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.

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A few Friday favorites

A few things I’m enjoying lately, some food, some not.

My mother is visiting this week, and it turns out she likes peanut butter these days. So I whipped some up for her in the food processor and it was, seriously, the best peanut butter EVER. Yes, even better than the grind-your-own from the hippie food co-op. So I’m now extra alert for recipes using peanut butter, and naturally these spring rolls with peanut sauce caught my eye.

I’m always game for an excuse to work chocolate into smoothies, and this choc & ginger crunch smoothie is the perfect dessert for a warm summer evening.

Or for a more polished summer dessert, a tart with a layer of pistachio cream. Take advantage of stone fruit season while it lasts, right?

If you’re like me, you probably wonder if your closet can be programmed to present you with a perfect outfit each morning, no thought required. So I enjoyed this little slideshow of ideas for redesigning your closet. I’m thinking of giving 1 & 2 a go, and have been reminded to make better use of the little hook I have on the side of my closet. But I can’t really see myself investing in closet wallpaper…yet.

And speaking of re-orgs, I’ve also decided that this year I’m signing up for the Kitchn cure. We keep a pretty well-organized kitchen, but it’s not perfect and I’d love to pick up some new ideas. Plus, sometimes you need a little reminding to do those occasional deep-clean tasks, and I’m hoping this will help me get on with that. Sparkly clean fridge, ahoy!

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.

Dinner diary: Black bean and freekeh bowl with vegetables

I mentioned a few posts back that I’m “in training” for my first half marathon. While I’m not doing a crazy high mileage training schedule, I am now having a couple of evenings each week dominated by running. So, no time to cook, but a definite need to do some post-workout recovery eating.

My latest solution to this challenge is to prep ingredients for some kind of dinner bowls on the weekends for reheating and assembly during the week. When a running evening rolls around, it’s just a matter of how fast I get myself through the shower before sitting down to eat. Since we’re in the middle of a drought, the shower part is fast 🙂

This particular bowl was inspired by the beautiful bibimbap bowls you can get at most (okay, probably all) Korean restaurants. My take uses a mix of freekeh, black beans, and sauteed cabbage as the base, which I realize is not at all the same as the usual base of rice. An array of vegetable toppings rounds out the upper layer of the bowl. I like to get in a few different colors and a mix of cooked and raw vegetables to keep things interesting: zucchini and eggplant stir-fried with ginger, garlic, and tamari; blanched broccoli, a little raw carrot, and a few bean sprouts. For some extra protein, I also added a a sliced up egg pancake, but you could also use tempeh or a few fried tofu cubes for vegan alternatives. A handful of scallion slices, a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, and a nice dollop of my thai basil sauce finish things off and makes it all look (and in the cast of the pesto, taste) a little less “I threw this together while wearing a towel” and a little more “this is a legitimately awesome dinner, thank you”.

Shredded zucchini salad

Zucchini noodles. Soooo two thousand…well, something. Back whenever zucchini noodles first burst onto the scene, I was pretty excited about the concept. However, there was a drawback: I didn’t own a spiralizer. Still don’t. Fortunately, I do own a food processor. Enter my take on the zoodle, shredded zucchini, which can be easily made using the grater blade, and is a perfect base for showing off a delicious homemade pesto sauce. Just toss the shredded zucchini in sauce, then add cherry tomatoes and a bit of fresh basil for garnish. Every bit is pure summer. Enjoy as a starter or side, or bulk it up into a meal for one with the addition of one of my favorite (perhaps to the point of near overuse?) add-ins, chickpeas.

Shredded zucchini salad
serves 1-2

Ingredients
2 small zucchini, ends trimmed and shredded using a box grater or the grater blade on a food processor
2 tbsp classic pesto sauce
3 oz cherry tomatoes, halved
1 c. chickpeas (optional)
3-4 fresh basil leaves, finely sliced, plus additional leaves for garnish
salt, to taste

Method

Mix together the shredded zucchini and pesto until thoroughly combined. Add cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and chickpeas (if using). Garnish with additional basil leaves.

Two pestos

Do you remember how I was growing tomatoes on my patio last year? Probably not. No problem, just know that there were tomatoes, and that they were wonderful, but a little crowded in their pots. This year, M. and I decided that we wanted to do tomatoes again, but that a pot upgrade would be needed. Which left me with four formerly tomato-ed pots to put to good use. I decided it was high time to start an herb garden:

Just a small one. Some arugula (not an herb, I know), and two kinds of basil. One a standard sweet basil, the other a fragrant and purple tinged Thai variety. Both plants have been going crazy since I transplanted them into the pots (which I filled with my first batch of finished compost!). I’ve been plucking off a few leaves here and there for salads, omelets, or garnishes, but recently I realized that my plants were in need of a serious harvest. So I got picking:

Then I got down to the business of making pesto. Since I had two kinds of basil, two kinds of pesto! The first is a classic Italian style, made with sweet basil and walnuts (in lieu of pine nuts, which have gotten way too pricey in recent years. Sorry, pine nuts). The second is a bit of a sacrilege: I took the concept of pesto, but gave it an Asian twist, using Thai basil, peanuts, sesame oil, and a touch of tamari.

Right now my favorite way of using pesto is to dollop a spoonful onto one of the vegetable+legume+grain bowls I’ve been eating for dinner most nights. I’ve also been using the classic pesto as a dressing for sauteed green beans and tomatoes, and either recipe is an easy way to upgrade most grilled or sauteed vegetables to a stellar side dish. And if you need more ideas, I’ll be sharing a few recipes that make use of these pestos later this week.

Two pestos
Each recipe makes between 1/2 and 3/4 c.

Classic Pesto
1 oz sweet basil leaves (about 1.5 oz with stems)
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste

Thai peanut pesto
1 oz thai basil leaves (about 1.5 oz with stems)
1/4 c. sesame oil
1/4 c. roasted salted peanuts
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tbsp tamari or soy sauce

Method

Place all ingredients in a food processor fitted with the metal S-blade. Process for 30 seconds, scrape down the sides, and process for another 10 seconds or so. If a thinner pesto is desired, add more oil, 1-2 tbsp at a time.

Pesto can be frozen, or will keep for up to a week in the fridge.

Cucumber salad with lemon feta dressing

Yes, another salad post. It’s funny, last year I remember having to make an effort to remember to make salads for lunch, but this summer they’re my default. I credit (or blame?) the weather. Last July I was wearing wool tights to work, this morning I dared myself to go bare-legged and I did not regret it. Not exactly Mark Twain’s San Francisco.

This week’s salad is a fairly classic Greek-inspired combination, with a few twists. I’ve recently become hooked on sun-dried olives and have been picking up a small container whenever I happen to drop by the Persian grocery. These olives are pungent and salty, with a softer texture than their fresh cousins. They’re also a little messy–make this salad too far in advance and you’ll find your cucumbers stained a deep brown!

The feta based dressing is what really makes the salad. Mixing the feta with olive oil, mustard and dill makes for a creamy and tangy blend, which works well with the cool crispness of the cucumber (how’s that for alliteration?). Although I’m also a fan of simply adding chunks or crumbles of feta to salad, I do like the guarantee of feta in every mouthful that you get with this dressing.

Some notes about ingredient volumes/servings. As written, I would consider this salad more of a “side” than a main dish, but I have been enjoying it as my main meal at lunch as well by tweaking the proportions a little. If I’m doing this salad as a main dish for one, I’ll increase the chickpeas, and often add a chopped boiled egg as well. Recently I packed this salad for the office and tried mashing the egg yolk into a spoonful of dressing. Delicious!

Cucumber salad with lemon feta dressing
Serves 4

Ingredients

For the dressing
2 oz feta cheese
3 tbsp olive oil
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp dried dill

For the salad
2 large cucumbers, peeled, cut in quarters lengthwise, seeds removed and cut into ~1/2″ slices
2 c. chickpeas
1/2 c. sundried black olives, pitted and sliced into quarters

Method

1. In a food processor fitted with the metal s-blade, combine all dressing ingredients and blend thoroughly.

2. Mix together cucumber and chickpeas. Just before serving, add the olives and dressing. Toss together to ensure and even coating of dressing throughout the salad.