Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Better than chocolate?!?

Below is a magazine article I recently drafted and which I thought I’d share, since this time of year is resplendent with chocolate in so many forms J. 

Ironically, very recently I discovered another possible substitute for chocolate, which comes from the Brazilian cupuaçu tree; I will investigate further and share what I learn!!


What’s better than chocolate?  I have food allergies to cocoa and sugar but really don’t want to give up that yummy confection.  Fortunately, I’ve found something at least as good to take chocolate’s place – and it’s healthier, too!

Like me, you may have thought that carob isn’t as sweet or doesn’t taste as good as chocolate.  However, I’ve recently been experimenting with carob in various forms and have been happily surprised at how wonderful it tastes and how easy it is to use.  Best of all, carob has more fiber and fewer calories than chocolate, no caffeine, is low in fat, and is high in potassium, calcium, and niacin as well as having antioxidant properties.

Carob comes from the dried pod of a Mediterranean evergreen tree and sometimes is known as St. John’s Bread because rumor has it that John the Baptist subsisted on them in the desert – some versions of the Bible refer to his eating “locusts”, and this makes sense because carob is where we get that “locust bean gum” so often seen in the ingredients list of innumerable packaged foods.  Carob is in fact a member of the legume (pea/bean) family, Fabaceae.  Though most carob trees grown for commercial use are found in the Middle East, carob thrives in temperate or subtropical areas and so is also grown in Australia and Southern Europe.

Most amazing to me was the discovery that carob is available not only in powder form but also as chips (like chocolate chips), molasses or syrup, and even flour for baking.  Carob powder and carob flour (coarser than the powder) are made from grinding the dried carob pod after the beans have been removed, whereas carob molasses is carob powder that has been boiled in water until it becomes thick like honey.

My introduction to carob was via the powder form – looking much like cocoa powder – which, when mixed into a cup of hot milk sweetened with a little agave, made a satisfying version of “hot chocolate”.  More recently, though, I discovered carob molasses (sometimes called carob syrup, and usually found in Middle Eastern grocery stores, though there are several brands available online too); a generous teaspoonful of carob molasses stirred into hot milk (no sweetener needed) has actually made me forget how much I’d been missing my morning cup of “real” cocoa.

Carob powder can be used in place of cocoa powder in just about any recipe, with a rich taste that, quite honestly, now tastes just like chocolate to me (though maybe that’s because I haven’t eaten real chocolate in so long?).  For more fiber, less fat, and a sweeter taste than if you used cocoa powder, substitute ¼ c. carob flour for other types of flour per cup in baked goods.

Carob molasses can replace sugar cane/blackstrap molasses and doesn’t have that bitter aftertaste; I’ve used it in Boston Baked Beans and in cakes with no complaints from the diners gobbling them down.  Another delicious use for carob molasses is to mix it with tahini (ground sesame seeds) to make a substitute for peanut butter – I came up with this idea on my own, and later discovered that people in the Middle East and Mediterranean have been eating it like that for centuries, calling it “Dibs Kharoub u Tahineh”.  They also use carob to make cold drinks, liqueurs, and various types of candies.

My favorite form of carob, however, is chips (preferably unsweetened, though they are also available sweetened with barley malt). I use them just like chocolate chips in all sorts of cooking, and I melt them in the microwave with a bit of water and then stir in a tiny bit of cream to make a smooth and delectable “chocolate” sauce – great to dip fresh fruit or poured over ice cream.

Lastly, if saying goodbye to chocolate bars is too painful, there are carob bars and candies sold commercially that will gratify your sweet tooth without the negative effects of cocoa and sugar.  You can also combine carob powder with nut butters and other ingredients to make your own candy bar or even fudge.  I’ve made a kind of cross between the two which I swear tastes just like Hershey’s chocolate bar with almonds – and I love that I can eat it guilt-free.

With all the diverse and tasty ways to use carob, it’s no wonder that in ancient times the Greeks weighed gold and gemstones against the seed of the Middle Eastern carob tree, giving us the standard measure “carat” still used today to weigh diamonds.  I know that carob shines in my kitchen, and I’m sure it will in yours too – give it a try!

Some Recipes Using Carob:

1)  Carob Almond “Hershey” Bars – No-bake, easy-to-make dessert or anytime treat!

     1 c. almond butter
     ¼ c. light agave syrup, or honey                                 
     ¼ c. carob powder, unsweetened
     ¼ c. ground nuts (same type as nut butter used)
     ¼ c. chopped nuts (same type as nut butter used)
     2 Tb. toasted sesame seeds (optional)
     2 Tb. raisins (optional)

     Combine nut butter and agave or honey in a bowl till well blended.  Stir in carob powder, ground nuts, chopped nuts, and sesame seeds (if using).  Mixture will be thick and pliable.  Using a metal spoon, press into 8” x 8” in. glass baking pan; make sure no “thin spots” are visible.  Press raisins, if using, onto top.  Chill for 2 hours, then cut into 1” squares. Can be eaten as is, but to approximate “Hershey bar”, freeze larger squares for several hours and eat straight from the freezer.

     Variation:  Substitute peanuts throughout, including “butter”, and leave out sesame seeds (raisins optional).

Prep time: 15 mins   Chill time: 2 hrs   Yield: Approximately 20 one-inch squares

2)    Carob Zucchini Muffins – Moist, not overly sweet, these look and taste like chocolate, but are better for you!

½ c. milk (any type)                                        
¼ tsp. white vinegar
½ c. room-temperature butter
½ c. vegetable oil
1¾ c. granulated sugar (cane OR beet; if using date sugar, increase to 2 c.)
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2½ c. all-purpose wheat flour OR 2¼ c. oat or sorghum flour
     4 Tb. carob powder, unsweetened
     1 tsp. baking soda
     ¼ tsp. cinnamon (optional)
     ½ tsp. salt
     2 c. finely grated zucchini
     1 c. carob chips (sweetened, if preferred)
     ¼ c. chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

     Preheat oven 325ºF.  Line large muffin pan with paper or foil muffin cups.  In small bowl, mix milk and vinegar and set aside.  In large bowl, mix together butter, oil, and sugar until creamy.  Add eggs, vanilla, and milk/vinegar mixture; blend well.  In separate bowl, mix  flour, carob powder, baking soda, cinnamon (if using), and salt.  Add to the butter mixture and stir by hand to combine.  Add grated zucchini and ¾ of the carob chips; stir well.  Spoon batter evenly into muffin cups till ⅔ full.  Sprinkle remaining carob chips and nuts (if using) on top. Bake wheat flour muffins for 20 minutes, oat or sorghum muffins for 30-35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

     Prep time: 15 mins   Bake time: 20-35 mins   Yield: 12 large muffins

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