Thursday, December 6, 2012

Healthy Brownie: Oxymoron or Attainable Dream?

I've been working on a long-term project to see if it's possible to create a "healthier" brownie.  After several tries and taste tests (yeah, it's a tough job), I actually did come up with a pretty good alternative, which I'll share with you a little later.

But first, a discussion about my brownie preferences and what I mean by "healthier." I fall into the dense and chewy camp of brownie lovers.  I definitely will not say no to a cakey brownie, especially if it has frosting, but I prefer the kind of brownie that is dense, rich, and chewy.  Usually the sugar amount is higher than the flour amount.  If it has a crackled top, that's even better!

What do I mean by "healthier?" Preferably, something that doesn't use refined sugar or wheat flour, with a better oil source (not dairy fat like butter, something with a modicum of health benefits).  I understand that, depending on your nutrition goals, my definition of healthy might not be yours, but there is a lot of room for experimentation.  There are tons of "healthier" brownie recipes on the internet, using black beans, beets, sweet potatoes, zucchini.  I tried them all, or at least a version of them.  And I invited over some friends to help me taste test them.  Here's what we tasted:

I numbered the different brownies so that no one would prejudge a taste before they actually tasted it.

Here are the notes from one of my friends.  I picked his list because he has fanatically neat writing, and his words summed up the general consensus of the group:

Here are the brownies, and a link to the original recipe, if I got it from an internet source:

1. Variation of the Wuollet brownie using almond flour, maple sugar
2. Wuollot brownie recipe (full butter, sugar, etc, for comparison)
3. Paleo brownie (raw, with nuts, dates, cocoa)
4. Red Velvet (with beets) - I love that my friend wrote "with a certain je ne sais quoi" for that one.  He was really surprised when I said they were beets.
5. zucchini brownie
6. Sweet potato brownie
7. Marna's "Healthier" Brownie (recipe below)
8. Black Bean Brownie
9. Brownies with egg whites, no flour (kind of like a flourless chocolate cake, but I made a mistake and added the sugar to the whipped whites before adding it to the flour mixture.  The texture was horrible, so I'm not even sharing the recipe with you on this one).

As you can see, there was a lot of tasting and experimenting.  I personally liked the texture of the zucchini brownie (although it had a kind of "green" smell that hit you just before you bit into it.  The smell went away once you had the brownie in your mouth) and the "Marna's Healthier Brownie" the best.  So, what did I find, given my initial premise?  You can add veggies or fruit to a brownie, which will give it more fiber and maybe some vitamins, but if you still keep the sugar. butter and processed flour in it, it's still going to be unhealthy overall.  In all my experimentation substituting different things, here's what I learned:

1) There's not a good natural substitute for white, granulated sugar. Either it's not sweet enough (honey) or gives it an odd taste (maple sugar) and there is definitely a difference in texture (not as chewy as I like)

2) Flours were also a problem, if you want a pure chocolate taste.  The almond flour was a little gritty (I didn't mind the texture, but my 8 year old did) and definitely added an almond taste to the chocolate (not unpleasant, but may not be what you want). The chickpea flour had an earthy taste, but with the chocolate, it wasn't off-putting.

3) Using half ghee and half coconut oil does make a good substitute for butter, without the dairy in it.  You still get some butter taste, but it's not overwhelming (as it is when you use only ghee), and the coconut oil is a neutral taste that blends well with the ghee. However, if you're trying to avoid saturated fats, this combo might not be for you. Click on the links for some nutritional information about each of them, if you are interested.

4) To make brownies healthier, it's better to just substitute one unhealthy thing, and leave the rest as in the original recipe. I don't think there's ever going to be a "healthy" brownie that will truly compare to the unhealthy original, but you CAN make it healthier, substituting a "healthy" ingredient for one of the unhealthy ones (depending on what your nutrition goals are and what you generally want to avoid).

Now this doesn't have to be the final word on the healthy brownie debate, or course, and I realize the use of chocolate chips (using refined sugar, oils and such) makes any brownie less healthy.  There are a lot of flours that I didn't try (if you're interested in gluten-free options). And I am still intrigued about using a flourless chocolate cake recipe as a starting point.  Where is the one with the applesauce, you may be asking?  Well, that recipe is pretty common, but frankly, I think that comes out a little too cake-y for my taste, so I didn't add it here, but if you have a good one, feel free to share it. I'm always open to new ideas!

For me, what worked best was using blends of things, as you can see from the recipe I came up with, below.

Marna's "Healthier" Brownie

1/4 cup ghee
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup natural honey
2 eggs
1/8 cup maple sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup natural cocoa (I get mine from Penzey's)
1/2 cup almond flour (I use Bob's Red Mill brand)
1/8 cup Chick Pea (Garbanzo Bean) Flour - again Bob's Red Mill
1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease an 8x8 inch baking pan.  Melt ghee and oil together, set aside to cool.  Beat together the eggs, honey and maple sugar.  Add oil to the egg and sugar mixture. Blend well.  Add the dry ingredients, stir to combine completely, then add the chocolate chips. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes (a toothpick inserted in the middle of the pan should come out with a few crumbs on it, but not gooey batter).  Remove from oven and let cool completely before cutting.  (Trick: to get a clean cut on the brownies, you have to let them cool completely.  No shortcuts -- except I will put them in the fridge after a while to finish cooling...).

Let me know what you think, and if you have any tricks to make brownies healthier, I'd love to hear them.  Personally, I'll probably just make regular brownies (I don't make them very often).  I figure, at least it's better than using a brownie mix, with its additives and such, right?

Happy baking!

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