It’s probably not a coincidence that just as cookbooks based on alternatives to wheat have entered the market (who ever heard of kamut or farro two decades ago?), so have alternatives to refined white sugar. Two recently published books come up with different ways to address Demon Sugar. “Baking With Less Sugar,” by Joanne Chang of Boston’s Flour Bakery, dramatically cuts back on sweetness while substituting maple, honey and fruit sugars in smaller quantities. “Real Sweet,” by baking blogger Shauna Sever, calls on an even wider variety of less-refined or “natural” sweeteners (agave nectar, coconut sugar, muscavado, turbinado), all used with abandon.
I jumped right in with the Joanne Chang book: White-Chocolate-Cherry-Almond cookies are very almondy indeed, laden with slivered almonds, almond flour, almond extract. Something was off about the yield: I got 36 cookies instead of 18 (and it’s hard for me to imagine my idea of a ping-pong ball size is that different from hers). But it was a happy accident; the sweet and tart marriage of smooth cocoa butter and sour cherries seemed vaguely reminiscent of a macaroon.
A truffle chocolate cream pie features, shockingly, zero sugar apart from what’s already in the chocolate. The pâte brisée crust is nothing special (why is it that fraisage, the French technique of smearing a dough across a work surface to blend it, never yields great results for me?) But the chocolate comes in two rich layers: a mousse and a truffle filling, essentially just different variations on ganache. After the final step of whipping and spreading the mousse, the pie seemed barely set — but an overnight in the refrigerator led to an addictive, yielding texture that still packed an immense, caffeinated punch.
Chang maintains that she’s aiming for a “softer, sweeter, and richer” biscuit than what’s traditional in Italy with her cranberry orange walnut biscotti. Mine turned out very browned and very crisp indeed, though, and I ended up eating them dunked in tea. I ate one after another, actually, and I didn’t care that they weren’t soft.
Raspberry Honey Frozen Yogurt turned out to be falling-off-a-log easy: pretty much like making a smoothie in the blender and then churning it in an ice cream maker. Mine took perhaps double the three hours recommended to chill and set up, but it came out subtle, tart and versatile. Pureed dates and maple syrup provided just barely enough sweetness for a sticky toffee pudding (dense and sliceable and more like pumpkin pie than pudding) to qualify as dessert, but an uncooked maple sauce — melted butter, cream and syrup — made up the difference and then some.
I stocked up on some exotica for “Real Sweet” — coconut sugar and muscovado sugar — finding it ironic that muscovado, an unrefined product once considered the lowliest of sugars, now sells for $6 a pound. Tinged with molasses, the muscovado gave Sever’s Dark, Fudgy Muscovado Brownies a strong figgy undertone, but brownie mavens, take heed: these are really more caky and crumbly than fudgy.
A banana sheet cake turned out almost overly moist, as banana desserts sometimes do, even after 40 minutes instead of 25 to 30 in the oven. But the caramelized coconut sugar frosting was interesting to make — cooked down, then chilled and whipped until it lightens and spreads into an aerated, coffee-colored cream. And it was so addictive that people kept dipping their fingers in for a lick.
Can you make your own confectioners’ sugar? Why not? Sever calls for turbinado sugar, though really you could combine any sugar with cornstarch in a blender. It comes out tasting just like the store kind and looking only slightly tinted from the turbinado crystals.
All-purpose party cupcakes, made with almond milk, oil and agave nectar (you could use honey or maple syrup) were dense and a little spongy, even though I whipped the batter a little longer than called for. The homemade confectioner’s sugar came in handy for an easy but very wet cream cheese and butter frosting; a few hours in the refrigerator worked wonders on its consistency.
In the end, it was the “Baking With Less Sugar” recipes that won me over with their taste and understated efficacy; a little less sweetener allowed other flavors to emerge and blossom. “Real Sweet” may have provided a crash course in the splendidly diverse world or natural sweeteners, but its looser technique leads to the kind of compromises you might enjoy at a bake sale without seeking them out again.
As to the other questions: Can you bake effectively with less white sugar? And will substituting alternate sweeteners change your life? Well, having spent a week or two sampling a different dessert every night, I can tell you that, to some extent at least, sweet is sweet. (Hello, carbohydrate-fueled mood swings and interrupted sleep!) Maybe I’d have been worse off with an equivalent amount of white sugar, but I’m afraid I was really in no condition to judge. Next review? Greens — lots of them.
Chang, who lives in New England, regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for the Boston Globe, NPR and the cookbook-indexing Web site Eat Your Books. She is the author of “A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes From a Well-Tempered Table” (Lyons Press, 2011). Her blog, Cookbooks for Dinner, is at www.tsusanchang.com.
More from Food:
Baking with Less Sugar
Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar
by Joanne Chang
More than 80 Crave-Worthy Treats Made with Natural Sugars
by Shauna Sever
William Morrow, $27.50