Mary Shaw's Oatmeal Snack Cookies, adapted from "Joy of Cooking," are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.
There's always one in the crowd, though, who wants to adapt the recipe even further, namely substituting blue agave syrup for the organic cane sugar. Popular with Ashland Food Co-op customers who attend Shaw's cooking classes and culinary demonstrations, blue agave has a lower glycemic index than refined, white sugar.
"That's the big 'ding-ding-ding,' " Shaw says.
Because she spent 20 years developing recipes for natural-foods cooking schools, Shaw has the recipe for Agave-Sweetened Oatmeal Raisin Cookies in hand. Cooks comparing the two notice that agave syrup doesn't replace sugar in an equal quantity and that the agave-sweetened cookie contains more flour. It's among the first lessons Shaw offers for cooks looking to dabble in alternative ingredients: Many liquid sweeteners are sweeter than sugar, and their use in baking requires additional dry ingredients.
"That's the big one that gets people in trouble," Shaw says, noting failed outcomes when inexperienced bakers substitute "whole" sweeteners in their favorite recipes, a phenomenon that kicked off several decades ago, along with a backlash against processed foods.
"People went back to using honey, but the recipes weren't designed to accommodate those liquid sweeteners," Shaw says.
Forerunners of blue agave, grain sweeteners like barley malt and rice syrup also found their way into recipes, particularly in response to heightened awareness of food allergies. But experience showed Shaw that grain sweeteners, in addition to being fairly expensive, make baked goods go flat. The trick to successfully converting recipes, she says, is understanding foods' functions, whether they thicken a mixture, give it lift, bind ingredients together or build structure.
"As a baker, it was incredibly fun to figure out how to make things work," Shaw says.
Chef Sandy Dowling has long tinkered with recipes to improve them, but the realization this year that her husband has food allergies gave her new motivation in the kitchen.
"It's always sort of like he had this tickle in his throat," she says of her husband, Joe Dowling. "And it started to kind of drive me crazy."
The couple consulted with doctors in several different cities. Acid reflux disease and chronic bronchitis were among the diagnoses for a condition that had plagued Joe Dowling for 20 years. Then in January, Dowling, 59, announced that he was going on a diet, recommended by a friend who told him to cut out everything white, including wheat-based foods and milk.
"About three weeks in, I said, 'You haven't coughed,' " Sandy Dowling says.
To determine whether diet had made a difference, Joe Dowling ate small amounts of foods he had previously eliminated. Seeing his symptoms return, Dowling and his wife deduced that he was allergic to wheat.
"I was totally shocked," Sandy Dowling says. "It was all a simple food allergy."
Dowling has since encountered more food allergies while cooking for guests at her Central Point bed and breakfast and while catering events. Those who are used to packaged, processed foods marketed toward allergy sufferers find her home-baked goods an unexpected boon.
"They say, 'What have you got in these?' " Dowling says.
Accommodating a range of dietary requirements, the chef's pantry and refrigerator house a few tried-and-true staples. She substitutes yogurt for milk or cream in a recipe because lactose-intolerant guests often can digest fermented dairy products. Soy milk or rice milk can be substituted in an equal quantity for dairy milk, and Rice Dream even whips up just like heavy cream, Dowling says.
Eliminating gluten from recipes has proven more challenging. Citing the undesirable flavor of many gluten-free flours, Dowling set out to craft a better flour to bake cupcakes for a wedding shower at which three guests suffered from celiac disease. After seven tries, she decided that a blend of brown-rice flour and almond meal made the best cupcake. Adding egg whites and more baking powder helped the heavier nut flours to rise.
"You just have to experiment," Dowling says. "It's not going to come out perfectly."
Both she and Shaw counsel cooks to plan on tweaking a recipe's substitutions several times before it comes out right. If unfamiliar with the original recipe, cooks should prepare that version first before attempting any alterations, Shaw says.
Although it's hardly risky to choose lower-fat versions of ingredients, scale back on meat, add more fiber and increase herbs and spices in many recipes, baking can't be interpreted so loosely, Shaw and Dowling say. Shaw encourages novice bakers intending to go gluten-free to start with more forgiving quick breads instead of yeast breads. And change only one ingredient at a time, she adds. Cooks who switch flours, fats and sweeteners in one shot are setting themselves up for disaster, Shaw says.
"If you take all the fat out, then does it taste like baby food?" Shaw asks.
Kitchen alchemists also must recognize the ingredients' — and their own — limitations, Shaw and Dowling say. While liquid sweeteners simply can't stand in for granulated sugar if the cook aims to beat egg whites until stiff, some sweeteners — like agave syrup — contain enzymes that actively break down other ingredients, Dowling says.
"Sometimes you're going to have a total flop."
And after weathering an identity crisis as a "bad" and then "better" food, butter, Dowling says, simply has no comparable substitute in many recipes.
"Good butter is an art," she says. "A little, tiny bit makes all the difference in the world."
1 egg = 1 teaspoon lecithin plus 1/4 cup water
1 cup white sugar = 1/2 to 3/4 cup agave syrup; 7/8 cup honey; 1½ cups barley malt; 1½ cups rice syrup; 1 cup maple syrup; 1½ cups molasses
(add 1/4 cup flour to the recipe for any of these sugar substitutes)
1 pound butter = 2 cups oil
1 cup milk = 1 cup soy milk or 1/2 cup nuts plus 1½ cups water, blended into a smooth liquid
1 cup wheat flour = 1 cup low-gluten or gluten-free flour
plus 1/4 cup tapioca flour
— Source: Mary Shaw, Ashland Food
Co-op culinary educator