Adventures in Healthy Baking

Ironic that I am posting this on Halloween, the one day of the year when kids are usually permitted to eat candy with utter abandon. And I must admit, I do have mixed feelings about the term ‘healthy baking’. It implies that you’re doing something wrong when baking – and eating – homemade cookies, cakes and other treats. Perhaps it’s simply a byproduct of my general disdain for societal conformity, or maybe my tendency to disagree with what would constitute today’s cultural norms – because, really, what is normal? If it’s  something like Honey Boo-Boo or MTV’s Jersey Shore then thanks but no. I will have no part of that, thank you very much.

Well, that went off the rails rather quickly, didn’t it? That sociology major in me will still rear her obstinate head from time to time.

To get back on point, when it comes to food, I am usually of the opinion that one can enjoy everything in moderation – especially moderation. It’s an opinion that’s served me well up until recently, when as my body continues to betray me as it ages I have begun to notice that six months of almost daily baking (and, of course, quality assurance testing) is starting to takes its toll. The first sign was in the making of that video for the chocolate contest, and the chins. But when I went to slip into my favourite skinny jeans, the JBrands that act as a barometer for any weight gain as well as turn my ass into something that appears to have been sculpted by an Italian Renaissance master, I found it slightly more…challenging…than usual. Oh, I can still get into them all right – it hasn’t gotten that far yet – but it was a struggle not seen since the days of Eighties hair bands when acid wash reigned supreme: I had to employ the old lie-down-on-the-bed-take-a-deep-breath-then-zip trick. That was enough  to send me to the Internet in search of ways to cut extra calories and fat without sacrificing the flavour of my beloved baked goods. Another reason for this change of heart is not so vain or selfish: since my mother passed away last year, I’ve been doing more baking for my father whose sweet tooth I must have inherited. And while my sister stocks his freezer with practical, ultra-heart healthy fare like salmon loaves and low sodium soups, I have made it my mission to provide him with some of the sweeter things I know he enjoys. He’s 82 now, and while yes we would like to keep him around and as healthy as possible, the man has worked hard all his life. He deserves a treat every now and again. Which is where I had to set aside my own beliefs about moderation and provide him with goodies that are only half as indulgent as I’d usually make. And maybe even a little bit – dare I say – healthy.

It started with flour substitution. It’s something I had been doing for awhile, usually in breads where it can be compensated for with other flavours or the additional leavening powers of yeast. Whole wheatflour, I’ve noticed, has the tendency to make things far more dense and unpleasantly chewy when you substitute too much of it. After doing a bit more reading on the subject I decided to branch out with spelt flour, an ancient whole grain that behaves more like wheat than other alternatives yet contains about half the gluten content of regular all purpose flour. My first experiment, in the pumpkin muffins I mentioned in this post didn’t go so well, but a simple adjustment in technique yielded a much more positive result: a higher, fluffier rise as a result of a lighter hand. According to  the latest issue of Inspired Magazine, a free publication produced by Sobey’s grocery stores, the secret to getting a good rise lies in lightly mixing the wet and dry ingredients together until

just incorporated, and apparently with a wooden spoon. I’ve started using this technique in all my baking – not just muffins – and have noticed a difference. I used it in the muffins picture here as well as the individual sticky toffee puddings pictured just to the left. I baked these in portions for freezing, using greased muffin tins . After baking and cooling on a rack I spooned the toffee sauce into the empty muffin trays, put the puddings back in place then spooned a little more sauce over top. Apparently, as reported yesterday, my father is making his way through them and they are ‘very good’. From a man of few words, this is high praise indeed.

Another area of concern is the amount of sugar used in conventional baking. I usually replace the white sugar with brown or yellow sugar wherever I can, which may not nutritionally be that much better but I find it improves the texture and flavour. Apparently, my research tells me that you can cut the sugar content in baking recipes by anywhere between 1/4 to 2/3 of a cup depending on taste without sacrificing structure or flavour. It’s mostly used to aide the browning, shelf-life preservation and tenderizing – which explains why brown sugar makes things so soft and lovely – of the end result, as well its obvious flavour. However, any compensations for sugar can be made up for calorie-free with spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. I’m a huge fan of mixed spice, myself, which is a combination of the two as well as ginger and cloves. Like Thanksgiving or Christmas in a jar. In cookies in particular, which are made up predominantly of sugar and butter, it can quite simple to cut the sugar content by at least 25 percent if you don’t mind a softer, less crispy brown result – which I absolutely don’t. I cut the sugar down to half in these chocolate-date pinwheels, which didn’t seem to affect them negatively at all. I find that dates are quite sweet on their own, so perhaps that’s why the sugar wasn’t missed as much.

The most important point I’m trying to make here is that healthy needn’t be all about denial and sacrifice. As long as you do your research into how any adjustments made will affect your product, you can make almost any baking into a healthy, wholesome treat. It’s all about ratios and proportions, which is usually the stuff of scientists or mathematicians – two areas I was never very good at. However, had my science or math classes taken a slightly different route to teaching and used baking or makeup examples as formulas, I could well have been the next Einstein.

Who knew science and math could be so delicious?