A pastry chef baking without sugar seems as likely as a painter working without color. But that’s one of the challenges Joanne Chang, 46, gave herself in her new “Baking With Less Sugar.” She created confections that either reduce granulated sugar or replace it entirely with maple syrup, honey, molasses, fruit, and other sweeteners. “One of the main reasons to do the book was trying to create different tastes,” says the chef. “It wasn’t about eliminating a key ingredient, but more about focusing on other parts of baking and seeing what you could create.” Chang is the owner of four Flour Bakery + Cafe locations and chef at Myers + Chang, the South End restaurant that she co-owns with her husband, Christopher Myers. She is the author of two other baking books and is now at work with Myers + Chang executive chef Karen Akunowicz on another cookbook.
Q. What made you decide that baked goods should have other sweeteners besides sugar?
A. If you just use sugar — which is definitely the go-to for all pastry chefs — then you’re creating a dessert where the sweetener isn’t really adding any flavor. It just adds sweetness. You could liken it to the recent trend of all the different flavored salts. Salt just adds saltiness or enhances the flavor. But if you have a sea salt or any of those specialty salts that are out there, they are adding flavor.
Q. Did you adapt Flour recipes or create new ones?
A. A little bit of both. There are a lot of recipes that are tweaks of things we do here. Our banana bread is in it. I took that recipe and literally started reducing, reducing, reducing the sugar. The carrot cake, which is on the cover, is a recipe that starts from Flour and then I take out the sugar and replace it with apple juice. Then there are some brand new recipes like the coconut tapioca [pudding], which is also sweetened with apple juice.
Q. What were the baking challenges?
A. I thought I was going to be focusing 80 percent of my time on how to make things taste sweet and 20 percent on everything else. I really probably spent 80 percent figuring out the texture, color, the keeping qualities. Sugar allows things to be crispy. It enables a certain golden color. There’s a peanut-butter honey cookie in the book I thought . . . was going to be easy. The taste part was easy. But to get it to hold together and have some sense of a cookie instead of a soft cake, it was probably 10 or 12 trials.
Q. Low-sugar pastries don’t keep as long. Why is that?
A. Sugar is hygroscopic, which means that it draws moisture in the air. If you have a piece of cake that is made with sugar, the sugar is going to take any moisture that’s in the surrounding air and suck it in the cake. That’s what keeps it moist for days.
Q. Do you end up adding more fat to compensate?
A. Not as a rule. But I think that a lot of people are approaching this book as a health book. In their heads they think low sugar, oh, it must be low-fat as well. It’s really a book about flavor. I didn’t go through the recipes and take out the sugar and then try to take out the fat.
Q. Was there anything you just couldn’t get to work?
A. There’s one I have temporarily abandoned. Hamersley’s Bistro made a famous lemon pudding cake. It’s an easy cake batter that you pour into a pan and when you bake, it separates. I wanted to do something like that but with maple syrup. I must have made 30 versions. I never got it right.
Q. You recently helped design a new chef’s apron.
A. Tilit [the manufacturer] sent me an e-mail out of the blue. They said, why don’t we send you prototypes, wear them, and send us feedback? I gave them to our pastry chefs. One thing we wanted was a fabric that didn’t look dirty when it had flour on it. White is actually too white. We got something that’s like a pale cream (pictured above). It’s got two big pockets down toward the leg. Sometimes aprons have pockets at the chest and when you bend over at a low oven, a pen or a notebook might fall out.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak