Life’s Real Sweetness

If this post seems caffeine-induced, that’s probably because it is.

With the early shift at the coffee shop, keeping up with schoolwork, and trying to train for a relay marathon at the end of the month, coffee has felt like a necessity. A delicious, energizing necessity.

In the midst of craziness, there has been time for sweetness.

Un-contrived, mostly unplanned moments that make life sparkle with meaning and joy. Here’s a little glimpse…

We’ve been soaking up the warm sun this past week by spending evenings at the park…

Workouts that leave me like this make me happy and energized all day

My little sister turned eighteen almost a month ago and I still can’t believe it.

And then, I turned twenty myself. 

There is something about reaching a milestone of maturity and yet feeling so far from it that makes you realize how very precious this life is.

All I wanted to do my birthday weekend was go on long adventurous hikes with my family.

Simple, everyday moments. So natural and yet so special. Life in its real sweetness.

If we don’t grab on to it now, it will slip our grasp.

It’s Day 22 of my fast of processed and packaged foods. To be perfectly honest, there have been a few cheat days. But on those days, the little treats that snuck in have been exactly that — treats and not habits. That is exactly how I want to feel toward sweets — special on the occasion but not necessary every day.

I’ve been experimenting with satisfying my sweet tooth naturally. Do you know what I’ve discovered? It’s just like the simple gifts of life — it’s the real, un-contrived foods that give sweetness at its best. Sweetness you can feel good about.

I made these cookies on the afternoon of my twentieth birthday. I wanted to celebrate without compromising my Real Food challenge. So I opened the fridge and pantry cupboards and began pulling out an army of ingredients.

These were totally unplanned and had great potential for failure. No sugar, no flour, no butter or oil, no egg, no recipe. My chances of producing something edible were mighty slim, but I think it was the excitement of embarking on a new decade that gave me courage.

Surprise of all surprises — they worked. And they were delicious. 

So delicious in fact, Jenny couldn’t keep her hands off of them.

“These are the best things you ever made. Seriously. I think turning twenty has made you a really good cook.”

I really had no idea how to interpret that so I just kept munching and smiled. She has no idea she basically consumed a day’s worth of vegetables and whole grains in the four cookies she ate.

It’s the natural, bite-sized moments in life that are the sweetest.

 Carrot Cake Apple Bites

~ makes 12 cookies

Ingredients

  •  1/3  c. buckwheat flour
  • 1/3 c. oat flour
  •  ¼ t. salt
  •  ½ t. cinnamon
  •  ½ t. baking powder
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1 t. vanilla
  •  ¾ c. grated apple
  •  ½ c. grated carrots
  •  2 T. almond milk
  • ¼ c. shredded coconut
  • ½ c. chopped apple
  • 1/3 c. rolled oats
  • 2 T. chopped pecans (optional)

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper
  • To make buckwheat flour and oat flour: process raw buckwheat groats/raw oats in a food processor or blender until a fine, flour-like texture
  • In a large bowl, combine buckwheat flour, oat flour, salt, cinnamon, baking powder, and rolled oats.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together honey and vanilla. Stir in the grated apple and carrots and almond milk.
  • Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir until just combined.
  • Mix in coconut, chopped apple, and rolled oats.
  • Drop by teaspoonful on to prepared baking sheet. These cookies will not spread out much at all when baking so shape them as you want them to look after baking.
  • Sprinkle with chopped pecans, if desired.
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.

Nutrition Facts for 1 cookie~ Calories: 83.5, Total Fat: 4.6g (Sat.fat: 2.8g), Cholesterol: 0mg, Sodium: 53.6mg, Potassium 39.5mg, Total Carbohydrate: 11.6g (Dietary Fiber: 3.0g, Sugars 3.6g) Protein: 1.5g.

Cookies for breakfast, anyone?

Simply the Best

Sometimes the simplest moments are the best. A favorite song playing on the radio. A letter in the mail from a friend. A few red leaves fall on the hood of the car. A cup of Vanilla Caramel tea, flannel pajama pants, and a ginger spice candle on a chilly evening.

On Saturday, I went to Queens for a street fair. I was helping a church I had grown to love this summer. Driving back into the city, walking back on familiar sidewalks past the same delis and boutiques and bagel shops, a wave of nostalgia and sweet memories rushed over me. I thought of little hands pressing into mine as we traced jungle animals; little giggling, singing faces lifted to mine; little arms tightly wrapping around my legs. That week back in July, my heart had expanded far beyond what I thought it was possible in love for these children. When I came back home, I carried their memories with me, in the many precious “I love you”s, the handmade cards, and the camera full of pictures. They have been on my heart and in my prayers ever since. I wonder how they are, what they are doing, and it makes me sad that I will never know what became of these lives I felt so closely bound to.

The tent of our stand fluttered in the crisp autumn breeze. Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day for a street fair. I was quickly busy cutting muffins, labeling brochures, and setting up the face painting station. But the whole time my hands and feet were moving, I was watching the people streaming by. So so many people. People I didn’t know, would never know. And again the wistful longing tugged at my heart in a way I didn’t understand.

And that’s when I saw her. Standing on the outskirts of our stand, clutching her brother’s stroller, her dainty black braids dancing in the wind. I knew her. She was one of mine — one of the sixteen five year olds who intertwined with and shaped my life that special week in July.

What was even more thrilling was that she knew me. She came close, her little almond eyes raised to meet mine with a shy smile and her little arms wound around my legs. It was a small moment, but my heart overflowed in praise for it. God had shown me once again that He cares for me, even the little desires of my heart, and that love and prayers are never a waste. Sometimes the simplest moments are the most profound.

This is one of the most simple recipes I’ll ever post. Probably because the naturally sweet flavors of butternut squash and apples need little enhancing. Or, probably because when you’re having company over tomorrow, you search your recipe box for the quickest and easiest side dish that will still impress and not taste like something that came out of the freezer in a cardboard box.This autumn bake does that and much more. What is a more simple October pleasure than walking to the farm stand for fresh butternut squash and apples? It is really the perfect fall side dish — a touch of sweetness, a bit of crunch, the smell of cinnamon, warm and comforting — and a healthy alternative to the sugar and fat-laden Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole. If nothing else, you must at least make the candied walnuts. Please. And then throw them on everything you eat the next week. They are life-changing. One of those simple ingredients that bring so much joy and color to life.

Roasted Butternut-Apple Bake with Candied Walnuts

  • 1 large butternut squash, chopped into cubes
  • 3 medium apples, chopped
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1/4 c. maple syrup
  • 1/4 t. salt

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400F. In a large baking dish, mix squash, apples and onions. In a small bowl or jar, whisk balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, maple syrup, and salt. Pour over vegetables and mix to coat thoroughly. Bake about 40 minutes or until squash is soft when pierced with a fork.
  • Stir candied walnuts (recipe following) into warm vegetables. Sprinkle raw sugar or brown sugar over the dish, if desired. Serve warm.

Candied Nuts

  • 1 c. walnuts
  • 2 T. Balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 c. maple syrup or honey
  • 1 T. coarse raw sugar
  • 1/2 t. cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. salt

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400F. In a medium jar, combine balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Secure the lid on the jar and shake to thoroughly combine ingredients. Add walnuts to the jar, secure lid and shake until nuts are coated with the wet mixture. Spread nuts in a single layer on a lightly sprayed cooking sheet. Bake until they turn golden brown and give off a fragrance (be careful not to burn!). Cool completely before eating. Candied nuts make a great addition to salads, baked goods, ice cream (yum!), fruit salad, and lots of other things! Simple, but fancy!

Because sometimes simple is all this blessed soul can take.

When Yummy Things Happen

Adaptability.

I’m working on it (beginning with spelling it).

It’s one of character traits that when you realize you need it, you find all kinds of opportunities to learn it.

Learning that sometimes torrential downpours happen and you find yourself without an umbrella and then means you have to run across campus in your sequined flats and arrive in class resembling a wet rat. And no, the world is not ending.

Learning that on the one free day of the week you hoped to spend with family, everyone else is out of the house. You suddenly have a free whole day for studying.

Learning that even when you have whole days blocked up for studying, that never really happens. Because other important things come up. Like baking.

Learning that as soon as you find one good excuse to bake (those apples in the fridge are getting mealy), there come along three other necessary events to bake for that weekend (thirty+ guests, a neighborhood party, a friend’s 90th birthday). This means you need to triple your recipe. And go to the store for more apples. And you can give up any ideas of studying.

Learning that when sisters watch you bake, you will end up making an entire separate batch with chocolate chips instead of apples and you will become the brunt and punchline of several jokes when you ask the question “What does quirky really mean anyway?”. Never ask that question. But you will also have someone to stir the batter as you wipe flour of your camera so you can arrange and take thirty pictures. That’s normal, right?

Learning that no matter how much they leave you to your textbooks, make fun of you, or call you names (can you be a little more original than Ditzy?), all will be forgotten when they follow a buttery, warm-apple fragrance into the kitchen and sinking their teeth into your creation, offer up mmms and contented sighs that makes your quirky sister heart swell with love.

These bars are one of my favorite recipes because they are endlessly adaptable. The base recipe, adapted from Mama Pea’s Toffee Bars, is so versatile and can be taken any way your imagination, mood, occasion, or kitchen pantry dictates. Some of my favorite add-ins have been the toffee chips (follow Mama Pea’s recipe for homemade toffee = amazing!!) with coconut and chocolate chips, fresh blueberries and white chocolate chips, peanut butter and chocolate chips.

This newest creation was inspired by the autumesque weather we’ve been enjoying — Apple Butterscotch Bars. Why have I not baked with butterscotch chips before? Find of the week season.

adding color to a “blank slate”

Apple Butterscotch Bars
(Adapted from Mama Pea’s Toffee Bars)

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1 c. vegan margarine
  • 2 t. vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1 c. diced apple
  • 1 c. butterscotch chips
  • 1/3 c. coarse raw sugar (or brown sugar)

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees and lightly spray a 9×12 pan with cooking spray.
  • In a large bowl, cream together sugar, margarine and vanilla.
  • In a separate bowl, combine flours, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Add dry ingredients gradually into wet mixture until fully combined.
  • Gently fold in apples and butterscotch chips (or other add-ins of your choice).
  • Press mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle with raw sugar.
  • Bake 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly before cutting and serving.

Learning adapplebility adaptability isn’t easy. Sometimes it includes rain-drenching, flour-coating reminders that I am not in control of my life. Squashed sequin flats and late night study sessions will happen, whether I plan them or not, and if I choose by God’s grace, I can surrender my unmet desires, give thanks in all things, rejoice in the abundant life I’ve been given, and eat Apple Butterscotch Bars because somehow I missed lunch.

Really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.