Evil sugar and its healthier cousins
One of my best friends is, temporarily, on a restricted diet and lamenting the loss of sugar. Like me, actually even more so, she has a phenomenally sweet tooth and no meal is complete without something sweet enjoyed at the end of it. I have been limiting my sugar intake for a few years now, with complete abstinence during my 6 week yearly cleanse and, like most addictions, it has become easier and easier to eat less sugar – although I don’t think I could conceive of a life without it. My daily dose of dark chocolate testifies to that.
When I talk about sugar, I obviously intend the refined variety, and I include brown sugar (which is just sugar and molasses) and all those kinds that might be less refined such as Demerara or sugar in the raw but just mildly less unhealthy. No need to explain the famous sugar high or what the white powder does to your teeth but, recently, scientists have established a pretty solid link between sugar and cancer. Refined cane or beet sugar is a very recent addition to the human diet. Our forebears went for many centuries without it, until it was introduced in the late 1400’s and, even then, it didn’t become commonplace until the end of the 18th century as it was too expensive for anyone but the upper classes (earlier civilizations in Asia consumed sugar cane as early as 400 AD but certainly not in vast amounts).
What has worked for me, in my attempt to lower my sugar intake, include changing the way I think of breakfast that, most days, means a gigantic smoothie of fresh and frozen fruit, almond milk, a bit of avocado, protein powder and a splash of agave syrup. To my coffee, nowadays I add Stevia. On my hot cereal, I will pour either agave or maple syrup, and chopped dates have helped sweeten my home-made granola. I have passed all these suggestions on to my poor friend who, to her credit, has followed them to the letter but she is still begging for sugar-free dessert recipes. I know she means cakes and that is tricky.
Baking, more than an art, is a perfect alchemy of ingredients. Take one out and the whole sand castle falls apart. Substituting sugar in baking that is predicated on a batter rising is incredibly hard. Let’s look at why.
Sugar has many properties, amongst which the ability to inhibit gluten development, thereby making baked goods tender. It also does that by drawing water to its molecules – if one of your creations turns out a bit too dry, you might be able to overcome that by adding a bit more sugar.
Sugar caramelizes at 330F and it’s responsible for the pretty browning of your baked goods. Above all, it helps with the rising. Without going into too many chemical details, when you beat sugar and butter (or any other fat), the molecular structure of the sugar makes little tears in the fat, creating tiny pockets of air that will expand in the oven. Now you can see why substituting stevia, xylitol or other sweeteners is not going to create the same effect.
Xylitol (a sugar alcohol found in many plants and safe for diabetics) can be used with a 1:1 sugar ratio for any chewy baked goods (soft cookies, some muffins) but don’t expect it to brown. I like agave syrup better than honey, as the taste of honey is too distinctive; it can overpower a dessert and it’s harder to marry with other flavours. When using agave syrup, a good rule of thumb is to use 25% less than the recipe calls in sugar.
Once again, I have been going on at too much length. For a delectable sugar-free dessert, you will have to stay tuned.