New cookbooks offer low-fat dessert recipes that don't skimp on richness, flavor

September 05, 1993|By Jan Townsend | Jan Townsend,McClatchy News Service

Pink juices flow from ripe peach slices hiding under a puffy biscuit topping.

Glazed fresh strawberry halves sit atop a high, light cheesecake that sits atop a crust of chocolate wafers.

No dessert cart could present a prettier picture. And, as easy as they are on the eyes, they're even easier to make. But the best part is that they're low-fat.

Not so long ago, the words "low-fat" "no-fat" and "fat-free" gave a powerful signal that a dessert -- commercial or homemade -- would probably taste . . . well, yucky.

We tried to like such desserts. We replaced cream cheese with tofu, we applesauced everything from cakes to cookies, we even tossed in oat bran for good measure. We rushed out to buy the latest flavor of rice cake, and we added prunes to muffins, milk shakes and marzipan.

But something has been missing. What consumers have really wanted all along is to discover the perfect dessert: the one that tastes sinfully rich, yet doesn't clog arteries; the one that feels like silk and satin, yet doesn't add flab. As usual, we want something for nothing.

Manufacturers have heard our pleas. As a consequence, fat-reduced and fat-free foods are selling like proverbial hot cakes. For instance, have you tried to find a package of Nabisco's fat-free devil's-food cookies lately? They're just not around, are they? That's because they're being hoarded by consumers who equate fat-free with calorie-free, thereby fooling themselves as they consume the chocolatey treats.

What came next was expected. Cookbook authors joined the game. At least six books devoted solely to low-fat desserts came out this spring, and more are on the way just in time for the holidays. Each has a photograph of a luscious-looking dessert on the cover and promises of untold riches inside. Some of them are filled with neat ways to cook the low-fat way, while others quickly show they were rushed into print. One, for example, calls for heating the oven, then advises in the next step to put the dish in the refrigerator for a minimum of two hours before baking.

If there's a common theme in the books on cooking and baking the low-fat way, it's using the freshest ingredients available, full of flavor and in season. The ripest peaches. The sweetest strawberries. Real vanilla extract. The richest cocoa.

Substitutes won't work when you're trying to fool the palates of those who love food but who want to eat wisely, without fats and so many preservatives and chemical-laden ingredients.

Reducing fat, yet satisfying guests, has long been the goal of two of California's best-known spas.

At Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa in Sonoma, pastry chef Daniel Widmann said he lightens up things by substituting egg whites for eggs and using fresh fruits.

"I also use ground prunes and raisins in place of fat where I can," he said. "They add a lot of moisture and chewiness, and, of course, fiber."

Mr. Widmann's Southern California counterpart, executive chef Michel Stroot of the Golden Door spa in Escondido, also replaces fat with prune puree and other fruits, cup for cup. Mr. Stroot, who said he makes oatmeal cookies with only a tablespoon of fat, used to count calories at the Golden Door, but now counts grams of fat.

Eliminating fats is nothing new to the folks at the Weimar Institute, run by the Seventh-day Adventists in Weimar, Calif. As part of its overall dietary program, refined and animal fats are eliminated.

When doing pie crusts, for example, Sally Christensen, cooking school instructor for Weimar's NEWSTART lifestyle program, said she uses "nut butter in place of refined fat, and we use a low-gluten type flour so the crust will be flaky."

For a fruit crisp, Ms. Christensen said she uses granola instead of the customary buttered crumbs. And she said she "can't understand why people typically use fat in making granola; it's not necessary." (Commercial granolas, in particular, use a high percentage of oil, or shredded coconut, or both.)

Here are two recipes we tried from the batch of new low-fat dessert cookbooks. Adjustments and refinements were made to make them even better. All get less than 30 percent of their calories from fat.

Peach cobbler

Serves 6 to 8

1 cup plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

6 tablespoons skim milk

4 medium ripe peaches, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

In a food processor, combine 1 cup flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, the brown sugar, baking powder and the salt. Pulse briefly to blend. Add shortening and process in several quick pulses until cut to the size of small peas. Add milk and process until dough forms a ball around the blades.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

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