The Paleo Puzzle

chocolate2OK, so here’s the thing about life with a mysterious autoimmune disorder. There’s not exactly a user’s guide that explains to people how I’m feeling and how they can help me get by. Also, since I look fine to the untrained eye, it’s easy for even those close to me to forget that I have limitations. But I can’t exactly expect others to get it: I barely do. My diagnosis of Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease is about as meaningful as the term “unidentified flying object.” Nobody knows what it is or how to react. And so it is with my body. Nobody quite knows what’s causing all of my symptoms, although there’s an agreement that immune dysfunction seems to be at the heart of it (a hunch that was proven through empirical evidence). So there’s no clear treatment plan. Usually, my doctors give me a pat on the leg and leave with words of wisdom that amount to little more than, “good luck with that!”

What’s a girl to do? Well, this girl has tried to take matters into her own hands. I’m my own healthcare coordinator and subject matter expert. I have successfully diagnosed just about every flare-up I have and I treated it on my own when members of my medical team were unavailable (or not as knowledgeable as me about my particular needs). I have also tried some less traditional methods. I consumed fish oils (only the Nordic Naturals brand doesn’t cause a most wonderful fishy regurgitation). I have taken herbal anti-inflammatories. I went gluten and dairy free (and did experience at least some relief of my persistent skin rashes). I was a vegan (I had less benefits with that diet and in fact, it aggravated by tendency for anemia). For pain relief, I have tried massage, chiropractic care, physical therapy, osteopathic manipulation, OTC anti-inflammatories, ice packs, heat packs, Ben Gay or any of its relatives. The list goes on.

Recently, I gave up on any of these remedies and my body went haywire. A couple of people asked if I had ever gone gluten free, or sugar free, or dairy free, or grain free. Wait… grain free?? You mean, I can’t even have rice of quinoa? OK, well that I haven’t done. And so, at the behest of several naturopaths I trust, and after doing research and reading testimonials of folks who claim to benefit from the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol, I decided to give it a go.

I had mixed feelings about this. First, I’m not one to jump on a trendy diet just because all of the other kids are doing it. But in this case I thought it might just be the trick to turning down the volume on my inflammatory process. And I thought maybe I’d drop those extra few pounds while I’m at it. I convinced my boyfriend to try this with me and began my hunt on Pinterest for ideas.

Let me tell you the truth about this Paleo diet. It’s hard. Despite what the pictures and stories may lead you to believe, it’s not so easy to follow this diet. I’m always hungry. I never know what on Earth I can eat. And, well, because I’m in pain the idea of spending countless hours in my kitchen cooking up roasted vegetable soups isn’t exactly appealing to me. (Now I remember why cereal has always been one of my favorite go-to food items.) Also, this diet is damn expensive. I’m already tapped out with the medical bills. And now I’m supposed to buy coconut oil, coconut butter, coconut sugar, maple syrup and about three dozen organic eggs per week? I recently spent about eighty dollars and two hours making my own chocolate chips. And after all that time and effort, I got maybe a handful of truffles that were just kind of, meh.

I suppose I could just eat more vegetables and fruits and not bother trying to make myself a cookie, in which case I wouldn’t need all of those coconut products. It’s just that I sometimes need something I can just grab on the run. There are only so many hard boiled eggs I can eat for breakfast. One of these days I would like a muffin. Also, I’m one of those girls who needs dessert. I just do. I’m not ashamed to admit it. So I’ve been scouring the web looking for some dessert type item that I can quickly and easily make without stepping outside of this Paleo paradigm. My first mistake was an attempt to make a chocolate cake using chickpeas as the base. The recipe called for a cup and a half of chocolate chips. That sounds easy enough, right? Not so for a Paleo. I cannot find any chocolate chips that are made with maple syrup or coconut sugar. Even the most “natural” of chips still use cane juice, which is still refined sugar. OK, so what should I do if I want to make brownies? Well, I decided to make my own chocolate chips using these gourmet ingredients that are on my approved food list. One recipe I found recommended starting with melted cacao powder and coconut oil, and then adding maple syrup and vanilla. I decided to give that a whirl. But another recipe I found suggested pouring the melted chocolate into a pastry bag to manufacture perfect chips. I thought I would blend the best of both worlds and create edible magic. I was seriously misguided.

First of all, I didn’t have a pastry bag handy. (I’m willing to bet it’s in the basement with all of my boyfriend’s miscellaneous items that he claims he’ll need someday.) But my dreams were not thwarted: The recipe suggested that a ketchup bottle might do the trick. “Hmmmn,” I wondered to myself. “What do I have that can work?” I rummaged through the fridge and produced a nearly empty bottle of peanut sauce, something I would no longer be able to consume on this new diet of mine. (I try very hard not to think about Pad Thai on a daily basis.) I proceeded to clean out that bottle and when I was satisfied with my work, I used it as my chocolate receptacle. I had my boyfriend place parchment paper on a cookie sheet while I poured the glorious melted chocolate concoction into the squeeze bottle. Not bad for my first Paleo attempt, I thought. I happily started to squeeze out perfectly round chocolate chips onto the cookie sheet. But my proud moment came to a screeching halt as the chocolate hardened up and I couldn’t get it out of the bottle. First, my boyfriend suggested putting the bottle in hot water to loosen up the chocolate particles inside. I did that while putting the first handful of chips I managed to salvage into the freezer to set. Unfortunately, the hot water method didn’t quite work. In a panic, and not wanting to lose about $40 worth of gourmet ingredients, I put the bottle in the microwave. That was also a mistake, as there was apparently some foil still stuck on the lid of the bottle. My boyfriend raced to shut down the microwave at the site of sparks flying, and then we tried to come up with a plan C. I thought the microwave might still be my best option, but I would have to meticulously remove all of the foil. So my boyfriend and I went at the lid with a butter knife to remove any elements that were not microwave safe, and back into the microwave the bottle went. And that was yet another mistake. This time, there weren’t any sparks, but the bottle melted. It was no longer usable. I actually tried to attack it with a pair of kitchen scissors before accepting defeat and tossing the bottle, along with the glorious chocolate remnants, in the trash.

I lost the battle but not the war. I decided that maybe instead of trying the squeeze bottle method, I just needed to pour the chocolate on the cookie sheet, let it freeze and then break it up into chips once it was set. Sure, it would have been better if the chips looked pretty but since I was only creating chips so I could convert some recipes, appearance wasn’t important. I just needed to produce a cup of chips to make these Paleo pumpkin brownies I have been dreaming about.

The next time I was at the grocery store I picked up several bars of the unsweetened baker’s chocolate. I decided that melting these chocolate bars would be far better for my wallet than that organic cacao powder I had tried to use previously.

Once feeling satisfied that I had what I needed, I returned to my home kitchen for my second battle with Paleo chocolate. This time, I followed a different recipe that called for coconut oil and coconut butter. At first, the chocolate was melting beautifully. I then added in the second bar. I didn’t have coconut butter (big surprise, they don’t carry that at many of the grocery stores in Pennsylvania), but I did have leftover coconut yogurt. I figured I would give that a shot. Oh my, bad idea. Before my eyes my chocolate concoction turned into fudge, and then mud. I tried to salvage it by adding another twenty dollars worth of coconut oil and vanilla, but ultimately it was clear there was no saving this chocolate either. Half of the mud went into the blender with the chickpeas and eggs (doesn’t that sound just delicious?). I asked my boyfriend (who was by then, I’m sure, wondering how he had ended up with a woman who would defile chocolate in such a manner) to blend up the chickpea thing and then pour it all into a cake pan. Meanwhile, I grabbed a rubber spatula and spread the other half of my fudgy mud onto a cookie sheet. We baked up the chickpea cake thing, and found it to be surprisingly edible. But you know, for 100 bucks I’d really like the thing to be more than edible. (One week later half of that cake thing is still sitting in my fridge. It will likely end up in the same location as my melted chocolate bottle disaster.) The next day we took the remaining chocolate out of the freezer, put some wax paper over it and then starting hitting it with a chisel. I now have that cup of “chips “I have been waiting for, but I’m a little gun-shy at this point. Maybe I’ll put them to good use next week. For now, I just made some almond butter cookies using this recipe. I don’t have flax but since I’m not a vegan I went ahead and used an egg. Unfortunately, this meant that my “cookie” batter was a bit liquidy and not easy to roll into a ball. I made drop cookies instead. They weren’t pretty but they still tasted delicious. I devoured two of these cookies before realizing that the recipe is not 100% Paleo because it called for baking powder. And most commercially available baking powder products, including the one I used, have corn starch. Oh well, Hain Foods makes a baking powder with potato starch instead, so I guess that’s a bit closer. Of course, true Paleo followers won’t use that either because potato is a nightshade vegetable. This Paleo will. Or, ugh, I suppose I could make my own. This recipe looks easy enough. Well, I’ll see you later. I have some shopping to do.

If you’re trying this diet too, um, good luck with that! (But, could you maybe share some tips?) #desperatefordessert

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