Honey cake

Oh honey, honey, sugar, sugar

“You can’t use sugar. You can use honey, fruit, but nothing that comes from a bag.” And so the stupidest challenge on Great British Bake Off since it began was announced.

The contestants had to make a sugar-free cake, but crucially they would still need to be sweet. In the intros Paul suggested they could use fruit, but that fruit doesn’t bring enough sweetness and flavour by itself, while Mary thought they might use syrup. Which sounds suspiciously like using sugar. Which is exactly what the bakers did.

The results were mixed. Alvin’s Upside Down Pineapple Cake came in for special praise, which Paul saying how well he’d done considering “there was no sugar in there’. Apart from all the agave nectar, of course. A high fructose syrup from agave plants that might have a lower GI than caster sugar but which can still lead to insulin resistance if you eat enough of it (in, say, cakes that are marketed as healthy because they are refined sugar free).

Ian’s Pear, Ginger and Honey cake didn’t fare so well with the judges. The cake wasn’t sweet enough and Paul attributed this to Ian using pears, which Paul explained “wouldn’t bring anything to a party in an unsweetened cake.” Unsweetened, that is, apart from what looked like an entire jar of honey in the sponge and icing.

Other sugars that tuned up in the show included maple syrup (full of sucrose) and mulberry molasses, which sounds delicious and I would like to try cooking with it, but I don’t think you can honestly claim isn’t sugar. They are all sugar. They are just a different type of sugar to cane/beet sugar.

And what’s the point of these sugary sugar free cakes? Who do they help? Gluten free bread is good for coeliacs, while dairy free ice cream is the chilled treat of choice for the lactose intolerant and those following kosher dietary law. Diabetics could happily eat a slice of honey cake. But then again, diabetics can also eat a slice of normal Victoria sponge because, like everyone else, they can eat sugar as part of a balanced diet. It’s too much sugar, not sugar itself, that’s the problem.

The pernicious effect of all this sugar free cake chat is that people start to believe they are making a healthy choice when they eat a cake made with a bottle of agave syrup rather than a bag of caster sugar. That somehow these cakes are consequence free.

The worst example I’ve seen is this recipe for these Healthy Nut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookies, made with gluten free flour rather than wheat flour, nut butters instead of dairy butter and 250g maple syrup instead of caster sugar. Perhaps it’s because I’m an unscientific humanities graduate, but what exactly is healthy about these cookies? Or, what is healthier about them than a cookie made flour, butter and sugar? There is nothing unhealthy about having a cookie. There is something unhealthy about having many cookies every day, whether they’re made with maple syrup, honey or caster sugar.

While I was scanning through various sugar free cake recipes the same phrase came up again and again: you can have your cake and eat it! Because that’s what people want. They might say they’re desperate to eat a healthy, balanced diet, but what they also really want is chocolate cake. Thats why all the diet companies have huge ranges of cakes, crisps and biscuits. It’s why there are paleo baking blogs dedicated to turning almond flour, eggs and honey into simulacra of pancakes and muffins.

These meretricious recipes and products help people delude themselves. Worse, they help them make unhealthy choices. How much more cake would you eat if you thought it was sugar free and therefore, in some convoluted way, good for you? Instead of eating and enjoying a beautiful, buttery sponge cake on occasion, people are being encouraged to eat poor copies of the original recipe and congratulate themselves on making a good food choice. The lie used to be fat free is good for you, now it’s sugar free.

Needless to say, I didn’t make a sugar free cake to go with this episode of Bake Off. I made a Jewish honey cake, using a recipe from Warm Bread and Honey Cake by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra. It is a beautiful book that collects together baking recipes from around the world, reflecting the international upbringing and outlook of the author. It celebrates the traditions and pleasure of baking. If you have a gap in your cookery book library for a baking book, buy this one and never regret it.

Honey cake is a traditional part of Rosh Hashanah, which falls on this Sunday. Made with both sugar and honey, it has a squidgy texture, thanks to all that honey, and eating it represents the wish for a sweet and good new year. I won’t share the recipe, because it isn’t mine to share, but instead urge you to buy the book and enjoy, in moderation, a sweet start to the new year.


One Response to #GBBO Bake Along: Sugar Free Baking & Jewish Honey Cake

  1. Hi Jassy, just stumbled upon this and wanted to thank you for saying such nice things about Warm Bread and Honey Cake. Enjoyed reading such a refreshing, common-sense opinion too. I share your point of view. Best wishes, Gaitri.

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