The arrival of shorter daylight and the foggy, gloomy weather is a sure sign that we are getting closer to my favourite time of the year, the holiday season. I still remember the special time when the entire family gathered around my parent's dinner table to celebrate. An essential part of these special gatherings was my Mom's delicious homemade meal, cooked from scratch. As a child, I did not realize how much time, effort and creativity she had to put into preparing these dishes which contributed to the jovial, unforgettable atmosphere of Christmas.
Many years have passed since then and I now have my own family and friends to gather around our dinner table. Every year, I strive to re-create the festive atmosphere that still lives deep inside me. I prepare some of the traditional recipes that my Mom passed on to me and the ones that my family loves. They eagerly await for my special fish recipe on Christmas Eve, roasted duck or goose on Christmas Day, but mostly for the holiday pastries that I bake once a year only. Needless to say, all of the baked sweets would be gobbled up shortly after they cool down if I allowed them to eat as much as they wanted. Fortunately, the holistic nutritionist in me is well aware of the detrimental impact that all the white flour and sugar has on our waistline and overall energy. Therefore, to please my family's expectations and improve the nutritional content of my goodies at the same time, I started to experiment with substituting some ingredients for healthier alternatives. Here are some helpful tips that may help you in transforming your favourite recipes without compromising much on flavour.
The three major ingredients I recommend to "experiment” with are flour, sugar and fat. It is not the added quantity, but rather their quality that makes the difference. The majority of recipes are based on white, all-purpose wheat flour, which is a refined grain product that is digested quickly and causes a spike in our blood sugar level. If it happens regularly, the body will slowly become unable to normalize its blood glucose level. In addition, overconsumption of wheat products can result in food sensitivities and other chronic disorders. To prevent this, I suggest using a variety of flours in cooking and baking. I like to try out different gluten-containing (spelt, rye, kamut) as well as gluten-free grain flours (rice, millet, quinoa, buckwheat). Although variety is essential for me, I still have my favourites which I use more often. One of them is quinoa, which has relatively high protein, mineral and folate levels. The other two are coconut and almond flours, which provide a unique nutty flavour to my goodies while their high fibre-content ensures a steady release of sugar into the blood. The secret of swapping wheat flour with an alternative one is to know the exact amount that will work in your modified recipe. I often use holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy's flour substitution chart as a guide for calculating the amount of my alternative flour:
My final tip on trying a new type of flour in an old recipe is to run a pre-test to make sure that the final product has the expected texture, so that it is neither too dry nor too hard.
So what are the healthy choices for sweetening our desserts? Are artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, splenda or saccharin good substitutes? Not really. Although these are non-calorie sweeteners, switching to them will neither prevent weight gain nor decrease the chance of developing metabolic disorders. A healthier option is to cook and bake with whole food sweeteners which will provide important nutrients for our body. Raw honey is rich in minerals, antioxidants, natural enzymes and compounds exhibiting antibacterial and antifungal properties. Maple syrup is rich in manganese as well as some other important minerals and antioxidants. Both of these sweeteners bring a rich flavour to your dessert, meaning that their quantity has to be adjusted according to your taste. Coconut sugar, which tastes almost like brown sugar, is another alternative I like to work with. It belongs to the group of my preferred sweeteners for its glycemic index of 35 (due to its fiber called inulin), and its mineral- and antioxidant content. Keep in mind though, that all of the above mentioned sweeteners are NOT sugar-free. They all contain natural sugar; hence they have to be used in moderation! Finally, I'd like to mention stevia, which is derived from a South American plant that belongs to the daisy family. The unrefined stevia powder sold in health food stores contains natural compounds with anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. Although it is much sweeter than table sugar, it does convey a bitter aftertase, which will affect the final flavour of your dessert. To avoid this, you can use refined stevia which is up to 200 times sweeter than table sugar (a little goes a long way!). Most importantly, stevia is calorie-free and its glycemic index is 0, thus it will not raise your blood sugar level.
The third basic ingredient I like to modify in my recipes is fat. Although margarine is easy to work with, I do not suggest using it because of its harmful trans-fatty acids. Instead, all time favourite to use is coconut oil. Unfortunately, it has been given a bad reputation in the past due to its high saturated fat content. However, unlike the animal-derived long-chain fatty acids, this oil is rich in medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). What is the difference? MCFAs are easily digested and used for energy production, which means that coconut oil does not contribute to weight gain. In fact, it has been shown to boost metabolism when consumed in moderation! I also like to use butter in my baking, though I often reduce the required quantity by half and add some unsweetened apple sauce or almond butter to make the dough lighter. In a few recipes, I also include grape seed or avocado oil.
And that's pretty much it! Now that I have shown you three main ingredients to experiment with, let's start! It is BAKING TIME, THE HEALTHIER WAY!
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