Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just Cook (Holiday Edition): Sugar Cookie Stress, Is It Worth it?

Tis the Christmas cookie season and I find myself again faced with the sugar cookie dilemma: to make them or not? I have really no luck with sugar cookies. Even though I fancy myself a pretty good cook and a decent baker, I have never done well with sugar cookies. Either I can't get the shapes right, or they get too dark, or the cookies themselves taste so bland. The only decoration I can usually muster is colored sugar, which is pretty boring. They hardly seem worth the effort. Honestly, there are so many lovely, easy cookies to make, "Why, oh why, must we make sugar cookies?" Of course, this cookie dilemma is because my kids WANT sugar cookies. It's like they've been waiting all year to use those cute cookie-cutters and to try yet again to decorate them with  pretty icing or a multitude of fancy toppings. Like it or not, decorated sugar cookies are the classic Christmas cookie.

Baking cookies together is a great family tradition, so I want to make the effort to bake with my kids and to make something fun for them. So I searched the web for some inspiration and found two great Howcast Videos on making and decorating sugar cookies.

Tonight's the last chance for sugar cookies in  my  house if they are to be part of the "Teacher Thank You Gifts" or on Santa's tray. I made some wicked Chocolate Chip Cookies last night (so easy!), so at least there are some baked goods in the pantry for the holiday.  (The NYC Blogger Cookie Swap cookies, including the extras I made of the pecan puffs, are long gone!)

Will my girls forgive me if we skip the sugar cookies this year? Are sugar cookies worth the stress? Any tips out there?

More Christmas Cookie Links:
Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies
The Family Kitchen Christmas Desserts for Kids

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fighting Obesity without a "Food War"

Obesity is the pathway to a wide range of health maladies we face, including heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease--and the economic malady of high health care costs.  James R. Knickman, Founder and CEO of NYS Health Foundation, The Huffington Post, 12.14.10
As a physician, I am always looking for treatments. But with obesity, the available treatments in no way match the size of the problem. We must find effective ways to prevent obesity.  Jeanne Clark, MD, MPH Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, paraphrased from  presentation at Super-Sized World Conference, NYAS, 12.09.10

What can be done about the obesity crisis? First off, we have to recognize that it is a genuine crisis and that the rates of obesity are climbing at alarming rates both here and abroad.  (Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the last 30 years!) Part of this recognition must be to eschew the "food wars" sniping that seems to reduce the obesity problem to a question of whether school bake sales should be "outlawed" or not. Homemade cookies, or homemade food of any kind, are not fueling these obesity rates!

Parents and families are perhaps the most important resource in the fight against childhood obesity. Rather than alienating or berating parents, we have to educate them about healthy food and lifestyle choices, being sure to promote fresh food is delicious and just as fun as "fast food." Good food shouldn't be demonized or seen as "punishment" or "medicine." This discussion should be taking place in pediatricians' offices, at PTA meetings, on the playground, and in the workplace. This is not about taking away bake sales or occasional treats; this is about creating a "norm" of what a healthy balanced life looks like and feels like. Of course, I feel like regular family dinner is an important part of what normal healthy eating looks like. Encouraging family dinner is one route to promoting healthy families.

Just as there is no single villain, no single intervention may be enough, be it better school lunches, or a soda tax, or more physical education at school. Many things must come into play in order to really see a difference and reverse this trend in childhood obesity. Family dinner is a good place to start.

Related Reading:
Obesity: We Need an All-out Campaign, James Knickman, 12.14.10

Food, Obesity, and Regulation: Simmering Culture War Boils Over, ABC News, 12.15.10

From the Academic Literature:

Long-term effects of a lifestyle intervention on weight and cardiovascular risk factors in individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus: four-year results of the Look AHEAD trial. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Sep 27;170(17):1575-7.The best current treatments for obesity include intensive lifestyle coaching, which can have short-term weight reduction. This article is the latest report in a multi-year study. Unfortunately, the treatment group regained weight, on average, in the long-term. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cookies, Connections, Change (with Recipe)

Last week was pretty crazy. I started the week off chatting about school lunch reform with folks from the Brooklyn Food Coalition at their holiday party and ended it at the NYC Cookie Fest, swapping cookies with a warm and wonderful group of food bloggers. In between, I listened to academic presentations about the global obesity epidemic at the New York Academy of Sciences, had a phone conversation with the founder of Dinner Together, and met Laurie David, the author of The Family Dinner Cookbook, at her NYC book party. 

What is the connection here? I wanted to reach out to these diverse groups and talk about the importance of family dinner and how it might be connected to their work. Some of the professions of the people I talked with this week included:

Food Magazine Editor
Sociology Professor
Clinical Psychologist
Food Stylist
Emergency Room MD, interested in community health
Pastry Chef
Ivy League Academic
Community Activist
Cookbook Authors (many of these!)

So many different types of people, approaching food or family or health in very different ways, but each could appreciate the family dinner message.  I hope to change the way people think about family dinner from a "nostalgic, nice to have" kind of thing to an important personal and public health resource.

Especially around the holidays, we are thinking about family and traditions, but moreover, we are trying to make or deepen our connections. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and connect to so many interesting people this week and hope that these connections will help further the dialogue and support of family dinner.

I wish I had a simple recipe for change, but here's a good cookie recipe, nonetheless. I asked my good friend (a great YA author also known as a bake sale queen) for a no-fail recipe that wouldn't embarrass me in front of the food bloggers.* This recipe was it! Pretty easy and since three other people made them, an obvious favorite. I added my own twist with the bourbon glaze.

* Having not meet them yet, I didn't know how nice everyone would be! Thanks again to Chris & Karen (@thepeche), Gail (@onetoughcookie), Abby (@abbydodge) and Maggy (@threemanycooks) for organizing!

Pecan Buff Balls (with optional Bourbon glaze) 
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
Makes about 40 1.5 inch balls, double the recipe because they go fast!

Oven 300 degrees.

Beat until soft 1 stick unsalted butter.
Add and blend until creamy 2 Tablespoons sugar
Add 1 teaspoon vanilla
Measure, then grind 1 cup pecans
Sift then measure 1 cup. Cake flour

Stir pecans and flour into butter. Roll dough into small balls. Place on greased cookie sheet and bake about 30 min. Roll while hot in confectioner's sugar.

Put back in oven for a minute to glaze. Cool and serve.

Optional Bourbon Glaze: 
1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar
1-2 Tablespoons Bourbon
1-2 Tablespoons Hot Water (if needed)
Mix bourbon with sugar until mixture is a glaze consistency. Add a little water to thin, if needed. Drizzle glaze onto cooled cookies, re-roll in confectioner's sugar.

NYC CookieFest 2010 Links
New York Cookie Swap, 12.13.10, Maggy of Three Many Cooks
Cookies, Cookies, and More Cookies!, 12.12.10, The Adirondack Chick
{Sweet Treats} NYC CookieFest 12.13.10, High/Low, Food/Drink

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fight Childhood Obesity? School Lunch Reform AND Family Dinner

Childhood obesity must be addressed on many fronts; I believe that family dinner is one of them. Tomorrow I'm attending a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences called Super-Sized World, and I'm looking forward to learning more about latest research and policy initiatives to combat the worldwide obesity epidemic.

Recently, U.S. school lunch reform has been one of the big topics in the food community and there is great hope that can help address obesity in school children. I am a big proponent of school lunch reform, and I am thrilled that CNR finally passed last week. It is great to have a little more money in the budget and a little more direction on nutrition in the hope of providing healthy meals to kids. School lunch and breakfast programs are essential, but healthy meals belong at home too.

If you are really going to fight childhood obesity and improve nutrition, you must engage parents and support family meals at home. I was recently interviewed for a magazine that is directed to Title I school administrators. (Title I* is a designation for schools with a high percentage of students from very low income families and these schools receive extra federal funding through the  Title 1 program). The theme of the article was parent engagement and how to encourage families to have dinner together. The research is clear: students who have dinner with their families are more likely to get As and Bs at school, and better grades are related to less drug and alcohol use, less truancy and behavioral problems. So, family dinner (at home) is actually something that school administrators, and policymakers, should care about.

This is one reason why the effort to cut food stamps in order to pay for school lunch was so infuriating. If anything, low income families need more support in order to be able to purchase and serve healthy food to their families. Family dinner is not a middle class value, and I believe that it is a key intervention to help ground families and their children (those Title I students) and help them succeed. There's research backing that up, too.

While you can't "legislate" family dinner, and that is not at all what I'm suggesting, I do think that social, economic, and policy supports matter as people make choices that affect their health. So let's keep up the pressure to improve school food without losing sight that family meals at home matter too.

Childhood Obesity Resources:
RWJF Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity If you work on this issue, join the Network!
Yale Rudd Center for Policy Policy and Obesity
House Passes Child Nutrition Legislation: Cause for Celebration or Concern? One Hungry Mama on The Family Kitchen Blog, 12.2.10

*Full disclosure: Two of my children go to Title I schools. In New York City, there are top performing schools that have very low income kids; that's the facts. My high school student goes to Brooklyn Technical High School which you have to test into by scoring well on a highly competitive test.  I do lunch duty at my youngest child's school and believe it or not, they serve a pretty healthy lunch. But no one should confuse these chaotic lunchrooms, regardless of what food is served, for the type of connection that you can establish around family meals at home.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Fan Club: Hanukkah (and Holiday) Traditions

With it's early start date this year (Dec. 1st!), Hanukkah definitely snuck up on me and I am scrambling to dream up of eight nights of fried food or other fun to celebrate the Great Miracle. Although latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food, technically you are remembering the "oil," so any food either fried in oil or featuring oil can be celebratory. Newfangled takes on Hanukkah food include Olive Oil cakes, Wild Arugula Salad, and Lemon-Infused Raspberry Jam Donuts (Sufganiyot). Last night, we tried our own new recipe: fried plantains with a fruit and cilantro salsa. Delicious!

Many Jewish holidays are centered around ceremonial foods, which I think is one of the main reasons the traditions keep getting passed on. Everyone wants to have Bubbe's special recipe at least once a year, or learn how to craft it themselves. As Joan Nathan wrote recently, in an effort to stay connected, some families Fed-Ex honey cake or chicken soup to grandchildren. The holidays remind us what is important: food, family, and tradition. As One Hungry Mama (one of my favorite food bloggers) notes,
This is what food is about. History, connection, family, friends (old and new) and celebrating our similarities and differences. The miracles of life... During this time of year, food takes its rightful place in our life: right smack dab in the center. Conjuring memories, creating new ones and bringing us together. One Hungry Mama, 12.01.10
Even my oldest child, at only 15, is waxing nostalgic for things past this holiday season. Last night, my husband was wondering if he could wrangle our friend into coming over to make his famous latkes this year, and absent himself from latke duty. My son would have none of it. "But you make the best latkes, Dad!!!" So newfangled recipes be damned, I guess we have to schedule our own latke-fest into the busy weekend.  Wouldn't have it any other way, really.

Hanukkah Latkes with Jeniifer of Prefectly Disheveled and lovely musings on holiday foods, One Hungry Mama 12.01.10
Sweet and Light, New recipes for Hanukkah, Melissa Petitto, Tablet Magazine, 12.1.10 
Family Ties: football, food and the importance of tradition, Joan Nathan, Tablet Magazine, 11.18.10