Home baking is a fantastic way to provide treats which, in addition to a bit of sweetness, can also incorporate some extra nutrients from seeds, nuts, whole grains, fruit and vegetables. The more that you bake, the more confident you can become with adapting recipes. Before I was a chiropractor I was a professional cook, so whilst I have no particular specialist nutritional knowledge I am passionate about home baking, and developing healthy recipes.
There is a separate blog about sugar addiction and overcoming a “sweet tooth” to follow next week, which will hopefully complement this article to provide a better insight into the subject. My post today is a development of the same theme, and whilst particularly aimed at parents trying to find the balance between allowing their children treats, but not fuelling a sweet palate or overeating habit either, the same principles apply to all of us.
Ways to Reduce the Added Sugar in Recipes
I nearly always reduce the sugar content from a typical recipe that I find in a book or magazine. This works particularly well in “rubbed in” and “melted” method cakes, and batters including cakes and muffins made with oil and coconut milk/buttermilk (e.g. carrot cake). Over time you can educate your family’s palates to expect less sugar in baked treats, but if you are used to more sugary food you may find that my recipes below are not sweet enough. A stepping stone to reducing sugar in recipes, but still finding them palatable, can be to make use of natural alternative sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol. These are plant based products which look like sugar, and in small quantities have a similar taste, and are considered by many to be a better option than the artificial sweeteners. They work well in the type of recipes described above if you want to use them to replace some of the sugar. In theory it is possible to fully substitute the sugar in “rubbed in” and “melted” method recipes, and often batter mixes too, with stevia or xylitol, so if cooking for a diabetic you might want to try this. However, personally if I substitute 100% of sugar with these alternative sweeteners I can taste a difference so in most cases I would not choose to do this. However, it is much better to gradually wean yourself away from the need for enhanced sweetness!
It is harder to reduce sugar content in creamed sponge recipes, such as a Victoria Sponge, because the sugar:fat ratio is important for success in these. Sugar reduction may therefore result in a less satisfactory texture. The same applies to substituting with stevia or xylitol in creamed recipes – the results are likely to be disappointing. Meringues and other recipes relying on adding volume to ingredients by whisking egg and sugar together, e.g. whisked sponges, will never work without the stipulated amount of sugar.
Adding Fruit & Vegetables to Recipes
Incorporating vegetables and fruit into recipes can add natural sweetness to baking, so limiting the need for added refined sugar. They also provide a sweet treat with improved nutritional content from their fibre, vitamins and minerals. Fruits used in cakes are fairly obvious – apples, berries, bananas, etc – these are definitely preferable to refined sugar, but be aware that if the fruit tastes sweet, it probably contains a fair amount of fructose. In the same manner as glucose, fructose is a simple sugar molecule and is also quickly absorbed into the blood stream, so whilst better than refined sugar because of the additional nutritional benefits it is still going to provide a “spike” in your blood sugar. Also be mindful that fresh fruit is a much better addition than dried fruit in terms of reducing sugar intake. Dried fruit essentially concentrates the sweetness into a smaller size, enabling more to be eaten!
Adding Moisture & Sweetness When Baking
Apple sauce is an interesting and really useful ingredient for both adding moisture and sweetness to baking. In vegan cooking it is often used very successfully as a substitute for eggs too. I tend to cook a batch of apple sauce (literally peeled, chopped cooking apples cooked in the microwave for a few minutes until they are a pulp, no sweetener added) and freeze it in ½ cup sizes, or ice cube trays, ready to be used in recipes. Vegetables commonly used for this purpose in baking are carrot, courgette and beetroot. Finally, avocado appears in quite a few recipes for chocolate cake and non-dairy chocolate mousse too.
It is necessary to be aware that if cooking for a diabetic you need to take into account the natural sugars in the added fruit and vegetables too. This article is about reducing the added, refined sugar in home baking. This should not be confused with cooking for diabetics for whom the situation is more complex as they need to take into account the naturally occurring sugars in ingredients too, and for them the use of alternative sweeteners, as described earlier, is essential.
Reducing Refined Grains
Another way to improve the nutritional value of baking is to seek to reduce the amount of refined grain, which is broken down by the digestive system into glucose relatively quickly, and provides little additional nutritional value apart from pure carbohydrate. An obvious and easy way to improve the fibre in baking is to use wholemeal flour. In some recipes this can be delicious, but it can sometimes give quite a heavy, dry result which not everyone would enjoy. If I am making wholemeal scones or pastry, I typically only substitute half the white flour for wholemeal, and may add a tiny extra pinch of baking powder in some recipes too. Another good trick is to substitute some of the flour for rolled oats – this works particularly well in cookies and crumble toppings.
If baking for young children, or people whose dietary requirements you are not familiar with, you need to be aware of the issues surrounding the inclusion of nuts and the potential for serious allergic reactions. However, in many recipes removing half the flour and substituting it with ground almonds can make a very delicious, moist cake providing more fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals than the flour. Ground pistachios (i.e. blitzed in a blender!) also make a nice cake, although more expensive. For gluten free cooking, many recipes work with the use of 100% ground nuts so it is worth experimenting. There are also some delicious recipes substituting some of the flour in cakes with mashed potato, although because the potato is quite heavy and bland it can require significant flavouring to make it palatable. So, if using a masked potato recipe watch out for the sugar content! Finally, if you are imaginative it is possible to make a number of crackers and flat breads using ground seeds. A good resource of these recipes is “The Foodie Teenager” by Alessandra Peters – lots of interesting ideas, particularly if you need to cook for a dairy free or gluten free audience.
Now for Some Healthy Recipes!
Those attending the Bumps to Babies & Beyond Show will find samples of the first 2 recipes in their Haslemere Chiropractic Goody bags, i.e. Double Chocolate & Courgette Muffins, and Oat & Carrot Cookies.
If you have a favourite recipe along this theme, please “Like” the Facebook post about this blog, and add your own recipe as a comment. All recipes will be tested and sold in Clinic to raise money for our supported charity this year, The Rosemary Foundation (providing hospice at home), and the most popular ones will be posted on this page. Please do go to our Facebook page to share your recipes!
Double Chocolate & Courgette Muffins
These may not look very exciting (resist the temptation to add a thick chocolate fudge frosting with sprinkles!), but they have a lovely rich, dense texture and eaten warm are delicious with molten chocolate chunks. For a “melt-in-the-middle” style chocolate dessert, instead of chopping the chocolate into small chunks, break it into 12 larger lumps and push 1 lump in the centre of each cake. This recipe happens to be suitable for dairy-free and vegan diets, and can easily be adapted to gluten free too.
Makes 12 cakes/6 muffins
150g plain flour (or gluten free flour with ½ tsp xanthan gum)
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp + ¼ tsp baking powder
40g cocoa powder
1/3 cup / 80 ml apple sauce (unsweetened cooked bramley apple)
35g dark brown sugar
35g granulated sugar
3 tbsp light olive or sunflower oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ medium courgette, grated (i.e. 100g/1 cup)
50g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (or chocolate chunks/chips)
* Preheat oven to 1800C, 1600 Fan, 3500F, or Gas 4.
* Sieve the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ½ tsp baking powder, and cocoa powder together.
* In a large bowl, mix the apple sauce with the remaining ¼ tsp baking powder, then add the sugars, oil, vanilla and grated courgette. NB. I quite like having the slight ribbons of courgette in the muffins that you get with grating, but if you want to disguise the vegetable matter, either finely chop it or blitz in the food processor before mixing with the other ingredients.
* Combine the wet and dry ingredients, and chopped chocolate, to form a thick dough. This is best done by hand as mixing in a food processor will make it too gloopy.
* Divide the mixture between 12 paper cake cases lining a cake tray, or make 6 muffins if preferred. NB. The mixture is quite dense, so a muffin sized cake will be substantial to eat!
* Bake cakes for 10-15 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean. Muffin size will take 20 mins.
* Enjoy! Particularly good eaten warm, with the chocolate still oozing.
Reduced sugar frosting:
If you do feel the need to add frosting these cakes, try heating some cream (double cream, or coconut cream for dairy free) until almost boiling. Stir in chopped dark chocolate to form a ganache to top your cakes. For sprinkles, try nuts or freeze dried raspberries, or maybe top with fresh berries.
Oat & Carrot Cookies
35g / 1 tbsp butter (softened)
25g caster sugar
1 medium carrot, grated (approx. 80g)
45g self raising flour
45g rolled oats
1 tbsp raisins or sultanas
1 tsp mixed spice
½ tsp vanilla extract
Optional: 1 tbsp of either sunflower seeds, shredded coconut, extra dried fruit or chopped nuts.
* Preheat oven to 1800C, 1600 Fan, 3500F, or Gas 4.
* Rub together the butter, flours, oats and spice. This can be done with electric hand whisk or a food mixer if you prefer.
* Add all the other ingredients and mix to form a dough. It will initially seem quite dry, but will come together as you work it with your hand (sticky fun for children!). This is best done by hand to preserve the textures; don’t be put off by the unusual appearance and texture at this stage.
* Roll into 6 balls, place on a greased baking tray and flatten slightly. Tip: Try to push any raisins or sultanas that are on the surface inside the cookies to stop them burning.
* Bake for 15-20 mins until slightly golden underneath.