out to eat with a third group of folks.
    It used to be an extended weekend of a lot of time spent in the kitchen, many bottles of wine, lots of butter, sugar, and exotic new ingredients. We somehow also managed to sneak in a shopping trip long after the early hordes had picked the door-busters.
    This year begins differently, I am isolating after an international plane trip - in an attempt to protect the ones I care about. I begin the weekend sitting in bed, watching the sun come up, drinking some coffee and savoring the quiet and the silence.
    It feels only right that I reflect on the opportunities we were offered to create a new life in a welcoming land that embraced us with all our quirks, the chance to bring the traditions we grew up with and meld them with new ones - to create our own traditions ones where hopefully we taught our children to be above all grateful - for their extended family, their opportunities, their abilities and the freedom to put all of that to good use.
    Thank you.

    1. Vishakha- what a lovely sentiment; thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of writing with us. You should send it to the New York Times or something! (They have been publishing lots of thoughts from readers about life this year.)

      Like you, we take Thanksgiving at face value and use it as a day to eat with friends and give thanks for everything that life has given us. We typically just have one special meal and spend the rest of the weekend just relaxing.

      Our Thanksgiving was very quiet this year. I needed a peaceful (well, as peaceful as life can get with young kids) long weekend without a lot of hustle and cooking. We exchanged food with two families. One sent spinach salad with candied pecans and desserts, a Brazilian dessert called brigideros and apple pie. The second family made vegetable lasagna, deviled eggs and crackers/cheese. My portion was very minimal. I baked a faux turkey (bought the Gardein brand stuffed roast), made mushroom gravy, fresh cranberry sauce and Indian-style vegetable patties with potatoes, green beans, corn and carrots.

      The weather was beautiful here in GA and we walked on many trails and explored a couple of nearby lakes and parks.

  4. "Couldn't we just eat...less sugar" reminded me of a group discussion on sustainability that I was part of years ago. Upcycle, recycle, reuse...there were a lot of great ideas but no one would bring up consuming less as a choice that we could make. Modern life has failed to emphasize restraint or make it acceptable. Redesigning sugar? SMH. I've enjoyed your thoughts on this.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I always prefer the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra where REDUCE/avoid altogether is the first on the list, then comes reuse and recycle is third and last. This pandemic has really exposed how our systems are failing, with an economy that falls apart if heavy consumption stops for even a few months. I hope we can collectively rethink the way we live.

  5. Happy thanksgiving to you and your family, Nupur! I've enjoyed reading your thanksgiving posts over the years and I hope you will write about this year's.

    Having fresh fruit and herbal teas as an ever ready sugar substitute resonates with me, I try to have fruits in my fridge now constantly, especially with all of us at home constantly and a restless 5-year-old.

    I loved the Eleanor book when I read it a couple of years ago- if you like that genre of introvert-and-quirky protagonists, do try 'A man called Ove' and 'The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen' (in the latter there are two books in the series so far).

    I recently made idli batter by swapping out 2 of the 4 cups of idli rice with 1 cup oats and 1 cup fox millets- they've been a success!

    1. Hope you and your family had a lovely Thanksgiving too! Our feast was very subdued this year, we just exchanged food with two families and kept it low-key.

      Thanks for the idli tip! I'll have to try that for sure, would love to branch out and make idlis with different grains.

      A Man Called Ove has been on my list for a while! The other one sounds good too. I'm making a list of novels to request from the library over the next few months- it is going to be a long and sad winter, I fear.

  6. Janani srinivasanDecember 02, 2020 8:46 AM

    Thought provoking Nupur. My in laws were with us throughout the dushera to diwali season which meant lots of traditional festive treats. Lots of sweets ,even though very traditional i.e jaggery based and not using refined sugar.

    Although they are models of discipline and structure, with very ordered meals and days structured around prayer and rituals, did find that overall we did end up eating way more than we normally would.

    So now its back to us and our " wacky" diets like celery juicing and throwing roasted veggies on a sheet and calling it lunch...something that would never fly with the older generation haha. Every dish has to have a name or its not considered lunch.

    Just thinking that perhaps this is just how it is meant to be. Can't fight circumstances outside one's control too much. Periods of " feasting" and relative " famine" both in moderation.

    1. Janani- thats a great way to think about it, to have a relatively simple and modest diet with bouts of feasting. It does require some cold hard thinking because if there's some sort of festival/celebration/social occasion on a daily basis, then moderation is pretty much impossible.

      I feel very lucky to be able to pick and choose from a traditional vegetarian Indian diet and global influences that come from living in the US and fashion something that is, to me, the best of both worlds.

      As for jaggery based sweets, jaggery is still sugar. Less refined, with more micronutrients and tastier :) But to enjoy traditional sweets in a festive season with your in laws sounds very special indeed!

  7. Hi Nupur, stumbling a little late upon this, but it was an enjoyable read, as always. I am certainly going to use that tip for the cake release paste!
    Desi and I have been watching the Leah Remini Scientology series on Netflix--it originally aired on A&E so we are late to it, but it's fascinating nonetheless. I occasionally pepper my solo TV time with old Hindi movies on Amazon Prime. After a lifelong aversion to anything Bollywood I find myself increasingly enjoying the inadvertent humor and masala of old movies from the 60s and 70s. Call it nostalgia. The songs, which I've always loved, are a big bonus. :)
    I've been reading Michelle Obama's Becoming on my Kindle. Desi has a hardcover version, but with my suddenly deteriorating eyes I find electronic versions far easier to read. Next on my list is Obama's latest book.
    Your memories of ready Jerry Pinto's articles made me smile. I worked with Jerry an age ago, when I was a very green editor/writer for the now-defunct Independent newspaper which later became the Bombay Times. He freelanced for us and was a sweet guy. I remember I once borrowed a foreign magazine from him, which was probably hard to come by in those days, and my dog tore it to bits. He was quite the gentleman about it. :)

    1. Dear Vaishali- hello! Interesting to hear of the Leah Remini series- I had not come across it. I hear ya on the nostalgia- in lockdown, I found myself looking up "Rangeela" songs on YouTube :D Hai rama and Tanha tanha and stuff. Yeah Urmila still rocks!! I'll have to find some old Hindi movies- I was never a movie buff but ones like Mr. India have a place in my heart.

      OMG you worked with Jerry Pinto?! That's an awesome story. Glad to hear he was sweet as he seems. I just read a novel he translated from Marathi- Blue Cobalt.

  8. Sugar is not all bad when we eat in moderation, that is what i say to myself. I used to eat my morning oats with 2 spoons of brown sugar but now I have reduced to like a spoon , and sometimes during lunch when I crave for sugar I take a small bowl of yogurt with one spoon of sugar whereas previously I used to eat with 2 spoons of sugar.

    1. That to me is a simple win- being satisfied with one spoon when previously you needed two. Wishing you a sweet new year!


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