Bakers have been sorely tested in recent years. First, there were calls to cut fat and cholesterol from the American diet. Is it fair to separate a baker from butter and eggs? Then, carbohydrates became the enemy. Try baking cookies without flour. It's not easy. At this moment, we are facing our biggest challenge yet. Nutritionists, including the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group that helps shape our country's official dietary guidelines, have recommended sharp new limits on sugar.
Is it possible to bake great desserts while cutting sugar? I wouldn't ask the advice of a dietitian, who might not have the sweet tooth that I've been trying to satisfy my whole life. I'd rather turn to Joanne Chang, acclaimed pastry chef and owner of Flour Bakery in Boston, who has just written a cookbook for this moment, the straightforwardly titled "Baking With Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar" (Chronicle Books, $25).
Chang's new collection (she's the author of two previous baking books) presents dozens of ideas for cutting back on white sugar or eliminating it entirely. She's not advocating deprivation, but moderation. "Reducing sugar is something I've always done for myself. I love sweets but I don't love things to be super, super sweet," she says. With a few simple tricks, reducing sweetness wasn't difficult. "The sweet part was easy. You can really get your palate to sense sweetness with extra vanilla, cinnamon or baking spices. You don't have to have a lot of sugar to wind up with a sweet result." It was the texture part that was challenging. "Desserts baked with less sugar aren't going to be as crispy, as chewy or as nicely browned. The texture is going to be different when you don't have a lot of sugar to cause all of those chemical reactions." A slight adjustment of expectations is all that it takes to enjoy less sweet versions of beloved desserts.
5 slices thick-cut, applewood-smoked bacon
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 to 10 pieces
4 ounces Cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3/4 cup creme fraiche
2/3 cup grade B maple syrup, divided
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
2. Lay the bacon on the prepared baking sheet, and bake for 25 to 28 minutes, or until about half of each strip is crispy and half is still a little bendy. Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack. When the bacon is cool enough to handle, chop it into 1/2-inch pieces and set aside.
3. Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
4. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with an electric hand mixer), briefly mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt on low speed until combined. Add the butter and beat on low speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the butter is somewhat broken down but there are still pieces about the size of a grape. (Alternatively, use a pastry cutter or two knives to cut the butter into the dry ingredients; proceed as directed.) Add the bacon and Cheddar and beat on low speed for 5 to 10 seconds, or until somewhat mixed into the dry ingredients. (If mixing by hand, use a wooden spoon to mix the bacon and Cheddar into the dough.)
5. In a medium bowl, whisk together the creme fraiche, 1/3 cup of the maple syrup, and the eggs until thoroughly mixed. With the mixer running on low speed, pour the creme fraiche mixture into the flour-butter mixture and beat for 20 to 30 seconds, or until the dough just comes together. There will probably still be a little loose flour mixture at the bottom of the bowl.
6. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Gather and lift the dough with your hands and turn it over in the bowl so that it starts to pick up the loose flour at the bottom. Turn the dough over several times until all the loose flour is mixed in.
7. Dump the dough onto a well-floured work surface and roll into a rectangle about 6 by 10 inches. With a knife or bench scraper, halve the dough lengthwise and cut each half into 4 pieces to make 8 rectangular biscuits in total. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. (At this point the unbaked biscuits can be stored in the freezer, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to one week. If baking directly from the freezer, add 5 to 10 minutes to the baking time and proceed as directed.)
8. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the biscuits are golden brown. Remove the biscuits from oven and let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack. In a small saucepan, whisk together the remaining 1/3 cup maple syrup and the cornstarch and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Let the glaze cool and brush onto the room-temperature biscuits. Makes 8 biscuits.