Sensory Friendly Banana Bread Hack

Sunday, February 12, 2017

One of the most enduring lessons I learned in my Grandma's farm kitchen is that brown bananas = banana bread. Period. You don't waste them. You make them into something delicious.

I personally have expanded that to include scones and smoothies. But yeah, no. You don't throw away brown bananas. (And I secretly judge people who do.)

But. The problem with banana bread... especially my Grandma's banana bread... are the gooey chunks of banana throughout the bread, and the slimy wet ridge along the top.  (The woman could fry the hell out of a squirrel, but her baking left something to be desired.)

The old way.

I remember loving the bread's taste, yet trying not to gag on the bits that made the texture so very wrong.

Another issue is that a day later, quick breads start to get kind of wet and weird on the top crust and I just can't.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and I'm making banana bread for my kiddos. And my food texture sensory issues combined with their food texture sensory issues... something had to give.

I summoned my inner Alton Brown. I lit a candle at my shrine to Cook's Illustrated. I got to work.

There were three problems to solve. The first was easy. The second took some tinkering. The third was just application of an established concept. All solutions were simple and transferable to pretty much any quick bread recipe.

(Worth noting I have yet to sort out a gluten free banana bread my textural issues can choke down, but the first hack will work the same regardless of your recipe.  The second is generally addressed by most GF recipes due to the challenges inherent to that kind of baking. The third came from a GF recipe to begin with.)


After trying a few, I settled on an old school recipe from a solid, baseline source that's done me right since I first had my culinary monkey-touch-monolith moment. I even had to buy the cookbook again, the first one fell apart from use.

I found the same *recipe online here: BHG Banana Bread
*I find their suggestion of 5 bananas to get that quantity is insane. I rarely need more than 3.

Pretty much any recipe will do. They all seem to have the same general textural problems.

PROBLEM 1: Gooey Chunks

I don't know if I've ever seen a banana bread recipe that didn't suggest mashing the banana with a fork. The resulting texture is uneven, and affects the bread.

My first attempting at fixing this was a potato masher. Little to no improvement.

The solution? Stick blender! (AKA How did I ever survive without this miraculous tool?)

Just chuck all the wet ingredients (remember, sugar counts) into a bowl...

Seriously. Chuck 'em in whole.

...and blitz!
Noise reduction headphones optional

The resulting emulsion is perfectly smooth, and gives the bread a uniform texture devoid of those nasty, slimy, chunky bits.

I also find this emulsion easier to incorporate in general, which means less risk of overmixing the batter, which means less gluten development, which means less random air bubbles, which means more uniform overall texture... all good things.

PROBLEM 2: Unbaked Ridge

I think the extent of this is affected by individual ovens. But in all the ovens I've used, I've yet to see a loaf of quick bread bake up without it being at least a minor factor.

Simply extending the baking time didn't work - the edges of the bread burned before the top cooked through. I thought about the pan, but I already used Pyrex instead of metal so that wouldn't help.

But, that got me thinking... having been reluctantly, medically gluten free for a few years now, I've had plenty of time for some epic gluten free baking fails. And time to do some reading to figure out why.

What I learned is that proteins in GF baked goods take longer to set, which is why they need to be baked in ceramic dishes at lower temps for longer, so the edges are protected while the centers have a chance to coast to completion.

I decided to apply a version of this technique to the unbaked top problem. It worked like a charm.

1) Bake the bread at the usual temp (generally 350) for 5-10 minutes shy of the bake time specified in the recipe.

2) Reduce the oven temp by 10 degrees. At this point I check in 10 minutes, then in 5-10 min intervals, depending on how it's doing. It rarely takes more than an additional 20ish minutes past the recipe time.  Once it gets close to done the toothpicks comes out to start checking for doneness. Before it's close you can still see how wet it is.

3) Sometimes, if the top is really being stubborn but the edges are going past done, I turn off the oven and let it coast a little while longer. That does the trick.

In for ~20 extra minutes at a lower temp - the top finished and the crust did not burn

One thing I particularly like about this technique is that it addresses the x factor of variable moisture content and slight differences in banana quantity from loaf to loaf. If there's a little too much moisture from the fruit in a particular batch, finishing the baking off this way has a much greater chance of baking off the excess and giving you a good result.

PROBLEM 3: Damp, Sticky Top Crust

Once a loaf of quick bread has cooled, the top goes from delightful to damp and sticky in a hurry.  I noticed this is especially true of GF bakes, and one day mused that must be why a particular muffin recipe called for what seemed to me an incongruous sugar topping.

Cut to me making my next batch of banana bread... light bulb moment. Gave it a shot.

Just sprinkle the top of the loaf with a raw sugar (I've used turbinado and demerara). I do a generous sprinkling, it makes for a nice crisp top.

Much more than this and it becomes tricky to slice.

Yes, I know sugar is hygroscopic and of course it doesn't stay as shatteringly crisp as when it's fresh from the oven. But the next day (a loaf of banana bread rarely lasts more than 24 hours around here), the top is still reliably pleasant, often still on the crisp side.

These simple hacks have become routine when I bake any quick bread. (Though, the stick blitz step isn't necessary for something like pumpkin or applesauce bread.) I no longer have to throw away leftover bread. It's better from the start and stays better until it's gone... which is faster than ever.

Do you have any sensory friendly recipe hacks that help your family? I would love to learn about them!

On a Scale of 1 to Me: Super Bowl Edition

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

An illustration of the range of human responses to hosting half a dozen friends for the Super Bowl.

I think we can all agree that the fact I can laugh at myself is what's important here : D

The Secret to My Success

Monday, January 23, 2017

© Winterling | Dreamstime Stock Photos
When people learn I lost 140 pounds, the next words out of their mouth are almost invariably "What's your secret?!"

The thing is, as I noted here, we all know there's no secret.

This being the number one thing I hear has made me notice who is asking. It has made me ponder their motivations for asking when they already know the answer.

If they want me to be real, I will absolutely be real. But most of them don't.

After hearing this hundreds of times and noting clear differences in intent, I have found  that people tend to be looking for one of three things.

Small Talk
Most people ask the secret to my weight loss as casually as remarking on the weather. They don't want or expect a real answer.

I could go on for some time about the fact body weight is considered a topic subject to casual discussion, but that's a rant for another day. Suffice it to say I recognize it is a factor and respond accordingly.

These insincere inquiries are easy. I can smile and say "old fashioned hard work" and they're satisfied. The generic social obligation has been met.

Studies indicate up to 50% of women are dieting at any given time. Which means pretty much everyone knows it's hard to lose weight.

These folks are seeking reassurance they are not alone. They seem comforted to hear it was - and is - incredibly difficult, their experience is universal, and there is nothing special about me.

Some of them need to hear this level of success is accessible to anyone who wants it badly enough. They need to know the intensity of their desire can pull them through.

But most seem to take a different tack. Hearing how hard it is, the kind of time and effort it requires, and that biology has put the odds firmly against success, removes an emotional burden.

It helps them accept a lack of progress isn't necessarily their fault.

It helps them to hear from someone who lived it that it is perfectly reasonable to put off their desire to tackle this while health or family or job pressures are too great.

And, it helps some accept there is nothing wrong with not choosing this path at all.

Whether my story helps shine a light on possibility or absolves someone of their misplaced guilt, I am glad my willingness to be honest about how hard this is helps others feel better about themselves.

The third group is special. I can usually spot them, because they were me. They are scared, they are determined, they are uncertain. They need help believing they can do it.
August 2004
253 lbs / 22 lbs lost

With these, whenever possible, I take my time. To these, I tell the emotional truth.

Sometimes they look at me, in my current incarnation, with skepticism. I show them the closest thing I have to a "before" picture to reassure them I'm not some skinny bitch blowing smoke up their ass.

They tell me they are exhausted. I tell them I was too. They tell me they are overwhelmed. I tell them I was too.

Then I tell them the real secrets to getting here. I give them the tools they need to keep hope alive.

Baby steps.
No change is too small. The smaller the change, the easier it is to assimilate. Once it feels easy, once it is no longer a change but a normal part of your life, decide what the next change will be. Keep doing that.

Forget deadlines.
Sustainable changes made in incremental steps take time to show results. Creating a new normal takes time. Don't hold yourself to arbitrary deadlines. You're working on a better forever.

Forgive yourself for being human.
One bad day doesn't mean give up. It doesn't even mean begin again. It just means we had one bad day. Don't beat yourself up. Look head. Move on.

Be kind to yourself.
This is the foundational secret that holds up all the rest. Changing how we think about ourselves is the hardest thing to do. Especially when immersed a society constantly telling us being overweight makes us less than.

You are not weak. You are not lazy. You are not failing.
You are strong. You are determined. You are valuable. You are worth it.

Most people are surprised. And intrigued. They expect me to talk about nuts and bolts. They expect a list of external factors like calorie counting apps and gym memberships.

But those aren't the secrets to success. They are merely tools we use to help us leverage the real secrets.

If there's one thing I want people to know, it's that this journey doesn't start with a fad diet and a FitBit.

It starts with believing you're worth taking care of. It starts with believing you deserve to feel good in your own skin. It starts with you believing in you.

That is the secret to my success. Changing how I felt about me. Giving myself permission to stumble. Believing that no step is too small, as long as it keeps me moving forward.

Part 2 in a (TBD, we'll see where the brain dump takes me) Part weight loss series
Read Part 1: 5 Things Never to Say To Someone Who Lost a Lot of Weight

Soup's On

Thursday, January 19, 2017

If you were eavesdropping on the party in my head this week, it would have gone something like this...

Winter Comfort Food Craving Me: I need tomato soup!

Gluten Makes Me Sick Me: *discovers all the store soups contain wheat*

Foodie Me: I'll make tomato soup!

OCD Me: I'll make ALL THE TOMATO SOUP EVER. And freeze it! Because why solve a problem for today when you can solve it for 37 other days in the indeterminate future?!?!

Foodie Me: *discovers chicken stock supply in freezer is too low to make all the soup*



Reasonable Me: *rolls eyes* You were saying?

Foodie Me: *dances around* IMMA MAKE. ALL. THE. STOCK!!

Anxiety Me: OMG!! What if we don't have enough stock for the recipe??

Reasonable Me: How much do we need?

Foodie Me: About a quart.

Reasonable Me: We're making 3 gallons.

Anxiety Me: OMG!! What if we don't have enough containers to freeze it all?!?!

Reasonable Me: Did you even take your meds today?

Winter Comfort Food Craving Me: Was there going to be soup at some point?

Foodie Me, 10 hours later: SOUP, BITCHEZ.


Reasonable Me: OFFS. Prepping for the zombie apocalypse, are we?


Winter Comfort Food Craving Me: Sooo... can I eat now?

Soup so good it makes you not even notice the sad, gluten free faux sandwich!

5 Things Never to Say to Someone Who Lost a Lot of Weight

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

© Kristo - Gothard Hunor | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Significant weight loss is a unique and personal journey. We share struggles and goals, but at the end of the day we each have our own reasons powerful enough to drive us through the blood, sweat, tears and years it took to reclaim our bodies, our health, our lives.

As individual as our stories are, responses from friends, family and even strangers are surprisingly uniform, and often unintentionally hurtful.

Here are 5 things you should never say to someone who lost a lot of weight.

  1. When did you have the surgery?

I continue to be astonished this is often the first question new acquaintances ask when they find out I lost 140 pounds.

The notion that no one can lose a lot of weight without bariatric surgery is so pervasive that my insurance company actually insisted my doctor provide written documentation of my weight loss proving that I didn't have it. So, I understand why the average person makes the same assumption.

However. Unless you are a doctor and need that detail of their medical history, it doesn't matter how someone lost the weight. Asking is an unbelievable invasion of privacy. Not just medical privacy, but delving into deeply personal, often traumatic issues.

Maybe they have an eating disorder. Maybe they are diabetic. Maybe they had cancer. Maybe they were terrified of dying young like a parent. Maybe they gained the weight as an emotional barrier because of PTSD from childhood sexual abuse and finally got enough therapy to face losing that physical shield.

Asking when someone had a weight loss surgery they may or may not have had is asking them to revisit emotional triggers you know nothing about.

Personally... I find the immediate assumption I could only have had surgery insulting. I spent 12 years working my ass off. Literally.

Success stories are rare, and obviously people ask because they are eager to express supportive curiosity. That is lovely, and we welcome the positivity because our journey is ongoing. But rather than asking when we had surgery... just ask "How long did it take?"  That respects the privacy of any medical decisions we made while showing that no matter how we lost it, you recognize we must have dedicated ourselves to the effort for a very long time.

2.What's your secret?!

They know there's no secret. Everyone knows there's no secret. It is hard work. It is dedication. It is, if the weight loss is to be maintained, a permanent lifestyle change we will wrestle with day in and day out for the rest of our lives.

I realize this question is usually meant more like a "how are you" - a socially generic expression of politely supportive inquiry without the expectation of an honest answer.

In my experience, people are generally looking for my answer to support their confirmation bias regarding their own weight loss efforts. While I can and have engaged in depth with this in a rewarding way, I know that most of the time I am supposed to smile and answer along the lines of "there is no secret, just hard work."

Rather than obligating us to the 7,482nd recitation of this faux conversation, why not just express the general sentiment behind it?  "Wow, that must have taken a lot of work, good for you!" 

Then, all we have to say is a heartfelt "Thank you!"

3. Don't you miss your favorite foods?

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, YES. Of course we miss our favorite foods. Thank you for rubbing it in. At a party. While we watch you eat them.

This is another case where expressing the conceptual sentiment behind the question would be a lot less insensitive. "You must have made some really challenging long term changes to your eating habits. Good for you!"

Unless you live it, there is no way to explain what it takes to fight the urge to indulge in our favorite foods. One comment regarding the food we eat may make the emotional difference between winning and losing the battle on any given day. If you feel the need to say something, make it supportive.

4. Call me next time you work out! I want to start exercising and need someone to make sure I stick with it.

I used to fall for this. A lot. I spent years believing people who said they wanted me to help motivate them to exercise.

In the early part of my journey, I felt guilty for failing to help them because I wasn't yet clear they needed to help themselves.

In the middle of my journey, I felt frustration that they were asking me to make a major temporal, logistical and emotional investment in them when I was struggling to keep myself on the right path.

Now, in the maintenance phase of my journey, I feel annoyance that they have no idea what they are asking. Which is for me to trade something like my time slot allotted for a 10 mile run that's planned in a training schedule meticulously arranged around an upcoming race (and work and child care)...  for a 30 minute mosey around the local park trail. Usually followed by peer pressure to go drink twice the calories we just burned in Starbucks.

The thing is, if you ever decide you're ready, you won't need someone to make sure you stick with it. It will come from soul searching. It will come from fierce desire. It will come from inside.

If you do need an outside boost - and we all do sometimes - take an instructor led class or hire a personal trainer. Please don't put someone on the spot who is probably already using every ounce of emotional energy they have to keep themselves on track.

It makes perfect sense to talk about your own fitness goals with someone who has achieved theirs. If you want their guidance because you respect the work they put into adopting a healthy lifestyle, it's more realistic to ask something like "Do you have any tips to help me get started?"

5. Aren't you afraid you'll gain it all back?

The first time someone asked me this question, I was recovering from the last of my weight loss skin removal surgeries. I literally still had stitches in my body. I was flabbergasted.

Statistically, the success rate for weight loss rounds down to zero. Study after study has shown this to be so.  Science has determined that body chemistry remains in an altered state after weight loss. The effect is that our bodies are chronically trying to force us to regain the weight.

This is why it isn't about willpower. It's about biology. And for reasons unknown, this particular biological process is actively waging war against us.  Because of this, long term success stories are so rare there is a national database that tracks them.

We have all dieted, lost some weight, and then been embarrassed to gain it back.  I went through that cycle myself more times than I care to count, back when I still thought diet programs were a thing that could work.

So, YES. I am afraid. Of course I am afraid. My odds of keeping it off approach zero. We all know it.

But here's the thing. How about not asking that after I've been at my goal weight for all of 5 minutes? How about not asking that while I'm recovering from a series of surgeries that cost me my meager retirement fund? How about just not asking that??

Back before I did the emotional work that enabled me to make the drastic, permanent lifestyle changes necessary for this I was just as at risk as the next 99.98% of people of gaining it back.

But I made the sacrifices. I did the therapy. I changed every single thing about the way I was living my life. It took me 2 years to decide I was even ready to try. Because the thing is, those of us who choose this? We first have to accept that it's forever. We have to accept that we must wake up every day for the rest of our lives and make an active choice to continue living this new life. That, or accept the weight back.

Am I afraid? Yes. Do I think my odds of being one of the statistical outliers are good? YES. So much so that I even registered myself for the national tracking database.

There is no way to salvage this question. Don't ask it. Just be supportive. We all know the odds. Let your friend enjoy their success for as long as they can fight for it.

This post is Part 1 in a TBD Part weight loss series
Read Part 2 : The Secret to My Success

Nerdy Cat Names FTW!!

Monday, December 5, 2016

After our last cat of four passed away over 2 years ago, we agreed to wait until the kids were a little older to bring in more pets.

It was the right call. But it feels like forever. Because KITTEH. I need one. Or four. Whatever.

Last weekend, the husband and I realized we were sitting in separate rooms surreptitiously surfing the same shelter cats. After having a good laugh, we piled into the van and went to visit them in person.

Y'all know we brought home a cat.

Exhibit A

His shelter name was Goose. But we don't have a Maverick so his name had to change. Because obviously.

We enlisted the help of friends. We wanted something clever or distinctive or geeky. The geekier, the better. I mean, come on. We're us.

You guys. A handful of these are mine, but my friends delivered hard core. So much so I just had to collect their ideas and give them the credit they deserve. I'd need to adopt a whole shelter full of cats to use them all.

So. Without further blather I give you... geeky cat names!

Literary References
Pixel (Heinlein)
Mr. Underfoot  (Heinlein)
Ender (Orson Scott Card)
Cheshire (Alice in Wonderland)
Arthur Dent (Hitchhiker)
Ford Prefect (Hitchhiker)
Xaphod Beeblebrox  (Hitchhiker)
Paul Miau-ad'Dib (Dune)
Mr. Darcy (No one in my family appreciated this one. Clearly the wrong audience.)

Harry Potter References
Peter Pettimew
Professor McGonagall*

*If this sweet little tabby had been female, I'd have gone straight to Professor McGonagall and called it Minnie (Minerva) or maybe Maggie. Because of course I would. But he happens to be male, so I'm saving it for another cat.

Tolkien / Middle Earth References
Purregrine Took
Mrrriadoc Brandybuck
Furamir, Naptain of Yawndor
Tomcat Bombadil

Game of Thrones References
Catlin Stark
Tomcat Purratheon, First of His Name   (I love this one so. hard.)

Star Trek References
Chief Meowls O'Brien
Pawvel Checkov
Jean Luc Picard
Worf son of Meowgh
Earl Grey
Gul DuCat (DS9)

Firefly References
Shepurred Book
Meowl Reynolds
Captain Tightpants

Science References
Sagan (as in Carl)
Darwin (call him Charlie)
Schrodinger (this nearly won, we've always wanted to use this name on a cat)

TV References
Captain Jack Harkness (Doctor Who)
Doctor Mew (Doctor Who)
Benedict Cumbercat (Sherlock)
Doctor Watson (Sherlock)
Moriarty (Sherlock)

Princess Bride References
Fezzik / Fuzzik
Inigo Meowtoya
The Dread Pawrate Roberts (I wanted this one badly.)

Miscellaneous Movie References
Senator Palpurrtine (Star Wars)
Max Rockcattansky (Mad Max)
Fievel Catch-a-Mousekewitz (An American Tale)
Dade (Hackers)

General Geekery
Aaron Purr (Hamilton)
Gattos Vakarian (Mass Effect)
Commander Shepurrd (Mass Effect)

Sports References
Rizzo (Cubs)
Wrigley (Cubs)

The kids really liked Moriarty, so that's what we landed on. It works. The 4 year old likes to call him Mo.

It's already like he's lived here forever.

The very first night!

Do you have any ideas for geeky cat names? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

This Is Bananas

Monday, September 12, 2016

When I was in Madison this weekend to crew Ironman Wisconsin, I ended up buying lunch for a homeless gentleman on State Street when I was on the way to work a run aid station. 

Well, "lunch" in that it was lunchtime.  He didn't have teeth, and all he wanted was a protein smoothie from Jamba Juice. I've never done something like that before, though I have many friends who do. He said quietly, "I'm so hungry."  I couldn't walk away.

He noticed my race shirt, and told me he helps take the leftover bananas to a local food pantry.  I thought this was great, and I was glad to have helped him out a little bit. I don't know if his claim is true, but it seemed perfectly plausible.

The thing is, I have always assumed this sort of thing is routine.  There are always tons of product and refreshments left after events and there are hungry people everywhere. It's a no brainer.

The crew leader had mentioned to me on the phone that they have had issues in the past with local homeless individuals trying to take food from his race station's supplies during the race.  And I did notice a substantial number of homeless in just the few blocks my activity for the day was focused.

Point being... I was STUNNED to find out that the extra food is supposed to go back on the truck, and it sits there for possibly days while the trucks are sorted out, and then it all goes into the garbage.

I asked the crew leader why it doesn't go to a food pantry or homeless shelter.  He said he did contact a local food pantry once and they refused it because they didn't want to pick it up after the race.

From just my aid station, this was the produce left over:

- 4 boxes of oranges (I'm guesstimating 50 lbs a box), 3 unopened
- 2 full, unopened cases of bananas
- 3 flat cases of grapes, 2 unopened

Plus some potato chips, pretzels, many gallons of bottled water and Gatorade concentrate.

A run aid station serving food and beverages to Ironman racers.

The volunteers shared the leftover gels and energy bars, that was easy. I agree with the crew leadership that it's nice to give something to the volunteers who worked incredibly hard supporting the race, many from sunrise to after midnight. My real concern was the high quality fresh produce not be left to rot in the back of a truck.

There are at least 5 run aid stations and at least as many bike aid stations.  The math on the wasted food makes my brain melt.

The juxtaposition of the spectacle of luxury and privilege that is a world class endurance event with the homeless population literally sleeping on the side of the street as the racers go by is deeply disquieting. Throwing the remaining food away is unconscionable.

Last night, they were literally going to send the food to be thrown away with several of them sleeping within 50 yards of us. I just couldn't let it happen.

Another volunteer and I put our heads together and decided we would take the food.  We figure it can't possibly be THAT hard to find a food pantry or homeless shelter to answer their phone on a Monday morning and accept the donation. The other guy ultimately decided to handle it this time since he lived locally, and I had already agreed to disposition 4 nearly full cases of cups that I couldn't bear to see go in a landfill (they are apparently discarded once a case is unsealed for logistics reasons).

A quick search revealed at least half a dozen possible food pantry/soup kitchen type places in Madison that he planned to call this morning. I pointed out if we can make it work for this station, then we might be able to set it up so each aid station has a designated food pantry they work with every year to receive the fresh food.

Or perhaps, we can work with the UW Greek system. Many sororities and fraternities are affiliated with charitable causes. I bet it would be pretty darn easy to convince one or more of them to pick up the food and take it to a shelter.  The homeless population on campus is noticeable.  Anyone with half a heart should want to help.

Because seriously? I refuse to believe that there isn't someone willing to swing by the race site for 10 minutes on a Sunday night to pick up several hundred dollars worth of free fresh food to serve the hungry.

I'm not able to volunteer at Ironman every year.  It's a lot of time and money for me to go up there.  But I hope working on this problem will be a contribution I can make that has a lasting impact on the race, and the lovely city that hosts it.

If you are in the Madison area and know of any organizations that would like to work with me on this, please send me an email.  The crew leader told me if I am able to find someone to take it, he would be very happy to support that. We have plenty of time before the next Ironman, but it's also a concept that can be applied to any event, and endurance race season is in full swing now that fall has arrived.

There are countless races all around the country every year, and most of them offer athletes some form of refreshment.  I strongly recommend that leadership of food pantries and other organizations serving the hungry get in contact with organizers of local events to ask what they do with their leftover fresh food. 

Guys, this isn't acceptable.  On any level.  We have to do better.