We all know I’m a big fan of looking beyond the headlines — understanding just what it is that makes a food healthy or unhealthy, exposing the truth that Big Ag doesn’t want us to see, explaining the complicating factors behind an organic or ethical label, etc. I believe that when we take the time to understand the why of food, it becomes a lot easier to understand how. How to tell the difference between what we should or shouldn’t eat.
This is the same principle I use on dessert.
Because I’ve got a big-time sweet tooth (though not as big as some people I know…) and I don’t believe in depriving myself, but I also know that lots of sugar, especially refined or corn-based, is not that great for my body, I’ve taken to figuring out ways to create healthier, lighter versions of desserts — that don’t skimp on the taste!
The bourbon fudge brownies pictured above are my latest conquest. (Ok, I swear, I’m not a huge lush. I just like to cook with bourbon. And drink it. Often.)
Derived and only slightly modified from my favorite cooking publication, Cooking Light magazine, these brownies were rich without being too heavy, and the perfect cake/fudge texture. You can really taste the bourbon! And best of all — they come in at only 148 calories per serving.
Now, I’m no calorie counter, but when it comes to dessert, the lower the better, because that means I can have one every night with no guilt. So how does it work? What is the magical hidden ingredient in these brownies to make them both delicious & relatively healthy? Prunes? Beets?
Nope. Nothing like that. Sugar, flour, eggs, chocolate, bourbon. All standard brownie parts.
In all my searching for lighter desserts, the one major principle that I’ve discovered is this: substitute. It’s remarkable how much better for you a recipe can become when you swap out an ingredient for a lighter counterpart.
Baking, my pastry chef sister will remind me, is very much a science, and I’m no chemist. In fact, I used to be particularly bad at baking because I was so bad at following recipes, and you can’t easily skip or change ingredients when baking — unless you understand what that ingredient does. Once you learn that an egg white is there as a binding agent or that the butter beaten with sugar helps aerate the cake, it becomes a lot easier to imagine what might fill in for those ingredients, and what to leave alone.
I did not learn this overnight. And in fact, I still don’t know most of it. The key to substituting in recipes for me has been to have someone else do it for me. I rely heavily on resources like Cooking Light, which I love because they provide recipes plus an explanation of how they’ve modified it.
Which means you get a brownie whose 150 calories include bourbon-infused melted chocolate. Which I most certainly did not stick my finger in to try while baking!
Vegan baking is another great way to learn substitutions. Since vegans will not eat eggs or dairy products, a vegan recipe is often already lighter. And then you learn great tricks you can apply to any recipe — my favorite being using applesauce in place of eggs or oil. I get a lot of great ideas from NYC’s vegan bakery babycakes, the website post-punk kitchen, and my awesome friends Ashley & Stephen at (never home) maker.
Once you begin practicing baking a bit more often, you gather these ideas, and that hard science of baking starts to become more manageable. If a recipe calls for buttermilk, you no longer need to make a special trip to the store — you can use some of that Greek yogurt! Want to avoid molasses? Try maple syrup instead! Maybe you’re out of eggs — but you have a browning banana?
It’s not quite a free-for-all, but it can be empowering. And fun. Once I got into it a little, baking became less intimidating, and more of a really cool adventure. We already know I like to make everything my own little by little, and it feels great to look at a coffee cake and know, whatever recipe I followed, it was my idea to use chocolate pudding in place of the yogurt.
Which is why, when I serve up delicious brownies on these crystal dessert plates, I pretend that the initials don’t stand for Maureen Finnegan Landrigan (my grandmother, to whom they once belonged). No, they stand for Marissa, Bad Ass Baking M*therF*cker.
I’d love to hear about your baking victories! Healthy desserts? Killer substitutions or modifications? Leave a comment and share your bad-ass baking moment, or subscribe to We*Meat*Again to stay up-to-date on my baking adventures!