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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

Cookies to Make You Happy... and Healthy... This Holiday Season

It’s that time of year. The air is crisp and cold. We’ve packed away the flip flops for boots and sweaters. The lights are untangled and ready to adorn the tree, windows and doorways, warming our hearts and our homes, welcoming everyone to celebrate with us. The holiday season is here. And with it, the joy of cookies!

 

Hold onto your biscuits, Grasshopper.

Thick and chewy or thin and crispy; who doesn’t love cookies? We think of cookies as sweet, casual and homey, treats to enjoy at a party or a simple weeknight dinner. They are easy to make and rustic. They are small enough that you can enjoy a few without guilt.

When I was a kid, my mother began the Christmas cookie bake-a-thon the day after Thanksgiving. Each evening after dinner, we found her in the kitchen making cookies, humming as she moved gracefully from making batter to sliding trays into the oven. The house was redolent with the perfume of cinnamon, chocolate and sugar. Each cookie was cooled and placed lovingly into waxed paper-lined tins and stored on top of our breakfront. Each tin held within it treasures we coveted.

As the trays piled up, we were allowed to choose one cookie each day (yup…one cookie) to celebrate the season. We chose carefully, weighing our options nightly.

All this was in preparation for our family Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts….which would be wall-to-wall food and oh, yeah…all those cookies!

My mother was an amazing cook and baker who struggled to be happy in her life. But when she was in the kitchen, she was the picture of joy and passion…particularly when she was baking. As an adult, I have often wondered about this…can baking actually make you happier?

According to experts, it can.

Baking not only makes us joyful with the reward of sweet treats but it helps us step off the fast track of our frenetic lives and slow to a more natural pace. Is there anyone who doesn’t need that this time of year? It forces us to focus our attention on the sifting, whisking and measuring that is part of the process. It keeps us in the moment, completely present in our task. It allows us to tap into our creative selves and gives us the chance to use our hands. It’s nurturing in both the act and the end result which is enjoyed and shared.

Baking soothes the senses. A whiff of the perfume of chocolate chip cookies, apple pie or cinnamon buns brings a smile to your face every time, filling you with nostalgic memories. Touch, hearing, sight, and taste are stimulated as you knead dough, stir batter, measure ingredients and sample your work along the way.

However, cookies made from white flour and refined sugar, whether vegan or not, no matter how yummy and gorgeous, will rob you of your health…and holiday joy. You’ll feel lethargic and depressed instead of rosy-cheeked and celebratory. You’ll want to hibernate on the sofa, not party with your friends.

Breathe. I am not recommending you grimly endure the holiday season with no treats just to hang onto your wellness. Au contraire! Good quality sweets make us happy; help us manage stress and relax. They are homey, comforting and nothing says ‘it’s the holidays’ quite like a platter of yummy cookies.

With the right ingredients and a little passion, you’ll feel good about what you serve your family and friends…as you sample your way through the holiday season.

 

THE BEST CHOCOLATE CHUNK COOKIES

No kidding, the best—ever. Vegan, not vegan, healthy or not, everyone who tastes these says they are the best.

MAKES 30-36 COOKIES

 

8 tablespoons (1 stick) vegan butter substitute, softened

¼ cup brown rice syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ cup coconut sugar

1 ½-2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

Pinch ground cinnamon

Pinch sea salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ cup coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts

1 (3.5-ounce) bar vegan dark chocolate (70% or more), coarsely chopped

 

Preheat oven to 350°F and line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a hand mixer or a whisk, blend the buttery stick with syrup, vanilla, and coconut sugar until creamy. Mix in flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda/powder to form a stiff cookie dough. Fold in nuts and chocolate until incorporated through the batter. Wet a teaspoon and your fingers, and spoon cookie dough onto the lined sheets, allowing room for the cookies to spread, (about a dozen cookies per standard sheet). Bake for 13-14 minutes. Remove from oven and allow cookies to stand for 2 minutes on the sheet tray. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

 

CHOCOLATE-WALNUT BISCOTTI

This Italian classic cookie is made with eggs, lots of eggs. It’s hard to create a crisp, crunchy biscotti without them; some would say impossible. Enter chia seeds. Not only nutrient dense, hydrophilic and loaded with fiber, these wee seeds do what eggs do in baking.

MAKES 30-32 BISCOTTI

 

1 teaspoon chia seeds soaked in 2 tablespoons water for 30 minutes

 

8 tablespoons (1 stick) vegan butter substitute

3 tablespoons coconut sugar

½ cup brown rice syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2-2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

Pinch sea salt

Generous pinch ground cinnamon

½ cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces

1 cup vegan dark chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 350o and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Using a hand mixer or a whisk, whip soaked chia, vegan butter, coconut sugar, rice syrup and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Mix in flour, baking powder/soda, salt and cinnamon to form a stiff dough. Fold in nuts and chocolate until well-combined.

Divide the dough in half and knead each half in your hands 3-4 times. Form each half into a long log, the length of the baking sheet and about 2-3 inches wide. Both logs will fit on the baking sheet. Bake for 30-32 minutes, until the log is firm but springs back to the touch. Allow to cool on the sheet for 5 minutes. Carefully transfer the baked logs onto a dry cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut the logs into wedges (about 13 per log) and lay the cut cookies, cut-side up on the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 6 minutes. Turn the cookies so the other cut side is up and bake for 6 minutes more. Allow to cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet and then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

 

SESAME COOKIES

My husband is a pure-blooded Sicilian and loves all the treats that are a part of that rich culture. His favorite dessert is light and crispy, not too sweet sesame-coated cookies. After many failed attempts, I got them just the way he likes them. Enjoy!

MAKES 18 TO 24 COOKIES

 

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

Generous pinch sea salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

Scant pinch cinnamon

¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

8 tablespoons vegan butter substitute, softened

⅓ cup brown rice syrup

2 tablespoons coconut sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

 

About 1 cup tan sesame seeds

 

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder/soda, cinnamon and coconut in a mixing bowl. Whip butter substitute, rice syrup, coconut sugar and vanilla until creamy. Mix into flour mixture to form a soft dough.

With moist hands, roll the dough into 1-inch spheres. Place the sesame seeds in a small bowl. Roll each cookie in the sesame seeds, covering completely. Arrange the cookies about 1 inch apart on the lined baking sheet. Bake for 13 to 16 minutes, until the cookies are firm to the touch. Allow to stand, undisturbed, on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

The cookies will turn crisp as they cool.

 

’DID YOU KNOW? ’

Sesame

Legend: Sesame seeds are great for improving romance in our lives.

Fact: Sesame seeds contain nutrients and compounds said to have anti-arthritic and emollient properties, beneficial for nervous system and blood circulation. When we’re flexible, easily stimulated and sensitive to touch, romance is a way of life.

 

SHEILA’S LACY WAFERS

My dear friend Sheila Davidson is famous for her exquisitely beautiful holiday cookies. A tin of her jewel-like treats is simply the best gift you can get. On occasion, she grants me the great privilege of working with her on a baking day. This great cookie is the result. You’ll love it and won’t reserve it for special occasions. It’ll be a regular.

MAKES 30 TO 40 COOKIES

 

Cookies

¼ cup avocado oil

1/2 cup brown rice syrup

⅓ cup whole wheat pastry flour

½ cup quick rolled oats

¼ cup very finely chopped almonds or walnut pieces

¼ teaspoon pure vanilla or almond extract

 

Chocolate Filling

1 cup non-dairy, dark chocolate chips

2 teaspoons brown rice syrup

¼ cup unsweetened organic almond or soy milk

 

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

To make the cookies: Place the oil and rice syrup in a small saucepan over low heat and cook, stirring, until loose. Remove from the heat and transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir in the flour until smooth. Fold in the oats, nuts and vanilla, mixing well.

Drop the batter, by ¼ teaspoonful onto the lined baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on the baking sheet for 1 minute. Carefully peel cookies from the parchment paper and set aside to cool.

To make the filling: Place the chocolate chips in a heat-resistant bowl. Bring the rice syrup and milk to a rolling boil over high heat. Pour over the chocolate chips and whisk until shiny and smooth.

Select pairs of similar-size cookies to make sandwiches. Spread the flat side of one cookie with the chocolate glaze and press its partner’s flat side to the chocolate, making a sandwich. Place on parchment paper to allow the chocolate to set.

Repeat with the remaining cookies and chocolate.

COOK’S TIP: follow this recipe exactly…I know I am not a big fan of careful measuring but this recipe requires it.

 

HAMANTASCHEN

A cookie traditionally used in the celebration of Purim, this cookie has come to symbolize the emotions of that holiday--pure merriment and joy.  Just one look at this festive, richly-filled pastry and you’ll know what I mean.  While the tradition calls for a poppy seed or prune filling, modern hamantaschen are filled with apricots or cherries (my personal favorite).  No matter what the filling, these soft, delicious pastries will leave you happy and relaxed.

MAKES ABOUT 2 DOZEN

 

Pastry:

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1/4 cup coconut sugar

1/3 cup vegan butter substitute

1/2-2/3 cup unsweetened organic almond or soy milk

 

Dried Cherry Filling:

1 ½ cups dried cherries, soaked in warm water until tender, drained well

grated zest of 1 orange

1/3 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon brown rice syrup

pinch sea salt

 

Mix flour, baking powder, salt, zest and sweetener together in a food processor.  Add butter substitute and pulse 45-50 times, creating the texture of wet sand--do not over mix.  Slowly pour milk down the spout, pulsing until the dough gathers into a cohesive ball.  Wrap dough in plastic and chill for 1 hour.

Make the filling by combining ingredients in a sauce pan.  Simmer for 7-10 minutes to soften the fruit into a thick, stewy consistency.  Transfer to a bowl and cool completely before making cookies.

 

Preheat oven to 350o and line 2 baking sheets with parchment. 

On a floured surface (or between parchment sheets), roll out half the dough to be 1/4-inch thick.  With a 3-inch cookie cutter or glass, cut as many rounds as possible out of the dough.  Transfer the rounds to a baking sheet, leaving about ½ inch between cookies.  Spoon a teaspoon of the filling into the center of each round.  Fold up and pinch edges to form triangular shaped cookies, with filling peeking out of the center.  Pinch the dough firmly, so the seams don’t come open.  Repeat with balance of dough and filling.  Bake cookies until lightly golden and firm, about 20 minutes.  Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes and then transfer to cooling racks.

 

BUTTERY PECAN SHORTBREAD

Shortbread cookies are moist, buttery, and lovely. And loaded with calories and saturated fat. In these cookies, we use a healthier fat and protein-packed pecans to make them all the better for you.

MAKES 24–36 COOKIES

 

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

Generous pinch sea salt

Generous pinch ground cinnamon

1 cup vegan butter substitute

½ cup brown rice syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

                 

Chocolate glaze (optional)

6 ounces non-dairy dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

Mix pecans with flour, salt, and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, using a hand mixer, whip the butter substitute, syrup, and vanilla until smooth and fluffy, 2–3 minutes. Combine with flour mixture to create a soft dough. Gather into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 1 hour before proceeding.

Preheat oven to 350°F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Divide the dough in half. Rewrap one half and return to the fridge. Roll the other half between 2 sheets of parchment into a ¼-inch-thick circle. Dip a round cookie cutter or a glass into flour and cut the dough into round shapes. Arrange on baking sheet. You do not need room for the cookies to spread, so you can fit a lot on the sheet. Reroll dough to use it up. Place the filled cookie sheet in the fridge while rolling out the other half of the dough.

Bake the cookies until deeply browned, 13–15 minutes for a crisp shortbread, 11–13 minutes for a softer cookie. Remove from oven and immediately transfer to a wire rack.

To make the chocolate glaze if using, simply melt the chocolate over a double boiler, whisking until smooth. Dip one end of each cookie into the chocolate and return them to the wire rack to cool and for the chocolate to set.

COOK’S TIP: To bring out the best in pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and toast them at 300o or 20-30 minutes, until golden and fragrant