HUGH FEARNLEY-WHITTINGSTALL: Sweets that won't turn you into a pudding

HUGH FEARNLEY-WHITTINGSTALL: Sweet treats that won’t turn you into a pudding… The final mouth-watering part of the River Cottage star’s transformative plan

During the time I’ve been writing cookbooks — more than 25 years now — I’ve published plenty of recipes containing refined carbs, especially cakes and desserts based on white flour and sugar.

My tune has changed. These days I ask myself whether the new recipes I’m devising need any refined carbs at all.

If you have any of my old cookbooks on your shelf, tweak some of those recipes where you see the chance to make them ‘wholer’, as part of your quest to eat better forever.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall reveals how you can still enjoy sweet treats without stacking on the pounds

This is what I’ve been doing at home for a few years now, reducing sugar quantities and swapping in wholegrain flours.

The best type of flour for general home-baking is fine plain wholemeal flour, which goes under various other labels — wholemeal cake flour, wholemeal pastry flour, etc. In all cases, the pack should tell you it’s intended for cakes, biscuits and pastries rather than bread.

And I try to think outside the box when it comes to my sweet tooth. I love devising recipes for treats that include nuts, seeds, dried fruits, fresh berries and even grated veg. A family favourite is my oaty nutty chocolate ‘tiffin’ (see above). It, and the other recipes here, proves deliciously that eating better forever does not mean missing out on the joy of home-baking.

That said, if ever there was a pretty powerful symbol of what’s gone wrong with our food system, chocolate is it.

At its core is a powerful natural ingredient — cocoa — rich in nutrients, dark and bitter, that has been valued for centuries as a health-giving food.

Now, it is utterly fetishised yet utterly debased, the cocoa solids themselves often a mere vehicle for sugar and fat.

We need to return to true chocolate that’s full of actual cocoa, with its antioxidants, minerals and even fibre.

Nutritionally speaking, the darker the better (the flavanols in cocoa seem to be good for our all-important gut bacteria).

So wean yourself on to a darker bar. And look for lower sugar content, too: say 20 to 25 per cent sugar. 

Extracted from Eat Better Forever, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, published by Bloomsbury

The power of fasting

As part of my efforts to eat more mindfully, I’ve also given fasting a go. It’s become relatively common, following the success of Dr Michael Mosley’s Fast 800 diet, and the various 5:2 spin-offs.

However, I developed my own way of fasting based around having a minimum 12-hour break from food in almost every 24-hour period. I say almost, because there will always be compelling reasons that crop up once in a while that make an exception to the rule.

But generally, every day I try to eat nothing, and drink only herbal tea or water, after 8pm and before 8am (or it might be 7pm to 7am or 9pm to 9am), thereby ‘achieving’ a 12-hour fast without any notable effort. A couple of days a week I will extend that to 16 hours by eating nothing before 12pm.

It’s crucial to take on board fluids while you fast. If you find a 16-hour fast hard to begin with, you could try a cup of vegetable broth, an apple or a raw carrot, a very small glass of juice or kombucha, or allow yourself a little milk in your coffee or tea.

Why is fasting overnight so beneficial? It takes roughly 12 hours for the body to use up its stored glycogen (its instant energy reserve) and start burning fat instead, which seems to be the trigger for many of its beneficial effects.

For example, when fasting, our bodies produce less insulin — a hormone promoting the growth and multiplication of our cells. Insulin-fuelled periods of growth are when cells are more likely to become damaged.

When we don’t eat, insulin levels drop and the body is more likely to clear out and recycle old or damaged cells. Fasting, then, can tip the body into ‘repair mode’.

However, you must consult your doctor before you try fasting if you have any health conditions, including depression or diabetes, or are on medication — some are not compatible with fasting.

Children and adolescents, the elderly or frail, pregnant or breastfeeding women and anyone underweight or with a history of eating disorders should not fast.

There is also some evidence that intermittent fasting for normal-weight women could affect hormonal balance and fertility. If in any doubt, talk to your doctor first.

The apple is served warm and each portion sprinkled with a couple of tablespoonfuls of the independent crumble

Oaty seedy apple crumble

This uses sweet eating apples and raisins, so there’s no need for added sugar, and the topping – made with wholegrains, nuts and seeds – is baked separately. It’s a treat, but a healthy pud that you can repeat throughout the year with seasonal fruits. The crumble quantities are doubled here, to give you enough for a second outing. It keeps well.

Serves 4

l 4 large eating apples, cored and roughly chopped (no need to peel)

l 4 tbsp (about 60 g) raisins or sultanas

l Finely grated zest of 1 lemon, plus a good squeeze of the juice

l Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large or 2 small oranges (100 ml juice)

For the ‘independent crumble’:

l 50 g fine plain wholemeal flour

l 50 g ground almonds

l 50 g porridge oats

l 50 g mixed seeds, such as poppy, flax, sunflower and pumpkin

l 30 g light muscovado or soft brown sugar

l A pinch of salt (optional)

l 75 g butter, chilled, or 75 ml vegetable oil

Start with the independent crumble. Preheat the oven to 180c/fan 160c/gas 4. Put the flour, ground almonds, oats, seeds, sugar and salt, if using, into a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Coarsely grate the butter into the bowl – or chop into small pieces if that’s easier. If using oil, trickle it in while stirring the dry mix. Now get your hands in there and squeeze and rub all the ingredients together. Don’t worry about being light and delicate, the idea is to create a clumpy, nuggety mixture, with few or no dry crumbs left.

Transfer the clumpy mixture to a baking tray (with a rim) and spread it out evenly. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden-brown, removing once halfway through to stir well. Leave to cool completely.

For the apple compote, put the apples, raisins or sultanas, citrus zest and juice into a pan. Simmer gently for about five minutes, stirring occasionally and using the spoon to help crush the apple and break it down a bit (but not to a purée).

Serve the apple warm, each portion sprinkled with a couple of tablespoonfuls of the independent crumble. The remaining crumble (approximately half) can be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for up to two weeks.

FRUITY VARIATIONS: Scatter the crumble over a mix of lightly crushed raspberries, sliced strawberries and a few blueberries tossed with lemon juice and a trickle of honey. Or on top of any fruit compote. Swirl the fruit with yoghurt for a ‘fumble’. 

The white flour is swapped for a blend of wholemeal and ground almonds, reducing  the sugar substantially 

 Seedy almond cake

To create this recipe, I started with a basic Victoria sponge and swapped out the white flour for a blend of wholemeal and ground almonds, reduced the sugar substantially and added extra nuts and seeds.

The result is delicious – and you really do not miss all that sugar.

I love to eat the cake still just warm from the oven, but it keeps well, too. It’s great with a cup of tea or — for a high-fibre probiotic pud — enjoy it with a spoonful of kefir or natural yoghurt and a little heap of fresh berries or roasted fruit compote.

The poppy seeds aren’t essential, but I love them for their look and their texture and, like any seed, they are rich in minerals.

Makes 8 slices

l 125 g unsalted butter, softened

l 70 g soft, light-brown sugar or light muscovado

l Finely grated zest of 1 orange or lemon (optional)

l 100 g wholemeal cake flour/fine plain wholemeal flour

l 2 tsp baking powder

l 100 g ground almonds

l 25 g sunflower seeds

l 25 g poppy seeds (optional)

l 3 medium eggs

l 3 tbsp milk or water

l About 20 g flaked almonds or pumpkin seeds (or a mix)

Preheat the oven to 180c/fan 160c/gas 4. Line a 20cm round, springform cake tin with baking paper.

Put the butter and sugar, and the orange or lemon zest if using, into a large bowl or a free-standing electric mixer. Use an electric hand whisk or the mixer to beat for a couple of minutes, until light and fluffy.

In a second bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, baking powder, ground almonds, sunflower seeds and poppy seeds, if using.

Add an egg and a spoonful of the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mix and beat until evenly blended. Repeat to incorporate the remaining eggs. Tip in the remaining dry ingredients and fold together gently, but thoroughly, finishing by folding in the milk or water to loosen the batter a little.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and spread it gently and evenly. Scatter with the flaked almonds and/or pumpkin seeds.

Bake in the oven for 35 minutes, or until risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool, at least a little, on a wire rack.

Remove the cake from the tin and cut into slices to serve.

It will keep in an airtight tin for up to five days, but you’ll most likely finish it well before then.

A virtuous way to enjoy chocolate (or a chocolate-y way to enjoy virtue).

Makes 15–18

l 75g jumbo oats

l 50g skinned, whole almonds, roughly bashed or chopped

l 50g pumpkin seeds

l 25g sunflower seeds

l 150g dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids), broken into chunks

l 50g coconut oil

l 100g raisins or chopped dried apricots

l 2 (half-thumb-sized) pieces of preserved ginger, excess syrup drained off, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 200 c/fan 180 c/gas 6. Line a baking tin or dish, about 20 cm x 15 cm, with baking paper or foil.

Spread the oats, almonds and seeds on a large baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 8 minutes, checking often, until the oats are crispy and the nuts are lightly browned. Tip onto a plate and leave to cool a little.

Put the chocolate chunks and coconut oil into a bowl over a pan of simmering water, or in a small saucepan over a very low heat, to melt very gently.

Just before the chocolate is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir in the toasted oats, nuts and seeds (it’s ok if they’re still a bit warm, but they shouldn’t be oven-hot). Add the raisins or chopped apricots and the ginger.

Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared tin and leave to set in the fridge. Cut into squares when completely cold.

TRAIL MIX VARIATION: The lovely tiffin squares are quite ‘melty’ on a warm day. For a more portable version, omit the coconut oil and ginger. Once the toasted oats, nuts and seeds are cold, mix them with 100g each of chopped chocolate and raisins. You can carry a tablespoonful or two in a small snack box or tiffin tin. 

Extracted from Eat Better Forever, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, published by Bloomsbury on Thursday, £26. © 2020 Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. To order a copy for £22.88 go to or call 020 3308 9193. Valid until January 15, 2021.

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