December 2008: Holiday Baking Tips

I want to give a big thank you to Julia Goodhouse, who searched recipe books, added her own amazing and creative baking expertise, shopped, baked, tested, dropped cookies off at my house (so we could taste!) and generally went over the top to try to find some great information to share with you.  It was an amazing effort, and I thank her from the bottom of my heart (and tummy!).

Tips:  This month, try to:
1.     Use the highest quality ingredients you can find
2.     Experiment with different flours
3.     Include nuts for great nutrition (assuming no allergies in your household)
4.     Add/ hide vegetables in the mix
5.     Avoid food colors
6.     Be watchful of bad ingredients you may not be aware of
7.     Avoid trans fats
8.     Make healthy replacements
9.     Use fruits to sweeten
10.   Reduce sugar

We have given you one example recipe per tip to try.  However, I don’t want to suggest that you throw out all of your own favorite holiday baking recipes!  What I’d love for you to try is some experimentation in changing the mix/ ratio of ingredients over time.  I am constantly modifying recipes and making up new ones in the process.  It is interesting to substitute an ingredient and see what will happen.  This is a fun activity to do with your kids!  The healthier the ingredients are, the better you’ll feel about allowing you kids to have “treats” daily (daily treats are definitely a tradition in our house).  Here are a few ideas for your experimentation*:

*Experiment safely and be aware of any food intolerances or allergies in your family.

1 .  Use the highest quality ingredients you can find.  The best part of home baked goods is that you are in control of everything that goes in it!  If you can, make the following basic replacements in your baking any time you see these ingredients:

Replace Add Instead Benefits
Regular eggs omega-3 organic eggs Healthy fats
Shortening, margarine or regular butter organic/imported butter* When choosing imported dairy products, know that  cattle in many other countries are grass-fed, thus ensuring a high nutrient content of their milk, butter, and meat. Organic (see dairy, below)
Regular milk, cream and cheese Organic/ imported milk, cream and cheese When choosing organic products, you avoid the bioengineered growth hormone used to boost milk production (known as rbGH, rbST, or BST)
Regular flours Organic flours Avoid pesticides
Milk chocolate High quality dark chocolate** Flavanoids help improve blood circulation and may help reduce blood pressure. Phenylethylamine produces endorphins in the brain, elevating mood

*Kerrygold is an excellent imported brand.

**The best dark chocolate has at least 60% cocoa solids.

Recipe: No Bake Cookie Balls

In this recipe, watch the type of graham crackers that you put in it (I use Back to Nature Grahams Honey Sticks), the type of peanut butter (100% real is best) and any of your add-ins.  The kids can mix this one up by themselves, shape the balls, and have a great time doing it.  My sister and I grew up making peanut butter balls, so this is a family tradition made healthier.  My kids loved making these and are asking to make them again (our mix-ins were raisins, mini dark chocolate chips, and Nature’s Path EnviroKidz Cereal Koala Cocoa Crisp Organic Cereal).

2.  Experiment with different flours.  If you see “flour” in your recipe, you should not have to feel limited to white flour.  Whole wheat flour, brown rice flour, barley flour, millet flour, spelt flour, rye flour and oat flour (make your own by processing whole rolled oats in your cuisinart) all add interesting subtle flavors.  Other more exotic flours include teff flour and amaranth flour.  Some bakers feel that you can substitute only up to half of the white flour with other flours without dramatically changing the results, but I often substitute all of it.  Some of my favorite substitutions are:

– rye flour for pancakes

– oat flour for cookies (creates a moist cookie)

– millet and brown rice flour are low allergenic and do not have a strong flavor .  They can be a little dry, so mix with moist ingredients like applesauce or nut butter.

Recipe:  Orange Current Tea Cookies

3.  Include nuts for great nutrition. Assuming that you have no nut allergy issues in your family, nuts are great for you. Great things can be done with nuts in baking beyond just adding whole nuts to baking mixes.  My favorite nut is the almond. 90 percent of the fats in almonds are unsaturated, and the nuts are high in protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E, and other antioxidants. Almonds help prevent osteoporosis and they regulate blood pressure. What I do with almonds in baking:

-substitute some almond flour (ground almond meal) for regular flour in recipes

-make pie crusts (made from almond flour they are especially delicious)

-add almond butter to cookie or bar recipes (substitute a little regular butter)

Even though almonds are my favorite, I don’t mean to take away from all the other good nuts like cashews, pecans, pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts.  All of the above can be done with any kind of nuts.  To make nut flour, you can grind nuts yourself or buy prepackaged nut flour.  Nut butters can be made yourself in a cuisinart, or you can buy them in jars. (For those of you that are wondering about peanuts;  technically they are not nuts;  they are legumes).

Recipe: Honey Almond Cookies

You can make these in no time at all, and depending on how you change the ratio of butter to nuts to honey, they come out different every time. More butter and honey makes it taste more and more like toffee! More nuts and it becomes more firm; and you can sprinkle it over fruit and bake it like a crumble.

4. Add/ hide vegetables in the mix. We’ve all heard of carrot cakes and pumpkin pies, but please don’t stop there when it comes to adding vegetables to your baking.  My favorite vegetable to bake with is winter squash.  This includes acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin.  I wash them, cut them in half, and bake them in the oven in a little water (cover with foil to trap the steam) and then scrape out the pulp to add to all kinds of things.  A favorite in our house is the squash cookie, see recipe below.

Recipe: Winter Squash Cookies

Don’t tell your kids what is in them until they try them.  Both my kids liked these, especially Alexander.  They are very moist, so moist that if you freeze them, they become soggy.

5.  Avoid food colors. On this topic, I am simply going to relay to you what Dr. Andrew Weil reports in his source boon on food additives (1):

FD&C (food, drug and cosmetic) Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow)  – This has been shown to cause allergic reactions like hives, rhinitis (runny nose), and nasal congestion.  It appeared to cause tumors of the kidney and adrenal glands in rats, and it may be carcinogenic.  FDA reviewed studies on rats and believes that this color is safe to use.  This color is banned in Norway and Sweden.

FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue)
– It has not been properly tested and (is) suspected to contain a small cancer risk.  It is banned in Finland and France.

FD&C Blue No. 2
(Indigotine/Indigo-carmine)- Not much is know if this additive, although it was suspected to cause brain tumors in animals.  It can cause allergic reactions.  This is banned in Norway.

So what do you do?  At this point, I simply avoid food colors.  I am going to be researching natural food colorings derived from annatto, beets, chlorella, caramel, carotene and carrots. To decorate cakes and frosted cookies, I use Let’s Do Sprinkelz natural dessert toppings.

Just compare the difference in the ingredients from “regular” sprinkles to this natural brand:

Betty Crocker Decorating Decors Rainbow Mix . INGREDIENTS: Sugar, Partially-Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Cottonseed, Soybean), Corn Starch, Wheat Starch, Cocoa, Cocoa Processed With Alkali, Soy Lecithin, Confectioner’s Glaze, Dextrin, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 1 Lake, Artificial Flavor & Carnauba Wax.

Let’s Do Sprinkelz. INGREDIENTS: Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Organic Corn Malt Syrup, Water, Natural Colors *Our natural colors are extracts of seeds, vegetables or fruit.

Recipe: Julia’s Cashew Sprinkle Cookies

6. Be watchful of bad ingredients you may not be aware of. Did you know that aluminum is found in many brands of baking powders?  I quote Dr. Weil again (2):  “Aluminum has no place in human nutrition and may be harmful to us.”  Here are the ingredients on a can of Clabber Girl Baking Powder.  INGREDIENTS: Corn Starch, Bicarbonate Of Soda, Sodium Aluminum Sulfate, Acid Phosphate of Calcium.  Another brand I checked, Calumet, also contains aluminum.  Be sure to read the label of your baking powders and buy on that does not list aluminum.

Recipe: Sesame Cookies

These cookies contain tofu (which has protein, calcium and isoflavones), but don’t tell anyone!  I think the tofu makes them moist and hold together well.  The sesame seeds are high in calcium and fiber.  They are delicious warm from the oven.

7. Avoid trans fats (cake/ brownie mixes, prepared dough, shortening). Next month you will receive an awesome newsletter written by our guest author, Cindy Dooley, all about trans fat.  What I will tell you today is, AVOID IT.  If you see “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” or “fractionated” do not feed this product to your family.  As for holiday baking, you will need to be careful of packaged pie crusts and frostings and avoid/ modify any recipes that call for mainstream cake /brownie mixes—these often contain trans fat.

Here are the ingredients for Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe Cake Mix Devils Food. INGREDIENTS: Sugar, Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin [A B Vitamin], Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid), Cocoa, (Processed With Alkali), Vegetable Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Dextrose, Leavening (Baking Soda, Dicalcium Phosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate), Contains 2% Or Less Of: Artificial Flavors, Cellulose Gum, Modified Cornstarch, Polyglycerol Esters, Propylene Glycol Monoesters, Salt, Wheat Starch, & Xanthan Gum.

Recipe: Almond Cookies

These cookies also contain tofu (which has protein, calcium and isoflavones), but, again, don’t tell anyone!  I think the tofu makes them moist and hold together well.  My kids liked the gluten and sugar free version of these cookies, especially when I put a dark chocolate covered almond right in the middle for decoration.

8. Make healthy replacements. Here are a few more ideas on how to make-over a favorite recipe:

Replace Try these substitutes
Eggs (if you have an egg allergy) One egg = 2 T ground flax seeds plus 2 T water
One egg = one small banana
One egg = ¼ cup mashed pumpkin or squash
Fats and Oils Replace ½ the fat/ oil in a recipe with applesauce or fruit puree.
White Sugar You can substitute white sugar for brown sugar or raw/ turbinado sugar, but you will get more nutritional value from these other sugar substitutes:
1 cup sugar = ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon honey (reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons and add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acidity)
1 cup sugar = 1 1/3 cups molasses (reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 5 tablespoons and add ½ teaspoon aluminum-free baking soda for each cup of molasses used; Replace up to half the sugar called for in a recipe with molasses)
1 cup sugar = 1 1/3 cup barley malt
1 cup sugar = 1/3 – 2/3 cup agave nectar (reduce liquids in recipe by ¼ to 1/3 cup)
1 cup sugar = 1 cup brown rice syrup (reduce liquids in recipe about ¼ cup)
1 cup sugar = ¾ cup maple syrup (add ¼ t aluminum-free baking soda and reduce liquids in recipe by 2 T)
1 cup sugar = ¾ cup
fruit juice concentrates, such as apple juice concentrate, orange juice concentrate, or white grape juice concentrate (decrease the amount of liquid by 3 T)
is a naturally sweet herb that has been used for hundreds of years in South America.  We will have a future newsletter dedicated to the background and use of stevia.
For more on sugar replacement, see tips 9 and 10.

Recipe. Julia’s Banana Rocks

This is an easy drop cookie with no flour or eggs or sugar. The only sweetener in it is mashed bananas, but a drizzle of honey over the top of the cookies once they’re out of the oven really makes them delicious.  Seve (Julia’s son) liked these and declared them “good” with his mouth full.  (He’s a man of few words when he’s eating).

9. Use fruits to sweeten or act as a binder. Vitamin rich fruit sauces and purees bind dry ingredients together and are naturally sweet. Use them to replace ½ the fat and some or all of the sugar in your experiments.

Recipe: Spicy Chocolate Chip Cakes

These drop cookies come out like little shiny cakes. They are tender and lightly spiced. Seve (Julia’s son) declared them “excellent” with a thumbs up when he tasted one. There are two sweeteners in the recipe: concentrated apple juice and semi-sweet chocolate chips.

10. Reduce sugar.  Besides following the tips outlined in #8  and #9 above, try cutting your recipe’s sugar amount by a third or in half.  You may be able to reduce the amount of sugar slowly over time, and your kids might not even know the difference!  Give it a try!  You can do this with all your favorite recipes.

Recipe: Julia’s Almond Butter Cranberry Cookies

When Julia first invented this recipe, she included 1 cup of sugar.  When experimenting with cutting the sugar down to 2/3 cups, she hardly missed it.



(1)     Eating Well for Optimal Health.  Dr. Andrew Weil.  pp-193-194.

(2)     Natural Health, Natural Medicine.  Dr. Andrew Weil.  pp-55-56.

Disclaimer: This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.

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