Old-Fashioned American Inventiveness Updates Thanksgiving Desserts For Better Health

American Institute for Cancer Research
Friday, 14 November 2003

Adapting traditional recipes to accommodate current needs is an American tradition as old as the first English settlers, and we should follow their example, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). Because most desserts served at Thanksgiving are high in fat and calories, AICR has created an updated versions of colonial-era desserts to help celebrate the holiday.

"Traditional desserts can still be part of our holiday meals," says Melanie Polk, R.D., AICR's Director of Nutrition Education. "With a few adjustments, they can be trimmed of excess calories and fat, and still retain a rich, satisfying flavor. Classic American desserts like Indian Pudding and Gingerbread deserve wider popularity because they can be as healthful as they are delicious and easy to make."

The Colonists Adapted Their Favorite Desserts to Local Realities

For the earliest British settlers, desserts meant hearty puddings, porridge-like concoctions of flour and milk, usually sweetened with molasses or maple sugar, and flavored with spices. Wheat, sugar and spices, however, were in short supply in colonial America, having to be shipped in from England.

Food historians believe the early settlers made do with native corn, which was far more plentiful than wheat, to make their favorite puddings. The first colonial holiday feasts are thought to have included a cornmeal-based pudding adapted from the Narragansett Indians. Eventually, this desert came to be called "Indian Pudding."

Indian Pudding was originally made with milk, molasses and, when available, cinnamon and nutmeg. For special occasions, eggs, raisins and diced apples might be added. In New England, where it is still popular, Indian Pudding was traditionally served on Saturday nights.

Colonial Desserts Featured Healthful as well as Flavorful Ingredients

Cornmeal, the foundation of Indian Pudding, supplies important nutrients like vitamin A, potassium, folate and phosphorus. Blackstrap molasses, another staple of this traditional dessert, is rich in potassium, calcium and iron.

Ginger and similar strongly-flavored spices and peppers are believed to contain cancer-protective phytochemicals. When fresh, ginger contains gingerol; in its dried from, zingerone is formed. Both substances are believed to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and, therefore, may be cancer-protective. Cloves contain at least two phytochemicals eugenol and acetyl eugenol that may help fight heart disease, cancer and inflammation.

The following recipe is an updated, healthier version of a classic Indian Pudding. To accompany this pudding, a cider sauce may be served in place of a high-fat, high-calorie topping. (A recipe for cider sauce is provided below.)

Old-Fashioned Indian Pudding

3 cups low-fat (2%) milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
Canola oil spray
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, heat milk with salt until small bubbles appear along sides. (Don't let milk get too hot or boil. Scalding takes place just below the boiling point, which is 212 degrees.)

Gradually stir in cornmeal. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick like cooked cereal, about 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to lukewarm.

When cornmeal mixture is nearly cooled down to lukewarm, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using canola oil spray, coat insides of 6 single-serving baking cups or ramekins, or an 8-inch baking dish and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together egg, molasses, sugar and spices until well blended. Gradually, a little at a time, whisk egg mixture into cornmeal mixture.

Pour mixture into prepared cups, ramekins, or baking dish. Bake until almost set (Pudding continues to set after it is taken out of the oven.) If cups or ramekins are used, check every 10 minutes or so to monitor how quickly the pudding sets. If a baking dish is used, baking time is about 1 hour.

Remove from oven and allow pudding to cool slightly before serving. To serve from a baking dish, use a sharp paring knife to cut into portions and flexible metal spatulas to lift each portion out and onto individual plates. (Puddings baked in individual cups or ramekins can be served in the containers.)

Serve warm with cider sauce, if desired.

Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 174 calories, 4 g. fat (2 g. saturated fat), 28 g. carbohydrate, 7 g. protein, less than 1 g. dietary fiber, 286 mg. sodium.

The following cider sauce was created as a healthful accompaniment for both Indian pudding and gingerbread. Its full flavor is as satisfying but much lower in fat and calories as syrups and other high-calorie toppings used with these desserts. This sauce can be used for other desserts as well, such as baked apples and custards.

Cider Sauce

2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 cups unsweetened apple cider
1 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp. finely-minced crystallized ginger

Using a blender or a large bowl and whisk, mix together cider, sugar and cornstarch.

Transfer mixture to a non-stick saucepan and heat over medium heat, whisking while sauce comes to a simmer and thickens, 3-5 minutes.

Immediate remove from heat and whisk in lemon juice and ginger.

Serve warm with Indian pudding or gingerbread.

Makes 2 cups of sauce.

Per 1/4 cup serving: 34 calories, 0 g. fat (0 g. saturated fat), 7 g. carbohydrate, 0 g. protein, 0 g. dietary fiber, 4 mg. sodium.

The following gingerbread is as close to "old-fashioned" as a cook can get, creating a healthful dessert without sacrificing flavor or quality.

Classic Gingerbread

Canola oil spray
2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 Tbsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
6 Tbsp. canola oil
1 large egg
1/2 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat inside of a 10-inch sponge-cake type deep pan (12-cup capacity) with canola oil spray.

Sift together flour, sugar, spices, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl.

In a separate, large bowl, whisk together molasses, applesauce, oil and egg until well blended. Add dry ingredients and stir until well blended. Whisk in boiling water.

Pour batter into baking pan. Bake until cake begins to pull away from pan and tester inserted near center comes out clean, about 35 minutes.

Transfer to a baking rack and cool in pan 30 minutes. Invert cake onto a platter and cool to lukewarm warm, about 15 minutes.

Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature, with cider sauce, if desired.

Makes 10 servings.

Per serving: 134 calories, 5 g. fat (less than 1 g. saturated fat), 22 g. carbohydrate, 1 g. protein, less than 1 g. dietary fiber, 162 mg. sodium.

For more information, or to contact American Institute for Cancer Research, see their website at: www.aicr.org

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