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Editorial Director of Books Elizabeth Carduff Talks ATK’s Road to Tackling Natural Sweeteners

And how we applied our exhaustive approach to create healthier versions of our favorite sweets.

Published Sept. 4, 2016.

Our Editorial Director of books Elizabeth Carduff has been working at America’s Test Kitchen for 13 years—more than a decade in, she’s still amazed by the work our test cooks do during the recipe development process. The test kitchen isn’t generally known for jumping onto diet bandwagons, so I caught up with Elizabeth to find out why we decided to publish a book dedicated to cooking with natural sweeteners. We also discussed the merits of our recipes, and the health benefits associated with cooking with natural sweeteners.

What was the impetus to make Naturally Sweet?

We started out thinking we would do a low-sugar baking book because many of our fans had asked about it and also because sugar had been—and still is—front and center in the news as the culprit behind our country’s current obesity crisis. It seemed like an area where America’s Test Kitchen could add great value—when you start lowering the sugar in a baking recipe you can only go so far until disaster strikes and you wind up with leaden cakes, cookies that don’t spread properly, and heavy, unappealing quick breads and muffins. Our rigorous testing process makes us especially well suited to solve such difficult recipe development problems.

But once we started working on the table of contents for the book and did some surveying for feedback, we learned that people definitely wanted low-sugar recipes but they also wanted to use more natural sweeteners rather than highly processed white cane sugar. So, in a way, the book became twice as hard overnight because we had to learn about the world of natural sweeteners too.

Every recipe in the book reduces sugar by at least 30% and many have 50% less—38% of the recipes reached this high bar.

What do you think sets Naturally Sweet apart from other low-sugar cookbooks out there?

There are only a handful of books on the market that have tackled this topic for the general public as opposed to for those with diabetes. The glycemic index did not factor into our recipe development—we simply wanted a book that delivered everyone’s favorite treats with far less sugar. So, less guilt! Just think of all the mothers everywhere who will love to offer their kids less sugary cookies and other baked goods.

Another thing that sets our book apart is that we provide before and after numbers (grams of sugar) for each recipe that clearly show what we achieved. Every recipe in the book reduces sugar by at least 30% and many have 50% less—38% of the recipes reached this high bar.  When looking at recipes in other books we noticed that sometimes, while they lowered the sugar, they added chocolate or dried fruit so the overall sugar content of these recipes was not any lower when you did the math. We didn’t play any games with our recipes. We set a target for ourselves, we met it, we documented it, and we explained what we did to make it happen.

Book team editors enjoy a tasting during recipe development for Naturally Sweet.

What’s the most important thing for a home cook to know about Naturally Sweet?

You don’t have to compromise on flavor to bake with less sugar and more natural sweeteners. But you do need to revisit the classic rules of baking, which is why you’ll see cake flour used in a muffin, oil rather than butter in a cake, or extra leavener in a cookie. Sometimes we liked our new recipes even better than their traditional full-sugar versions. Take the blueberry muffins for instance: with about half as much sugar as our classic recipe and a flavor boost from browned butter, lemon zest, and cinnamon, they are delicious and full of blueberry flavor without being overly sweet. If a recipe didn’t meet our exacting standards, it didn’t go in the book.

Also, readers should not be afraid of baking with natural sweeteners as they add an amazing depth of flavor. That said, recipes calling for the granulated natural sweeteners like coconut sugar and Sucanat can also be made with regular white cane sugar and in the book we tell you the exact volume to use and what might be slightly different about your results if you choose to do that.

I’ve been here for 13 years now and I am still fascinated by watching the twists and turns of the recipe development process. Working here has been my culinary school—I have learned so much by being part of this engaging process.

I think readers would like to get a glimpse into your role as editorial director of the book program at America’s Test Kitchen. Can you comment a bit on your day-to-day in regard to an ongoing book project?

I work very closely with the senior kitchen and editorial teams to shape each book before it even starts in the test kitchen. Once a book is off and running in the kitchen—and we often have three books happening at any given time—I go to as many of the tastings as is reasonably possible because it gives me a window into what we are learning and helps me and the editors shape the copy during the editing phase. I’ve been here for 13 years now and I am still fascinated by watching the twists and turns of the recipe development process. There is a team of test cooks and editors assigned to every project and we collaborate every step of the way.  Working here has been my culinary school—I have learned so much by being part of this engaging process.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

Definitely the Honey-Lemon Squares. I have a love affair with lemon squares, but getting them just right with a buttery shortbread crust and a smooth and silky curd just isn’t easy even with a traditional recipe. And often they are cloyingly sweet. I was so impressed with this low-sugar version. The honey creates a velvety texture in the curd along with the egg yolks and allows the pleasing tartness of the lemons to take center stage. And a touch of honey in the easy press-in crust adds just enough sweetness. These lemon squares have a vibrant color too and for a while I was pushing for them as the cover image but ultimately the gorgeous slice of frosted chocolate cake was deemed the winning choice.

Carduff's favorite: Honey-Lemon Squares.

We don’t really do “diets” at ATK. Can you explain why we’ve become so conscious about the amount—and type—of sweeteners we’re putting in our recipes?

First, I’d have to say that we have recently seen the value the test kitchen can bring to topics you might put in the special diet category: gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, vegan, and of course low-sugar. Lower the sugar, eliminate gluten or dairy, or carbs—and more—and cooking becomes incredibly challenging. Our books in these areas have been life changing for some people because our recipes are foolproof—while many others are not—and the information is so detailed.  I think too that the definition of healthy cooking is evolving and we, as a company, have had to take notice. No one wants recipes with tons of cream and butter anymore for instance, and in the wake of the USDA’s highly publicized crackdown on sugar, millions of American’s are looking at the sugar in recipes in a whole new way. That doesn’t mean the test kitchen will start drastically lowering sugar in recipes across the board, but it was the impetus for this new book.

Bake with 30% to 50% Less Sugar

Naturally Sweet

Naturally Sweet is a collection of 100+ truly groundbreaking recipes that rely only on natural, less-processed sweeteners like Sucanat (unrefined cane sugar), coconut sugar, date sugar, honey, maple syrup, or no sweeteners at all, just dried fruit and chocolate.  
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Want to learn more about what goes into making a cookbook? Read these interviews:

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