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Chef and yogi Candice Kumai shares “clean” treats that make the most of fall’s bounty.
I like to call baking my “first love.” As a preschooler, I treasured decorating Christmas cookies with my mom. Throughout the year, I hung out in the kitchen, watching my mother bake fresh breads and whip up homemade jams and Japanese pastries. Then, in kindergarten, I was asked in a playful assignment: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I replied, “Baker.” Now, here I am three decades later, a chef and cookbook author. I get to do what I’ve always dreamed of for a living: I bake— and grill, sauté, roast, and braise.
It’s also my job to recommend what to eat and how to cook. I feel a personal tie to my readers because I disclose what is authentic in my diet and life, and I feel responsible for how my recipes could affect their health. Today, that means I develop “clean” recipes that use unprocessed, nourishing, and sustainable foods as close to their natural state as possible, as well as less gluten, sugar, and dairy than standard baked goods. But I didn’t always work this way.
For years, I developed decadent culinary creations—wedding cakes, cream-filled pastries, doughnuts, and buttery pie crusts—with great pleasure. Then, I began reading about the overconsumption of processed foods and their link to diseases including type II diabetes and obesity. I learned that each American, on average, eats approximately 150 to 180 pounds of sugar every year, according to The Blood Sugar Solution, by Mark Hyman, MD. Much of this sugar is hidden in processed foods like energy bars, chips, dressings, marinades, sauces, and even marinara sauce, and we don’t really know it. One of my most enlightening experiences occurred after I eliminated refined sugar for a month. My acne breakouts, which I’d simply accepted as inevitable, began to subside significantly. And I gained a slimmer and fitter physique.
Then, I started looking into some of the other dietary culprits the health experts were calling out and discovered many of them were problematic for me, too. Through trial and error, I found gluten was an issue: My belly bloats and my energy levels crash after eating the protein. I’m not alone. Approximately 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivities, according to research cited by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and many are looking for alternatives to gluten-containing breads, cakes, and pastries. The protein is added to many of these foods to help the dough become elastic and rise, for optimum texture. In fact, I’d been relying on gluten in my baking for years.
What’s more, I have trouble digesting dairy, perhaps because I’m Asian American, a group deemed most likely to be among the 30 to 50 million Americans who can’t digest dairy’s lactose sugar properly, according to the National Institutes of Health.
My studies had me looking back to the roots of my passion for baking, to my mother. She grew up in southern Japan, where sugar intake was much more modest. Instead of refined sugar, Japanese pastry was made with lightly sweetened adzuki beans, lima beans, satsumaimo (sweet potatoes), and rice flour. The Japanese still use these fresh foods in their traditional pastries because they are inexpensive and readily available. When my mother moved to the United States in 1975 to marry my Polish-American father, she found cereal, milk chocolate, cake, and even store-bought pasta sauce to be too sweet. Her jams and cakes always used a fraction of the sugar called for in American recipes.
I realized that, yes, I was born to bake treats, but healthier ones that don’t contribute to Americans’ decline in health and still allow us to enjoy a culture of cakes, cookies, and pies. When I compare my fifth cookbook to the first, I see less sugar, gluten, and dairy. My books mirror the progression of my knowledge, with each recipe getting cleaner and more infused with nutrient-dense ingredients, including fresh produce. Not only do they look the same as the standard treats, they are equally rich and satisfying, if not more so.
The secret is as simple as making smart swaps when baking. For instance, in place of hydrogenated oils and shortening (which—let’s face it—deliver great texture, moisture, and flakiness), I use ripe mashed avocado or almond meal/flour, both of which are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats; I’ll also use unrefined coconut oil or canned light coconut milk, both of which enhance moisture content and add rich flavor. For unique textures, colors, and nutrients, I opt for finely grated carrots, beets, or zucchini, or cooked purées from starchy sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, and—my personal favorite—kabocha squash. And unsweetened applesauce and mashed ripe banana can add moisture and natural sweetness to baked goods, so you can reduce sugar use.
Today, I don’t feel like a supervillain after serving a few of my cookies or cakes. I instead feel like a superhero—as if anything were possible, including a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle of clean baking. Best of all, I get to indulge in my favorite sweet treats, guilt free.
Candice Kumai is a yogi, classically trained chef from Le Cordon Bleu California School of Culinary Arts, the best-selling author of Clean Green Eats, Clean Green Drinks, Pretty Delicious, and Cook Yourself Sexy, and co-author of Cook Yourself Thin. She is a regular contributor to E! News and The Dr. Oz Show, and appears as a regular judge on Iron Chef America and Beat Bobby Flay.