May 26, 2024

When I attended pastry school in Paris a couple of years ago, granulated sugar appeared in nearly every tart, cookie or mousse recipe we learned. Only a few desserts used honey or maple syrup in its place.

That’s no surprise. Granulated sugar is dessert’s chief sweetener and also its secret pinch-hitter. It’s worth being specific: granulated sugar is nearly pure sucrose, and its unique powers have made it the standard for sweetening. It makes baked goods moist. It makes cakes and cookies tender. It combines with butter to make frostings fluffy and whips up with egg whites like nobody’s business (hence the cloud-like loft of meringue).

Sugar is key to dessert as we know it, but sometimes it also makes me squirm. Sugarcane production has a vast and damaging ecological footprint worldwide, and overconsumption drives some dietary diseases. I explore what sustainable dessert might mean in my newsletter Pale Blue Tart, and I’ve always thought health should figure in somehow. Lowering carbon emissions is totally possible with treats like plant-based crazy cake and a waste-busting granita. So is baking for biodiversity and food sovereignty. But sugar’s ubiquity makes it hard to envision a more healthful future without it or with less of it in our favorite treats.

Moderation seemed to me the best, albeit least satisfying answer to this issue until earlier this year, when pastry chef Brian Levy’s cookbook Good & Sweet made me question our reflexive use of white sugar. He did something shocking: skipping sugar entirely, along with maple syrup, honey and other added sweeteners typically associated with a supposedly more “natural” way of baking.

Instead, his recipes sweeten desserts from pound cake to panna cotta with whole foods: fresh, dried and freeze-dried fruits; dairy; nuts; sweet-ish flours; and fermented foods – all of which are riotously flavorful. They are also somewhat healthier than added sugars since they come packaged with fiber, proteins and starches alongside their naturally occurring sugars.

This was no small accomplishment. As anyone who’s ever thrown caution to the wind and swapped sugar for honey knows, it’s tricky enough, or sometimes impossible, to re-create sugar’s many functions with alternative sweeteners, which can contain other sugars like fructose and glucose.

His book made me wonder: is dessert over-relying on sugar? Are we neglecting more flavorful paths toward sweetness? And how “whole-food” and environmentally conscious could dessert get without losing its magic?

Levy isn’t the only pastry chef coaxing sweetness out of fruits and other whole foods, imagining sugar as something more like a seasoning rather than an unquestioned headliner in every dessert. If we wanted to, these chefs suggest, we could relax the all-out devotion to sugar when it makes sense.

Jessica Préalpato. Photograph: Courtesy Jessica Préalpato

Jessica Préalpato, a consulting pastry chef at the Hôtel San Régis in Paris, is among chefs who are less compelled than pastry traditionalists by refined sugars. She said via email that “fruit picked at the right time is bursting with sugar”. In her desserts, honey and unrefined sugars play second string to the sweetness and flavor of seasonal fruits, even if that means she has to rejigger common techniques. Préalpato makes an apricot sorbet by cooking the fruit down to a compote and adding pectin, a method that creates the creaminess typically achieved by adding sugar. After the sorbet comes out of the turbine, she tastes it. If need be, she adds a touch of sweetness with honey vinaigrette.

Pastry chef Angela Pinkerton, who ran the Bay Area bakery Pie Society and will soon open a bakery in the Hudson valley, thinks people would be surprised by how much sugar goes into a standard rhubarb pie.

“You want rhubarb [pie] to be kind of sour, but you put apple in there so it tempers it a bit, which allows you to use less sugar,” she explained. She uses a sweeter apple variety like pink lady or honeycrisp, preroasting half of them to concentrate their flavor. That lets her use half the sugar she otherwise might and spotlight the fleeting meeting point of a winter and a spring fruit in the process.

The moisture in fruits and other whole-food sweeteners lends well to liquidy desserts. “Custard-textured things … are probably the most easy to adapt,” said Levy. The first fruit-sweetened recipe he developed was a sunshine-yellow custard with ripe mangoes and pureed golden raisins. Samantha Kincaid, the former pastry chef and co-owner of the now-closed Cadence Restaurant in Philadelphia, liked to use caramelized sunchokes as a base for custards. Pastry chef Joanne Chang sweetened an almond-milk panna cotta in her cookbook Baking With Less Sugar with dates.

Levy found that even some fluffier treats like scones, muffins and cakes could be made entirely with whole-food sweeteners too, though the extra fiber and other components sometimes required more reinvention. He chose freeze-dried pineapple and date powder (AKA date sugar) to sweeten a piña colada-esque pound cake. But he knew the fiber could interfere with the cake’s rising. “Keeping the fiber from absorbing all the water was something I had to conquer,” he said. He mixed the powders with butter to coat them in fat, which basically cut the fiber off from the batter and let the cake rise unimpeded.

Cakes on the gooier end of the spectrum were easier. Levy’s sticky toffee pudding cake – which was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted when I made it at home – gets most of it sweetness from dates, as in traditional versions of the recipe. Nonfat milk powder rounds it out along with miso, which replicates caramel’s complex umami-sweetness.

Even so, there are limits to what Levy could reinvent with whole-food sweeteners. “I can’t make an angel food cake this way,” he said, or meringue. Nor could he make American-style chocolate chip cookies, which spread in the oven as the sugar in the dough melts and get crispy-edged as it caramelizes.

To him, these limits weren’t a failure, but a revelation. He wanted Good & Sweet to show by omission “that there are things that sugar is useful for”.

One of sugar’s most striking superpowers is one that bakers have been leveraging for ages: preservation. Préalpato explained that the shelf life of candied fruits, for instance, gets shorter as the syrup it’s cooked in gets less sugary. It’s the same with jam.

And then there’s granulated sugar’s unique neutral sweetness, plain enough to be a blank canvas against which delicate flavors can shine. “That’s why I don’t have a vanilla ice-cream in the book, because to get that pure vanilla flavor you have to use sugar,” Levy said.

Peach pop tarts, which tastes like a caramel-y cobbler in which dates deliciously replace sugar. Photograph: Courtesy Joan Smith

There’s also – lest we forget – the bittersweet magic of caramel, which is case enough for sugar alone. A crème brûlée is but a shallow pond of custard without its mirrored mahogany surface. A croquembouche isn’t wedding-worthy without its cooked-sugar tinsel garland. And a southern caramel cake is neither interesting nor an amazing race if it lacks the caramelized frosting poured hurriedly over the layers before it hardens.

Many of my favorite desserts do need sugar to shine, just as some need carbon-intensive dairy and eggs. I won’t think twice about using them when they’re crucial. But more desserts than I would have expected are just as tasty when sweetened with fruit. Dates will be a staple in my pantry now, in case I get the urge for a panna cotta or peach pop tarts, which taste like a caramel-y cobbler in which dates deliciously replace sugar.

Thinking beyond cupfuls of sugar is as much a flavor play as it is a way to nudge dessert gently in the direction of health. Levy points to an idea in Samin Nosrat’s cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. “Acid doesn’t just come from red wine vinegar. Heat doesn’t come just from black pepper,” he said. “That’s how I think we should think about sweetness. It doesn’t just come from cane sugar.”

Coffee bean panna cotta

These little panna cottas, like decadently sweet and creamy lattes, are so easy to make and such a delight to eat, making them the perfect make-ahead dessert for a dinner party. What makes it sweet? Dates and coconut. This gluten- and dairy-free recipe requires no baking but does require a food processor.

Serves: 4
Active time: 20 minutes
Total time: Two hours 20 minutes

1½ cups (330g) canned coconut cream (not coconut milk), mixed well
1 tsp gelatin powder (see note)
⅓ cup dates, pitted and chopped
1 tbsp coffee beans, finely ground
¼ tsp vanilla extract

Put two tablespoons of the coconut cream in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Set aside so the gelatin can “bloom” while you move on to the next steps.

In a food processor, combine the dates and remaining coconut cream and puree. Transfer the puree to a small saucepan and set over medium heat. At the first sign of simmering (bubbling on the surface), remove it from the heat. Immediately add the gelatin mixture, the ground coffee and vanilla and whisk gently. Let the mixture steep for five minutes, then strain it through a fine-mesh sieve into a spouted cup, pressing with a rubber spatula to squeeze all the liquid out.

Distribute the panna cotta evenly among four espresso cups or four-ounce ramekins. Loosely cover and refrigerate for at least two hours to set. Once set, you can cover the panna cottas tightly and keep them in the refrigerator for up to two days.

To make this recipe vegan, replace the gelatin with ½ teaspoon powdered agar-agar or 1 tablespoon agar flakes and immediately puree the agar-agar with the dates and coconut cream.

Reprinted with permission from Good & Sweet by Brian Levy, copyright © 2022.

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