As Halloween descends upon us and the holiday months of rich comfort foods, desserts and drinks approach, I have mixed emotions about my 31 days of zero processed foods -0 otherwise known as October: Unprocessed — coming to an end. Aside from getting to play dress-up and enjoying a night of ghoulish hedonism, I look forward to Halloween for the same reason most children do: Candy! Chocolate candy, to be exact. I’ve never quite understood the concept of candy without chocolate, and though I prefer more “adult” chocolates now, the lure of those fun-size Milky Ways, Twix, and M&Ms is beyond irresistible to me. I always end up buying a couple bags of these during the Halloween season, with the sole intent of treating myself.
But as this is still Unprocessed month, I had to look into making some changes in my Halloween candy repertoire. After all, I’d done so well up until this point — why stop now? In fact, why stop at all? I feel lighter in a way, cleansed and definitely more in charge of what I eat since I took this challenge. Though I’ve always been a big label-reader and generally eat a rather unprocessed diet because I focus more on whole ingredients than pre-packaged, prepared meals, this month of zero processed foods forced me to do double- and triple-takes when I would buy certain ingredients. Not everything Poor Girl buys is completely innocent and free of evil things like additives, preservatives, and even scarier things like high fructose corn syrup (though I’m happy my favorite bottled Italian dressing finally stopped using it), so there was definitely some work involved. Still, as my third-favorite holiday approached, I couldn’t help but wonder what the heck I could possibly enjoy on a day that pretty much revolves around sugar.
I had considered making some homemade chocolate truffles to satisfy my need for it and show that it’s possible to make such fabulous confections in one’s own home without spending too much & completely ruining one’s health. But when I started looking at the chocolate I could actually afford during this very paltry time, I saw that I could not stay true to the unprocessed nature of this challenge. Sadly, the food industry enjoys making it more expensive to enjoy quality foods free of all the damaging extras it seems to find so necessary, while charging the least amount possible for the most processed, synthetic, faux foods imaginable. Yes, there is quality chocolate out there: Theo Chocolate in Seattle (our hosts for the International Food Blogger Conference this summer) creates some of the most incredible tasting chocolate that is organic, free of extra additives, while practicing sustainability and adhering strongly to their free-trade principles. Only problem is, it’s a little too spendy for me to enjoy regularly, especially right now that I’m unemployed. As it was the only chocolate I would even consider for my truffles and I was determined to stick to my unprocessed thinking ’til the very end, I scratched that off the Halloween candy list.
I decided, instead, to look at what other cultures consider “candy.” Though most of it does revolve around sugar , there are other variations around the world that include salty/spicy/sour confections in Mexico and Central America and things like Balkan halva, which is made of tahini and pistachios; there is a lot of variety out there. But my research and my recent foray into the world of the power-grain, amaranth, kept me coming back to very simple, yet fabulous candy from Mexico that has been enjoyed for ages: Alegrias.
Alegria means “joy” in Spanish, and once I made these I completely understood why the candy had been given such a moniker. Made from just two basic ingredients — popped amaranth and raw cane sugar syrup — this little protein-packed candy doesn’t just make you happy eating it; it’s also ridiculously fun to make! When cooked at very high heat, the tiny amaranth grains pop just like popcorn, and the way they dance and jump around in the process is so delightful you can’t help but smile. It’s just so cute to watch! Then you mix it with the purest form of sugar this side of the actual sugar cane and you wind up with a sinfully sweet version of a Rice Krispie treat.
There are different variations that include dried fruits and nuts, and some folks use maple syrup instead of the raw cane sugar (known as piloncillo in Mexico and panela in South American countries). These inspired to create my own alternative version using honey and almonds in addition to making the traditional kind, and they were both fantastic. The best part? It’s a completely healthy, Poor Girl-friendly snack to make. Amaranth can be found in bulk sections of some grocery stores or ethnic markets for just about $2/lb. Since it practically doubles in volume once it’s popped and the raw cane sugar or honey are also relatively inexpensive, a little goes a very long way in creating these sweet, crispy, chewy treats.
It can never replace chocolate in my world, but making — and enjoying — alegrias helped me discover that there are some decent, unprocessed alternatives to satisfy my sweet tooth. And that’s definitely something to be joyful about!
- ½ cup Amaranth
- 1 cup Honey
- ½ cup Chopped Almonds
- Heat a large, deep skillet or wok over high heat until extremely hot.
- Carefully add about 1 teaspoon of amaranth grains, cover the pot, and allow them to pop while shaking side-to-side constantly. If they don't start popping within about 5-10 seconds, the pan isn't hot enough. As soon as the popping slows, quickly and carefully pour into a large bowl. The goal is to get as many to pop as possible, but not to let them burn - if there are some unpopped ones, that's okay. Repeat the process, 1 teaspoon at a time, until all the amaranth is popped.
- Mix the chopped almonds to the bowl of amaranth and set aside.
- In a small saucepan, heat the honey over medium-low heat until it's slightly thinner than pancake syrup. Remove from heat and immediately pour into the amaranth/almond mixture. Stir until completely combined.
- Press the mixture into a pre-greased baking pan or cookie sheet and allow to cool for at least 15-20 minutes before cutting into small rectangles. Wrap those you will not eat immediately in plastic wrap or wax paper, and store in an airtight container.