Sunday, 28 July 2013

Wheat and Dairy-free Raw Chocolate and Cherry Brownies

They sound dry and boring but they are most definitely not. As you may have read I have been dabbling with raw food, not for weight loss purposes but for general well being and health.  If you want to read more about why I am interested in trying a diet rich in raw food, have a read of this post. For more information on a raw food workshop I recently attended with Anna Middleton check this post out. Anna is an expert when it comes to chocolate and sweet treats and shared her raw brownie recipe that uses cacao powder. It was a really inspirational experience and I have tried a range of recipes since I attended the masterclass. I was a little unsure of how raw cacao powder differed from regular cocoa powder you’d find in my cupboard. In essence cocoa powder has been roasted and may contain added sugar, cacao powder is chocolate in its raw form. It is simply the cacao bean, that through a cold-pressing process, has had the fat (cacao butter) removed. 

A little more about cacao…
Raw cacao can be bought in several  different forms from health food stores and online health food sites; Cacao nibs, cacao powder or cacao butter.  Cacao powder is the most versatile of the raw cacao products, because it is finely ground and ready to be added to smoothies, homemade energy bars, raw and baked bars, cookies, and other desserts. It blends well with water, nut and dairy milks.
The botanical name for the tree that chocolate comes from is Theobroma cacao. The word cacao comes from the Olmec people from what is now Mexico, and is believed to be the closest pronunciation to the original name of the plant. History shows that chocolate then changed hands from the Olmec to the Mayans to the Spanish.

The word cacao is the only word ever used in any of the hispanic languages to describe what English speakers think of as cocoa. It is widely believed that the word cocoa has its origins in a spelling mistake. A mistake which was never corrected, and perhaps found easier to pronounce, successfully overtook the correct form.
Theobroma, which translates as "food of the gods", is native to the tropics of the Americas where it was used as currency and revered for its medicinal qualities for centuries. The edible properties of Theobroma cacao were discovered over 2,000 years ago by the indigenous people of Central America living deep in the tropical rainforests. The Olmecs living in Mexico and Guatemala established their first cacao plantations around 400 BC, and by 250 AD the Mayans depicted cocoa in their elaborate hieroglyphic writings and on carvings and paintings. . Images of cocoa pods were carved into palaces and places of worship when it symbolized life and fertility.
Historical accounts about also point to widespread use of chocolate in Maya and Aztec engagement and marriage ceremonies and religious rituals. In this respect chocolate occupied the same niche that expensive French wines and champagne do in European culture today.The Aztecs and Maya peoples had many ways of making food and drink from cocoa beans. They were so precious that only the royals, warriors and the wealthy could afford to eat and drink chocolate. The hieroglyphs tell us that the Aztecs and Maya peoples drank cocoa powder suspended in water, and used flavourings such as chillies , vanilla, aromatic herbs and honey.

The theobromine naturally found in raw cacao is a mild, non-addictive stimulant that some believe can treat depression. We were warned in the workshop that because it has a stimulating effect, it’s not always a good idea to indulge in the evening as it may affect how you sleep.  It is thought that chocolate may cause the brain to produce more of a neurotransmitter called anandamide which may account for the euphoric sensation some of us feel when indulging in chocolate treats. Raw cacao is very high in antioxidant flavanoids, sulphur and magnesium and the essential fatty acids found in chocolate may help the body to raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. All of these potential health benefits and it tastes good too. It is worth noting though that looking back at history, chocolate was a treat and not something that was consumed daily on the way home from work or when somebody was having a stressful day.  
If you are interested in the origins of food derived from plants then check out the Incredible festival at Kew Gardens exploring edible plants and there’s even a chance to go on a tutti frutti boating experience with Bompas and Parr.  I haven’t had a chance to visit yet but as a friend of Kew I will definitely be taking a visit to check it out.

On Tuesday we had the Kilpatrick PR Summer bake off. Our last bake off was at Easter and there were some amazing treats baked and a whole lot of calories consume! I decided that I would make raw brownies to go up against the other amazing, indulgent treats. I slightly adapted the recipe that Anna shared with us at her workshop. When I tasted them I couldn’t believe they contained no dairy. They taste extremely indulgent but are made from whole foods. They are obviously not low fat but there is no dairy, no wheat and no cooking involved. They make the perfect treat and I wanted to share the recipe with my colleagues. I don’t eat a huge amount of chocolate but every now and again I fancy it and avoiding dairy makes it impossible to enjoy so these brownies are a great solution. 

I’m thrilled to say that the general consensus was a thumbs-up and I came joint first place. Hooray for raw food! It can be healthy and taste good. The ingredients below can be adapted entirely to your taste. It is just a guide and I found that I added more or less of certain ingredients so that they were to my taste. The cacao powder I have is very rich so I used less than the recipe suggested. I kept adding until the mixture was the richness of chocolate that I like. Unlike when you bake cakes, I have found that raw recipes don’t need to be an exact science so recipes can be tweaked.

Basic Raw Brownie Recipe
200g walnuts (soaked and dehydrated)
50g Brazil nuts (soaked and dehydrated)
300g Dates
100g raw cacao powder
100ml sweetener (agave syrup)
100g cherries and sultanas (soaked and chopped)
30g cacao butter melted (optional)
2 tablespoons coconut oil

  • Soak the nuts in filtered or bottle water and then drain and allow to dry. Keep 25g of the walnuts aside and chop.
  • Blend all of the other nuts until finely ground. The ultimate mixer to use in a Magimix but I don’t have one yet. I used my little handy blender which did a good job but I guess any half decent food processor will work.
  • Then add all other ingredients apart from the cherries and blend. The more you blend, the smoother and more dough like the brownie mixture will become.   If the mixture is a little dry you can add some of the liquid that the cherries were soaked in. I added a little more coconut oil. The cacao butter adds a delicious richness but if you don’t have it you can use coconut oil instead. Both of these ingredients will help the brownies to set when refrigerated.
  • Add the dried fruit and remaining walnuts and mix thoroughly. This is the basic brownie recipe but you can adapt to your taste. The original recipe I tried didn’t have sultanas but dried cherries are quite expensive so I used slightly less than was originally listed. You could also add some raw chopped chocolate at this stage. Give the brownies a kick by adding some chilli powder or add some more cherry flavour using a medicine flower extract. The black cherry one would work brilliantly. It is expensive but smells and tastes absolutely incredible. You could use it in the Avocado mousse to make a black forest style chocolate mousse.
  • Line a baking tin with clingfilm and then press the mixture into the tin. It will take approximately an hour to set. Lining it with film makes it easier to lift out of the tin. The brownies are good as they are, but for an even more decadent treat you can make a chocolate sauce to drizzle over the top. The cling film allows a cleaner, less messy finish if you are going to add the sauce.

  • Simply blend together some coconut oil, sweetener, cacao powder, vanilla essence and a pinch of salt. I kept adding the ingredients until the texture looked like a sauce. The coconut oil will help the sauce to set when refrigerated.  Drizzle over the top of the brownies and leave to set. I used a fork to make some patterns in the top. When set, take out of the fridge and cut into small squares. It is rich so I think smaller portions are better but it is of course entirely up to you.   

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

No dairy makes you nuts!

Now I’ve had time to digest what I heard on Saturday I thought it would be helpful to share some of the key info and recipes I really liked. The fundamentals of raw food workshop advertised that you could ‘Learn about the benefits of raw living food & how to include more in your life with quick, easy and nutritious recipes.  Find out which raw and cooked foods are the most nutritious foods to eat plus essential tips for eating raw food in the UK.’ I think this description is spot on. I now have a much clearer idea of the benefits of raw food and learnt so many new tips, techniques and information about new ingredients.  Anna covered a wide range of topics including the theories and benefits of raw food, juices and smoothies, introduction to superfoods, essential fatty acids, savoury snacks, salads and dressing and even sweet treats. I had a brilliant day and learnt so much!

The term "raw" can refer to any food which has not been processed or cooked over temperatures of approximately 104°F (40°C) as this is the point at which enzymes start to break down,  although the exact temperature at which enzymes are destroyed varies for each food. Following a living food lifestyle tends to means that anything between 70-100% of diet comes from uncooked vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. The most important thing I took away from the workshop was to take things slowly and listen to your body. As I have mentioned previously, I was keen to explore incorporating more raw food in to my diet to see if it would help with my hayfever symptoms. I believe that dairy affects how I react and my allergy symptoms are much worse when consuming dairy.

Since altering my diet just over two weeks ago I have been eating mostly fresh food and no dairy at all. My hayfever has been amazing. I know that other people have really been suffering the last couple of days whilst we have been having such glorious weather. I can’t quite believe it but I have been absolutely fine! I have still been taking an antihistamine tables but no nasal spray or eye drops. I would normally be really suffering.
I had restricted my dairy intake the last few years but had gradually started to consumer some dairy produce. Until now I have been mostly using soya milk as an alternative to dairy. Although it is marketed as a healthy alternative, I have read mixed reviews about soya. Many people I know had mentioned that it is not healthy but I guess I turned a blind eye as it meant I could still have everyday things such as coffee at high street coffee shops if I stuck to soya.  However,  following conversations at the workshop, and further research since I will not be consuming soya milk any longer.

Unfermented soy (used in soya milk, tofu, soya yoghurts) contains naturally occurring compounds called isoflavones.  They can have a mild hormonal effect on women's hormones as they are similar in chemical structure and can bind to estrogen receptors and turn them on. This may be great if you are menopausal and need an estrogen top up. However, a  high intake of isoflavones is linked to early puberty, heavy periods, endometriosis, fibroids and infertility. I’m way past puberty but no thank you to any of the others!
Isoflavones can also have a detrimental effect on the thyroid. They are known as goitrogens (they cause a swelling of the thyroid) as they block the enzyme thyroid peroxidise that adds iodine to thyroid hormones. The end result is that your thyroid can't produce adequate amounts of active hormones and becomes sluggish.  I feel uncomfortable putting something that is potentially harmful into my body just so that I can grab a cappuccino every now and then, especially when other perfectly good alternatives exist.
You can buy pasteurised nut milks fairly easily but the great news is you can also make your own and Anna demonstrated this at the workshop. I’ve always been a bit wary of trying nut milks. I actually bought some from Whole Foods last week but it is still sat in the bag in my hallway.  When you buy nut milk it has been pasteurised so it’s not as nutritious as the milk you can make. I tried it for the first time and it is absolutely delicious! You don’t need any expensive equipment, just a blender and a nut bag like this

Almond Milk ( serves 2-3)
What you need:
·         A blender
·         A nut bag
·         1 cup of soaked almonds
·         3 cups refrigerated filtered/bottled water
·         2tbsp coconut oil
·         1 tsp vanilla essence
·         2-3 dates
·         1 tsp nutmeg
·         1 pinch of mineral salt
You first need to soak the almonds in water overnight for up to two days. Soaking the almonds makes them more nutritious as it releases the enzyme inhibitors and also makes them easier to digest. The longer you soak the almonds, the creamier the milk will be. Drain and rinse the nuts from their soaking water and then blend them with fresh water.
Strain the liquid through a nut bag squeezing to release the juice. Once you have squeezed as much as you can into a jug or bowl add all other ingredients to taste and blend.
The result is a delicious creamy milk that will last for a couple of days in the fridge. You can drink alone or use as a base to smoothies. We got the opportunity to sample almond milk with superfood powders added for more nutritional value. We tasted almond milk with maca and algaroba. Maca is the powdered root of the Lepidium Meyenii plant. Known for its ability to support healthy energy levels, maca has been used by the Incas as a kind of "Incan superfood" for thousands of years. Maca tastes a little like roasted chicory root, which tastes a little bit like coffee. But it's not a caffeine stimulant like coffee. Rather, it's considered an "adaptogenic" herb that supports healthy energy without blasting your nervous system with chemical stimulants. I really liked the taste but preferred algarroba which is a powder made from ground white carob powder and it has a caramel flavour. It was delicious!

When cutting dairy the other thing I miss is chocolate and lucky for me Anna shared some amazing sweet recipes. One of my favourites was the Avocado Chocolate Mousse. It is extremely easy to make and tastes fab too. I have let a few friends and family be guinea pigs and they all loved it. I know I will be using this one again. I think it would work well with other ingredients such as berries and Anna also suggested exchanging the chocolate for lime juice for a zingy fresh alternative, great for hot summer days!

Avocado Chocolate Mousse
What you need:
·         1 large avocado
·         2 tbsp yacon/maple syrup or alternative sweetener ( I used agave syrup)
·         2tbsp cacao powder
·         1 tsp lecithin powder*
·         1tsp vanilla extract or powder
·         Pinch of himalayan pink salt
·         Drop of water
·         Superfood of choice
Blend the avocado and agave nectar until you have a smooth, creamy consistency. You can add water until it is completely smooth.
Add the cacao powder, lecithin powder, vanilla and salt and blend until fully mixed
Taste and add more cacao powder to your taste. The more you add, the more intense the chocolate flavour. You can also add more sweetener if you have a sweeter tooth. Vanilla enhances the sweetness so again alter to your taste.The mousse will last in the fridge for a couple of days. Serve with berries of your choice. I chose rapberries when I made it at home and it worked really well. I served them in mini shot glasses with a raspberry on top. Yum! 

*The lecithin is not essential but it makes the mousse even creamier and is great for helping the liver to process fats which this recipe is rich in. They are of course fats of the healthy variety.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The raw benefits two weeks on...

I’m not really sure where to start because I have so much whizzing through my head and I am really excited. This time two weeks ago my hayfever was about to peak and I felt absolutely shocking. Today I feel amazing! I am full of energy, my hayfever symptoms are nowhere to be seen and I am in an amazing mood.
I think the 5 day course of steroids have had a part to play in dampening down the allergy symptoms  but I can’t ignore that I have consumed more fresh fruit and veg in the last two weeks than I probably did during the whole month of June. I am now firmly in a breakfast routine which is a big deal for me. I am now waking up hungry in the morning and I am making sure I eat at least three healthy meals per day.  The majority of my meals in the last 2 weeks have consisted of fresh, raw food. I have been keeping a food diary to send to my personal trainer. Knowing that I have to write down what I’m eating and sending to a third party has made me look closer at my diet.
This is a snapshot of the food I’ve eaten in the last few weeks. It is far from perfect and there are definitely changes to be made but seeing some it together shows how much colour there is in natural foods.  I have to say I feel more energetic than I have done in a long time. I’m waking up every morning before 5:00 most days and I am bouncing out of bed and full of energy.I haven’t been a saint and haven’t given up booze. In fact at a second glance I realise I have  completely forgotten to put a couple of G&T’s and several glasses of prosecco from Tuesday night. Ed, if you’re reading this, I am not being a secret squirrel, just completely forgot to put it down.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Instagram, you will have seen me getting over excited about a raw food workshop that I attended today in Bristol. I feel so excited and inspired. The workshop was run by Anna Middleton and she was assisted by Fliss who runs It was a fantastic workshop and I learnt so much from Anna and Fliss who were extremely passionate about what they do. It was a world I knew very little about before today, but I got the chance to learn about new ingredients and techniques, and tasted lots of new foods. There were six other people in the group and it was great as I picked up lots of new information from other group members too.
I absolutely love learning, especially about topics that I have little knowledge of. Although I like to think of myself as a bit of a foodie, today was very humbling as so much was like a foreign language to me. This was in no way negative but instead a very positive and exciting experience. 

I am going to do some detailed separate posts about the workshop and the new foods and ingredients I was introduced to. I am no expert but I think my beginner’s perspective may be useful to some people. From the little research I have done so far, most raw foodies seems to be pretty hardcore and experienced and it can be overwhelming for people like me. As Anna said today, you don’t have to go 100% raw; it’s about introducing some beneficial raw foods into your diet in ways that suit you. I can honestly say that I have benefited greatly after only two weeks.  I will be sure to update you regularly on my progress. 

Here is a selection of the foods I was lucky enough to try today. Anna prepared a huge amount of recipes from Thai curry, to chocolate brownies, green smoothies, chocolate sauce, nut milks, salads and salad dressings. Believe it or not, all of the foods below were made using fresh, natural ingredients that are good for you and there was no cooking at all. I was astounded by just how delicious everything was that I tasted today including the almond milk which I have always been reluctant to use. The avocado chocolate mousse was outstanding, as were the chocolate brownies, and the raw Thai curry was so tasty and filling and it wasn't strange that it was cold. I will be sure to share some of the recipes as I start trying experimenting. I had so many ideas when watching Anna at work today. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Taking control of my hayfever once and for all!

From the age of six I have suffered from severe hayfever.  I went out in the field behind my house a normal, happy, healthy girl and came back with bulging red eyes that resulted in a trip to A&E. I am now 31 and there have been many more trips to the doctor and hospital. I have tried absolutely everything, from conventional methods to the more alternative, including acupuncture and homeopathy.   Nothing has ever really worked for me. Some medication has taken the edge off symptoms momentarily but essentially summer has always been a real struggle.

Hay fever is caused by an allergy to pollen. Common hay fever symptoms are a runny, itchy and/or blocked nose, sneezing and itchy eyes. I suffer from all of these and more. My eyes aren’t just itchy but they swell and develop a film so that I find it difficult to see. Hayfever makes me feel really unwell most of the time throughout summer. A constant sore scratchy throat, a headache and I often feel nauseous due to the constant congestion. Not to mention the sore red nose, disappearing make up and my skin even seems to flare up when it’s really bad. Everything itches and it makes you feel agitated. You itch from the inside out, your ears, your eyes, your throat and your mouth.  Sleeping with a blocked nose means you tend to keep your mouth open and I find I get a sore mouth too. I like to think that I am usually on the ball but during hayfever season everything seems such a struggle and I’m just not as sharp as I usually am. It makes me feel absolutely exhausted too and I am woken up by sniffling and sneezing by about 4:30-5:00 every morning.
Throughout school and college it made exam season extremely hard and affected my social life too. Summer is a time when you want to be outside but it just makes the symptoms worse so I often have to sit in with the windows closed, even though I am a real outdoors kind of girl. It just makes you feel miserable and no matter how positive you try and remain, it wears you down both physically and mentally.

 I moved in with my boyfriend 5 years ago and I remember how shocked he was the first summer we lived together. I used to come home from work at 6:00, take another antihistamine to help me sleep and would head straight to bed because I just couldn’t handle being awake because of my hayfever symptoms. I'm normally quite fun to be around but hayfever makes me miserable It got to the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I spoke to my GP about desensitisation injections but I would have to wait until after the hayfever season to start and I was desperate to try something that would help sooner.

On the recommendation of my best friend I went to visit Natasha Lindeman.  Natasha is a homeopathic practitioner and she uses a bio magnetic diagnosis technique. She advised me to stop consuming dairy in my diet and also recommended a selection of homeopathic remedies. I decided to try eliminating dairy before trying the homeopathic remedies. I was sceptical before the appointment but it absolutely changed my life. After cutting dairy my symptoms were still there but they were drastically reduced and antihistamines really worked for me for the first time. I was absolutely astounded and couldn’t believe my luck.  I felt like I had hayfever like a normal person. I would wake up every day feeling absolutely fine . The few times I did have some dairy my symptoms would get worse so it was a no brainer, I had to leave it out. Not only did my hayfever improve but it also seemed to help calm my rosacea too and I felt generally more healthy. However, I’m not a fussy kind of girl and if I went to a dinner party I would try not to be difficult and would occasionally eat dairy, normally cheese or sometimes ice cream. It would always cause my symptoms to get worse and on a couple of occasions of consuming a larger amount of cows milk, I got quite sick with painful stomach cramps.

Fast forward three years and I have to admit that although I still restrict dairy, it has slowly crept back into my diet. I don't have a huge amount but I have been eating some cheese and perhaps some cream with strawberries every now and again.  I enjoy it and it can be tricky to avoid. So many convenience foods contain dairy. Until now it hasn’t seemed to make a huge difference to my allergy symptoms. This year has seen the worst pollen counts for a long time. I started the season really well and while other people were sneezing, I was absolutely fine. I even had a naive thought that I may have grown out of it. How wrong could I be! All of a sudden it has hit me really hard and I have spent the last two days in bed. I take daily prescription antihistamines, a nasal spray, eye drops and I have also had to take decongestants to help me breathe. I know every little trick in the book; turning the pillow over before going to bed, Vaseline up the nose, washing hair frequently, changing clothes twice per day, wearing glasses even when it's not sunny so that you look like a poser but nothing is easing it. Today I have started a short course of steroids to ease the symptoms because it has got so bad.  

I feel exhausted and pathetic that I have had to take time off work for something as trivial as hayfever but I feel absolutely terrible. We all have to take responsibility for our health and if conventional methods aren’t working then I feel strongly that we should look elsewhere. I have done some reading about the benefits of a raw food diet and going natural makes sense to me even though it is very daunting.  I do have my reservations as I’m more a champagne and sushi kind of girl than mung bean and super juices. I like the finer things in life and like to think I’m a bit of a foodie. I may not be the tie dye ‘save the earth’ vegan type type but if the modern methods aren’t working I’m willing to give it a go.  If you haven't got your health then nothing else really matters! I have ordered a juicer that I will pick up after work tomorrow and I have signed up to a fundamentals of raw food workshop later this month. My place is paid for and the train tickets to Bristol are booked so the social life this month will have to go out of the window.
I also can’t ignore that I haven’t been as active in the last 6 months as I have in the last couple of years and I can’t help but think this may also be affecting my body so I have booked a PT session on Sunday to kick start me again. I don’t think going raw is going to be an easy transition but I am willing to make sacrifices. I apologise now if I’m a bit of a green juice drinking bore for the next couple of months. I am going to document my progress on my blog and my experience will hopefully help some other people. This goes without saying but I am not a medical professional. Everything that I share will be my own experience. We are all different and what may be successful for me may not work for you. I would be interested to hear about your hayfever remedies and also any experience you may have of a raw food diet.