Cakes and cookies are my two absolute favorite sweet treats. Give me a layer cake sandwiched with flavorful filling and swirled in a cloud of frosting for my birthday, and you don’t even have to buy me a present! And cookies are my other sweet weakness – I have to give most of them away when I bake them, or I will eat them all myself.
Even though these high-carb, high-calorie treats should be a rare indulgence for most people, including those living with diabetes, there are ways of making them potentially better for you when you do want to enjoy them. With these tips, you can help make the treats you enjoy healthier, but still tasty! Talk to your healthcare team about how baked treats might fit into your meal plan.
Use real sugar, just less of it
My advice after years of baking with both sugar substitutes and sugar, is to use real sugar for baking, but use less of it than you might be used to. Yes, you can lower the carbs and calories in cakes and cookies by using artificial sweeteners, but they probably won’t taste as satisfyingly delicious nor will they have the same delicate texture as versions made with real sugar.
Artificial sweeteners – even natural ones like stevia – cannot perform the functions of sugar in cakes and cookies. Sugar does more than just sweeten. It tenderizes, making baked goods light with a delicate crumb. It caramelizes, yielding a browned crust on cakes and crisp edges on cookies. It gives cakes volume, helping them to rise tall and tempting, and it holds moisture, keeping sweets from being too dry and crumbly. But you don’t need as much sugar as you might think.
How much sugar can potentially you cut out? In conventional cake, cupcake, and muffin recipes (those not specifically created to be lower in sugar), you can use one-third to one-half less sugar than the recipe calls for without any detrimental effect on flavor, texture, or moisture. I’ve created hundreds of recipes using about half the sugar that I would typically use in a dessert recipe. In months of testing these recipes and giving them to dozens of friends and neighbors, no one ever said a dessert wasn’t sweet enough. Try cutting the sugar by 1/3 in your favorite cake, cupcake, and muffin recipes – I’ll bet you and your friends and family may not even notice the difference!
Cookies, however, are a different story. They need a high level of sugar in the dough to lighten the texture, create a crisp brown crust, and help them spread as they bake. That’s why cookies made with artificial sweeteners are more dense and less crisp and browned than cookies made with real sugar.
As a compromise in making lower-carb cookies, products that combine artificial sweetener with sugar are often a suitable option. They have about half the carbs of sugar, but have enough sugar in them to give you a treat that more closely approximates a version made with real sugar.
Another way to use less sugar is when a cake or cookie calls for frosting, try making just half of the amount of frosting the recipe calls for and spread it thinner. Instead of spreading frosting between cake layers, try an all-fruit spread that will complement the flavor of your cake. Try a thin layer of raspberry for a lemon cake, cherry for a chocolate cake, or blackberry for a coconut cake.
For Bundt cakes, loaf cakes, and single-layer cakes that often call for a powdered sugar glaze, skip the glaze and lightly sprinkle them with powdered sugar. It’s a pretty garnish, and you can sprinkle a whole cake with just a teaspoon of sugar.
You can’t beat butter
Diet margarines or “spreads” contain more water than butter does, and they will not result in the same flavor or texture as when you use real butter when baking. But, as with sugar, you can probably use less butter in most cake and cookie recipes than is called for. In my experience, you can cut the butter or oil in conventional recipes (not in recipes designed to be low-fat or low-calorie) by 1/4 to 1/3, and still get the same results.
Unsweetened applesauce and prune butter are often recommended as substitutes for fat in cakes and cookies. If those ingredients fit into the flavor profile of your recipe – if you’re making a carrot cake, gingerbread, or apple-spice cake – try replacing half of the butter or oil with an equal measure of applesauce or prune butter. Don’t use these products in delicately flavored cakes such as a plain white cake, pound cake, or pineapple upside-down cake, where the flavor and/or color of these products might not be satisfactory. And, don’t try to replace all the fat; baked goods need some fat for moisture and richness.
One surprising tip: If you’re not careful, you can add a lot of fat to a dessert just by buttering the pan! For buttering cake pans with as little fat as possible, try using a silicone pastry brush. With one of these silicone-bristled utensils, you can coat a large pan with just a couple teaspoons of butter. And the best part: these brushes are dishwasher-safe, unlike natural-bristled pastry brushes. Parchment paper is a healthy baking tool as well. Lower-fat cakes tend to stick to the pan more than regular cakes, so always line the bottom of cake pans with a round of parchment paper. Most cookie recipes don’t require you to oil or butter the pan, but I still line cookie pans with parchment, simply for the ease of cleanup.
An easy way to cut back on butter and fat (and calories) is to simply make cakes and cookies that are naturally low in fat: meringues, biscotti, tuiles, and gingersnaps are good choices for cookies, and angel food or chiffon are lower-fat options for cakes. Low-fat does not mean low-carb, so always count the carbs in a dessert toward the total for your meal.
In all but the lightest-textured cakes (angel food cakes and chiffon cakes) and almost all cookies, you can make a healthier choice than white flour. I often replace half of the white flour called for with whole-wheat flour in cake and cookie recipes. Learn more about grains and fiber here.
Another option is white whole-wheat flour, which is whole-wheat flour made from a variety of wheat that is white, rather than the typical red wheat, giving it a lighter color and a more delicate flavor. Whole-wheat pastry flour, which is made from soft wheat and contains less protein than ordinary hard wheat, is an excellent flour for making cookies. Look for these specialty flours in natural foods supermarkets or specialty baking stores.
Add sweetness and flavor with fruit
In cakes and cookies where it makes sense in the recipe, I like to use a fresh or dried fruit. It can add sweetness, authentic flavor, pleasing color, and more added nutrients with very little effort. One trick I like to use is to add a peeled, shredded apple or pear to cakes like gingerbread, carrot cake, or fruit cake. The fine shreds disappear as the cake bakes, adding moisture and flavor with minimal additional carbs or calories. In coffee cakes and loaf cakes that call for berries, always choose either fresh berries or unsweetened frozen berries to minimize carbs and calories.
When any cake or cookie recipe calls for dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries, or chopped apricots, I plump them first by boiling a little water or fruit juice in a saucepan, then adding the fruit. I take the pan off the heat, cover it, and let the fruit cool. Then, I drain it and blot it dry on paper towels. This extra step adds moisture to dried fruit and makes the flavor more pronounced, so you can use less.
Consider skipping the frosting on a simple loaf cake or a single layer cake and serve it instead with a handful of berries, a few slices of mango or peach, or some orange segments. A flourish of fruit elevates an ordinary slice of cake to company-worthy status, and it has much fewer carbs than frosting.
Make the most of nuts
Never mind that nuts are a great source of protein, fiber, and antioxidants – they just taste so good! A handful of nuts can make the difference between an ordinary cake or cookie and one that’s truly memorable. The only caution is that nuts are one of the highest calorie foods, so you have to be careful about how many you use. You’ll be able to use fewer nuts if you toast them before adding them to cakes and cookies. It takes less than ten minutes and really amplifies the flavor of these high calorie treats. Toast whole shelled nuts before chopping them; if you chop them first, the smaller pieces might burn. Simply place the nuts in a small baking pan and bake, stirring once, for eight to ten minutes or until they are fragrant and lightly browned. Immediately transfer them to a plate to cool (if left on the pan, they may burn from residual heat) and then chop them for your recipe. Read more about cooking with nuts here. I wish you a fragrant house, filled with delicious baking smells!
For more tips on how to make baking diabetes-friendlier, visit The DX archive.
Jackie Mills is a registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines as Cooking Light and Family Circle, as well as for books such as the American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor at Redbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience