Eating healthy meals doesn’t have to mean dessert deprivation. Naturally sweetened foods feed cravings without chemicals and preservatives. Coupled with a natural diet, these sweets can help tame mood swings, arthritis, and other ailments linked to processed foods. Replacing processed ingredients with wholesome ones produces delectable desserts devoid of artificial tastes and colors—from delicate pastries and artisan breads to pies and chocolate treats made with whole, fresh ingredients. So go ahead and indulge.
“Once you get acquainted with the different ingredients and see how they work, it’s easy to bake naturally,” says Myra Kornfeld, a natural chef schooled in traditional pastry and author of The Voluptuous Vegan (Clarkson Potter, 2000).
Dessert is a fun way to experiment with natural sweeteners such as agave nectar and rice syrup and with thickeners such as kuzu and arrowroot, which are easily digested and satisfy sweet cravings faster. Unlike simple sugars in processed foods, natural desserts with whole grains and fruit- and vegetable-based products do not increase glucose levels in the body, says Dawn Black, director and senior teacher of the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.
After adjusting for differences in sweetness and texture, natural ingredients can seamlessly replace processed ones in favorite recipes such as apple pie, fruit tarts, and oatmeal cookies. Some chefs use organic butter and eggs, while others work only with vegan ingredients—and many fit somewhere between.
In other words, baking naturally doesn’t require trashing traditional dessert definitions—though many natural cooks would prefer it. “Natural baking requires a shift in thinking,” explains Black, who teaches students to make sweet potato pudding with tangerine zest and poached pears. “Lightly sweetened things start to taste really good.”
Black prefers sweet vegetables such as kabocha squash for dessert and uses only small amounts of sweetener—or none at all—when she makes pies and tarts. “My pies taste the same” as traditional pies, she says. “You’d never know the difference.”
But Black admits that appearance and texture may differ in naturally prepared baked goods. Cutout cookie dough, for example, is oilier than traditional recipes so it must be handled carefully. Pie dough made with whole wheat flour and oil is also more delicate and should be used immediately or it will dry out. Black suggests rolling dough for cookies, pies, or tarts between two sheets of unbleached parchment paper to avoid rips and tears.
Also affecting the outcome is the temperature of natural ingredients, which is why most chefs use chilled oils for baking. For a healthier choice, Kornfeld recommends oils that have been expeller pressed rather than bleached. Her favorite is coconut oil, a medium-size saturated fat that creams well and has a rich mouth feel. Bakers can use 20 percent less coconut oil than butter and other oils.
Tips of this nature are helpful, say chefs who admit that the key to success in natural baking is trial and error. “I’ve experimented my head off with different ingredients,” says Meredith McCarty, author of the award-winning cookbook Sweet and Natural (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001) and a certified diet counselor. As a result, “my desserts are just as light and beautiful as regular desserts,” she adds.
A new way of baking
Cooks who prefer to follow in others’ footsteps may find it more difficult to transition from traditional to natural baking. Take away staples of butter, eggs, and white flour, and some chefs panic. Others flourish. “It gives people the ability to become creative in ways they never have before,” says Black.
Joanne Saltzman, founding director of the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado, agrees. Saltzman, who has published several natural cooking books, teaches students to make vegan desserts such as cookie custards—mousse inside a cookie crust—without recipes and initially without using butter. The goal is for students to learn an ingredient’s properties so they are able to substitute easily. “It’s easy to cook naturally,” says Saltzman. “People just have to take the time to educate themselves.”
Whole Grain Rice and Oatmeal Cookies
Makes 1 to 2 dozen
1 1/4 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup spring or filtered water
1/2 cup raisins
2 pinches sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons safflower oil
3 to 4 tablespoons rice syrup or barley malt
1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup cooked brown rice
3/4 cup pecans or walnuts, roasted and chopped
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toast oats in a skillet until lightly golden and fragrant. In a small pot, bring water and raisins to a boil. Pour over oats and let sit 10 minutes. Mix salt, cinnamon, oil, and sweetener in a bowl. Pour over oats and mix well. Add flour, rice, and roasted nuts to oat mixture. Stir well.
Shape dough into round, flat cookies and place onto an oiled cookie sheet or a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake for 20 minutes.
—Recipe by Dawn Black
Apple Pie with Double Crust
Makes 1 (9-inch) pie
Use a springform pan to make a beautiful deep-dish pie.
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold safflower oil
6 tablespoons soymilk plus a bit extra to brush over top crust
1 1/2 cups apple juice or water
3 to 4 medium apples, sliced into wedges or diced (skins can be removed if desired)
Small pinch lemon, orange, or tangerine zest
1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch sea salt
1 tablespoon rice syrup or to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons kuzu diluted in 1/2 cup cold water (kuzu, also known as kudzu, is a tuber vegetable that, when dried to a root starch, acts as a natural thickener)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Sift flours and salt together in a large bowl. Add oil in a slow, steady stream, mixing with a fork until all oil has been incorporated and resembles pea-sized crumbs or a wet sand texture. Add soymilk one tablespoon at a time until dough comes together.
Divide dough into two balls, with one slightly larger than other, and flatten both into 5-inch-round disks. Roll larger ball into a 12-inch circle by flattening the ball slightly between two sheets of parchment paper and pressing the rolling pin from the center of the dough and pushing it out toward the edges. Remove top sheet of parchment paper and turn the dough over into an ungreased 9-inch pie pan, leaving excess dough to hang over rim of pan. Bake bottom crust for 10 to 15 minutes.
To make the pie filling, place the apple juice, apples, zest, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt in a pot. Bring to a boil over medium flame and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the apples have softened. Remove the apples only and place into the prebaked pie shell. Add the rice syrup and diluted kuzu to the remaining apple juice mixture and stir over low heat until thick. Pour over the apples.
Roll the second ball into an 11-inch circle between two sheets of parchment paper. Remove top sheet of parchment paper from dough circle. Slide hand under remaining sheet of parchment paper and carefully invert dough over pie filling. Remove and discard remaining parchment paper. Trim top and bottom pieces of dough to within 1/4 inch of rim. Press top and bottom dough together and flute as desired. Cut four short slits at right angles in center of top crust to allow steam to escape during baking. Brush top crust with soymilk and bake pie for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top of the pastry turns golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 15 to 30 minutes before serving.
—Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts
Pear and Apple Pecan Crisp
Makes 6 to 9 Servings
1 pound each pears and apples (2 to 3 of each, about 6 cups), peeled if desired and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup pear or apple juice
Zest of half an orange
1/2 cup rolled oats, old-fashioned or quick cooking
1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (canola or walnut)
2 to 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1/2 cup pecans, tossed and finely chopped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine the filling ingredients and transfer to an ungreased 11/2- to 2-quart baking dish or a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan. Set on a baking sheet to avoid dripping.
To make the topping, mix together the oats, flour, and salt. Work in the oil, then the sweetener. Rub the mixture between your palms. Toss in the nuts and stir thoroughly. Distribute the mixture evenly over the fruit.
Cover the dish and bake until fruit is soft when pierced with a fork and juices are bubbling, about 45 minutes, but check after 30 minutes. Uncover and return the dish to the oven until the topping is golden, about 10 minutes more. Serve hot or warm.
—Sweet & Natural Cookbook, Meredith McCarty (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001)