Coffee cake is one of life’s nicest niceties. Not only does it have crunchy brown sugar streusel layered with moist cake and topped with icing but it also evokes images of tea parties and twee hats and gloves and dresses with nipped-in waists and Peter-Pan collars. Fun. So when Gym Buddy Lisseth waxed rhapsodic about the best coffee cake ever, which she had made the night before and eaten for breakfast this morning, you will understand why my mouth began to water.
The Gym Buddies and I have an interesting post-workout tradition. After we get good and sweaty together and bounce some iron around (and grunt and scratch ourselves), we sit on the stretching mats… and talk about food. No matter how hard we try, every post-workout conversation eventually comes back to food. What new restaurant Krista tried, the new recipe Megan found, the number of chicken wings Allison can eat in one sitting (her record thus far – with husband – 120. Girlfriend is having a serious pregnancy craving!) – it’s all fair game. By the end, each of us is drooling, starving and usually armed with a resolution to cook something when we get home.
This day it was coffee cake, courtesy of Lisseth. While I didn’t have her recipe, I do have a perfectly wonderful Betty Crocker cookbook that has served me well many a time and so I hauled that out. Turning the oven on to preheat, I checked to make sure I had all the ingredients. For something so tasty, coffee cake is amazingly simple. And also amazingly bad for you! How have I never known what is in coffee cake?! My heart pounded a little faster as I looked at the white flour, oil, butter, salt and all that sugar. I knew I couldn’t make it. What would be the point of that grueling workout I just finished if I were to eat half a coffee cake afterward?
Sighing, I started to put the book away. But then a thought came to my mind – I could healthify it! Happily, I got out my mixer and bowl and set about substituting every ingredient. I used whole wheat flour for the white flour, replaced the fat with a banana, the sugar with applesauce and so forth. Excitedly I poured the batter into a casserole dish (like I own a bundt pan – please, you’re talking to the girl who only owns one grown-up sharp knife). The kitchen filled with yummy smells and 60 minutes later I had… banana bread. And not even good banana bread! Healthified banana bread. That was most definitely not what I was craving. In fact it was so nasty that it sat on our kitchen counter for a week until my husband finally threw it away.
This is not the first time this has happened. In fact, you could say I have a reputation for ruining perfectly good food. The ingredients all start out fine but in the process of trying to healthify the recipe, I usually ruin it. It’s gotten to the point where my cooking has become a punchline among our friends. (“We’re picking up the rocks to landscape our yard this weekend.” “Oh, so you got invited to dinner at Charlotte’s too?” Ha ha ha.)
The problem stems from having my cake and wanting to eat it too. Some healthy living ascetics can give up sugar, fat and every other vice with nary a backward glance (I’m looking at you, Dr. J!). But for me a life without brownies is just too depressing to contemplate. My compromise is to make substitutions.
There is also the other end of the spectrum: the just-eat-the-cake-already people like Bethenney Frankel and all the Intuitive Eaters. If you want coffee cake, the reasoning goes, eat a little of the best coffee cake you can find, don’t deprive yourself and you’ll be sated. However, I have a rather addictive personality or perhaps my tastebuds are just slow to catch on but if I eat only three bites of a really yummy dessert I’m going to feel deprived. I will want more than three bites and telling me to stop there will only make me want to eat more. So we’re back to the substitutions.
Lest you think I’m brilliant – I hate to disillusion you but really you should know better by now – I am not the first person to come up with this idea. There are whole books and websites dedicated to making healthy, yummy food. They also happen to be run by people who are much better cooks than I am. Now the key for me is to hone my mad kitch skillz to the point that I don’t wreck their recipes. It might also help if I got some real cooking equipment.
What’s your food philosophy: have a little bit of what you really crave or focus on healthifying the decadent recipes? Any other chronic food ruiners in the house? Anyone else still cooking with the utensils they got at the thrift store in college?