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NewCityNet Sweet Sensations

Taste-testing sugar-free desserts

By Shelly Ridenour

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  My grandma likes to remind me how lucky I am as a diabetic at the turn of the century: Unlike her mother (who never even learned how to administer her own shots), I enjoy the conveniences of disposable syringes, precision glucose testing equipment, advancements in insulin, an ever-widening array of readily available sugar-free products.

Unfortunately, I'm not convinced the latter is such a great thing. Finding a tasty sugar-free dessert is sort of like trying to build a better mouse trap: the very notion of such a contraption is ugly and inhumane, but if you're going to do it, it might as well be painless for the mouse. [Note: I am well aware of the health concerns related to sugar substitutes such as saccharine, aspartame and the new Sucralose, courtesy of preaching relatives and strangers and my own research; given the information that is available at this time, I've decided it's worth it to me to consume these products.] Most grocery stores sell a smattering of sugar-free candies, baked goods and prepared mixes; the few I've tried have pretty much scared me away from the whole damn "dietary" aisle -- sugar is nearly irreplaceable, in terms of achieving the correct moisture level and consistency. I can't tell you how many well-intentioned bags of gritty, synthetic, sugarless "caramels" (once my favorite candy) I've received as gifts, how many waxy, stomach-destroying, sugar-free chocolate bars I've tossed out. There was the "sugar-free" cherry pie at Thanksgiving that spiked my blood sugar levels to an outrageous level; a closer read of the label revealed a sugar alcohol count of 35 grams -- I would've been better off eating a Snickers.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it one more try -- this time, though, I would be more of an active participant and actually bake the treats myself. First I considered what I've really missed in the decade I've been diabetic; I cheated and had some cake at my best friend's wedding last spring, had a muffin (albeit zucchini) at a brunch, had a heavenly Corner Bakery blondie during a bout of low blood sugar at a party. Might as well start off with something I haven't had in more than ten years, what I once considered the ultimate party food: cupcakes.

Sweet & Low, makers of the first-ever sugar substitute, produces a variety of boxed baking mixes, from cakes to cookies (available at www.diet-shop.com). Using the Sweet & Low chocolate "flavored" cake mix ($1.95; also available in banana, gingerbread, lemon, white and yellow varieties), it takes me only a half-hour (prep and cook time) to whip up two dozen mini cupcakes. My apartment is filled with a wonderful, nostalgic aroma that has an almost Valium-like effect on my soul. The treats come out of the oven looking like little poppin' fresh chocolate clouds, puffed high and proud. But as the cupcakes cool, they deflate, taking on a weird, oily sheen. The chocolate-flavored frosting whips up easily, but is nearly impossible to spread; like a piece of staticky Styrofoam, it wants to stick to the knife, not the cupcake. Overall, the cupcake is decent; chewy and chocolatey in a way that tastes like a mix but not necessarily sugar free. The icing is still too sticky and makes me thirsty. In a hurry, I stick the plate of cupcakes in the refrigerator to keep the cats away.

The next morning, my boyfriend, after a losing night at suburban casinos, decides sugar-free cupcakes and Diet Coke sounds like the breakfast of champions. I watch skeptically as he pops one in his mouth; "Oh, these are really good." Before I can say, "You don't have to be nice," he's eaten two more. I look in the fridge and amazed to find that the sticky frosting has hardened into a perfect shell that resembles fudge. Something magic has happened overnight; without a doubt, this will be one of the most successful of my sugar-free baking experiments, and the entire batch disappears within a matter of days.

Next up is Bernard's butterscotch brownies (also available at www.diet-shop.com, $4 for butterscotch or chocolate) -- easy to make, though the blended mix is weirdly bubbly, almost as if carbonated. I remove the pan after the maximum baking time of twenty-five minutes; the bubbles are now part of the crusty surface. Too bad I forget to do the old toothpick trick; instead, I attempt to slice the brownies after a fifteen-minute cooling period, cutting right into uncooked batter. Helplessly, I stick the mess back in the oven for another ten minutes; now the edges are nice and brown, but the middle is still underdone. Too tired to care, I nibble a corner piece. Spongy, like coffeecake -- and in no way like a brownie. The edges are nice and crispy, but the "brownie" tastes like...nothing. Like I'm just chewing density. There's a weird aftertaste that's reminiscent of frozen waffles (the package calls it "buttery caramel"), and makes me incredibly thirsty. The overnight-in-the-refrigerator trick does not work this time. Decide against following up with the chocolate version.

Taking a little break from baking, I crack open a Jones Diet Lime Cola (available at www.low-carbfood.com; $1.29 for 12-ounce bottle of soda in flavors like black cherry, orange, cream soda and fufu berry), having long been curious as to why Jones doesn't offer diet sodas in grocery stores. Tastes like RC -- cheap, generic, inferior. It's not exactly undercarbonated or flat... but, still, accustomed to the overwhelming effervescence of Diet Coke, I'm wondering where the fizz is. For that matter, where the hell's the lime? All week now, I've been looking forward to spending Sunday afternoon baking chocolate chip cookies (available at www.diet-shop.com; $1.95). There's something weird about the photo on the pink Sweet & Low box, though; the cookies are flat, pale' sad. Nothing about them is reminiscent of the gooey goodness that is Toll House, and I'm worried about the fact that they can't even make these things look good on the packaging.

Conveniently, there are only three ingredients to mix, and prep time takes all of five minutes. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of water, which barely wets the mix; stirred, the powder turns into yellow pebbles. And while the product allegedly yields thirty cookies, I am only able to cobble together a dozen -- and a bowl full of dry, chipless powder. The "dough" sticks to my hands like crazy, but won't adhere into a decent cookie shape. I taste the unbaked mess -- the chips are tiny, but passable. The powdery, dry dough has a medicinal quality, like Goody's headache powder.

Still, I'm hopeful, and excited about the fact that these babies will be ready in only ten minutes. Five minutes into baking time, my nose is assaulted by the acrid, sense-singing odor of burning "chocolate" chips. A quick peek reveals the cookies are nowhere near being done, though, so I open the windows and bide my time; the cats flee for fresh air. Finally my much-anticipated chocolate chip cookies are done, and they are nothing short of... terrible. Chunky, like oatmeal. Although they come off the pan easily, they break apart as if victims of continental drift, into six pieces each. These ugly little bastards are hard to choke down, and leave a cloying aftertaste that, again, reminds me too much of headache powder. The chips have a smoky, chargrilled taste that almost makes me gag.

I manage to finish one, take a bite of another to make sure it wasn't a fluke, then toss the whole pan into the garbage.

Discouraged, but not beaten, I decide to give this baking thing one last go with Bernard's spice cake mix and cream cheese icing (www.diet-shop.com; $4.15 and $3.75 respectively). Blended, the cake batter is thick, bubble-free, rich with a cinnamon and clove flavor. Nonetheless, I'm still skeptical as I pop the loaf pan into the oven -- I've been burned, like those nasty chocolate chips, too many times. The icing is good, too, though -- great, even, thick and creamy with no NutraSweet taint. It spreads over the perfectly browned loaf like a dream, and I almost can't believe how good my first bite is; to convince myself, I eat three pieces, each as good as the last. This is something I would serve at Thanksgiving dinner, to sugar-loving friends, without even a hint of apology.

Still craving some sort of chocolate substitute, I open a Big Brooklyn Chocolate Egg Cream (available at www.low-carbfood.com; $1.29 for a 12-ounce bottle). It is frothy, a little thin, but as satisfying a chocolate syrup-and-cream high as you can get from a bottle (as opposed to a N.Y.C. soda fountain). And satisfaction is good enough in the not-so-fantastic plastic world of sugar substitutes.

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