One woman’s quest to put health and practicality together in her Shanghai life
January 1st has always marked for me the start of a winter doldrum period in which I force austerity measures on my stomach. Just as I completely ignore all healthy advice in December, I go the opposite direction in January. This usually leads to a sincere but short-lived attempt at a vegan raw food diet, from which I eventually collapse into a chocolate flourless torte.
Call it age, call it my first year with two small kids, but this new year I just can’t get the pendulum to swing in that direction anymore. I’ve already tasted failure (cold sprouted grains whole wheat bread) and my mouth refuses to take it anymore. In particular, my taste buds continue to crave baked goods in all forms. Cookies are so immediately rewarding, so easy to bribe my kids with, and such a family friendly activity to make, that I simply cannot relegate them back into the holiday period.
So this year, I called upon a fellow Brooklynite from the States, Jenna Suharto, owner of OMG Bakery here in Shanghai, to help me take my baking habit from bad to…. well, I almost dare say healthier. I learned with a few small substitutions, a previously decadent once-in-awhile cookie can be converted into a frequent treat.
The secret substitutions:
Honey, applesauce and/or bananas for white sugar.
Whole wheat and/or almond flour for white flour.
The nutritional logic behind these substitutions lies in the way white sugar and white flour hit our blood sugar levels, and damage our health.
White sugar to our bodies is like a bad sexy boyfriend – temporarily uplifting but ultimately a completely unreliable source of energy. Plus, the energy used up in the initial blood sugar spike actually depletes us of necessary nutrients and minerals. The subsequent fall depresses our immune systems, and the post-breakup depression forces our now low blood-sugar-level to go back for more.
Honey, on the other hand, is like the good guy you marry. It’s reliable, natural, soothing, gives equally from the nutrients it takes, warms your glucose levels up much more slowly, and doesn’t drop you for a deep fall.
However, from a practical point of few, they’re not exactly the same. Honey is denser and heavier. Therefore, you need less of it relative to sugar (3/4 cup honey to 1 cup sugar according to Jenna), and you are also best served making this substitution in cookies and other flat baking goods. It can also be used in cakes as well, but these need more rise. Adding ¼ teaspoon extra baking soda can help add that back in.
Applesauce and bananas are also excellent substitutes, but sugar-free applesauce is almost impossible to find in Shanghai and so if using the first, try to make your own. Both are much heavier than honey and so are best for moist cookies. Keep in mind that for all these substitutions, you’ll want to bake at a lower temperature (start at 25 degree lower) and for a longer time. Make a small first batch and keep checking it for the right combination for your recipe and oven.
Thirdly, you can reduce your sugar content overall by peppering your batter with dried fruits. These make the cookies sweet to the mouth, but much easier on the body.
White flour has all the same effects on our body as white sugar, plus the added negative bleaching agent chemicals (imagine eating what you put on your dirty white clothes). The good news is, it’s really easy to substitute in baking. The simplest way to is to buy whole meal flour. This flour is not bleached, and it still has the bran and germ (the healthiest part of the grain) intact. If you want to kick the health factor up a notch, grind up some almonds in a blender and put that in your flour mixture. You will add texture, extra flavor and protein without losing anything in taste at all.
Finally, you can take some of the fat out of baking by substituting yogurt for at least half of the recipe’s butter and/or milk ingredient. Generally, you need about half as much yogurt as you do butter (for the substituted portion), and its good not to fully eliminate butter but to put in more of a blend. Also, remember that for these dairy ingredients in particular and eggs, antibiotic-free sources are the best for your body. (Check out Fields China www.fieldschina.com for some great organic milk and egg products.)
All of these substitutions require a bit of experimentation, but I guarantee you that the changes will be worth it, especially if your guilty conscience is as sensitive post-Christmas as mine. Below is one recipe to inspire and kick the healthy baking off for the New Year!
Post-holiday sugar cookies
2 ½ cups wholemeal flour
1 ¼ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cup butter (or ¾ cup butter and ½ cup yogurt)
½ cup apple juice
½ cup honey
3/4 cup dried raisins
Cook at 175 Celsius for 30 minutes. Keep in mind, you should always watch the first batch. Every oven, especially in Shanghai, is different.
Contributors Info: Rashmi Jolly Dalai has been a writer and editor in New York, and now in Shanghai. She recently published “Mika the Picky Eater”, a children’s picture about a little girl who doesn’t like fresh fruits and vegetables. More information about her and the book can be found on her website.