Wholefood Cooking

A Sensible Discussion About Sugar (and a sponge cake)

Sponge
Photography by Jess Shaver | Copyright  Jude Blereau and Jess Shaver

There are an awful lot of hyped up conversations about sugar going on and sugar free is in, big time – another book, another movie, another fractionalised approach to food.  I’ve stayed out of this debate, preferring to run a conversation in my books and classes about a wholefoods and wholistic life, but after reading this great article by Jess Cox, I felt it was timely to put forward what I consider a sensible conversation about sugar. This also coincided with the passing of my dear friends Denise and Julies’ mum – Shirley –  but more about that later.

When I started out on my wholefood path some 25 years ago, I too saw things from quite a black or white perspective – I had not yet learnt that things are always far deeper and more complex than at first glance and that it is generally not what the food IS that makes it good, or wholesome and healthy, ethical or sustainable, but how we grow it, process and prepare it that is. And, the context in which we source it, eat it and the life we live. And my, but is sugar a great example of this, and of a wholefood philosophy and a wholistic lifestyle in general.

From a wholefood perspective, we could say that cane sugar juice in its natural state is a rich source of vitamins, minerals enzymes, fibers and phytonutrients, which the body requires to digest the sucrose and provide a slow release of fuel. Indeed the minerals calcium, phosphorous, chromium, magnesium, cobalt, copper, iron, zinc and manganese are absolutely essential for this process. To store over long periods and stop it from fermenting, cane juice is boiled to evaporate water and this end product is known by many names – for example Rapadura or Panela (they do the same thing, for the same reason to maple syrup and coconut palm nectar). In its traditional homes (Central and South Americas) it is consumed within the context of a whole and balanced diet  and is considered a healthful and nourishing food – this is what we should be referring to when we use the words cane sugar. But, I do understand that in most cases, when we say the word sugar, we are referring to what we know as refined sugar  – the cane juice instead is boiled under vacuum to achieve high enough temperatures for crystallisation, with all nutrients removed or at the very least with a few left in, during the refining process. It is a very different thing because of the way it has been processed and now, without the wealth of nutrients and polyphenols to aid the digestion of sucrose and slow down its release, it will hit the blood stream too quickly. I also understand very well that our bodies have not evolved to handle this, however will do it’s best – pulling nutrients from elsewhere in the body leading to depletion.

Which brings me to Shirley. One of the things that came through so clearly and strongly at the funeral of this very beautiful woman (both inside and out) when people spoke about their memories of her, was that the cake and biscuit tin was always full – made with refined white flour and sugar – and in the profound words of the CWA (Country Womens Association), ‘it’s not just about the scones and tea’. Shirley was always there, her door was always open, with a cup of tea and comfort. Somehow (according to the current fractionalised views on sugar) with this refined sugar in their diet Shirley and Ralph raised exceptional, healthy, wonderful children that contribute so much to our community. Somehow Shirley and Ralph lived full, happy and rich lives. Now I could also be talking of my mum (and indeed much of this generation now in their late 80’s and 90’s), who still makes biscuits and muffins for when people drop in, or to give to others. She uses white flour and refined white sugar. From a wholistic perspective (the one that fascinates me the most) is that I honestly don’t think that this bit of white sugar in a whole and balanced diet is evil, or cause disease, or indeed is going to kill you.  But eating a lot of refined white sugar and flour, low fat, processed vegetable oil, nutrient deficient, additive laden food in a stressful life possibly will. From this wholistic perspective, I think we are looking in all the wrong places for salvation (hello green smoothie).I think it is far more important that we focus our attention on the fundamentals which you can find here, and when these are strong and in place (as they most certainly have been and in many cases still are in our very older generations) the issue of refined white sugar diminishes. And of course the elephant in the room always is that whilst people might be ditching refined white sugar, but they are most certainly not ditching sweetness – sweetness is always about balance and context.

Personally, my choice is for less refined sweeteners, I like the flavours and nuanced sweetness they give, but when I eat my mum’s muffins I am partaking in powerful love medicine. I love rapadura sugar, but when I do want a cane sugar with less impact I will choose the semi refined (but still crystallised) sugars such as the Billingtons range, where less goodness is taken out in the beginning. I also love maple syrup, maple sugar, coconut palm sugar and brown rice syrup (but take note all brands of BRS are not equal and in Australia I choose Spiral), and of course fruit. I dislike and do not advocate products such as Agave or Xylitol – both highly refined products.

Shirley was known for and for her love of a good sponge cake and for the time she took to sit down with others. Afternoon tea is a great way to slow down on the weekend and stop, and for some to lay their burdens down. I thought you might like to make one for a weekend in the warmer spring weather. A sponge is certainly my favourite cake too –  I love it with passionfruit and banana. If a sponge is not your thing, there’s plenty more delicious options in my book Wholefood Baking (and don’t forget to check out the yummy Choc Peanut Truffles on Jess’ post. Vale Shirley.

Classic Genoise Sponge

Ingredients

4 eggs, at room temperature
105 g (1⁄2 cup) golden caster (semi refined, I use Billingtons) sugar or
75 g (1⁄2 cup) rapadura sugar
1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
120 g unbleached white spelt flour (this is 1 cup minus 1 x 20ml tablespoon)
40 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

The success of this cake will depend on beating – I have described below whipping until it falls and holds a ribbon, but it should also be super thick and luscious – very often, people don’t whip it enough. Whip it, and whip it good.

Directions

Preheat the oven to 180°C or 160c if fan forced. Grease and line the base and sides of a 20 – 22 cm  springform cake tin with baking paper.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the eggs and sugar until thick and creamy and tripled in volume. The mixture is ready when you can lift the beaters and the mixture falls back into the bowl in a ribbon that rests on the surface for about 10 seconds. Add the vanilla extract during the last moments of whisking.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Sieve one-third of the flour onto the mixture and gently fold through — I like to use a whisk. Stop as soon as the flour looks incorporated. Fold in the remaining flour in two more additions. Place the melted butter in a small bowl, then gently fold in 1 cup of the batter through the butter. Add this back to the egg mixture and gently fold through. Take care not to overmix. Turn into the tin.

Bake for 20–25 minutes or until the centre springs back when lightly touched, and the cake is coming away from the side. If the cake is browning too quickly and is not ready, reduce the oven temperature and continue cooking. When the cake is cooked, turn off the oven and leave the door ajar until the cake is cool. Remove from the oven and completely cool in the tin before filling as desired.