A Sweet Alternative

December 18, 2007

What was I thinking, agreeing to post an entry a day for a whole month? True, I have really been enjoying the whole Holidailies event, but given the whirlwind of events that are generally going on this time of year, coupled with the fact that I’ve been fighting some kind of weird virus the past two weeks (hope it’s not some alien quinoa I ate, or something), and this whole idea of posting to a schedule seems insane.   

And so, I’m going to chuck the schedule tonight and write about something else entirely, instead of the pre-planned “diet” post.  True, the title of my blog includes this very word, AND it is so often foremost on my mind that I may as well have a “diet” tatoo emblazoned on my stomach (where, of course, no living soul will ever see it if I can help it). Still, I am, every so often, occupied with something other than diets.  Like dessert. Or dogs, for example.

These days, when I make or bake desserts, I tend to use organic, natural, unrefined sweeteners.  That wasn’t always the case.  I grew up in a home with an immigrant father who’d been raised on a dairy farm and was quite accustomed to home-baked desserts (not to mention everything else made from scratch as well).  As it turned out, my mother was a dessert lover herself (the ultimate cause of her death, I’d wager) and an excellent baker.  So we always had homemade goodies in our house, and my sisters and I would come home from school to cookies, cakes, or whatever else my mom had whipped up.

Growing up in a house like that was both a blessing and a curse.  I knew how to bake by the time I was six or seven, helping my mother and aunt (who was also a professional baker and happened to live right upstairs in the same duplex).  On the other hand, all the females in my family have or had weight problems, and struggle with sugar addictions.  (My father, in contrast, is now in his eighth decade, has never been overweight, and just doesn’t understand how it can happen.  “If I feel my belt getting a bit tighter,” he says, “I just stop eating dessert for a couple of days, and I go back to my normal size.”  There’s no point telling him that (a) he doesn’t have an eating disorder, so of course he just “stops eating dessert”; and (b) he’s male, so all he has to do is have one less sip of coffee a day, and he’ll probably drop 10 pounds in a week.

The curse part is being so attached to dessert that I’m unwilling–perhaps unable–to cut it out of my life entirely, despite the deleterious effects I witnessed growing up. Even when my naturopath put me on a rigid diet that excluded all sweeteners for two years (including all fruits for the first 3 months), I eventually found a way to make dessert. I’d grind nuts with fruit puree–once the fruit was allowed–along with carob and spelt flour, shape it into patties and bake it; my HH called them “Dust Cookies.” 

So maybe I just need to accept that baking is something I’ll always do, like writing, or patting my dogs, or brushing my teeth every night.  I can live with that, as long as I’m not harming my health in the process.  And that’s where the alternative sweeteners come into play.

It’s true that all “real” sweeteners will be converted to glucose in the body, thereby raising blood sugar levels.  But there’s a huge difference between the immediate BOOM of sugar (converted quickly) and something like agave nectar, (converted slowly, more like a whole fruit would be, allowing for a more even rise in blood sugar levels).  The lower GI (glycemic index) of agave also supposedly makes it appropriate for diabetics (if only it had been available when my mother was younger!). 

It was a huge challenge at first when I began to bake with alternative sweeteners (not to mention the shift from regular flour to mostly spelt flour, from using eggs to no eggs, from butter to vegetable oils, and myriad other small changes).  Eventually, though, I learned how to substitute healthier (for the most part, liquid) sweeteners for the sugar. 

I use a variety of natural sweeteners now, but agave is by far my favorite. Somewhat like honey with a lighter consistency, it has a delicate flavor that won’t overpower the other tastes in your dessert (so, for instance, while I will use maple syrup in baking, I opt for agave when I’m making something light, like a lemon cake or banana cupcake). It’s also less sticky than honey, so it won’t cling to the bottom of the jar when it’s almost empty (just invert and wait a few seconds, and every last drop makes its way out).

If you haven’t tried it and would like to, here are a few quick tips for converting your existing recipes:

  • Agave is about 1-1/2 times sweeter than regular sugar.  So if you’re replacing sugar with agave syrup, you can start with 2/3 to 3/4 cup agave for each cup of sugar. 
  • Since agave is a liquid sweetener, simply substituting one for one with sugar will alter the chemistry of the batter by adding more liquid.  To compensate, either cut other liquids in the recipe (say if it calls for 1 cup milk) by about 25%.  In other words, if the original recipe used 1 cup sugar and 1 cup milk, change that to 2/3-3/4  cup agave and 2/3-3/4 cup milk.
  • If the original recipe didn’t use much liquid, you can still compensate for the agave by increasing the flour.  Add about 25% extra flour for each cup flour (in other words, if the original recipe calls for 1 cup flour, use 1-1/4 to 1-1/3 cups with the agave).
  • Baked goods made with agave may be a little heavier than what you’re used to, so you might want to increase any leaveners. If the original recipe calls for 1 tsp. baking powder, I usually up it to 1-1/4 or 1-1/2 tsp.
  • Finally, agave browns faster than sugar (just as honey does), and so should be baked at a slightly lower temperature for best results.  If the original recipe uses 350F, I will bake an agave-based recipe at 325F.      

Baking with agave allows me to create sweets that I’m willing to eat (that is, things that are actually tasty), without causing terribly unhealthy swings in blood sugar levels.  And I do believe that dessert can be part of an overall weight loss eating plan (see, I didn’t say “diet.”). 

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7 Responses to “A Sweet Alternative”

  1. Johanna Says:

    Hi – I like your blog and am hoping to try out some of your recipes but was interested to see you posting about agave – I have seen it on recipes but haven’t felt like looking out for it at the shops til I saw your comments – but I would like to be able to recommend recipes to others who might not have it – so for me (if I am lazy) and for others, can you tell me if it possible to substitute honey rather than sugar – I had thought this was the case but am less sure when I have read your post. Thanks.

  2. Ricki Says:

    Hi Johanna,
    Welcome! Thanks so much for visiting my blog and for your positive comment.

    Yes, you can definitely substitute honey for agave. I’d keep three things in mind, though: 1) People have told me they find honey sweeter than agave, so you might want to use just a wee bit less honey; 2) honey has a MUCH more pronounced flavor than agave, so be aware that it may overpower some of the other flavors in the recipe; and 3) honey is acidic, so when using honey, add about 1/4 tsp. baking soda (beyond what the original recipe says) for each cup of honey you use. Other than those, the same rules would apply for honey as agave (in other words, reduce liquids or increase flour in original recipe).

    In my baking, I have found that the substitutions work with varying degrees of success depending on the original recipe–so there is always a bit of experimentation involved. If you do find yourself near a health food store and see some agave, I’d highly recommend trying it, though!

  3. Deb Schiff Says:

    Hey Ricki,
    Thanks for your post on agave nectar. I can see a growing trend toward more people adopting it as their sweetener of choice, mainly for that lower glycemic index.
    My suggestion about making recipes more 1 to 1 substitution is to use coconut flour for less than 1/3 of the flour in the recipe. Then, you don’t have to make any calculations regarding the sugar or liquids in the recipe. And, you don’t have to alter the amounts of the dry ingredients, which can have some negative side effects.
    However, you definitely have to cut the power on the stove by 25 degree F because agave browns/burns much quicker than sugar does.
    The other thing about coconut flour is that it adds fiber and protein to a recipe. Fiber and protein are great things for dieters like us. They keep us feeling full longer and help us meet our goals. Love your blog!

  4. Ricki Says:

    Hi Deb,

    Thanks for the additional info!

    I LOVE the idea of using coconut flour, but unfortunately, for those of us here in the Toronto area (I think all of Cananda, actually), coconut flour isn’t yet an option (I’m not sure about those of you in the antipodes–do you have it?). I am definitely going to buy a bag or two next time I’m in the U.S., but for now, I’ll have to make due with the substitutions.


  5. Great post–I’ve just started using agave occasionally and can definitely use guidance.

    As for the honey, I’ve read it’s 3-4 TIMES sweeter than sugar, and after once trying out a 1-to-1 sugar/honey ratio in a recipe replacement, I can vouch it’s probably true. You know a cookie is killer sweet when I won’t eat it!

  6. Ricki Says:

    Sally,

    Wow on the honey point! It makes sense, though, since agave is already sweeter than sugar, and honey is even sweeter than agave. But I’m pretty sure we’d be even on the cookie issue–no such thing as “too sweet”!

  7. Shirley Says:

    Hi all,… If anyone is interested, the best prices on agave syrup seem to be on amazon.com. Most of the users rave about it; diabetics say that it doesn’t raise their blood sugar. From my research, the best one for the money and the quality is:
    Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Raw Blue Agave. It can get quite pricey if you don’t get it somewhere like Amazon. Hope this helps someone who wants to try it.


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