This question, Michael, is all too familiar to Feast’s Tamal Ray, who straddles the medical and cookery worlds. “People always say: ‘You’re a doctor, and you bake, so you must know loads of healthy baking recipes,’ but, well, not really, because they are at odds with each other.”
As we’ve noted here before, baking is a science, and even the smallest tweak can shake the very foundations your sweet treats were built on. To this end, Ray offers a cautionary tale: “My mum made a cake for my 10th birthday. She read the recipe and thought, ‘This is unhealthy’, so halved the butter and eggs. My sister and I were so rude about it that she didn’t bake for us again for 10 years.”
If you’re going down the calorie-counting path, you need to be selective with the recipes you’re making, or be prepared to experiment. Fat is there for two reasons, explains Tom Kerridge: “Flavour, and the science of cookery. You have to find viable alternatives but also have a deeper understanding of the recipe. For example, replacing butter with zero-fat yoghurt won’t work because they are very different things, but it could replace clotted cream.”
Fruit, says Kerridge, who offloaded around 12 stone, is a good alternative to sugar (“mango, grapes, apricots”); in his 2017 book Lose Weight for Good, he substitutes mashed banana for butter in muffins. Honey, dates, agave syrup and vegetables such as sweet potato, beetroot and courgette are also worth a go in bakes. “Zero-fat yoghurt, half-fat creme fraiche and margarine all work in recipe changing,” he adds, “but they do alter the flavour profile and texture – and that takes a little getting used to.”
For Nicholas Balfe, executive chef of south London’s Levan, Salon and newly opened Larry’s, it’s about picking your battles. “Some things lend themselves to a more streamlined version,” he says, “while others live and die by the amount of fat and calories in them.” The former includes marinades and dressings: Balfe says that umami taste of caesar dressing, for example, can be achieved by simply using anchovy (instead of egg yolks and oil), then upping the acidity (vinegar, lemon juice) for “zippiness”. Kerridge’s secret weapon for shaving calories from dressings is cornflour, which he mixes with vinegar and water flavoured with herbs, then heats to get the texture of an emulsified French dressing. Alternatively, you could just use less oil, says Ray: “It’s obviously going to change the flavour, but it’s an easy way.”.
There’s no shying away from the fact that the ice-creams, tarts and beurre blancs of this world are based on fat, Balfe says, so while we love them for it, the reality is, if you’re conscious of calories, it’s best to adopt the great Mary Berry’s philosophy of just “a thin slice” – or none at all. Fewer calories doesn’t automatically mean a better diet, either; a low-fat vegan cake is still, well, a cake. Sayings exist for a reason, Michael: you can’t have your cake and eat it. Or not a big piece, anyway.