Food & Drink

Culinary Keepsakes: A better way to bake

A variety of healthy cookies baked by Robert Merten.
A variety of healthy cookies baked by Robert Merten. Jonathan Dyer/The Beaufort Gazette

Robert Merten baked for most of his life, cooking muffins, cookies and any chocolate delight for anyone who wanted to taste, including himself.

But as he got older, he experienced a flair up of an arthritic condition he'd had since childhood. He needed to change his life. He needed to become healthier. But that would mean having to change doing what he loved. He'd have to change how he baked.

Three years later, the Beaufort resident is living a healthier life and doing it while baking just as much. He found a way to do what he loves, but do it healthier.

"I can't imagine a life without something baked," he said.

The New Jersey native grew up in an Italian household. He learned baking from his grandmother. After leaving home he got into the interior design business, initially making ends meet by doing baking and catering on the side.

He ran a successful design business in Washington, D.C., and moved with his partner to Beaufort about six years ago. He'd bake for neighbors and host elaborate dinner parties guests raved about.

"(He) makes putting on a dinner party an art form," said neighbor Donna Sammond.

Three years ago, his psoriatic arthritis kicked in again. He'd always had the condition that can cause joint pain and red patches to dot the skin. He was diagnosed as a child, but it went into remission for most of his adult life.

"It came back with a vengeance," he said.

He needed to change his diet and start exercising more. To complicate matters, doctors said he was starting to become diabetic. He had to lose weight. He was at 245 pounds. Over three years, he got down to 165. He started tweaking recipes he had to make them healthier. His specialty is Lightened Up Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, made with a butter substitute and Splenda. He usually has a plate ready for guests and even for himself for a mid-afternoon snack.

He goes to physical therapy three times a week, organic bran muffins in tow. His therapists started asking for the recipes. He knew this whole healthy baking thing was starting to take off.

He started tweaking old recipes for other meals, as well. He changed an old favorite for shrimp and pork sausage pasta, by substituting turkey sausage and whole wheat pasta and going easy on the olive oil and cheese. His father was the last hold out on the dish, especially the whole wheat pasta. But now his father says he can't tell a big difference.

Merten wanted to start an organic bakery but had little energy after all the work it takes battling his condition. Instead, he started compiling a cookbook. His Christmas tradition for years was to bake treats and ship them in tins across the country. He started combing through the old recipes, editing, baking, tweaking, rebaking and photographing the end result. Essentially, the cookbook is 33 years in the making.

He sent it out to a few publishers but none have bit on it yet. No matter. He did it more for himself, a veritable history of his life as a baker. He'll add to it, this time with a more healthy twist. He'll continue to look to get it published. Maybe his healthy baking can help change a life, like it did with his.

"I'd like to think I'm doing something good for someone," he said.