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Just Desserts: Diet-Friendly Baking Tips

  • Andrew McCaul

    How to Make Healthy Desserts

    "It's possible to slash major calories and fat from almost any baked good without sacrificing flavor or texture," says Jessica Crandall, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. All it takes to make decadent treats that do minimal damage is one or two modifications — and we're giving you 24 to choose from! How sweet is that?

  • Andrew McCaul

    Better-for-You Brownies

    Spend Wisely

    Paying a little extra for high-quality products, like premium chocolate and pure vanilla extract, can pay off. "More-flavorful ingredients make you less likely to miss any calories you've cut," says Kim Macy, the pastry chef at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, Arizona.

    Blend In

    Puree soft or silken tofu, then use it in a one-to-one ratio to replace half the fat in your favorite brownie recipe. Researchers from Idaho State University found that eight in 10 people enjoyed fudge made with tofu in place of butter. "It has a neutral taste, so the chocolate flavor still shines through," says study author Linda Rankin, PhD. "Plus it's high in protein and calcium."

  • Scott Little

    "Beet" Your Sweet Tooth

    "Beets add sweetness and moisture without taking away from the flavor," says pastry chef Marisa Churchill, the author of Sweet & Skinny. Add two-thirds of a cup of finely grated raw beets to brownie batter and you can reduce the sugar by a quarter cup.

    Use Your Bean

    When researchers served brownies made with pureed white beans in place of half the shortening, testers rated them just as tasty as their full-fat counterparts. To make the switch, pulse cannellini beans, black beans, or lentils in a food processor with a little water, then replace half the butter, oil, or shortening in your baked goods with an equal amount of the puree.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Whip It Good

    For a lighter spin on cream cheese frosting, which is typically made with full-fat cream cheese and butter, beat together an eight-ounce block of reduced-fat cream cheese, one cup of powdered sugar, and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. The fluffy icing contains a mere 59 calories and three grams of fat per tablespoon.

    Lay It On Thin

    Buttercream can pack more than 140 calories and five grams of fat in just two tablespoons. Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, a food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University, suggests frosting your cake with nonfat whipped topping instead, or sifting on powdered sugar, which contains just 10 calories per teaspoon. Chocoholics: Melt 16 ounces of bittersweet chocolate with a quarter cup of low-fat milk, then spread the mixture on your cake or cupcake, advises Kim Galeaz, RD, a nutrition and culinary consultant in Indianapolis.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Crack Down on Eggs

    Use two egg whites or a quarter cup of egg substitute in place of one egg and you'll trim about 60 calories and six grams of fat from your treats. You can skip eggs altogether by combining a half teaspoon of baking powder, one tablespoon of vinegar and one tablespoon of water, says Patricia Kendall, PhD, RD, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Colorado State University. Or mix together one tablespoon of omega-3-rich ground flaxseed with three tablespoons of water.

    Make It Your Fizzness

    Mix a can of diet soda into a cake mix and, voilà! You have a moist, fluffy dessert — for just 160 calories and two grams of fat per piece. "Most dry mixes already contain some fat, so you don't need to add oil or all those eggs," Galeaz explains. She combines one box of devil's food cake mix with a 12-ounce can of diet cola and an egg white. "It works in other combinations too," she adds. Consider using diet cream soda in white or yellow cake, or diet root beer in a chocolate mix.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Guilt-Free Cookies

    Start Small

    Most chocolate chip cookies are seven times larger than what the USDA considers a healthy portion, according to a study from New York University. To bring yours back down to waistline-friendly reality, use a tablespoon to measure out dough. (Baking brownies or a sheet cake? Cut them into two-inch squares before serving. Pie slices should be about one and a half inches across at the widest part.)

    Spread the Love

    The next time you make chocolate chip cookies, use one cup of mini morsels instead of two cups of the regular kind to slash 1,120 calories and 64 grams of fat. "The smaller pieces provide more chips per bite, so you still feel as if you're getting plenty of chocolate," Crandall says. She suggests applying the same principle to other calorie-dense ingredients, like nuts and dried fruit, by finely chopping half the amount called for in the recipe.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Power Up Your Flour

    Replacing one cup of white flour with the whole wheat kind adds 10 grams of heart-healthy fiber to your famous snickerdoodles (or any other kind of cookie). Because whole grains are coarser than refined ones, start with a fifty-fifty mix and gradually increase the amount of whole wheat flour with each batch until you strike the best balance. If you're a purist, Galeaz recommends using white whole wheat flour. "It's made with white wheat rather than the red wheat used in regular whole wheat flour," she says. "It tastes milder and has a lighter texture but contains all the fiber and nutrients."

  • Go for the Gold

    "Browning enhances butter's flavor, so you can use half as much and make up the difference with an equal amount of low-fat cream cheese," Churchill says. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat until it begins to foam, then stir. Once the butter turns golden brown, transfer it to a resealable container immediately (otherwise it can burn) and pop it in the fridge for up to a month.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Slimmed-Down Pies and Tarts

    Stick It to Butter

    "Believe it or not, graham cracker crusts will hold together without all that melted butter," Churchill says. To shave 56 calories and five grams of fat off that piece of pie or cheesecake, pulse 10 honey graham cracker sheets (that's six ounces) into fine crumbs in a food processor. Add two tablespoons of low-fat milk and process for another 30 seconds, or until the crumbs stick when pressed together. Mold the mixture into a nine-inch pie dish and bake at 350° for 10 to 12 minutes.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Even the Score

    Compared with sugar, agave nectar has a lower glycemic index value (a measure of how food affects your blood sugar), which means it won't cause energy crashes. And, Macy says, because agave is sweeter than sugar, you need only half to three-fourths as much of it, depending on how ripe your fruit is and how sweet you like your pie. Just reduce the amount of liquid in your recipe by about a quarter cup and lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Break Out of Your (Pie) Shell

    You know meringue as cloudlike cookies, but it can double as a piecrust, saving you 40 calories and eight grams of fat per slice. "The crunchy texture works best with chocolate mousse or lemon curd," Macy says. To make a meringue crust, beat three egg whites with a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar on high speed until foamy. Gradually beat in three-quarters of a cup of sugar until the whites are glossy and stiff, then a half teaspoon of vanilla. Spread in a greased pie dish and bake at 225° for one hour or until a toothpick comes out clean.

    Flake Out

    Vegetable shortening gives piecrust its flaky texture, but it also can contain artery-clogging hydrogenated fats. "Even products listed as trans fat-free can pack up to half a gram per serving, which is damaging to the heart," Crandall says. Avoid products labeled "partially hydrogenated" and instead opt for versions made from coconut or palm oil, like those from Spectrum Organic Products, Churchill suggests.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Muffins and Quick Breads

    Slightly Sweeten the Deal

    Sugar adds sweetness and light: "It absorbs liquid during baking and slows the development of wheat proteins, which can weigh down your desserts," Kendall explains. But you can cut back on it by up to 25 percent and still keep that soft, airy texture. "And because the amount of sugar called for in many recipes results in treats that are overly sweet, in some cases you'll actually improve the flavor," she says.

  • Andrew McCaul

    Halve It Your Way

    Prefer to use sugar substitutes? "They have a different chemical consistency and are often sweeter than sugar, meaning you'll need less," Kendall says. For best results, use sweetener-sugar hybrids developed specifically for baking, like Domino Light or Truvia Baking Blend, and follow the substitution directions on the package (most say to swap in a half cup for one cup of sugar).

    Bulk Up

    Curb calories by pumping up the produce in your batter. "When I make banana bread, for instance, I'll add an extra cup of fruit," Galeaz says. "It increases the volume and adds fiber, which helps keep you fuller longer." Or steal a move from Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious playbook and add pureed or finely grated vegetables to your treats. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people actually preferred carrot cake made with extra veggies to the regular version — even though it had 102 fewer calories a slice.

    Get Low

    "I often experiment with low-fat cream cheese and milk in place of full-fat types," Churchill says. "In baked goods, there's no noticeable difference between the two." But she draws the line at fat-free products, which can make treats taste dry and rubbery. "A little fat is necessary to get the right texture," she says.

  • Blaine Moats

    Mega ­Calorie Savers

    Slim down your sweets and score an extra dose of nutrients by using fruit and veggie purees. They make desserts denser, so try a 25 to 50 percent trade to find the right ratio.

    1. Applesauce

    Best bets: The mild flavor of unsweetened applesauce works particularly well in muffins and cakes. Use an equal amount to replace some of the butter, oil, or shortening.

    Added bonus: One cup delivers three grams of fiber for 102 calories.

    2. Canned pumpkin or sweet potato puree

    Best bets: Substitute either one for fat in a one-to-one ratio in spice breads, spice cakes, or chocolate desserts. You can also add a can of pumpkin to a box of brownie mix in place of the eggs and oil.

    Added bonus: You'll get a hefty dose of immune-boosting vitamins A and C.

    3. Prunes or dates

    Best bets: These add richness and deepen the color of gingerbread and brownies. Blend a half cup with six tablespoons of water until smooth, then use the puree to replace an equal amount of fat.

    Added bonus: Prunes are a good source of iron, and dates provide nearly two grams of fiber each.

    4. Bananas

    Best bets: Avoid adding bananas to anything you don't want to taste vaguely fruity. Try subbing half the amount of the oil called for with the same amount of mashed banana.

    Added bonus: A large banana provides 487 milligrams of potassium, which helps protect your heart.

    Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November/December 2012.