Viva la Dolce

By Helen Cordes
Photography by Jenna Noel

All things sweet—are there any among us who don’t pine, crave, jones for some form daily? The big brains that study our taste buds posit that a strong sweet allegiance is likely locked in from birth by the sugary note nestled in mother’s milk—our instinctual link to survival. Yet as natural as the attraction may be, our day-to-day sweet encounters often come with post-treat regret, and deservedly so.

Heinous trends have our children swilling artificially flavored, white-sugar-swamped “treats” and adults gorging on Bermuda triangles of nutrition-stripped flour, high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fat.

Luckily for us, a recent blossoming of natural sweeteners and barely processed toasty-tan sugars has moved into the spotlight, offering options that are both more healthful and tastier. And many of these sweeteners are produced locally! Not surprising, since Texas’s sunny temps have long nourished a flourishing production of honeybees, sweet sorghum, sugar cane, sugar beets and nectar-rich agave cacti.

Push aside the sugar bowl and dip into the smorgasbord that is our local honey. Boggy Creek Farm’s popular Gause Yaupon Honey, ruby-tinged like the yaupon shrub’s fall berries, is a great place to start.

“Nothing like it,” declares Boggy Creek’s Larry Butler—and local chefs concur. Fino and Asti Trattoria owner Emmett Fox likes to drizzle it on fried goat cheese paired with red onion jam, and pastry chef Sarah Jordan of Olivia lets the honey glow on its own surrounded by house-made crackers and superb local cheeses like Brazos Valley Blue, made near Waco.

Consider a spoonful of Thunder Heart Bison’s “Native Nectar” guajillo honey—a delicate treat honed from the pale yellow flowers of the guajillo bushes that dot the ranch near Carrizo Springs. Or sample tawny-toned Round Rock Honey—a delight hued by petal-hoppers feasting on central Texas blossoms like the butter-colored beeflower and deep blue sage.

Agave, a newish kid on the sweetener block, attracts with its better-for-you, low-glycemic value (great for diabetics and others looking to soften sugar spikes) and high sweetness index (agave’s almost twice as sweet as sugar). It oozes from the thorny agave cactus as the “agua miel” (honey water) our native Texans revealed to Spanish explorers centuries ago. Agave plays a starring role in Austin’s popular vegan ice cream NadaMoo and in Agasweet’s gourmet flavored organic agave nectars.

“Agave nectar is an ideal condiment because you can use it to add flavor to both sweet and savory foods,” says Agasweet creator, Chef Achim “Keem” Thiemermann.

Agasweet’s nectars come in seven tempting flavors, like pure vanilla, tangerine-ginger and lavender, and Thiemermann suggests drizzling them on sandwiches, grilled meats, even barbecue.

Agave’s mild palette makes it perfect in dishes where the sweetness is a subtle undertone. The Steeping Room’s Amy March uses it to sweeten tea and in the oft-ordered organic granola. And the Mediterranean Chef’s Nikki Kaya occasionally uses flavored agave to complement the crisp phyllo layers and Texas pecans of her baklava.

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Another sweetener getting some buzz of late is stevia, an herb used for centuries in its native South America that packs a punch 200 times greater than white sugar. Federal food regulators restricted stevia use in the past, citing concerns over possible cancer risks, and the Food and Drug Administration withheld GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) approval—requiring stevia to be labeled only as a dietary supplement. But earlier this year, the FDA finally granted the GRAS for stevia-based sweeteners marketed by Coca-Cola, Cargill and PepsiCo, and the interest in stevia has since mushroomed.

Despite the federal machinations, longtime stevia fans such as Zhi Tea’s Jeffrey Lorien just keep doing what they’ve been doing: using stevia as a flavorful alternative to sugar. Lorien brews a cup of Zhi’s Sweet Desert Delight to illustrate how dried, organic stevia leaf creates a dessert-like warming alchemy with other key ingredients such as red rooibos, star anise, cacao nibs and coconut pieces.

“Stevia carries the flavor of its components,” Lorien says, and notes that he also uses stevia as a sweet note in curry sauces, salad dressings and glazes in home cooking.

Natural foods chef and nutritional educator Amanda Love mixes stevia leaves with medicinal heavyweight herbs such as lemon balm, lemon grass, spearmint and raspberry leaves for her Soothin’ Infusion organic teas.

“Stevia’s wonderful because it’s so potent and you don’t need to overuse it the way we do white sugar,” she says.

Raw cane sugars and syrups are also growing in popularity as white sugar alternatives. Love uses a variety of them when she teaches about whole foods as The Barefoot Cook.

“You can use maple syrup, concentrated fruit juice, rice syrup and barley malt to add sweetness,” she advises. And raw or minimally processed sugar is much better than white, she notes, because it retains both more minerals and more flavor.

Home-kitchen foodies can find minimally processed cane sugars in inventive forms such as the crunchy, big-crystal demerara (gorgeous as a topping for crème brûlée), molded cones like rugged brown Mexican piloncillo (grate with cinnamon and organic cocoa for a knockout Mexican hot chocolate) and bottles of boiled cane syrup such as Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup—dandy for pies and pancakes.

Organic raw cane sugars like Wholesome Sweeteners, an ethical fair-trade sugar produced at Texas’s last remaining sugar refinery near Houston, have surfaced recently at most grocery stores, and can be found in local favorites such as Sweet Leaf Tea, Maine Root root beer and Emerald City Press’s addictive soft-serve organic ice cream.

So the next time white sugar sounds her siren call, reconsider. With so many more healthful, local, sweet alternatives readily available, now’s a good time to put the white sugar bowl into storage and treat yourself to an option that’s better for your body and your palate.

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MORE SWEET ALTERNATIVES

A dazzling array of sweeteners can inspire new cooking adventures. It’s good to check recipes for different kinds of sweeteners, since substituting, say, honey for sugar may not always work well, notes Mani Niall, who offers lots of advice in his Sweet!: From Agave to Turbinado, Home Baking with Every Kind of Natural Sugar and Sweetener (Da Capo, 2008). Here’s a sampling of some sweet options in addition to those mentioned in this article.

  • Check out ethnic groceries for treats such as the Asian sugar jaggery, the name often given both to cane sugar cones and a dense date palm syrup. Its caramel tones work well in chai and Thai dipping sauces or spicy-salty dishes. It’s easy to find piloncillo, the Latin American raw sugar cones that may also be called “panela” or “panocha.”
  • Evaporated cane sugar and organic sugar can be substituted for white or brown sugar. Take care when using raw sugars with bigger crystals such as turbinado, demerara and Sucanat to make sure they dissolve in batters. The bigger crunchy sugars make for a decorative topping for cookies or streusels. Look for sugar cane stalks at stores such as Fiesta—carefully cut off the rough bark and chew on the sweet interior fiber.
  • Molasses is the mineral-rich dark syrup extracted from sugar processing, and its deep tone is essential to desserts like gingerbread topped with whipped cream. Check the label for the unsulphured version since it’s sweeter. The British dark treacle is much like molasses, but light treacle such as Lyle’s Golden Syrup is a British cane syrup that’s comparable to sugar or sorghum syrups still made in the South and Midwest. Try Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup, cooked up in Abbeville, Louisiana, as a pancake syrup or as a simple syrup for mojitos or an Abbeville Cocktail (click here for recipe from Edible Austin, Winter 2008).