Low Carbing: Surviving The Holidays -
Part II Converting Recipes to Low-Carb
Recalling the first holiday season that my husband and I faced while still newbies to low-carb seems not unlike trying to remember a foggy dream. We were both so determined to succeed that we gritted our teeth and plowed through it like a couple of bulldozers. I do recollect that it wasn't all that bad really, bridged in large part by our serious resolve.
Thanksgiving was actually fairly easy, in fact. We filled up on lots of turkey, of course, allowing ourselves a small spoonful of carb-laden dressing, and then enjoyed my revamped Low-Carb Cranberry Relish and Corn Pudding. We gratefully concluded our feast with an ample slice of Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake without a single twinge of feeling deprived. We ate well and yet we each gleefully noted a pound lost that week. Nothing is sweeter than success except when it comes so effortlessly!
I do distinctly remember that, though feeling quite satisfied, I did not suffer my usual over-filled misery. That is truly one of the benefits of low-carb eating, a sense of full and sated without that "now I need to go somewhere and explode" sensation.
In October that year, blissfully only eight weeks into our low-carb diet, I was suddenly forced to think about how we would deal with our annual family Thanksgiving feast and then beyond through the rest of the holidays. We had made such good progress I couldn't bear to think about blowing it in the remaining weeks of the year. I was afraid we wouldn't go back afterward if we gave in before we had accomplished our goals.
With my usual naiveté, I asked myself how hard could it be and armed with a few good kitchen tools and a comprehensive carbohydrate counter, I dug in. My intention from the outset was not to invent new recipes but to take my old favorites and convert them to low-carb. The new sweeteners have made this task much easier now, but it remains ever difficult to find suitable substitutes for flour or cornmeal, both high in flavor and carbs, both staples to many holiday recipes.
To bolster my confidence I decided to tackle dessert first. The Pumpkin/Pecan Cheesecake was a no-brainer. I took my much loved and by then perfected Low-Carb Cherry Cheesecake and added canned, unsweetened pumpkin. My first real breakthrough happened when I realized that little is much and to add an essence or flavor to a recipe, you don't necessarily need a lot of an ingredient. So, I used only 1 cup of the pumpkin instead of a whole can. When you think about it, it's actually the aromatic spices that make your kitchen smell like Thanksgiving and create the familiar taste anyway.
My instincts were right and it worked. The first bite sent my confidence off the chart. I might have even been a bit arrogant with success on that one. Nevertheless, it encouraged me to dive in for more daring experimentation.
Coming up with a substitute for Low-Carb Cranberry Relish was really only a matter of subbing out the sugar-sweetened gelatin for plain and then adding the high carb flavors, like orange with Splenda sweetened Sugarfree Syrup. I rationalized that 2 cups of raw cranberries have approximately 17 carbs but when you think of these dispersed into a larger volume of ingredients and then divided again into small servings, the dilution almost nullifies the carbs. It certainly tames them to a reasonable number. But the taste is still full and satisfying and that's all that really matters.
This was another culinary epiphany that I experienced in my recipe trials. A carb is a carb, after all. Regardless of the total in a given ingredient, if diluted with other low-carb or no-carb ingredients and then divided by serving size, which you control, almost any food, even the high-carbers can be made acceptable to a low-carb WOE.
I was on a roll. Some folks don't care for cranberries but I can't imagine Thanksgiving without this dish. I also can't imagine Thanksgiving without Sage Stuffing and Corn Pudding; these are just simply traditional in my household.
I did not have a substitute for the Sage Stuffing on our first low-carb Thanksgiving, because the new low-carb breads were not yet available at that time. As I mentioned, we ate only a small spoonful of the real thing, but I can now, share with you my latest happy discovery - Low-Carb Sage Stuffing, which we will be enjoying this Thanksgiving. Not only is it good, it's easy too, you can make it in your crock-pot while the turkey is roasting. Made this way it is unbelievably moist.
In 1999, though unable to make low-carb sage dressing, I was, however, determined to come up with a low-carb version of Corn Pudding. One of the first things to consider when converting a standard recipe to low-carb is to begin by comparing a number of different versions. I pulled out five adaptations of Corn Pudding to evaluate, quickly eliminating all but one as doable. It really is amazing how a single recipe can have so many combinations.
The original recipe I started with called for these ingredients:
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 can creamed corn
1 cup corn meal
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup Cheddar cheese grated
To adapt a recipe, first I scan the ingredients looking for certain key differences in flour and sugar amounts. Sometimes flour is used in a recipe just as a thickener. If it isn't the primary ingredient, it's probably a recipe that can be converted. Xanthan gum, plain gelatin and eggs are thickeners too, but without the carbs.
Then I analyze the liquids. If a recipe calls for milk, I'm usually home free because I know I can use cream thinned either with water or Vanilla Sugarfree Syrup. In this case I needed to substitute the buttermilk, which has twice the carbs of a cup of cream. To do this, you simply "sour" the cream with a tsp of vinegar, allowing it to sit for a few minutes.
Some recipes aren't the same without milk, however, and in that case I use whole milk. Perhaps you didn't realize that the higher the fat content in milk, the lower the carbs. This is where volume makes the difference. Skim milk has a higher carb count than heavy cream per cup because it has more whey than fat. The carbs are in the whey, which contains the natural sugars. Serious low-carbers keep this in mind when reading labels. Products that tout being low-fat will also generally have higher carbs per serving than the normal product counterpart. The best example of this is in comparing the carbs per serving in low-fat peanut butter to regular, you'll find it's more than double.
Scanning the original corn pudding recipe, after substituting the buttermilk, I had to decide what to do about the corn, without which the whole thing is sort of pointless, so I took it down to 1 cup using the less is more theory and using kernel corn instead of creamed which has sugar in it. Also by using corn that has no sugar added I kept the additional carbs to 14.
The corn meal was my next, perhaps worst, challenge. I knew the corn meal in this recipe only added bulk, thickening and flavor, so I thought about things that I could use instead for the bulk and texture and then grace it with just a smidge of the corn meal for flavor. Almond flour is our friend here. I used 1 cup of almond flour and 1/4 cup of the corn meal and added 21 carbs to my growing total. Throw in a handful of carbs from the cheese topping and the two eggs and the grand total is 48. Divide this by 8 ample servings and the total is 6 ECC per serving. Not too bad for a very special and flavorful treat.
Another great traditional holiday (or anytime) recipe that was nearly impossible to convert to low-carb before the new low-carb breads came on the scene is Bread Pudding. There are literally dozens of variations on this and almost every fine restaurant has it's own signature version. Some with lemon or cream based hot sauce, some with nuts or raisins, some with lots of cinnamon and/or fruit.
The original recipe I transformed had these ingredients:
4 cups day old bread
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
The first ingredient -bread - is a no-brainer now that we have wonderful low-carb breads available. The milk is replaced with 1 1/2 cup cream and then use 1/2 cup vanilla syrup to make up the volume, eliminate the vanilla unless you want a strong vanilla flavor. Substitute the sugar with your favorite sweetener, toss in the cinnamon and salt. Ta-Da! Low-Carb Bread Pudding. How hard was that?
But wait! Maybe I want to jazz it up and put something else in it. What if I added 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts and 1 apple chopped? Or top it with a cream sauce? All these variations can be accomplished once you have the basic conversion. Just remember to adjust the carb count for anything you add.
I've only used a couple of my personal favorites here as examples for converting to low-carb to give you something to go by for altering your own favorites. There inevitably will be recipes that cannot be completely converted like the time-honored Southern dish Ambrosia, which is made of oranges and coconut. But you can at least exchange the sugar for sweetener and use unsweetened coconut and greatly reduce the carb count.
If Thanksgiving isn't the same without Ambrosia, take my advice and go ahead and treat yourself to a small serving and enjoy it. I'll wager that it won't set you back. After all, it isn't really the single serving, but the heaping plateful and second helpings that do the damage. Life is really too short to sweat the small stuff.
As we gather with family and friends to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty of our blessings, I wish for everyone peace and good mouth-watering aromas coming from your kitchen, low-carb or otherwise.