Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Oh the Holidays- A Healthier Baking Guide

Fall is my favorite time of year in Georgia. The weather is a perfect balance of cool and sunny and the air is refreshed from gentle breezes. The garden is in full giving mode and even the days are still long enough to enjoy plenty of down time in the evenings. On our first beautiful day here I begged my husband to stay home from work so we could go hiking, drink hot apple cider, and eat fresh baked cinnamon pumpkin bread. He did not stay home from work, but we sat on the porch that evening sipping apple cider and picking at a slice of pumpkin bread. As we nibbled our treat, I couldn't help but think of the one thing I don't like about this time of year. Everyone is in the mood to bake and it becomes a non-stop sugar, hydrogenated oil, and refined flour fest.

Over the past year I have been learning how to bake without adding conventional sugar. I have experimented with dates, fruits and juices, agave, honey, maple syrup, and date palm sugar. I have had mishaps along the way ( my sister still cringes when I mention Chia Pudding), but over all I have found ways to make delicious sweet replicas of most of those childhood treats that lay so fondly in my memory this time of year. I have also learned and formed an opinion about the best "natural" sugar options. Here it is: My favorite sweetener to use is dates or other fruits, some will argue that these still contain a high sugar content; true, but (one) I'm making desserts that are to be enjoyed with great moderation and (two) they also contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so you are not just eating empty calories. There are occasional recipes where fruit alone just won't do, and in these cases I like to use maple syrup or date palm sugar (Maple syrup whipped with heavy cream makes the perfect pie topping). Date palm sugar is relatively new to me, when they got it in at the local CoOp I decided to give it a try because it touted a low glycemic index and still had a granulated texture. I don't use honey often when baking, but it has a distinct flavor that lends well to some recipes. I gave agave a fair squeeze but after learning more about it I now consider it a refined sugar. As for diabetics I think stevia is the best option. I admit that I don't have much experience with it; in my little experience I do have I always ended up with a weird herbal after taste (which is better than that chemical after taste you get with artificial sweeteners). To see my extensive breakdown of sugar go to my Sugar Blues post).

Once I figured out how to better sweeten our desserts, my next goal was to remove the ridiculous amount of animal fats and hydrogenated oils. When my husband and I first starting dating I would cringe watching him throw a pat of butter into everything we cooked. He is from the rural deep south and he laughs now because he thought "thats how you flavor food!" My mom, aunt, and sister still keep bacon grease to cook fried rice in (and yes it is delicious that way). Look I'm not anti-butter, however I do pay attention to quantity and quality. Butter and oils lend great flavor to food, if you don't believe me then go ahead and make those brownies with apple sauce instead of oil and tell me how they taste. This brings up a good point though, yes oils flavor but they are not necessarily essential, and there are some noteworthy options available. First, if you are going to do animal fat go for grass-fed butter or ghee, it really does taste better and those fats from healthy animals will be so much better for you, just always in moderation. Some great oil alternatives are apple sauce, avocado, or pumpkin puree, but of course these come with some flavoring and do alter the outcome a bit. There are some healthier oils I love to use. Coconut oil is the go to in our household, we use it for sauteing, frying, baking, and as a beauty product (you would have thought my husband found the holy grail when he realized he could use coconut oil as a facial moisturizer). There is some slight coconut taste (which we found is delicious with eggs) when using it as a saute oil but no taste when using it for baking. Some may be quick to point out that coconut oil has a very high saturated fat content, but the current science tells us that because it is mostly medium chain fatty acids, it does not have the same detritus health affects as the saturated fat in animal fats. It is important to buy unrefined virgin coconut oil so that it has not been hydrogenated (fair trade and organic don't hurt either). However if you still have some health concerns then olive oil is a good choice; it does have a stronger flavor and may be noticeable in some lighter baked goods. I encourage you take a stroll down the oil section of your local natural food shop and look at all of the wonderful options now available; pumpkin, walnut, and avocado. Oh My!

The final bear of holiday baking that I had to tackle was the flour. Before Noah was asked to go gluten free, even switching from refined to whole grain flour was a slow process for us. I started by going half and half and slowly increased the whole to refined ratio until our taste buds got used the heartier flavor of whole grains. The benefit of using whole grain flours is that they contain fiber (making your treat more filling) and the 'husk' of grains contain the majority of vitamins and minerals. I recommend the gradual approach, whole grains have a more dynamic flavor profile and richer texture that is noticeable, but it is something that we learned to enjoy about our baked goods. Adding to the nutrition of the flour was also my goal. I routinely add ground flax or chia to to my baking which can decrease the amount of oil needed and often can replace eggs altogether. Ground flax has a particularly nutty a flavor and gives texture and depth to breads and cookies. Though I make whole-grain breads and treats for others we are generally a gluten free household. Gluten free baking is still always an experiment for me. I like to use almond and coconut flour, which generally require eggs to give them a good texture. You don't have to purchase expensive flours, you can simply grind your own out of almost any nut or shredded coconut. I also love using plantains as the flour. They make the perfect pancakes and breads. Buckwheat and oats are another good gluten free option. One warning: beware of the faux healthy gluten free mixes and packaged product. A lot of those things have binders and fillers that are hard to digest and no better than their white flour processed counterparts. Instead of stressing about making something gluten free try just making it without the gluten part; crustless pumpkin pie is still delicious! 

Overall I have been amazed at the amount of substituting you can do and still reach holiday table worthy results. I have even found some wonderful raw deserts. When it comes to 'cleaning' up your baking just remember: don't be afraid to experiment, I have thrown out plenty of buckwheat blueberry muffins. Also, if your using new or expensive ingredients make a small test batch so you can taste and adjust; the batter will typically taste sweeter than the final result so keep that in mind and don't forget about the power of toppings. Granola, chopped fruit, or some simple maple syrup can fix an under-sweetened or overly fibrous dessert.

Happy Baking!

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