Sunday, May 30, 2010

Health Food-Junk Food: Pancake Syrup

Lately I have been changing the way I eat. I had long considered myself a pretty healthy eater throughout my life: I ate fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods and not too much meat. But I also ate junk food, without paying too much attention to the ingredients. Somewhere in my mind I knew I probably shouldn't be eating artificial colours, chemically engineered flavours, high fructose corn syrup and all the other unpronouncable ingredients in some of my favorite treats. But I mostly ate healthily, so I figured I couldn't be doing that much harm.
A few different influences have come together for me recently to really push me towards consciously removing those additives from my diet.  Not least of those influences  have been the books (and lectures) of Michael Pollan. I think when I started reading his books, a lot of ideas that had already been swimming around my head really crystallized.
 I also read this article about fast food that never seems to decompose, which  put me even more firmly off eating food from certain large fast food chains.
Another thing that has helped me steer away from this category of non food is that I have been living in Paris since September. I would like to say something lofty here about the great markets with produce and fresh meat, eggs and dairy, or the great cheese shops, or the artisan crafted whatever, how my eating habits have been transformed by the great food traditions of France. All those things are great, but what has actually helped me a great deal is the taste of Diet Coke in France. I hate the way Diet Coke tastes in Europe, having sampled them scientifically in England, France and Italy. There is a different formula, or different water or something, but it is definitely not the same. I don't like it one bit. Which is great, because it was not my proudest or healthiest habit.
I am now trying to avoid foods that contain ingredients I can’t pronounce, foods that will never go bad, foods with unnatural neon colours… I am trying to avoid highly processed food and manufactured junk food.  Some of my favorite things fall into exactly those categories though.  My favorite childhood foods included a chicken noodle soup that came in a little plastic packet, which is so bright yellow that it dyed one our white serving spoons a toxic looking shade.  I have bought large bags of artificial calorie free sugar substitute. I liberally applied food colouring. I gravitated towards salt, sugar, MSG, really really refined carbohydrates and chemical additives.
I have managed to wean myself entirely off of Diet Coke and a lot of the things on that list. I simply don’t buy that category of food anymore. Homemade substitutes for many treats are better than the old versions, air popped corn with real butter and salt does not seem like a sacrifice compared to microwaved popcorn. However, there are some junk food cravings that I have a hard time finding a suitable replacement for. One of these is pancake syrup. This is slightly embarrassing to me, as a food oriented person. I know most people in the foodie community would probably never admit to liking anything so banal as pancake syrup, full of high fructose corn syrup and red dye number whatever and caramel flavour. It doesn’t come close to anything that Micheal Pollen would define as food.  And there is an obvious better for you substitute, with loads of flavour: maple syrup. It is difficult for me to admit it, but I don’t like maple syrup. I like it in a marinade for a salmon, to give that caramelized sweetness to a grilled salmon. It just isn’t what I want on my pancakes. This is where the health food junk food idea comes in.            
I have come up with a solution that I can feel good about: making my own pancake syrup. I’m not trying to say that homemade pancake syrup is health food. It is simply an acceptable substitute for a junk food that I don’t want to eat anymore. That being said, this is still essentially pourable sugar, for special treats, not for every day. Anyways, this is for pancakes so I was never really going for health food in the first place. However your choice of sugars and ingredients, organic, whole food where possible, to further reduce the load of nasty things that are in here.
You can play with the sugars in this recipe, depending on your preferences. Agave syrup might be good, or any sweetener you like. I find this combination is similar to the fairly neutral taste of pancake syrup, but you could add cinnamon, ginger, lemon juice, blueberries, strawberries whatever you want to make a more exciting syrup. I just don’t want to.

Pancake Syrup 
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1cup brown sugar
  • 2 tsp molasses
  • 5 tbs honey
  • pinch of vanilla powder, or 1 tsp vanilla extract  
  • 1 cup water
Bring all ingredients to a boil and then reduce heat to  low until the syrup it the desired thickness.
Store in a glass jar in the fridge, homemade syrup does not keep outside of the fridge, unlike store bought syrup. If the syrup thickens up too much add a little water and heat until desired thickness. If the syrup crystallizes in the fridge, add a little water and heat the syrup  before using.

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