Pros: Delicious & so much healthier!
Cons: Occasional mild structural problems
Rating: 5 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Ten Speed Press.
Visit Ania Catalano online.
An extra entry in the Soup’s On [dead link removed] challenge.
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.
Great review! This is really tempting. What brand of agave are you using? I’m not so crazy about the trader joe’s variety.
tara: I bought a case of six bottles of Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blue Agave from Amazon, and I love the stuff. Very mild & smooth. I love not getting that sugar rush after having dessert—I’ve found since I started cutting down on sugar and processed grains that a sugar rush really makes me feel not-so-good afterward. With the desserts in this book my blood sugar level stays surprisingly even, and oh my goodness these things are delicious!
I use the Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blue Agave, and it’s also raw, which I hear is important. I get it at Whole Foods. I’m looking forward to trying out the coconut custard pie! Thanks!
reader: Save some of that pie for me! 😀
Great tip on purchasing Agave Nectar online. I’ve also seen it at whole foods however avoided it for its high cost! Its a great way to make deserts healthier without using artificial sugars! Natural and fresh is always the best route to take!
mmm… appetizing pies! I like baking, especially if it with some fruits ))
If you have a Natural Food Warehouse nearby, they carry the Wholesome Organic Blue Agave and it’s much cheaper than at Whole Foods. Love the review. Me and my sweet tooth can’t wait to try the recipes.
Thanks for the interesting post. Those pies sound all so great and now I want to eat a slice. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.
OMG! This is a dream come true!
Artificial sweetners are so bad for people, so I used to use Stevia.
But now I found out that Stevia isn’t good for people either! Come on!
It lowers the amount of good bacteria in your digestive track! 🙁
Thank you so much for this info!!! I will definitely try it!!!
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For a while there, I thought Agave Nectar is some sort of computer application! 😉 Thanks for this article, Heather! It’s my first time to encounter such an ingredient. I’ve always loved baking and I can’t wait to have my first try in incorporating this in one of my recipes.
Agave nectar is indeed quite versatile for so many culinary applications. And, purchasing from Amazon will save you so much money in the long run, it just makes sense to take advantage of their prices.
This actually holds true for almost anything sold on the site, but I’ve found the agave nectar to be almost 50% in most cases…
I love Agave nectar, and here in the Wild West (Denver) it’s abundantly available in your everyday grocery chains. It is definitely a bit pricier than sugar but the health benefits are quite nice, especially for folks battling insulin related blood sugar problems.
Thanks for sharing the article!
I’m still learning how to cook and am interested in baking. I’d love to try and make these pies particularly the coconut custard. But then, I guess for now I have to practice well before trying the real thing. 🙂
I’ve never heard of Agave Nectar until I read this post – and now I’m extremely curious! Thanks to your tip, I just ordered a small batch online. I can’t wait to try it!
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