Healthy alternatives to tasty sweet treats including chocolate pudding and cookies

Pudding. Even the word is comforting. It speaks of a dish designed to make you feel good – a special treat, a bountiful bonus, a warm, sweet hug. Some of those hugs, however, can be absolute sugar-fests.

That can be gratifying, but it can also be alarming, prompting the question, do we really need to put in so much sugar to get the pleasure we hope for?

No, we definitely don’t.

For some time now, I have been tweaking the classics to become lighter.

And I can promise you that taking the sugar down in even the most indulgent treats doesn’t diminish them in any way. Quite the contrary – they often become better. Not just in the sense of better for you, but actually more enjoyable to eat.

Then there is the flour element, which I am happy to make at least half wholemeal and, in some cases, to swap in ground almond.

I have a few other tricks up my apron as well. Ingredients such as lemon zest and real vanilla can naturally enhance sweetness while adding their own pleasing ­character.

Even a small pinch of salt can emphasise the contrasting sweetness that is already there.

The recipes that follow are hugs as warm as you could wish for, and quite sweet enough to delight.

Lemon drizzle cake
Zesty and sweet, light but satisfying, lemon drizzle cake has achieved iconic teatime status. This version has far less sugar than conventional recipes and it still upholds the standard effortlessly. Every time I put it on the table, it’s gone within minutes.

MAKES 10 SLICES

125g unsalted butter, softened
75g golden caster sugar, plus 1tbsp to finish
Finely grated zest and juice
of 2 large lemons
100g fine plain wholemeal flour
2tsp baking powder
100g ground almonds
25g poppy seeds (optional)
3 medium eggs
A splash of milk or water

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4. Line a 1kg loaf tin with baking paper.
  2. Put the butter, sugar and lemon zest into a large bowl and whisk together until light and fluffy.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, ground almonds and the poppy seeds.
  4. Add one egg to the beaten mixture, with a spoonful of the flour mix, and beat until combined. Repeat to incorporate the remaining eggs, one at a time, adding a spoonful of flour each time and scraping down the sides with a spatula now and then.
  5. Tip the remaining flour into the mixture and fold in lightly but thoroughly. Fold in the juice of one lemon to loosen the mix, with an extra splash of milk or water if needed to bring to a good dropping consistency.
  6. Tip the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Transfer the tin to a wire rack and make deep holes all over the surface of the cake with a skewer.
  7. Combine the juice of the other lemon with the tbsp sugar – don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve. Spoon this drizzle all over the warm cake in its tin. Leave to cool completely before removing from the tin and slicing.

Oaty dunking cookies
This is such a simple and rewarding little recipe – just right for when you get a hankering for something sweet to dip into a cup of tea.

I’ve deliberately kept this batch small – so you don’t have a tinful of cookies sitting around. But you can easily double up the quantities if you’d like to make more.

MAKES ABOUT 8

125g butter
50g soft light brown sugar
125g fine plain wholemeal flour
75g porridge oats
A pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
  2. Put the butter and brown sugar into a small saucepan over a low heat to melt the butter gently, stirring often. Take off the heat.
  3. Mix the flour, oats and salt then stir into the melted mixture. Take dessertspoonfuls of the mix and place in piles on the baking sheet, then use the back of the spoon to flatten each into a rough circle, no more than 1cm deep.
  4. Bake for 10–12 minutes, until turning golden at the edges. They’ll still be soft – leave to cool and crisp up before removing from the tray. Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

VARIATION: Fruity oat cookies After mixing in the oats and flour, stir in the grated zest of an orange or lemon, or both, and mix in about 30g raisins or dried cranberries, or chopped dried apples.

Hot chocolate pudding
This quick (and utterly delicious!) chocolate pud, which I’ve been making for years to delight my family, occupies a space somewhere between a brownie, a soufflé and a cake. I think you’ll agree that’s not a bad place to be.

It can be whipped up easily from store-cupboard ingredients. Briefly baked until set on the outside but still gooey in the middle, it is excellent served with some fruit to cut the richness. It’s gluten-free too as it uses almonds instead of flour.

SERVES 4

100g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
100g butter, cut into pieces, plus extra to grease the dish
3 medium eggs
50g soft light brown sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
75g ground almonds
A pinch of salt

  1. Put the chocolate and butter into a saucepan and melt gently over a very low heat, watching all the time and stirring often so that the chocolate doesn’t get too hot. Set aside to cool a little.
  2. Preheat the oven to 190C/170C Fan/Gas 5 and butter a small oven dish.
  3. Whisk the eggs, brown sugar and vanilla extract together until pale, thick and mousse-like – significantly increased in volume.
  4. Turn the whisk down to a low speed and slowly pour in the tepid melted chocolate and butter mixture (or whisk it gently by hand), then fold the mixture together.
  5. Combine the almonds and salt. Add to the chocolate and fold in carefully using a spatula.
  6. Turn the mixture into the oven dish and shake gently to spread it out. Bake for 12–15 minutes until the set on top and firm at the edges, but still wobbly and gooey in the middle.
  7. Serve straight away with fresh berries and a spoonful of yogurt or a trickle of single cream.

River Cottage: Good Comfort by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (£26; Bloomsbury) is out now