It seems to me that there are at least two kinds of substitutions which regularly occur in the kitchen. The first one is born from spontaneity and is rather unexpected. Envision that a rising need for chocolate mousse holds you hostage at about 10:45 pm whilst comfortably lounging about in faded flannel pajamas. Laziness, urgency and the logistics of an echoing barren cupboard result in instant sharp culinary creativity that borders on brilliance and insanity. The absent requisite 6 oz. of unsweetened chocolate is the sole hurdle standing between you and a sinkhole of bliss. Only a few moments are spared to glum spirits before head strong determination and hare-brained strategy take over. Hershey’s syrup, a handful of chocolate chips, rogue M&Ms and a half eaten chocolate bar floating at the bottom of a purse all find their true nature in the cauldron of improvisation and lucky success. Happy accidents such as these are characterized by humor and élan, a definitive willingness to go with what is given.
The other substitution is the down trodden child of a mother whose name is Discipline and an equally dour father named Deprivation. Sad offspring such as these are flung onto the world in the misguided attempts to transform decadence into doable, vice for nice. This is where applesauce and prune puree are exchanged for butter, nutritional yeast for cheese and low fat yogurt stands in for sour cream. With grandiose intentions to rectify recipes with poor nutritional profiles and whip slack bodies into shape- one, two, and up to three offending items are replaced with more virtuous back ups. Of course there are times when these substitutions are heartily embraced due to strong personal convictions and no harmful side effects are endured. But woe to the home cook not fully committed to the swap and inclined like Lot’s wife to wistfully look back, for only disappointment, dejection, and arrested satisfaction sadly awaits.
Why do we tend to look at the substitute as shoddy shoe-in, second fiddle or the next best thing? In a world where contingency plans are the name of the game, where Plan A’s turn to Plan B’s, C’s, and D’s in a scant second and daily artifacts are quickly becoming obsolete; we are forced to sink or swim, flex and grow. Perhaps our reluctance to wholly embrace the substitute comes from a growing resistance to constant change marked by too many options. Couldn’t we be more relaxed and pliant after all this is the age old struggle between sleek nouveau and staunch tradition in new disguise? It seems to me that life doesn’t move in overarching straight lines but in spastic bobbles, dips and occasional glides for which the humble stopgap is right at home. To carob or not to carob, that is the question.
Carob is to chocolate what Postum is to coffee or Tofurkey is to turkey: substitution, madness or both? First, to truly appreciate carob it must be eaten in the spirit of discovery, not stingy reluctance. It is a toasted ground pod with its own virtues apart from chocolate. Ceratonia siliqua or alternately St. John’s Bread is an evergreen tree hailing from the Mediterranean region. The pods of the tree stretch from four to twelve inches, looking like green broad beans which turn dark tobacco brown as they age. The locust seeds within are used as a thickener in many foods and also as cattle feed. The surrounding pods ground into flour have been eaten since ancient times and is high in calcium, potassium, protein, and sugar. Unlike chocolate, it is low in fat and has no caffeine or theobromines which are offensive alkaloids to some people.
Carob appears to fall into that category of healthy non guilt laden foods which are decidedly inferior to their counterparts. The powder itself looks much like cocoa. When mixed with some sort of fat solid, carob deceptively looks a lot like chocolate. But beyond being brown, sweet and slightly earthy there are few remaining similarities between the two. If hasty and closed to the possibilities, carob will be written off immediately upon consumption for it so resembles the other that unconsciously one expects the same and crushing disappointment is sure to follow.
In recent explorations I made a batch of carob brownies (even the name perpetuates this confusion) recalling distantly some fondness for the stuff. Out of the oven I was seduced with how decadent and chocolate-y the brownies appeared, until I ate my first mouthful which seemed a bit heavy and cloying. I recognized that I kept expecting to taste chocolate and was met with another taste altogether. Carob is sweet and slightly honeyed flavored, which is why the two are often paired together. The taste doesn’t have the down to your toes depth that dark chocolate does, nor does it ignite the entire palate, perhaps because it is so low in fat. As said before it is earthy yet light, existing in the strata upon the soil, slightly vegetal, not within it. Homey carob is reminiscent of the mood, taste, and smell of golden graham crackers. And as I think of this it might be more suitable to use carob in recipes where its qualities can shine freely unfettered by the yoke of the incomparable incorrigible cocoa bean. After all in the end don’t we all just want to be seen clearly distinguished from another, for who we truly are? So next time when faced with the opportunity to employ a proxy, take heart and charge full steam ahead, for who knows what places the new trajectory will take you.
Hot Spiced Carob makes 4- Adapted from Whole Foods on-line recipe box.
2 C water
1 inch chunk of ginger sliced
½ cinnamon stick
3 crushed cardamom pods
4 Tblsp carob powder
2 C low fat milk
Honey to taste
Whipped cream for garnish
Directions: Bring water to a low simmer in a pot with the ginger, cinnamon and cardamom pods for about 5 minutes. Retrieve and discard spices. Add carob powder mixing thoroughly and stir in milk cooking until mixture is hot, but not boiling. Lastly add honey to desired sweetness. Pour into mugs and garnish with whipped cream.