Wed, July 24

Agave nectar is beyond tequila

Visitors were given samples of  Lemon Bars, Black Bean Brownies and Spicy Agave Cookies at V-V Days.

Visitors were given samples of  Lemon Bars, Black Bean Brownies and Spicy Agave Cookies at V-V Days.

Baking with Agave Nectar by Ania Catalano (Celestial Arts 2008) appeared on the shelves of the AZ Natural History Association store at the Red Rock Ranger District Visitors' Center.

Naturally it piqued Suzie's interest, as many cookbooks do, and she browsed the book's introduction and recipes.

Happy to find agave nectar on Weber's IGA shelves, her experiments began. Truly they were not experiments, for all the recipes in the book are tested and Ania and her husband have a well respected catering company in Milford Connecticut.

Three recipes from this book were baked and served with "wows!" to the public at V-V Heritage Site during its Agave Roast and Discovery Days April 4-18: Spicy Pumpkin Muffins, Peanut Butter Energy Bars and Black Bean Brownies (see recipe below).

Other baked goods were prepared by USFS employees, Bill Peschke and Nina Hubbard. They modified their own recipes by substituting agave nectar for maple syrup or cane sugar.

About agave

Agave aka Century Plant, maguey and mescal is a succulent of the lily family. This heat tolerant plant, able to withstand low temperatures of 25 degrees, grows abundantly in the Southwest. Some say it grows extremely well on extinct volcanoes, thusly, our area!

Often mistaken for a yucca, it is more robust with spiny thick leaves. In its "death dance", not after 100 years, but anywhere from 8-15 years, it sends forth a flowering stalk and then it dies. There are male and female agaves, the stalk of the male being thicker and taller.

Seeds lie within the pods at the terminus of each stalk. In the wild, agave are pollinated by bats. We have those in our area too! Agaves reproduce slowly through seed production.

They produce more rapidly by sending out shoots, or "pups," as many as 10-20 in a lifetime. It is the central core or piña of the agave that is prized for nectar production.

Agave is harvested when its sugar content is highest, at the end of the dry season.

Young agave or maguey, harvested at 4-6 years of age, is used in mescal. Blue agave, used for tequila, is harvested when plants are more mature.

The agave nectar found on the grocer's shelf could have become tequila, but instead, has become a natural organic sweetener available in light, amber, dark and raw varieties.

New on the shelf are flavored nectars: vanilla and caramel. With so many choices, how do you know what to buy?

Light agave nectar is best for baking and beverages. Amber has a mild caramel flavor and is good in sauces and desserts.

Dark nectar has a stronger caramel flavor and works well on pancakes, meat glazes and crème brule. How does it compare to sugar and other sweeteners?

It has a lower glycemic index (GI) than table sugar. GI = how rapidly food affects blood glucose. Agave nectar is mostly fructose and table sugar is 50 percent glucose-50 percent fructose. It has fewer calories and greater sweetening power than table sugar.

It's GI is close to honey and maple syrup, other natural sweeteners, and must be treated that way, especially by diabetics. Some scientists are claiming that fructose, used by itself, increases intra-abdominal fat. We all need to monitor the amount of fructose we ingest!

What is truly nice about agave nectar is that it is less viscous (runs more freely) than honey, even when cold. It has a three year shelf life. It does not crystallize like maple syrup and honey. It dissolves easily in mixes.

Baked products come out and remain moist. Because of its liquidity, it is suggested when adapting personal recipes that the liquids be reduced by 1/3. If replacing sugar, the amount of agave nectar should be reduced by ¼.

Lastly, browning of baked items is influenced by agave nectar and the baking temperature should be reduced by 25 degrees. The cost of agave nectar, sometimes as much as four times that of sugar, will make you consider how often and in what you want to use agave nectar.

Maybe you will just want to use it to sweeten your coffee. We think you will enjoy using it in special recipes, like the ones in Catalano's book, where not only agave nectar is used, but also where wholesome ingredients are called for.

Many thanks to our taste testers and to Stanley Stevens for his expertise in raising yucca. To Your Health and Happiness, Jeff and Suzie at The Dunnery

Black Bean Brownies

Makes 45 2-inch brownies or a whole bunch of smaller ones!

From author Ania Catalano, Baking with Agave Nectar , Celestial Arts, 2008. Book available at ANHA shop, Red Rock District Visitor Contact Center

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate

1 Cup unsalted butter or non-hydrogenated butter substitute

2 Cups soft-cooked black beans, drained well

1 Cup walnuts, chopped (use in two different steps)

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

¼ cup natural coffee substitute or instant coffee, for gluten-sensitive)

¼ teaspoon sea salt

4 large eggs

1 ½ Cups light agave nectar.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line an 11 x 18 inch baking pan with parchments paper and lightly oil with canola oil spray

Melt chocolate and butter in glass bowl in microwave for 1 ½ to 2 minutes on high. Stir with a spoon to melt the chocolate completely.

Place beans, ½ C. walnuts, vanilla, and couple spoonfuls of melted chocolate mixture in bowl of food processor. Blend 2 minutes, or until smooth. Set aside.

In large bowl, mix together remaining walnuts, remaining melted chocolate mixture, coffee and salt. Mix well and set aside.

In a separate bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the eggs until light and creamy, about 1 minutes. Add the agave nectar and beat well. (reserve ½ cup for marbling)

Add bean/chocolate mixture to the coffee/chocolate mixture. Blend well. Add the egg mixture (reserving ½ cup as mentioned before.) Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Using electric mixture, whip the reserved egg mixture until light and fluffy. Drizzle over brownie batter. Use a toothpick to pull egg mixture through batter, creating marbled effect.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until brownies are set. Let cool in pan completely before cutting into squares. They will be soft until refrigerated. These freeze beautifully.