Desserts are fine most of the time
Desserts are often viewed as a ‘sometimes’ food. Yet, as long as you’re clever about your ingredients, you can transform a dessert into a healthy dish quite easily. Right here is where I’ll let you know - I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. There are some classic dishes that are classics for a reason. They are unashamedly what they are, and that’s exactly why we love them.
For instance, crème brûlée is a wondrous dessert. How divine is it when your spoon snaps that bitter sugar top, to reveal a velvety vanilla custard hidden beneath? We can happily leave such a wonderful dessert squarely in the dessert category, where it belongs (for now). That said, here are some tips and ideas on how to boost your favourite dessert to be just a bit healthier.
Use Coconut Oil In Desserts
While I’m a huge fan of butter, I think coconut oil is a worthwhile substitute for many different desserts. Cakes, puddings and muffins can all work well with coconut oil. Just remember that the end flavour will sometimes be slightly different. Typically, chocolate or coconut-based desserts work best with coconut oil as the fat component. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so it behaves similarly to butter when baking.
Plus, there’s a range of health benefits of coconut oil to enjoy as part of any dessert indulgence. Including a healthy fat such as coconut oil is a great way to induce ‘fullness’, ideally so you won’t need to consume the entire pudding. Coconut oil also has mild antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties while also helping in bodyweight reduction.
Discover Flour Alternatives
Unless you’ve ever needed to try flour alternatives, this one might feel a bit daunting. Most Coeliacs will be familiar with the world of almond meal, buckwheat or rice flour. Then there’s chia seeds and flaxseed meal. All of these can be a healthy alternative to regular white wheat flour. However, if you wanted more of a baby-step approach to different flours for desserts, I’d recommend oat flour or spelt flour.
Each ‘flour’ has different cooking properties, as well as many healthy nutrients. Flax and chia seeds have omega-3 essential fatty acids. Almond meal is rich in vitamin E and fibre. Spelt flour is high in B vitamins. So, some experimentation is always a good idea.
For instance, using almond meal in puddings gives a moist, slightly sweet and delicious end result. So it’s perfect in these recipes. Buckwheat flour has a nutty taste and can be quite dry, so it’s great for crepes drizzled with maple syrup and bananas. While spelt flour is similar to regular white flour, so it can be swapped gram for gram with a familiar end result. Once you start to feel comfortable with how flour alternatives act in the context of other dessert ingredients, you’ll be creating all sorts of delicious, healthy desserts in no time.
Add Nuts & Seeds
It’s a firm fact now, that nuts and seeds are loaded with health benefits. From aiding in weight loss, to maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system, nervous system, brain, hormones and digestive health. As a nutritionist, this is where I like to test the boundaries of how desserts are defined. When summer rolls around, I love making a peach and raspberry crumble. (Scroll down for the recipe). It’s made even better by using oats, nuts and seeds. In fact, it’s so wholesome I think it’s ideal for breakfast with natural yoghurt.
There’s not really a dessert scenario that I think couldn’t be improved by the addition of nuts. Except for crème brûlée… I’m pretty sure nuts would ruin that one. Overall though, most puddings and crumbles are delicious with the added crunch and variation of nuts or seeds. They also work well crushed up atop ice cream, meringue or plain whipped cream with strawberries.
What’s even better about adding nuts or seeds to your dessert, is there’s really no extra effort required. It can be a matter of sprinkling pine nuts or sunflower seeds into your dish. Or, you can be fancy and gently roast hazelnuts or almonds in the oven. You can even go whole-hog with nuts and celebrate them as the main ingredient. Like a simple almond orange cake. Using just a handful of ingredients, and the goodness of almonds, it’s a prime example of what a healthy dessert looks like.
Use Dried Fruit Instead of Bags of Sugar
One easy and healthy way to avoid the sickly sweetness of sugar-laden desserts is to use dried fruits. This is where the likes of prunes, dates, figs and dried apricots all shine. Of course, using fresh fruit is always a great option for subtle sweetness in desserts. Sometimes though, dried fruit imparts that concentrated, almost caramel sweetness you really want in a dessert.
A superb example of this is sticky date pudding. Dates have a slightly soft and chewy texture, which lends perfectly to sweet desserts. Yet, traditional versions of this pudding can be overpowered with various types of sugar, syrups as well as dates themselves. I really don’t think it’s necessary.
Stewing or poaching fruit brings out the natural sugars and aromas within. Pairing them with spices like nutmeg, clove or cinnamon is a wonderfully warming way to celebrate them in desserts. Added to this, you get the health benefits of dried fruit without even realising it. Prunes famously help with bone health, while dates are arguably the healthiest of all dried fruit.
Desserts Made Healthy Is Easier Than You Think
You can certainly have your cake and eat it, too. Making small changes to dietary habits is the best way forward to becoming healthier every day. Why not start with dessert? Add some nuts, seeds or spices for their health benefits. Use naturally sweet foods, like honey and dried fruit. Or try a combination of everything to create your own new favourite. And yes, enjoy the occasional crème brûlée, exactly as it is.
Breakfast Peach & Raspberry Crumble
Enjoy this dish as a healthy dessert or warming breakfast. This homemade crumble is a great source of dietary fibre and polyphenols made with whole food ingredients. Top with greek yoghurt, coconut yoghurt or whipped cream.
- 2 large white peaches, diced
- ¼ cup frozen or fresh raspberries
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons arrowroot powder or cornflour
- ¼ cup oats
- 2 tablespoons each of almond meal, shredded coconut and shredded coconut
- 3 tablespoons cold butter, diced
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees
- In a medium ovenproof dish combine chopped peaches, raspberries, maple syrup and arrowroot powder. Mix well with a spoon
- In a separate bowl, mix together all dry ingredients and spices. Add the diced butter and rub together with fingers until a crumble texture is achieved (slightly wet breadcrumbs)
- Bake for 25-30 mins, until the fruit is warm and bubbling and the topping is fragrant and crumbly.
Bennett, L. E., Singh, D. P., & Clingeleffer, P. R. (2011). Micronutrient mineral and folate content of Australian and imported dried fruit products. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 51(1), 38–49.https://doi.org/10.1080/10408390903044552
Carughi, A., Feeney, M. J., Kris-Etherton, P., Fulgoni, V., 3rd, Kendall, C. W., Bulló, M., & Webb, D. (2016). Pairing nuts and dried fruit for cardiometabolic health. Nutrition journal, 15, 23. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-016-0142-4
Swarnamali, H., Ranasinghe, P., Hills, A. P., & Jayawardena, R. (2021). Coconut oil consumption and bodyweight reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Minerva endocrinology, 10.23736/S2724-6507.21.03654-X. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.23736/S2724-6507.21.03654-X