Life doesn’t get much sweeter than biting into a warm honey cake, fresh from the oven.
But in this kitchen, there’s no refined sugar – nor gluten or dairy, for that matter – in sight. This is Livia’s – aka Olivia Wollenberg’s – kitchen, and she’s made her name by baking with more gut-friendly alternatives to the white stuff.
Wollenberg started off baking and selling hundreds of fresh crumbles from her mum’s kitchen in North London, and now has a range of Raw Millionaire Bites – her gluten, dairy and refined sugar-free answer to millionaire’s shortbread, filled with gooey date caramel – which are a bestseller in Selfridges’ Food Hall.
Her honey loaf cake, which today she’s shown me how to bake into mini muffins to share, uses raw honey, coconut palm sugar and ground almonds instead of flour, with coconut oil standing in for butter – ingredients which don’t make her feel ill when she fancies a treat.
Like her friend Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella fame (Wollenberg made the 14-layer cake at Woodward’s Mustique wedding in April), it was her own health problems that eventually inspired Wollenberg to revolutionise her approach to eating – and then turn it into a business idea.
“I was always the person at three o’clock who would be like, ‘I need some chocolate, I need a cupcake’. I think a lot of people feel that – a working day is really long. Even at school, I was excited for my mum to pick me up because I knew she would come with Nutella sandwiches in the car,” confesses the 27-year-old, whose naturally sweet recipes are featured in her debut cookbook, Livia’s Kitchen.
“I was always just living for food. But my stomach got more and more sensitive. I would go out for dinner with my friends on a Saturday night and never be able to join them at a bar afterwards because I was in so much pain. I didn’t want to go and see a doctor because I still wanted to go for pizza, and I was so scared they would say to me, ‘You can’t eat gluten and dairy any more’, so I just put up with it.”
In spring 2014, things were so bad that her mum, who she was still living with at the time, told her enough was enough. “She said, ‘You’re not nourishing your body because what you’re eating is just not staying in’,” recalls Wollenberg.
She finally saw a nutritionist, who made her keep a food diary for two weeks.
“She looked at the first two pages and said, ‘Just what I thought, you’re someone who’s going to need to follow a FODMAP diet’. And I was like, ‘A FODMAP what?'”
FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine, resulting in IBS-like symptoms for some. Reactions can, of course, vary in severity. Among the worst offenders are onions and garlic, which Wollenberg now avoids entirely – “even a trace can make me really sick”.
For six weeks, she had to cut out a whole list of possible trigger foods, including apples, with the idea she’d then be able to gradually reintroduce them again.
“Most people can reintroduce 90% of foods and have one or two they cut out. I pretty much couldn’t reintroduce anything, except apples.”
Although she now says the restricted diet “ruined my life”, it also set her on a path to swapping academia (she’d been studying neuroscience at UCL) for entrepreneurship.
“The thing I was most miserable about was having something indulgent and delicious without any gluten, dairy and refined sugar. So I started looking at blogs online and people were talking about using natural sugars, like dates, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and them reacting better with their body. I just started playing around because I needed a three o’clock pick-me-up. At the time it wasn’t a business idea, it was just to keep me going because I was so miserable.”
She also realised what she’d thought were healthy options, weren’t always the best thing.
“I would have frozen yoghurt instead of ice cream, but frozen yoghurt is crazy high in sugar. I would say to people now, go for a full-fat option if you can eat dairy, just because there’s less put in it.
“I also think life’s too short to always be thinking how many cubes of sugar are in something. If granola’s your favourite thing, just try and eat one which has less sugar in it and you’ll be fine,” Wollenberg adds.
“Don’t limit yourself with things you love.”
Try some sweet treats from Livia’s Kitchen yourself…
(Makes 1 loaf)
Softened coconut oil, for greasing the tin
320g jumbo oats, ground to an oatmeal before using (or 290g ground almonds and 30g buckwheat flour)
250g raw honey
110g coconut palm sugar
75g melted raw coconut oil (make sure it is odourless)
Juice and zest of 1 big orange
1tbsp grated fresh ginger
1/2tsp ground nutmeg
2tsps ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
Mix all the ingredients in a mixing bowl with a spoon.
Line a 20cm x 11cm loaf tin with greaseproof paper.
Pour the mixture into the loaf tin.
Bake for 35-40 minutes until the top is golden and slightly cracked. The cake will cool as it firms, but there should still be a slightly softer, wetter middle.
For the filling:
800g stoned and chopped peaches (skins on)
100ml maple syrup
1tsp vanilla powder
For the crumble topping:
200g ground oats (grind jumbo oats to an oatmeal before using) or oat flour
200g jumbo oats
5tbsps melted raw coconut oil
100ml maple syrup
1 1/2tsp vanilla powder
Coconut yoghurt, to serve
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
Cook the peaches in a saucepan over a medium to low heat with the maple syrup and vanilla powder. Cook for about 20 minutes or until soft.
To a mixing bowl, add the ground oats or oat flour, jumbo oats, coconut oil, maple syrup, salt and vanilla powder and mix thoroughly.
Once the filling is nice and soft, add to an ovenproof dish and top with the crumble mixture.
Bake for 20 minutes until the topping begins to brown.
Serve with a dollop of coconut yoghurt.
(Makes 6 cakes)
Softened coconut oil, for greasing the dishes cakes
200g blanched almonds
70g rolled oats
325g soft pitted Medjool dates
4 1/2tbsps cacao powder
4tbsps maca powder
3tbsps maple syrup
For the molten sauce:
1 ripe avocado
6tbsps maple syrup
3tbsps cacao powder
3tbsps maca powder
4tbsps almond butter
2tbsps softened raw coconut oil
This cake is raw and requires no baking (although it can be heated in a low oven for 10 minutes if preferred).
Grease the muffin tins with coconut oil.
Mix all the cake ingredients in a food processor until well mixed and sticky.
Using your hands, use three-quarters of the mix to line each hole in a muffin tin with the mixture, covering the bottom and the sides of the hole only and leaving the top open. Alternatively, use rubber muffin moulds if you have them.
Make the sauce by mixing all the ingredients in a food processor until thick, creamy and well mixed.
Spoon two tablespoons of the sauce into each cake case and then cover with the remaining cake mix as a lid, ensuring the edges are stuck together. Turn out the cakes to serve.
Barley Cup Organic Natural Instant Grain Drink, £2.85 for 100g, Naturally Good Food (www.naturallygoodfood.co.uk)
Perhaps the most coffee-like non-coffee, when you first pop the lid, Barley Cup powder looks and smells a lot like the real thing. Naturally caffeine-free, it’s made from roasted barley, rye and chicory – just pop a scoop in your mug and add hot water and milk to taste. Ideal for those who enjoy a milky and mild brew.
Symingtons Instant Dandelion Coffee Compound, £6.89 for 300g, Holland & Barrett (www.hollandandbarrett.com)
Those with a sweet tooth and delicate tummy will love this roasted dandelion root drink, which tastes like a warming cup of treacly coffee. It comes in lactose-free little brown pellets, which stir easily into a brew – perfect for the autumn nights ahead.
Premium Matcha Sachets, £12 for 14 servings, Teapigs (www.teapigs.co.uk)
Quickly becoming one of Japan’s most popular exports, matcha is powdered green tea and is naturally dairy and gluten-free. Just add one of these sachets to hot water for a green brew – or, as we prefer, stir into hot milk for an indulgent matcha latte. It’s brimming with antioxidants, but be aware it also has some caffeine, so avoid before bedtime.