The dateless, blood-sugar friendly sweet treat for those with grown up tastes in chocolate
I love the idea of bliss balls. Sadly, they’re invariably sweetened with a truckload of dates. Now, if you regularly consume refined sugar (i.e. sucrose), then moving to naturally sweetened foods is a serious upgrade. Unlike the taxed stuff, fruit sugars come bound up with guthealthy fibre, vitamins and minerals.
But if you’re already refined sugar-free most of the time and still don’t feel your best, perhaps it’s time to look at the amount of natural sugars in your diet. Because, albeit natural, they still impact your blood sugar. Especially if you’ve blitzed them down to a purée, as you do with bliss balls (and smoothies – banana-containing smoothie alert!).
Think here of the blender as an electrical stomach, breaking down a fruit’s tough outer skin and fibrous cellular walls on the interior to liberate the sugars within. In the case of dates, that’s a LOT of sugar: nearly 70g per 100g, 90% of their energy content. Once that sugar paste hits your actual stomach, it’s broken down into glucose and entered your bloodstream in no time at all.
In contrast, if you were to eat a couple of dates whole, it would take your body a while to break down the fibre and get at the sugars. Secondly, you probably wouldn’t consume the number of these dark beauties that a Bliss Ball recipe calls for! Dates are so toe-curlingly sweet, you’d likely feel like you’d had enough at just one or two.
But why am I making such a meal out of all this? Well, speed-dumping sugars into your bloodstream sets up a chain reaction of events within the body that not only makes you feel ick, but puts you at risk of a long list of conditions, e.g. overweight and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s.
First, blood glucose levels rise rapidly, triggering insulin release. Insulin is a hormone that tells the body to package away circulating blood glucose for later use, in the form of glycogen, the body’s way of storing carbohydrate. Glucose is ushered out of the bloodstream, converted into glycogen in the liver, and stored in the liver and skeletal muscles.
The higher your blood sugars, the more insulin is released and the more glucose is packed away. Blood glucose levels crash and before you can start unpacking glycogen, energy supply dips, you feel tired and lacklustre, brain foggy, irritable, maybe a touch headachy. You know the expression, ‘hangry’? That’s how low blood sugar feels! Next thing, you’re snapping at your colleagues/friends/family and reaching for the quick fixes: more high-sugar or starchy foods, which only perpetuate the cycle; caffeine; unhealthy snacks; quick, processed meals.
Instead of those draining highs and lows – first in blood sugar, then in energy levels, brain power and mood – you want a nice, slow and steady, drip, drip of glucose into the bloodstream. Stable and consistent blood sugar levels translate to a stable and consistent energy supply, keeping you perky, positive and at the peak of your powers for several hours after eating.
To achieve that ideal, you need to avoid blood sugar spikes. Here are my four golden rules:
1. Ditch nutrient-poor, fast-release carbs: refined sugars and refined carbs (starchy white foods such as white bread, pasta and rice)
2. Stick to complex carbs from natural wholefoods that come with ample built-in fibre
3. Always eat carbs alongside yet more fibre, plus healthy fats and proteins, all three of which slow digestion and therefore the release of sugars into the bloodstream
4. Don’t eat naturally sweet foods to excess. Enjoy them every now and then in small amounts.
A half-pound of puréed dates in your bliss balls is not going to deliver the desired, drip-drip effect!
This recipe therefore ditches the dates and works instead with the natural sweetness of the roasted nuts and cacao butter, adding just a teeny bit of maple syrup (a mere 2 teaspoons) to offset the bitterness of the cocoa. Salt further enhances the sweetness and adds a pleasant contrast, like you get with salted caramel.
The result is intensely hazelnutty and deeply, darkly, chocolatey. In an entirely grown up manner. A ‘bliss ball’ to savour.
Top tip: if you have a sweet tooth and don’t feel quite ready for this recipe, try swapping out the dates in bliss balls for prunes, lower in sugar than dates. Or lob one or two prunes into the blender when making these.
Ingredients (makes 15)
200g blanched hazelnuts, whole
25g raw organic cacao butter (I use Choc Chicks)
20g/3 tablespoons organic cocoa powder (you could use cacao but it does taste more bitter; I favour the sweeter, roasty notes of cocoa here)
10g/2 teaspoons organic maple syrup
1/8th to a scant ¼ teaspoon finely ground Himalayan pink salt (see note below on quantity)
Preheat the oven to 160C. Place the blanched hazelnuts on a baking tray and roast until golden and sweet-smelling, 10-12 minutes. Set a timer, check at 10 minutes, and every minute thereafter. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
Note that you can use unblanched hazels, but removing the bitter-tasting skins is a tremendous faff. The nuts must be cooled completely, then you rub them, either in your hands or a tea towel, until the papery skins flake away. Life is too short!
Next, melt the cacao butter. If I have my dehydrator going, I’ll pop the pistoules in a small bowl and sit that inside on the base. Otherwise, heat in a small pan on the stove. Use a low-medium heat, stirring, and remove when about three-quarters melted. Continue to stir; the residual heat will melt the remainder.
Set aside 50g of the roasted nuts. Place the remaining 150g into a small blender or wet grinder – whatever blender you've got that's small enough for the task. If the blender bowl is too big, the nuts won't grind down to a paste, hence the need for a small appliance. Blitz to as smooth a paste as you can get.
Add the melted and slightly cooled cacao butter, cocoa powder, maple syrup and salt. If you want a discernibly salty flavour (as you’d have in salted caramel for example), add a scant ¼ teaspoon. If you simply want to bring out the sweetness of the nuts, add an 1/8th teaspoon. I think the larger amount works beautifully here; no one has disagreed with me thus far!
Blitz the ingredients to combine. Check the flavour and adjust as necessary. If you’ve used the 1/8th teaspoon salt, you may want to up it slightly. If you’re used to eating a lot of sweet foods, even naturally sweet ones, you may wish to add another teaspoon of maple. But it’s worth trying not to – it really doesn’t take long for your taste buds to adjust!
Set aside until the mixture is firm enough to make balls. You’re effectively waiting for the cacao butter to set up a little, although not completely as the mixture will become too hard. A quarter of an hour or so in the fridge/1-2 hours at room temperature is usually sufficient.
Using a spoon, scoop the mixture out into 15 equally-sized portions. I like to scale them so that they’re nice and even (weigh into 14g pieces). A more rustic approach is fine. Note that the mixture will be quite firm and each spoonful is likely to flake into several bits. Don’t be phased; simply give each portion a good squeeze in your hand to form a single clump. When you come to roll, the warmth of your hands will be enough to soften them into lovely, smooth shapes.
Blitz the remaining 50g of roasted hazels until coarsely ground – think of shop-bought ground almonds, only a little rougher. Be careful not to blend too far or you’ll end up with hazelnut butter! Transfer the ground nuts to a small breakfast bowl.
Working with one piece of mixture at a time, roll into a nice round, immediately place in the bowl of ground hazels, then give the bowl a good shake to coat the ball evenly. Go in with a spoon or your hands as needed. Give the bowl another shake to remove any excess ground nuts, lift out the ball and set aside. Repeat until all the balls are coated.
Why roll and cover each ball one at a time? The heat from your hands will warm the ball enough for the nuts to adhere. If you roll lots at once, the first ones won’t be sticky enough to take a good coating.
Store in an airtight container. Will keep for several days at room temperature. Refrigerate if you’d like to keep longer, although they’re unlikely to last that long!
Eat at room temperature for optimal flavour and texture. Chilling foods not only reduces flavour perception, in this case it will turn the cacao butter to rock! So, if you must refrigerate, do allow the balls to come up to room temperature before you eat them.
If you’re short of time, pour the mixture into a small tin, lined with baking parchment. Allow to cool, remove and cut into squares.
Lovely as a snack or dessert, decadent enough to serve as after-dinner petit fours, yet healthy enough for breakfast. You really can enjoy these any time of day!
#healthyindulgences #healthyhedonism #guiltlesspleasure