Category Archives: fruit

Meet the Pawpaw, aka the Michigan Banana

Tied down with brown twine
Up past the tree line
Up by I hope where
The King of Spain don’t care.
I’m sitting up in my pawpaw tree
Wait they make mango mush outta me.
The Fiery Furnaces

A Taste of the Tropics in the Midwest

Photo by flickr user Voxphoto, who writes Petravoxel and Silverbased, click for bigger + photostreamDiscovering the pawpaw has been a lot like discovering the ground cherry. In both cases, part of the thrill was getting to try something you can’t buy at a typical grocery store. However, they’re both pretty unpleasant when they’re green—sour, bitter and mildly astringent—so based on my very first taste of both, I wasn’t 100% convinced they were safe for human consumption. But once they ripen, they’re just glorious. They’re as sweet as strawberries or the ripest melon or peach and fill the kitchen with a beautiful citrusy, floral perfume. And they’re both strangely reminiscent of vanilla custard. Despite whatever challenges are involved in cultivating and transporting them, they’re both so appealing that I’m genuinely surprised no one’s managed to make them commercially viable, at least in some kind of frozen or preserved form.

However, the pawpaw seems just slightly more incredible than the ground cherry. The latter at least has familiar local analogs like cherry tomatoes and blueberries. The pawpaw, on the other hand, seems like nothing that ought to grow anywhere within fifteen degrees latitude of Michigan. They’re shaped like champagne mangos, but the flesh is paler and much creamier, almost like ripe avocado. They smell like a cross between orange blossom, pear, pineapple, and honey. The flavor is milder than the aroma, but still unmistakably tropical.

I hate when that word is used as an independent flavor descriptor—normally, as far as I’m concerned, “tropical” is a climate or a region, not a flavor—but whatever the common denominator is between mangos and guavas and papayas, whatever combination of volatile esters and carbonyls and alcohols artificially-flavored “tropical” candies attempt to mimic, pawpaws have it too. As the common name implies, their closest gustatory cousin is probably the banana. In addition to the “Michigan banana,” the pawpaw has also been referred to as the: prairie banana, Indiana (Hoosier) banana, West Virginia banana, Kansas banana, Kentucky banana, Michigan banana, Missouri Banana, the poor man’s banana, Ozark banana, and banango. Flourishing, it looks a bit like a magnolia bushEven the tree looks like it belongs somewhere with winters that could be described as “balmy.” It has broad, glossy leaves and big reddish-purple flowers. My supplier, a generous friend with a pawpaw tree in his backyard, says it looks like a tree that “took a wrong turn at Panama and ended up in the US midwest.”

Where to Find Them, and Why It’s So Hard

Unfortunately, unlike ground cherries, pawpaws haven’t shown up at my local farmer’s market (at least not that I’ve seen). They may be available at some markets in Ohio and Indiana or farther south. If you do come across someone selling them, don’t be turned off by bruising or soft spots. That often indicates that the fruit was ripened on the tree, which is what you want. Unlike tomatoes, which are merely lackluster when they’re picked while green and artificially “ripened,” a pawpaw picked early may remain unpleasantly bitter even after it softens into mush. Many people actually think they taste best when they’re a little spotted and soggy. However, once they’re ripe, they’re very delicate—just like a brown banana or a super-ripe pear. Probably the number one reason the pawpaw hasn’t been cultivated for mass distribution is that it would be virtually impossible to transport tree-ripened pawpaws in bulk without damaging them so much that most people wouldn’t want to buy them.

the flower, which even kind of looks a little like raw meat, doesn't it? from wikimedia commonsAnother reason they’re hard to find is they’re apparently not especially easy to grow. The flowers don’t self-pollinate and their evolutionary adaptation to that is to emit an odor similar to rotting meat to attract flies. However—as I’m sure people who grow them near their homes appreciate—the odor is quite faint, so it doesn’t always do an especially good job of attracting the desired pollinator. Some growers actually drape roadkill on the branches of the tree or around the base to attract more flies in hopes of getting more fruit out of their trees (CSMonitor).

They’re not really vulnerable to any insect pests, but foxes, possums, squirrels, raccoons, and bears are very fond of them, and may even knock nearly-ripe fruit off the tree and then leave it to ripen on the ground for a day or two before coming back for it. Just to complicate things even further, although the trees will tolerate the midwestern winter, they don’t like it if the ground is too cold for too long, so depending how far North of the equator they are, they may only grow in low-lying areas near running water.

On top of all of that, it can take a half a dozen years or more for a seedling to reach fruit-bearing maturity and even if you manage to get a pawpaw tree or two to thrive, flower, and fruit, there’s a good chance they will only yield a substantial harvest for about 4 years. They will propagate—like aspens, a single root base can send up multiple trees—so if you manage to get one tree going, you’ll probably eventually have a small thicket (which is also why references in early American literature are almost always to a “paw paw patch” rather than to a single tree). Presumably, the younger trees (okay, technically, just newer branches of the same clonal colony) will mature as the older ones pass into dormancy, providing you with a steady stream of fruit. However, that lifecycle doesn’t lend itself well to sustained, large-scale pawpaw production.

There is a research program at Kentucky State University dedicated to studying and promoting pawpaw cultivation, which should come as especially good news for anyone concerned about the future or ethics of banana consumption. And there’s some guy named John Vukmirovich in Chicago who claims to be part of a “pawpaw conspiracy,” which essentially involves planting pawpaw seeds around the south side of the city. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed him for their 2008 story about the pawpaw’s “comeback,” and his rationale was:

We need to create more than we consume. We need to reverse the process and green the world more.

I’m not sure if planting such a fussy little tree is really going to “green the world,” or what planting seeds has to do with any “conspiracy,” but I would be delighted to discover a pawpaw growing on a tree in the middle of a city sidewalk so by all means, conspire on. 

If either of those projects succeed, perhaps someday we’ll be able to buy pawpaw pulp in the frozen section of any supermarket or forage fresh fruit even in urban areas. But for now, your best bet is to make friends with someone who has a tree in their yard, try to find a commercial grower near where you live, or order a seedling and start your own pawpaw patch. Unfortunately, I missed the 12th annual Pawpaw Festival held in Albany, Ohio the weekend before last, but consider this your advance notice—if you really want to try pawpaw and can’t find them anywhere else, start planning now to attend the 13th annual Pawpaw Festival, which I imagine will probably be held in mid-September next year.

How to Eat Them

You basically just want to get them into your pawpaw-hole any which way you can, but here are some suggestions:

iago paw paws 0671) Halve or quarter the fruit and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, avoiding the large, lima bean-shaped seeds. 

2) Cut off the top and bottom and then cut the peel off in long strips, like a mango, and slice or cut into wedges, prying the seeds out with the knife as you go.

3) Just take a bite. The skin is slightly bitter, but it’s not as tough as mango skin and it won’t hurt you.

Or, if you’re the lucky sort who has too many pawpaws to eat plain and raw, there seem to be two classic ways of preserving them:

4) Make pawpaw bread by substituting pawpaw puree for banana puree in any banana bread recipe (or for the pear puree in this recipe). According to the Wikipedia article about pawpaws, in West Virginia, this style of bread is traditionally baked in canning jars and then processed in a hot water bath to seal, which will preserve it for up to a year. Presumably you could do that with any kind of snack cake, although the Ball Mason Jar folks don’t endorse it because the variable heat in the oven could cause the jars to break and the very center of the bread might not reach safe internal temperatures. It seems to me like it would be pretty low-risk as long as you test the center to make sure it’s baked through. The worst that might happen is when you went to open it, you’d find mold or it would smell rotten and you’d have to throw it away. But I suppose just to be on the safe side, you could just bake the loaves in normal pans and freeze or give away any excess.

5) Puree the flesh and freeze it, and then thaw it slightly before serving. Frozen pawpaw was apparently one of George Washington’s favorite desserts, and I imagine it would taste even more like ice cream than it does at room temperature. You could also blend frozen pawpaw pulp with other fruits and juices or milk and ice cream to make a smoothie or milkshake.

The aforementioned Kentucky State University pawpaw research group also offers recipes for pawpaw pie, custard, cake, cookies, muffins, ice cream, preserves, zabaglione, sherbet, or punch. The fruit also ferments easily, which some people take advantage of to make pawpaw wine, and I imagine if you distilled fermented pawpaw mash, you’d end up with a powerful pawpaw brandy. But I don’t expect to be trying that, or any of the other recipes anytime soon because I honestly can’t imagine wanting to fuss with the original. It tastes like tropical fruit custard right off the tree. Some people compare it to banana cream pie filling, which is like a fantasy out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: these bananas don’t taste like bananas, they taste like what people do to bananas to make them into dessert!

All of which means you don’t even have to be a locavore to lament how much harder it is to get your hands on pawpaws than bananas. If you do manage to get your hands on some and you like them too, perhaps you should join Vukmirovich and me in the “pawpaw conspiracy,” and save the seeds and plant them wherever you roam. Check back in a few years for advice on step 2: how to gather and drape roadkill all over town without anyone noticing.

Apple-Berry Crumble with Pouring Custard: Baking with neglected, non-baking apples

for reasons that may suggest themselves to you, in the U.S. pouring custard is more commonly known by the French name "Creme Anglaise" even though that just means "English cream," which, as you'd expect, the English have a perfectly good English name for

I’m apparently sort of an expert at letting fruit go bad—not meaning rotten, just completely unappetizing when raw. With pears, that’s easy to do because they’re usually harvested when they’re mature but still green and you have to babysit their ripening. Not all fruits are like that—citrus fruits and most melons and berries are as sweet as they’re ever going to be when they’re harvested. But pears are climacteric ripeners, which means they store some of their sugars as starch and even after you pick them and they can’t suck any more sugar out of the tree, they will get sweeter as their enzymes will break some of those starches into sugars. However, they also contain enzymes that weaken their cell walls, so you have to catch them at just the perfect moment when they’re optimally sweet but haven’t yet turned to mush. Depending on when they were picked and how fast the different enzymes are working, there might not even be a perfect moment—they might dissolve structurally before getting very sweet.

You can sort of control the ripening of climacteric fruits a little by storing them in paper bags with something that emits ethylene gas, like a banana. That’s basically a DIY version of the synthetic industrial process used to ripen almost all tomatoes destined for grocery stores and lots of bananas and pears too. And according to the wikipedia article on ethylene, the ancient Chinese used to ripen pears by storing them in closed rooms and burning incense, presumably containing ethylene or something like it. But this is what I’m talking about with the babysitting—they demand attention and inspire elaborate ritual.

I’m working on ways to turn this into a superhero costume for next Halloween.Apples are significantly less fussy even though they’re also technically climacteric ripeners. They’re usually sweet enough to eat when they’re harvested and best when crisp and they’ll stay that way for weeks in cold storage. It takes a special dedication to fruit neglect to let perfectly lovely apples get so mealy and bruised and wrinkled that they can’t be enjoyed raw. Given how many great uses there are for cooked apples, that wouldn’t seem like much of a problem, but the kinds of apples I like to eat are not the kind of apples I’d normally choose to cook with. So over the last few months, I had gradually relegated nearly 3 lbs of Galas, Honeycrisps, and Red Delicious apples to what I began to think of as the Forgotten Apple Drawer, all of them totally unsuited to either eating or baking.

I could have made a sort of lackluster applesauce and just hidden it in some muffins or a quick bread, but I got to thinking that the main difference between tart baking apples and sweeter eating apples is acid. Perhaps, I thought, I could make something tasty and apple-centric even with suboptimal apples just by adding a little extra lemon juice. And perhaps some tart berries. And then, in the spirit of the kind of laziness and inattention that leads to having a refrigerator drawer full of 3 lbs of neglected apples, I decided to make the simplest of apple desserts: a crumble. Crumbles are in the same baked-fruit-with-topping genus as cobblers and crisps, but is its own species…I guess meaning it can’t reproduce with any of the others.

I know the terms vary by region and tradition, but as I understand them, a cobbler is topped with a layer of biscuit dough dropped on by spoonfuls that bake into something that might resemble a cobblestone road, a crisp is topped with a thin layer of a rich streusel or butter crumb topping, and a crumble is has a thicker crumb topping that usually includes oatmeal. Put a rolled pastry crust on top either in pieces or with some holes poked in it so the juices can seep through and it’s a pandowdy; use buttered bread crumbs and brown sugar and it’s a brown betty. I’m sure there are others, too. The beautiful thing about all of them is that you don’t really need a recipe—you just fill a baking dish most of the way with fruit, top it with whatever combination of sugar and fat you can throw together—starch optional—and bake it until the fruit is done and the topping is brown. 

April 2010 Part I 008I actually had too many neglected apples for the large souffle dish I decided to use, so I threw about 1 lb of the cut pieces in a saucepan pot with a cinnamon stick, 1 T. brown sugar, and some water and simmered them until they were tender, adding more water now and then to prevent them from burning. I’ll probably use them sometime soon as a filling for buckwheat crepes, possibly with some homemade ricotta, as I’ve been meaning to try that.

For the crumble, since it’s not quite berry season, I used a dried berry mix I had picked up at Trader Joe’s with the intent of using it for polenta porridge. Normally when I bake with dried berries, I soak them in some juice or liquor first, but this time I didn’t bother. I just threw them in the dish with the peeled and diced apples, sprinkled them with a few tablespoons of sugar and the juice and zest of a lemon. And then I looked up a few recipes for crisps and crumbles and used those as general guidelines for the topping.

While it was in the oven, smelling lovely, I decided it what would truly compensate for any deficiencies on the part of the apples was something like ice cream. You can make ice cream without an ice cream maker if you break up the ice crystals by hand periodically, but that is kind of a pain. Given that what I wanted was a sweet, creamy substance to pool all around the hot apple crumble the way ice cream does as it melts, the freezing seemed like an unnecessary intermediary stop. If what you want is melted ice cream, why freeze it in the first place, right? So I made a simple pouring custard, which is the sort of thing you can turn into ice cream if you want to, but is a great dessert sauce on its own.

And it worked. Utterly redeemed. Tart and applicious with the occasional pop of berry and the rich perfume of the vanilla bean custard. You’d never know it started off as a drawer full of wrinkled, bruised Galas and Honeycrisps.

any ideas for turning my fruit neglecting powers into a superpower costume for next Halloween?

Recipe: Apple-Berry Crumblethey call it the "golden berry blend" as it also contains golden raisins (adapted from Joy of Baking)

Filling:

  • 4-7 apples or enough to fill a large baking dish (I used ~1 1/2 lbs, peeled and cored)
  • 1/2 cup dried tart berries (cherries, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, or a combination)
  • 3 T. sugar
  • zest and juice of one medium lemon

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
  • pinch of salt
  • 7 T. butter, cut into 1/4” pieces
  • 1/3 cup rolled oats

1. Butter the baking dish and preheat the oven to 375F.

2. Peel and core the apples and cut into 1/2”-1” pieces. Toss in baking dish with sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest.

3. Throw all the topping ingredients in a food processor and give it a few pulses to just combine. Or, whisk everything but the butter together and then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two crisscrossing knives until the it’s crumbly and the largest pieces of butter are the size of small peas.

 topping mixture a few pulses later

4. Sprinkle topping over fruit evenly.

5. Bake for 30 minutes to an hour, or until you can see the juices bubbling under the topping and the top is golden brown.

ready to go in the oven just out of the oven--juices bubbling at the edges, topping golden brown

Recipe: Pouring Custard (adapted from Food & Wine and Joy of Baking)

  • 4 or 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 cups milk, half and half, or whipping cream
  • 1 vanilla bean or 2 t. vanilla extract

1. Place a mesh strainer in metal bowl set inside another bowl filled with ice water. When the custard is ready, you will want to stop the cooking process immediately and strain out any clumps, so it’s good to have this ready before you even start.

the second bowl doesn't need to be metal. doesn't even need to be a bowl--a stock pot or 9x13 baking pan would work just as well for the icewater Curdling Stops Here!

2. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until they begin to aerate—they should become a pale, lemony color (I know some sad battery hen eggs start that way but even those should lighten a little) and will increase slightly in volume.

I separate the whites directly into freezer-safe storage, always forget how many whites there are, and eventually have a vaguely nerve-wreaking meringue or angel-food cake experiment where I don't really know if I'm following the recipe. a smarter person would label the tupperware to tell her future self how many egg whites there are. paler an increased in volume

3. Put the milk in a saucepan, scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the milk, and heat just until steaming and there are little bubbles around the edges of the pan (about 5 min over medium heat). Turn off the burner—you don’t have to immediately remove it from the heat, you just don’t want it to get any hotter for the moment.

4. Temper the yolks by adding about half of the hot milk to them in a thin stream while whisking constantly. Another pair of hands or a stand mixer might be useful for this part. I managed by whisking with one hand while using the other to slowly adding milk with a soup ladle and focusing very, very intently on being ambidextrous. Basically what you’re doing in this step is warming the eggs gently so they cook without scrambling, so the key is to keep them moving as they come into contact with the hot milk.For obvious reasons, I have no pictures of this process in action. 

here's the set up after I've added about half of the milk

4. Pour the tempered egg mixture into the pot with the remaining milk, whisking constantly.

5. Turn the heat back on low or medium and cook for 5-7 minutes, whisking constantly, until the mixture just begins to thicken. You want it to be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon—but that’s not very thick, it will not be like a starch-thickened pudding or baked custard. As soon as it begins to thicken, pull it off the heat, still whisking constantly and immediately strain into the cold bowl to stop it from cooking any more. If using vanilla extract (or another extract or liqueur), add it now.

If it starts to look curdled you still have a minute to save it. Pull it from the heat immediately, whisking vigorously and immediately strain it into the cold bowl.

 no matter how vigorous your whisking, there will always be a few clumps it will thicken a little more as it cools, but will definitely still be a sauce, not something like a starch-thickened pudding

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Syrup

Who knew agaves grew in so many different flavors?

In the first post on agave nectar, I focused primarily on why it’s no more “natural” than high-fructose corn syrup, which is a delicious irony given how both sweeteners tend to be portrayed. But that isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid agave nectar. “Natural” is at best an imperfect heuristic for healthiness or environmental friendliness, and has no inherent relationship with deliciousness. But, as I also suggested in the first post, agave nectar is certainly no better health-wise than other sources of sugar, and the fact that it’s much higher in fructose than most sweeteners (70-90% vs. ~50%) gives me reason to believe it may actually be worse for your health than sucrose or HFCS-55.

So Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Ketchup Either. Because That Would Be Gross.GRANOLA-WASHING

Perhaps the most baffling thing is how many people seem to think agave nectar doesn’t count as sugar. For example, the rave review of Wholemato Organic Agave Ketchup in Men’s Health, contrasts it with the “liquid candy” that is HFCS. And then implies that the even-higher-fructose agave-sweetened condiment is healthier than “fatty” butter (it’s like someone at Men’s Health was specifically trying to give me apoplectic fits): 

This ketchup forgoes the high-fructose corn syrup and uses agave nectar, preserving sweetness without clobbering your fries or hot dog with liquid candy…. Slather it on your sweet potatoes as an alternative to a fatty slab o’ butter.

Note: The review is only available on the Wholemato site because the “read more” link is broken, but I’m not inclined to think it’s a fabrication as the other links on their “buzz” page are legit and you can find nearly-identical, equally-apoplexy-inducing claims about Wholemato Ketchup at The Kitch’n, Girlawhirl, i like granola, and Well Fed Man, among others.

There are also people who claim to have given up sugar, but who still eat agave nectar. Some excerpts from the comment thread on Nicole MacDonald’s resolution to give up sugar in 2010:

Jennifer: I went sugar-free at 16 to help my psoriasis & still don’t have it, 8 years later .
I don’t miss it at all. If I want to make a cake or anything I will use agave nectar … you realise there are so many interesting & alive foods out there you can enjoy without compromising your health!! xx

Nicole: I have to admit that in the first few weeks I baked a lot using ingredients like honey, agave and brown rice syrup. Cookies are my favorite to make, and I have a long list of recipes on my blog to the right. I also drank a lot of flavored tea with honey added and that seemed to cure some of my cravings.

Beth: I stopped eating sugar last year and its worked out pretty well. As long as I can have natural sugars which are found in fruits, then I’m totally satisfied.

Not All Things That Occur Naturally In Fruit Should Be Consumed In Quantity. Like Cyanide.

Beth is certainly not alone in thinking that “sugars which are found in fruits” are healthier than other sugars. People are frequently resistant to the idea that fructose might be unhealthy because, as the name so conveniently reminds them, it’s found in fruit. Or, if they’ve been sold on the idea that HFCS is poison and fructose has something to do with that, they sometimes suggest that there must be different kinds of fructose. Take, for example, the comment by Dave on this post by ThursdaysGirl, which expressed some reservations about agave nectar:

[. . .] you say Agave is 70% fructose, ok, so that means that means a teaspoon of Agave (about 4 grams) has about 2.8 grams of fructose… Hmmm, a small tomato has about 2.6 grams of fructose in it, the same as a carrot!… so, by your ridiculous logic, you should run away from tomatoes and carrots as fast and as far as you can! OMG, never eat another tomato! And don’t even get me started on Apples!

Remember, HFCS, regardless of what the lying chemists say, is not a natural source of Fructose. It is a man made molecule. It is illegal to call High Fructose Corn Syrup “All Natural”. I wonder why… Agave can be found both All Natural and Organic!!! Small amounts of Fructose actually help metabolize Glucose better, plus its low glycemic, has natural inulin fiber which is amazingly beneficial [. . . .]

I would trust the Mayo Clinics recommendations as regards to High Fructose Corn Syrup… it is poison. But really, Apples, Carrots, Tomatoes etc all bad for you? Stop it.

It’s actually not illegal to call HFCS “natural.” The FDA has been notoriously unwilling to define “natural” aside from the essentially meaningless distinction between “artificial” and “natural” colors and flavors—which Eric Schlosser talks about extensively in Fast Food Nation (pp. 121-131). As of July 2008, HFCS is “natural” for the purposes of food labeling. You can read all about the ongoing legal debates here. However, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to differentiate “natural” fructose, like the stuff in fruit, from “chemically-produced” fructose, like the stuff in HFCS. The problem is that they can’t seem to agree which side the fructose in agave nectar is on.

As you might expect, the agavevangelists are on the side of “natural.” According to Kalyn’s Kitchen Picks :

It’s been a long time since I discovered a new product that rocked my world in the way agave nectar has done…. The sweet taste in agave nectar comes from natural fructose, the same sweetener found in fruit (not to be confused with high fructose corn syrup which has chemically produced fructose.)

On the other side, there’s Rami Nagel, whose Natural News article been widelycirculated and cited by people on both sides of the agave nectar debate. According to Nagel, agave nectar is composed of bad, man-made “fructose,” which he claims actually has a completely different chemical formula from the sugar in fruit, which he calls “levulose”:

We all know that the chemical formula for water is H2O: two hydrogens and one oxygen. The opposite would be O2H, which is nothing close to water. Likewise, man-made fructose would have to have the chemical formula changed for it to be levulose, so it is not levulose. Saying fructose is levulose is like saying that margarine is the same as butter. Refined fructose lacks amino acids, vitamins, minerals, pectin, and fiber. As a result, the body doesn’t recognize refined fructose. Levulose, on the other hand, is naturally occurring in fruits, and is not isolated but bound to other naturally occurring sugars. Unlike man-made fructose, levulose contains enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin. (Similar claims here and here)

However, levulose is just an alternate name for fructose. A search for “levulose” on Wikipedia automatically redirects to their fructose entry. ChemBlink claims they’re synonyms with the exact same molecular formula and structure:

levulose/fructose...not quite as catchy as tomayto/tomahto 

And even the earliest examples from the OED reveal that the terms are completely interchangeable: 

1897 Allbutt’s Syst. Med. III. 386 Cane sugar is partly left unchanged, partly converted into glucose and lævulose. 1902 Encycl. Brit. XXII. 721/1 Glucose and fructose (lævulose)the two isomeric hexases of the formula C6H12O6 which are formed on hydrolysing cane sugar.

With “levulose” eventually giving way to “fructose” by the the 1970s:

1974 Nature 10 May 194/3 Although it is true that some bacteriologists are extremely conservative in the names they use for carbohydrates, surely nobody now uses ‘levulose’…in preference to ‘fructose’ these days.

A PubMed search for “levulose” also turned up 30,398 articles about (surprise!) fructose. The twenty articles that actually had “levulose” in the title were almost all translations, mostly from German.

So no, there is no difference between “naturally occurring” and “chemically-produced” fructose (and if the fructose in HFCS is the latter, so is the fructose in agave). Nonetheless, Dave and Rami Nagel are both at least partially correct. Fructose/levulose may not contain enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fruit pectin, but the fruits that contain levulose/fructose certainly do. And there’s no reason to believe that eating a small amount of agave nectar, say a teaspoon, with similar amounts of fiber, protein, and other nutrients as would be found in a tomato or carrot would have a different or worse effect on the body than the vegetables themselves.

Fructose and Your Liver

Just because fructose isn’t necessarily bad for you in the amounts present in most fruits and vegetables, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthier substitution for other sugars. The evidence from studies on humans is still pretty scant. However, in a 2008 study where 23 subjects got 25% of their caloric intake from either fructose-sweetened or glucose-sweetened beverages for 10 weeks, the subjects who drank the fructose-sweetened drinks showed signs of decreased insulin sensitivity (a sign of diabetes) and increased fat in their abdominal regions, especially around their heart and liver, which is associated with cardiovascular disease (here’s the study itself or a translation from WebMD).

We’ve known for over 50 years that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose. Once it enters the body, it’s taken up by the liver, so it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much as glucose. It bypasses the step that insulin regulates, so diabetics can digest fructose about as well as non-diabetics. Which initially sounds good, especially for diabetics; however, more recently, fructose has been shown to have the same effects as alcohol on the liver:

I won't pretend to understand everything that's going on here, except that it illustrates the various processes and feedback mechanisms that cause fatty liver disease. From “Fructose Takes a Toll” in the August 2009 Hepatology (login required)

As a recent article in Physiological Review notes:

Fructose was initially thought to be advisable for patients with diabetes due to its low glycemic index. However, chronically high consumption of fructose in rodents leads to hepatic and extrahepatic insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure. The evidence is less compelling in humans, but high fructose intake has indeed been shown to cause dyslipidemia and to impair hepatic insulin sensitivity.

So while probably harmless in small amounts, it’s certainly not a “healthy” sugar or a free pass to eat sweet things without potential/likely health consequences.

I’ll do a follow-up eventually about the claim that you can use less of it because it’s sweeter. There are lots of conflicting claims about how much sweeter it is and how much less of it you use that I’m still trying to sort out. So far, I’m not at all convinced that the small caloric benefit is a reasonable trade-off for the risks of increased fructose consumption. I’ll also address one final defense: at least in some applications and to some palates, agave nectar may taste better. I admit to being a little skeptical, but a friend has promised to arrange a blind taste-test of mint juleps made with agave nectar, simple syrup, and a 50-50 agave nectar/brown rice syrup blend. That won’t happen until the national day of mint julep drinking, which falls on May 1, 2010 this year. So, until then, I’m going to take a little break from reading and writing about agave nectar.

Neglected Pear Bread or When Pears go Pear Shaped–ha! I kill me! or Okay, so it’s not that funny but the bread was nice

just a bit past their prime...

“Pears are just so stinkin’ elegant.” –Half-Assed Kitchen

There are few things I love more than a perfectly-ripe pear—just soft enough that you could cut through the flesh with a spoon but not yet grainy or worse, mushy. But that moment seems to come and go so quickly. They sit there on the counter for a week after I buy them, flesh completely unyielding. If I dare to cut into one, it’s inevitably crisp as a good apple, but not nearly as sweet, not at all what I’m looking for in a pear. But then I  look away for a minute—check my e-mail, perhaps, or dare to fall asleep. And that’s it, I miss their few perfect hours. Next thing I know, I have three pears dissolving in my fruit bowl, just barely held together by their increasingly bruised skin.

Usually, at that point, I cut them up and throw them in a basic muffin batter with some powdered ginger. The bits of pear give the muffins an almost custardy consistency, like little pear and ginger-flavored bread puddings. But I got a little busy this week and ended up leaving them to degrade beyond the point where I could even dice them up.

feeling less neglected now, it seems!So I realized that if I was going to get any use out of them at all, it was most likely going to be as part of the moist ingredients, more like the mashed banana in banana bread than the blueberries in a muffin. But most of the recipes I found for baked goods using pears asked for them grated or chopped or shredded, all of which would have required a starting structural integrity far beyond what these pears had. I thought about just substituting them in a recipe for applesauce bread until I came across this recipe which called for canned pears, but involved pureeing them in a blender or food processor. It also called for almond meal, which reminded me of the traditional French tart with thin slices of pear layered over a frangipane base. And although I’m sometimes a little skeptical about advice and recipes I find on About.com, the ultimate selling point was the note about how the recipe had been improved by the addition of baking soda to promote browning and off-set the acidity of the lemon juice. What can I say, I’m a sucker for science.

Which is not to say that I think baking is an exact science. I didn’t have quite enough almonds, so I substituted some ground flax meal. IMG_0166Even after I’d cored and peeled my three sad pears and pared away some of the worst bruising, I had a lot more pear than the recipe called for, so I left out some of the lemon juice. I added a little almond extract, in part to compensate for using less almond meal and in part because I just really like almond extract. And I added just a little cinnamon and nutmeg—not as much as I would have wanted in an applesauce bread, but just enough to give it a hint of spice. I only had one 4×8 loaf pan, so I used a 9×13 for the second loaf and had to leave that one in a little longer. Next time, I’ll probably substitute brown sugar for some or all of the white sugar.

It turned out lovely—the delicate flavors of pear and almond melding with a little brightness from the lemon and warmth from the spices. It’s moist and tender, not too sweet for breakfast or afternoon tea, and definitely better the  second (and third and fourth) day. Not, perhaps, quite as sublime or as elegant as a perfectly ripe pear, but not a bad result at all for pears so badly neglected.

Recipe, including explanations for some modifications in the method which are applicable to all quick breads and butter cakes, and pictures below the jump.

Recipe: Neglected Pear Bread (adapted from Linda Larsen)

  • IMG_01563/4 c. butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar (white or brown or a combination) 
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup ground almonds
  • 3 large overripe pears, cored, peeled, and pureed (~20 oz.)
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 1 t. almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour two loaf pans, ideally 8”x4”. Or whatever pan you plan on baking it in—you could use bigger loaf pans or make something more like a cake in one or two round, square, or rectangular pans, or use muffin tins.

2. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Then, add the eggs one at a time.

The original recipe called for creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs together all at once, and you would probably get a decent result that way. Creaming the butter with the sugar first cuts through the fat and aerates it, making sure there aren’t any lumps of fat in the batter, which would melt and create large holes rather than an even crumb. The reason I suggest adding the eggs one at a time is that the goal is to create an emulsion, and just like in mayonnaise the emulsifier is the egg yolk. If you add all the eggs at once, you’ll have to beat the mixture longer to make it smooth, and there’s a greater danger of beating the egg whites into a partial meringue. Over-aerated egg whites will tend to migrate towards the top of the batter and create a slightly tougher, cracked crust that might have a tendency to break away from the rest of the cake. So, just like it’s better to add the fat to the egg yolks gradually in a mayonnaise, it’s better to add the egg to the fat gradually in a cake batter.

 action shot! let this go too long and you'll have almond butter, which you might want to add to the moist ingredients rather than the dry

not quite 3/4 cup sliced almonds: about 1/2 cup ground almonds, so I used about 1/4 cup ground flax seed3. Grind the almonds. Once I realized I didn’t have enough sliced almonds (never mind ground), I just topped the measuring cup off with flax meal and threw it all in the food processor bowl.

4. Whisk the ground almonds (or any nut or seed meal substitutions) with the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

5. Core, peel, and puree the pears. Add the lemon juice (will prevent oxidation/browning) and almond extract.

 yes, they're gross, that's the whole point of the entry another thing to do with far gone pears: cook them until this happens and have pearsauce

6. Add about a third of the flour to the creamed butter and sugar and mix until just combined, and then mix in about a third of the pear puree. Repeat until all of the fat, flour, and liquid are combined, mixing just until the batter is smooth and even.

The reason for alternating is to prevent the creation of gluten. Gluten forms the proteins in wheat flour combine with water. Mixing the flour with the butter mixture first coats the proteins in fat, which prevents gluten from forming. Doing as little mixing as possible also helps prevent gluten from forming (the whole purpose of kneading bread is to promote the formation of gluten), while still getting the batter evenly blended. If you added all the dry first, the batter would be too stiff and lumpy and you’d have to mix it so much, you would likely get gluten formation. If you added the liquid first, you wouldn’t get the protein coated in fat and would lose the smoothness and aeration in the emulsion. Alternating gives you the smoothest batter with the least gluten and most even leavening.

7. Pour into prepared pan(s) and bake until the bread is browning and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. In 4”x8” pans, the bread should take 45-55 minutes. In the 9×13 it took an additional 10 minutes. I’d start checking muffins at 25 minutes, and a cake pan at 35.

 not clean! clean!

8. Cool in the pan(s) on wire racks for about 10 minutes, loosen from the edges with a knife and turn onto racks to cool completely. Nice warm, but better the next day. If you want to freeze it, wait until it’s entirely cooled and then triple-wrap in plastic. 

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 2: Fruit juice

This may seem like a strange thing to argue about, because the popular consensus still seems to be that juice is healthy. Jamba Juice markets itself as "the category-defining leader in healthy blended beverages, juices, and good-for-you snacks." They even use Jamba as an adjective to mean the opposite of high fructose corn syrup and trans-fats (adding those things to juice ""just wouldn’t be Jamba"), which again, constructs the brand as healthy vs. the demon poisons that make people fat. Even if it’s foolish to go looking for truths in advertising, I don’t think Jamba Juice’s branding generally occurs to people as a massive irony or lie. Advocates of banning or restricting soda vending machines in schools often claim that the soda should be replaced with 100% fruit juice with no added sugars, and for many people, a glass of orange juice still represents "part of a nutritious breakfast" strongly with desirable nutrients like Vitamin C.

The Case Against Juice

But a number of health trends have begun cast suspicion on juice, especially the (impartial and incomplete) shift from primarily low-fat to primarily low-calorie and low-carb dieting in mainstream weight-loss culture, and the growing concern about the role sugars (especially fructose) play in personal and national obesity.

On the low-calorie front, people who believe that losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is all about the basic algebra of calories-in vs. calories-out often end up axing all caloric beverages from their diets because they have a bad satiety-to-calorie ratio—I mean, obviously, right? Fruit juice is just fruit with some or all of the filling fiber removed. If the goal is maximum satiety on minimum calories, you’re better off eating whole fruit and drinking water or artificially sweetened beverages.

On the low-carb front, people who believe that what’s important is not how many calories you eat but what kind are also going to see juice (and sometimes most fruits and vegetables as well) as "unhealthy." It does seem to be true that diets high in carbohydrates drive up insulin levels, slowing metabolism and encouraging the body to store fat. And the overwhelming majority of the calories in most fruit juices are in the form of carbohydrates. Some green vegetable juices have protein content approaching 50% of the carbohydrate content, but that just makes it 75% bad rather than 100% bad, at least as true carbophobes are concerned.

And finally, there are some non-carbophobes who might avoid juice because they’re wary of sugar qua sugar, rather than sugar qua carbohydrate. The carbohydrates in fruit juice primarily take the form of fructose—wikipedia has a handy chart of the kinds of sugars in common plant foods. It doesn’t seem like there’s a true consensus yet about whether or not fructose is especially bad—despite recent studies linking fructose to obesity, even within the medical community, some people still advocate fructose as a "low glycemic" sugar that’s better for diabetics. It basically all comes down to whether you think the fact that fructose is digested in the liver and doesn’t trigger insulin production is a good thing or a bad thing. To link it to other sugar purveyors: pro-agave nectar people should also think that fruit juice is healthy and people who think hfcs is bad because they think it’s "high fructose" compared to other sugars are, well, a) wrong, but b) should also be advocating hfcs-sweetened sodas over fruit juices, which are even richer in sugar.

Personally, I think the evidence that fructose in large amounts causes equivalent blood sugar spikes to other sugar, increased "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides and signs of insulin resistance compared to glucose, and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease consumed in vast quantities suggests that it is certainly no better and possibly much worse for human health than glucose or sucrose. But "worse for human health" is relative, not absolute, and depends a lot on amount, kind, and context. 

What is health?

I’m generally convinced by the argument made by people like Gary Taubes that a diet composed of almost-exclusively proteins and fats might better represent the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet (as would cyclical feast and famine) and prevent carbohydrate-induced insulin resistance and fat storage. Jared Diamond makes some of the same points in Guns, Germs, and Steel. But the benefits of agriculture ultimately outweighed the costs—both for the species as a whole and measured by individual health metrics. In the immediate aftermath of the transition to agriculture, lifespans and average height decreased, but after a few thousand years, people depending on rice, corn, and wheat began to get healthier again

Does that mean carbohydrates are a healthier basis for a diet than proteins and fats? No. But it does mean that people can (and do) live very long lives uninterrupted by diet-based disease during which they are strong and energetic enough to physically do anything they want to do while eating a diet consisting substantially of carbohydrates. And I think that’s not a bad working definition of "healthy."

It seems to me that the debate comes down to a difference between ideas about nutritional "health" based on what might be theoretically optimal (for a very limited set of criteria), ideas about health based on potential pathology, and ideas about health based on actual health outcomes

Fear of juice is based on the first two—the idea that either people should eat as few carbohydrates as possible in pursuit of some sort of optimal diet, or that the fructose in juice will cause fatness (an aesthetic problem, not a medical problem) or disease and eventually death. Based on actual health outcomes, I think it would be almost impossible to make a case for the claim that drinking fruit juice—occasionally or regularly—is categorically unhealthy or the direct cause of disease or death.

In fact, things like fruit juice and hamburgers and Doritos, which can each be constructed as "unhealthy" are hard to entirely rule out of a "healthy diet." Even proponents of a soda tax generally agree that the only reason soda is a reasonable target is because it has no identified nutrients (what would happen if they fortified them, I wonder?).

The nutrient-density of juice is the primary reason for the long tradition of juice being regarded as a health food. If your concern is about essential vitamins and minerals (like many older models of nutrition, which people like Marion Nestle stand by) or consuming carbohydrates for fuel, which many physically active people still do, it’s hard to argue with the healthfulness of juice. I agree with Michael Pollan’s claim that popular beliefs about health often fall prey to "nutritionism," or the attempt to reduce food and nutrition to scientifically-identified nutrients and vitamins. At the same time, I don’t think you have to be brainwashed by the continued prevalence of nutritionism to believe there’s good evidence that many of the nutrients that scientists have identified are actually valuable or promote health and well-being (even if they’re not the only valuable aspects of food).

All juices are not created equal

The person who requested this entry was concerned specifically about fresh juices being portrayed as unhealthy, because they seem to have been smeared by concerns about packaged juices being just other source of dietary sugar.

While not all fruits lend themselves as readily to the production of refined sugars as sugar beets, some like apples, pears, and grapes can be turned into a nutrient-poor sweetener without most of the fruits’ color, flavor, or minerals and many fruit juices marketed as 100% natural fruit juices, like Juicy Juice, are sweetened with fruit juice that’s basically been turned into a sugar syrup. The nutritional distinction between those drinks and hfcs-sweetened soda is probably negligible regardless of whether your primary concern is calories, carbohydrates, sugar, or vitamins.

But the reason packaged juices often combined with fruit-based sugar is that many fruit juices aren’t actually that sweet on their own, or their sweetness is offset by the intensity of the flavor, as anyone who’s ever tried 100% cranberry or concord grape or cherry or blueberry juice knows. The fresh juices you can get at juice bars or make at home are calorie-dense, but they’re also extraordinarily nutrient dense and not likely to be consumed in quantity or alongside meals. They’re more often enjoyed on their own, like a snack, particularly after a workout—basically just like fruit. When you leave in some of the pulp, it becomes even less nutritionally distinct from fruit, and when you include vegetable juices or the juices of things like wheatgrass and ginger which are difficult or unpleasant to eat raw, you may be enjoying something that could, by some criteria, be healthier than a piece of fresh fruit.

Some juices even have pretty well-established medicinal uses. Cranberry juice, for example, can help prevent and cure urinary tract infections (that study notes the existence of "diet" cranberry juice, which I’d never heard of, but now that I have I wonder why there aren’t more "diet" juices sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than pear or grape juice-sugar. Not that those would necessarily be "healthy" by everyone’s standards, especially given the links between saccharin and cancer and suspicions about the healthfulness of aspartame and sucralose…)

Ultimately, while I don’t think even the occasional hfcs-sweetened Capri Sun is incompatible with a "healthy" diet and life, I think it’s unreasonable to conflate fresh juice without added sweeteners with juices sweetened with refined juice-sugar. I guess people trying to eat an "optimal" diet a la Gary Taubes should avoid all juices, fresh or no, but I don’t envy them their carbohydrate-less life, nor am I convinced that the total deprivation of many foods that have aesthetic, gustatory, social and/or cultural value is necessarily "healthy" or "optimal" either. For the vast majority of people who think fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, fruit juice and especially fresh fruit juice should also pass muster as a "healthy" choice especially when consumed in moderation, which I suspect fresh fruit juices usually are.

Ground cherry galette and no-churn vanilla bean soft serve

this "ice cream" melts so fast it's only by the grace of autofocus it survived plating and posing

I’ve never made a galette before, but it seemed like a good idea because pies are one of the primary traditional applications for ground cherries, and I didn’t have nearly enough to make a traditional double-crust pie filling. Since galettes are free-formed around their fillings, they can be as big or little as you want to make them. And so much easier than pies—there’s no delicate procedure to get the crust into a pie pan without cracking, no par-baking and hoping the sides don’t droop or shrink. No crimping or lattice.

But I was wary of just following a normal ground cherry pie recipe and changing the shape, because the lack of shaping and par-baking means the crust can get soggy if the filling is too wet, which is why fruit galette recipes often call for a layer of crushed cookies or cubes of pound cake or a frangipane to help soak up the juices. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s suggestion to let cut fruit sit with sugar for 30 min and then drain off and reduce the syrup sounded like a good idea, but unnecessarily fussy. Instead of going to the trouble of draining off the juice, I just simmered the halved ground cherries with some brown sugar and limoncello (a desperation substitution when I realized I didn’t have any lemons) until the liquid had reduced a bit, basically making a quick ground cherry jam. And then I entirely forgot to add the butter most of the pie recipes called for. C’est la vie.

It turned out like a big ground cherry pop tart, basically. Just a simple buttery pastry crust filled with a thin layer of rich, sweet ground cherry preserves. Lovely with ice cream, perfect for breakfast. I may still try to pick up enough at the market this weekend to do a proper pie, but this galette definitely sated my somewhat-batty obsession with the fruit, which is good in case the two pints from last week are all I get for the summer. It probably goes without saying you could do this with any other kind of berry, and most stone fruits too, but there. I said it anyway.

simultaneously rustic and bejeweled

Recipe: Ground cherry galette

(crust adapted from Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for More Food, filling adapted from Allrecipes and Vesey’s)according to The Yuppie Handbook (published 1984), I get 4 points for owning a marble rolling pin

For the crust: 

  • 8 T. butter (Alton uses 6 T. butter and 2T. lard, I don’t usually have lard around and didn’t feel like digging out the shortening)
  • 1 1/4 c. (6 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. sugar (optional—leave out for a savory galette)
  • 2-3 T. ice water

For the filling:

  • 1 1/2 cups ground cherries, husked and halved
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • 2 t. tapioca
  • 1 T. limoncello or the juice of 1 lemon
  • a pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 2 T. butter (also optional, apparently)

Cut the butter into 16 or so chunks and freeze while you get the other ingredients together. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor bowl and pulse (or just whisk together). Add the butter and pulse 10 or so times (or cut in with a pastry blender or two crisscrossing knives) until the biggest lumps are the size of small peas.

 also a reason why forgetting to add butter to the filling wasn't a big deal though not quite the *shape* of peas

I decided to try Alton’s recommendation of using a spray bottle to distribute the ice water evenly, but it also misted the sides of the bowl (and I can’t imagine how that could be avoided entirely), so when I hit "pulse" again, the mist attracted flour and formed a thin layer of moist paste on the side of the bowl, which is about as awesome as most things you describe as "moist paste." So I gave up on that and just fed the ice water through the opening in the top, pulsing until the dough just barely started to come together.

 thumbs down  thumbs up!moist paste. say it quickly and it starts to sound like "myspace" with a slight brogue: "moispace"

Then, dump the contents of the food processor onto a piece of plastic wrap (or into a large zip-top bag). Use the plastic to help you press it into a disk about 5" in diameter and 1" tall. Chill for 30 min.

Meanwhile, husk the cherries and slice them in half into a sauce pan, setting aside any that are still tinged with green. Sprinkle with brown sugar, tapioca, and lemon juice or limoncello. Grate in a pinch of nutmeg. Stir over medium heat until the cherries release their juices and the juice thickens into a glaze.

filling3 filling1

Preheat the oven to 400.

Roll out the pastry on a piece of parchment paper—leaving the plastic wrap on top helps. Doesn’t have to be a perfect circle because the whole idea here is a rustic, uneven sort of charm, but the best way I’ve found to get a roughly even circle-like object is to roll from the center of the dough directly away from your body, or up towards 12 o’clock. Then, turn the parchment about 30 degrees and do it again, and repeat, turning it in a circle and always rolling in the same direction with roughly the same amount of pressure.

Spread the filling in the center, leaving at least a 2" border or up to 4". Then, fold the edges up, letting them pleat naturally or attempting to bend them to your will or some combination of the two.

galette3 galette4

Bake for 35-40 min.

A few minutes after I’d put it in the oven, I remembered that I’d seen Thank God It’s Pie Day sugar her galettes before baking, which gave them sparkle and a little crunch. So I pulled it out of the oven and did that. Bonus for being forgetful: I didn’t having to brush the pastry with water to get the sugar to stick.

Recipe for the no-churn, no-whisk, ice-cream-or-semifreddo-like dessert object will have to wait. I’m tired.