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Adventures In Low-fat Cooking

Olga Khazan |
November 22, 2010 | 7:34 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

Creative Commons photo from Flickr user litlnemo.
Creative Commons photo from Flickr user litlnemo.
When it comes to desserts, moderation escapes me. In my entire life, I cannot remember an occasion when I declined a cookie, a wedge of cheesecake or even a mediocre oatmeal-pecan bar. They say sugar is an addiction, and if that’s the case, I’m a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain. And perhaps also those Ton of Love folks.

For a long time, I had a deal with myself. I would abstain from french fries, sugary drinks, tacos, McRibs, and the like, all day, each and every day, in exchange for the chance to eat all the dessert I want - all day, each and every day. Like the recent Twinkie Diet Man, I was out to prove that it was total calories - not actual nutrition - that mattered.

For a while, it worked. I maintained a relatively normal pants-size by zealously avoiding fast food but submitting happily to my Ghirardelli overlords. It meant no self-flagellation after lunging face-first at the office birthday cupcake tray...but also no tater tots, ever. And I was fine with that.

Cut to first semester of grad school. After three months of taco trucks, living with boys and several packages of those damned Ralph’s frosted sugar cookies, I was 15 pounds heavier. Something had to be done.

At first I tried giving up sweets, but unfortunately, addictions are not so easily shaken. After a few chocolate-free days I ended up rummaging through my kitchen cabinet, digging out some unsweetened baking chocolate and biting off chunks of it. Not a good moment for me.

So I came upon a new plan: low-fat baking. For this, I turned to the Internet, where skinny women sit around all day and blog about why their thighs are smaller than yours.

Basically, low-fat recipes are the art making delicious things less terrible for you while tricking you into thinking that they taste like the original. Instead of touting that your cookies are “a crowd-pleaser,” or “delightful,” like a real recipe might, low-fat recipes focus on deceiving your  loved ones into eating your creations under the guise of eating a “real” dessert.  (“I brought this to a birthday party of 5-year-olds and none of them knew any better than to eat them!”) Aren’t you a clever little health elf.

Largely, the miracle behind these recipes is using applesauce instead of butter or any other kind of oil. I’m not quite sure why this is, as applesauce is about as much of a substitute for butter as water is for beer. (Apparently, it adds all the necessary moisture to the dough without adding all that dreaded fat.) As a personal touch, I also substituted Splenda for sugar, both because I ignore the cancer claims and because it would allow me to eat more of the final product without having to wear Spanx the following weekend. Also as a personal touch, I doubled the amount of chocolate chips in recipes that called for them, because I’m weak, what can I say?

Here’s what I made:

Vegan pumpkin cheesecake: 
I’ve been described as “occasionally vegan” (perhaps as a euphemism for “occasionally eating-disordered”), and this time I decided to see if I could hack it as a real vegan.

This one called for silken tofu and vegan cream cheese, both stand-ins for that girth-increaser, real cream cheese. I couldn’t find the silken tofu at my local grocery store, so I used the regular kind. The vegan cream cheese product, obviously taking a hint from the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” franchise, dubbed itself Tofutti “Better Than Cream Cheese.” That might be an overstatement. It’s certainly better than a colonoscopy, let’s just leave it at that.

I tasted the batter after we had blended the tofu with the “better than” cream cheese, vanilla, and sugar. One could say it was better than being hit by a truck, but probably not better than licking a live trout.

I ended up using less of the tofu-goop so as to maximize the flavor of the pumpkin. I cooked it in a chocolate graham cracker crust, which was my own idea.

45 minutes later, I had a pale orange paste that was lowfat and full of protein and fiber. It did not, however, taste anything like cheesecake. I ate it anyway.

Pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies:

In the spirit of the season, I decided to continue my pumpkin theme while combining it with my arch-frenemy, chocolate.

The recipe was fairly straightforward, and the good news was that I didn’t need any soybean iterations of real foods. I added ginger and nutmeg to the recipe in order to make up for its total lack of butter (applesauce again). I also used the patented Splenda/brown-sugar blend, and fortunately its chemical-factory essence didn’t survive the baking process.

They took twice as long to bake as real cookies - about 25 minutes, just long enough to regret spending all that money on the ingredients. They still didn’t look like real cookies when they came out, just spongy little orange mounds with deliciously evil chocolate spots.

They tasted pretty good, but more like a hearty bread studded with chocolate chips than a cookie. I took them to a party with the idea that I would attach a note reading, “Healthy cookies: Do not expect much!”

Instead, I decided to test their ability to fit in with the regular treats. To my surprise, they were the first thing to go. Internally, I beamed. (“I took them to a party and my friends had no idea they were healthy, or were too drunk to care!”) Success.

Low-fat brownies:

I realized I had a lot of applesauce left over after the cookies, and since applesauce has virtually no use beyond low-fat baking, I had no choice but to make these brownies.

The recipe was extremely easy - I whipped it up in 10 minutes. I substituted the Splenda/brown-sugar for the sugar again, and I used Egg Beaters in place of real eggs. So basically, I couldn’t expect much from this fake-food frankenstein.

The first sign of trouble came when I tasted the dough. Generally, brownie batter tastes like pure joy to me, but this batch was a lumpy gruel that tasted like a bad fruit roll-up, with the unmistakable tongue-numbing punch of Splenda at the end. I was worried, so I dumped in a bunch of left-over chocolate chips and some pecan pieces I had lying around.

I baked it, again, for way longer than it should have taken - about 30 minutes. The result was an ominous black mass. It actually tasted decent, but that was probably mostly because of the chocolate chips and pecans. Once I added a dollop of low-fat whipped cream on top, it was almost like a real brownie, as long as you don’t care about color or texture.

The word:

Someone once said, “beauty is pain.” That person is probably the creator of an applesauce-brownie recipe. If you’re already really into baking, please don’t start low-fat baking, because these creations are offensive to the word “dessert.” But if you’re already really into eating dessert, like I am, at least these are gross enough to make you eat a little bit less of it.

If you’re a low-fat baker, or a dessert eater, or a chocoholic who wants justification, leave a comment here.

To reach Olga Khazan, click here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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