Joanne Chang wants to make clear that her new cookbook, “Baking With Less Sugar” isn’t so much about muffins being less sweet as about them having more flavor.
But really, what we hear is: less sugar. And we’re skeptical.
Chang was, too.
“When I was writing this book, I was spending a lot of time wondering why I was writing this book,” she said, laughing. As author of “Flour” and “Flour, Too” cookbooks and owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, her livelihood has been all about sugar.
“It’s tricky for me,” she said. “I don’t view it as toxic at all, as long as it’s something you consume in moderation. Every year during the marathon, someone overdoses on water, getting overhydrated and landing in the hospital.
“Sugar’s not bad,” she said. “But yes, some people eat too much sugar, and I think there are ways we can use sugar in our baking differently.”
In other words, to those who fear the sugar police, she believes that intention and moderation always win over restriction and elimination.
When it comes to dessert, she said, we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking of chocolate and nuts and cream.
“What about maple sugar, honey, fruit? When was the last time you focused on those flavors?” she asked. “Just try to open your palate to the possibility. You might find it something you enjoy even more than what you enjoy now.”
For example, her recipe for banana bread contains just 6 tablespoons of sugar, but calls for super-ripe, black and spotty bananas for sweetness, which also lend a deeply banana-like flavor. A dozen blueberry muffins are packed with fruit, and just one-third of a cup of sugar.
Still, Chang discovered that baking with less sugar results in changes in a batter’s consistency, a turnover’s appearance, or a cake’s keeping qualities “that you just have to accept.”
“If you’re making a yellow birthday cake, it won’t last for more than a day, but will start to dry out,” she said, lacking the moisture-holding qualities of lots of sugar. Likewise, baked goods with less sugar don’t brown as deeply.
She mentioned her recipe for gingersnaps being one that might confound experienced bakers. Because sugar makes cookies crispy, she struggled with getting the “snap” with less sugar.
“I had no problem getting the flavor I wanted, but couldn’t get the darn things to crisp up,” she said. She used molasses and maple syrup for taste, “then we ended up baking them like biscotti,” leaving them in the turned-off oven for several hours. “As they dry out, they take on a whole different crunchiness.”
Early on, she decided not to include agave nectar or stevia among her sweeteners.
“They’re both really trendy, and I wanted to create recipes that had as their main sweetener something that everyone was familiar with. I wanted people who are baking at home for their family to be able to pull something off their shelves” instead of seeking it out or ordering online.
Dates, however, while perhaps not a pantry staple, proved a gold mine of both sweetness and flavor.
“They were something I discovered halfway through testing recipes,” she said. “I kind of wanted to write a whole other cookbook. Their taste is so like sugar, but with this really rich, deep background taste, a caramelly, brown-sugary taste.
“Plus, they worked out so well in so many recipes. Learning to bake with dates was a revelation for me.”