While creating this supposedly Paleo masterpiece through a kind of baking alchemy, I was asking myself this: at what point does contriving a recipe with technically Paleo ingredients stop being Paleo? (For the purposes of this piece, I shall talk about Paleo food, which you can take to mean food compatible with our evolutionary past. It's easier than typing 'hunter gatherer'.)
My gut-busting experience and subsequent research added particular relevance to this question, as you will see...
Traditional RecipeHere is the traditional recipe, in summary:
Make the apple mixture with the apple and some of the sugar and place in the bottom of the dish. Combine the flour, remaining sugar and butter to make a crumbly top and add to the dish. Bake.
Paleo AlternativesWe examined each component to look for Paleo alternatives.
- The Apple Mixture -
Traditionally, Bramley apples are used for cooking (in the UK at any rate.) These reduce to a puree very easily and are therefore easier to work with. They are fairly sour, but that's fine because baking traditionally also involves adding copious amounts of sugar. We decided to use sweet eating apples and just work harder to achieve the desired consistency.
- The Crumbly Top -
Here's where it gets tough, given that the remaining ingredients are non-Paleo. It breaks down into three components - the bulk (flour), the fat (butter) and the sweetener (sugar.)
This is a dessert, so clearly we need sweetness. We bought some Xylitol, based on my judgment that if we had to use a sweetener, then that one might be the least bad (my opinion on this is documented here.) There is an artificial sweetener called sucralose which I intend to explore in a future post, which might compete with Xylitol for least bad status - but for now, we went with Xylitol.
There are a variety of flours and flour substitutes out there - my favourite for this project was almond meal, well-documented here on Mark's Daily Apple as the staple for paleo baking. Unfortunately, we could not find any in the UK. We looked at coconut flour and chestnut flour as alternatives, deciding on the latter because it was more readily available. We also hesitated to use coconut flour, given our intention to serve the dessert with coconut cream.
When the chestnut flour arrived, we were surprised to find that it had so much sweetness of its own that we suspected no additional sweetener would be required. I'm not kidding - this stuff is sweet. I suppose this should have come as no surprise, because chestnuts are sweet and this is the dehydrated, concentrated form. At this point my Paleo Sense was tingling, but I chose to ignore it.
This was the easiest part, as you might guess. Of the non-dairy alternatives to butter, coconut oil was an obvious contender - but for the reason above, using too much seemed like a bad idea. So we opted for 50% coconut oil and 50% lard.
Our RecipeHere is a photo-by-photo full recipe in case you fancy trying it yourself (I don't intend to regularly post recipes - I leave that to Mark's Daily Apple, where there is a wealth of hunter gatherer style advice on cooking and baking to be found.)
3 medium-sized, sweet apples
6 oz chestnut flour
1.75 oz coconut oil
1.75 oz lard
|We peeled and cored the apples, then diced them into pieces around half and inch cubed.|
|Once the apple had reached a consistency that felt right for a dessert (not completely pureed, but also not too lumpy,) we took it out of the pan and...|
|...into the bottom of the dish where it would be joined by the crumble later. We greased this dish with coconut oil.|
|We weighted the coconut oil (which at this time of year is a solid in the UK, making this a lot easier) and the lard.|
|We weighted the chestnut flour and placed it into the mixing bowl.|
|The final product, once it had been removed from the oven: we let this cool then placed it in the refrigerator.|
Success and GluttonyYesterday, after a traditional turkey dinner, distinguishable only from its non-Paleo equivalent by an absence of potatoes and stuffing and an abundance of parsnips, we reheated and ate our Paleo apple crumble.
If I tell you that I continued with the helpings long after the folks had given up, stopping only when the dish was so empty it scarcely needed to be washed, you may get a sense of how moreish our creation was. It did have a distinct taste, owing to the substituted ingredients - but it would be naive to expect the Paleo version of anything to taste exactly the same; and our Paleo apple crumble was certainly close enough to the mark for me.
It is a while since I have been rendered immobile by my own gluttony, but yesterday I succeeded in doing so. I sat in front of inane Christmas day television for 45 minutes, lightly sweating and contemplating severe abdominal tightness and faint nausea. My determination to finish the apple crumble had been reminiscent of the days when I ate foods containing sugar and routinely dispatched whole packets of biscuits without taking my eyes off the TV.
The Chestnut Trojan HorseSuspicious and interested, I consulted Google, whereupon I encountered this study showing that chestnuts are composed primarily of starch and sugar. Yes, Sugar. Not sugars like fructose and glucose, which is what you expect to find in natural foods, but sucrose, the bad guy, recently in the dock once again as an addictive substance.
When is Paleo not Paleo?The point - brought into sharp relief by my experience - is that the philosophy of eating like our hunter gatherer ancestors is about much more than a list of foods that are allowed and foods that are not. I am often asked by friends or relatives who have adopted the diet (or are interested) whether a food is Paleo. The answer is often yes, at which point their eyes light up. It's at this point that I become the spoilsport, explaining that it's not in the spirit of Paleo to eat a jar of honey three times a day.
When arch sugar junkie Mrs M (who was spending Christmas with her own folks this year) heard about the chestnut flour I thought she was going to somehow climb down the phone line to get her hands on it. The extent to which she is able to resist baking batch after batch of supposedly Paleo cookies next year will be the real test of her commitment to the philosophy.
Better than WheatFor my part, I will be eating small numbers of roasted chestnuts when they are in season, just as our ancestors would have done - but chestnut flour baking will have to be off the menu under normal circumstances. In its favour is the fact that it is not wheat-based (the significance of which I talk about here) so if I am determined to treat myself in this way then it's the better option. However, with the memory of yesterday's experience still fresh in my mind (and still not feeling great as I write this,) I can't see it happening anytime in the next few months...
We're all Junkies
Why (Refined) Sugar is Bad: Some References
Cigarettes, Sugar and our Innate Short-Termism
Sugar, Sugars and Sweeteners: The Definitive Guide
Doctors and Nutrition Part 2: My Wheat Experiment