WHIDBEY RECIPES | It’s all in your head

  • Tue Oct 28th, 2008 4:00pm
  • Life

Does your brain have a sluggish yum factor? If so, you’re in danger of not only gaining weight easily, but possibly heading toward obesity.

What, you may well ask, is a “yum factor?”

Well, according to an article I recently read in one of those “other” newspapers, there’s a region in your brain that produces dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good.

When you drink a milkshake, for example, levels of dopamine rise and you experience pleasure in the taste of the milkshake. I can only imagine the dopamine levels in my brain as I’m savoring a piece of Valhrona bittersweet chocolate.

Some of us, however, may be harboring a gene that inhibits our dopamine receptors to the extent that we don’t get as much pleasure as we should from that milkshake, or the chocolate, so we eat more to make up for not feeling as good as we think we should after we eat.

In other words, we have a sluggish yum factor, so to get more yum, we’ll just eat more, thus becoming overweight and possibly obese. Talk about a vicious cycle!

I don’t actually think I have a sluggish yum factor; in fact, I suspect mine may be overactive.

I rarely encounter a food I don’t enjoy, obviously some a lot more than others, but I usually find some yum in almost everything I put in my mouth, and seldom eat just to be eating.

What I read in that article did make a certain amount of sense, however. I’ve known people who seem unable to stop eating, who graze and snack all day long, and can still sit down three times a day and put away enough food for two or three people. And, yes, those people are all considerably overweight.

It seems that people with the variant gene have lazy dopamine centers. For them, one milkshake may not produce much dopamine, they don’t feel a lot of pleasure from the milkshake, so they may order up another, or eat a half-dozen Ho Hos along with the shake.

To make matters worse, your brain can apparently get used to having such stuff fed to it and need more and more to wake up the dopamine receptors. To put it simply, the more junk food you eat, the more you’ll crave. (Dopamine levels also play a big part in drug addiction, by the way; no surprise).

What can you do about a sluggish yum factor?

In a nutshell, you have to re-train your brain, teach it to find pleasure in something besides food. To quote a clinical psychologist who studies obesity, referred to in the article, “recreational sports or other things that give satisfaction and pleasure and produce dopamine that aren’t food…don’t get your brain used to having crappy food….” Yes, that’s the word he used.

Well, a few things come to mind immediately, but this is a family newspaper, so we won’t go into all the possibilities.

The key is to find pleasure, a lot of pleasure, in something besides food. For me, among other things, it’s tap dancing. If I had the stamina and younger knees, I’d tap-dance several hours a day, but even the hour-plus that I do tap gives me a huge hit of dopamine, almost as pleasurable as a hit of pure dark chocolate.

So, the next time you find yourself putting something in your mouth whether you feel hungry or not, or continuing to eat after your stomach says it’s full, just remember, it’s all in your head. Find something else to do that makes you feel good, even if it’s only for a short time.

The whole point is to distract your brain long enough to get past the need to eat or drink something because “it’ll make me feel better.”

And now, having typed the word “chocolate” a few times, I’d better go find my tap shoes.

RECIPES

It’s not for everyone, I know, but often I can chase away the lows and get high again (rev up my dopamine) in my kitchen, especially if I’m working on a new recipe and it turns out perfectly, or revisiting an old favorite I haven’t tasted for a long time, such as the wonderful pumpkin cheesecake below. It’s that time of year and I look forward to this dessert every October. Sure, I could make it any time, but it’s more fun to wait until October or November and look forward to it.

If this doesn’t rev up your yum factor, I don’t know what will.

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE

For the crust: ¾ cup graham cracker crumbs

½ cup finely chopped pecans

¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

4 T. (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the filling: 1½ cups solid pack pumpkin

3 large eggs

1½ t. cinnamon

½ t. freshly grated nutmeg

½ t. ground ginger

½ t. salt

½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

24 oz. cream cheese, cut into small pieces and softened

½ cup sugar

2 T. heavy cream

1 T. cornstarch

1 t. vanilla

1 T. scotch liqueur (such as Loch n Ora, if you’re lucky enough to find it) or brandy

For the topping: 2 cups sour cream

2 T. sugar

1 T. scotch liqueur or brandy

Pecan halves, for garnish

Combine the cracker crumbs, pecans, both sugars. Stir in the butter. Press mixture into the bottom and ½-inch up the side of a buttered 9-inch springform pan. Chill crust for 1 hr.

In a bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, eggs, spices, salt and brown sugar. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese and granulated sugar. Beat in the cream, cornstarch, vanilla and liqueur or brandy. Add the pumpkin mixture and beat until filling is smooth.

Pour the filling into the crust. To prevent cracking as the cheesecake cools, wrap the bottom and sides of the springform pan with a double layer of aluminum foil and place the springform pan into a larger baking pan and place in the middle of a preheated 350-degree oven. Fill the baking pan with boiling water to come ½-inch up the side of the springform pan. Bake the cheesecake for 50 to 55 min., or until the center is just set. Remove baking pan with cheesecake and set cheesecake on a rack to cool for 5 min.

In a bowl, whisk together the sour cream, sugar and liqueur or brandy. Gently spread this mixture over the top of the cheesecake and return it to the oven; bake the cheesecake 5 more min.

Let cheesecake cool in the springform pan on a rack, then cover and chill overnight. Run a sharp knife around the side of the pan, then remove side. Garnish the cheesecake with pecan halves placed around the outside top edge.

Since we’re on the subject of pumpkin, these bars have almost the same yum factor power the cheesecake above has, and you could tell yourself you’ll only eat one.

Note: These should not be kept, even refrigerated, more than about 48 hours. Hand some out for Halloween treats, perhaps.

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE BARS

For the crust: 4 cups chocolate wafer cookies

2 T. sugar

6 T. butter, melted

For the filling: 1 pkg. (12 oz.) white chocolate chips

½ cup whipping cream

1 pkg. (8 oz.) each of cream cheese and light cream cheese, at room temp.

¼ cup sugar

1 ¼ cups canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)

2 t. vanilla

1 t. nutmeg

4 eggs

For the topping: 1 cup white chocolate chips

¼ cup whipping cream

1 T. brandy, or 1 t. vanilla

Spray a 9×13 baking pan liberally with cooking spray; set aside. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Process half the chocolate wafers with 1 T. sugar in a food processor to fine crumbs. Pour into a bowl and repeat with remaining wafers and sugar. Rinse out the processor and set aside; you’ll need it again in a minute. Stir the melted butter into the crumbs with a fork then press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan and set aside.

Put the chocolate chips into the top of a double boiler; place over hot water and stir until chips are melted. Remove from heat and slowly stir in the cream; the mixture will separate but will smooth out with stirring. Set aside.

Combine the two cream cheeses with the sugar in the food processor and process until smooth. Add pumpkin, vanilla and nutmeg, processing to blend. Add eggs and then the melted chocolate, processing until the filling is smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake on center rack of the oven for 30 min. Turn off the oven and let the cheesecake bars sit an additional 30 min. Remove from oven.

Melt the white chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler; stir in the cream and then the brandy or vanilla. Pour over the warm pumpkin bars, spreading evenly with a spatula. Allow to cool completely, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Note that bars should be kept refrigerated until they are eaten. Makes 48 bars.

Margaret Walton can be reached at falwalcal@msn.com.