- Food and Cooking
"Cute" baking decoration without sugar
There are many people in most of our lives who require sugar free options. Yet this can sometimes lead to them being left out or left with less attractive foods. A friend of mine with IBS with sugar as a trigger sums up the problem by saying that sweet foods are cute and decorative, and there are few such fun-looking foods for those who cannot eat sugar. If you decorate cakes, chances are you specialise in molding marzipan and drawing with writing icing. But a sugar-free substance with the strength of marzipan or the diversity and longevity of writing icing is a rare thing indeed. Although I hope to one day soon experiment and find a sugar-free recipe for writing icing and for molding shapes to decorate cakes and other sweet treats, today I plan to tell you instead about some of the other options. How can you make something look cute and attractive to eat without using a sugary icing to decorate, or to write? What would you do, if, for example, you need to make a wedding cake for someone who cannot eat sugar? Artificial sweeteners and alternative ways of sweetening the cake are one thing, but decorating it afterwards is another. There are three main ways I have found to make this cake still look special, colourful and enticing, which I will go over in detail in this hub. They are:
- Icing alternatives which do not contain sugar, allowing you to stick decorations to the cake and make the top of the cake look fluffy and pretty
- Moulding and sculpting: Examples include baking the cake in a specific shape to begin with, entering into some construction post-baking to make the final product an interesting shape, using shaped cookie cutters, drawing in your batter with a skewer or knife to cut in designs, and more.
- Fruit and nuts: It's amazing what you can do in the way of colour and design with berries, dried fruits, or different nuts. Here lies the key to writing a person's name, drawing a love heart, or putting a pattern on your baked product.
- Edible flowers and leaves: These can definitely transform a plain cake into a very cute and pretty cake. Choose colours for your friend or family member's favourite or theme.
Sugar-free Icing Alternatives
How can you get your fruit and nuts, cute cake toppers, or other adornments to stay on the cake without using sugary icing underneath? And can you ever make the cake look fluffy or ruffled like those super cute wedding cakes and special occasion cakes you see with butter icing? I think both these things are possible using sugar-free alternatives as long as you don't need your cake to last a long time. Sugar acts as a preservative in most icings and helps them to set and stay fresh, sometimes also sealing your cake and keeping it moist. Unfortunately thus far I haven't found an alternative which does this job. So you will need to save icing your cake until the last minute. However you can make it look similar to cakes with butter icing and you can use an icing substitute that other adornments will stick to. First I must mention the three alternatives which create the look of butter icing are only suitable for those who do not also need to watch their cholesterol, as they are still made from high fat substances and often dairy. However there is one dairy-free option which I will mention. First, you can use whipped cream in a very similar way to butter icing - it can be piped onto cakes, made to look frilly, spread in the centre of rustic 'naked' cakes and so on. And your other adornments will stick to it just fine. So, whip your own cream and leave out the sugar. You can still sweeten it with some honey or maple syrup, create the illusion of sweetness by adding vanilla, or flavour it with cinnamon, mint or other flavours. Secondly, you can make cream cheese icing without the sugar, simply by substituting it for something else sweet or leaving sweetener out altogether - if your cake is already sweet, from added honey or maple syrup or other sweeteners, the main purpose of the icing is not to sweeten but to moisten your cake and hold it together. Thirdly, you may use butter creamed with some honey instead of sugar, or a butter substitute such as olive oil spread or canola spread for vegans. Finally, you can top your cake with some sticky fruit pulp or honey glaze instead of icing, which will still enable your other decorations to stick. Passionfruit makes a good sticky glaze without any sugar, even more so if mixed with a little honey.
It is difficult to replace icing on cookies with a sugar-free option as none of these alternatives make a good icing for writing and drawing like the type normally made with icing sugar and egg white. One alternative for individuals who need a low-sugar but not no-sugar diet is to use melted dark chocolate and trickle it into the shapes required. Make sure it really is a low sugar chocolate such as an 80% cocoa. This may taste a little bitter on its own to some people but on top of a cake or cookie should be acceptable. You can also put this melted chocolate into molds to make items to put on the finished cake.
Sculpting and Building
The first method that may help to give your sugar-free treats some glamour is to make them in interesting or cute shapes or to inscribe them with shapes or designs.
For example, make your cake in concentric layers that stack up into tiers, or cut it into different shapes to build an item such as an animal, teapot, heart, dance shoe or anything you like that is manageable with a knife. For cupcakes, you may be able to use cookie cutters, or even bake the batter in cookie cutters to get interesting shapes. With a sugar-free cookie dough you can obviously use cutters or a knife to cut out interesting shapes, but you can also use a skewer or knife to draw in the surface of the dough before baking, reducing the need for writing icing by inscribing letters, patterns or simple designs such as hearts.
The teapot cake shown in the picture below was put together by my Mum for my 25th birthday - what looks like a sweet icing is just whipped cream with some vanilla. The cake was made into the teapot shape by baking two halves in similar size basins and placing them base to base. The spout was cut from another section of the cake and added by cutting a square space in the round cake and inserting the end of the spout, and a similar technique was used for the handle. The knob on the teapot lid is simply a macadamia nut pressed into the whipped cream. If added parts such as the handle and spout on a sculpted cake like this won't stay put, you can stick in a skewer or toothpick to join the parts, but make sure you warn people eating the cake to watch out for these!
Another way to add decoration to cookies and biscuits without adding any toppings is to imprint them with a design using a stamp. For my Dad I purchased a dalek cookie stamp from an Etsy store here: https://www.etsy.com/au/transaction/142180369 and used this to make some themed cookies using my diabetic-friendly gingerbread dough described in another hub.
Fruits and Nuts
Nothing replaces a marzipan strawberry on the top of a cupcake better than a real slice of strawberry, or perhaps a raspberry sitting atop a sprig of mint leaves. Use of fruit and/or nuts to top your baked creations can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. From simply placing a whole berry atop some whipped cream on a cupcake, or pressing a sultana into a baked cookie, to carving out flowers and other shapes from fruit, or stenciling chopped nuts onto a cake to make letters, the capacity of fruit and nuts to decorate baking is huge.
You can use fruit and nuts to make patterns or write lettering, if you cut the right shapes from your fruits or cut the nuts finely so they can be arranged in lines. Fruit is also a great way to add colour to your baked items, with contrasting colours of fruit brightening any cake your biscuit you add them to. For example, concentric rings of blueberries and strawberry slices make can make a simple but beautiful pattern.
Finely cut nuts or even nut meal can be used to sprinkle into lettering. If you have alphabet cookie cutters, you can use these as stencils to make the sprinkling of nuts go where you want it to, or to trace the letters on baking paper, which can then be cut out of a larger sheet. By placing the sheet of paper with the cutout lettering over your cake, you can ensure that sprinkles of chopped nuts or seeds only go where you want your letters. You'll need something sticky on the surface of your cake to make these decorations stay put, so if your friend or family member is simply unable to eat sugar but can have other sweeteners you could spread or trickle diluted honey over the cake to make it sticky. Alternatively whipped cream without added sugar spread thinly on top will have the same effect and make darker-coloured nuts and fruits stand out more. Cream cheese is another alternative, and perhaps some fruit pulps such as passionfruit or apple puree.
Strawberries, slices of apple or pear or stone fruit, and melon pieces can be cut into sculpted shapes as well, such as the common use of a strawberry as a flower. The simplest way to make a strawberry flower is to simply cut your strawberry into multiple thin slices and then arrange them on the cake with each slice as a petal. There are many more complex methods for carving a whole strawberry into a flower that you could also try (e.g., http://www.secretsofsushi.com/strawberry-garnish.html) With thinly cut melons you can use a cookie cutter to get any shape you like, like the watermelon stars on this blog: http://christinescorner23.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/lunchbox-ideas-201.html You could also use this method with finely cut apple or pear, stone fruit or kiwi fruit to get letters using an alphabet cutter.
You could also get creative with combining your fruits and nuts into sculptures to use as cake toppers. To do this you will probably need to use some toothpicks and join your different fruits by sticking the toothpick into one piece and then into the other to join them. If you're using a stronger fruit such as pieces of melon, however, you might simply be able to cut slits in one piece of fruit and slot other pieces in.
The pictures below show some simple examples of baked goods I have decorated with fruit and nuts in the past. Better effects could be created by combining different types and shapes of fruit or nut, and using finer or smaller nuts or fruits or ground nuts for writing to make lettering fit more easily onto your cake.
Edible Flowers and Leaves
There are more types of edible flower out there than you may realise. Some daisies are edible, and small ones like chamomile daisies are also super cute and cupcake-sized. Violets and pansies, lavender and rose petals, marigolds and the flowers on borage and sage are all possibilities. Many of these also dry well so pressed flowers are another option if you can't pick them just before serving. Of course all herbs have edible leaves and many are pretty shapes. The best for dessert is likely to be mint as it mixes well with sweeter flavours such as berries and honey and cream. Lemon verbena leaves may be another option which will not taste overly savory.
You cannot crystalise your flowers without using sugar, so they will need to be fresh or dried/pressed. Some flowers can freeze well or last well when kept in the fridge. You can work with whole flowers or scatter petals from different flowers to make a multi-coloured sprinkle topping. You may also be able to sprinkle petals or chopped mint leaves through a stencil as described for the chopped nuts to form lettering or shapes.
Whole flowers may be used to decorate a cake with no icing at all, by inserting stems into the cake to cover it in flowers completely. If you do this, however, make sure it's OK for people to eat a lot of the type of flower you use, because your guests are more likely to eat them when the whole surface of their cake is covered in them. You could also leave your cake un-iced but trickle the top with some fruit juice or honey and lay garlands of herbs or small flowers like a wreath around the top or base.