Occasional indulgences such as desserts are important to our well-being. But how can desserts be made healthier? To find out, I met Gregoire Michaud, pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hong Kong Hotel, who creates breads and desserts for three-star Michelin restaurant Caprice and Lung King Heen. He's also an avid food blogger gregoiremichaud.com and an advocate for healthy eating.
"If there is a secret to eating well, it is to cook and bake with real ingredients," says Michaud. Processed food loaded with preservatives has become ubiquitous. "With these engineered flavours, our palates have become numb to authentic taste and I have often witnessed people liking a chemically-flavoured pastry more than one made with real ingredients. We forget what real food is supposed to taste like."
Michaud shares three ways to make desserts healthier and tastier.
GI is a measure of how quickly the level of glucose in your blood rises after eating a particular food. Many nutritionists suggest looking for low GI food to eat healthier. Michaud thinks this also applies to desserts. He believes that keeping GI low is a question of balancing the ingredients.
"You can have something fat and sweet but it needs to be offset by something else: for example, if you have a chocolate pudding you can combine it with a sorbet which will lower the overall GI content," he says. Another strategy is to use natural sugars, which have lower GI. Michaud has researched widely and found that agave nectar has a lower GI than a fresh apple. He adds: "Palm sugar has a low GI of 30, and has a rounder taste than brown sugar with pleasant caramel notes."
2. Find a substitute for table sugar (sucrose)
"It is not fat that makes you fat," says Michaud, "it is sugar, which also kills flavours. In a vanilla cream, less sugar means more vanilla taste."
When you follow a recipe you cannot simply halve the sugar. It's not just a sweetener, it also binds the ingredients together, gives texture, moisture and colour. Hence the need to substitute table sugar with another sweetener.
"For example, I use glucose and inverted sugar, which is half as sweet as sucrose and better for people with diabetes," he says.
When you look for alternative sweeteners, use natural ingredients and avoid chemically engineered ones like aspartame. In my private kitchen, I use Stephen James Luxury Organics' Carazuc made from the coconut flower, which has a very low GI and can be found easily in Hong Kong.
"There are no golden rules for substituting sugar," Michaud says. "You need to experiment by replacing 10 per cent of sugar at a time with something less sweet. We made a meringue with 80 per cent sucrose and 20 per cent glucose, coupled with fruit purée and egg white powder - it was yummy and healthy."
You can also reduce the sugar content overall. Michaud suggests that to keep a cake's texture soft, include ingredients like carob and xanthan gum. A useful book that can acquaint you with those unusual beans and gums is Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet (available at Amazon.com
3. Use more fruits
"Use fruits, raw is best, and never cook them so long that they are completely puréed - it transforms the starch and increases the GI level," says Michaud. "Cook fruits in their own juices; don't add sugar."
I notice that Michaud's creations for the night are relatively small. "Portion size is very important - people tend to eat too big desserts. We put quality before size; everything is small and it makes a difference."
In addition to moderation, I believe that our bodies metabolise food differently depending on how we approach the experience of indulgence. A sense of guiltiness as opposed to a sense of celebration over what you indulge in, will generate a different assimilation process in your body.
Michaud has written four recipe books, including two winners of the prestigious World Gourmand Cookbook Awards. One of his favourite recipes to make at home is grilled angel food cake.
Grilled angel food cake with lemon yogurt dip and steamed apricots
For the cake
6 egg whites
A pinch of salt
100 grams inverted sugar (trimoline)
50 grams cake flour
1 vanilla pod, cut lengthwise
1 piece lemon zest
- Whip egg whites with salt to form soft peaks.
- Add the inverted sugar and mix.
- Carefully mix in the flour, vanilla seeds and the lemon zest.
- Spread the mixture 3cm thick on a tray.
- Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown.
For the accompaniments
50 grams dried apricots
1 vanilla pod, cut lengthwise
A tub of yogurt
Zest of one lemon
- Place apricot and vanilla bean on a metal tray with the water. Cover with plastic film and steam for 30 minutes.
- Mix the lemon zest into the yogurt.
- Cut the cake into fingers and grill them.
- Serve with apricots, lemon yogurt, nuts.
Healthy Gourmet is a weekly column written by private chef Andrea Oschetti. cuoreprivatechef.com