Playdough Showdown: Fake vs. Natural but Unimpressive

Mr. Belligerently Artificial vs. Mr. Give-Me-Four-More

Sigh. Sometimes the right candidate doesn’t make such a strong showing. On occasion, the better politician is all downwards-looking, weak and vague, and even seems slightly embarrassed about his own record.

Sometimes such a candidate disappointingly lets every single opportunity for a zinger go by, and spends almost an entire debate talking about the flaws in his opponents’ phantasmagorical policy proposals rather than focusing on stonewalling he’s faced from his opponents’ partisans, or on, say, math.

And sometimes the artificial — even the utterly invented and commercially suspect — triumphs, in a brilliant show of plumage, like a peacock made only of lights and sound.

Such was the depressing outcome of my playdough showdown yesterday, pitting food dyes against natural colors for home-made playdough in a twisted mom’s homage to both the Presidential match-up and the playdough-like consistency of our national political debates.

When tasked several weeks ago by Maya’s preschool to make up a batch of brilliantly colored blue playdough for a color study, my research showed that blue in natural coloring is typically achieved by boiling red cabbage. Furthermore, it seems, sometimes this particular playdough retains a strong cabbage-y odor, or, in Thrifty Mama’s words, “really stinks” and is “tacky” in texture.

I will note that there is no odor on the blue dough from my wonderful Eco-Dough, which I gather also uses red cabbage, but they likely have fancy ways of extracting dyes that I do not.

Having no desire to stanky up the preschool, I violated my principles and ordered the most assertively blue food-dye I could find, which worked like a charm. If you’re gonna’ go fake, go big. It was blue, all right, and not at all smelly.

Since the kids are unlikely to eat the dough, I really didn’t feel that it posed much of a risk. (There is a lot of evidence generally that food dyes are terrible to actually consume, though they are fed to kids like, well, candy.)

Still, when a follow-up was given to me to tackle orange playdough, I couldn’t help but wonder about the natural alternatives to the small bottle of “peach” dye that came as part of the set. So I set up a head-to-head — an oh-so-titillating contest (I don’t get out much) between the dye and the power of paprika, which was recommended on several blogs for producing orange.

It looked good at first, with the bright orange paprika promising to school the buttoned-up bottle.

I used this basic recipe both times, which works really well. There are no-cook options, but the preschool teacher mentioned that the cooked ones have much more staying power.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, but suspect any oil would do)
  • natural or (gasp) artificial food coloring

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large pot (bigger the better) and stir over medium heat until it starts to clump around the spoon.

Add dye or coloring and stir a little more. You can — and even perhaps should by all rights — take it off the stove for a minute to let your assistant take a turn.

After a minute or two, remove from heat and scrape onto a cutting board. When cool enough, knead firmly until the color and consistency are uniform. Shoo kids away until you are done playing.

###As you can see, the paprika on the left, which was the good stuff from Bulgaria courtesy of my folks, produced a very disappointing light orange-ish hue, like pumpkin flavored pasta. On the other hand, the food dye, corrected with a squirt of the yellow that came in the same box, morphed into a convincing, if not bright, orange.

Ah well. We can’t win them all. And my little contest was, well, slightly less important than that other one.

It’s possible that I should have considered a third party for the platform — perhaps carrot juice works better? I suppose if you are using this at home, slightly orange-y might be fine next to other colors dyed with more assertive beets, berries and the like. (There are great ideas on this from one of my favorite crafty green bloggers here.)

In the end, I mushed it all together and bagged it up as orange enough. Punching the dough into a pliable mass was satisfying in between muttering at the television.

Still, it’s frustrating when the one you know to be best for the country stumbles a bit, and lets the insubstantial, chemical-laden candidate win the day.

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Purple Pancakes! Or Johnny Cakes, If You Prefer

We’re kinda, sorta’ gluten minimalists around my house these days. It just seems like wheat (or the kind of wheat we all mostly eat) is getting a much-deserved hard look, and the picture isn’t pretty.

Cutting out wheat (mainly) also happens to rid us of some, though not all, of the empty, low-value calories in our diet, so that works nicely. In addition to ordering some Einkorn wheat flour (which is a varietal of wheat most folks ate before the new, easier to grow and less healthy, kind became the norm), I’ve been experimenting with alternatives.

I won’t burden you with the details of our experiment gone awry in attempting tempura with chickpea batter, which just has to work, but didn’t despite the implied promise of our favorite late-night Japanese cooking show…

More successful were these wonderfully vibrant sprouted blue corn pancakes, loosely resembling southern Johnny Cakes, and based on this simple pancake recipe. They fluffed up for a breakfast worthy of royalty, in shades almost too purple to eat. We doused them in maple syrup, and then nibbled the leftovers as snacks all day long.

One more thing: most pancakes, at least for me, leave me feeling both overstuffed and under-nourished by the fluff factor. In contrast, these were really filling and provided lots of good energy for the morning.

If your kids are older, these definitely beg for funny Grover or Cookie Monster faces on top, using bananas, blueberries, strawberries or grapes. Blueberries are great inside as well, for maximum purple effect.

For grown-ups, they’d also be nice blini-sized, with creme fraiche, greek yogurt or goat cheese smeared on them (though you’d want to thin the batter out a bit).

I also tried making polenta with this unique sprouted flour, using my stand-by recipe. It took longer to set up, but was delicious that way as well (next time I’d skip the rosemary, as it crowded the flavors a bit). It was worth all the stirring just to have this bubbling, belching purple cauldron on the stove.

This flour also makes awesome speckled purple playdough, per this recipe. I substituted the purple flour for 1/4 of the flour called for in the recipe, and it was still very Tyrian:

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose blue corn flour (I used Flour of Life Raw Sprouted Purple Corn Flour)
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar (optional: you could reduce, eliminate or sub in a natural alternative)
  • 1 1/4 cups (organic, grassfed) milk
  • 1 (organic, pasture-raised) egg
  • 3 tablespoons (organic, grassfed) butter, melted

Directions:

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and add the eggs, melted butter and milk.

This is the fun part, as you watch it turn purple. Really purple. Adjust the consistency with more flour as needed.

Like Julia Child, we’re not afraid of butter ’round here. Melt it up and ladle them in. (These were, notably, too large, but also like Julia, we just went with it.)

Just like regular old brown pancakes, these do bubble. But they brown quickly as well, so check the edges and flip when those have firmed up a bit instead of waiting for bubbles throughout the middle.

Douse in maple syrup (optional: decorate with silly faces), and serve!