When I opened the padded envelope and pulled out a visor inviting me for a jog around the park and breakfast at my fit friend Phyllis' house in celebration of her 50th birthday, I was skeptical. Although I walk several times a week, speed is not my strong point. But my worries were needless. While the marathon runners --ed past like gusts of wind, the social strutters kept a chatting pace. When we arrived at Phyllis', she gave us T-shirts with "Fit and Fifty" imprinted on them. (But they could also say something like "Thirtysomething," "Sporty at Forty," "Sexy at Sixty," etc.)
Since this memorable party took place nearly 10 years ago, the buffet was laden with omelets, cottage cheese, assorted breads and coffeecakes -- the health food of the '80s. With an updated, lower-fat menu, this theme is ideal for today's on-the-run, exercise-conscious society. It's extremely casual, incorporates the workout into the party -- cycling, tennis, racquetball or whatever --and the food is so simple to prepare that even insecure cooks can get it on the table without breaking a sweat.
The morning of the party, even the host will have time to join the workout, because everything on the menu can be made ahead. Begin with a "yogurt bar" -- an area set up with yogurt-granola parfaits assembled in either individual goblets or a large glass bowl, a selection of plain and fruit-flavored yogurts and a variety of fresh fruits that have been cut up a day ahead and layered with paper towels.
Then offer a selection of cereals -- homemade granola supplemented with store-bought varieties -- with low-fat or non-fat milk. Multi-crunch maple granola is far more crackly, crunchy and intensely flavored than any prepackaged version. Although it has no added fat, you can reduce the calories by omitting the nuts and coconut. Instead, you might wish to stir 1 cup of packaged mixed dried fruits into the baked cereal.
For a leaner twist on muffins, bake them in miniature muffin tins (1 1/2 inches in diameter) instead of the usual 3-inch size. A recipe for 12 large muffins will make 24 smaller ones and will bake about five minutes faster. To vary the Bing cherry muffins, make the batter and divide it in half. Stir a heaping 1/3 cup chopped cherries in one part and chopped seedless grapes, frozen chopped blueberries (not defrosted), raisins, dried cherries or cranberries rehydrated in boiling water and drained, into the other half. To make the muffins non-fat, substitute applesauce for the oil.
The change makes for a less crumbly muffin with a more compact texture.
You may also wish to serve some minibagels, as well as a new muffin-coffeecake hybrid, cornmeal breakfast bars. Pastry chef Jim Dodge came up with the great idea of turning popular corn bread into sweet, compact breakfast bars chock-full of dried fruits.
And of course you'll need some spreads to slather on these baked goodies. To keep calories to a minimum but take taste to the max, fresh and dried pear preserves are a snap to make in the microwave. Replace cream cheese with non-fat cheese-like yogurt spreads, made by simply draining the liquid from plain or fruit-flavored yogurts.
Cream cheese contains about 60 times the amount of fat per cup as non-fat yogurt cheese -- that's one good reason to make it. Another is the wonderful choice of flavors you can choose from.
Cornmeal breakfast bars with apricots and dates
Prep time: 20 minutes
Bake time: 20 minutes
Makes 28 bars.
1 cup dried apricots
1 3/4 cups low or non-fat milk
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup dates, quartered
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter or margarine
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs or 3 egg whites
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup wheat germ (honey crunch preferred)
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Meanwhile, place apricots and milk in a 4-cup microwave-safe measuring cup. Microwave covered on high (100 percent) for three to four minutes, or until very hot. Stir in the cornmeal until smooth. Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
In a food processor with the metal blade, pulse apricot mixture and dates until coarsely chopped; remove to small bowl. In same processor bowl, process butter, sugar and vanilla until creamy, about 1 minute. Add eggs and process until blended. Add the flour, wheat germ, baking powder and salt and pulse until incorporated; do not overmix. Add the dried fruit mixture and pulse three to four times until incorporated.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until the top begins to brown and the edges begin to pull away. Cool completely in the pan. Cut into 2 3/4 -by-1 1/4 -inch bars.
Yogurt cheese spread
Prep time: 5 minutes
Drain time: 4 hours at room temperature; overnight in refrigerator
Makes about 1 cup.
3 cups low- or non-fat plain, fruit-flavored or lemon yogurt
Place a funnel or strainer over a medium bowl. Line it with a double thickness of cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter. Spoon in yogurt and cover with plastic wrap. Place in a cool place up to 4 hours or refrigerate
overnight. Transfer the cheese to a covered container, discard the liquid and refrigerate.
Fresh, dried pear preserves
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes
Makes 1 cup.
1/2 cup finely chopped dried pears, core removed
4 fresh pears, peeled, halved, cored and cut into 1/4 -inch dice
Grated peel and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup maple syrup
Place all ingredients in a 2-quart microwave-safe bowl. Microwave uncovered on high (100 percent) for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once after 10 minutes, until mixture is as thick as jam. Cool completely, cover and refrigerate.
Yogurt granola parfaits
Prep time: 30 minutes for 6 parfaits (not including making granola)
Advance prep: Cut fruit and make granola ahead, but assemble before serving.
Makes one (6-ounce) serving.
2/3 cup assorted fresh fruits cut into 1/2 -inch chunks, such as melons, oranges, pineapple, kiwi, berries or seedless grapes
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) fruit-flavored or lemon low or non-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons multi-crunch maple granola (see recipe) or store-bought granola
For individual parfaits, place a third of the fruit in bottom of a parfait glass or goblet. Top with 2 tablespoons yogurt, 1 tablespoon granola, a third of the fruit, remaining yogurt and granola. Arrange remaining fruit decoratively on top. Alternatively, the mixture may be layered in a glass bowl.
LBest served as soon as possible so granola does not get soggy.
Multi-crunch maple granola
Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 35 minutes
Makes about 4 cups.
1/2 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1/3 cup dry roasted sunflower seeds
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup shredded coconut
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with heavy foil and grease with non-stick spray. In a small bowl stir together maple syrup, orange juice, brown sugar, salt and cinnamon. Stir remaining ingredients together on the baking sheet. Pour syrup mixture over and stir and toss until well-coated. Spread out evenly in pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring well after 15 minutes until mixture is golden brown. It will be slightly soft, but will firm up as it cools. Remove from oven, cool and store in airtight container.
Bing cherry muffins
Prep time: 15 minutes
Bake time: 15 to 20 minutes
Makes 12 muffins.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 egg whites
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup oat bran high-fiber hot cereal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, optional
1/3 cup orange juice concentrate
3/4 cup fresh dark, sweet cherries, pitted and halved, or frozen or canned cherries, halved, drained and blotted dry on paper towels
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cardamom, optional
To make muffins: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 12 muffin cups or fill with paper liners and spray with non-stick coating.
In a medium bowl stir together oil, sugar and whites until blended. Stir in flour, bran, baking powder, soda, salt and cardamom, if using. Add enough water to orange juice concentrate to make 2/3 cup. Pour into mixture and stir until incorporated. Gently fold in cherries. Spoon into muffin cups, filling to the tops.
To make topping: Stir together sugar, cinnamon and cardamom, if using. Sprinkle over the tops.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 10 minutes before removing from pans. Serve warm or at room temperature.