Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Homemade Dairy Free "Nutella"

Nutella has been a favorite of mine ever since I first tasted its deliciousness in a crepe with strawberries from a street truck in Paris. I was 16 and I was hooked. If I was stuck on an island and I could bring a life time supply of one meal, this would be it. It was always a treat though never a routine part of my life.

My son is a very picky eater. He is a visual eater too so if an apple is cut the wrong way he won't touch it, and forget about trying new things. Sitting next to Veronica - a tiny bird of a person who eats twice her weight and trys anything given to her; Franklin refused sandwiches, pizza, chicken, everything... Most was in opposition to his sister I'm sure or some power struggle that still rears it's ugly head. It made making meals a chore to say the least. He ultimately gets bored of the few items he eats and then refuses to eat at all. And then we start the process over of finding a few things he will rotate. Around this time, I started seeing commercials 'for a "healthy breakfast" serve Nutella on whole wheat with a glass of milk and fresh cut fruit'. Sounds delicious, right? And being one of my favorites, I was rejuvenated to introduce a new item, fully expecting him to refuse it. Except this time guess what, he loved it! And for a while I felt really good about this, even letting him eat them 2x a day sometimes. 

Then my journey into dissecting labels and exploring nutrition began and made me really look at the ingredients listed in the most common items. Nutella's first ingredient? Sugar, never a good sign. At the time I was also beginning to cut out sugar in his diet all together. He has a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with this sweet poison and if you saw the change in him after eating something sugary you'd understand my overwhelming need to help him. 

So I was horrified to find this as the first ingredient in his favorite all time meal. According to the AHA the recommended daily allowance of added sugar (that is sugar added into things not naturally occurring) is 4 teaspoons for ages 4 to 8, for women 6 teaspoons, and men at 9 teaspoons. One serving of Nutella (2 Tablespoons) has 21 grams of sugar!!! That is nearly 5 teaspoons of sugar per serving. No wonder he was a wild man! More than the recommended amount for an entire day, then add in everything else eaten and you are well on your way to some major issues. I felt completely fooled and pretty angry about it. I learned my lesson and I try hard to not take anything at face value when it comes to claims of "clean labels" and healthy options.

The sugar amount alone is enough to make me never buy it again, but then factor in GMO's (sugar beets and soy lecithin) and how your body processes this poison; I'd get frustrated every time I see that horrible commercial promoting Nutella as a healthy option for your family. Not to mention the ethical issues surrounding palm oil and the damage that is being caused to our rain forests and Orangutans. That's another discussion... But I digress...

So begun my mission to make my own that my son would still eat. I made several attempts, all of which he turned his nose up to. Then I started making progress. Having him help me add ingredients in and taste testing helped him get excited about the process. And soon, although I wasn't happy with the consistency, the flavor was right and it worked for him. It still has taken me nearly 2 years to perfect the recipe, tweeking the amounts each time I make it to get it just right. It is also dairy free!!

Today is that day! I made it 3 times, the consistency was way off and although my kids will eat it - as the flavor was spot on (and they were so sweet waiting so patiently as I scraped the first two batches). I just wasn't happy with the texture or oiliness of it. It was hard to spread on bread and I want it to look like Nutella so that anyone wanting to try this has every chance of converting their little ones over. I was determined, a little voice playing out in my head, telling me I was doing it wrong, try again...

So how does it compare nutritionally? This recipe is 55 calories less per serving, 2.5g less in fat, 10mg less sodium, and here's the big one - 17g LESS sugar! Same great taste with only a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar per serving. There's a bit more protein too per serving! At 2.5 grams it's not a ton but proteins are a struggle at times in this house as well so every little bit counts.

Here is the final recipe that he loves, begs, and chants for. Nutella and sliced apple on whole wheat? Yes, please!! Seconds?! You got it buddy!

Homemade Nutella

1 1/2 Cups Roasted Hazelnuts (skins off)
1/2 cup almonds
1 Tablespoon coconut oil (heat to liquefy)
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2 tbls dark chocolate powder
1/4 cup Maple Syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

There are a few tricks... 

If you buy the hazelnuts raw then you will need to roast them first. Roast the hazelnuts at 350' for 10 minutes. Immediately pour into a towel and rub the skins off. Let them cool completely in the towel. If you start mixing before the hazelnuts have cooled the paste will break and you will not get the creamy texture that is notoriously smooth like Nutella. If you leave the skins on it will make the spread bitter tasting. 

I use a Vitamix (seriously the best and most used appliance in my kitchen), but I would think a food processor would work too. I grind the hazelnuts and almonds first to a powder. Almonds are naturally an oily nut so it helps with that smoothness quality. 

I have to give a nod to my mama who taught me that layering ingredients is the best way to keep the consistency you desire. I added the coconut milk and salt first and this created a very liquified mixture. Also it's cold so it keeps the temp down (as the vitamix spins at such a high speed it quickly heats up whatever contents it holds). Add in the remaining ingredients (this will thicken it up) and blend using the tumbler to get the mix moving.  You don't want to over mix it! 

One bag of roasted unsalted hazelnuts from Trader Joes makes 3 batches of homemade delicious Nutella! This amount will last a couple weeks in the refrigerator. It makes lunch time and snacks very easy and it also makes a great dip for apples, bananas, strawberries, etc.

I started this journey 2 years ago and It has been a process, but one that I feel is worth it. Not only do I want better quality ingredients in the food I serve my family, but sugar intake has been at the forefront of my desire to find a better way. What other store bought items does your family rely on but the ingredients make you cringe? I need a new project! 

Oh, and if you are lucky enough to live in Cleveland you don't have to make it yourself... It will soon be on the menu at River Dog Cafe!! (www.riverdogcafe.com)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2 Months - 2 Years

Two months since you left and two years since your diagnosis flipped our lives upside down. I haven't felt ready to write anything meaningful since my last letter to you.  I don't want this blog to be depression town, but the truth is this is where I'm at in my life and if I can't be honest here then I should stop writing it all together. Hopefully this journal will serve in my own healing as well as others who have walked this path without the words to pull them thru. 

I'm not ready to stop writing to you. It's been our main form of real conversation, at least on my end, the last two years and I'm just not ready to stop writing to you and start writing about you. 

I usually know it's time to put it on virtual paper when my thoughts turn mildly obsessive. When I can't get them to go away, writing is the only way to put them to rest. The moments of the last two years on repeat when I am left alone with my thoughts. Tears that I keep hidden and pushed down overflowing when I allow myself to let the thoughts play out. It's your anniversary today. You and dad should be on another adventure. You deserved to enjoy the life you sacrificed all those years for and I am so angry it was taken from you. The sadness I feel is overwhelming the most on days that mean something.

I still remember talking to you that weekend two years ago. You and dad were in Nashville celebrating your anniversary and we had just gotten home from a wedding in New York. The flower girl dress you made was stunning and Melanie, the bride, was so happy with your beautiful artistry. Veronica hardly left her side that day, as they were both dressed as princesses.  I remember you were quiet during that phone call, but that wasn't so out of the ordinary. I often went on and on as you listened to my stories. I told you how cute the twins were walking down the aisle together and how brave they were. Show stoppers with the entire church oohhing and aahhing over them. They were such troopers taking photos and sitting on the bus all day. How cute Frankie was falling asleep in his tux on my pregnant belly as we rode the bus around; the last to be dropped off. I remember hearing about the grand ole opry but don't know how much you struggled to tell me about it.  Dad said over the weekend you were dropping the ends of sentences and by the end of it were struggling to get five words strung together. How did I not notice that?! Was it because I just went on and on filling the silence I was so aware of for all the wrong reasons? But then you always tried to protect me. Maybe I chalked it up to the tension that was recently between us. That summer I struggled to stand as a wife and mother first and daughter second. That was hard for you to accept or to agree with my choices at times. It was as if subconsciously you knew our time was limited and you were hanging on so incredibly tight I could barely breathe.

By Tuesday you were down to yes and no communications and dad knew he couldn't keep it from us any longer. An MRI showed a mass in your brain, and you were being admitted for more tests. Christian and I of course googled it and your symptoms searching for an answer. We all knew it was bad but could never comprehend just how bad in that moment. We saw worst case and thought that won't be it. By Friday you were having brain surgery and we were all there waiting, hoping for any answer other than what we feared the most. Sitting there in the family room with the surgeon, dad, Michele, and Ted; time stopped. All I heard were words flashing, searing into my brain. Cancer. Stage 4. Aggressive. 3-6 months at your best, no one survives more than 15 months. We were left alone with that and we all hung on to each other for dear life. To this day it is the only time we have all grieved and cried together. I know that would make you sad, that the closest we have all been through this was in that moment. 

Soon after, you came to Cleveland for a second opinion, dad fully expecting to hear the same information, appease me and head home to let the next few months happen. But what we heard gave us all hope. Hope for more time, better quality of life, a battle to focus on. We shaved your head without shedding a tear, warrior mode. Sydney born days before treatment began, snuggle buddies those first few months of her life while you went thru treatment. Watching you go thru radiation and ring that bell at the end of it was priceless. You had this look in your eyes that day as if you could conquer the world. Fearless, proud, and so hopeful for a future. A future we were told to not bother fighting for. But you did fight. A great Christmas followed at home with your whole family together. You were so happy that day.

Then the first seizure hit. Scary doesn't begin to describe it, I thought we would lose you right there in the midst of half boxed up decorations, the tree still sparkling. The twins in bed thankfully, we were able to shield them somewhat from what was happening. Them waking to see the firemen in and out of the house, Christian and I sucking in the fear to smile and reassure them the dr.'s were going to take good care of their Mimi. A surgical infection showed it's ugly face a few weeks later and a second surgery was needed. You fought back yet again. Spending months in a rehab hospital, fighting for hours everyday in physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Syd and I would come to support you and watch you working tirelessly. One of your goals to hold her again, the next thing I feared that would be taken from you. You not only held her again but you walked out of that hospital! Truly amazing my mama. Walking laps in my home and lifting hand weights to build strength, by Sydney's baptism you were strong enough to travel to the church, stand for a picture with your whole family and smile for pictures holding Syd! Mind you this was now 7 months after diagnosis, long past that 3-6 at your best. Trials came and went, new drugs were used, but the seizures kept coming every few months and each time took a little more of your mobility, your strength, your communication with it. You made it a year after your diagnosis, then Sydney's 1st birthday, another thanksgiving and Christmas. We are so lucky to have had so much time with you. To see you fight like a warrior and never, ever give up. It's a testament to how you lived your life and no matter how crappy I feel you are an inspiration to just get through it with a smile on my face. The trials fell away and you were left with the last chemo option. The one you would've been given immediately following your first surgery over a year and half before had you stayed in Lansing for treatment. We knew the fight was ending, the options gone, but still you had quality, you were holding strong. The wound on your leg stopped treatment all together and we all knew that there was no coming back from it. We tried to heal it but it was just too big and this god awful cancer was just too aggressive. What we were able to keep at bay, was now unleashed and it was only a matter of time. Still you lived life smiling, hugging, watching your grandchildren and loving every moment, or faking some of it for us. Sydney now climbing in your bed to give you kisses, Veronica cuddling with you on your 60th birthday watching Annie, Frankie playing Mario kart relentlessly yelling "Mimi watch!"and feeling my belly as this baby grew inside it. You saw and lived in our new home, listened with love and happiness as we told you about finally following our dream of opening a restaurant; even if you were never strong enough to see it for yourself. There are little things sprinkled throughout the place that are reminders of you and your unconditional support to chase our dreams.

All of it gave us purpose, a way to forget the sadness, focus on your daily needs rather than realize how much life had dramatically shifted. How much you, and by consequence all of us, lost in a matter of days, two years ago. 

In the days following your death I felt marked, like a Scarlett letter cast across my chest for the world to see. Not one of shame, but of pity for being motherless. I hated it so much that every time someone extended their condolences I wanted to scream. I watched as others cried at your funeral thinking this doesn't change you why are you crying?! But that was the anger. I was blown away by the amount of people who came to pay their respects to you. Such a social wallflower I bet you never thought they would show up in the hundreds to honor you. You deserved that.

My birthday came shortly after and it was the day the sadness really set into reality. Normally you are the first to call and the realization that phone call would never come again made the day almost unbearable. I tried to put a smile on for my family's sake, but I fear I didn't do a very good job. The day the twins rode the bus to kindergarten for the first time I balled my eyes out. I'm not that sentimental, typically I may get a little emotional but I had been counting down the days to this moment. You were the first one I wanted to send a picture to, and because I couldn't, I couldn't hold back the tears. My social etiquette seems out of whack too and I can barely focus on conversations. I'm sure people wonder where I go mid conversation and I struggle to retain any information or recover from trailing off.  I swear all these great people I am meeting in my city and neighborhood must think I'm such a flake. Most days the tears lie just below the surface, threatening to escape at any random thought of you. Good friends ask how I'm doing, how's my dad and I wanna scream again. How do you think I am? I wish they would stop asking. I know it's out of love and concern but what am I supposed to say? The truth? Neither of us has the time for that. I hope that one day I will reach a point where the tears stop streaming at every random thought but right now I am no where near that. And as my due date approaches I am more and more aware of the sadness I will feel that day. Because as excited as I am to hold this tiny miracle growing inside me, I also know you will not be there to hold him. It's not right, it's not fair and I wanna scream just thinking about it. 

Two months, two years. Another path ripped to the left. Another day that should be lived a different way, in celebration and not tears.  I will be ok, I will find a way to let the happiness win. In the meantime I will get better at faking it.