Just Say No to Margarine
Jews have been hooked on fake butter for a century. It’s time to banish it from our kitchens.
Those who wanted to keep their margarine without sacrificing their health tried the new tub margarines, which don’t contain trans fats, though you won’t catch the word “margarine” on their labels. (Now that the truth is out about trans fat, health-conscious companies are doing their best to distance themselves from the margarines of yore by using alternative names; Earth Balance, for example, markets itself as a “buttery spread.”) But in the attempt to make a healthier margarine, we ended up with a spread that caused new problems. Products like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Benecol, and Smart Balance have taken out just the thing that makes margarine so valuable to the Jewish baker: its firmness. A silky spread looks great when you’re laminating a muffin (the go-to image in the commercials), but isn’t so great when your frosting slides right off the cake, or the cookies you made never actually solidify and everyone at your Shabbat table makes fun of you until you turn defensive and ask them what they’ve done lately to elongate their friends’ lives. Or so I’ve heard.
So, what’s a Jewish baker to do? “Go back to butter when you’re not making meat, or stick with loose oil,” Rackman advised. “When you screw with nature, you make something worse.” If your dessert doesn’t absolutely need to be pareve, that’s the simplest and best solution.
But it’s not the only one. In 2008, kosher cookbook czarina Susie Fishbein published Kosher by Design Lightens Up, which features some margarine-free recipes—recipes that don’t need any hard fat to be served in their absolute best manifestations. I bring up this one because her series is so popular that the mainstreaming of healthy dessert consciousness might be afoot. Older cookbooks, like Enlitened Kosher Cooking and Hip Kosher also try to veer toward healthier fats such as oil replacements and “light margarine,” though, like Fishbein’s, they never completely succeed. Cookies made from Shedd’s Spread fall apart. Cakes made from Earth’s Balance tend to remain batter. (For the most health-hazardous of kosher cookbooks, one that practically insists on the inclusion of trans fats, I nominate the popular Spice and Spirit of Kosher Jewish Cooking, which dares you to put two whole cups of margarine in its Flaky Rugelach recipe. Runner-up is a lesser-known volume my sister bought me called The Balabuste’s Choice, which asks that you jam two pounds of margarine into something terrifyingly called Nutless Szerbo; the “choice” the title refers to is, apparently, angioplasty or bypass surgery.)
And what of those of us who would like to get a dessert not merely right, but perfect? If I use regular margarine, the cookies will taste all right, and they’ll hold together for the duration, but they won’t taste as good as they could. And I’m not such a good baker that I don’t need as many advantages as I can get.
So, after years of thinking about this, I’ve decided to only make desserts that don’t require a substitution of trans fat (and that includes nondairy creamer). Sure, I can “make” fruit, which doesn’t require any kind of margarine or butter. But if I’m making baked goods, I’ve decided—and encourage you to consider—to steer clear of hard fats. If I’m using a mix, I use one that calls for vegetable oil. I don’t use frosting. I try to avoid pie crust where possible, and I eschew even non-dessert recipes that use the stuff.
The downside: I don’t have a huge repertoire of desserts, and I’m certainly not considered an accomplished baker. When I bake, it’s the pareve chocolate bread pudding from the Joy of Cooking, a book that is not known for its kosher-friendly recipes. But it does make great use of your leftover challah. And it is something you don’t really see at many holiday tables. Now, it does require some substitutions: soymilk for heavy cream, in particular (according to most standards, particularly ones that include the fats we’re talking about, soymilk is nutritionally superior to heavy cream). But while it probably doesn’t taste as good as a dessert that contains heavy cream, or even one that contains nondairy creamer, you also won’t leave my table with a water-insoluble veneer of trans fat slicked over your mouth and throat (and beyond).
Which is to say: There’s no great solution to the margarine problem, at least not one that I’ve found, other than finding recipes that don’t require you to choose one. And there are some of those in the kosher cookbooks, they just aren’t as delicious-sounding as the ones that use margarine. Science might come up with something that fixes the problem, but probably not soon: Science was sort of the trouble in the first place.
True, there is something to be said about serving your guests and your family a variety of treats, and I am always impressed with bakers who never stop trying to make the perfect dessert, no matter what the substitution costs. But there is also something to be said about not hating yourself after a meal, and trying to live past 50 while doing it.
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When new inventions made widespread sinning the norm, ancient rabbis adapted. The Talmud’s God approved.