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SV Talks: Ricki Heller Leads us on a Path to Sweet Freedom

Ricki Heller wants you to have your cake and eat it too—just without a lot of the ingredients you generally think of when you think about dessert. I took some of the recipes from her cookbook, Sweet Freedom, out for a spin, then asked Ricki to fill me in on how it all began.

Roseann Marulli: Thanks so much for speaking with SuperVegan, Ricki. How did Sweet Freedom: Desserts You’ll Love Without Wheat, Eggs, Dairy or Refined Sugar come to be?

Ricki Heller: Sweet Freedom is an outgrowth of my baking company, Bake It Healthy, which grew out of my cooking classes. I’d been selling muffins, cookies, bars and cake slices in health food stores across Toronto for a few years when I realized I just didn’t have the physical stamina to keep the bakery going anymore. I was responsible for all aspects of the business, so between baking, wrapping and labeling, and delivering the goods, I was working 16-plus hours a day. When I decided to close the company, in 2007, many of my customers asked if I’d consider private catering because they didn’t want to give up their weekly muffins and cookies or custom birthday cakes. I did cater for about a year but then decided that the best way for people to continue enjoying the treats was to have the recipes themselves, so I began to convert them for the home cook—and Sweet Freedom was born!

Roseann: You’re a registered holistic nutritionist. Why is it important that your desserts be healthy? Do you ever cheat with something “bad”?

Ricki: I got involved in holistic nutrition because of my own health issues, and I found that the only factor that really made a difference long-term was changing my diet. Back in 2008, when I began to slip up and revert to some of my previous eating habits—desserts with white flour and white sugar—I came down with systemic candida and had to return to a more stringent way of eating that I’d followed 10 years earlier. Now that I’ve been on a strict anti-candida diet for almost two years (it’s vegan, no gluten, no sweeteners except stevia, no mushrooms or other sources of mold, no sweet fruits, no alcohol or anything fermented—I could go on), I can honestly say that no, I don’t cheat. I think I’ve learned my lesson! I feel 100% better this way and am almost back to my old, healthy self. I’ve worked too hard to regain my health to mess it up by eating something sugary.

Roseann: Your dishes are free of additives, colorings, artificial ingredients, refined sugar, wheat and animal products. Why?

Ricki: As a holistic nutritionist, I learned that what we ingest can affect our health. It makes sense, that our cells are literally built from the substances we eat, drink and breathe—there really is nothing else that affects our physical being more. Given the many toxins in the world over which we have no control—the air outside, the many technologies that give off electromagnetic pollution, food packaging, and so on—I prefer to eliminate as many food-related toxins as I can. As someone who’s working to build a healthy immune system and a healthy body in general, I don’t want to fill my cells with artificial colorings, chemicals or refined ingredients, which contain almost no nutritional value—and sugar depresses the immune system! I originally cut out animal products as a way to decrease the toxic load on my system, but to be honest, I never really ate many animal products anyway. I consider myself someone who is naturally inclined toward a vegan diet, as vegan food is what appeals to me most, and by eating it, I feel most comfortable and energetic. I continue this way both for my own health and for the health of the animals.

My Mother’s Cheesecake is infused with lemon juice, lemon extract and lemon rind, and the crust is good enough to eat on its own. Even the skeptical omnis at our Thanksgiving meal gobbled it up!

Roseann: What was the biggest challenge you faced in baking without all that extra “stuff”? Did anything just not work and not make it into the book?

Ricki: The soy-free whipped cream was a huge challenge and probably the most-tested recipe in the book—over 50 tries! For the cookbook version, I simplified the original recipe that had appeared on my blog. The final cream is a wee bit heavier and less airy than the blog version, but it also has about 28 fewer steps! I also tried a meringue and failed miserably. That’s one texture that’s just very difficult to reproduce without white sugar.

Roseann: Was anything that succeeded a surprise?

Ricki: The gluten-free pastry cream was a bit of a surprise because it didn’t start out that way—I was attempting a baked pudding. But popping the mixture in a blender produced the most velvety, smooth, rich-tasting cream. It’s one of my favorite recipes now!

Roseann: You’ve had a pretty busy year! You received an Honorable Mention in the 2010 Cuisine Canada Culinary Book Awards, and your cookbook is one of the few listed on Ellen DeGeneres’ Books Ellen Reads page. Congrats! How did Ellen find out about your cookbook?

Ricki: Thanks so much! My blog readers and twitter followers are the most amazing people, and I’d say they’re mostly responsible. Back in April, I posted a blog entry about how much I wanted to be on Ellen’s show to bake for her and Portia, since they’re both vegan and refined-sugar-free, exactly the kinds of recipes in my book. I also tweeted during the day, and many of my twitter followers began to retweet the messages and email The Ellen DeGeneres Show, endorsing my book and recipes. Somehow Ellen found out about it and checked out my book. Next thing I knew, my book was on her page! It was an incredible surprise to see my cookbook listed next to Alicia Silverstone’s and Tal Ronnen’s. I’m still floating!

The Girl Scouts have nothing on Ricki! Her Classic Peanut Butter Cookies smell as good as they taste.

Roseann: That’s amazing! How is the book being received in general? Do you have any favorite stories?

Ricki: I’ve been really gratified by all the fantastic reviews the book has received so far, and I’m thrilled that so many people like it. It always delights me to receive an email from someone who made one of the recipes and enjoyed it. My favorite story remains one I’ve told before, about a mom who made a birthday cake for her eight-year-old daughter’s birthday. The young girl couldn’t eat wheat, eggs, dairy or refined sugar, so my stuff was perfect; there’s a great agave-based frosting recipe in the book that works beautifully for decorating, piping, etc. This family had eaten my frosted cupcakes before, so I knew they already liked my stuff. After the party, the mom called to tell me that the cake had been a hit with all the kids and their moms. Then she went on to say that it had also been the first time in her daughter’s life, in eight years of parties, that her daughter had been able to share in her own birthday cake with everyone else at the party. I still get a bit teary thinking about that, because I was so touched to be able to give that kind of gift to that little girl. It makes me incredibly happy to know that people who’ve felt deprived of their favorite sweets for a long time can once again enjoy them through my recipes.

Roseann: What are the most popular ones? Which is your favorite?

Ricki: Anything chocolate seems to be pretty popular! The Ultra Fudgy Brownies and Butterscotch Blondies With Dried Cranberries and Chocolate Chips are a big hit, as are the gluten-free, grain-free Coconut Macaroons. The most popular muffin was always the Sweet Harvest, which has hidden carrot, zucchini and spinach and offers up a full serving of vegetables in every muffin. My own favorite chocolate-based recipe is the Chocolate Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies; and my favorite non-chocolate one is the Spiced Pumpkin-Millet Pudding.

Roseann: I made your Classic Peanut Butter Cookies, My Mother’s Cheesecake and Chocolate Caramels, and when I started taking pictures, I realized I’d chosen three beige dishes! Regardless, they all looked and tasted great. I brought the cheesecake to an omnivore’s house for Thanksgiving, and everyone LOVED it!

Ricki: My Mother’s Cheesecake is probably one of my favorites, though I like the Chai Cheesecake, too.

Roseann: And the Peanut Butter Cookies are amazing—my husband won’t let me share them with anyone else! As far as the caramels go, though, I fell into the overcooking trap you mentioned, so it became hard like brittle instead of chewy. It was still spot-on taste-wise, though! And I drizzled some chocolate on top just because. How long did it take for you to get it right? Is the secret using a candy thermometer, or is there another trick of which I’m obviously not aware?

Ricki: Sorry about the brittle! It took quite a few tries to get the texture just right without a candy thermometer—honestly, the trick is just to make it enough times that you recognize the right texture. As I recall—this was two years ago now—it also depends on the burner, since “low” or “medium” on one stovetop isn’t the same as on another, as well as on the pot; the mixture in a smaller, deeper pot will cook more slowly than one in a larger, wider one, and timing is everything with that recipe. All this to say that if you don’t have a candy thermometer, your best bet might be to undercook them a bit and, if necessary, make caramel cups instead of firm caramels. That’s what a friend of mine did. She had the opposite outcome—her filling was too soft, so she made the cups. When I wrote the book, I really wanted anyone to be able to make the recipes, even without special equipment. But if I do a second edition, I think I’ll just say to use a thermometer.

I overcooked the Chocolate Caramels and ended up with something resembling brittle instead. But break off a piece and let it melt on your tongue, and it’s caramel yumminess all the way!

Roseann: Why did you include some raw desserts? Do you eat raw often?

Ricki: I do try to include raw foods at least 50% of the time in my daily diet, and I love raw cuisine. Since some of my favorite desserts happen to be raw, I thought I’d include them. They’re also great for people on a cleanse or a gentle detox who still want to indulge in something sweet.

Roseann: What’s next for you?

Ricki: My recipes always reflect where I am in my own life, so my current creations are all based on the anti-candida diet. I’m working on a cookbook with recipes that are all low-glycemic, gluten-free and sweetened with stevia, yacon syrup, coconut sugar or agave nectar. I’ve really enjoyed learning about gluten-free flours and gluten-free baking and can’t wait to share some of the desserts I’ve created with them. This time I’ll also be including some savory recipes—even I have to eat something other than dessert once in a while!

Roseann: Best of luck with the new book, Ricki! And thanks again for chatting with us.

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