Category Archives: Treats

Low sugar baking #2: End of summer plum cake

I’ve been spurred out of my posting lethargy by the realization that this recipe will soon be out of season (may be on its way out right now, even). Last Saturday┬ámorning I went out with a friend along a nearby run/bike/hike trail and it was starting to feel decidedly fall-like–gray sky and a tinge of moisture in the air. But enough of the weather. Plums.

This recipe evolved from a wonderful pear cake recipe that I first discovered several years ago. I started off by tweaking the batter (wheat germ! less sugar! maybe some other things…), but stuck with the original fruit of pears. This year, when plums started showing up at the market, it occurred to me that they might be a perfect substitute for pears. When I went back to look up the original pear cake recipe while writing this post, I saw that it has started life as a plum cake, so…there you go. Plums are indeed, substitutable for pears, in some instances. I changed up the spices I had been using a little too, adding a little of the mixed spice (aka Christmas pudding spice) that M. loves. Most of the sweetness in this cake comes from the plum juice seeping into the batter as it bakes, and the batter itself has just a few spoonfuls of sugar. While I normally shy away from the idea of labeling sweet baked goods as “healthy enough for breakfast”, I think this recipe comes pretty darned close.

After I made this plum cake for the first time last month, I realized it was M.’s total first exposure, as he’d somehow missed all the previous pear versions. He sometimes objects to the use of whole wheat flour, so I thought he might dismiss this cake as a little too healthy. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be baseless–maybe the mixed spice?

Lower Sugar Plum Cake
makes one shallow 10″ cake

Ingredients
1/2 c. unsalted butter, plus a little for greasing the pan
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp milk
2 eggs
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. wheat germ
1/2 tsp mixed spice* (see note below)
1 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
12 plums or Italian prunes, halved and pits removed

*Mixed spice is fairly similar to pumpkin pie spice, so you could substitute in a pinch. To make your own, combine a 3:3:2:1:1:1:1 ratio of allspice, nutmeg, mace, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander.

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350F, lightly grease and flour a 10″ tart pan.

2. Cream together the butter, sugar, and milk. Gently beat the eggs into the mixture.

3. Combine the flour, wheat germ, mixed spice, baking powder, and salt.

4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3-4 batches. The batter should be fairly thick and even semi-solid.

5. Pour batter into tart pan and press fruit into the top of the batter. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until cake is browned and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.

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Low sugar baking #1: Ginger softies

As promised (or threatened), I’m working on a little series of posts focused on baking with less sugar, which, if you’ve perused this blog much at all, you probably know is a quasi-obsession of mine. My goal with this series is not just to share recipes, but also some general tips for using less sugar, and to also describe some of my less-successful attempts at sugar reduction (so you don’t do the same thing!).
So for the first post, let’s start off with a few of the key things to remember when you start to tinker around with a recipe to reduce the sugar content.

You don’t need much sugar to make things sweet
Seriously. Many commercial baked goods use a lot more sugar (or whatever their sweetener of choice is) than is needed to achieve sweetness. I have found that I can usually use less than half sugar called for in a “regular” version of something and still have the final result taste perfectly sweet. Also, with less sugar in a recipe, other flavors (vanilla, spices, etc.) become more prominent, giving a more complex tasting experience. Elana just happened to mention the same thing in a post she wrote earlier this week, so you know it’s not just me. However…

Sugar does affect texture and structure
One of the characteristics that sugar brings to baked goods is, broadly speaking, crispness or crunch. In some cases, the sugar is critical to the structure of the finished product (think meringue kisses, florentines, etc.). I don’t spend much time trying to re-make recipes that really need sugar for structure. Instead, I focus on recipes where a slight change in texture is not going to be such a problem. For example, today’s ginger cookie recipe is softer, less chewy, and more cake-like than a ginger cookie from the local store or bakery, but it is still delicious, full of spice, and completely recognizable as a cookie.

Is there a “best” or “healthy” sweetener?
My personal opinion is that for the most part, whole fresh fruit is the “best” sugar and the only sweetener that can really be considered “healthy”. After that, I believe it’s better to simply focus on using less sweetener, no matter the source. To that end, I use the sweetener I think will work best in a recipe (for reasons of either taste or texture), be that fruit, white sugar, brown sugar, honey, dates, or molasses. A while back, health-bent wrote an extensive post about sugar vs. more “natural” sweeteners and it really captures a lot of my thoughts on the topic.

And now, a recipe! Today’s recipe is a pretty easy one, a lower sugar version of the classic ginger cookie. Ginger cookies generally rely on two sweeteners: regular white sugar and molasses. Since molasses does actually lend a distinctive flavor I focus more on slashing the white sugar content. This recipe has 1/4 c. each of sugar and molasses–most recipes with a similar yield would use around least a cup of sugar, plus 1/4 or 1/3 c. of molasses. What the cookies do not skimp on is the spices: each bite is bursting with ginger flavor, plus undertones of cinnamon and cloves. I hope they will become a favorite in your baking repertoire!

Ginger Softies
makes about 30 plump 1″ cookies

Ingredients
2 c. white whole wheat or all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp each ground cinnamon and cloves
1/2 c butter
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c molasses
1/4 c milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Method

Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Stir in molasses, then work the dry ingredients into the mix in 3-4 batches. Add milk and vanilla extract and combine.

Preheat oven to 350F. While the oven is heating, pinch off ~1″ lumps of dough, roll into balls, and place on cookie sheets. When oven is heated, place cookies in oven and bake for 10-12 minutes. Remove cookies from oven and allow to cool, then enjoy fresh or store in an airtight container. Cookies will keep at room temperature for several days.

Olive oil shortbread with lemon and rosemary

Last weekend I came home to find a bag full of lemons and limes by the back door. Can I just brag about how awesome it is to have friends who leave you gifts like this? Very awesome. I always love to have these little citrus fruits on hand. A quick squeeze of lemon or lime is perfect in so many things. But when I have a bounty of lemons like I did last week, it’s time to do more than just squeeze a little lemon over my salad or into a water glass (plus, the best way of ensuring future citrus gifts is to follow up with baked good gift, no?)

And so, my lemon bounty led me to this bright little shortbread. I had been tinkering with a recipe for olive oil shortbread with rosemary, and the addition of lemon juice and zest was just what it needed for a light and summer-appropriate flavor. A mix of cornmeal, and white whole wheat flour makes for a wholesome and rustic crumb. Mostly I have been enjoying these shortbread wedges alongside an afternoon cup of Darjeeling, but on hot evenings when I crave a cool glass of almond milk after dinner, it turns out that a little shortbread is quite nice in that setting also.

This recipe is also another one of my low-sugar experiments; just 1/4 c. for the whole recipe. I’ve been thinking of doing an occasional series of posts on my strategies for baking less sugary treats, some of the things I’ve tried that have worked well (or not), recipe makeovers, that kind of thing. Thoughts? Interest? Just post the shortbread recipe already?

Olive oil shortbread with lemon and rosemary
makes one 9″ pan of shortbread (8-12 wedges)

Ingredients
1/2 c. olive oil
1 1/2 c. white whole wheat flour (or a 50/50 mix of whole wheat and all-purpose flours)
1/4 c. yellow cornmeal
1 tbsp. flax meal
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. lemon juice
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh rosemary

Method
Preheat oven to 300F and grease a 9″ pan. In a food processor fitted with the metal s-blade, combine and thoroughly blend all ingredients except the rosemary. Add rosemary and process for 10 seconds. Press dough into greased pan and slice into 8-12 wedges, depending on your preference. Use a fork to make decorative pricks in the surface.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until just beginning to brown. Turn off heat in oven and leave shortbread to sit for 15 minutes before removing.

Lavender biscuits (Recipe Redux)

June’s Recipe Redux challenge was flowers. As soon as I saw the theme, I knew what I wanted to experiment with: a floral, oh-so-slightly sweet twist on the high-protein crackers I’ve been making on and off since January, when I devised my Sesame nori crackers. I’ve come up with several different savory versions, but had been thinking it would be nice to have an option to pair with an afternoon cup of tea (and a novel–my current choice is The Goddess Chronicle, which so far has managed to suck me in pretty thoroughly).

Lavender seemed like the perfect addition to the mix, so I bicycled over to the local natural foods store to get some food-grade dried flowers, and got busy. These biscuits have a lovely crumbly texture, and a light, subtle flavor. There are definite coconut undertones, which mix with vanilla and lavender for a lovely afternoon treat.

I’ve been on a slow but steady mission to eliminate (or really, drastically cut) sugar out of my diet for a while now. I was hoping the coconut flour and oil in this recipe might be just enough sweetness on its own for this recipe, but it really did benefit from the addition of those two dates to the mix. If you are determined to make a completely sugar-free version, a pinch or two of stevia could probably be used instead.

Lavender biscuits
makes 20 biscuits

Ingredients
1/4 c. coconut oil
2 dates, finely chopped
1/2 c. blanched almonds
1/2 c. pea protein powder
1/4 c. coconut flour
1 tbsp. ground psyllium husk
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp dried lavender buds

Method

1. In a food processor fitted with the metal S-blade, combine the dates and coconut oil, and process until blended. Add the almonds, protein powder, coconut flour, and psyllium husk, and process to a coarse meal. Add the egg, vanilla extract, and water, and process until the dough begins to stick together in a cohesive lump.

2. Remove dough from food processor and place on a sheet of parchment paper. Flatten slightly, and sprinkle about half of the lavender buds on top. Work the lavender into the dough by folding and flattening several times, then flatten the dough slightly and repeat with the remaining lavender.

3. Preheat oven to 350F. When the lavender has been worked into the dough, cover with a second sheet to parchment paper and roll the dough to ~1/4″ thickness. Using a 2″ round cutter, cut out rounds of dough and place on a baking tray. The recipe should yield ~20 biscuits. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until biscuits are lightly browned. Remove from oven and allow to cool before removing from the tray.

Sesame nori crackers (vegan, gluten free)

Sesame nori crackers

I love reading other food blogs. Often, it’s just because I love seeing (and trying) other people’s great recipes. But sometimes another food blog also kicks me off towards trying something new of my own. Case in point, last week Gena put together a great post on packing your own healthy and vegan lunch. The post included some photos and descriptions of her lunches, and one of the items was described as a raw cracker with nori. I’d been having salty crunchy foods on the brain all week, and the mention of nori immediately sent my mind over to those little puffed rice snacks that sometimes come wrapped in nori. Obviously, my Friday afternoon was going to be spent making some nori crackers (un-raw variety).

Sesame nori crackers

I’m doing a pretty strict elimination diet right now in a bid to wean myself off sugar (for the curious, I’m using the diet plan outlined in Alejandro Junger’s book Clean as the template), so crackers with wheat flour were going to be right out. Also, no eggs to bind things together. I’ve tried making vegan crackers with straight almond flour in the past and they’ve always lacked structural stability (I probably need to use a finer grind of almond flour instead of cheaping out and making my own all the time). I went looking for some other ideas and lo and behold, another of my favorite bloggers has a recipe for vegan gluten free crackers that use a mix of rice flour and almond meal. I didn’t have any rice flour, but I did just become the proud owner of this massive container of rice protein powder. That could work, right? High protein, salty, crunchy snack food, here I come!

It took a little playing around, but I did finally wind up with a cracker with that salty, tangy flavor I was going for. Using the rice protein powder also worked out really well–the crackers weren’t as grainy as some of my previous all-almond crackers, and they held together really well too (I’m sure the flax meal also contributes to that). They aren’t quite like crackers made from wheat (obviously), but I’d say they compare favorably with any of the store-bought gluten free crackers I’ve tried. P

Sesame nori crackers

Sesame nori crackers
Makes aproximately 30 crackers

Ingredients
1/2 c. unflavored brown rice protein powder
1/2 c. raw almonds
2 tbsp ground flax seed
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sesame oil
3 tbsp tamari sauce
1/4 c. + 1 tbsp water
1/4 c. sesame seeds
2 sheets dried nori seaweed, cut into small strips or pieces

Method
1. In a food processor fitted with the metal S-blade, combine all ingredients except the sesame seeds and nori. Grind until mixture takes on the consistency of a thick paste. Add the sesame seeds and incorporate with a few quick pulses. Remove dough from processor and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes (this step will allow the flax meal to absorb excess liquid and make the dough less sticky).

2. Press dough out onto a sheet of parchment paper, forming a rough rectangle about 3/4″ thick. Spread 1/3 of the seaweed pieces across the dough, then fold dough into thirds. Repeat this step twice more to incorporate the remaining nori. Continue pressing and folding dough until nori is incorporated throughout dough.

3. Preheat oven to 400F. Layer a second piece of parchment paper across the top of the dough and roll to desired thickness (mine were a little over 1/8″). Use a butter knife or a pizza cutter to cut dough into squares. Transfer the bottom sheet of parchment paper, with crackers on it, to a baking sheet. Bake at 400F for 8-12 minutes, until crackers are slightly browned. Remove from oven and allow too cool. Crackers will firm up and become crisper with cooling.

Tahini and lime cookies (vegan, gluten free)

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This weekend, I was doing some baking, and M. requested “paleo” cookies. These little morsels, a remake of a favorite recipe from Vegan Cookies Invade your Cookie Jar, were the result. If the flavor combination is sounding a little odd to you, let me assure you that actually, lime and tahini in cookie form is pretty awesome. Also, I’ve practically convinced myself that they’re seasonally appropriate: citrus is abundant in winter, and tahini, being Middle Eastern, is totally something that might have been eaten by shepherds gathering around the manger in Bethlehem. Right? Maybe? At any rate, these cookies are moist, lightly sweetened, and perfect for pairing with and afternoon or evening cup of tea.

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I considered calling these cookies “sugar free”, but ultimately decided not to. If you draw your “sugar” line at table sugar, then feel free to consider this recipe sugar free. Personally, I always feel a bit weird calling a fruit-sweetened dessert “sugar free”, because fruit does contain sugar. So instead I’ll give the long form: these are sweetened with dates, and they have about half as many sugar calories as most “conventional” cookie recipes, plus a bit more fiber and protein. Okay, spiel over. Back to the recipe. It’s really good, I promise.

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Tahini and Lime cookies (vegan, gluten free)
makes 2-3 dozen cookies

Ingredients
1/2 c. coconut oil
1/2 c. tahini
12 dates, pitted and roughly chopped
grated zest of 2 limes
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 c. lime juice
3/4 c. almond milk
1 c. coconut flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp sesame seeds

Method
1. Sift together coconut flour, salt, and baking powder.

2. In a food processor fitted with the metal s-blade, blend together oil, tahini, lime zest, and dates until dates are fully incorporated (there will probably still be some brown flecks.

3. Transfer mixture to a large mixing bowl. Using a hand mixer (or, if you don’t have one, a wooden spoon), incorporate the remaining wet ingredients into the mixture. Add the flour mixture, a few large spoonfuls at a time. When all the flour has been incorporated, the dough should be moist and somewhat sticky (if you pick up a piece, pinch it, and then pull your fingers apart, some dough should stay stuck to your hands). If needed, add more almond milk to the mixture, one tablespoon at time.

4. Start oven preheating to 350F and line two baking pans with parchment paper. Place sesame seeds on a small plate or saucer. Form dough into approximately 1″ balls. Press each ball into the sesame seeds, then place on the baking tray, seed side up.

5. Bake at 350F for 14-16 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool before eating (if you can!)

Chocolate hazelnut truffles (vegan)

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This past weekend I felt like a big “Christmas is coming!” light finally went on. Sure, the retail sector has been pushing Christmas for the past month, but I’ve managed to remain fairly oblivious. On Sunday, things conspired to remind me: it was the beginning of Advent, Trader Joe’s positioned a huge display of peppermint hot chocolate prominently by their front door, and both of my parents demanded that I provide them with flight information for our planned visit back East later this month.

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Anyway. One thing I love to do each December is to make a few edible treats to gift to friends or just bring to parties as needed. For a long time, I stuck with my mother’s trusted ginger cutout recipe (which I think I’ll be trotting out again this year for a cookie exchange). There was also the year of the church window candy (cute, but a little ho-hum), the year my German teacher assigned me the task of making pfeffernusse and I turned our hand mixer into a hot smoky mess (never again), and the year of the custom hot cocoa mixes (which was a major hit).

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This year, one of my projects is these little vegan “truffles”. Technically they aren’t really truffles, since they’re vegan and don’t involve a cream-based ganache, but they are rich and intensely chocolatey, which to me are two of the essential qualities of any chocolate truffle. Loaded with cocoa powder, spiked with hazelnut liquer, and of course, finished off with a chocolate shell coating. These are absolutely a treat to be savored. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call them a health food, they’re fairly low in sugar compared to a lot of traditional holiday treats.

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Chocolate Hazelnut Truffles
makes 24 small truffles

Ingredients
1 1/4 c. hazelnuts
1 tsp hazelnut extract or liqueur, such as Frangelico
1/2 tsp coffee extract, or strong espresso
2 dates, pitted and roughly chopped
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

For the chocolate coating
2 oz dark chocolate
2 tsp coconut oil

Method

1. Heat a large skillet to medium heat. Place the hazelnuts in the pan and toast, stirring frequently, for 8-10 minutes, until the skins have turned a very dark brown. Remove nuts from heat and transfer them to a clean cloth. Fold the cloth up to make a bag around the nuts and shake vigorously. This step should remove most of the skins from the hazelnuts. Set 12 hazelnuts aside (these will be used for decorating, so try to pick nice looking ones).

2. In a metal food processor fitted with the s-blade, grind the remaining hazelnuts into a rough butter. This step will likely take ~10 minutes.

3. Add the extracts, dates, and cocoa powder to the nut butter. Process until smooth, pausing once or twice to scrap down the sides of the processor.

4. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Roll the truffle mix into 24 balls. Each ball should be slightly over 1 tsp of the truffle mixture. Place in the fridge to cool for 20 minutes.

5. While the truffles are cooling, cut each of the 12 reserved hazelnuts in half. Then make the chocolate coating: place chocolate in a microwave safe bowl and microwave at 50% power for 1 minute. Stir and continue melting in 30 second increments if needed. When chocolate is melted, stir in the coconut oil.

6. Dip the truffles in chocolate. I used a small wooden skewer to spear each truffle and dip it, then let the chocolate coating drip off for a few seconds. Place each dipped truffle back on the parchment paper and top with a hazelnut half. When all truffles are dipped, return to the refrigerator and cool until chocolate has hardened.

Store in a cool location.