Photo: Jupiterimages/Thinkstock
Decadent and healthy? Is there such a thing when it comes to desserts? You bet! Discover how good dessert can be without all the sugar, butter and cream we normally associate with sweet treats.
You might have to forgive me if I bombard you with delicious and decadent desserts for the next month or so. You see, I have a dessert cookbook to complete by mid-August and I've been procrastinating—my, oh my!

We all have our own process and approach when it comes to getting things done. When I was writing my first cookbook, I was given a year to complete the manuscript. At the time I had just finished a four-year stint as a personal chef, travelling the world with a very busy family, and all I wanted to do was to forget about food and cooking for a while and sit on a lovely beach staring out to sea.

And that's exactly what I did. I moved to Kauai and spent my days hiking, swimming, dancing and playing in nature. In the back of my mind, there was always the nagging thought, "I'm supposed to be writing a book," but try as I might, I couldn't get myself to sit at my computer and write. I would, however, always have a notebook and pen in my pocket, and whenever I got the inspiration, I would sit on a rock on the beach or by the foot of a tree on my hike and write. Even though I wasn't cooking in the sense of meal planning, making shopping lists and earning a salary, I was constantly whipping up delights to keep myself and my friends happy, or for picnics on the beach. Toward the end of the year that my cookbook was due, I was talking to a friend who had written a cookbook several years earlier. She told me she pretty much put her life on hold for a year, moved in with her mum and worked on her book 10 hours a day, seven days a week—boy, did that make me feel guilty!

However, somehow while I played and had fun, my book magically got written. I have talked before about my kitchen fairies, and—yes!—they did it again. It was confirmation once again that when I'm loving life and having fun, I'm at my most productive. I wasn't consciously "writing my book," but when I put all the pieces of paper together, there it was—like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle. When it went on to be singled out as "Best Health and Nutrition Cookbook in the World" at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, it was further confirmation that magic does happen and I believe that—just as my first one did—this one too shall be complete by the due date in mid-August...with you as my recipe testers!

Find out how Aine is going to create decadent, healthy desserts
The dessert book I'm working on is for a macrobiotic community I write for in Croatia, so there are certain criteria: no dairy products, refined sugar or processed ingredients, and of course the recipes need to use ingredients that are readily available there.

When it comes to desserts, "decadent and healthy" may seem like an oxymoron, but I like to prove otherwise. The first time I cooked for one of my actor clients who had a lot of food sensitivities, he called me up late at night as he was about to tuck into a slice of the chocolate berry mousse cake I had left for him and asked, "Aine, is this dessert healthy?" I assured him that it was dairy-free, refined sugar-free and wheat-free, and he responded, "I could eat healthy!" It was quite a revelation for him, and most people are quite surprised to realize how good dessert can be without all the sugar, butter and cream we normally associate with sweet treats.

Sugar is at the root of many of our modern-day health issues. Diabetes is the obvious one that springs to mind, with childhood diabetes becoming so much more prevalent these days. The average American consumes from 1/4 to 1/2 pound of sugar each day—that's anywhere from 30 to 60 teaspoons! Perhaps you're not spooning sugar into your tea or sprinkling it on your food, but if you read labels, there's some form of sugar in almost everything you eat.

Sugar comes in many guises. If it ends in "-ose," it's a form of sugar: glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose and dextrose are all forms of simple sugar, as are high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, Demerara sugar, raw sugar and Turbinado sugar. They're just processed in different ways, but they have similar effects on the body.

All carbohydrates in the body eventually turn to sugar at varying speeds, depending on their structure. Carbohydrates are classified as being complex, as found in whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables, or simple, which includes sugar, honey and maple syrup. The Glycemic Index is a scale used to indicate how fast a particular food is converted to sugar and raises our blood glucose (blood sugar) level.

Sugars are the body's source of energy, but for optimum health, it's important to consume carbohydrates that turn into sugar more slowly to keep our blood sugar levels stable. Concentrate on eating foods—even desserts—that are higher in fiber, because, in general, a food that's high in fiber will take longer to digest, resulting in a slower rise in blood sugar levels and more consistent energy.

Of course, sugar is a big subject, so I'm just brushing on it here. A book I thoroughly recommend for more information on sugar and its effects on the body is Sugar Blues by William Dufty.

See what you can use instead of sugar to create healthier desserts
I love desserts, and that's something I believe I have in common with the rest of humanity. However, for health reasons, I made a decision many years ago to steer clear of desserts made with refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and to cut down on my consumption of dairy products, so it was a fun and interesting challenge to create desserts that would keep me and my clients happy.

The following is a list of natural sugars that are less processed and are considered to be lower on the Glycemic Index than the simple sugars. Simple white sugar is pure sucrose, whereas many of these sugars are more complex in that they contain sucrose, glucose, fructose or maltose. They make a good substitution for sugar for making desserts and sweet treats. Obviously, if your health is compromised or if you're on a calorie-controlled diet, it's best to minimize sugars in the diet and to rely on fresh fruits and the sweeter vegetables to satisfy your sweet tooth.

When using liquid syrup to replace the sugar in a recipe, make sure to reduce the liquid used in the recipe by about 1/4 cup liquid to 1 cup syrup used.

  • Maple Syrup. Maple syrup is collected from the sap from the sugar maple tree. The sap is boiled to evaporate the water content and leaves an amber-colored syrup. Grade A maple syrup, which has three varieties—light, amber and dark—and is a higher-quality syrup with a mild flavor, is best used for drizzling on pancakes or waffles. Grade B syrup has a stronger flavor and is mostly used in cooking. Maple syrup is said to be high in calcium and other minerals such as manganese and zinc.
  • Agave Syrup. Agave syrup is extracted from the agave cactus and has become very popular recently as a sugar substitute. It is said to be low on the Glycemic Index and considered a safe sugar for diabetics. It is sweeter than sugar, so if using as a sugar substitute, you can use a little less. There has been some controversy over the integrity of claims made about the benefits of agave syrup recently, with some claiming it is a processed food and not a "whole food," and that it is heated to high temperatures in the manufacturing process. I believe there are companies who are producing a higher-quality "organic" product, and that in small quantities, it is a healthier option than using white sugar.
  • Rice Syrup. Rice syrup is made from cooked brown rice that has been inoculated with an enzyme that breaks down the starches. It is then boiled and concentrated to produce a syrup. It has a mild sweet flavor and is one of my favorite sweeteners to drizzle on desserts or use in making cookies and other baked goods. Rice malt is made using a different process than the enzymes and is actually best for baking, because the enzyme-treated syrup will tend to make the baked goods runny.
  • Barley malt. Barley malt is a dark-brown syrup, a little bit like molasses, that's extracted from sprouted barley. It has a strong, distinctive flavor and can be used alone or in combination with other sweeteners. It's about half as sweet as white sugar and is high in B vitamins, which are important for stress relief, and is also used to promote bowel regularity.
  • Honey. Honey is made from plant nectar extracted by bees with many varieties, depending on the plant it comes from. The best form of honey is organic raw honey, which has not been heat-treated. Honey is a simple sugar and is best avoided by people with blood sugar issues, but it has many health benefits: Raw honey has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties and is often recommended as a remedy to treat upper-respiratory problems, including cough and cold symptoms. It has also been shown to boost the immune system. Manuka honey is produced by bees that utilize the nectar of the flowers that grow on the Manuka plant (indigenous to New Zealand). Medical research and anecdotal reports indicate that active Manuka honey can be used for various health problems, including stomach-related conditions such as acid reflux, heartburn and stomach ulcers, as well as sore throats, gum disease and skin disorders. It helps to heal wounds when applied directly to the skin. Manuka honey is also a natural antibacterial agent that has absolutely no known side effects when used for medicinal purposes. It also will not conflict with medication a person may be taking to treat the condition.

    When substituting honey for sugar in baking, use about 1/2 to 3/4 cup honey in place of 1 cup of sugar and reduce the liquid used by about 1/4 cup. Honey also causes baked goods to brown more quickly, so reduce the temperature by 25 degrees—if it's starting to brown too much on top, you can cover loosely with foil.
  • Concentrated fruit juice. Concentrated fruit juice is made from pure fruit juice that has been simmered down to make a concentrate. The most popular concentrates used in making desserts are apple, pear or grape. When using in place of sugar, use about 3/4 cup concentrate to 1 cup of sugar and reduce the liquid by about 1/4 cup.
  • Stevia. Stevia is a South American herb that has been used by the Guarani Indians in Paraguay for centuries. Stevia is calorie-free, and the natural form is 20 to 30 times sweeter than sugar. The concentrate is up to 300 times sweeter than white sugar, so a little goes a long way! I personally have not had very much experience cooking with stevia, but it is the preferred sweetener of many, especially those on calorie-controlled diets. It comes as a liquid concentrate or as a white powder and can be used in place of sugar for making desserts. I don't particularly recommend it for baked goods. By the way, the stevia plant is high in antioxidants which help the body combat the damage from free radicals and is said to help with hypertension.

Baklava was always one of my favorite desserts, so I hope you enjoy my Heavenly Baklava recipe that I'm bringing you this week, made with coconut oil in place of the butter normally used, and sweetened with maple syrup rather than sugar.

Wishing you to have a healthy and sweet life!

More from Aine


Next Story