I recently wrote a piece published on Huffington Post bewailing the deluge of junk food posing as the home baked and home cooked on so many American food blogs, the glamorization of gaudy sweet treats concocted from industrial, packaged, processed foodstuffs for a large reading public. I wondered why food blogs couldn't create truly homemade sweets, something a bit healthier instead of encouraging the eating of what I consider junk food. The reaction to the piece was overwhelming, largely supporting my opinion. But several readers commented that I should leave well enough alone and pointed out that my own blog, Life's a Feast, is filled with desserts, cakes and cookies, puddings and pies which were just as unhealthy. But is there a difference between baking with Oreos, Twinkies, jarred marshmallow cream, industrial marshmallows and other bagged candy as primary foodstuffs and flour, sugar, butter, cream, eggs and baking chocolate?
And so I began thinking of how I look at dessert and how that vision has evolved throughout this long voyage of mine from the United States through Italy and France; dessert evolving from irresponsible and impulsive to mindful and thoughtful. I moved to France at the ripe old age of 25. I had been struggling with my weight and battling my love of sweets for years. Snacks and sugary confections of every sort were my Achilles' Heel, and I had developed a bad yet time-worn love-hate relationship with dessert. I grew up in a family of sweet tooths and the house was always filled to overflowing with ice cream, cakes, pudding, every imaginable temptation and anytime of the day, any reason was good for the eating. Processed, industrial cookies and candy, boxed cake mix and faux whipped topping were everyday fare and I loved it all. Plates piled high with huge scoops, chunks or slices became both comforting and reassuring, a reward for a day well spent, a job well done, a meal finished or as a treat to ward off stress and worry. This evil cycle was only broken when I moved to Europe and married into a French family. It was then that I began to experience a different concept of dessert, understand a different way of eating and learned how to eat as Europeans do: with pleasure and moderation and completely guilt-free! This new relationship suited us both, and I not only slimmed down, but never felt better!
Food is not a conscious lifestyle choice here in Europe but rather a way of life. Although Europe has moved rambunctiously into the 21st century and people are relying more on packaged foods, and are occasionally seen eating on the run, there are certain mealtime and culinary traditions that are still deeply ingrained in the cultural psyche. Fresh, local ingredients, daily or weekly trips to the market, time spent cooking for family and friends are all part of everyday living and eating, as are regular, precise mealtimes eaten slowly, one course at a time. One rarely finds food piled up on the table for all to grab as they please and eating between designated mealtimes is frowned upon.
Desserts, rather simple, unadorned affairs at home, richer and more luxurious when eaten at a restaurant or served at a dinner party, are offered up in delicately-sized portions, just enough to round off a meal, just enough to satisfy. Snack time is sharply at ten and four, leftover cake or tart from the evening before served up with a cup of coffee or a glass of juice for the youngsters, only enough to tide one over until the next meal. Restaurants normally offer, aside from a full three-course menu, the choice between ordering Entrée + Plat (first + main course) or Plat + Dessert (Main course + dessert) and rare is the person who doesn't include dessert, apparently desiring, needing that sweet touch at the end of the meal. At home and at dinner parties one usually finds a fruit bowl placed squarely in the center of the table as the dessert is served, offering a cool, light and refreshing balance to the richer confection offered.
And what is a healthy, mindful alternative, a healthy dessert? We hear this cry high and low and wonder what we should be doing differently as we stare down into our plates. I spent too many years feeling guilty, searching for low fat, low-calorie options, snacks and desserts that would both satisfy and not make me feel naughty. We too often shake our heads no at each and every chocolate-rich, rum-infused, egg yolk, cream and butter-rich concoction set before us, feeling oh-so saintly at our self-restraint, and leave the table feeling...deprived. Or we decide to replace white flour with wheat and spelt, throw in a handful of grains or cups of nuts and dried fruit for good measure and think that healthier makes for a better dessert, better for us. Not so in Europe. Yes, fruit and yogurt, those healthy alternatives, are pushed regularly and actually enjoyed by all, young and old. Yet other than the odd granola bar or certain whole-wheat cookies on the market and those famous, much-loved yogurts, I have yet to see desserts altered in any way by the addition of more "healthier" ingredients. "Healthy" desserts simply mean the best quality ingredients, fresh cream and eggs, high-grade chocolate, farm-fresh fruit. This is the way I eat and this is the way I bake.
I feel no need to defend the plethora of desserts on my own blog yet I will. I do think that there is a difference between a Rice Krispie Treat topped with candy, boxed brownie mix jazzed up with marshmallow fluff and stuffed with one or two Oreo cookies or chocolate-dipped Twinkies and a chocolate cake made from flour, sugar, cocoa powder and eggs. My long culinary and cultural voyage has taught me that it is all about educating one's self and others, that quality ingredients count, that both what we eat and how we eat it are crucial to our health. And as food bloggers and writers we can use our platform to instruct and encourage baking with real ingredients, which can be as simple, time efficient and inexpensive as using the boxed and prepackaged.
You see, it all goes together. When we think about what we eat, we think about how we eat. To hide behind the old adage that many Americans won't eat anything other than processed and packaged is harmful and lazy. To continue to offer the idea that using pre-packaged boxed or bagged this and that is cheaper or less time consuming is not only wrong, but reinforces the same old bad eating habits and behaviors as well. I raised my sons on snacks and desserts different than what I grew up with, on a concept of eating that I learned late in life. I do believe that there is a world of difference between snacks and desserts pieced together from packaged junk foods and those made with real ingredients and I do think that as food bloggers we can forego one for the other and teach others to do the same in all simplicity.
I no longer hesitate when offered dessert, no longer feel an alarming guilt wash over me as I spoon up those few luscious mouthfuls. I enjoy serving a homebaked snack to my sons. And I love the success I have had, through my own food blog, in teaching others to actually bake from scratch.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.
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