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The recipe had said that you didn't have to live in a "dream world" to eat certifiably healthy brownies, because these tasted "deep, dark, rich, fudgey, and chocolatey" — with "no flour required!" In reality they resembled a brown, gummy sponge with a few chocolate chips scattered on top.
I took another bite in a futile attempt to convince myself that perhaps, yes, these did taste like dessert, while I listed the healthy ingredients in my head, as if that could save the taste. I had just discovered the world of "healthy" desserts — a world in which a brownie is never just a brownie, and deception operates in the service of wellness.
After living in this weird universe for a few years, I've realized that the language bloggers use in these recipes reveals more about our tenuous relationship with food, femininity, and pleasure than it does about the deliciousness of black-bean brownies. Of course, that hasn't stopped me from trying recipes, desperate to find a "healthy" dessert that will satisfy my cravings.
I always thought my sweet tooth would dissipate as I got older, but mine has only gotten worse. I basically still want to eat dessert for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At one point I even started developing my own recipes with the perfect ratios of lean protein to healthy fats and whole-grain carbs in an attempt not to break the scale. "Have you heard of Chocolate Covered Katie?" a fellow pudgy gal asked me over the cookie plate at a feminist meetup back in 2011. "It will change your life!"
More than anything, these recipes reveal our tenuous relationship with food, femininity, and pleasure.
And oh, how it did. Online, I found an entire world of healthy dessert blogs and the women who love them: Desserts With Benefits, Ambitious Kitchen, Minimalist Baker, That Cake Chick. But the reigning "queen of healthy desserts" is Katie Higgins, who runs a blog called Chocolate Covered Katie. She boasts almost 20,000 followers on Twitter, 156,000 on Instagram, and a brand-new book that made Amazon's list of the top cookbooks of 2015. I figured she had to know what she was doing.
Following Higgins's advice, I tried out "healthy" cookie dough dip, whose recipe reassuringly has been featured in Bon Appetit, Shape, Glamour, and more. I dutifully combined oats, nut butter, almond milk, honey, baking soda, and salt with chickpeas — wait, chickpeas?! It sounds like a toddler threw his plate of baby food into a batch of specialty hummus and some demented chef decided to sell the end product. But, somehow, its sweet stickiness works. I wouldn't call it cookie dough, though: It's more like dense nut butter with plenty of chocolate chips. The first time I made it, I licked the spoon, then the whole bowl.
Higgins says she doesn't want to distinguish between healthy and indulgent, but in a society obsessed with cutting down on refined sugar, bad fats, and simple carbs, the nutritional aspect is the biggest attraction in these recipes: They're almost always sugar-free, gluten-free, and vegan, and the most popular ones hide vegetables like spinach and beets. Why? We millennials would never guzzle something like Slim-Fast: The idea of putting artificial flavorings and chemical preservatives in our bodies turns our stomachs. Instead, we want to eat whole ingredients that are good for our bodies but taste like piecaken (cake with layers of pie baked into it) and bake things from scratch in a minute or two.
For many who subscribe to healthy-dessert eating, it's not really about calories; it's about overall well-being. As studies and stories have shown, a calorie isn't a calorie isn't a calorie: The quality of the calories you're eating matters more than the measurement itself. Higgins recently revealed everything she eats in a day: three healthy desserts and 3,000 calories. "This raw chocolate frosting takes 3 minutes to make, and it also counts for 1 of your daily veggies!" exclaims That Cake Chick about her three-ingredient avocado icing. The recipe for Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Quinoa Banana Bread on Ambitious Kitchen brags, "No butter, oil, dairy and made with nutritious gluten free quinoa & oat flour!" Shape magazine even published "11 Crazy Delicious Desserts with Hidden Healthy Foods," including beet-chocolate pudding, cauliflower rice pudding, purple cabbage cake, and eggplant brownies. (Yes, eggplant brownies.)
The recipes are almost always sugar-free, gluten-free, and vegan, and the most popular ones hide vegetables like spinach and beets.
"I can enjoy [dessert] more knowing that it's good for me," Deborah Schipper, the creator of the Cake Cleanse diet, writes on her blog, where she encourages you to skip the juice cleanse and eat healthy cakes (recipes provided!) twice a day. Schipper has eliminated all refined sugar and gluten to maximize her energy and overall wellness, writing, "Cake Cleanse is all about making healthy foods taste good and helps you with how to deal with cravings."
There's an underlying psychology to this preoccupation with healthful eating. After looking at a few of these recipes, nutritionist and food studies guru Marion Nestle told me, "Everybody loves desserts, and if you can give desserts a health halo, you can convince yourself that they have no calories, are good for you, and you can indulge to the max." (Taken too far, it even has a scary name: orthorexia, or an unhealthy fixation with eating healthily. Thomas Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Northern Colorado, says that it's about "treating your body with just the purest nutrients.")
But in many ways, our obsession with good-for-you foods feels more societal than individual. Millennials spend more time, energy, and money on food than any generation before us: It's this generation's rock and roll. Some of us are drawn to chefs and restaurants, others to recipes, and still others to the latest superfood. But across the board, culturally, we're captivated by the healthy possibilities of food. It's all too easy to waste time scrolling through food porn on Instagram, especially when photos of coffee-fudge frosting made of cashews, espresso, stevia, and maple syrup look like creamy swirls of icing atop a luscious brownie. As Dana on the Minimalist Baker exclaims, "Hooray for healthy deception!"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the recipes sound disgustingly counterintuitive, which is why on the blogs, there's a standard narrative to prove the desserts taste great: Girl makes healthy dessert. Brings said dessert to party, where she leaves it on the table without a sign. Everyone wolfs down the dessert and is shocked to find out that it is, in fact, made of chickpeas, avocado, spinach, Greek yogurt, and/or oats. "I can't tell you how many girls said, ‘Ugh I gotta stop eating this stuff,''" Higgins writes on her blog about the healthy cookie dough. "When I finally admitted the dip was healthy (and that it contained chickpeas!), no one would believe me."
Think of healthy desserts as the grown-up corollary to parents sneaking broccoli into their kids' mac and cheese.
While I don't love some of the language around healthy desserts — at times, it seems to feed into the social pressure that women feel to be thin, to resist decadent foods, to be nutritionally demure — based on my own experiences, I also don't see anything inherently wrong with the recipes themselves. Think of them as the grown-up corollaries to parents sneaking broccoli into their kids' mac and cheese. For some of us dessert-lovers, it's always going to be much more satisfying to eat a cake made of bananas than an actual banana. By eating something that looks like a decadent dessert, we aim to satisfy that desire while staying true to the wellness trope. As Higgins says, her recipes are "a much healthier alternative, while still tasting just as naughty."
After much trial and error, I can report that some of these alternative recipes actually do taste good. Take the microwaveable one-minute chocolate cake in a mug — or, as I like to call it, the millennial generation's soufflé. It's basically a flourless chocolate cake with a bit of batter hiding in the middle and nutty frosting on top — a way to indulge guiltlessly, not only because the ingredients are good for you and the recipe has built-in portion control but also because it's just enough for one person. "Indulge, no strings attached!" says Desserts With Benefits blogger Jessica about similar recipes on her site, applying phrases commonly associated with casual sex to eating dessert.
The idea of healthy decadence, or decadent healthiness, may sound weird to some, but just as Tinder and the idea of "swiping right" have entered the mainstream, so have some of these unusual ingredients and recipes. (The mug cake meme is breaking the internet as we speak.) Bakers and chefs are using alternative flours and sugars to add texture and depth of flavor. Untitled, the restaurant at the Whitney Museum, uses gluten-free flour to make what some have called the best chocolate-chip cookie in New York, and even Momofuku Milk Bar has started baking a cookie without any butter, eggs, dairy, or added sugar.
"Rather than seeing [alternative ingredients] as substitutions," says Claire Ptak, who uses rye, spelt, and buckwheat flours as well as agave nectar and palm sugar at her London-based bakery Violet Cakes, "they have so much to offer themselves. I use them as the starting point and find things to complement their flavor."
I don't know if she'd be able to find something to ameliorate the flavor of black beans, but for years I've been unsuccessful, my experiments yielding dozens of plates of plaster, putty, or rubber from the oven. Until yesterday, that is, when I followed a muffin recipe on Ambitious Kitchen that calls for black beans, coconut oil, cocoa powder, maple syrup, eggs, and vanilla. I pulled the muffin tin out of the oven tentatively, knowing not to expect much. But these were different: cakey, dense, delectable — way more than edible. In fact, I ate three, and almost didn't have to pretend at all. Eureka! I'm planning to premiere them at a friend's party next week: I'd bet no one will suspect they're eating something healthy.