Unusual Ingredient of the Week - Agave Nectar

As I mentioned in a previous post, this week’s Unusual Ingredient of the Week is Agave Nectar or Syrup as it is less romantically known over here.
As someone who suffers from food intolerances, I am always trying out new ingredients that might make life a little bit more comfortable for myself without compromising the flavour. Obviously this is paramount to me as a food writer. And, if that ingredient comes from a natural source rather than a chemical one, then all the better.
Agave Nectar comes from the sap produced in the heart of the Agave Plant. The plant is crushed and put through a process which extracts the syrup in its raw form. It is then filtered and heated to a level which breaks down the raw sugar into fructose. At this stage, the syrup can be further refined to produce a pale amber colour or bottled as is, in the dark, rich chestnut colour. There are also different genuses of the Agave plant, very much like honey, which infuse the syrup with floral or vanilla top notes.
Like Maple Syrup, Agave Nectar comes in various patinas and flavours, all of which have different properties in cooking but with a less aggressive taste than synthetic sugars. This is great for people, like myself, who can taste saccharin a mile off. No chemicals whatsoever are used in the production of pure Agave Nectar.
When you try Agave Syrup neat, if like me, with your finger stuck in the bottle because you’re not ladylike enough to use a spoon, you will see that the flavour is a rare hybrid of honey and maple syrup but much finer than either. It is 25% sweeter than granulated sugar but it doesn’t have an eye-wincing, tooth-cringing sweetness when you sample it. Despite being clinically sweeter than sucrose, it has no more calories, which basically means you can use less of it in cooking to a similar or identical effect. The texture of Agave Nectar is thinner even than maple syrup which also makes measuring somewhat less of a sticky process than getting all gummed up with honey or golden syrup.
The most important factor about using Agave Nectar, is its processing properties: when consumed it is absorbed into the blood stream slowly so it doesn’t cause that all familiar ‘sugar high’ that you get after binging on chocolate or biscuits (rapidly followed by a sugar low that can cause headaches). The Agave plant has a very low glycaemic index so blood sugar levels aren’t significantly elevated, which makes it ideal for diabetics.
There is much more information available on the web which details the rigourous scientific testing that the Agave Nectar has been put through but in short the final test of its effectiveness is to try it out.
I came across a website called Sweet Savvy whilst investigating this natural sweetener, that has many Agave Nectar recipes - some savoury, some sweet, some traditional – that diabetics will previously have had to have foregone for medical reasons.
I am particularly excited about trying out a Carrot Cake recipe but I’m out of cream cheese and I must have cream cheese icing on Carrot Cake. So, with that in mind, I made some Shortbread Biscuits instead, replacing the usual caster sugar with Agave Syrup.
I prepared some plain biscuits (which I then dusted in Vanilla Caster Sugar - obviously diabetics would omit this stage), and some Linzer Cookies which I filled with my homemade Greengage, Damson and Crab Apple Jam.
If you plan to use Agave Syrup instead of regular sugar, expect it to be a little hit and miss, particularly in baking. You will need to reduce the amount of other liquids (i.e. milk or egg) to compensate for extra liquid of the Agave, you may also need to use a smaller quantity of the syrup because it is 25% sweeter. Finally, you may need to reduce the heat of your oven by 10-20 degrees because the fructose in the syrup seems to burn quicker. So, my recommendation to anyone wanting to experiment is just to be extra vigilant watching the oven and not to be too upset if your buns come out flat or your cake collapses, you’ll simply know next time to adjust it.
Here is the recipe for the shortbread in the meantime. I will post the Carrot Cake recipe in due course, once I’ve made it and taste tested it!
N.B. This is taken from the Sweet Savvy website where you can find lots more recipes.
SHORTBREAD BUTTER COOKIES, this would make about 40 3” cookies or 20-25 Linzer Cookies, obviously the size of the cutter makes a difference!
170g Butter
¼ Cup Agave Syrup
¾ Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 2/3 Plain Flour
Pinch Salt
Put butter in a large mixing bowl and leave to soften at room temperature.
Once soft, beat well with an electric mixer or use someone burly with a wooden spoon. The beating of the butter enables the biscuits to stay crisp and light.
Beat in the Agave Syrup and Vanilla Extract until smooth and fully incorporated.
Sift in the flour and salt slowly, mixing until a very stiff batter is formed (it will almost be like pastry dough – yes, that thick!).
Cover with clingfilm and chill for at least two hours.
After two hours chilling, the shortbread dough will be very workable (in fact, the most workable dough I have ever used) but does warm up quickly, so if you have to cook in batches, I recommend you work in halves, putting one half of dough in the fridge whilst you work on the other half.
Preheat the oven to 150c.
On a well floured surface, roll out the dough to whatever thickness you desire. If you go thinner, you will get lovely butter crisp biscuits that are delicate, if you go thicker, you will get something that resembles the shortbread that you buy in the stores. Either are perfect! Use cookie cutters to cut out different shapes (I used stars) and place on a silicone sheet or piece of grease proof paper on a baking sheet. The original recipe recommended greasing the sheet heavily but I just used a quick spritz of Bakers Joy (you could use some of that butter in a can for a light greasing).
Bake for between 7-10 minutes depending on thickness. They will brown very quickly and once they turn, they taste burnt and not so good. The cookies will be soft but crisp up rapidly upon contact with the air outside of the cooker.
If you want to make Linzer cookies, use the shape of your choice on your cutter, bake as above but leave to cool completely. Once cool you can sandwich them together with a scant teaspoon of your favourite jam. These would make a beautiful present as they look like tiny stained glass windows - very Christmassy!


Kathryn said...

Freya - thank you for introducing me to another new ingredient. I'd never heard of this before - but low GI and less calories, I need to check it out! I love your reports on unusual ingredients. Can I ask what you're intolerant to?

And how was the dinner, and the interesting main course?

Kathryn x

Cora said...

Freya, I'm an avid reader of your blog and found your recent article on agave really fascinating. I recently read an article on Amazon that shows that all agave's aren't the same. You should check it out and let us know what you think. The link is: http://www.amazon.com/gp/discussionboard/discussion.html?ie=UTF8&cdForum=Fx438KNAX1SZQ9&asin=B000FMZMN8&cdThread=TxU2B4K4UTTGP0

The writer seems to like the agave at http://www.volcanicnectar.com. Let us know what you think and which brands you prefer.
~ Cora

Shaun said...

Hi Freya, I seem to be inundating you with messages as of late, but I just have to stop by at least once every other day. The good news for the day: "Tarts with Tops On" arrived. I have four quinces at the ready :-) According to Amazon, "Tamasin's Kitchen Bible" will arrive either Monday or Tuesday. Now, enough with materialistic stuff, I'm glad that you found a sugar substitute. It amazes me how you source these very interesting ingredients. No wonder your recipes always draw me to your blog.

FreyaE said...

Hi Kathryn, I'm intolerant to tonnes of foods, mostly dairy, partially cooked eggs and wheat not that I let it stop me from eating them. I have to take medication on a daily basis to counter the effects. See above for details of the meal!

Hi Cora, glad you enjoy the blog and thanks for your interesting link to the Agave syrup page. I would be interested in experimenting with various types and it is important that diabetics are made aware that there are nectars that may be doctored with other ingredients. I will investigate it more. For now I would just warn people to read the labels!

Hi Shaun! I look forward to reading about more of your adventures with quinces! Hope you enjoy the books, they are all great reads I promise!

Freya x

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