A tale of a diabetic pastry chef

Type 1 diabetic, Carla Claasen, tells us why she became a pastry chef: to open a diabetic bakery with the most amazing and mouth-watering pastries, cakes and desserts.

Carla Claasen (23), a Type 1 diabetes patient, lives in Centurion, Gauteng.

No more “sweeties”

I was diagnosed at the age of 11 with Type 1 diabetes. After some scary weeks – where I was watched over by truly amazing angels at the hospital – my mom and dad explained, to ease my mind, that diabetes is not an illness, disease, or disorder. Just like some children can’t eat nuts or drink milk, I could not have any sugar. So, as a family, our goal would be to focus on a healthy lifestyle which excludes sugar.

Though that was easier said than done. I had grown up with a “sweetie” as a special treat and when we went out to eat I couldn’t wait for the dessert menu. Plus, pudding after Sunday lunch was my favourite. Suddenly being a diabetic became very real. Add to that, now my poor sister could not have any sweet unless there was something that I could eat. She never said anything, but I think deep down she must have resented my diabetes.

Sowing the sugar-free seed

I guess, this was where the seed was planted. Surely there must be something that is sugar-free and still tastes like a special treat?  My mom and aunts were on a perpetual search for “treats” so I could have a dessert (and so relieving my long-suffering sister from her banishment to the land of no sugar).

Not believing in accidents and coincidences, my life took an interesting turn. In Grade 8 I was presented with an option to take Hospitality as an extra subject. Not knowing what I wanted to do after school, my parents suggested that I explore it. And, so, a whole new world opened to me.

My Hospitality teacher, Fiona Muller, nurtured my natural talent and complimented my passion as a budding chef. The seed planted so long ago – there has to be amazing desserts and pastries for diabetics – suddenly started growing. I can be a chef that specialises in diabetic pastries.

From there it was a short hop to my ultimate dream of opening a diabetic bakery with the most amazing and mouth-watering pastries, cakes and desserts made with no sugar.

Setting the foundation

My family was amazing. They supported me without any hesitation from day one. After school, we spent hours investigating culinary schools. After lots of research, my heart was set on 1000 Hills Chef School.

Following a gruelling interview with Chef Sharmine Dixon, my road of two years of training and endless discovery started. She understood about being a diabetic and supported me in my quest to become a master pastry chef for a diabetic market.

Chef Dixi wanted me to be able to hold my own anywhere in the world, as well as being able to offer something unique. Her belief in my passion and her relentless requirement for perfection is what prepared me for my first adventure.

Five Palm Jumeirah

I spent 15 months working, at Five Palm Jumeirah Hotel in Dubai, as a pastry chef under Michelin-star chefs from all over the world. This extraordinary experience unlocked a whole new magical world. With me always in awe, saying “I never thought you could do that with pastry!”

At the end of my contract I came back to South Africa, wanting to hone my craft closer to home. I have, however, found that there still seems to be a lack of understanding and availability of sugar-free pastries and desserts in South Africa. So, looking at the glass as half full I saw this as my opportunity.

How can a diabetic be a pastry chef?

For most people, being diabetic and a pastry chef seems quite absurd. Though it is easy. If I work with sugar, I ask one of the other chefs to taste, and if I work with sugar substitutes, I do the tasting myself.

I must say the internet is not very helpful with appetizing alternatives to sugar either. With some diabetic recipes indicating the use of avocado or beans. Not the first thing that comes to mind for a yummy dessert!

The easiest tip I can give readers that want to make sugar-free desserts is to replace the sugar with a sugar substitute like xylitol, stevia, etc. It sounds like a no-brainer but it took me a while before I tried it.

I was unsuccessful the first time (I did not know that sugar substitutes taste much sweeter than real sugar), but had amazing results the second time around. I halved the said sugar amount. That is how new recipes are created…try and try again.

My favourites

My most popular desserts (and family favourites) are sugar-free lemon cheesecake and sugar-free tiramisu (non-alcoholic). Interestingly enough, I now have numerous weight-conscious admirers of my desserts and pastries.

And so, with every set of challenging circumstances, we are also provided with opportunities – if that is how we choose to look at it – and this is mine.

Click below for Carla’s recipes:

Lemon Cheese Cake
Lemon Cheese Cake
Chocolate Jellies