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Updated: May 21, 2014 17:11 IST

The Reluctant Gourmet: Cakes and creativity

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GET ADVENTUROUS: Swap regular ingredients for healthier ones. File photo
The Hindu
GET ADVENTUROUS: Swap regular ingredients for healthier ones. File photo

Strangely enough, I thought of cake on the treadmill. Okay. It's not that strange, if I'm honest. Sometimes I dream of Black Forest cake, drenched in cherry liquor. Sometimes it's chocolate cake, slathered with fudge icing. Don't judge me till you've jogged a kilometre in my Reeboks, treadmill incline set at 4, with Lady Gaga blaring on the iPod.

I suddenly decided to bake a cake for a pregnant cake-craving friend at work. Amazed at my own efficiency I swung by the supermarket, grabbed eggs, flour, butter and headed home, where I whipped everything together and poured the fragrant batter into a cake tin. One hour later, as I was sliding my freshly baked cake out of the oven with a nauseatingly self-congratulatory air I noticed something strange. The flour packet was lying beside the oven. And it read ‘rice flour,' not maida.

So there I was, Ladies and Gentlemen, your friendly (okay, not so friendly) food critic, holding a cake that was first cousin to an idli.

Shockingly, it turned out alright. (Either that or I have very polite colleagues.) The batter had risen; the cake was moist and light. Yes, it was grainy, but not unpleasantly so. My cake accident turned into a gluten-free triumph. And it demonstrates that recipes do not always need to be followed to the letter.

It's a reassuring thought. Only when you begin baking do you realise just how much butter, sugar and white flour go into cakes, muffins, scones and biscuits. (This alone is reason enough to go into the kitchen and try recreating your favourite foods at least once — so you know just what goes into them.)

After my cake disaster-that-wasn't I got a lot more adventurous with replacing white flour and white sugar. I made scones with whole-wheat flour and brown sugar. Instead of butter or cream, I used yoghurt. And instead of chocolate chips, raisins. Yes, it does sound brutally healthy. But the scones were delicious, especially when eaten straight out of the oven, crusty outside, with juicy raisins, all wrapped in the scent of vanilla. They were more filling than traditional white scones, thanks to the fibre, and felt positively luxurious with a smear of rapidly melting butter.

When you swap wheat flour for white, it makes the dish healthier, but also heavy and dense. This could be a problem with cake, though a mix of white and whole wheat results in an acceptable texture. But it works very well with products where heft is a virtue. Chocolate Chip Oat cookies for instance, made with a mix of oatmeal and whole wheat flour in a 3:1 ratio. Oats are heart-healthy packed with iron, thiamine and fibre. Admittedly these chocolate chip cookies aren't diet friendly, but they're definitely more wholesome than anything you can buy in a store.

Other ideas? Use honey instead of sugar. I know people who successfully swap sugar for sugar substitutes like stevia. A lot of vegetarian recipes suggest using applesauce instead of eggs, though that's tough to find. Hung yoghurt is a great replacement for cream. The point is there are always alternatives, and if you don't want to eat a particular ingredient — for whatever reason, whether it's health, and allergy or just a food quirk — remember that you have the power to change a recipe. The Internet makes it very easy. Your cooking might not be perfect the first time, so make a note about what needs to be changed. Too dry? Too moist? Too heavy? Once you identify the problem, it's easy to find a solution, make an adjustment and get a perfect result on your next try.

Other whole grains to experiment with? Try the quintessential desi ones: jowar, bajra and ragi. When I was in school, my mother used to make a ragi cake from a recipe given to her by a neighbour. Now she can't remember the recipe or the neighbour, and despite incessant Googling I haven't been able to find anything other than a chocolate-ragi cake, which just sounds disgusting, to be honest. I could be wrong of course. Tell me if you have the courage to try it. I'll be here patiently eating my wheat scones.


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