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?

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Ginger Spice is Everything Nice. This is what Fall is Made Of

To be clear, although she is my favourite Spice Girl, this post is not about Geri Halliwell. My devotion to her would require much more than a mere post to summarize, or even justify. No, this post is all about that spice that seems to act as the harbinger of cozy sweaters, fuzzy slippers and evenings spent nestled in pink Snuggies sipping hot spiced cocoa. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, all I know is that once the cooler weather hit, all I wanted to do was break out the ginger and spices.

Tell me what you want, what you really really want— sorry, now I’m done.

It started with the macaron. One night, the first one where I had to turn the heat on in months, I was lying in bed thinking about baking. Sadly, yes, this is me most nights. But it’s often where I come up with some of my best ideas, so I’ve learned not to question and just go with it. On that particular night I wanted to make macarons, but this time with a decidedly autumnal flavour. That’s when it hit me – gingerbread macarons. Rather than troll through FoodGawker again – another bedtime ritual – I decided to make up my own recipe for it. The next morning found me pouring over my trusty Women’s Institute cookbooks n search of that perfect combination of spices to add in to my basic macaron batter. The winners were ginger, clove and mixed spice – one teaspoon of the former plus a half teaspoon each of the other two. I also replaced half of the granulated sugar with brown sugar in the macaron batter – I wanted to replace all of it, but because macarons can be so fussy I was reluctant to risk it. Brown sugar has a higher moisture content than granulated white, and in my admittedly limited experience moisture tends to mean death to a well-risen macaron shell.

The result was a lovely beige-hued macaron, nicely balanced in both flavour and rise (avec pied). As you can imagine, I was well pleased.

Then came the task of deciding what to use as filling. To further expand on the gingerbread theme, I went with another of my favourite fall flavours and made a molasses buttercream. Truthfully, I could’ve just eaten it straight from the bowl – and don’t judge, but maybe I did a little bit – it was so good. But this is coming from one who used to get in trouble as a child for trying to spoon molasses straight from the carton into my mouth whilst my mother was attempting to use it for baking. She kept saying it was for baking not eating, that I would make myself sick . But I never did. No idea why, but I just loved the stuff. And evidently, I still do, because it took everything in my power not to take a swig of the carton contents.

But I did lick the spoon. Willpower has its limits.

Another ubiquitous fall flavour I experimented with was pumpkin. Ginger is a major flavour component here, but where the experimenting came into play was with a relatively new concept for me. It’s something called ‘healthy baking’. Now, as one who advocates the use of butter, whipping cream and double cream, and lard where necessary, this is entirely foreign territory for me. Cutting fat and sugar? You may as well cut off your tongue since your taste buds won’t really notice either way…is how I used to look at things. But sadly, as one ages, one’s system can no longer handle the steady onslaught of fat and empty carbs that my favourite recipes tend to carry. And to be clear, when I say system, what I really mean is waistline. Someone has gained a little weight what with their non-stop baking the past few months.

My first attempt came after much research into alternative flours. Spelt flour, apparently, closely resembles regular flour but contains much lower levels of gluten. I thought that would be a good place to start because gluten is largely responsible for the texture of baked goods, and also I know a couple of people who have intolerances to it. And truthfully, I’m beginning to suspect that I may have an issue with the substance myself. But then again, it could also be the lack of willpower that is more of a problem than gluten.

Anyway, so I found a recipe for muffins using spelt flour. I then also baked the same recipe again using regular all purpose flour, because I was initially disappointed with the outcome and I wanted to see if it was just my imagination. For a second I thought that my standards were too high, or my memories of muffins unrealistic.

Here is the picture that will give you an idea as to why I might have been a little disappointed. And also why that feeling was justified, at least in my mind.

The muffin on the right is the re-bake. Take notice of its height and fluffy texture. Then take a look at the one on the left, how flat and dense it seems. Guess which one was baked with spelt flour? If you said the flatty on the left, you would be correct. It tasted fine, but the texture left much to be desired. And it was a good thing that the recipe yield was small at only a dozen muffins, because the next day you could almost use them as a weapon – they were hard as a rock.

But, that was only a first attempt. And I’m happy to report that I have used spelt flour since to far greater success, to the point were it’s becoming almost a staple of my baking repertoire. But that’s another post for another time, one that I will hopefully get to sooner rather than later.

What about you – any good healthy baking stories to share? How about epic failures? And what of fall baking? Can you believe it’s October 12th already? How many more questions can I ask here?

I’m off to grab some fuzzy slippers, slip into a cozy sweater and make myself some more coffee. Cocoa comes later, after noon. It’s all about willpower.