When a copy of Brian Levy’s Good & Sweet arrived in the mail, I felt leery about the subject matter. To be honest, I am tired of the narrative of sugar being unhealthy – has there ever been a time when someone ate sugar because it was healthy? I find that these narratives set up sugar as a false opposite – while refined sugar is “bad,” books go on to convince home cooks of the “virtues” of sweet alternatives. This isn’t to say that people don’t have feelings about sugar, because they do, which is why there’s a drive to discover a way to enjoy baking without using traditional sweeteners. So, when I opened Levy’s book and started to read through it, I realized that the purpose of Levy’s book focused less on talking overtly about health and more on providing an exploration of ingredients. In the same way there are books that delve into baking using different types of flour beyond the typical white, all-purpose variety, Good & Sweet leaves behind refined sugars, honey, syrups (e.g., maple, agave, corn) to exclusively use fruits – in various forms – as sweeteners. Additionally, he looks at how the sweetness in other whole food ingredients – such as, nuts, dairy, grains – lends themselves to the overall flavour and texture of a dessert.
Throughout his introduction, Levy explains what brought him to experiment in baking without sugar, and he also outlines the function of sugar beyond using it for sweetness – texture, flavour, colour, etc. He tells us, “There was no single understudy that could swoop in to cover all those roles. A lot of auditioning was going to be required. I had to focus on breakthroughs: There were things I couldn’t do for want of sugar (meringue!), but it was amazing how many things I could make without it.” (15) What Levy gives us is a book full of wonderful recipes that he arrived at through careful recipe development. He has a sincere desire for home cooks to enjoy themselves through innovative uses of non-traditional sweeteners.
One of the most important things I learned from Good & Sweet is that date sugar is really not sugar at all. When I ordered a bag of it online, I expected something that was like sugar: granular and gritty. Instead, what I found was a light brown powder. Reading through Levy’s section on ingredients, he tells us that date sugar is really dehydrated dates that have been ground up into a powder. If a person was to add water, what they would find is a lovely date puree. What this means is that date sugar/powder is not a 1:1 substitute for sugar. The section on ingredients gives the home cook a perfect primer on how Levy is able to create beautifully sweetened baked goods using an array of alternative ingredients. The use of fruit is the most prevalent in the book, and it’s used in a variety of forms – juice, pureed, freeze-dried. While most of the recipes aren’t vegan or gluten-free, Levy provides recipes for vegan alternatives (like butter, cream cheese, crème fraiche) as well as recipes for gluten-free flour blends that can be used throughout the book. The appendix also offers at-a-glance lists of recipes if you’re looking for quick recipes, recipes containing only easy-to-find ingredients, recipes by season and vegan recipes. One of the features I appreciated most of all in Good & Sweet is the What makes it sweet? section added to the recipe head notes. It’s here that Levy outlines which ingredient(s) make the treat sweet, so, for example, when I made the Coffee Bean Panna Cotta, I know it’s the dates and coconut that make this panna cotta good and sweet.
Good & Sweet is organized into 8 main chapters – 1. Breakfast, 2. Cookies, Bars, & Confections, 3. Starring Fruit, 4. Pies & Tarts, 5. Cakes, 6. Custards & Creams, 7. Frozen, and 8. Basics/Elements. While some of the ingredients, such as the freeze-dried fruit or date powder may need to be ordered online, most of the ingredients are ones you can find at your local grocery store. As I mentioned earlier, Levy does a thorough job of outlining the ingredients he uses in the book in a section at the beginning, and he also gives a useful list of equipment. To make anything from this book, you will definitely need a food processor. He also lists a stand mixer as an essential item as well. I also appreciate that he uses weighted measurements in all of his recipes, making the kitchen scale invaluable here.
Out of all the things I’ve tried from Good & Sweet, the Babylonian Swirls are my favourite! A buttery pastry descended from the Iraqi kleicha and the ancient Babylonian qullupu, this small, yeasted bun contains a swirl of a date butter filling. Both the dough and the filling are liberally scented with ground cardamom, which behaves in a very sweet way. Delicious with an afternoon coffee or as a lunchbox snack, these Swirls are wonderful.
Sugar offers such a dominating and pervasive experience, so how would the sweetness offered by other ingredients compare to the sweetness of sugar? From everything I’ve made from Good & Sweet so far, we’ve been completely satisfied. The flavour profiles are more complex too. Take the Date, Rye and Olive Oil Brownies for example: rich and fudgy like a traditional brownie, the dates (nearing a pound in weight) offer both a sweet flavour and chewy texture but they also highlight the subtle nuttiness of the rye flour and bitter umaminess of the cocoa powder. The flavour is rich, but in a more nuanced way. Instead of the rich decadence offered by sugar, the rich flavour here touches all parts of the tongue. After I finished one brownie, I wanted another because there is a moreish quality to this combination of ingredients.
Good & Sweet offers us more than just baking. I was curious to try something from the Custards & Creams section, so I decided on making the Coffee Bean Panna Cotta. Since I didn’t have any gelatin powder on hand, I used agar-agar powder from the notes on suggested substitutions. The recipe has very few ingredients – canned coconut cream, gelatin powder, dates, finely ground coffee beans, and vanilla extract – but, when tasting the set panna cotta, you’d think there was more! In the recipe head notes, Levy aptly described this panna cotta as being reminiscent of “decadently sweet and creamy lattes.” And it’s worth noting that the substitution of agar-agar was seamless – the dessert set up exactly as it should.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Levy’s book, but it’s clear that his years of careful experimentation and recipe development have created an original and unique look at how home cooks can use natural sweeteners in delicious and satisfying ways.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Penguin Random House Canada and Avery Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
3 thoughts on “Book Club Tuesday: Good & Sweet”
I love the concept of this book…exploring different ways to sweeten treats…it’s so fun! And the Coffee Bean Panna Cotta sounds delicious. xx
Really fun! I appreciate his approach and recipes — lots of information and recipes to draw from. (Also: highly recommend the panna cotta! There’s something about using coconut cream that makes this dessert so lush!)