Not-Half-Bad Cheesecake and other lower-fat wonders

Hey, wait a minute–isn’t this the holidays? Aren’t we supposed to be eating, drinking, and making merry? (Especially eating and drinking?) Heck, yes! Oh, the eggnog cake and gingerbread cookies, the moist (not dry) stollen, those soft and oh-so-sweet date pinwheels I HAVE to make every Christmas… Really, it’s enough to drive every healthy diet intention you ever had right out of your head.

Every year I make dark chocolate buttercrunch for my mom, and as I’m cracking it into pieces, the inevitable crumbs make their way into my mouth. (Crumbs are SO unsuitable for a gift bag. At least that’s my excuse.) And the homemade granola! Full of sweet dried fruits, nuts, and crunchy oats, I tell myself it’s healthy. It’s good for me. Well…. mostly. It ain’t exactly low calorie. So I pour it into Mason jars, tie on red ribbons, and distribute it to my friends as quickly as possible. As with just about everything tasty–a moment on the lips, forever on the hips.

But wait–I’ve made a major discovery this fall that’s turned my calorie-counting life around. Now, along with sweets, I’m a major sucker for dairy products. Maybe it’s my Norwegian heritage, but I love cheese of all kinds, from Velveeta (Velveeta Pepper Jack is particularly tempting) to Parmigiano-Reggiano. And then there’s sour cream, star of my favorite food group: chips and dip. Don’t even get me started on ice cream… While I’ve learned to really appreciate Cabot reduced-fat cheddar with jalapeños, it’s still not the same as a fat, runny, baked Brie.

I’ve sampled just about every reduced-fat dairy product out there. They’re kinda OK… However, there’s one thing I’ve found that totally astounds me with its rich, creamy texture, great flavor, AND lack of fat: Greek yogurt. Our grocery sells Fage low-fat and nonfat Greek-style yogurt, and it’s far superior to other reduced–fat yogurts I’ve tried. (It’s a national brand; check your store for it.) Unfortunately, it’s WICKED expensive, and I can only afford it on a very irregular basis. Hmmm, what to do… It’s good for me, tastes great, full of calcium and vitamin D; there HAS to be a way to replicate this on my own. (If you’re a baker, you’ll recognize this syndrome: I Can Make This Better Myself-itis.)

Struck by a sudden inspiration while standing in the supermarket dairy aisle contemplating the Colombo low-fat yogurt on sale (32 ounces, $1.99), I decided I’d try “compressing” it. Maybe taking some of the liquid out would make it creamier, somehow? I took a couple of coffee filters, attached them with rubber bands to a couple of large, deep mugs, and spooned in the yogurt. Next day, the yogurt was much firmer; day after that, firmer still–thick as thick sour cream, and looking just as creamy. The taste? Not quite a match for sour cream, but utterly delightful. I was in business.

Drained low-fat yogurt started making its way into dip and salad dressing. I dolloped it onto the aforementioned granola, and stirred it together with frozen raspberries I’d picked last summer. Only problem was, I was eating so much of it, the coffee filter thing was getting old. Sometimes the filters would tear, dropping the nearly-ready yogurt into a bath of drained-off whey. And my husband kept knocking the mugs in the fridge with his water bottles, which didn’t help. Then I remembered–DUH, King Arthur sells a “yogurt cheese maker.” Which is simply a fine-mesh, non-reactive screen, looped to come in contact with the maximum amount of yogurt, and set atop a container to capture the whey. With a snap-on cover, to prevent spills and keep yogurt fresh. I shelled out the money, and my life changed again–man, now Greek-style yogurt is SUPER-easy!

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The undrained yogurt fills the strainer.

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Next day, look at how much whey it’s lost: 1 1/2 cups, over a third of its weight.

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The result? Thick, “scoopable” low-fat yogurt, the perfect stand-in for sour cream.

I recently put my new favorite ingredient to the ultimate test: cheesecake. I mean, talk about your oxymoron… low-fat cheesecake? But darned if it didn’t work. By combining reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchâtel) with the drained yogurt; and substituting Splenda for Baking for the sugar, I made a cheesecake to which King Arthur’s taste testers (that’s all of us that work here–it’s one of the nicer perks) gave the big thumbs-up.

So, if you’re like me and simply can’t resist all of those creamy dips and spreads; or you love your sour cream coffeecake, but oh, the calories in that sour cream; give drained low-fat yogurt a try. One caveat–I thought I’d take it a step further and drain low-fat vanilla yogurt. Didn’t work; whatever is in any of the flavored low-fat yogurts makes them too loose to drain properly. So stick with plain, and flavor to taste afterwards.

Oh, and the cheesecake–check it out: Not-Half-Bad Cheesecake. Your dieting-but-dessert-loving friends will thank you this holiday season.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...