Food & Drink

The Cowgirl Chef: Making things sweet with less sugar

Joanne Chang’s Fudgy Mascarpone Brownies have less sugar, so more of the chocolate flavor comes through, which is never a bad thing.
Joanne Chang’s Fudgy Mascarpone Brownies have less sugar, so more of the chocolate flavor comes through, which is never a bad thing. Special to the Star-Telegram/Ellise Pierce

I’ve been playing around with baking with less sugar for a while and have had some success — and lots of failures. Oatmeal muffins and zucchini breads made with less sugar turned out OK, but I’ve tossed out more cookies than I’ve kept, because they’ve not been anything like the regular, sugar-packed versions.

Turns out they never will be. Just reducing the amount of sugar doesn’t always produce the same results, I’ve learned, because sugar does so many things besides just make cookies and cakes sweet.

“The biggest challenge is texture,” says Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery and Cafe in Boston, who just released a new cookbook dedicated to the less-refined-sugar idea, Baking With Less Sugar (Chronicle Books, $25). “Sugar is what makes a cookie crispy and chewy and a cake tender and moist.”

So, this is the first expectation that we have to adjust when baking with less white sugar or even with maple syrup, molasses or honey, as she does in her new book. But it’s not the only aspect of our baked goods that needs to be reexamined.

“Sugar causes things to turn golden brown, so something (with less sugar) will be completely baked before it looks like it’s completely baked. You have to touch things, poke at them, to make sure they’re done,” she says.

Circling back to the moistness factor, Chang says sugar also helps baked goods stay fresh longer, because it absorbs moisture in the air, keeping cookies and cakes moister longer.

Take away part or all of the sugar and you have a shorter shelf life — so it’s best to make small batches that you can eat right away, or the next day.

The biggest hurdle when baking with less sugar isn’t how to make things taste good, Chang explains. Instead, it’s how to rely on other flavors, such as chocolate and fruit, which need little if any added sugar.

I agree — it’s usually not the sugar itself I crave, but a particular type of cookie, like oatmeal, or anything at all made with chocolate. I made a flourless chocolate cake not long ago and forgot to add the sugar. Imagine my surprise when I didn’t miss it.

Chang’s chocolate desserts opt for no sugar and a not-too-bitter chocolate, because there’s some sugar in the chocolate, anyway.

“Our palates don’t need as much sugar as we think we do,” she says.

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press, $25).; @cowgirlchef.

Oatmeal, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies

Makes about 3 dozen

Adapted from a recipe on

  • 2/3 cup of natural peanut butter (I like the chunky)
  • 2/3 cup of maple syrup
  • 3 tablespoons of coconut oil (I use refined because it doesn’t have a coconutty flavor)
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 2 cups of old-fashioned oatmeal
  • 1 cup of chocolate chips (I like the tiny ones best)

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2. Whisk the peanut butter, maple syrup, coconut oil and vanilla together in a medium bowl. Add the egg to the wet mixture and mix until it’s incorporated.

3. Add the baking soda, baking powder, salt, and oatmeal and stir until combined. Mix in the chocolate chips. Spoon the dough onto the cookie sheet using a soup spoon or teaspoon and bake for 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the pan, then remove to a wire rack. Store in the fridge — this will keep them slightly crispy.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 97 calories, 5 grams fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 76 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat.

Frozen honey-vanilla yogurt

Makes about 1 quart

  • 3 cups whole-milk yogurt
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 pint fresh strawberries, sliced

Whisk the yogurt, honey and vanilla together and refrigerate for an hour or so. Freeze according to manufacturer's directions, and serve with strawberries on top.

Nutritional analysis per 1/2-cup serving: 112 calories, 3 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 24 percent of calories from fat.

Lemon-polenta-pistachio buttons

Makes 12 cookies

Full of bright lemon flavor and crunchy with cornmeal and green pistachios, these button cookies are a wonderful pick-me-up treat. Keep the batter on hand for baking up a quick snack, or bake a bunch and pack them in a pretty cellophane bag for a lovely housewarming gift.

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup fine cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Sugar dipping mix

  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped, roasted and salted pistachios
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1. Pour the butter into a medium bowl and add the sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and egg. Stir together with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt, and stir to combine. Add the butter-egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. Refrigerate the dough until firm, about 1 hour or up to overnight. If refrigerating overnight, store in an airtight container.

3. Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

4. Make the dipping mix: In a small bowl, combine the sugar, pistachios and lemon zest.

5. Roll the cookie dough into balls the size of a large walnut. Roll the dough balls around in the dipping mix, pressing firmly to allow the sugar mix to adhere to the cookies. (You’ll likely end up with a little dipping mix left over.)

6. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Press them flat with the palm of your hand; these don’t spread very much on their own. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until they are golden brown on the edges and pale in the center and baked through. Remove the cookies from the oven and let them cool on the sheet for 5 to 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

7. The cookies can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 days. The unbaked dough can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 weeks (add a few minutes to the baking time if you are baking straight from the freezer); the sugar dipping mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Nutritional analysis per cookie: 34 calories, 2 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 30 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 52 percent of calories from fat.

— From “Baking With Less Sugar,” by Joanne Chang

Fudgy mascarpone brownies

Makes 12 brownies

“The chocolate-y, rich, indulgent brownies that we make at Flour are made with 2 cups of sugar for 16 brownies. That’s 2 tablespoons of sugar per brownie: go right now and measure 2 tablespoons of sugar and imagine swallowing all of that in one sitting. It’s a lot more than you think. All of that sugar is what makes the brownie decadent and luscious.

“I wasn’t sure if I could pull off a low-sugar version. How would I create that characteristic dense fudgy-ness of brownies without loads of sugar to introduce moisture and richness? How would the brownies bake enough to hold their shape and not just taste like a mass of goo, but not bake so much that they became dry? It turns out that you don’t miss the sweetness of sugar in these brownies if you increase the chocolate. In fact, you end up with a treat even more chocolate-y. And to help the brownie bake moist without coming across as underdone or gooey, we beat in some rich mascarpone cheese that brings the whole thing together to make these brownies just as splendid as the original.”

  • 11/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, at least 68 percent cacao content or higher
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into 5 or 6 pieces
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 2/3 cup sugar

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

3. Bring a saucepan filled partway with water to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Place the chocolate and butter in a metal or glass bowl. Place the bowl over (not touching) the barely simmering water in the saucepan and heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Alternatively, microwave the chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl in 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until melted and smooth.

4. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with an electric hand mixer; if using a hand mixer, use a large bowl to accommodate all ingredients), beat the eggs and mascarpone on medium speed until smooth. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the sugar and beat for about 1 minute, or until the sugar is mixed in. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the chocolate mixture.

5. Gently fold the flour mixture into the egg-chocolate mixture until thoroughly combined. (If the bowl you used for the egg-chocolate mixture is too small for folding, transfer the mixture to a larger bowl before folding in the flour mixture.) Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread in an even layer with the spatula (the batter will be thick).

6. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (but check every few minutes starting at 15 minutes to make sure the brownies don’t over-bake), or until a knife slipped into the center of the pan comes out with a few wet crumbs on it. If the knife comes out with liquid batter on it, the brownies will need more time in the oven; if the knife comes out with nothing on it, the brownies are probably a bit over-baked and no longer fudgy, but they will still be delicious.

7. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 2 hours, or until completely cool. (Because these are so moist, they need time to cool and firm up enough to cut.) Cut into 12 pieces. The brownies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Or store in the freezer, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 weeks; thaw at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours.

Nutritional analysis per brownie: 411 calories, 34 grams fat, 31 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 108 milligrams cholesterol, 131 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber, 67 percent of calories from fat.

— From “Baking With Less Sugar,” by Joanne Chang