Yvonne Spence loves to create healthy recipes and believes we don't have to give up enjoyment when we give up refined sugar.
Finding the Best Sugar Substitute
Most sugar-free recipes are complicated, take a long time to prepare and taste, well, sugar-free! After much experimenting, I’ve found that pureed dates are the most effective sugar substitute for several reasons:
- They are easy to obtain.
- They are easy to prepare.
- Compared to other dried fruits, they add sweetness without overwhelming the flavour of the muffins.
Unlike sugar, dates are a good source of fibre, minerals and vitamins. They are especially high in potassium, containing even more than bananas. A least one study has found them to be safe for diabetics. (If you can’t get dates, the next best fruit would be sultanas, which use the same method of preparation as described for the dates below.)
About This Recipe
These muffins are easy to make and have passed the ultimate taste test: children’s birthday parties! So you can enjoy watching the kids have fun all the more since you know that they are eating healthy food.
I usually use either spelt or wholewheat flour, but white flour or half-white, half-wholemeal are also fine. This recipe is for plain flour, so if you use self-raising, omit the baking powder—but not the bicarbonate soda.
This recipe is not meant to be slavishly followed but as a starting point to create your own. Vary the quantity of dates and cocoa and the type of flour depending on how sweet and chocolatey you like your muffins. You can also add walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts, and they are also good with a mashed banana added into the wet ingredients.
This recipe makes 12 standard muffins or 24 mini ones. Enjoy!
- A 12-hole standard muffin tin, or 2 tins of mini-muffin/fairy cake size. (If you plan to eat the muffins at home, you can just grease the tins with oil. If the muffins are to go on an outing, it’s best to line the tins with paper cases. This keeps the muffins intact—otherwise, take along a spoon for all the crumbs!)
- Alternatively, you can use silicone cases, which stand alone on a flat baking tray.
- A large bowl, a smaller bowl and a measuring jug
- A small pan
- A blender (a hand-blender is ideal)
- 9 ounces (250 grams or 2 cups) and 2 tablespoons flour, whichever variety you choose
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 3 tablespoons cocoa powder (add another spoonful if you’d like them very chocolatey)
- 2 eggs
- 4 to 6 ounces (110 to 175 grams or 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup) dried dates* (vary the amount depending on how sweet you’d like them)
- 4 fluid ounces (90 milliliters or 1/2 cup) sunflower or corn oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla essence or vanilla powder
- 3 to 5 fluid ounces (75 to 150 milliliters) milk or water, plus extra water for the dates**
*As an alternative to dates, you could use rapadura, a whole cane sugar, which is becoming more widely available in the UK and USA.
**Whether you use milk or water depends on your taste, similar to whether you prefer black or milk chocolate. The muffins keep better without milk, but then they never last long! White flour will need less liquid than wholemeal. It’s best to start with the lower amount and add more if you need it later. With wholemeal flour, you could also use a mixture of plain yogurt and water—this gives some extra lift.
- Put dates in a small pan, along with 5 ounces (150 milliliters) of water and boil gently. (They will be soft and ready when you need to use them, just like magic!)
- Prepare muffin tins: Either grease them with oil or line with muffin papers. Preheat oven to 190 to 200°C (375 to 400°F or 170°C fan oven or gas mark 5 to 6 on middle rack, 4 to 5 on top). If your tins are shiny tins, they reflect heat and so take longer than dark tins—not a problem I’ve had!
- In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt (if using) and cocoa. Add chocolate chips or walnuts if using. Set aside.
- In another bowl, beat eggs with a fork. Add milk, vanilla and oil.
- Remove dates from heat, and blend to form a smooth paste. (If you haven’t got a blender, you could mash them with a fork, but this will create texture.) Add dates to wet ingredients.
- Pour all of wet mixture into dry. Stir until just combined—the batter will look lumpy, but that’s absolutely fine. The mixture should drop easily off the spoon. If it doesn’t, add a little more liquid.
- Spoon into tins. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes for standard size and about 15 to 20 minutes for the smaller size. If the tops spring back when pressed, they are ready. Leave them to cool for around 5 minutes—this makes it easier to remove them from the tins.
Tips to Guarantee Success
- Prepare the wet ingredients separately from the dry and mix as little as possible. This will result in soft, moist muffins.
- Apart from leaving them in the oven for too long, which will result in muffins that are slightly dry, there’s little that can go wrong. I once forgot to add baking powder, and what came out of the oven were little flat cakes—which turned out to be very similar to brownies and which my children loved!
- Even muffins that have been overbaked can be rescued—just spoon some yogurt on top. This is also a great way to enjoy muffins that have managed to survive a few days, and these taste even better if you first reheat them for a few minutes.