A Gift for the Heart

Robin Seeley  Abby Hayton, Safia Pigott, Farrah Morin and Clare Jackson Proudly display heart-tarts they made for Valentine’s Day.

A Gift for the Heart

Learning from the kids’ perspectives on Post Street

The sixth monthly session of the Culinary Academy of Post Street took a dark turn: commercialization of holidays, morality of gift-giving, and even nutritional no-no’s. And it was just as well this month’s holiday raised those timely topics. The historical record on St. Valentine, the Catholic martyr, is mighty murky! So we didn’t waste time comparing conflicting stories about this mysterious saint. Regardless of what he really did, it’s a safe bet he’d be rolling in his grave if he saw how we celebrate his namesake holiday today. 

Commercialization of Holidays
For many years now, celebrating Christmas, Valentine’s Day and birthdays is all about making a shopping list and going to the store (or the Internet)! When I first lived in Germany in the 1970s, the gift-giving culture was very different! I still have handmade picture frames, cards, and poems that I received as gifts from my German friends and classmates. Although Germany had its fair share of retail establishments, if you truly cared about the gift recipient, you gave a bit of yourself, not a bit of your paycheck. 

Today, we often don’t even bother to buy gifts anymore, we just exchange gift cards! Is that the best expression of tender care and loving concern? But I must admit that I, too, I have cast off German influence and become a card-carrying gift-giver! In honor of Valentine’s Day, the kids decided (OK, at my urging ...) to reach back to a simpler, happier time when gift-giving wasn’t all about shopping. They didn’t spend money, they spent time and effort making beautiful, tasty Valentine’s Day presents for their moms! As Abby pointed out, they were putting love into the gift, which made it special.

There was another plot twist: Instead of gobbling up their creations before leaving my kitchen, the young students had to exercise self-restraint and get them home safely for mom. 

A Moral Dilemma
Yummy or Healthy? There was also a moral component to preparing an edible gift: Abby, Saffi, Farrah and Clare considered choosing healthier foods, for their mothers’ sake! Saffi may also have been influenced by her father, Dr. Abu Pigott, a local fitness trainer who likes to set a good example for his family and clients! 

Pigott-pressure meant pivoting away from previous projects: No more sugary strudel, Day of the Dead cookies, candy-crafted festive fowl, gingerbread houses, and Ghiradelli chocolate! Instead, we focused on heart-healthy alternatives with fresh ingredients. 

Fat vs. Sugar
Despite decades of misinterpreted data and misguided fat-phobia, fat is not the primary culprit in the so-called Western Diet. It’s sugar. “Natural” sugar derived from corn is just as bad as white sugar. The sugar in soft drinks, high fructose corn syrup, is probably the worst culprit. Just Google “Gary Taubes” and “Is Sugar Toxic?” to get gobs of gory details.

For years, food ingredient labels proudly proclaimed low fat. Many still do! Since fat adds flavor, processed foods compensated for its absence by adding lots of sugar. Grocery stores are still full of supposedly “healthy, low-fat” foods whose first five ingredients are five different names for processed sugar: sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, corn syrup solids, sugar. People often felt (and still feel) virtuous eating these “healthy” foods. But word is finally getting out that sugar, not fat, triggered the current healthcare crisis in the United States, with obesity and diabetes leading the way.

Four kids in my kitchen couldn’t undo decades of bad advice on nutrition. But they did top their heart-tarts with luscious whipped cream, free of guilt. Clare took extra care in smoothing the creamy layers in the delicate tart shell. Although cream is the fatty part of milk, Clare understood it is a harmless indulgence for anyone with a healthy, balanced diet and normal body weight. 

If we had taken the easy way out, we’d have used Cool Whip topping instead of cream. This highly-processed confection comes in a tidy tub, ready to be spread. We did a taste test comparing whipped cream with Cool Whip, and to be honest, the kids liked both (although Farrah strongly preferred the cream)! One look at the processed food’s cringe-worthy ingredients convinced the others to follow Farrah’s lead. These kids didn’t want to give their beloved moms a treat full of both corn syrup AND high fructose corn syrup (the two primary ingredients listed on the label after water). 

We also learned that just as yeast provided the air bubbles that leavened the Boudin sourdough bread we enjoyed during last month’s class on Gold Rush grub, elbow grease and a whisk could whip air bubbles into heavy cream to make it light and fluffy. We sifted in a little powdered sugar to give it even better texture and flavor, but that was our only compromise on nutrition. 

More Fun with Cream: To take it to the next level, the whipped cream got a pink glow for Valentine’s Day! We also plopped some pink-tinted cream into a glass of white milk to test the truth of the saying that “the cream always rises to the top.” We confirmed that it does! Even though we think of fat as heavy, we saw clearly how the pink cream floated on the surface of the white milk.

We whipped one batch of untinted cream so long and hard, it took on a yellowish cast. Sure enough, it was turning into butter! After sprinkling it with a little salt, we spread it on crackers and marveled at the versatility of this dairy fat. One food provides a white and fluffy topping, a yellow, creamy spread, and metaphors for superiority. It really is the cream of the crop, la crème de la crème!

Is All Sugar Unhealthy? After spreading whipped cream on the heart-tarts, we turned to the filling: fresh raspberries and blueberries. Is fruit healthy, even though, like Cool Whip, it contains sugar? You bet! Refined sugars in Cool Whip and other sweet treats are digested directly in the liver, which converts them to fat that is then stored in the liver itself. Very unhealthy! In fact, you don’t need to be overweight to have an unhealthy, fatty liver. As UCSF endocrinologist Robert Lustig, M.D. explained in his KQED program, Sweet Revenge, doctors even have an acronym for it: TOFI: Thin Outside, Fat Inside. Fatty liver is linked to metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and many other nasty conditions.

The sugar in fruit is very different than refined sugar. It comes packed in fiber, vitamins, and micro-nutrients and is digested in the G.I. tract, NOT in the liver. A healthy, nutritious choice of which Saffi’s dad would approve! 

Big Lessons for Little Girls: Despite at least one protest, none of the young ladies scarfed down their tempting treats in my kitchen. Although they didn’t get to eat the fruits of their labor, they did digest a lot of big ideas about commercialism, nutrition, and making good choices. The result was beautiful fruit tarts, as the photo shows! A gift for the heart, from the heart!