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The unmistakable smell of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, mingled together in just the right combination. The sound of grandmother’s humming as a spoon gently clanks against the bowl. The feeling of warmth that wafts over my face as I open the oven to check on a batch of gingerbread. Little fingers covered with batter, tested while no one is looking. These are a few of my favorite things and they create an unmistakable feeling of sweetness in my heart.
As the holidays approach, willpowers will be tested as well-meaning friends and family supply a steady stream of sweet temptations like baked goods, candies, and cookies. For the person trying to be “good” these gifts may seem like a personal attack, one designed to test your self-control. The truth is though, that the sharing of sweet things is often an attempt to share kindness. Sweetness is an experience, and while food might be one way to get there, love, joy and compassion deliver sweetness as well. It is natural to search out sweetness; in fact, humans are instinctively programmed to respond to the taste of sweet. It is this instinctive desire that allowed early humans to find ripe fruits and vegetables while avoiding poisonous bitter plants.
So this season, rather than fight instinct, perhaps we can embrace our longing for sweet in a way that honors both the innate desire for sweetness and the necessary desire to remain healthy. As the old family recipes come out, remember to choose your ingredients wisely, opting for the highest quality ingredients, those that are minimally processed and organic whenever possible. Choose real butter over margarine or a natural shortening made from palm oil over one made with partially-hydrogenated oils; whole eggs over boxed egg whites; organic unbleached white flour or whole wheat pastry flour instead of conventional flour; and natural extracts and colorings over artificial versions.
And last, but not least, is the choice of sweetener. After all, if it is sweetness we are after, this may be the most important decision to be made. Because of our innate desire for sweet, sugar can be highly addictive, especially in its refined form. And there is little doubt that sugar is one of the greatest threats to health, implicated in everything from tooth decay to heart disease and osteoporosis. The human body has no biological need for sugar, but sugar tastes good and most of us will indulge at least occasionally. The trick is to indulge wisely by choosing natural sweeteners and keeping sugary treats in their rightful place in the diet, as an occasional treat. Don’t forget that while natural sugars do have some redeeming qualities, usually in the form of vitamins and minerals, sugar, natural or not, is still sugar. Also, be wary of manufacturers touting their products as “natural” because they are made with “real sugar.” While this is an improvement over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), manufacturers are replacing HFCS with refined white sugar, which is not a health food.
In the world of natural sweeteners there are a few that stand out as good choices for substituting in your favorite recipes. Remember that because these sugars are not highly processed they retain more of an individual flavor; experiment to find your favorite.
Sweeter than sugar, honey also adds moisture to baked goods. The taste and texture is dependent on the flower nectars used by the bees to produce the honey. Look for varieties that are made from local flowers and have not been heated or filtered. To substitute in baked goods: For each cup of white sugar use 2/3 cup honey, reduce the liquid by ¼ cup and reduce oven temperature by 25˚.
A byproduct of sugar processing, molasses is a thick syrup that retains many minerals and has a lower sugar content. The darker the molasses the higher the mineral content, the stronger the flavor, and the lower the sugar. Look for organic, unsulfured varieties. To substitute in baked goods: For each cup of white sugar use ½ to ¾ cup molasses and reduce liquids by ¼ cup. Molasses has a strong flavor and is probably best as one of the sweeteners in a dish rather than the sole sweetener.
Made from the sap of maple trees this dark syrup is less intensely sweet than white sugar. Maple syrup is graded according to USDA standards: Grade A tends to be lighter and more subtle in flavor with a thinner texture, while Grade B has a stronger taste and is generally higher in mineral content. Favor organic varieties, as formaldehyde may be used in the processing of conventional types and be sure to buy REAL maple syrup. There are many maple-flavored syrups available that contain little, if any, actual maple syrup. To substitute in baked goods: For each cup of white sugar use ½ to ¾ cup maple syrup and reduce the liquid by ¼ cup.
Obtained from the coconut palm flower buds in a manner similar to maple syrup, this sugar is moist with a complex taste and makes a good brown sugar substitute. It tends to clump so be sure to break up any pieces before adding to your baked good. To substitute in baked goods: For each cup of white sugar or brown sugar use one cup of coconut sugar.
Made from coarsely ground dried dates this sugar is minimally processed and retains the wonderful complex flavor of dates. It can be used sprinkled on top of foods or in baked goods. To substitute in baked goods: For each cup of white sugar use one cup of date sugar.
The above recommendations are for substituting white sugar, but natural sweeteners can also replace brown and powdered sugar in recipes. For each cup of brown sugar use a half cup date sugar and a half cup of honey; or use maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar as recommended for white sugar. For powdered sugar simply pulverize date sugar in a grinder or blender until a fine powder is achieved, substitute cup for cup.
As you share the sweetness of the holidays with your friends and family, remember that sweetness can come from many different sources. If you choose to share sweetness in a way that includes sugar, choose wisely and make sweet treats one part of a special celebration. And don’t forget to include love and good intention in everything you make—you’ll be able to taste the delicious difference!
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