Pear Spice Muffins; get the recipe, below. (Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

I’ve been playing around with date sugar in my kitchen lately and have become increasingly sold on it as an alternative sweetener. (I wrote about it, and coconut sugar, in my Wellness column recently.)

Date sugar is not a true sugar; it is a naturally sweet dried fruit — dates — finely ground to resemble white granulated sugar, and can be used to replace it in many recipes. It is a more healthful alternative because it has the fiber, minerals and antioxidants of the whole fruit. This kind of sugar doesn’t work as a replacement in all granulated sugar recipes, though. Because it does not dissolve easily, it is not suitable for stirring into drinks or as a caramelizing agent, and its subtle yet distinct date flavor won’t work with all dishes.

But I can vouch that date sugar is delicious blended into smoothies, in pancakes and waffles, banana bread and oatmeal cookies and it works wonderfully in these warm spiced pear muffins. (It acts more like a dry ingredient in recipes than granulated sugar does, so I have found it works best to reduce the flour in a typical recipe by 1/2 cup for each 3/4 cup date sugar used.)

For this recipe, the choice of sweetener is only one better-for-you element. The muffins are also made with whole-wheat pastry flour and a combination of oil and applesauce instead of butter. If you don’t want to spring for date sugar, which is a bit pricey, you can use regular dark brown sugar instead and still have a more healthful end product.

Either way, the muffins turn out moist and tender, lightly sweet, fragrant with fall spices, and studded with bits of soft pear and crunchy nuts. They may involve several substitutes from your standard muffin recipe, but they are certainly no compromise.

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Pear Spice Muffins

12 servings

If you substitute regular dark brown sugar for date sugar, increase the flour to 2 cups, reduce the applesauce to ½ cup and whisk in the brown sugar with the liquid ingredients.

From nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger.

Ingredients

⅓ cup canola or other neutral-tasting oil, plus more for the pan

1½ cups whole-wheat pastry flour

¾ cup date sugar or packed dark brown sugar (see headnote)

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

2 large eggs

1 cup unsweetened applesauce

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 medium firm, ripe pear, peeled, cored and cut into ¼ -inch pieces

½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts, optional

Steps

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly brush the wells of a 12-muffin pan with oil.

Whisk together the flour, date sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves in a medium bowl.

Whisk in the ⅓ cup of oil and the eggs in a mixing bowl until well blended, then whisk in the applesauce and vanilla extract. Stir in half the flour mixture, then half the buttermilk; once those are incorporated, add the remaining flour mixture and the remaining buttermilk, stirring until just incorporated. Gently stir in the pear and the nuts, if using.

Divide the batter evenly among the wells of the muffin pan. Bake (middle rack) for 18 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the muffins comes out clean.

Let cool (in the pan) on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the muffins to loosen them before serving or storing.

More healthful baked treats from Ellie Krieger:


(Stacy Zarin Goldberg)

(Deb Lindsey)

Zucchini Oat Muffins; Lemon Poppy Seed Bread

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