By Katie Arnold-Ratliff; Recipes created by Joanne Chang
It's sweet and soothing, delightful and delicious -- the stuff of birthdays and holidays, a portal to instant nostalgia, a perfectly lovely way to (occasionally) ring in 3 p.m. or complete a celebratory meal. And some of the best examples we've recently tried contain nary a speck of white sugar.
Most baked goods include sugar as an ingredient, but that's just one source of the sweetness we love--and not the most interesting one. Pastry chef Joanne Chang, proprietor of beloved Boston bakery and cafe Flour and author of the forthcoming cookbook Flour, Too, contends that maple syrup, honey, fruit juice, and agave nectar have more complex flavors than granulated sugar. "Sugar hits you high and sharp," Chang says. "It's a familiar, pleasing experience. But maple and honey have more distinctive tastes--and a warm, round quality. Put those in a dessert and you make it really flavorful in a way that you can't with white sugar."
Intrigued, we asked Chang to whip up some desserts without using white sugar; she responded with an apple walnut cake that gets its crackly edge from maple syrup, a banana bread pudding brightened with honey, a zingy citrus granita mellowed with apple juice. She wowed us with delicately crumbed lemony pistachio cookies made with agave nectar, a sweet derivative of the Latin American plant that gives us tequila, which Chang says "has a slight caramel taste -- it's a little deeper than straight sugar." She won our hearts with a dreamy creme caramel enriched with maple syrup (which she boils down until it's highly concentrated and caramelized -- no candy thermometer required). And then Chang blew our minds with a truffle-esque chocolate cream pie, explaining that because chocolate is already sweetened, it can be used to create a decadent dessert with no additional sugar.
The takeaway? The treats we love actually benefit from spanning the sweetener spectrum -- and many of those alternatives can already be found in our pantries. We see this as a victory for sweets seekers everywhere: Since life is too short not to eat dessert, we're always glad to find new ways to enjoy it even more.