In the family of sweeteners, jaggery wins hands down over sugar in the winter months. In Kolkata, date palm jaggery sells like hot cakes. North India braves the chill by snacking on chikki (peanut and jaggery brittle). Poranpoli, tilache ladoos in Maharashtraduring the festival of Makar Sankranti,gur ke chawal (sweet rice) in Rajasthan, and sandesh and payesh (rice kheer) in West Bengal all have jaggery in them.

Delhi-based nutritionist Ishi Khosla says sugar and jaggery have the same calorie and carbohydrate content, but jaggery is unrefined and free of the chemicals used in the processing of sugar. “Sugar has certain elements that affect the gut flora adversely, jaggery doesn’t. Jaggery has iron and several other minerals that are good for the body. It has a warming effect, which is why it’s so popular in winter," says Khosla.

Jaggery is also slowly making its way into cakes, not just as a substitute for sugar, but for the flavour it lends. Lounge columnist Pamela Timms, who explores local ingredients in her cooking, has been using jaggery in baking. “Jaggery gives a different taste to cakes, not purely sweet like sugar, but treacle-like," she says.

Kishi Arora of Foodaholics, a food consultancy (the expertise behind Mad Over Donuts), who uses sugar-cane jaggery in some of her cake recipes, says: “Jaggery adds more than just pure sweetness. The best part is that jaggery has moisture, so cakes tend to stay softer. Also, it naturally gives a nice brown colour to cakes."

Made from sugar cane, sap of the coconut palm, sago palm or the most delectable of them all, date palm, the local sweetener is now playing an active role in fusion cooking.

“The use of jaggery in Western baking is recent and is generally attributed to Asian chefs trying to fuse modern European baking with traditional ingredients," says Vikas Kumar, executive chef, Flurys, Kolkata. “Although treacle has been used in British baking for ages, but (it) is not as unrefined as jaggery." Kumar uses jaggery in cakes because of its caramel flavour. “Dairy-based products, such as cheesecake, and jaggery make a remarkable combination; it gives a rich taste to cakes and people love that," he says.

Another testimony to the fact that the healthier option need not be the unsavoury one.

Sugar-free: Flurys chef Vikas Kumar’s cheesecake with jaggery. Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint

Jaggery cheesecake with fresh strawberry salad

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the cheesecake

400g cream cheese

100g jaggery

(preferably palm or date)

100ml fresh cream

100ml sour cream

2 eggs

10ml lemon juice

5g fresh orange zest

For the base

100g digestive biscuits

50g butter, melted

50g jaggery

For the strawberry salad

50g fresh strawberries

10ml lemon juice

10g fresh mint

10ml jaggery, melted

Method

Mix the crushed digestive biscuits, melted butter and melted jaggery. Line the base of a round cake tin with the mixture. Bake at 170-180 degrees Celsius for about 10 minutes, allow to cool.

For the cheesecake, mix the cream cheese, melted/powdered jaggery, lemon juice and sour cream with a light hand until homogenous. Do not over-beat. Add the eggs, orange zest and fresh cream and mix well.

Pour on top of the biscuit base and bake at 150 degrees celsius for 45-50 minutes. Take out when lightly browned but slightly wobbly in the centre. Cool completely and then refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours. For the strawberry salad, melt the jaggery, add fresh lemon juice and chopped mint, and toss the fresh strawberries in this. Cut the cheesecake into wedges and serve with the strawberry salad and extra whipped cream, if desired.

komal.s@livemint.com

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