My husband and I were only about a month into our marriage when we realized that growing up with a non-baking mother versus a baking one makes for very different expectations about the holidays. For my husband, special holiday specific desserts were normal. Cherry pie for Washington’s birthday and a Lincoln log for Lincoln’s. Coconut cake for Easter and a mint torte and cookies for Christmas. And a variety of different pies for Thanksgiving! It quickly became clear that I had married over my head when it came to holiday treats!
Fortunately, we were able to reach a compromise: I bake two of the four handed-down-from-the-Civil War-cookies and a mint torte for Christmas, only two pies for Thanksgiving – apple and pumpkin – and a coconut cake only when my husband’s parents’ are here for Easter. The rest of the holidays fend for themselves!
Over the years, though, I’ve come to really appreciate the tradition of making holiday cookies with the children. Never having done it myself as a child, I was surprised by the joy and eagerness with which my children looked forward to baking them every single year. Our own new family traditions have evolved around the cookie making, and now Christmas wouldn’t seem like Christmas without them.
So you can imagine the pressure when I developed food allergies to flour and butter, the two key ingredients in our cookies, and had to also reduce my use of sugar due to hypoglycemic reactions. Suddenly, the allergies weren’t just disrupting what I could eat, but they were affecting my family’s tradition and expectations for the holidays.
Fortunately, accommodating food restrictions and/or allergies is quite easily doable within the realm of cookies. Below, I’ll share some learned experiences for making substitutions in any type of cookie, plus some tips specific to making holiday rolled, cut-out cookies.
Substituting Ingredients in Cookies:
1. Swapping the white flour in the recipe for whole wheat or gluten free flour: Match your flour to your cookie type. 100% whole wheat and heavier gluten free flours like garbanzo bean, coconut or almond are fine for heartier cookies like ginger, biscotti, and shortbread.
If, however, you are making a lighter cookie like a spritz, linzer or snowballs, you should use white whole wheat or for a gluten free flour, rice flour or sorghum.
For both types, though, if you’re making them gluten free, a mixture of flours is better than simply using just one type. Authentic Food, Bob’s Red Mill, and King Arthur sell blended flour mixtures which you can easily substitute for regular flour. Just remember to add 1/4 tsp of xanthan gum per cup of gluten free flour if you’re using a mixture that doesn’t already include it.
2. Swapping out the butter or shortening: When it comes to the fat in a cookie, you need to consider the taste. For cookies like sugar cookies, where keeping the buttery taste is important, you may want to use a vegan “butter”.
For a cookie that calls for melted butter, you can often substitute a heart healthy oil like safflower or grapeseed or Smart Balance without changing the taste.
Where the taste won’t conflict, like with an oatmeal cookie, coconut oil, which is actually a solid, not a liquid as the name implies, is a good substitute.
With all cookies, if you’re simply trying to cut down on the fat, you can also simply reduce the amount of butter up to half without usually affecting the cookie’s taste and quality.
3. Swapping out refined sugars: You can always use Agave, Stevia, or Coconut sugar in place of sugar in any cookie recipe. For every cup of sugar use about half of any of these substitutes. If you use the Agave and it’s simply a couple of tablespoons to 1/4 cup, don’t worry about it being a liquid. If you’re using a cup or more, though, decrease any other liquid by at least 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup or increase a flour ingredient by 1/4 to 1/2 cup.
For molasses, you can use date molasses in the equivalent amount.
4. Swapping out milk products (milk, yogurt, cream cheese, etc….): If you simply want to have a lower fat cookie, use low fat, reduced sodium varieties of any milk product.
For food allergies, use soy, coconut, almond, and rice varieties of “milk” in equivalent amounts.
You can also simply use water or a 100% fruit juice in place of milk.
If a bar cookie recipe calls for sweetened condensed milk, make your own dairy free sweetened condensed milk. This recipe only works for bar cookies that are going to be baked: Beat 2 eggs until thick. Add 1 cup brown sugar and mix well. Add 1 tsp vanilla and mix well. Add 2 tbsp of a flour and beat for one minute. Add 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1/4 tsp salt. Beat for another minute. Set aside until you need to add it to your recipe. This is equivalent to one 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk.
Vanilla soy milk is a good substitute for evaporated milk.
5. Substituting for eggs: If you simply want to cut your cholesterol, using egg whites in place of whole eggs works well in cookie recipes. Just use two egg whites for every whole egg or 1/4 cup liquid egg whites.
To substitute for the eggs completely, mix 1 tbsp ground flaxseed meal with 3 tbsp water for every egg needed in the recipe. Simply mix up the meal with the water and let it sit for at least five minutes to thicken to an egglike consistency.
You can also use pureed fruit or vegetables as a binder in place of eggs. Use 1/4 cup for every egg needed in the cookie recipe. Cooked and pureed apples, figs, pumpkin, squash, prunes all work really well in cookie recipes.
6. Replacing nuts and peanuts: If you’re making a cookie which usually uses peanut butter and you’re not allergic to tree nuts, there are a variety of nut butters you can use instead.
If you are allergic to tree nuts as well, there are soy butters and sunflower butters.
If you’re making a recipe that usually calls for nuts in the batter as a filler, just replace the nuts with chocolate chips or chopped dried apricots or cranberries or dates.
If you’re making a cookie that uses peanuts or nuts to give the cookie a certain “nutty” texture, using rolled whole oats will give the cookie a similar texture. You can also use a gluten free flour mix that uses garbanzo bean flour, because the “beany” taste is similar to a “peanutty” taste.
Tips for Making Rolled, Cut-out Cookies
1. Use wax paper to roll out the dough. Simply cut a sheet that overlaps around a large cutting board or piece of cardboard and tape it down. Then when you sprinkle your flour over the wax paper, your dough won’t stick to the board.
2. Use sifter to put flour onto your cutting board and rolling pin. If you sprinkle it on with your fingers, you’re more likely to clump the flour in places which then get stuck to your cookie dough.
3. Use a long, thin metal spatula to periodically release your dough from the board while you’re rolling it, and before you use your cookie cutters, be sure to go completely under the entire rolled out piece of dough so that your cookies won’t stick to the board when you’re cutting the shapes.
4. Invest in some smaller cookie shapes which you can use to cut little cookies from the dough left after you cut out the big cookie shapes. This cuts down on the amount of dough you need to re-roll. Put one cookie sheet aside specifically for the little cookies, which you fill up as you go along and then bake at the end.
5. Make sure your dough for rolling is very cold and firm. Most recipes will tell you to chill for an hour, but in reality you’re better off planning ahead and chilling your dough for several hours or overnight. When you’re making the cookies, be sure to put the dough back into the fridge in between scooping out new dough to roll.
6. Put all your re-roll dough into a small bowl which you then put into the freezer while you’re finishing up the regular dough. This will make the dough firm enough for you to re-roll immediately as opposed to having to wait for it to firm back up again.
7. Make your own colored sugars. Put 1/4 cup of sugar into a bowl and add two to four drops of food coloring. Carefully work the color into the sugar, using the back of a spoon to continualy “spread” the color completely into the sugar. You can store extra, leftover sugar in a sandwich baggie for a very long time!
8. Use parchment paper to line your cookie sheets. Your cookies will never stick. You won’t have to clean the cookie sheets. And you won’t have to worry about cross-contamination of your cookies. I usually use the If You Care brand. The parchment sheets can also be re-used over and over again on one cookie sheet.
9. Be sure to completely cool your cookie sheets before putting new cookie dough shapes onto them. I usually pop my cookie sheets into the freezer for a minute or two after removing the cookies. Works like a charm.
10. Invest in metal cookie cutters which you can use year after year. When you’re cutting out the shapes, put a pan of flour in the center which you can dip the cutters into so the cutters won’t stick to your dough.
11. When you’re done with your cookie cutters, fill the sink with hot, soapy water and just let them sit for a while. You’ll be able to simply rinse them off without having to try to “clean” the crevices. Then pop them (as long as they’re metal) onto one of your cookie sheets and place the cookie sheet in the oven which is turned off and cooling down. The residual heat will evaporate all the water, and your cutters will be sterilized and ready for next year’s use.
Gluten and Dairy Free Holiday Cut-out Ginger Cookies
These make a lot of cookies, so you may want to cut it in thirds.
2 cups melted coconut oil (You can use regular butter, vegan butter, or a heart healthy oil if you prefer)
2 cups date molasses (You can use regular molasses if you prefer)
1 cup coconut sugar (You can use regular white or brown sugar or Stevia or Agave instead)
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp baking soda
4 tsp vanilla soy milk (You can use another type of milk like rice or coconut or use sweetened condensed milk instead)
6 to 8 cups Gluten Free Flour Blend or sorghum flour (You can use any gluten free blend you prefer, or the straight sorghum, or 100% whole wheat flour — you’ll need just enough flour to make a soft dough)
Baking Instructions: (The dough needs to chill overnight so make the dough up the night before you want to bake the cookies.)
1. Mix the coconut oil with the date molasses, coconut sugar, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, baking soda, and milk.
2. Add in the gluten free flour, a cup at a time, only as much as you need to make a soft dough. Blend well.
3. Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and chill overnight, or at least for several hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
5. Line a board with wax paper. Sprinkle the board and a rolling pin with flour of your choice, and roll out small amounts of dough to a very thin thickness – thin enough to make a crispy cookie but not so thin that you can’t actually move the cut out dough to the cookie sheet.
6. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and place on the prepared cookie sheets. The cookies will not spread a lot so you can put them fairly close together.
7. Decorate the cookies with colored sugar and/or currants. (You can also just bake the cookies and then decorate them with icing when they’re cooled.)
8. Bake in the preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Start with 8 minutes and then go up by 1 minute increments. The cookies should be browned but not burnt and slightly puffed.
9. Move the cookies to a wire cooling rack and cool them completely. Once cooled, they’ll be nice and crispy ginger cookies. If you eat them while they’re warm, they’ll be chewier.
10. When the cookie are completely cooled, store them in a tightly covered container. They’ll last for a few weeks, though after a couple of weeks, they’ll get a bit softer.