I’ve always had a thing for pastries. When I left for college, I didn’t care about taking a new computer; I wanted a new KitchenAid stand mixer instead. When my parents said no, I still stocked a little Rubbermaid drawer beneath my dorm bed with all the ingredients I’d need to make oatmeal cookies on a whim.
The infatuation with pastry only intensified during the years that I raced as a professional endurance athlete. I was spending 25 hours or more per week training for Ironman races and ultramarathons, and many of those hours were spent dreaming of cookies the size of my face. Muffins with slathers of peanut butter on top. Giant slices of chocolate cake. You get me, right?
In the end, this undeniable hunger for all things sweet was the reason I went to culinary school and eventually became a pastry chef. In the hours between my swim/bike/run training, I was in the kitchen, manipulating recipes for the treats I was craving, trying to make them “healthier” to fit into my diet of “what an endurance athlete should eat”. I tried swapping out the sugar for maple syrup, honey, rice syrup, or agave, thinking I was doing my body a favor. I dabbled in the gluten-free, the low-fat, the high-protein pastries—never knowing how important it was to leave in whatever ingredients I was deliberately trying to leave out.
Culinary school taught me the scientific understanding I needed to be a professional baker, but my experience as an athlete (and as an eater) has helped me understand that sugar is a vital energy source, which explains why we crave it. It’s when we don’t practice the rule of “everything in moderation” that sugar cravings sabotage our sport. Finding my own “sweet spot”—that place where I know why I’m craving what I’m craving, and how to sate that hunger in a nutritious, delicious way—has been the most important lesson I’ve learned as an athlete-chef. I never crave a packaged energy bar, but I do crave a big old cookie. It’s either because I feel I need to treat myself for a job well done, or because straight-up sugar is what my body needs to continue to push, improve and perform.
So, how do you find your “sweet spot”, the place where you’re fueling your body with the nutrients it needs, and making smart choices with how to get those nutrients?
My suggestion is first to use real, whole foods as a starting point, then play with recipes and ingredients. Find what sates your hunger and makes your whole being feel cared for. These days, when I manipulate a classic recipe, I’m typically adding in delicious stuff, instead of trying to leave things out. I choose flours, grains and specifically sweeteners based on how delicious they’ll make my food first, and for their nutritional properties second.
The recipe you’ll find below, for example, is one of my all-time favorite quick treats to make. I love to eat these date bars for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt and fresh berries or sliced pears on top before a big ride or run. The bars also pack well in jersey pockets and backpacks if you’re headed out to play.
You’ll notice that the recipe calls for honey instead of granulated sugar, which I chose because it gives the bars moisture, which makes them easy to digest on a long bike ride. I also use several gluten-free flours that pack some fat and protein, and lots of flavor. You can make these date bars completely gluten free if you use gluten-free oats. Lastly, if you aren’t a fan of dates, you can substitute them for figs or apricots. The same is true for the almond butter that helps bind the bars. Don’t like almonds? Try cashew butter, pecan butter or even peanut butter instead.
Date Bars for Breakfast
1 1/2 cups medjool dates
2 cups hot water (for soaking the dates)
1/4 cup honey
Juice and zest of one lemon, divided in half
1 1/2 cups oat flour
1 cup almond flour
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk (or the milk of your choice)
1/3 cup creamy almond butter
1/2 cup rolled oats, divided in half
4 Tbsp raw cane sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 Tbsp almond extract (or vanilla)
Combine the dates and hot water in a medium-sized bowl for 15-30 minutes. The more plump the dates, the less time you’ll need to soak them; you want them to be nice and juicy!
While the dates are soaking, preheat the oven to 400. In a mixing bowl, combine the oat, brown rice and almond flours along with the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix to combine with a wooden spoon, or with your fingers. Fingers might work best! Set aside. Add the remaining lemon juice and zest, almond milk, almond butter, half the oats, coconut sugar and vanilla and stir everything together to combine well.
When the dates are done soaking, drain them completely, reserving the soaking liquid on the side. With an immersion blender or in a food processor, blend the soaked and drained dates with the honey and half the lemon juice. If your paste needs more liquid, add the soaking liquid 1 Tbsp. at a time. You want this date paste to be thick, almost like date jam, so use the liquid sparingly. You can make the date puree up to three days in advance if you store it in an airtight container in the fridge.
Line an 8 in. x 8 in. baking pan with parchment paper extending up the sides. Crumble half the dough into the bottom of the pan and press it down with clean fingers. Spread the date puree on top in an even, thick layer. Crumble and scatter the remaining dough on top of the date puree and press it down gently with a spatula so it sticks together, being careful not to disrupt the date layer. Sprinkle the remaining oats on top and sprinkle with desired amount of raw cane sugar to finish.
Bake on the middle rack for 25 minutes, then remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Using the parchment paper as a sling, remove the bars and gently cut into bars with a sharp knife. I found mine to be quite soft when they were just cool, so I allowed them to set up in the fridge for an hour or so before cutting. The freezer would work as well!
Cover and keep stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.