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Cutting processed sugar? A new cookbook from these Minnesota writers makes it easy

On Tuesday April 30, you can sample some of these sugar-free snacks at the Birchwood Café.

On Tuesday April 30, you can sample some of these sugar-free snacks at the Birchwood Café. Provided

Honey and maple syrup might not seem substantial enough to merit a whole cookbook, but somehow Minnesota food writers Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen figured out over 100 ways to use these two pantry staples in their new cookbook Sweet Nature: A Cook's Guide to Using Honey and Maple Syrup.

The idea to feature these ingredients sprouted from a previous cookbook collaboration by the authors (Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen). As the duo attempted to preserve recipes using less sugar, they became interested in natural sweeteners, eventually realizing that a little honey or maple syrup can go a long way. Their viscous quality adds oomph; their textures lend themselves to glazes, sauces, and ferments; and they give a more complex taste to both sweet and savory foods.

“What surprised us was the additional layers of flavors these foods brought to a particular dish," says Dooley (who occasionally writes for City Pages). "You simply got more bang for your buck. We started really playing with that notion."

Eight months of recipe and manuscript development followed; friends tested recipes and the authors threw dinner parties featuring their sweet fare.

The result is a sumptuous cookbook that covers every meal of the day and then some. Day-starters include Maple Scones and Honey Mustard Glazed Breakfast Sausages. Snacks like Brown Butter Honey Popcorn tide you over until dinner, which might be light and fresh a la Maple Lime Scallops with Cucumber Salad or more traditional and heartier, like Stout and Buckwheat Honey-Braised Beef Short Ribs. Either way, sweet tooths will finish off their feast with desserts like Honey Walnut Pie or Very Chocolate Maple Brownies. There are even recipes for cocktails like Bees Knees or Bourbon Maple Smash with which to whet your whistle.

That all sounds delicious, but the average cook might wonder how to navigate the complicated world of honey and maple syrup. Stop into any store, and you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the variety of options available.

Dooley says honey is the tricker of the two because soon as you heat it, it loses flavor and many of its vitamins and nutrients. Raw honey like The Beez Kneez or Ames Farms won’t work well in a cake or a sauce; honey like buckwheat will hold up better and retain a molasses-like flavor. That bitter edge is what you want if you’re making barbecue sauce or a stout cake. The advantage of single-source honey, however, is its wide range of flavors. Linden honey, basswood honey, and wildflower honey all proffer vastly different taste experiences, and this cookbook demystifies 12 kinds.

If the price of specialty honey is out of your budget, and you’re making a dish where the honey flavor isn’t paramount, you can get by with a less expensive pasteurized honey. Heating this kind makes it easier to handle and keeps it from crystallizing.

Maple syrup, meanwhile, is an ancient, indigenous sweetener. The darker the color, the more flavor it has; some maple syrups taste woodsy or smoky. Lighter maple syrups have delicate and mild flavors, making them ideal for drizzling. Unlike honey, maple syrup retains its vitamins and minerals even after heating.

Ambitious foodies can source both of these ingredients themselves. Locally, the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab offers beekeeping classes, as does the Beez Kneez. Many parks and nature centers around the state offer demonstrations and volunteer opportunities for maple syrup-ing.

If you’re concerned that procuring these ingredients depletes natural resources, rest assured: Both honey and maple syrup are environmentally friendly and play important roles in the food system. Trees, like the maples tapped for syrup, help counteract climate change. They return nutrients to the soil, they capture water, and they provide canopy for forest growth. Birch and walnut trees can also be tapped for syrup, and Dooley believes a burgeoning artisan syrup market is just around the corner.

As for bees, they’re essential to the world's food supply, but are now endangered. “The more people that become interested in beekeeping and in managing hives, the more pollinators we’ll have, and the more opportunity we’ll have to have more beautiful food,” Dooley says.

Honey and maple syrup are not only superior sweeteners, they’re sustainable, reaping benefits for both your health and the Earth. So if ever there was a time to kick refined sugar out of your cupboard, it’s now. 

Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen launch Sweet Nature: A Cook's Guide to Using Honey and Maple Syrup on Tuesday April 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Birchwood Café. Recipes samples will be served.