Thursday, 25 December 2008

Paleo Apple Crumble and the Chestnut Tojan Horse - Bending the Rules to Breaking Point

On Christmas Eve, my Mum and I baked an apple crumble as a dessert for the Christmas day meal. In spite of the family's recent conversion to a hunter gatherer diet, she was determined to maintain the tradition of serving this favourite, and in recent weeks we had been exploring how this could be achieved.

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 Recipe
Here 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 Alternatives
We examined each component to look for Paleo alternatives.

- The Apple Mixture -
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.)

The Sweetener
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.

The Bulk
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.

The Fat
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 Recipe
Here 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.)

Show/Hide Recipe
Success and Gluttony
Yesterday, 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 Horse
Suspicious 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 Wheat
For 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...

See Also:
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


Asclepius said...

Alas my ongoing experiment with (ahem) 'Paleo Quality Street' means that I have truly ditched the loincloth for the shellsuit over the festive period.

Whatever the consequence of your paleo desert, I fear my fate is worse.

Here's to getting back to Paleo roots in 2009!

Anonymous said...

I could see this being quite good qith almond meal/flour. It is a shame you couldn't get your hands on some.

The SoG

Asclepius said...

Damn my spelling. I meant dessert, NOT desert - although the latter is evocative of the intermittency of consumption implied by the paleo model.

Methuselah said...

Asclepius - I didn't notice the spelling mistake so I suspect you'd have got away with it...enjoy the Quality Street while you can!

G said...

Not sure if it's the same but ground almond is available in Tesco's

Methuselah said...

Thanks G - I have not quite figured out whether it is the same thing, but am going to ask my Mum if she would like to try baking with it to see what happens. The bags of ground almonds always seem to be quite small (if we are thinking about the same thing,) which has always made me think it was not being positioned as a flour substitute. Doesn't mean it can't be used that way of course, but it would make it expensive...

Kaveman said...

Made this tonight using almond meal. It was great - even my wife (who is not paleo) liked it.

- used Fuji apples (3)
- used just coconut oil (3.25 oz), no lard.
- added a bit of cinnamon (1/4 tsp)
- added Xylitol to the almond meal (2 small packets)

A few notes...

It's not over sweet like what you suggested the Chestnut was. Almond meal is not that sweet so I do think 1 more packet of Xylitol wouldn't have hurt - especially for someone with a real sweet tooth. The Fuji apples sweetened it up though, enough for me.

Coconut Oil
I found the coconut oil didn't add much of a coconut flavor and it was a bit difficult to work with alone making the crumble. In the end I would recommend more almond meal (2 more oz) with the amount of coconut oil I used or do the mixture like Methuselah used with lard.

The only slightly disappointing thing is how it looked. Not nearly as nice as yours (I have the pics to prove it). It could have been the almond meal but I believe the lard you used also helped in the browning effect of the crumble - mine didn't brown much even uncovered for the whole 35 minutes. I may also have made the crumble too early and it got a little 'wet' by the time it went on top - more like oatmeal than crumbs at that point.

Overall, as I said it was really good - nice mixture of flavors and consistency. The fact my wife was ok with it is the best part because she is a huge dessert fan but was excited how good it was (and of course, how it might taste on some ice cream)


Methuselah said...

Kaveman - thanks for that. I still have a packet of chestnut flour burning a hole in my cupboard, but after your thorough account of using almond meal I am tempted to try that route next. The choice between an artificial sweetener with a low-carb flour (almond) versus a high-carb flour (chestnut) with no artificial sweetener is a tricky one. But I am really interested to see what the almond flour tastes like.

Unknown said...

i'm a raw vegan and often make fruit crumbles in the dehydrator. we use ground nuts (ground in a food processor) instead of flour and honey and fresh medjool dates instead of sugar or sweetener. you need a food processor to make it but its delicious and never makes me feel ill. an artificial sweetener would make me feel very ill.

Methuselah said...

BobbiMac - sounds nice. I may have to try the crushed nuts idea.

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