The latest addition to my library of baking books is Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp and Lindsay Stark. They have a bakery in Oxford of the same name, founded by Sharp in part as a response to a health crisis1 she experienced. As such, the book ties in with the recent “clean eating” movement.
The bakery’s “concept is based on good provenance, great tasting food and promoting healthy living”. This is something I’m broadly in agreement with – provenance is hugely important, and I’m also someone who suspects modern industrial food production is at the core of the rise of food intolerance, allergies etc, not to mention diseases like diabetes that can arise from people eating far too much refined sugar in junk food. But at the same time I’m somewhat wary of “clean eating” as it’s so closely related to orthorexia nervosa. There’s a fine line between trying to eat well, and obsessing to the point where you’re rejecting foods perceived as unhealthy. This obsessiveness is orthorexia nervosa, a term coined in the late 1990s to describe a newly identified eating disorder.2
One notable, nay faddish, food issue that’s prevalent now is the virtual demonization of gluten.
The Modern Baker, I’m happy to report, isn’t entirely anti-gluten. And why should it be? After all, gluten is just protein, or indeed two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. If you’ve not seen the Jimmy Kimmel video that exemplifies people’s ignorance about gluten, here it is. The big problem with modern bread instead is fermentation times. Time is the most important ingredient for bread-making, time for the dough to ferment properly. Indeed, Modern Baker emphasises the importance of fermented foods, notably sourdough. “Long fermentation breaks down the carbohydrates and gluten in the grains, so many find the finished loaf is much easier to digest and the nutrients more easily absorbed.”
Modern Baker is staunch in its rejection of refined sugar – pure white, made from beet or cane. Instead, it uses other ingredients for sweetening: fruit, maple syrup, and where a direct refined sugar substitute is required, coconut sugar. It’s something I’ve not used before, but I’m happy to try new things. The book just got me wondering about the arguments for “natural sugars”.
Although the research isn’t conclusive, it’s suggested that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than conventional refined sugar and has more nutrients. Though a quick Google suggests that while is does contain iron, zinc and calcium, the quantities are not significant enough to offer your body much.
It does contain some inulin, a type of dietary fibre. According to this Huffington Post article “clinical research finds prebiotics like inulin support gut health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar balance, lipid (fat) metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity, and immunity.”
As for its “sugariness”, coconut sugar breaks down as 71% sucrose (which is itself a disaccharide formed of a combining of glucose and fructose), 3% fructose and 3% glucose: that is 78% sugar, with the rest made up of fibre, nutrients and antioxidants.
As for its GI, well that measures glucose content, not fructose – which makes up around 39% of coconut sugar. So it’s still sugar, and not great when consumed in quantity. Modern Baker does indeed make this point: “The natural sugars we use are still sugar, however, and they should still be regarded as a treat.” This is very much in line with my philosophy – cakes are a treat, not a staple.
I’m not entirely sold on coconut sugar though. I’m also something of a locavore, where possible, so I struggle with the sugar question. In some ways, I do prefer the idea of supporting British farming and British produce by buying sugars made from British beets.
Although they may well be slightly more refined, and slightly more nutritionally dubious, they’re still from a plant, right? I’m not so sure about buying sugar made from a coconut palm grown in tropical climes and imported here. Indeed, the bag I bought is from Indonesia. Is this another example of a commercial crop that, like palm oil, involves rainforest clearance being replaced by a monoculture?
So while I’ll add coconut sugar to my store cupboard until I know more about its provenance, for the bulk of my baking I’ll stick with conventional sugar, ideally from British beet. In part, frankly, as it’s also more readily available. I call it the Ottolenghi factor. I rarely make Ottolenghi recipes as more often than not I’d be forced to resort to buying exotic ingredients online as they’re not available in small-town England.
Keeping it real
This post is getting far longer than intended. The point I’m trying to make it that while I’m broadly in agreement with Modern Baker about eating well, taking care of your enormously important gut flora, and avoiding the most industrially refined foods, I also need to be realistic about feeding my family, and that may mean a few more conventional, readily available ingredients here and there.
Plus, well, I’m just not as good a baker as the team at Modern Baker. My sourdough never quite seems feisty enough to reliably turn out my weekly bread requirements. By and large, I’m half-way there – from the pics and glossary in the book, I use the same flours as them (Stoates organic stoneground from Dorset) but I still rely on commercial yeast.
Oh, and as a matter of course, I always knock back the sugar quantities in recipes. I even did that here for their recipe modestly called “The ultimate chocolate biscuit”, reducing it by 10%, and the results were still good. Indeed, these are remarkably light, crumbly, moreish biscuits considering they’re made with spelt (Triticum spelta) flour, which can tend towards a slightly heavier result in cakes and biscuits than normal wheat (Triticum aestivum) flour. Indeed, as much as I like to use older, more nutritious wheat varieties in my bread-making, it’s great to discover a recipe where they’re used in really yummy biscuits.
Using a 60mm round cutter, makes about 60 biscuits
170g unsalted butter, softened
180g coconut sugar
2 egg yolks (that is, about 38g)
60g coconut oil
200g spelt flour3
120g raw cacao4 powder
1. Melt the coconut oil in a pan on a hob or in a microwave.
2. Put the butter, coconut sugar and salt in a large bowl and beat until fluffy.
3. Add the egg yolks and coconut oil and beat again.
4. Sieve together the spelt flour and cacao powder and add to the beaten mix.
5. Combine to form a dough with no lumps or dry bits.
6. Bring the dough together, form a disc and wrap in cling film.
7. Put the dough in the fridge and chill for at least an hour, to help it firm up. Modern Baker says it will keep in the fridge for up to five days.
8. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C.
9. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick, cut out, put on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone.
10. Sprinkle with cacao nibs. Or don’t, if you’ve got fussy kids like mine who reject these lovely additions. Honestly, they’re crunchy, nutty and chocolaty! What’s not to like?
11. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Watch out for over-baking the bottoms.
12. Leave to cool on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
Very good. Not sure they’re the “ultimate chocolate biscuit” but there are solid pleasures to be had here. Bravissime Sharp and Stark! One “however”, however – in true toddler fashion, my sweet-toothed chocoholic three-year-old doesn’t like them. Not enough refined sugar and chocolate perhaps? Oh dear.
1 In her introduction, Sharp refers to her “aggressive, triple-negative, grade 3 cancer”. Alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she revised her diet. She also says she was “someone who spent much of her life fighting an eating disorder.”
2 For more information, as always, start with the Wikipedia entry.
3 I used Stoates Organic Light Spelt, which has been bolted – sifted – more, removing more of the bran and making it lighter for cakes etc. I use this flour a lot, it’s great in my pizza and my everyday bread doughs. Available here.
4 I’ve still not found a satisfactory explanation of any difference between “cocoa” and “cacao” in the English language. I’m coming to the conclusion that the latter is simply used in a more health foody context. I talked about this more here.