Joanne Chang wants to make clear that her new cookbook, “Baking With Less Sugar,” isn’t so much about muffins being less sweet as about them having more flavor.
But really, what we hear is: less sugar. And we’re skeptical.
Chang was, too.
“When I was writing this book, I was spending a lot of time wondering why I was writing this book,” she said, laughing. As author of “Flour” and “Flour, Too” cookbooks and owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, her livelihood has been all about sugar.
“It’s tricky for me,” she said. “I don’t view it as toxic at all, as long as it’s something you consume in moderation. Every year during the marathon, someone overdoses on water, getting overhydrated and landing in the hospital.
“Sugar’s not bad,” she said. “But yes, some people eat too much sugar, and I think there are ways we can use sugar in our baking differently.”
In other words, to those who fear the sugar police, she believes that intention and moderation always win over restriction and elimination.
When it comes to dessert, she said, we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking of chocolate and nuts and cream.
“What about maple sugar, honey, fruit? When was the last time you focused on those flavors?” she asked. “Just try to open your palate to the possibility. You might find it something you enjoy even more than what you enjoy now.”
For example, her recipe for banana bread contains just 6 tablespoons of sugar, but calls for super-ripe, black and spotty bananas for sweetness, which also lend a deeply banana-like flavor. A dozen blueberry muffins are packed with fruit, and just one-third of a cup of sugar.
Still, Chang discovered that baking with less sugar results in changes in a batter’s consistency, a turnover’s appearance, or a cake’s keeping qualities “that you just have to accept.”
“If you’re making a yellow birthday cake, it won’t last for more than a day, but will start to dry out,” she said, lacking the moisture-holding qualities of lots of sugar. Likewise, baked goods with less sugar don’t brown as deeply.
She mentioned her recipe for gingersnaps being one that might confound experienced bakers. Because sugar makes cookies crispy, she struggled with getting the “snap” with less sugar.
“I had no problem getting the flavor I wanted, but couldn’t get the darn things to crisp up,” she said. She used molasses and maple syrup for taste, “then we ended up baking them like biscotti,” leaving them in the turned-off oven for several hours. “As they dry out, they take on a whole different crunchiness.”
Early on, she decided not to include agave nectar or stevia among her sweeteners.
“They’re both really trendy, and I wanted to create recipes that had as their main sweetener something that everyone was familiar with. I wanted people who are baking at home for their family to be able to pull something off their shelves” instead of seeking it out or ordering online.
Dates, however, while perhaps not a pantry staple, proved a gold mine of both sweetness and flavor.
“They were something I discovered halfway through testing recipes,” she said. “I kind of wanted to write a whole other cookbook. Their taste is so like sugar, but with this really rich, deep background taste, a caramelly, brown-sugary taste.
“Plus, they worked out so well in so many recipes. Learning to bake with dates was a revelation for me.”
Blueberry Bran Muffins
Note: Joanne Chang uses Bob’s Red Mill brand of wheat bran. She always uses crème fraîche, but sour cream could be substituted. From “Baking With Less Sugar,” by Joanne Chang.
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wheat bran
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and at room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk, room temperature
3/4 cup creme fraiche, room temperature (see Note)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a standard 12-cup muffin tin, coat with nonstick cooking spray, or line with paper liners.
In a large bowl, stir together flour, wheat bran, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, butter, milk, creme fraiche and vanilla until well-combined. Pour the butter-sugar mixture into the dry ingredients and fold gently, using a rubber spatula, just until the ingredients are combined. Gently fold in the blueberries until the fruit is distributed well. The batter may seem lumpy, but don’t try to smooth it out.
Using a small ice cream scoop or a spoon, scoop a heaping 2/3 cup batter into each prepared cup of the muffin tin, filling the cups to the brim (almost overflowing) and making sure the cups are evenly filled. You might think you have too much batter, but you can fill these to overflowing and then you will get nice tops on your muffins. (If you prefer smaller muffins, spoon about 1/2 cup batter into each cup and decrease the baking time to 25 to 35 minutes. You will get up to 18 smaller muffins.)
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the muffins are entirely golden brown on top and they spring back lightly when you press them in the center. There’s a lot of fruit in these muffins, so make sure you bake them enough so the insides of the muffins don’t get soggy. Let the muffins cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes, and then remove them from the pan.
The muffins are best enjoyed on the same day you bake them, but they can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 days. If you keep them longer than 1 day, refresh them in a 300-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes. The unbaked muffin batter can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 day.