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These Cakes May Change Your Life : BAKING WITHOUT FAT : It's a revolutionary idea--substituting wholesome fruit for evil butter, shortening and oil. You won't believe your mouth! : What's Missing? Not the Taste, Not the Texture, Just the Fat

January 16, 1992|CHARLES PERRY

Big news? The biggest--possibly a permanent change in how we bake.

Last year we read a story by Washington Post writer Sally Squires that struck us as totally bizarre: A paste of prunes, vanilla and water, she claimed, "is replacing high-fat shortening in a variety of commercially baked goods." She suggested cutting the fat content of brownies 75% by using this prune goop in place of butter.

What crazy things health-foodies will eat, we thought. We passed the story around and snickered. But we had to try it, if only to find out how awful it was.

We ended up eating every last brownie.

The chocolate flavor, we decided, could use some work--you could sort of taste the prunes, and we preferred the brownies when only half the butter was replaced--but we had to agree that even when we eliminated all the butter, the texture was everything it should be: rich and moist and tender. We ended our Nov. 11 report with the words: "Stay tuned for the no-butter chocolate-prune cake."

Well, here it is: Chocolate Cloud Cake, made with no butter, and in fact no fat at all apart from two egg yolks. As if by a miracle, wholesome, fiber-rich prune puree substitutes for evil fat, and if nobody told you you were eating a cake made without butter, much less a chocolate cake containing prunes, you'd probably never guess.

But there turns out to be a lot more to the story. Times food stylist Donna Deane had solved the prune flavor problem, but she asked an intriguing question: Why just prunes? Why not other fruits as well?

It turns out that most dried fruits (and some fresh) can be pureed and substituted for fat in cakes. In this issue we give Deane's recipes for five delicious cakes and a gingerbread using various fruits.

We were still puzzled by the very idea that fruit puree could take the place of shortening, though, so we put the question to food science writer Harold McGee, author of "On Food and Cooking."

"There are a couple of reasons why shortening is added to a cake," he commented. "One is to undermine the structure of the gluten, to make the dough tender. Another is that awful word food scientists use, 'mouth-feel.' Fat gives richness and a quality they call 'go-away'--it allows a solid mouthful to disintegrate easily in the mouth to a comfortable mush.

"Fruit purees have viscosity and body, so they can add 'go-away.' I also suspect that since they consist of finely ground plant structural material, they can participate in the structure of the cake without strengthening it."

In other words, they probably tenderize dough by diluting the chewy structure of the gluten. This is a totally different principle, however, from true shortening: Lard, oil and vegetable shortening create a tender structure by coating the gluten strands in the dough with fatty acids so that they slide past each other.

Since these recipes don't contain any such lubricants, it's important to keep gluten buildup to a minimum. In order to avoid over-mixing, Deane mixes these doughs by hand, like muffin dough, rather than with an electric mixer. She also holds down mixing time by beating the eggs separately before adding them.

She warns that these unshortened cakes will turn out distinctly dry if overcooked. But there's a compensating bonus--the structure of the cake is not entirely based on flour, which readily gives up its moisture and stales. Like fruitcake, these cakes seem to get moister, rather than drier, as the days go by.

Deane solved the prune flavor problem by using baby food prune puree, which is blander than puree made directly from prunes, and she recommends using baby food purees whenever you want to downplay the flavor of the fruit you're using. When making your own puree, she has found that dried fruit with a squeezable texture works better than the rock-hard sort of dried fruit. In fact, the fruit doesn't always have to be dried. When Times food stylist and staff writer Minnie Bernardino decided to try the fruit-for-fat trick with a boxed cake mix, she used fresh mango. And, by the way, her modified mix cake came out just great.

The recipes we've included are mostly for cake, but we have plans to develop fruit-for-fat recipes for cookies, muffins, quick breads--maybe even pancakes. For those who want to experiment on their own, Deane advises trying the lighter sorts of cake. (Our pound cake turned out to be about a hundred-pound cake.) Also, as you'd expect, fruit puree is particularly suitable for cakes that already have a fruit or vegetable flavoring, such as carrot cake.

Reduced fat; the fiber, vitamins and minerals of fruit; good keeping qualities--and finally a convenience: Since there's no creaming of sugar and shortening with these cakes, cleanup is easier.

Columbus? Yeah, that was pretty big news. But this--this is really big news.

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