The Diabetic Pastry Chef Shares Her Dessert-Making Moves

by Pamela Kaufman Health Writer

When Stacey Harris was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with type 2 diabetes twenty years ago, she was floored.

Diabetes not only threatened her health, but also her professional aspirations. A mid-life career changer, she was enrolled at a Pittsburgh culinary school and studying to become a pastry chef.

Since then, Harris has turned her diagnosis into a major opportunity. She has revamped the desserts she loves to make them diabetes-friendly; launched a business that sells her Nutella swirl cupcakes, oatmeal cream pies, and other baked goods to Pittsburgh-area clients and online; written a cookbook; and embraced a new identity as The Diabetic Pastry Chef.

Harris recently talked by phone with HealthCentral about living with diabetes, tasting desserts all day but still impressing her doctor, and baking with her favorite sugar substitutes and flour mixes.

Pizzelle pastry
Pizzelle pastry / Stacey Harris

HealthCentral: You were in culinary school studying to become a pastry chef when you learned you had diabetes. What led you to that point?

Stacey Harris: I had another career before I became a pastry chef. I was a mortgage underwriter. I knew that the market was getting bad, and that I needed to find something else. I always loved desserts, so I decided to go to culinary school. But then I became ill, was hospitalized and found out I was diabetic.

It was devastating. I thought, “Now I can’t be a pastry chef!” But then I started experimenting with the recipes I’d been making at school. I came up with a formula that turned practically anything into a diabetic-friendly version that tasted good.

I use sugar substitutes or just less sugar, and a mix of half whole milk and half water or almond milk. All-purpose white flour has a high glycemic index, so I mix it with other flours. My go-to flour blend is soy, almond, oat, all-purpose white, and white whole wheat.

When I’m making brownies, I use black bean flour. If you give one of my brownies to someone, they think it’s a regular brownie!

HealthCentral: Can you talk more about the sugar substitutes that work best for you?

Stacey Harris: Whey Low is my favorite. I use it in my favorite dessert, pineapple pie. It’s a mixture of lactose and fructose that doesn’t raise blood sugar like white sugar does. For icings, I use Swerve Confectioners sweetener. To me, it tastes the closest to confectioners’ sugar. It does have a little bit of a minty aftertaste, though.

I also like agave nectar, but I don’t bake with it. I use it in iced tea.

HealthCentral: What do bakers do wrong when they try to adapt recipes for people with diabetes?

Stacey Harris: Mainly they use the wrong sugar substitute. Say you’re using Splenda, which is made with sucralose. You need to use half Splenda and half sugar, or a product called Splenda Sugar Blend. Because if you use all Splenda, your baked goods are not going to rise properly. They’ll be dry.

There’s another class of sugar substitutes, which are called sugar alcohols. That’s sorbitol, xylitol — anything with -ol on the end. It’s not tolerated by a lot of people. It gives a lot of stomach upset. So that is not a sugar substitute I would recommend.

I’ve used fruit purees as a sweetener, but to me, they’re inferior. I made a cake once with applesauce and it molded very fast.

HealthCentral: What are your favorite things to eat that aren’t dessert?

Stacey Harris: My favorite dinner is probably baked salmon or crab cakes, sometimes with a mixture of mustard and mayonnaise on top. I’ll have a green vegetable — green beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli – and a salad.

I’ll also have a sourdough roll; I make them a lot. Of course, as a diabetic I’m told not to eat white bread, but sourdough has a low glycemic index. It raises your blood sugar less than whole-grain bread does.

HealthCentral: You must taste desserts all day as part of your job. Does your doctor wish you wouldn't?

Stacey Harris: My doctor wants my blood sugar to be below 7 and typically my A1C is around 6.0 or 6.2. She can’t even believe it with the amount of sugar I eat — well, sugar substitutes. So that proves to me that my baked goods are working.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Pamela Kaufman
Meet Our Writer
Pamela Kaufman

Pamela Kaufman got her professional start covering health at Vogue, where she wrote two columns on news and trends as well as feature stories. Her interest in healthy eating brought her to Food & Wine, where she became executive editor. Today she writes articles about health and food, profiles courageous people living with chronic disease, and pursues all kinds of great stories. You can follow her adventures as an eater, mom, and traveler.