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Baking With Sweet Alternatives

My foray into baking with alternatives to sugar began with a jar of honey my soon-to-be-sister-in-law Emily gave me when I visited the Maine farm where she and my brother lived. She told me it came from a local apiary, and if I couldn't take home some of the candy-like and perfect beets grown in the adjacent field, at least I could take honey. I wrapped the jar in a sweater, shoved it into my bag and rushed off to the airport, already missing the cold Atlantic and their good company.

Back in California, I drizzled that honey over waffles redolent of butter and orange zest, spooned it atop toast with and without peanut butter, and over dishes of ice cream, stirred generous quantities into cups of coffee. It tasted like Maine, sunny and bright, and made me remember the incredible blue fall sky.

Tasting an undertone of maple syrup in a peanut butter cookie spiced with dried ginger transitions the palate from summer into fall.

I like sweets, but if given a choice between sweet and salty, I'll most often pick salty. I'm more likely to crave salted (and peppered) potato chips, soy sauce-laden avocado sushi rolls or a piece of sharp cheddar cheese than a slice of fudgy chocolate cake.

Yet, I'm a baker. Wedding cakes, cupcakes, plain everyday cakes, oatmeal-cranberry cookies — I happily make them all. If more than a week goes by without my undertaking some sort of baking endeavor, I start to get twitchy. While I do eat a bit of what I make (to make sure it's up to par, of course), I usually hand off the fruits of my oven to friends, neighbors and colleagues who take them with no complaints.

So in the spirit of experimentation — and thinking outside the sugar box — I decided to incorporate some of that delicious Maine honey into my next cake. I started slow, and only swapped it in for about a quarter cup of the sugar called for in a recipe for vanilla cupcakes that I was making for a friend's birthday party.

A quarter cup was far too little. Could I perhaps even replace the white sugar entirely with honey? Should I just bite the bullet and make a full-on honey cake? And what about baking with maple syrup instead of sugar? Or that agave nectar stuff? Molasses?

I quickly emptied Emily's jar into a cinnamon-scented loaf that I scattered with sliced almonds and chopped pears before sliding into the oven, completely sugar-free. I even ate two slices myself before bringing the rest into the office. I was hooked on the idea of baking with alternative sweeteners, and I've hardly looked back.

White sugar is much maligned, probably with good reason, but I don't mean for this to be a treatise on the ills of sugar and sweeteners in general. However, the use of fruit or fruit juice or other nonwhite sugars to sweeten food is certainly worth considering as part of a healthful way of eating.

It's also fun.

For me, alternative sweeteners bring a spirit of adventure to my baking — whether through replacing a tablespoon of brown sugar with molasses (which has an added bonus of being an iron source) or by eliminating the amount of sugar called for in a recipe altogether and relying on fresh or dried fruit, nuts or even different varieties of flours (and a hint of bittersweet chocolate) to keep things interesting.

I like exploring the tastes and flavors other sweetening agents impart, too — discovering a hint of brown rice (via brown rice syrup) in a chocolate cake intrigues. Tasting an undertone of maple syrup in a peanut butter cookie spiced with dried ginger transitions the palate from summer into fall.

Or I might rely on fruit's natural sweetness to sweeten baked goods. For example, banana-cocoa muffins laced with a hint of cardamom and pecans can be lightly sweetened simply with applesauce. You won't even notice the lack of "regular" sugar, and I always feel virtuous when I eat one of those muffins.

I've also found that I will use less sweetener when I'm not using white sugar. Honey, for example, is quite sweet, so if I'm substituting it in a recipe, I'll reduce the amount. This works to soothe my salt-inclined taste buds and, I hope, better moderates my blood sugar.

The honey Emily gave me is long gone, but my interest in cooking with honey remains. I keep large jars in my cupboard, along with molasses and agave. I tuck jugs of maple syrup in the fridge and keep bags of dried cranberries and figs handy for spontaneous fits of cookie-making. I may still reach first for the salt shaker, but I might — finally — be finding the sweet spot.

Alternative Sweeteners

Agave nectar, extracted from the agave cactus plant, is a little sweeter than sugar.

Barley malt syrup, from sprouted barley, roasted and cooked down to a syrup with a maltlike flavor, is great for using in more savory recipes, such as a barbecue sauce, rather than baking.

Brown rice syrup tastes about half as sweet as white sugar, with a mild flavor.

A host of organic cane sugars, including muscovado sugar (made from unrefined, evaporated cane juice), organic, whole cane sugar (unrefined and unbleached); turbinado sugar (made by heating sugar cane juice, then spinning it in a centrifuge or turbine to extract moisture and molasses for large, golden crystals) and demerara sugar (similar to turbinado, with large sugar crystals).


Maple syrup

Molasses, a byproduct of refining sugar cane, is slightly sweet and a source of iron and calcium.

Stevia, derived from a perennial shrub with leaves 30 times sweeter than sugar and calorie-free.

Xylitol, a sweetener made from corncobs that is low in calories and tastes similar to cane sugar, is available online and in some health food stores.

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Nicole Spiridakis