Ask any health expert and they'll tell you sugar is the devil. While it's in your best interest to practice moderation when it comes to any treats, you might as well do so without worrying about what other mystery ingredients may be in processed goodies. Shauna Sever of The Next Door Baker is here to help you satisfy your cravings guilt-free with a just-launched dessert recipe cook book, Real Sweet ($21). Her latest recipes use only natural, unrefined and alternative sweeteners (think coconut sugar, agave nectar, orange blossom honey, pure maple syrup and more you maybe never heard of—jaggery, anyone?)
The book is divided by occasion so you can find a treat for a bake sale, a picnic, a potluck, a fancy dinner party and more. Read on for Sever's tips and a scrumptious recipe to try.
What are the main points of difference between natural versus artificial sugar?
"Natural sugars are powerhouses of flavor. Just like we've become interested in baking with nutty, earthy whole grains in recent years to boost our baked goods, the same thing can be done by mixing up the sugars you use while baking. Natural and unrefined or less refined sugars are such an interesting way to add dimension to familiar recipes. They're less processed and closer to their original source. That original source could be sugarcane, but it could also be about using maple sugar and syrups, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, flavored honeys and unsweetened fruit juice concentrates."
Why should we avoid refined sugar?
"I don't really like to bake with low- or no-calorie or artificial sweeteners—they're typically void of flavor and questionable in terms of how good they are for you. It also makes me crazy how many of these sugar alternatives have weird aftertastes when baked, or make things come out pale or flat. Blah. If we're going to take the time to bake from scratch, let's choose sugars that actually taste good!"
What are the benefits of using natural sweeteners?
"First and foremost, for me it's all about flavor. I think of un- and less-refined sugars as being equal parts sweetener and seasoning. You can really get creative pairing ingredients with flavor notes: cocoa and super dark maple syrup, for instance, honey, nuts, and citrus or warming spices and dark muscovado sugar. You can really elevate treats with just a simple sugar swap. And, sometimes you can get a nice little nutrient punch along with the sugar."
Why did you start using healthier alternatives to white sugar?
"While much of my work to this point has been fueled by a steady stream of granulated white sugar (hello, an entire book full of marshmallow recipes!), behind the scenes I was playing around with unrefined and natural sweeteners. What started as an experiment to introduce a few more nutrients into the treats I keep around the house for my kids (and ahem, myself), quickly became a bit of an obsession. Forget nutrients, man! I became positively starry-eyed at the potential of alternative sugars to add layers of crave-worthy flavor and texture to sweets."
What tips would you offer those new to baking?
"I always tell people to start by getting an oven thermometer. You can avoid so many issues by knowing you're oven is the temperature inside that it says on the outside! Choose recipes from trusted sources. Use the correct pans as called for in the recipe. Read the recipe a couple of times before you begin, and measure out your ingredients beforehand. And above all, go easy on yourself! Build your arsenal of tools and recipes slowly, and work your way up to more complicated recipes."
What do you hope readers take away from reading Real Sweet?
"That baking with alternative sugars can be way more "hip" than "hippie"—you can play with different sugars in the same way that you'd experiment with other specialty ingredients, and really add new dimension to familiar recipes. With a few helpful hints and some great recipes to get your creativity flowing, you can really have fun in the kitchen with these sugars, blow minds and take names. It's not just about "healthy baking", but all-around better baking, modern baking, and pumping up the familiar with next-level flavors and textures."
Recipe to Try: Spiced Chocolate Molasses Buttons
"These make a great holiday cookie—a hit with the chocolate lovers, spice cookie lovers and those who are drawn to the prettiest of the cookie tin contenders. This cookie gets a double hit of raw sugars: sticky dark muscovado in the dough and a roll through turbinado sugar that adds crunch and a naturally glittering finish around a puddle of bittersweet chocolate ganache."
• 1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons (51/8 ounces/144 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
• 6 tablespoons (1¼ ounces/36 grams) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
• ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon ground ginger
• ⅛ teaspoon allspice
• ¾ teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
• 10 tablespoons (5 ounces/142 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• ½ cup (4 ounces/113 grams) firmly packed dark muscovado sugar
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 1 large egg
• ¼ cup (3 ounces/84 grams)
• unsulphured molasses
• ½ cup (3½ ounces/100 grams) turbinado sugar, for coating the cookies
• 2 ounces (57 grams) bittersweet chocolate (60% to 70% cacao)
• 2 tablespoons (1ounce/28 grams) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
• teaspoon unsulphured molasses
1. Make the cookie dough: Into a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, baking soda, and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter, muscovado sugar, and vanilla extract on medium-high speed for about 4 minutes, or until the mixture is noticeably lighter in color, transforming from a dark, gritty-looking mixture to something fluffier and latte-like in color. Beat in the egg until completely absorbed. Beat in the molasses until well blended.
3. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually stir in the dry ingredients. Mix until well blended and even in color. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough for about 2 hours.
4. When you’re ready to bake, position the oven racks to the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350˚F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
5. To form the cookies, pour the turbinado sugar onto a plate. Using a small ice cream scoop with a capacity of about 1 tablespoon, portion the dough into balls. Roll the dough balls in the turbinado sugar, coating them completely. Place on the prepared baking sheets, evenly spacing them with l dozen cookies per sheet.
6. Bake the cookies until they are set on the edges, but still very soft in the centers, about lO minutes. Quickly pull the sheets from the oven (close the oven door so as to not let all the heat escape[). Using deftthumbs, a spoon with a very deep well (like a melon baller), or a thick-handled wooden spoon, make a deep indentation in the center of each cookie. Return to the oven to finish baking, about 5 minutes more. Let the cookies cool on the pans set over wire racks. If the indentations have become shallow, press them down again while the cookies are warm.
7. Make the filling: Place the chocolate and butter in a heatproofbowl. Melt in the microwave with 30-second bursts of high heat,stirring well after each interval. Stir in the molasses. Transfer the ganache to a small zip-top bag and work it toward the corner of the bag. Snip off a tiny bit at the corner of the bag. Fill each cookie with ganache. Let the cookies set at room temperature until the ganache is firm, about l hour.
8. Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.