Are lower sugar desserts the wave of the future? According to an article that appeared yesterday on the Huffington Post, the answer for some prominent pastry chefs is an enthusiastic yes.
And they’re not doing it for health reasons, although that is a terrific benefit. Nope, they’re doing it because they are finding that desserts simply taste better with less sugar.
At this point, you may wondering how this could be possible. Isn’t sugar, in all of its sweet glory, added to foods to make them taste better? And if so, wouldn’t reducing their sugar content make them less appealing?
The answer is both yes and no. Sugar, it turns out, has the uncanny ability to mask other flavors that some people find unappealing. Food companies know this, since they use large quantities of sugar (often in the form of high fructose corn syrup) to mask the bitterness of caffeine in colas and the tartness of plain yogurt. Mary Poppins was definitely on to something when she extolled the merits of using sugar to make those spoonfuls of medicine more palatable.
By the same token, sugar’s masking effect means that other flavors you may actually want to taste can be hidden as well. I have found this to be especially true where multiple types of sweeteners are used in a single item. Food companies do this to avoid having to list sugar as one of the top ingredients on the food label (since ingredients must be listed in descending weight order), but the net effect of so many sweeteners is the intensification of an item’s sugariness at the expense of every other flavor.
A good example of this practice is Starbucks’ bakery items. I’ve already developed a lower-sugar version of its now extinct Chocolate Cinnamon Bread. A few weeks ago I set my sights on producing a less sugary version of its Michigan Cherry Oat Bar.
The genesis of my effort was a visit to a nearby Starbucks for a morning cappuccino break. Feeling a little hungry, I decided to deviate from my usual coffee-only routine and add a snack. After scanning the items in the display case, I settled on a Michigan Cherry Oat Bar, which I decided to try because it has two ingredients that I love, oats and cherries
Simply put, I was disappointed. Sure, eating it wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but it wasn’t the taste-worthy experience I expected either. Instead of the fruity succulence of the cherries and the earthiness of the oats, all I noticed was an overwhelming sweetness that blanketed those normally distinctive flavors and transformed them into muted, candy-like shadows of their usual selves.
Of course, none of this was surprising when I later checked the list of ingredients on Starbucks’ website and found that sweeteners appeared five times: sugar added to the cherries, sugar in corn flakes (the latter being a rather surprising ingredient), sugar by itself, brown sugar, and fructose. No other ingredient was listed more than once.
I resolved, then and there, to develop a recipe for my own version of cherry oat bars, and that’s what I’m sharing with you today. I think it outshines the Starbucks’ version in numerous ways. From a health standpoint, it uses significantly less sugar than Starbucks’ version — 1 teaspoon of added sugar per square to their 4 teaspoons, and it has more whole grains, due to my use of white whole wheat flour.
In terms of convenience, with one possible exception, all of the ingredients are widely available and, in the case of the frozen pitted cherries, tend to be less expensive but of higher quality than their fresh counterparts, plus they are available year round. The only ingredient that you might have trouble locating is white whole wheat flour. I urge you to seek it out, since it has a milder taste but all of the nutritional benefits of regular whole wheat flour. However, if you’re unable to find it, all purpose flour will do just fine.
Most importantly, in my version the distinctive flavors of cherries and oats are allowed to shine through unimpeded by the deluge of sugar characteristic of the Starbucks’ version. So, give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how using less sugar can result in better flavor.
Cherry Oat Squares
Cherry Filling Ingredients:
5 cups (1½ pounds or 680 grams) frozen pitted cherries
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Base and Topping Ingredients:
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons unsalted butter)
2 cups (9 ounces or 260 grams) white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (2½ ounces or 70 grams) light or dark brown sugar (not packed)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups (4¾ ounces or 135 grams) rolled oats (not quick-cooking or instant)
1. Make the cornstarch slurry: In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch and one tablespoon of water. Set aside.
2. Make the cherry filling: In a medium size saucepan, bring the frozen cherries, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1/2 cup water to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to break up the cherries. (Use masher to break up cherries if desired.) After turning off the heat, immediately stir in the cornstarch slurry and 1 teaspoon of vanilla or almond extract, stirring well to combine. Set aside to cool.
3. Make the base and topping: Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Melt the butter either in the microwave or on the stove top. While the butter is melting, place the white whole wheat flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Add the brown sugar, breaking up any lumps with your hands. Whisk to combine. Add the melted butter and vanilla and stir until the dry ingredients and butter are well combined. Add the oats and stir to combine.
4. Prepare the pan: In a 14-inch x 9-inch sheet pan, place a long piece of parchment paper over the bottom of the pan. If you prefer, you can allow a couple of inches of parchment paper to overhang both of the long sides of the pan in order to make the later removal of the cut bars easier.
5. Assemble and bake the squares: Remove one cup of the flour/oat mixture from the bowl and set aside. Place the remainder of the flour/oat mixture into the prepared pan. Using your hands, spread the mixture over the top of the parchment paper and into the sides and corners of the pan so that a thin layer of crust is formed. Gently press on the crust with the palm of your hand to make sure that it stays in place. Spread the cooled cherry filling evenly over the top of the crust, and then sprinkle the remaining flour/oat mixture evenly over the top of the cherry mixture. Bake in the preheated oven until the topping is light brown, about 30-35 minutes. Let cool completely, and then cut into 21 evenly-sized squares and serve. Any uneaten squares can be stored in the refrigerator for several days.
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