One tradition of the holiday season may be found in the kitchen: baking and enjoying desserts and treats with family and friends. Even if you limit sweets and baked goods for most of the year, this is the season when it may feel harder to say no. Here are some questions I’m frequently asked that may help make holiday baking diabetes-friendlier.
Can I bake with artificial sweeteners? If so, how much should I use to replace the sugar?
Yes, you can use artificial sweeteners for baking, but you’ll have to make tradeoffs in the quality of your recipe. Sugar does more than add sweetness to desserts, and artificial sweeteners do not perform all of sugar’s functions. For example, sugar caramelizes as it heats, which creates the flavorful browned edge on cakes, cookies, and muffins. Sugar helps retain moisture in baked goods as well; without sugar, baked goods may taste dry and go stale faster. And sugar plays a part in how baked goods rise, so cakes and loaves made with artificial sweetener may not be as tall and light in texture as their sugar-sweetened counterparts. As long as you’re aware of these issues, however, you may still bake enjoyable foods with artificial sweeteners.
If you choose artificial sweeteners for baking, in my opinion the easiest products to use are granulated sweeteners, such as sucralose and saccharin that measure cup-for-cup like sugar. It is best to check the website or the package of each product for the recommended amounts. Desserts that rely on sugar only for its sweetness and not for browning, moisture, or texture –such as pudding, flan, and gelatin desserts – are especially good recipes for using artificial sweeteners.
What about products that blend artificial sweeteners and sugar?
These products provide some of the qualities of sugar – such as light texture, browning, and moisture – with about half the carbs of sugar alone. Consider products that blend sucralose and sugar, or stevia and sugar. Desserts made with these won’t be exactly the same as when you use sugar on its own, but the quality may be closer to the “real thing” than when you use purely artificial sweeteners.
Can I cut back on carbs by just using less sugar in my dessert recipes?
It’s impossible to make a blanket statement for all desserts, but for many you can usually cut back on the sugar by 1/4 to 1/3 with little or no adverse effect. Look for other ways to cut back on sugar by making less of a glaze or frosting, or omitting those all together. A simple and pretty way to add a finishing touch to a dessert is to dust it with confectioners’ sugar (also known as powdered sugar). You can sprinkle a large cake or a batch of cupcakes or cookies with just a teaspoon of confectioners’ sugar in a small wire strainer.
If I make a dessert that’s sugar-free, it’s low-carb, right?
This is a misconception. Keep in mind that most desserts have carbs not just from sugar, but also from other carbohydrate-containing ingredients such as flour, chocolate, milk, fruits, or nuts. Just because you’re not using sugar doesn’t mean you’re making a low-carb dessert. And it’s not just the carbs to think about in desserts. If you’re watching your weight, remember that most baked goods are high in calories even without sugar. If you have concerns about saturated fat, many cakes, cookies, and candies contain real butter, which has a considerable amount of saturated fat.
Cookies are often a tradition for the holidays. Can I make them sugar-free?
Cookies made with artificial sweeteners will not spread or brown like those made with sugar, and they may be drier and more crumbly than what you are used to with sugar. In my experience, for best results, use one of the sugar blend sweetener products for making cookies.
Can I make a crustless pie? Would that help cut the carbs?
Yes, without the crust (usually made with flour or crushed cookies), there will be fewer carbs – and lots of people think the filling is the best part! Instead of trying to alter a recipe such as pumpkin pie or a custard pie without the crust, consider making a dessert like pumpkin flan, crème brûlée, or chocolate pudding which might give you that comforting creaminess of a pie filling without a crust. If you want to cut the carbs even more, these types of recipes also usually work well using artificial sweeteners or sugar blend sweeteners.
Chocolate desserts are my favorite. How can I enjoy a treat during the holidays and still not have too many carbs?
One way I like to do this is to make my favorite dessert with good quality chocolate. I find I’m satisfied with a smaller serving because the chocolate flavor is so pronounced. Premium baking chocolate is very popular; you can find a wide variety in most supermarkets. You can even chop chocolate baking bars found in the baking aisle and use them in your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe – and they’re so flavorful, I am able to use less chocolate than the recipe calls for and still get great taste.
To get a punch of chocolate flavor using very little chocolate, drizzle cakes, cupcakes, or muffins with melted chocolate. Simply chop about 1/2 an ounce of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, place it in a resealable plastic bag, and drop the bag into a pot of hot water for a couple minutes. Snip a tiny corner off the bag and drizzle the melted chocolate on your baked goods.
For an elegant and flavorful garnish, use a vegetable peeler to cut thin shavings of chocolate from a chocolate bar. It takes less than an ounce of chocolate to add a holiday flourish to the top of a pie or a pudding.
What if I just don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners or the quality of the desserts made with them?
Sometimes there may be no substitute for having a full-sugar, full-fat holiday dessert that you truly enjoy. When you know there’s a treat that you want to have, cut back on the carbs in the rest of the meal to save room for that special dessert. And, just as important, enjoy a portion size that fits in with the meal plan you’ve discussed with your doctor. Whether it’s a cookie decorated by a child, your grandmother’s pecan pie, or your very own version of red velvet cake, you may still be able to enjoy sweet holiday traditions with your family.
For more tips on enjoying the holiday season, visit The DX archive.
Jackie Mills is the author of The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts. She is also a food writer and 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