Sophie Michell

Have Your Cake and Eat It

15th June 2018

Sugar-free eating needn’t be any less tasty or indulgent, writes Lisa Botwright, as she reviews a new cook book from tv chef, author and well-being guru Sophie Michell…

For A chef known for gloriously tasty, yet healthy recipes and a pragmatic approach to dieting, being diagnosed as insulin resistant and pre-diabetic was a shock. “My doctor blithely told me to give up all carbohydrates and sugar,” says Sophie Michell. “I’m someone who’s eaten a high protein diet for years, but suddenly I found this stricter, more enforced regime much, much harder to deal with.”

Diabetes affects around 3.7 million people in the UK (and the numbers are increasing at a shocking rate every year). It’s a serious, lifelong condition where the body can’t make insulin at all (Type 1 diabetes) or the insulin your pancreas makes is insufficient or doesn’t work properly (Type 2 diabetes). Both result in the body’s failure to regulate the glucose (sugar) that is released into our blood as the carbohydrates that we eat or drink are broken down.

Insulin should act like a sluice gate to allow just the right amount of glucose to enter our cells and fuel our body. If glucose can’t get into our cells, though, it begins to build up in our blood. And too much glucose in the blood causes a lot of different problems – most alarmingly, over a long period of time, damage to the heart, eyes, feet and kidneys.

Type 1 diabetes needs strict medical intervention (an insulin pump, or several injections a day), but Type 2, the version that Sophie was in danger of developing, may – at least initially – be controlled by paying strict (exhausting) attention to diet and lifestyle.

“I was angry… and felt like rebelling,” exclaims Sophie. Nonetheless, the author of Cook Yourself Thin and Chef on a Diet, immediately set about applying the same rigorous research and tenacity that allowed her to create all those delicious flavourful recipes – ‘diet plans for food lovers’ – that helped to keep her, and her thousands of readers’, weight in check. But despite her knowledge of nutrition, she found many supposedly diabetes-friendly recipes confusing and misleading. “When you are trying to monitor blood sugar levels it is not just about cutting out sugar, it’s about white (refined) flours, fruit, honey, agave syrup and even gluten-free flour, as they all cause your blood sugar to spike.” This is one reason why the book includes a surprising amount of flour-free savoury recipes in among the cakes and desserts.

It also explains why there are not as many natural sugar replacements, such as honey, fruit juice and dates, as I’d have expected. “The ‘clean’ eating movement can be confusing,” clarifies Sophie. “Sugar is sugar whether natural or not.” Instead there’s a lot of Xylitol – a big favourite of Sophie’s – which has a GI (the glycaemic index used to rate how quickly each food affects your blood sugar) of 7% compared to 100% for sugar, and only 40% of the calories of sugar. “There’s zero evidence to show that sweeteners are bad for your health,” asserts Sophie.

This is a great read, not just for those with a medical need to control their blood sugar, but also for people interested in the trend for lower-carb diets. It’s for anyone interested in healthier alternatives to traditional baking at all, in fact. But, as Sophie warns, “these goodies should still be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet. The recipes still contain calories and are still treats.” … Sigh.

Pistachio Cake with Rosewater Icing

Butter or vegetable oil for greasing
300g pistachios, 4 tbsp Xylitol, 8 free-range egg whites

200ml double cream,1 tsp vanilla extract

200g Xylitol icing sugar, 1tsp rosewater, water to get to icing consistency, rose petals and pistachios to decorate (optional)

Preheat the oven to 160C gas mark 3. Grease and line a 5/6-inch cake tin. Blitz the pistachios and half the Xylitol in a blender until fine and powdery. Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks and then gently, one spoonful at a time, whisking in between, add the remaining Xylitol and whisk until stiff. Fold in the powdered nut mix and mix well.

Pour into the cake tin and bake for 30 minutes, then cool. When cooled completely, whisk the double cream and vanilla together to form soft peaks. Slice the cake very carefully horizontally across into three layers (it is extremely delicate, so please be gentle). Spread half of the cream mix on the bottom layer, then place another layer of cake and cream, and place the final cake layer on top. To make the icing, whisk the icing sugar, rosewater and water together, then drizzle over the cake and decorate with rose petals and pistachios.

Cheese Crackers

200g grated mozzarella
100g ground almonds
2 tbsp cream cheese
1 egg
1 tsp picked thyme leaves
salt and pepper

To make the pastry, place the mozzarella in a layer on the bottom of a non-stick saucepan. Slowly start to heat up and melt, stirring occasionally. Add the cream cheese and thyme leaves, plus a good amount of salt and pepper. Mix well until all is combined. Take off the heat and beat in the almonds and the egg. Mix well to form a dough and then unload on to a sheet of baking paper. Press down and cover with another sheet of baking paper.
Using a rolling pin, roll the pastry between the sheets of paper until thin (about 1/2 cm).

Take off the top sheet and trim to form a rectangle, and then cut down the middle lengthwise. Next cut this into squares before popping back into the oven and cooking for ten more minutes. When cooked, take out and cool before serving with soft cheese and apple slices.

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