THE READER: Mary Kay Culpepper, Birmingham, Alabama, editor in chief of Cooking Light
THE RECIPE: Swag Bars
THE STORY: While on vacation last year, Culpepper stayed at The Swag Country Inn in Waynesville, North Carolina, adjacent to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She loved hiking on the inn’s winding trails, and each day Managing Chef Shawn McCoy and his staff packed guests’ knapsacks with a hearty picnic lunch, including the chewy, peanut-buttery Swag Bar. Culpepper and her fellow visitors at the inn were enchanted by the bar’s combination of creamy and crunchy textures. Like many guests before, she wanted to re-create the treat as a souvenir of her trip, and the inn’s owner, Deener Matthews, happily shared the recipe. But once Culpepper saw the indulgent ingredients, she asked Associate Food Editor Kathy Kitchens Downie, RD, to develop a more healthful version so she could enjoy memories of her Smoky Mountain getaway anytime.
THE DILEMMA: These bite-sized treats were high in sugar from ingredients such as creamy peanut butter, corn syrup, corn flakes, semisweet chocolate chips, and granulated sugar, all of which contributed to the 196 calories in each serving.
THE SOLUTION: While the sugar, corn syrup, and peanut butter created a pleasingly chewy texture, they were also responsible for 132 calories in each serving and offered little nutritional value. We slightly reduced the amounts of these components to cut about 27 calories per bar. We trimmed the overall amount of cereal and substituted a whole-grain variety (which contains beneficial antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals) to slightly boost the nutrition and drop another 24 calories and 70 milligrams of sodium per serving. The original’s eight ounces of semisweet chocolate chips created a generous layer of chocolaty goodness―and added calories and fat―atop the bars. We cut back to two ounces and switched to dark chocolate, which typically has a bit less sugar than the semisweet variety and more intense chocolate flavor, so the smaller amount has more impact. We also added 1 1/2 cups of heart-healthy peanuts to carry the nutty flavor and offer more crunch, fiber, and minerals. The total fat remains the same―9.2 grams―but the overall fat profile is better with the peanuts’ healthful unsaturated fats.
THE FEEDBACK: The magazine’s staff polished off all the bars at taste testing, so we felt good about the recipe’s prospects. But the real test awaited back at The Swag. When Culpepper contacted Matthews for her reaction to the lightened version, McCoy had just finished a side-by-side taste comparison of the two recipes. Matthews said she loved the trimmed-down bars.