A New Cookbook Looks Beyond Sugar for a Flash of Sweetness

The subtitle of Brian Levy’s Good & Sweet, “A New Way to Bake with Naturally Sweet Ingredients,” must have gone through some workshopping because this new book’s central offering is a little tricky to describe. “Sugar-free baking” wouldn’t do it any justice—nor is it accurate. And while “naturally sweet” might bring to mind honey, agave, and maple syrup—that category of sweeteners known by some as the “natural” ones—you won’t find those ingredients in the book either.

Rather, Levy’s recipes are crafted to capitalize on sweetness in its whole and most nutritionally complex states. He looks to fresh, dried, and freeze-dried fruit for sweetness, for example. And he even finds a way to emphasize the inherent sweetness in dairy, milk powder, corn, cashews, and oat flour. These are “naturally sweet ingredients” he’s working with. More specifically, he’s choosing to work with the ones that are composed of more than just fructose or glucose.

That said, Good & Sweet isn’t really a book about restrictions. Sure, there are dairy-free recipes and suggested alternatives to all-purpose flour, but butter, cream, and gluten all get their due. Levy is a pastry chef, and his mission here isn’t “healthy” baking, but rather to create recipes that aren’t focused around the ingredient that might be missing, but instead what they might gain from using alternative ways to sweeten.

As an enthusiastic but amateur baker—and a health-minded cook who loves to eat dessert every day—I was excited to experience this new approach. I placed a big order of various dried and freeze-dried fruits from Nuts.com, dusted off my food processor, and started cooking.

I tried the Date, Rye, and Olive Oil Brownies first, and I’ll be honest: Weighing 305 grams of dates made me worry I might be baking what amounted to a fancy Lärabar. But when I blended those ingredients with eggs, vanilla, and a generous stream of olive oil, a luscious base of wet ingredients coalesced before my eyes. Then came dark rye flour and cocoa powder, with their distinctively earthy aromas.

The thick batter must be pressed into the pan—briefly reviving my Lärabar concerns—but what emerged from the oven was a marvel: a perfect textural hybrid of fudgy and cakey, and delicately sweet, too. In fact, ripe would actually be a better word than sweet. There was the richness and decadence I’d expect of a brownie, but rather than offering a jolt of sweetness that pierced the roof of my mouth, they tasted nuanced, alive, and fresh.

Olive oil brownies on a wooden slat cut into pieces.
Date, Rye, and Olive Oil Brownies

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A traditional pound cake gets its name from the formula of one pound each flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. So I was curious how Levy would reformulate one in what I made next, his Fig, Blueberry, and Ricotta Pound Cake. When you cream the butter with a fruit dust made from blitzed freeze-dried blueberries and apples, the batter takes on a periwinkle hue. Then, you beat in luxurious ricotta. Fold in little nubs of dried figs, and sprinkle more of that fruit dust between layers of the batter in the loaf pan, and you’re left with a beautiful ombre effect in the finished cake.

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