Season to Taste: Sweet-Talk
When it comes to the Rosh Hashana table, honey, in all its burnished-amber stickiness, tends to steal the spotlight. Tradition calls for honey as a symbol of goodness and sweet success for the coming year, and in the kitchen it is used to enhance everything from halla and tzimmes to chicken and salad dressing.
But maybe it is time for honey to share the stage. In addition to time-honored customs, Rosh Hashana also provides an opportunity to explore the new and the different. With this spirit of change in mind, I took an exploratory stroll down the sugar aisle at my local Whole Foods to take a closer look at the staggering range of sugar alternatives, each with unique flavor characteristics, nutritional profiles and kitchen applications.
Probably the most popular of the new crop of sweetener alternatives is agave nectar. Made from the same blue cactus plants used to produce tequila, agave has a clean, light sweetness that is less assertive than honey, which tends to taste “hot” in the back of the throat or sometimes overwhelm with a cloying sweetness or even a bitter aftertaste. Agave works beautifully in lemonade, iced tea and cocktails, where it dissolves quickly and complements, rather than overwhelms, other flavors. In most instances it can replace honey, but remember that it is slightly thinner in consistency. Though it has the same number of calories per serving as honey and sugar, agave has a lower glycemic index, making it a good option for diabetics and others sensitive to the spiking perils of sugar.
In recent years, sweeteners made with stevia extract have hit stores, both in liquid and powder forms (one, manufactured by Coca-Cola, is called Truvia). A white-flowering plant nicknamed sweetleaf or sugarleaf (above), stevia can pack a powerfully sweet punch—some tests have shown that it is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar—and certain people detect a distinct licorice flavor that can be distracting when trying to replace sugar in a recipe. Stevia is great used in hot drinks like tea or coffee, or stirred into fruit salad or a yogurt parfait to add a touch of sweetness (use sparingly, by the quarter teaspoonful, and wait a few minutes for the sweetness to bloom in your food before adding more; stevia’s intensity tends to have a cumulative affect). It is not quite as versatile as sugar for baking, since the granules do not provide the structure that sugar does.
Sucanat may be unfamiliar to you, but it is a sweetener you will want to get to know. Made by extracting pure cane sugar juice and leaving the molasses that is typically removed when making white sugar, Sucanat has a warm, earthy flavor redolent of vanilla and molasses. It is also the healthiest of the bunch and a great source of iron, calcium, vitamin B6, potassium and chromium, a compound known to balance blood sugar. It works great wherever brown sugar or molasses is called for, as in this spicy apple cake perfect for Rosh Hashana, which begins on the evening of September 8.
Apple Cake with Browned Meringue Topping
Adapted from Food52 (www.food52.com). Serves 6.
For the meringue
2 egg whites
1 cup Sucanat
2 TBs water
For the cake
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup Sucanat
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice
2 apples, cored and grated on the
large holes of a box grater
1/3 cup toasted pecans
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1. Preheat oven to 375°. Grease a 9-inch springform pan or 8 x 8-inch square baking dish.
2. Make meringue: Place egg whites, Sucanat and water in the top of a double boiler filled with boiling water. Beat the egg whites mixture on high with an electric mixer until peaks form, about 5 minutes.
3. Make cake: Combine oil, Succanat and eggs in a bowl and beat for 1 minute with an electric mixer until Sucanat begins to dissolve. Add baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, grated apples, pecans and raisins and gently fold in until incorporated. Fold in the flours until just incorporated.
4. Pour batter into prepared pan and spread meringue evenly on top with a knife or offset spatula. Bake until top is crisp, 40-45 minutes. Serve warm, or seal and serve at room temperature for up to 2 days.
Iced Agave-Pomegranate Green Tea
Makes 10 cups.
6 green tea bags
2 cups unsweetened pomegranate
juice (available at health food stores)
1/2 cup agave nectar
1 cup pomegranate seeds
Brew tea bags in 6 cups boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags, discard and let tea cool. Place tea in a large pitcher with pomegranate juice and agave nectar. Add pomegranate seeds and chill in refrigerator. Pour into tall, ice-filled glasses and serve.