May 26, 2018
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Holiday baking: How to cut calories without sacrificing flavor

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Pamela Fitzpatrick Plunkett of Little Bigs bakery in South Portland mixes up a batch of apple, raisin, pecan and oatmeal cookies
By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN

If the empty shelves in the grocery store are any indication, there is a lot of baking going on in Maine. The decision: Follow the traditional recipe or try to cut the calories some. I have to admit that there are certain traditional family recipes that I’m not going to mess with. There are, however, other recipes that I might try that I find I can definitely reduce the amount of butter or sugar, or add a substitute ingredient and the flavor isn’t impacted or may even be better.

If you’ve thought about making some adjustments to recipes and haven’t been that adventurous, here are some suggestions. Make one ingredient change or substitution at a time. My preference is to allow for half the amount of sugar a recipe calls for. Sugar doesn’t just add sweetness; it also provides for texture, bulking, tenderness and browning of a product. The color of the crumb will also change with increases or decreases in the sugar content.

Swapping unsweetened applesauce for oil or butter in a recipe such as muffins, brownies or quick breads works well. The consistency of applesauce is the same as butter or oil and provides significantly fewer calories and applesauce contains no fat. Applesauce works well in box mixes as well as from-scratch recipes.

This swap might be a bit daring for some. Try swapping mashed or pureed avocado for butter in cookies, brownies or cakes. You’ll be surprised to see that the mashed avocado has a texture similar to butter and the fat is much more heart-healthy. This substitution works well when added to a product that has chocolate in it. Mashed bananas can be used in a similar way to mashed avocados but will result in a much sweeter product. Another option for replacing butter in dark cookies, brownies or cakes is replacing a stick of butter with 1/3 cup of prune puree.

When a recipe calls for cream cheese try substituting ricotta cheese instead. Calorie wise the whole milk variety is even lower that regular cream cheese. Ricotta cheese bakes up well in cheesecakes, giving the product a lighter, fluffier texture.

This swap will increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake while reducing your saturated fat intake – instead of oil or butter try ground flax seed in recipes that already have a strong nut flavor. Mix three tablespoons of ground flax with one tablespoon of water for a paste that substitutes for every tablespoon of oil or butter. Ground flax seed has a nutty flavor, so it isn’t going to blend in with the flavors in all recipes — choose wisely.

It’s surprising, but true — marshmallow fluff actually contains fewer calories and less sugar than regular frosting. You can swap fluff for butter and sugar in frosting recipes.

Alcohol also is added to many foods to release flavors that aren’t experienced without the alcohol interaction. Beer contains yeast which leavens breads and batters. Some alcoholic beverages help break down tough fibers when used in marinades. If you use alcohol in cooking you should know that it is a misconception that all of the alcohol cooks off.

The longer you cook a product the more alcohol that will be removed. Boiling a liquid with alcohol added and then removing it from the heat allows the product to still retain 85 percent of the alcohol. Cooking an item with alcohol added for 30 minutes, and 35 percent of the alcohol is retained, that same product allowed to cook for two-and-a-half hours will only retain 5 percent of the alcohol.

In substituting for alcohol in recipes you’ll have to use your judgment. Amounts will differ depending on the recipe. For example you wouldn’t add the same amount of almond extract to replace Amaretto liqueur. Non-alcoholic wine or wine vinegar can be substituted for wine and add a little honey or sugar. Fruit juices such as apple or tomato can often be substituted in marinades. If the alcoholic ingredient in the recipe is intended to be one of the main flavors and you have to eliminate the alcohol, you may want to consider a different recipe — the taste just won’t be the same.

Georgia Clark-Albert, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at


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