A friend came to my house for lunch a few weeks ago. She had just celebrated a birthday, so cake for dessert seemed in order. The recipe I chose looked terrific: a single layer of lemon sponge soaked in a sticky lemon glaze. Lots of fresh lemons would sacrifice themselves for the sake of flavor.

There was only one problem: the cake kind of sucked.

I say “kind of” because it wasn’t all bad, but neither did it meet my expectation. The fresh lemon flavor stole the show, but the cake’s gritty texture chased it down and took it back. The problem lay in the recipe.

To accommodate my friend’s gluten intolerance, I had chosen a gluten-free recipe for a dish that normally contained gluten. A combination of almond flour and polenta (I know, I know, the latter should have been a huge red flag for texture) took the place of all-purpose flour. Whoever wrote the recipe had merely made a substitution.

Had the thought of that sticky lemon glaze not dulled my ability to reason, I might have known better. Flat-out swaps for key ingredients rarely produce the same result; that’s why substitutes are not used in the first place. Just ask my dairy-free daughter how pizza tastes with vegan cheez.

The kitchen is my jam. Cooking and baking allow me to relieve stress, show love, and explore creativity. If I’ve learned one thing from accommodating the nutritional needs of friends and family over the years, it’s this: don’t try to de-something a recipe. Find a different one that doesn’t call for the problematic ingredient in the first place.

It’s really not that hard. Case in point: I hosted a dinner party where I needed to accommodate gluten-free and dairy-free guests. I dusted off some family favorites and we enjoyed a menu of lemon herb chicken, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and three-bean pesto salad, with flourless brownies for dessert. No funky flours or fake cheese necessary. Similarly, my daughter embraces Asian cuisines because of their general lack of dairy products. Things just taste better when they don’t fake it.

You already know this post isn’t really about cooking. More often than not, substitutes don’t produce the desired result. This becomes most evident when the alternative involves a key element or items are too dissimilar. The way I see it, you really have two options. Either alter your expectations or go in a different direction. Don’t settle for less.

If you don’t believe me, try swapping raisins for chocolate chips and see if your kids eat the cookies.

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