Recently I was designated cook and hostess for a group of friends at Sunday brunch. Somehow I found myself cooking for one diabetic, one person on the Dukan diet, one health food junkie, three normal (habitually black coffee drinking, pain au chocolate munching) French people, and of course, me- a kind of confused mix of the all the above!
So… instead of breaking into a cold sweat and ranting that it was bound to become a “catastrophe” I decided to have fun with the challenge by attempting a few recipes that would hopefully satisfy the sweet tooth, whilst being suitable for those unable to consume, or choosing to limit/avoid sugar.
Here is what landed on the brunch menu:
• Scrambled free range eggs with fresh goats cheese and chives
• Smoked Salmon with fresh lemon and dill
• Traditional English scones with butter and jam (I love cooking English food for my French friends as it’s so amusing to me when they say things directly comparing it back to French food, such as: “Oooh… la scone.. it kind of feels like a brioche and tastes like a crepe” LOL)
• Sweet Baked Vanilla Ricotta with fresh Orange and Mint Fruit Salad
• Bananatella Chocolate Spread/Pâte à Tartiner
• Traditional baguettes and country sourdough from the local Jacob’s boulangerie
I’m happy to report back that the Light Bananatella and Sweet Baked Vanilla Ricotta were successfully pulled off without adding any sugar, or artificial sweeteners. Instead, I used my new favorite and most indispensable ingredient: Agave syrup, also commonly called Agave Nectar. Known to the Aztecs as the “Nectar of Gods”, this product really is a God-send.
In France, Syrop d’Agave is now so popular that you can find it in nearly all major supermarkets, either next to honey (and it’s often cheaper than honey) or in the health food isle. It’s widely available in Canada and the US, but in many other regions it can still be either impossible to find, or hiding on a back shelf wearing a huge price tag in an organic food store. Either way, you should be able to source it for a good price and easily buy it online, regardless of where you’re located.
If you don’t yet know what all the rage is about, here’s what you need to know. Agave syrup is made from… you guessed it- the agave plant. That’s right, the cactus grown in Mexico that’s also used to make tequila. Now here’s the catch. It’s not exactly calorie-free, but it’s so low ‘GI’ that it does not provoke the insulin reaction in your body that sugar does. This is very good news for diabetics, dieters, or anyone like me who loves to cook sweet yummy treats but likes to “have her cake and eat it too.”
Agave syrup has a very high proportion (around 90%) of Fructose, which in isolation has a very low glycemic index. Agave syrup is also approximately 1.5 times sweeter than sugar or honey and is perfectly suitable for baking and cooking at high temperatures.
To put things into perspective, any food with a GI rating of 55 or less is considered ‘Low GI’. Table sugar has a GI of 68, honey is approx 55, raw apples have a GI of 40 and Agave Syrup ranges between 11 and 19. Very sweet numbers, I must say.
Anyway, that’s enough about the numbers… let’s move on to the fun part- sharing the recipes! Below you will find photos and recipes for the sugar-free Baked Ricotta and the homemade Low-fat, Sugar-free Nutella Substitute I have aptly named “Bananatella”. I know, I know, nothing can ever truly replace Nutella, let’s be honest, but this recipe which uses agave syrup and naturally caramelized bananas to give it texture and sweetness is smooth, rich, satisfying and delicious- also great when served on toast for kids at breakfast.
Do you have any experiences or tips cooking with sugar alternatives? Have you already cooked with Agave syrup? Feel free to join the conversation by using the comments box at the bottom of this post.
Recipe: Sugar-free Sweet Baked Vanilla Ricotta with Orange & Mint Fruit Salad
Serves 8-10 and keeps for over a week refrigerated.
This baked cheesecake is easier to turn out and slice when it is cold, so you can bake it the day before you wish to serve it, slice it when it is cold and then let it come to room temperature. It is best made in a nonstick loaf tin, 25 cm (10 in) long, 5 cm (2 in) wide and 7.5 cm (3 in) deep, or a round, hollow cake tin (as pictured).
You can also substitute the vanilla bean for lemon zest, or add cinnamon and nutmeg to the vanilla version. Use the firmest, freshest ricotta you can find. The pre-packaged product in the supermarket is far inferior to deli-fresh ricotta. If you don’t have the choice, you can use the softer, packaged cheese but strain it for an hour in a fine sieve to reduce the water content. It’s near impossible to find fresh ricotta in France, so I now substitute with a fresh cheese from the south of France called Brousse and I use the low fat (3%) variety.
3 cups (800 g/1-3/4 lb) fresh ricotta cheese (low fat or regular)
2 free-range eggs
1 vanilla bean pod
4 tbsp agave syrup (or sweetened to taste)
2 oranges (optional for decoration)
Handful of chopped pistachios (optional for serving)
Fresh Orange and Mint Fruit Salad:
3 cups fresh orange juice
½ tsp cinnamon (optional)
½ bunch fresh chopped mint
To bake the ricotta, preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (300 degrees F). In a large bowl, whisk together the ricotta and the eggs. Split the vanilla bean and scrape in the seeds. Add the agave syrup.
To decorate the cake, peel 2 whole oranges and remove all rind. Slice the oranges finely and place them around the sides of the tin. Pour the ricotta mixture into the tin and cover with aluminum kitchen foil. Prepare a bain-marie by placing the tin into a slightly larger baking pan and pouring in enough hot water to come about half-way up the side of the tin. Carefully place the baking pan in the oven. Bake the ricotta for 40-60 minutes, until the top is slightly golden and the cake feels firm.
When the ricotta is ready, remove the loaf tin from the bain-marie and remove the foil. Let the ricotta cool, then cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate. When it is cold you can gently turn it out of the tin and slice it as required.
To make the fresh orange salad, peel 5 whole oranges and cut into round slices. Transfer to a large serving bowl and add orange juice, fresh mint leaves and cinnamon (optional).
Recipe: Sugar-free ‘Bananatella’ Chocolate Spread / Pâte à Tartiner
2 overripe bananas
4 tbsp quality cocoa powder
3 tbsp hazelnut oil
2 tbsp skim milk powder
3 tbps hot water
5 tbsp agave syrup
1 tbsp fromage blanc or thick greek yoghurt
Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C. Pierce a small hole the skins of the bananas with a knife and wrap them in foil. Bake slowly till they caramelize in their own juices for approx 1 hour. Once cooled, scoop out the flesh from the skins into a mixing bowl and mash the bananas with a fork. In a small, heavy based saucepan on low heat, combine the hazelnut oil, half the agave syrup and slowly sift in the cocoa powder till combined into a thick paste.
Add the hot water and skim milk powder and whisk. Transfer the chocolate paste and banana to a food processor (or you can use a hand blender in one bowl) and process all the ingredients together on high speed. Add the remaining agave syrup and the fromage blanc. Pour into clean and dry glass jam jar or conserve pot, seal and refrigerate. Keep refrigerated and well sealed after serving. Enjoy!