Editor's note: The Busy Kitchen is a new Monday column written by two area chefs - Tiffany Poe and Valarie Carter - who also happen to be mothers of young children. They'll explore nutrition, cooking for kids and more.
Sometimes I feel like our kids are being "treated" out of a balanced, nutritious diet.
School and church snacks, school parties, treats at the grandparents' house, birthday parties, sporting events, Halloween, Christmas, Flag Day, May Day, Columbus Day, Groundhog Day ... you get the idea. It seems there's a neverending list of reasons to partake in some pretty unhealthy treats.
For the most part, I think I have a moderate view on treats. Have a little treat occasionally and move on, provided it's not right before lunch or dinner. But wouldn't it be great if those same treats actually supplied some nutrition at the same time? And your kids didn't even mind (errr ... know.) Double bonus.
There's not too much we can tweak about candy corn to make it healthier but what about some of those other party favorites? I have a particular affinity for the sweet, salty, sticky crunch of a great popcorn ball. Sugary, I know. Fortunately, popcorn provides some fiber, is a complex carbohydrate and is naturally low in fat in calories.
Add in some nuts, seeds, dried fruit and coconut for extra flavor, nutrients and fiber. Popcorn balls made from marshmallows are good, but making your own candy syrup is even better. It's quick and easy and well worth the little bit of extra effort. You may never use marshmallows again.
Brown rice is an excellent substitute for popcorn for those tiny tots who might not easily eat popcorn. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists popcorn as a choking risk for children younger than 4 years old. Another tasty variation on the popcorn ball is to add peanut butter or your favorite nut butter to the sugar syrup. It's a yummy addition and adds some protein, too. (See recipe note.)
And what party is complete without a cupcake?
Personally, chocolate is at the bottom of my food lust list, but my kids love it. My almost 2-year-old follows me around saying "choc-wate, CHOC-WATE!" To satisfy her chocolate tooth, I've developed these chocolate cupcakes that sneak in black beans, bananas and applesauce for extra nutrition. It sounds weird, but they taste amazing. An added bonus is that dark chocolate isn't just full of flavor, it's full of antioxidants, too.
I won't claim that these treats are flat-out healthy, but I will say that they are healthier versions of the originals.
Although we can't improve upon Ring Pops, Pixy Stix or Smarties, we make some old, homemade favorites a little less scary.
HEALTHIER CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
8 ounces good quality semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 large ripe bananas, well mashed
1 can unseasoned black beans, pureed
1 teaspoon good-quality vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a muffin pan, or use cupcake papers.
2. Sift all dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, oil, applesauce, banana, black bean puree and vanilla. Mix until well-combined. Pour in melted chocolate and combine.
3. Stir in dry ingredients until just mixed. It's OK to see some dry ingredients unincorporated. Do not overmix or cupcakes will be tough. Scoop into muffin tin.
4. Bake 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted. Cool 5 minutes in pan. Turn out onto wire rack to cool completely. Ice only after completely cooled. Use holiday decorations or your favorite icing to complete the cupcake. Makes 12 extra large cupcakes.
POPCORN BALLS (OR PUFFED BROWN RICE BALLS)
About 12 cups popcorn, lightly salted, or puffed brown rice
1 cup sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon good-quality vanilla extract
1 cup toasted sliced almonds or chopped nuts of your choice and/or pine nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.
2 cups your choice of any combination of dried cranberries, dried blueberries, chopped dried apricots, chopped dried cherries, currants, golden or dark raisins, etc.
1 cup coconut
1. Grease a large stainless steel bowl. Place half of the popcorn or rice in bowl along with half of the nuts, dried fruit and coconut. Reserve.
2. In a 3.5-quart or larger sauce pan, combine sugar, corn syrup, water, cream and salt. Place over medium heat and stir mixture just until the sugar dissolves. Stop stirring at this point as further stirring could cause sugar crystals to re-form and it will ruin the candy.
3. Insert a candy thermometer, turn the heat to high and continue to cook until mixture reaches 250. Remove from heat. Carefully stir in butter and vanilla. Working quickly, pour half of the sugar mixture over half of the popcorn mixture. Add the remaining popcorn, nuts, dried fruit, coconut and remaining sugar mixture. Use a greased wooden spoon to combine well.
4. Working quickly, use buttered hands, form balls out of the mixture.
Variations: You'll notice that I use coconut frequently in my recipes and that's just because I love it. If you don't, feel free to omit it from your version.
A half cup of peanut butter or other nut butter would also be a tasty and nutritious addition. Just stir it into the sugar mixture after the mixture reaches 250 in place of the butter.
Note: The sugar mixture gets extremely hot and can cause severe burns.
Original Print Headline: Tasty homemade treats can be nutritional, too
A native Oklahoman, Valarie Carter earned a bachelor's degree in English from Oklahoma State University and an associate of arts in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Atlanta. She, her husband and their children live in Muskogee.