No, it’s not a fruit, but early in my experimentation with eliminating cane sugar from recipes, I discovered that I’d need something other than fruit to help take on the structural role that refined cane sugar (sucrose) plays in dessert recipes, especially for cakes and cookies.
I found a helpful friend in nonfat dry milk powder, which instantly became a staple of the Fruitcake kitchen. Nonfat dry milk powder (NFDM) consists mostly of protein and sugar. Like fresh milk, its sweetness comes from lactose, which is much less sweet-tasting than cane sugar. Its flavor is definitely milky with a hint of something extra–caramel? nutiness, as in a brown butter? It’s a cozy, sweet flavor you’ll recognize if you ever drank Carnation Instant Breakfast or ate Astronaut Ice Cream.
There’s a long history of drying out milk in order to extend its consumable life. In the 13th century, Marco Polo noted that sun-dried skimmed milk was carried by Mongolian soldiers. The predominant drying method nowadays is spray drying, which consists of a few key steps: Fresh milk is skimmed and preheated, then a major part of the water in it is evaporated off by boiling in a vacuum (which means the boiling temperature is much lower than it is with normal air pressure). The concentrated milk is then sprayed as tiny droplets into hot air, which quickly dried them so that by the time they land, they are forming a pile of fine, dry powder.
NFDM has served me well in surprising ways. When sweetening with fruit, the challenge lies largely in avoiding the addition of a ton of water to a recipe. So finding natural, organic products that have already had most of their water content eliminated is extremely helpful. Dried and freeze-dried fruits fall into this category, and I’ve found them very useful, but they mess terribly with the structure of, say, a cake. I’m not a chemist, but I believe it’s the high protein content in NFDM (versus the high fiber content of dried fruit, which lends itself to chewiness) that gives strength and stability to back to a recipe from which cane sugar has been eliminated. As scientific as all of this sounds, let’s not forget that NFDM brings along with it that wonderful sweet, nutty, milky flavor mentioned above. In addition to cakes and cookies, milk powder’s flavor and texture of course work beautifully in dairy desserts like custards, ice creams, and cheesecakes, adding a sweetness that enhances their dairy flavor rather than overpowering it.
For more information, see the NZIC’s “Milk Powder” article.