By Kathy Cunningham

It’s the time that everyone is starting to prepare holiday cookies, cakes, and other great treats, but how can you bake in a healthier way?

I think it’s often easier to figure out ways to decrease fat or sugar in many dishes – like using less oil in your pasta or substituting fat-free or reduced-fat dairy items for their full-fat counterparts. But baking is different!

Not to fear, through some trial and error on my own, and helpful tips from others, I have a few tips that yield wonderful cookies and cakes – with the same flavor and texture but less fat and sugar – that will not derail your healthy habits around the holidays.

Tip 1: Make treats more heart-healthy.

First, steer clear of ingredients that contain partially hydrogenated oil (or Trans fats), such as margarine and most vegetable shortenings. If you are using butter in recipes, try butter blends (made with half butter and half canola or olive oil). This will slightly reduce the saturated fat in your cookies or cakes.

You can replace “stick forms” of fats (like margarine or butter) with oil: For every tablespoon of butter you replace with heart-healthy oil, you eliminate at least 5 grams of saturated fat from your batch of cookies. (A batch of 2 dozen cookies made with 1 cup butter has almost 5 grams saturated fat per cookie.)

Keep in mind that when you reduce the butter in a recipe you may lose some of its tenderizing and moisture-retaining properties. Cookies that use some oil in place of butter may be a bit crisper and may dry out sooner, so try using pureed fruit to reduce the fat, as well. (And to help preserve the best cookie texture, be sure to store extra cookies in an airtight container!)

To replace fats with pureed fruit or vegetables: In place of some butter, margarine, or shortening, try substituting unsweetened applesauce, pear butter, prune puree, or even pureed pumpkin.

Using a fruit or vegetable fat-replacer will give you a chewier, softer texture, so it works well in bread, cakes, and cookies that are naturally soft, such as oatmeal cookies or ginger molasses cookies. Just like replacing some of the butter with oil, it’s best to start with a small amount and experiment. Depending on the recipe you may be successful replacing as much as half the butter with a fruit- or vegetable-based fat-replacer.

Try these chocolate chip cookies or this Walnut Chai Tea Loaf.

Tip 2: Add fiber to your cookies.

HowStuffWorks.com suggest replacing some (or all) of the all-purpose flour in a recipe with whole-wheat flour, whole-wheat pastry flour, and/or oats. Using whole-wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour will give your cookies about four times the amount of fiber in every batch. For softer-textured cookies, or if you are still getting used to the taste and texture of whole-wheat, try using whole-wheat pastry flour or mild-flavored white whole-wheat flour in place of about half of the all-purpose flour—you’ll still get the added benefit of extra fiber without the “wheaty” flavor.

Or try replacing 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the all-purpose flour with whole rolled oats, or oats that have been ground into “flour.” Ground flaxseeds or flaxmeal can help add fiber to baked goods.

Here’s a great sugar cookie recipe.

Tip 3: Use less sugar in baking.

It’s okay to use sugar in moderation, but use it wisely. It’s best to incorporate sugars that contain some nutritional value. Natural sugars – those naturally a part of food, such as fructose in fruit or lactose in milk – give you carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

So try cutting back on the amount of granulated sugar in your recipes and adding sweetness by using dried fruits, such as plums, raisins, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, and cranberries. Cutting the fruit into very small pieces helps distribute the flavors and sweetness more evenly.

When it comes to baking, however, that “non-nutritious” granulated sugar plays an important role. Not only does it provide flavor, but it affects volume, moisture, texture, and color as well.

When you bake, substituting other ingredients for sugar can change the appearance, texture, and flavor of the final product. I have found that by reducing granulated sugar in small amounts (1/4 of the amount indicated in the recipe), you can create successful results without the full amount of sugar called for.

The cooking properties of sugar substitutes are different than those of sugar, so substitutes work best in recipes where sugar is used primarily for sweetening – not for texture or volume. To get the most natural-tasting sweetness from non granular sugar substitutes, use them on cold items – over fruits and cereals, in lemonade and iced tea – or after removing a cooked item from the heat. Prolonged cooking at high heat can destroy some sweetness and produce an unpleasant aftertaste. For other baking, try a granular sugar substitute such as Splenda when baking your favorite recipes.

Sugar cookies are a staple of any holiday baking. Below is a foolproof recipe that anyone can use to make a delightful, low-fat sugar cookie (with a sugar-free option).

Low Fat Sugar Cookies from “Baking Tips” November 2007 – HowStuffWorks.com.

Ingredients:

2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder 1/4 tsp salt
5 tbsp butter/ canola or olive blend
3/4 cup sugar or Splenda
1/4 cup Egg Beaters or other fat-free egg substitute
1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions:

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in medium-sized mixing bowl and set aside. In large bowl or electric mixer, beat together butter and sugar (or Splenda) until creamy. Add egg substitute and vanilla extract and stir well. Gradually add flour mixture, stirring constantly, until combined, but still somewhat crumbly. Divide dough in half, wrap each half in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to chill for at least 1 1/2 hours.

Lightly flour clean surface and roll cookies to 1/8-1/4 thickness.

Cut into shapes and bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 9-10 minutes.

For Variations in flavor, reduce the vanilla to ½ tsp and for:

Orange Sugar Cookies: add 1 tsp orange extract plus ½ Tbsp freshly grated orange rind.
Almond Sugar Cookies: add 1 tsp almond extract plus 2 Tbsp ground almonds.
Lemon Sugar Cookies: Add 1 tsp fresh lemon juice and ½ tsp lemon zest.

For Thumbprint Cookies, roll dough into small balls, make a slight indentation with a thumb, and place a spoonful of no-sugar-added fruit preserves in the indentation.

Check out other suggestions for healthier holiday cookies from Cooking Light.

For those who need gluten and dairy free baking, here’s a website for great recipes the whole family can enjoy.

Last but not least, brownies are always a crowd pleaser for any occasion! Here’s an amazingly moist and delicious black bean brownie. When cooled and cut, sprinkle with powdered for the perfect holiday appeal.

So start baking and enjoy the holidays with one healthier bite at a time!

Kathy Cunningham is a registered dietitian at the Boston Public Health Commission.

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