Pros: Delicious & so much healthier!
Cons: Occasional mild structural problems
Rating: 5 out of 5
Agave nectar is a sweetener made from the agave cactus, the same plant we make tequila from. Agave has recently become the focus of much attention because of its surprisingly low glycemic index: this means that it converts to blood sugar in the body very slowly, which prevents the quick ups and downs associated with the ingestion of most sweets. This is great news for hypoglycemics and diabetics, who have to be careful of their blood sugar. It’s also great for folks who struggle with their weight and their sweet tooth—the flood of insulin that accompanies a spike in blood sugar is what causes the subsequent crash in blood sugar, and this tends to make people eat more to bring their blood sugar back up again. By keeping your blood sugar more stable, you can have occasional sweets without kicking off so much of that cycle.
Ania Catalano apparently loves desserts as much as I do, and is concerned with their effects on health. In Baking with Agave Nectar she presents over 100 recipes for using this intense sweetener, many of which are designed to be healthy in other ways, too. These recipes use whole grains, for example—pie crusts often involve oat flour, barley flour, whole wheat pastry flour, etc. Fruit substitutes for butter in some recipes, providing moisture and structure to cupcakes and the like. While some recipes use dairy (such as a banana cream pie that has whipped cream folded into a custard), others are vegan, such as a coconut custard pie made with tofu, of all things.
These are very different recipes. They don’t simply substitute agave for processed sugar in ‘normal’ recipes. Ms. Catalano makes the assumption that if you’re switching to agave, you’re doing it because you want to be healthier in general, and I think that’s the right assumption. What amazes me, however, is the fact that she manages to do this without compromising the deliciousness of her recipes. In fact, these recipes are so utterly amazing that I wouldn’t hesitate to make something from this book instead of a similar recipe from a non-healthy book, even if I weren’t trying to be healthy in my eating.
The directions in this book are easy to follow, and the recipes are clear and easy to read. The photos are gorgeous and mouth-watering (the book includes photos for some recipes but not all). The only problem I encountered at all is one that’s tough to avoid when dealing with whole grains: some baked goods lack a certain amount of structural integrity. If you look at the banana cream pie in the slide show below, you can see that the edge of the crust tended to fall apart pretty easily. Similarly, the chocolate chip cookies we made from this book tended to fall apart. However, I can virtually guarantee that once you taste a bite of either, you simply won’t care how they look!
The coconut custard pie was the dish that most amazed me. I knew that I had to make at least one of the vegan recipes in here before reviewing the book; otherwise it wouldn’t be a very comprehensive review. The idea of a coconut custard pie based on tofu instead of dairy made me dubious at best. Yet it was SO delicious that I could hardly stop eating it, and I would—in a heartbeat—make it again instead of a regular coconut custard pie. It was that good.
The banana daiquiri cupcakes were a similar shock. We thought they came out so well that we risked bringing them to a friend’s retirement-from-the-army picnic. (Normally I try not to spring ‘healthy’ foods on unsuspecting people, particularly at a function like that where I don’t know everyone.) The cupcakes were so good that I don’t think a single person guessed they were healthy, and we got a ton of compliments on them. They disappeared VERY quickly.
If you’re looking for a way to eat more healthfully but can’t give up your sweets, I highly recommend Ania Catalano’s Baking with Agave Nectar. You might not want to go back to regular desserts by the time you’re done!
By the way, if the difficulty in finding agave nectar or its cost is putting you off, I recommend going through Amazon. I was only able to find the stuff at the local Whole Foods Market around here, and then the price gave me heart palpitations at the thought of using a cup or so at a time in a recipe. Buying in bulk through Amazon, however, made it possible for me to buy enough dark and light nectar to cook with at a price that didn’t make me cringe.