Soon after I developed a recipe for Devil's food hazelnut, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter cookies, I realized the dearth of dessert choices for people with dietary concerns. The cookies, made with organic alternatives, flew out the door of the Springs General Store
in East Hampton, it seemed, just as soon as they were placed on the counter. One customer regularly purchases sugar/wheat-free cakes and pies for her family because they have allergy issues. Another customer has no medically necessary dietary limitations but has made a lifestyle choice to consume less sugar. The recipes I developed offer a surprisingly delicious alternative.
At first, I steered clear of making desserts that, well, weren't really dessert. Slowly, I began to experiment making desserts with various substitutes -from soybean extracts to artificial sweeteners - but I soon realized there was no point in trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear. I spent some real time, money and effort working with a NYC specialist in "alternative" dessert preparation and at one point I was reeling at how simply awful it all tasted. The failed effort was underlined by the fact that I could not find a seemingly decadent alternative for our customers at Union Square Café who had dietary issues, most notably, Mary Tyler Moore, who was a regular. The best I could offer her was a fruit plate, which didn't feel like much considering all the laughs and real pleasure she had given me over the years.
I did some research on the internet on sugar-free/wheat-free goodies to see what other people were up to and was amazed at some of the concoctions out there. For me, substituting chemicals simply was not the solution, and a lot of what's commercially available tastes, well, chemical.
Then I was introduced to birch sugar and spelt flour. Both are organic ingredients that can be used in traditional recipes and yield extremely satisfying results. As I began to work with these ingredients and became familiar with them, I started to contemplate the idea of a line of cookies that would taste great and be acceptable to diabetics, people with wheat allergies and people who just want to be more conscious about the amount of sugar they, and their children, consume.
Birch sugar (technically, Xylitol) is made from birch bark, corncobs and blueberry skins. It can also be found in fibrous vegetables, mushrooms and fruits. It was first extracted by a German chemist and manufactured shortly after the Second World War in Finland where there was a shortage of sweeteners following the war. In the 1950s it was found to be a normal part of our metabolism. Additionally, it is actually good for your teeth, enhances the immune system, has half the calories of sugar, does not raise insulin levels and has the property of preventing bacterial growth in the body rather than feeding it like sugar does.
Spelt flour is made from a grain in the oats and wheat family but an entirely different species. It has been around about 9000 years. The Italians call it "farro." It has high water solubility so its nutrients are easily absorbed by the body, contains carbohydrates to stimulate the body's immune system and has large amounts of B-complex vitamins. Total protein content is 10- to 25% greater than common varieties of commercial wheat.
This is all good, even great, news but I have to confess that the quality of the taste of these cookies depends on good butter, fresh eggs, nuts, cocoa and raisins. Still, not a bad trade off considering how much better they are for the body and how good they taste. The birch sugar, interestingly, does not create cravings for more the way sugar does so a few cookies do the trick. That is something commercial cookies manufacturers certainly won't want to hear at the next board meeting related to increased sales. But it's a fine thing for those people who want to have sweet treats and not feel guilty about it.
What I find so eye opening about all this is that there are ingredients out there that satisfy our desire for sweet things that are actually good for us. So often the "good for you" stuff tastes like a combination of dirt and coffee grounds to me; so there may be no pain but certainly no pleasure either.
This new line of cookies is currently available at the Springs General Store in East Hampton. They will also be available this summer at EECO farm in East Hampton, Cavaniola's Gourmet Cheese Shop In Sag Harbor and Tate's Bake Shop
For more information about birch sugar and spelt flour, just enter either one as a search entry on the Internet; information abounds.