Lighter diets still have room for tasty desserts Low-Fat Delights

April 26, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It may be a contradiction, but it's something devoutly desired among the dessert-loving set: a treat that's light, luscious and low in calories.

Can it be done? Can a sweetheart of a dish really dispense flavor while shedding calories?

Of course it can -- and you don't even have to revise your taste buds' expectations.

"If you want to have dessert, you want to," said cookbook author Ruth Glick, explaining the appeal of low-fat treats. Ms. Glick, of Columbia, is co-author, with Nancy Baggett, of Ellicott City, of "100% Pleasure: From Appetizers to Desserts, the Low-Fat Cookbook for People Who Love to Eat" (Rodale Press, $27.95). "If you know what you're doing, it's possible to produce [low-fat desserts] that taste as good as standard recipes."

Ms. Baggett noted that her husband's problems with high cholesterol led her to experiment with low-fat recipes. "He likes dessert. It's not reasonable to say, 'You can't have it anymore.' "

There's clearly a demand for low-fat cookbooks; hardly a day goes by without a new title hitting the bookstores.

But buyers should beware. There are some terrible recipes out there, recipes that result in dishes with none of the flavor, texture or eye appeal of the items they purport to replace. There are cakes that taste like cardboard, brownies heavy as lead, cookies so sweet they make your teeth ache.

"Low-fat dessert" is something of a contradiction, because fat plays such a large and varied role in baked goods. It adds moistness and lightness, and enhances flavor. Taking fat out alters the chemistry of the dish. Replacing fat with ingredients that will fill all of fat's roles is the tricky part of slicing fat out of standard recipes.

As a result, the most successful low-fat desserts will not be no-fat, and, rest assured, they will not use non-food ingredients such as butter substitutes or sugar substitutes.

"It helps to start with a really good recipe that you know works and take a little bit of the fat out," Ms. Glick said.

"You have to have realistic objectives," Ms. Baggett said. "It's probably perfectly realistic to reduce fat in a recipe you like. But it's probably not possible to take all the fat out."

Fat moistens and lubricates other ingredients and traps air in food, leading to the tenderness and lightness people love in baked goods, said California food writer Marie Oser, author of "Luscious Low Fat Desserts" (Chariot Publishing Inc., 1994, $11.95). To replace fat, she uses fruit purees, such as applesauce or prune puree -- "Fruit pectins work the same way to entrap air" -- and a little more leavening. She also likes a product called light silken tofu, available at health-food stores, which can replace eggs and dairy products in recipes. She uses fruit-juice concentrates, such as frozen white grape juice, to replace fat.

Ms. Baggett said that when fat is removed from a dish, "You have to compensate, because things will be less flavorful."

If the recipe is for a spice cookie or spice cake, she increases the amount of spices. "A little orange zest or lemon zest helps bring up the flavor" in some dishes, as does extra vanilla. When she reduces the amount of nuts in a recipe, she toasts the remainder. "They will have a much better flavor."

Other techniques Ms. Baggett advocates are using lower-gluten flours such as cake flour. Gluten is a desirable element in bread, because it makes the dough elastic, but it's terrible in cakes, because it makes the batter tough. Normally the fat in a recipe helps coat the flour and keep the long, stringy gluten molecules from forming. When you reduce the fat, you need to take other steps to keep the gluten from forming. The less gluten there is in the flour to begin with, the lighter the batter will be (which is why even some standard recipes call for cake flour). Ms. Baggett also suggest stirring the batter as little as possible, because stirring develops the gluten.

Low-fat or no-fat sour cream or yogurt can substitute for some of the sour cream in a recipe, Ms. Baggett said, but she warns that substituting for all of the sour cream can cause the recipe to be too acid, and that can keep cakes and other such desserts from rising.

Her goal, she said, is to create a dish that, "when I set it on the table, I don't have to say, 'This is low fat.' I consider that an apology."

Removing and replacing fat are not all there is to adjusting a recipe, however. "In the same way you pay attention to what you take away, you pay attention to what you're leaving in," said Alice Medrich, whose new cookbook, "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts" (Warner Books, $35) was nominated for a Julia Child Cookbook Award for 1994.

For instance, she said, fat tends to mask sweetness, so when you remove fat from a recipe, you may also have to reduce the sugar, or the dish will be too sweet.

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