MS//Mommy is reaching a milestone this weekend: on Sunday we will be celebrating our one-year anniversary. In honor of this milestone, we asked Michelle Melton to share with us a sugar-free cake recipe – perfect for all sorts of celebrations.
One of my favorite lines from Ray Romano’s early stand-up routine was about his, then 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra. As they were driving along, he noticed that she stared out the window smiling at nothing in particular. When he asked her what she was thinking about, she replied “candy!”
Even at 60, I remember clearly the joy as a child that was candy, ice cream, and other sugary treats. My friends and I would walk to the drug store clutching our quarters and stand in front of the rows of candy trying to decide which choices would yield the most pleasure for our money. Our neighborhood was visited by three different ice cream trucks each day during the summer and though my mother would limit the purchases to occasionally, the sound of bells or a music box-like jingle would send me running home with the hope that, perhaps today, might be the day. A few years later, when a candy company introduced a large-sized lollipop with a sweet side and a tart side, bringing it to school, became the cool thing to do in sixth grade.
With such a long-standing and deep-rooted love of sweets, one would imagine that once I became a mother, I would be sympathetic to a child’s love of candy and desserts. But nothing could be further from the truth.
As I watched those beautiful new teeth emerge in my infant daughter’s mouth I vowed (successfully) that she would live life cavity-free. Since sugar-filled treats had been the source of my numerous dental fillings, I chose to limit the introduction of candy and other treats into her life. If we did indulge, I chose high-quality or homemade confections and desserts. We enjoyed candy on special occasions and holidays but rather than using candy as a gift or reward, I would instead choose small toys or other useful items like pens and pencils, especially on the annual homemade advent calendar.
It was by coincidence last year when my daughter decided to remove cane sugar from her diet that I had been investigating the idea at the same time. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was already living gluten-free off and on so the concept of removing sugar seemed daunting. I decided to postpone going entirely gluten-free until after the first of this year and instead joined my daughter in her effort to use sugar alternatives (honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, xylitol) in place of cane sugar. With birthdays and the holidays approaching at this time last year, the effort to convert favorite recipes to these substitutes was going to be difficult enough without the added trouble of trying to use gluten-free flours.
My first sugar substitute of choice was coconut sugar. It is readily available at most grocery stores and it is also the least expensive.
It could be substituted one-to-one for the sugar called for in recipes. However, one of the drawbacks is the brown color which, when combined with foods like fruit give the mixture an unappealing look, though it works well in recipes as a replacement for brown sugar.
The last drawback is one I haven’t read about so I am guessing few people have noticed this but coconut sugar is oily. It seems to retain some of the oil found in the coconut and therefore, can interfere in the finished product. For example, when I tried to make homemade chocolate chips, the final product would not solidify properly because of the added oil. Coconut sugar is a great substitute as long as these characteristics are taken into consideration. If appearance, taste and setting up isn’t an issue (as when making chocolate syrup for milk) then I use coconut sugar.
I have since moved to xylitol which is a sugar alcohol. It has a very low glycemic index, it tastes like sugar, doesn’t discolor cooked foods, and it’s not oily so finished products set up nicely. A downside is the cost, but one way I have managed to extend it is by using a high-speed blender to turn it into powder.
There is powdered xylitol available in the store but it is very easy to make it a home. I use an inexpensive bullet-style blender exclusively for this purpose. It is possible the xylitol crystals would etch the plastic container of my more expensive home blender. With the smaller blender, I put about of cup of xylitol in the blender cup and process it for no more than 15 seconds. The heat of the blades and the moisture could cause clumping.
I use brown rice syrup when I need a substitute for corn syrup. Honey and maple syrup when those flavors are important to the finished product. Fresh berries mixed with plain yogurt, topped with honey and homemade granola (made with maple syrup) is a nice quick dessert.
Now that my confidence with these various sugar alternatives has grown through trial and error this past year, I am looking forward to using them in my traditional holiday cookies and candies.
For my birthday this past June, I wanted to bake my own cake. I found a recipe for a gluten-free vanilla cake. The photos on the website looked exactly like what I was looking for. I baked the cake and frosted it with a traditional buttercream frosting. It was horrible! I hated it! It was heavy and the flavor was not great. The buttercream frosting was gritty (this was before I bought the small blender so I wasn’t able to sufficiently powder the xylitol). I was so disappointed.
A few weeks later, I received the King Arthur Flour catalog and saw the recipe for this almond flour cake. I had not tried almond nor coconut flour up to that point. Again I was seduced by the accompanying photo but reading through the recipe, I could see technique differences which gave me hope that this recipe might, indeed, work.
A side note about recipes: have you ever followed a recipe to the letter but still a meal or baked good didn’t turn out? It might not have been you! When I volunteered at a cooking school, the classes were conducted by local chefs. We, as volunteers, did the prep work for the demonstrations and the students taking the classes. Because the chefs wrote the recipes they were often incomplete or unclear. My point is– just because someone knows how to cook, doesn’t mean they know how to write a recipe! A recipe requires technical writing, a skill few people have. My advice is to compare similar recipes. There should be a consensus for how something is to be prepared with variations only in flavorings or other minor adjustments. Any recipe that varies dramatically from other standard recipes could be a risk.
The following recipe was adapted from King Arthur Flour Strawberry Almond Flour Cake. It makes a light, sponge cake that is delicious when topped with berries and whipped cream. Here I have adapted it using xylitol in place of cane sugar. I also experimented with frosting in the hope of finding a satisfactory replacement for traditional cake using wheat flour and sugar.
Almond Flour Cake
Serving Size: 8 – 12 Servings
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 Cup + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided (I used ½ cup powdered xylitol for cake; 2 tablespoons granular xylitol for the pan)*
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups almond flour
1 tablespoon coconut flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 2 cups sliced strawberries, for topping
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Trace and cut an 8” circle of parchment paper using the pan as a guide.
- Lightly grease an 8″ round pan with shortening. Insert the parchment paper circle and lightly grease that as well. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the sugar listed in the ingredients into the bottom of the pan.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat together the egg yolks, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the vanilla until smooth.
- Using an electric mixer or stand mixer, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Slowly beat in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Set aside.
- Whisk together the dry ingredients — flours, baking powder, and salt — and add to the egg yolks. Stir together to form a thick dough.
- Fold in the egg whites, 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating them fully between each addition. The final addition should result in a smooth, fluffy batter.
- Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan. Bake the cake on the center rack for 30 to 35 minutes, until it’s golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the sides, then turn the cake out onto a serving plate.
- Allow the cake to cool fully before topping with sliced strawberries, or the fruit of your choice.
- To frost your cake, as shown, here’s a great recipe for sugar-free frosting.
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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography