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Baking Desserts…Is it a Dying Art?

By Carol Witte, RDN, Director of Nutrition Services and Senior Centers

I may be an unusual dietitian because I love the art of baking! It goes back to many of the nutrition classes I had in college where I learned there is a science behind preparing amazing breads, cookies, muffins and other desserts.

I come from a Polish background where planning a meal or special event always included desserts. (Yes, I meant to use the plural form!) For many, there is a certain nostalgia that comes with baking. I know for me it is the memory of baking with my mom who prepared recipes that were handed down from my grandmother and probably from her grandmother. My mom had the technique. I learned it from her and continued on to research the science behind the technique needed to prepare bread, rolls, muffins, cakes, cookies and pastries. Many days were always needed to prepare for each holiday season. The days were exhausting but the end product still makes my mouth water. It was the time spent together in the kitchen–the laughter, the icing on the cake, the aroma–all were amazing! But is this a dying art? I personally hope not.

So how did baking begin? According to the Joy of Baking.com the art began in the 1830’s when a Duchess asked for afternoon tea and light refreshments. This turned into a ritual of elegant tea   parties which included items like cookies, cakes and fancy breads. As early as the 17th century women have been sharing and recording recipes in books and diaries. From other research, people believe bread baking started way before that. The more I researched, the more I found that each dessert item has a history of its own.

Baking has become a very precise form of cooking, using exact measurements to have a successful end product. In place of a handful of flour, pinch of salt, splash of this or that, there now is a precise method for measuring dry ingredients by weight to obtain the desired creation. The directions or technique are also essential to achieve the desired results which make a flaky pastry crust, a crunchy cookie or a moist cake. Education and experience with trial and error are still needed to learn the correct technique. There is a science behind the need for each ingredient—too much or too little can make a huge difference in the quality of each baked item. Pastry chefs have years of education and experience to learn the science, the terminology and the tricks of the trade.

Within the planned menus we are trying to add in desserts for the meals served at our centers and for our Meals on Wheels participants. Our goal is to “have our cake and eat it too” as we try to make desserts that are tasty, nutritious and satisfy that sweet tooth. It starts with teaching our cooks some of the old techniques as well as new tricks and baking techniques to reduce fat, sugars and salts. Making sure we do not over mix muffins and have enough moisture/fat replacements in brownies and cookies is also very important.

We have it mastered for some recipes and for others we are still working to perfect the art of desserts. We are learning other ways to decrease saturated fats in recipes by replacing them with healthier choices. New recipes are found in magazines and on the internet that use avocado as the fat source in frostings, as well as the use of pureed fruit like applesauce or prunes to decrease the fat in muffins and cakes. The use of fresh fruits and vegetables have been used for years to make delicious desserts that can be packed with  vitamins, minerals and moisture which also reduce fat, simple sugars and carbohydrates.

Pumpkin pie, pumpkin mousse, banana muffins, homemade bread puddings and parfaits are just a few that we serve with some of our meals.  My goal is to continue to look for more ways to have a healthy sweet finish to meals so that the fine art of desserts is not lost!