I don’t bake a lot of cookies, I think maybe because I’m a diabetic, but I do recognize their value to cooks as an educational tool. Why? Well, let’s start with their commonality – there’s no one who doesn’t know what a cookie is – even those who call them biscuits still know what you mean when you say ‘cookie’. That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone knows what a cookie is made from. For many, the cookie is a mystery, not worthy of investigation or further thought beyond that required to select one brand from another at the neighborhood grocery.
But the cookie’s real value as an educational tool lies in their simplicity – just as good bread is defined by a minimal number of ingredients -flour, water, yeast and salt- so too most cookies have only a basic few key ingredients -flour, sugar, and shortening. And it is my contention that within those few ingredients lies a world of knowledge and educational experience for the emerging baker or cook – for depending on the ratio of those few ingredients, and how they are used in the construction of the cookie, an amazing diversity of types and kinds of cookies can result.
You may know exactly where I’m going with this discussion – or not – but regardless, allow me to provide an example of the three basic cookie types which depend on the ratios of these three ingredients.
More flour, less sugar and shortening = cakey type cookie.
More sugar, less flour and shortening = chewy type cookie.
More shortening, less flour and sugar = shortbread type cookie.
There’s much to be learned here, about how each of these basic ingredients works to effect the end result of whatever it is we seek to be cooking – my point is that the role that sugar, for instance, plays in a sauce, may not be so evident, since it is much more subtle, but it still will make a difference, and the skilled cook may have learned a good deal about sugar’s role from the simple cookie – and that knowledge is then transferred to the creation of many other dishes which utilize sugar as a component part.
And it is this kind of knowledge which helps to make competent cooks, and cooks which don’t need the constant reinforcement of a ‘recipe’ to be able to put dishes together. In fact, I think it is this kind of knowledge which begins to make cooking and baking the joys they should be – with freedom comes creativity.
Having said all that, I now would like to put that knowledge to work. As I mentioned above, as a diabetic, I try not to be baking a lot of sweet, sugary things – however, I’m not above seeking out alternatives, because I’ll admit I share a sweet tooth with most other Americans, who I fear are addicted to sugar – but I’m one of those who believe in the toxicity of sugar, even beyond the role it plays in the issues of diabetes. So, I often look to taking my knowledge of sugar’s role in baking, and trying to find alternative ways to make those goodies without sugar.
The world of artificial sweeteners, and even those ‘natural’ non-sugar sweeteners, is one of controversy and political intrigue – and it’s also a world of strong public opinion. Many potential users who may benefit from the use of artificial sweeteners wouldn’t be caught dead using them. Many are turned off by the taste -or aftertaste- of them, and simply feel the price of benefit is too high. And many others are convinced, even without governmental or university research attesting so, that the day will come when artificial sweeteners are found to cause cancer and other bodily harm.
Although I share the opinion of those who object to the taste of many artificial sweeteners, my taste buds have adjusted to the point where I can use them effectively without even noticing their negativities. I think the key to accomplishing this is to train your taste sensitivities to less and less of a sweet taste – over time, this is possible – in fact, in my case, today I find many sugar based desserts to be overly sweet, and there are many things I eat and drink without sweetness, even though the rest of the world does not.
The artificial sweetener I use most is Splenda (Sucralose) which is created by changing the molecular structure of glucose by replacing three select hydrogen-oxygen groups on sucrose (table sugar) molecules with three chlorine atoms. Splenda has been subjected to much testing, and those tests are ongoing, and has been found to be easily metabolized in the body – it is flavor stable up to 450 degrees F (232C) – and I personally think it has the most natural sweet flavor of all the artificials, but then, my taste has adapted and sensitized to it.
Perhaps you are among those who object to the chemical makeup of Splenda – if so, I’d suggest you investigate Stevia, which is a natural sugar alternative. It too is heat stable to over 400 degrees, and has little aftertaste – and since it is 300 times sweeter than sugar, very little is needed when used. Here in the U.S., Stevia has had a rough ride, and as yet does not have full FDA approval and can only be sold as a ‘dietary supplement’, and not as an ingredient in commercially available foods – strange for something which has never been shown to be harmful in studies and has been used extensively in many parts of the world for many years. I have not used Stevia much in my baking, but I surely intend to do so.
Another thing you learn when you begin changing some or all of the sugar in a recipe is that sugar does far more than simply make things sweet – it adds color and volume, and contributes to the structure – so if you leave it out, you’ll soon learn what happens when you do! Most of us learn by experience, so it’s OK to go right ahead and do it – and learn.
One of my favorite cookies is oatmeal – and I especially enjoy the chewy kind. Just my luck! I probably like the chewy ones because those are the ones I can’t have. But I also like shortbreads a lot, which is what we’ll get if we simply replace the sugar in the following favorite oatmeal cookie of mine, a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, those champions of recipe objectification! (Yes, they are money-hungry, and Kimball is the ultimate ego-maniac – but they still do good work.) And if I’m going to look for a good sugar free cookie, I’d much rather start with a recipe for a good sugared variety, and adjust it, than trying to find a decent sugar-free one among the mountain of mediocrity on the web.
So, take a look at this one, and my suggested changes, and then join me in My Notes below the recipe as I continue the discussion.
The Ultimate Oatmeal Cookie
(recipe adapted from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook)
- 1¼ c all purpose flour
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp salt (or more)
- 1¼ c old-fashioned oats
- 1 c chopped walnuts or almonds (toasted at 350F for 10 mins.)
- 1 c dried sour cherries (or cranberries, raisins or any other dried fruit)
- ¾ c semisweet chocolate chunks or chips (I use dark chips and liked the result)
- 1½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
- 1½ c packed brown sugar, golden brown (or 1/3 cup white sugar, 1/3 cup Splenda, and 1 tsp molasses)
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment.
- In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a smaller bowl mix together oats, walnuts/almonds, cherries and chocolate chips.
- On medium speed, beat butter and sugar in a stand mixer until creamy and smooth.
- Add the egg and vanilla and take speed down to medium- low to beat for not more than a minute.
- Decrease mixer speed to low, slowly add in the flour and beat until just blended, 30 seconds.
- Incorporate oat mixture and mix on low until just combined.
- Stir the dough one last time using hand to integrate all ingredients.
- Take ¼ cup measure from the dough and roll roughly into a ball shape. Repeat for approximately 16 balls. (or make smaller balls!)
- Place balls on baking sheets.
- Press down each ball until flattened to thickness of 1 inch. (? – seems too thick to me)
- Set sheets in upper middle and lower middle racks of oven.
- Bake for 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway between, edges will be golden brown but the center will be soft and slightly mushy.
- Cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, this ensures a final cooking on the pans themselves.
- Transfer cookies onto wire racks to cool completely.
My Notes: The recipe above (without parens) is the original America’s Test Kitchen recipe – if you’d like the full sugar version, use that one. But if you share my concern about sugars in our diets, you may want to consider reducing the amounts you eat – a good way to do that is to desensitize your taste buds to sweets – I’d suggest you can do that in any recipe by simply cutting the amount of sugar by half, and then dividing that ‘half’ between sugar and Splenda – I think this works because the taste of Splenda is more intense than is sugar itself, and so it seems sweeter – once you begin doing this, you’ll find you can use less and less Splenda and still get the same sweet taste.
Actually, the cookies in my pics above were made with no sugar at all – and only 1/2 cup of Splenda – but if you have not yet baked with Splenda, I’d suggest you simply reduce the amount of sugar used, rather than eliminate it entirely – and that way you can teach your taste buds to adjust to less and less sugar.
One last note, watch out for hidden sugar, such as in my chocolate chips here – you can find sugar-free chips, but in my area, they are strangely expensive – a better option is to buy bulk sugar-free chocolate and chop it into chunks – this makes for a beautiful effect in your cookie! Frankly, I know dried fruit is loaded with its own sugars, but these are complex carbs, and the body processes them much differently than it does simple sugars – besides, the dried fruit has a load of other beneficial nutrients, so the calorie jolt may be worth it.
Enjoy, and learn too.