Cooking

The Slightly Less Sweet Side of Life

We cook through Joanne Chang's latest cookbook, "Baking with Less Sugar"
A Cookbook Review of Joanne Chang's
Photos: Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Unless you've managed to avoid all media over the last few years, you've probably heard the news: Sugar is evil. Depending on whom you ask, sugar is the source of just about every health issue out there, from diabetes and obesity to heart disease and cancer. So the time is ripe for a cookbook called Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar.

But this is no diet book. In fact, author Joanne Chang, the pastry chef/owner behind Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe and restaurant Myers + Chang, is quite clear about the fact that she's making no medical claims or recommendations. Chang acknowledges sugar's negative qualities, but rather than hop on the no-sugar express, she proposes simply using a little bit less. It's not about elimination, but rather moderation.

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A funny thing happens when you bake with less sugar: The other ingredients step forward and shine. If you pull back on the sugar in a brownie recipe, for instance, you end up with a more intense chocolate experience. Better still, over time, you get used to sweets that are less, well, sweet, and your palate begins to crave flavors beyond straight sugar. You'll realize that the best desserts are about more than just satisfying your sweet tooth.

Chang is never very strict, and she's certainly not preachy, mentioning things like the glycemic index without pushing the issue. Instead, the recipes do her bidding. The first chapter is a collection of muffins, cookies and cakes made with about half as much sugar as traditional versions. In the rest of the book, Chang focuses on five alternative ways to sweeten desserts—chocolate, honey, maple syrup, molasses and fruit—all of which have the added benefit of contributing their own unique flavors.

Cameron's Lemon-Polenta-Pistachio Buttons are from Chang's chapter on reducing white sugar. With just a quarter cup of the sweet stuff, there's nothing to interfere with the bright tanginess of the lemon or the roasted warmth of the nuts. You can also taste a more pronounced corn flavor from the polenta. Sugar helps baked goods brown, and with so little of it, these cookies stay pretty pale, which is something to keep in mind when you're deciding when to pull them from the oven. Also, sugar is a preservative, and using less of it means a shorter shelf life, so you'll want to enjoy these cookies quickly. (We doubt this will be a problem.)

Chang's Mint Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwiches are undeniably fussy. There isn't a single difficult technique, but there are many steps, and you'll spend a lot of time waiting for various components to chill. But if you plan ahead for this one, you will be rewarded. The ice cream isn't really ice cream—there's no machine required—but rather a frozen mint-infused chocolate mousse. It manages to be both light and lush. We would have preferred more assertive minty-ness, but that could be accomplished by simply steeping the mint and cream for longer. The thinness of the chocolate cake layers, not to mention their just barely sweet, cocoa-heavy flavor, helps keep this dessert from feeling over the top. And the finished product resembles (and tastes like) the ice cream truck version, which is obviously a good thing.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with Maple Sauce is in the maple syrup and molasses chapter, but it actually gets a lot of its sweetness—and subtle fruit notes—from puréed dates. The cake itself is made entirely in a food processor or blender, so it couldn't be easier. It's tempting to blend the mixture until it's completely smooth, but don't. Sugar inhibits gluten, so be careful not to overmix, or you'll end up with a really tough, dry cake. Of course, the decadently buttery maple sauce will mask just about any slipup with the cake or otherwise.

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