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Why Pastry Chef Joanne Chang Started Baking with Less Sugar

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Joanne Chang—owner of Flour Bakery, author of Baking with Less Sugar, and all-around dessert wizard—has discovered that less sugar can often mean more flavor. 

Today, Joanne explains what piqued her interest in low-sugar baking and recreates a favorite cookie recipe using only 6 tablespoons of sugar. 

I bake because I have an insatiable sweet tooth, because I am fascinated by the alchemy of flour/butter/sugar/eggs, and mostly because I love making people happy with pastries. You instantly become the most popular person in the room when you walk in with a plate of homemade cookies or a frosted layer cake. 

The person I love to bake for the most is my husband. It was part of our wooing process many years ago: He treated me to ice creams and cupcakes and I answered with homemade pies that we would share on his porch. We are similarly obsessed with all things sweet, and this shared passion was one of the many ways I knew he was the one.

It never occurred to me that his occasional mood swings—upbeat one moment and groggy the next—might be related to our sugar intake. Over the years I've learned the signs: He is full of energy for a short while and then he crashes. When making treats for the one you love leads to less than ideal consequences, you immediately pause to redirect. I decided to see what I could create if I reduced or eliminated white sugar in my baking.

As a pastry chef, I will never call sugar the enemy. It's one of the magical elements in my baking arsenal. However I've now learned that if you limit or remove white sugar from your baking, the happy result is a new spectrum of tastes and pleasures.

The first recipe I wanted to tackle for Christopher was his favorite cookie, Flour's oatmeal raisin. This cookie is a classic: It's full of oats and raisins with just a whiff of cinnamon. It's got some heft and chew, but at the same time, parts of the cookie bake off lacey and caramel-y. It's a study in textures and rich, buttery flavors. 

Stock your pantry with these 5 natural sugars and kiss the granulated sugar goodbye.

While you'll never exactly replicate the original if you reduce one of its key ingredients—white sugar—you can still bake a cookie that is fully sweet, addictive, and just as good, if not better, than the one made with all of the sugar. The main difference is to adjust your expectations of texture. Sugar is what causes the cookie to be crispy; it turns to caramel in the oven, giving the cookie crunch. This reworked cookie contains 6 tablespoons of white sugar whereas the original contains over 4 times that (26 tablespoons of both white and brown sugar). 

After making this for the last year or so, I now prefer this one to the full sugar version. We chop about half of the raisins into tiny pieces so that every bite of cookie gets some natural sweetness from the raisins. We up the cinnamon and vanilla—by a lot—and it really makes your tastebuds think sweet without actually needing sugar. Without the sugar you really taste the nutty oats. The raisins. The butter! The walnuts add crunch and the vanilla brings out the warm flavors of the cinnamon. You don't miss the sugar. At all. Try it and tell me what you think. 

Low Sugar Oatmeal Raisin Cranberry Cookies

Makes 16 to 20 cookies

3/4 cup (75 grams) walnuts, roughly chopped
16 tablespoons (2 sticks/225 grams) unsalted butter, melted and completely cooled)
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup (105 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (150 grams) old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup (120 grams) raisins, about half of them chopped roughly
3/4 cup (120 grams) dried cranberries

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Last photo by Bobbi Lin; all others by James Ransom

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Tags: Dessert, Bake