Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No Sugar Added (part 2): The Coffee Solution

I have a terrible confession to make. I'm barely a writer. I know  this is true because I don't like coffee. I also don't like the only acceptable substitute: tea. That's not to say that I don't occasionally partake of these substances. I even, occasionally, want a cup of tea, but I don't really drink these on a regular basis or from any habitual desire to do so. That  means I don't sit down at the computer in the morning with my cup of liquefied caffeine to get to work. It also means that I don't drag my laptop (which is, at the moment, a glorified paper weight, but that's another story) to the cafe to enjoy some foreign ambiance while I sip a beverage and work.

In fact, just the other day, my wife and I were at our favorite local cafe, and I noticed a number of women sitting with their laptops and mostly empty cups just writing away. I'll explain the whole cafe thing in a moment. I commented that I just didn't get that whole thing with the cafe and the laptops; my wife looked at me like I was crazy. I don't ever see men doing that, though, so, maybe, that's more of a female thing than a male thing. At any rate, my caffeine choice has always been soda... but, of course, I gave that up. No sugar equals no soda, because 0 calorie sodas are nasty and, actually, just as bad for you, or worse, than the ones with sugar.

When I first came to California, my experience with coffee extended only to its smell. I love the smell of coffee brewing. Growing up on  the farm, I used to wake up to that smell. Okay, well, that's almost true.  My grandparents had a farm in East Texas, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. A lot. My grandmother was a morning person, and the first thing she did every morning was set the coffee to brewing. No one else drank it. Not my grandfather. Not my mother. Not my father. I loved waking up to that smell. But I never developed a desire for the actual substance.

When I moved out to CA, there were two things my wife wanted to get me into: alcohol (that sounds bad, but no one wants to drink alone, or so I've heard) and coffee. No, I'd never had a drop of alcohol before I moved out here, and I've still never been drunk. Or even tipsy, much to my wife's dismay. She has set a goal for herself of getting my tipsy, but, so far, she hasn't managed it. Okay, there was this one time while I was still in Louisiana that I got tipsy, but it wasn't exactly alcohol related and is a story for another time.

Coffee, though, was a big issue. Even though I was willing to go sit around in cafes with her while she had coffee, she didn't like it that I wasn't having anything, so it wasn't a satisfying experience for her. After years of training, she worked me up to mochas. Starbucks mochas with only one shot of espresso (instead of the normal 2) and a lot of sugar. Not that I had extra sugar added, I didn't, but their drinks commonly have more sugar than a can of soda. In fact, Starbucks is, possibly, the most sugar saturated place I know of that isn't an actual dessert shop.

Then...? Then, we cut (processed) sugar from our diets.

As you might imagine, this caused considerable problems with  the whole cafe thing. Although we didn't know it at first. Initially, when we dropped sugar, my wife also dropped caffeine in an effort to get her whole diet stabilized. The caffeine wasn't an issue for me since I'd quit drinking soda, which hardly counts as having caffeine, anyway. It was months and months before we hit a coffee shop again. Starbucks. A latte for my wife (no sugar in those), a mocha for me, because I (still) can't do lattes.

Oh. My. Gosh. I cannot describe for you the amount of sweet in that mocha. It was... horrendous. I wasn't able to make it through a third of it. That's the thing, though; when I was having sugar all the time, Starbucks seemed perfectly normal to me, just like it seems perfectly normal to virtually everyone else in the USA. But after going off of sugar for months, all I could taste was the sugar. And it was just too much.

Just to throw this in, the average sugar consumption per year of someone living in the USA is currently over 125 pounds. That's up 4-5 times what it was just a few decades ago. You know in those old TV shows when the dad catches his son smoking and he makes him smoke a whole pack all at once to show him how horrible it is? I feel like we should sort of do that with sugar. Give people their yearly allotment and tell them to eat up. All of it. Right now. I could go on to talk about how sugar consumption is linked to all sorts of health problems, including cancer and especially breast cancer, but, instead, I will just link this article for you: Is Sugar Toxic? Just to warn you: it's long, and it's kind of scary.

All of this lead to figuring out how to make mochas at home that didn't include sugar. I do have a morning drink, now: hot chocolate. Peppermint hot chocolate. Occasionally, I'll throw some coffee in to make it a mocha instead, but that's never more than once or twice a week (when I accidentally pour too much peppermint in and need something to cut the taste). Oh, and let me just be clear, here; I'm not talking about little hot cocoa packets. Those have sugar. This is something I make from baking cocoa sweetened with honey. I'll get back to that in a moment. The recipe, that is.

And as another aside, I just want to say that honey is, like, a miracle food. Some of it. There's actually a type of honey from Australia that can, literally, be rubbed on open wounds to promote healing. Very quick healing. Like Wolverine regeneration type of healing. Okay, so that's probably stretching it a bit, but still... It's too bad we're killing off all of the bees that make this amazing stuff. (And, no, I'm not going to argue the validity of honey vs sugar. Maybe some other time. Trust me, they're not the same. Rub some sugar on an open wound and see if does more than just sting.)

We did, also, find a cafe we can (kind of) frequent. They have what's called an Aztec mocha. It's spicy! Although not really spicy enough for me. More than adequate for your average consumer, though. People blame that on me growing up in Louisiana, the love of the spicy, although I can't see it. We didn't do spicy food when I was a kid. At any rate, it's not too sweet, and we can manage one a week together. On Sunday mornings. That's pretty close to the extent of processed sugar we get. Don't get me started on the kids, though. Especially my daughter. The girl is a hummingbird. Not that we provide her the sugar... Let me just say that for a school that's fairly "hippie," there is a constant stream of sugary goods in that place. Not to mention the relatives at holidays. And after years, yes, years, of going on about "no sugar," they persist in doing things like giving our kids Easter baskets full of enough sugar to last them months. >sigh< [My mom doesn't even live here, and she's constantly mailing my kids hoards of candy (which they never see, because it goes straight into the trash).] At least one of them did better this year, though, by providing a brown paper bunny in their baskets instead of the actual chocolate bunny.

The sugar thing is a constant struggle. It inundates our society. We can't go out to eat and really enjoy it, because everything is too sweet. Even the salad. Yes, salads! It's a good thing I'm a good cook, because the awesome part of that is that we have problems finding anywhere to eat that makes food as good as what I make, so it makes it easier to not eat out since we know we're just going to be disappointed. That doesn't mean my wife doesn't have to remind me of that when I don't feel like cooking, though.

I mentioned in  part one of this the disbelief with which people respond to the idea of cutting sugar from their diets. The most common phrase is "I could never do that." I imagine that that would be the same phrase that people would use about cutting out most of the destructive habits we have as a society. Like dropping to owning only one car. "I could never do that." Or actually using cell phones for emergencies only. "I could never do that." Getting rid of cable/satellite television. "I could never do that."

We only have two cars, right now, because my mother-in-law died last fall and left us her Prius. Prior to that, we spent 7 or 8 years with just one vehicle. We even spent a couple of months with no vehicle after our van blew up (yes, blew up), last summer. We haven't had cell phones in more than 5 years. We've never had cable television in the 14 years my wife and I have been together.

Yes, you might just say that we are rather contrary people, but we prefer to do things our own way. I was lucky to find someone that's contrary in the same ways I am, although that contrariness does cause us to butt heads more frequently than I'm sure we like. More than I like, at any rate.

Of course, this is not without its negative consequences in the writing field. But that's probably a whole different post...


Because I know some of you are interested, or, at least, one of you, I will now go about explaining how to make hot chocolate without sugar along with how to make the spicy mocha. Disclaimer: I really like dark chocolate, much darker than my wife likes. She says my hot chocolate is too bitter, so be aware before you try this at home. However, my kids, who love the sweet, prefer my hot chocolate to hers.

The most important part of the hot chocolate is the cocoa. I've tested a variety of brands, and, unfortunately, the best is not available in stores. That I know of. As far as I know you have to order it. I prefer King Arthur's Double-Dutch Dark Cocoa as my base (my wife uses King Arthur's Black Cocoa). Here's the real trick, though, you can't use just one type of cocoa. Not if you want the superior hot chocolate. My wife and I both use Ghirardelli's Unsweetened Cocoa as our second. If you need a fall back, the Ghirardelli's works well with Nestle's. Forget Hershey, though. Seriously.

Now that you've worked out your cocoa blend, I'll hit you with the next obstacle: my wife and I have an electronic kitchen scale that we use for things like this, because it's easier to keep your proportions the same with the scale than by measuring by volume. And you can do it right in your drinking vessel, if you have a scale that tares. So...

You need to start with 1 ounce of cocoa. I use a ratio of about .7/.3 (Double-Dutch/Ghirardelli)

The honey... my wife no longer uses honey in hers; she's switched to sucralose. However, when she did use honey, she used 1.2 ounces. I tend to only use .8 ounces (unless I'm not paying attention and squirt too much in). [If you want to make it a peppermint hot chocolate, this when you add in the peppermint extract - .05 ounces. If you hit .1, it tends to make it too strong.]

Okay, this is very important. Add in about 1.65 ounces of milk. We use non-fat, but that's really up to you, I guess. Whatever you do, do not go over 2 ounces of milk. You need to mix the cocoa and milk into a paste, a smooth paste, and, if you put too much milk in, you'll get little blobs of floating cocoa that won't mix. These explode in the heating stage and will cause your yummy beverage to boil over in the microwave. Okay, after creating your cocoa paste, add more milk in to bring your total milk up to 12 ounces. Stir your paste into your milk and heat for 2 minutes your radiation device.

That's your basic hot chocolate (or peppermint hot chocolate). Well, my basic hot chocolate. Instant coffee can, of course, be added, at this point, if you want a mocha instead.

Now... let's step back a moment... the directions change just a little bit if you want a spicy mocha. And trust me, you want a spicy mocha, not a spicy hot chocolate.

After you've added your cocoa to your mug but before you add the honey, you have to add the spiciness. This is a little complicated. In my opinion, you need three types of pepper and cinnamon. The best type of cinnamon to use is Vietnamese cinnamon, which can also be found at Safeway under the name of Saigon cinnamon. Regular cinnamon works, too, it's just not quite as good. Here's how I do it:
Cinnamon - .05 ounces
Cayenne pepper - a gentle sprinkling, enough to see it spread over the cinnamon
Chipotle chili pepper - twice as much as you used of the cayenne or thereabouts
Ancho chili pepper - this is kind of your base pepper. You need to add enough to bring your total weight (starting with the cinnamon) up to .1 ounce and then add a little extra. Not enough to bring it up to .15, though, although it's not a disaster if you do.
Tare your scale and pick back up with the honey.

No, I don't know why it makes a difference which order you do the honey, all I can tell you is that it does make a difference. The spicy stuff doesn't mix in as well when you put the honey in first.

So there you have it! I hope all of that isn't too complicated. If you try it out, any of it, you'll have to let me know!


  1. The first thing I do every morning is flip on the espresso machine. I like coffee. I LOVE the routine. I never put sugar in my latte because I usually have it with a muffin or toast with jam, and if my beverage is sweet too, it's too much. And by now I think sweet coffee tastes gross. (Oh, and I don't get the cafe/laptop thing either. Too distracting!)

    125 lbs of sugar a year is nuts. I love your idea for making people sit down and eat all their sugar at once :) Even a month's worth would be horrid. Another big problem is salt. My husband has high blood pressure so we're monitoring sodium and getting rid of canned foods in our diet. Do that for a few months, and restaurant food can be just about inedible.

    Thanks for sharing your cocoa recipe! Looks good! :)

  2. We should have a discussion about nutrition science, health, etc. next time I come to hang out. :D Gary Taubes is a great writer, and certainly knows his stuff. I have his book "Good calories, Bad Calories" which is an excellent read, full of scientific data (and a bibliography as large as some smaller books). I might try your recipe, by the way. But, I actually DO enjoy (love) coffee and tea.

  3. Honey is awesome...I use it in my tea. I am also non caffeine drinking writer. I am not allowed any caffeine but I do cheat with my green tea but I generally try to stick with caffeine free. The no sugar thing sounds like an extremely hard task. I try to eat healthy and it always surprises me how much sugar is in things you don't expect it to be in. Another interesting thought provoking post....exactly why I keep stopping back to your blog!

  4. I hate coffee. I can't even stand the smell- I've been known to gag on it. And that sugar article is horrific. Yet another man-made ingestible that's slowly killing us!

  5. Coffee! I don't like it at all. It's horrible, disgusting, and belongs on any list of banned substances the government may produce.

    That said, I'm with you about the smell. When I was single I would buy coffee beans and pour them into a bowl to use as a potpourri.

    Anyway, a sugarless diet? Yeah, I could do that. There's no sugar in cookies, right?

  6. Hah, Andy. Great read.

    I remember some of the nights you slept on our floor in the college dorm room. When you woke up in the morning, you'd crawl over to the micro fridge and grab a can of coke.

    (This is not as pathetic as it sounds, for you other readers out there, the room was small and carpeted and the micro-fridge was only a few feet away.)

    I still enjoy a good strong coffee, myself.

  7. This is mostly just a response to everyone, although I will address specifics spefically :P

    We also don't use white flour. Basically, we cut out as much simple carbs as possible and highly processed foods along with that. The really sick thing is HFCS is often used as filler because it's cheaper than the real food, especially in things like jelly/jam, catsup, and barbeque sauce. They even use it in things that just -shouldn't- have it. Seriously. Go compare brands of tomato sauce and see how many of them have added HFCS.

    Rusty: yeah, there's no sugar in cookies :P actually, you have to be careful with the "sugarless" varieties you can get at the store, because some of those have things in them that are worse than the sugar

    Stephen: yes, those were the days... the days when the first thing I did -every- morning was go for a Coke. If only I'd known then what I know now.