Welcome back for another week! We hope you had a truly lovely Thanksgiving surrounded by loved ones, and that you were able to implement some of our tips for maintaining a healthy holiday. Our holiday season is still in full swing, so we’re going to continue the discussion on how to stay on track this year by discussing one of our favorite traditions….cookies! No matter what holiday you celebrate this December, cookies have become part of the festivities. They are a beautiful gift to share with neighbors or teachers, a cookie swap is always a good time with friends, and the baking itself is a sweet tradition to bring back memories of when we were young, and to share with our own young ones.
Cookies bring on their own little list of complications, though. They are nice and bite sized so it’s easy to get carried away with sampling “just one more,” there are so many varieties that we want to try them all, and they always seem to be around and hard to avoid! This year, we’ve come up with some healthy options that give alternative twists to traditional recipes, with a focus on lowering the sugar and increasing the nutrient content in order to be able to indulge with less guilt.
A great place to start is with a time honored, and likely family tradition. I’m sure you remember oatmeal raisin cookies around family gatherings and other holiday parties while growing up. They don’t have the show-stopping appeal of some of the chocolatey-caramely-ooey-gooey cookies of today, but they don’t have the calories or sugar content either! So this year, let’s bring them back. Oats are loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein, while being low in fat and calories. They are also well known to help reduce both cholesterol and blood sugar and therefore are considered incredibly healthy. If you don’t have an oatmeal raisin cookie recipe on stand-by, and don’t have a relative to pester for their recipe, try these ones out and make them a new family tradition for years to come!
When it comes to swapping in a replacement for basic white flour, an easy place to start with alternative flour is with almond flour. This flour can easily stand on its own when baking, and therefore you won’t have to worry about getting the right ratios of starches, rice flours, xanthan gum, etc. It is also a great source of protein as it is made with just ground almonds; there are 28 grams of protein in a single cup! The only potential draw back to baking your shortbreads with almond flour this year is that almond is a tree nut and therefore a common allergen. These cookies would likely not be allowed at most schools or daycares, so make sure to skip them for the bake sale and save them for an adults-only gathering!
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, have been emerging lately as a highly interesting ingredient- particularly in non-traditional cooking and baking. And for good reason! In 1 cup of cooked garbanzo beans, there are 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of dietary fiber. This translates to 21 grams of protein and 10 grams of dietary fiber in 1 cup of chickpea flour (compared to 13 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber in basic white flour). You may be seeing them pop up as egg replacement in baked goods in the form of either ground chickpeas or even aquafaba, the liquid in the bottoms of canned garbanzo beans. An easy way to embrace these little powerhouses is to use chickpea flour in baking. Because the garbanzo bean acts so well as a binding agent, the consistency of chickpea flour produces a nice texture that gives the more dense and chewy mouth feel that is missing in other non-traditional flours. Try it out by making a batch of traditional peanut butter blossoms with a not so traditional base!
Baking with coconut flour is a little trickier than using most alternative flours. It is made directly from the meat of the coconut and therefore very absorbent of liquid. When used optimally, coconut flour can add a moistness to recipes because it requires additional liquid to be added, and then retains this liquid for a more dense and moist product. For this reason, coconut flour cannot be substituted directly for any other baking flours, and I’ve found that in baking, should really only be used in conjunction with at least one other type of flour to avoid a dry textured product. When using coconut flour, try starting by substituting a tablespoon or two of your traditional flour with the coconut flour, and increasing the liquid content of the recipe by either adding tablespoon or two of liquid or by adding another egg. To give it a try with an already perfected recipe, use coconut flour in a batch of chocolate chip cookies for a holiday get together!
Now to focus on the sugar, specifically on reducing it. A common thought is to try a sugar replacement, such as Stevia. Although the FDA regards Stevia as “generally recognized as safe,” it is considered a food additive and therefore does not require FDA approval. Further research on the non-nutritive sweetener is lacking as of yet, and therefore it should be regarded as a safe and good substitute for diabetics but not necessary for the general population looking to decrease their sugar intake. Instead, consider recipes that are naturally lower in sugar, or are sweetened without added sugar. Dates are emerging in cooking and baking for many reasons, namely that in addition to their natural sweetening abilities, they are a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which adds substantial nutrient density to the quality of the food. If you have never used dates in baking, impress your friends at your cookie swap with this recipe for peanut butter cookies!
In an effort to reduce the refined sugar content in your cookie recipes, consider more natural sugar and sweetener choices. Molasses is a healthier alternative to refined sugar as it contains essential vitamins and minerals in addition to its sugar content. Honey also is a more optimal choice for sweetener because it is a natural choice and contains anti-oxidants. It is important to note that both molasses and honey still contain high amounts of sugar and calories, so should be consumed in moderation, and within a balanced diet. Gingerbread cookies are a holiday tradition, so give this recipe a try this year, which uses both molasses and honey instead of refined sugars!
Coconut sugar is another natural source of sweetener that is becoming increasingly popular. It is made by evaporating off the water in the sap from the coconut, leaving behind the sugar that we can use in baking. Although the research on this ingredient is still emerging, coconut sugar may contain more inherent nutrients than refined sugar, because of how it is sourced, and have a lower glycemic index. As with other natural sweeteners, coconut sugar should still be consumed in moderation, but when we’re looking to enjoy our holiday baking, this is a good option to consider. If you’ve never used this ingredient, give it a try in one of our own personal recipes, which also combines some of the healthy benefits discussed above!
3 medium ripe bananas, mashed
2 1/4 cups almond flour
2 eggs, at room temperature
3 tbsp coconut oil or grass fed butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup coconut sugar
1/4 cup organic brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp milk or milk substitute
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350°F. Using an electric mixer, cream the sugar and butter (or oil) in a mixing bowl. Mix in the bananas, eggs, vanilla, and milk. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to wet ingredients and mix well. Stir in the chocolate chips. Pour the batter into a greased large bread pan and bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven and place foil on top. Bake for another 10-15 minutes, until firm in the middle. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Enjoy!
Do you have a favorite healthy cookie recipe? Would you like some tips on how to alter a favorite recipe to make it healthier? Let us know in the comments!
*Contributed by Sarah Rattigan, BS Dietetics