Handling Holidays: Cookies

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Food Traditions.

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.


The American Love: The Chocolate Chip Cookie

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“But I want chocolate chip cookies!”

Growing up, my life was a collision of two worlds, even when it came to food.  On the one side was the traditional daily Korean fare of rice, fish and vegetables for all three meals.  On the other side was the American eating of the 1970’s – cheese in a can on Ritz crackers, Chef Boyardee, and Nestle Toll House cookies.

Even my non-baking, non-sweet eating Korean mother baked Nestle Toll House cookies on occasion.  It was what everyone did and still does.  Biting into a fresh from the oven chocolate chip cookie is high on the list as one of many people’s little joy’s in life. Chocolate chip cookies even became the state cookie of Massachusetts in 1997.

Go out to eat at a restaurant, and you’ll find chocolate chip cookies in some form worked into a dessert.  Go grocery shopping, and you’ll see 101 variations of the chocolate chip cookie with a handful of sugar cookies, macaroons, and oatmeal raisin cookies on the periphery.  Buy ice cream, and you’ll find the chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, and broken up chocolate chip cookies to use as a topping.  You can even purchase chocolate chip cookie scented candles, soaps, air fresheners, and hand sanitizers.

Americans have a love affair with chocolate chip cookies.  And when dietary restrictions or allergies limit your ability to have dairy, wheat, sugar, nuts, soy, and/or sugar and fats, you can suddenly find yourself living a life without one of your food loves.

The good news for most folks these days is that you can get just about any type of chocolate chip cookie you need:  fat free, sugar free, gluten free, dairy free, you name it, it’s out there.  Unfortunately, they don’t always quite “hit the spot” for whatever reason.  Many that I’ve tried just simply have a strange aftertaste that I can’t quite get over.  Others are too pasty or way too hard.  Sometimes it’s just not “right”, meaning it’s not what you expected out of your chocolate chip cookie.  And even when you do find a type that you like, sometimes you just want a homemade, fresh from the oven chocolate chip cookie.

Until very recently, I never tried making a chocolate chip cookie at home, though. Why be disappointed?  But the other day, my middle daughter said that she wanted to make cookies, and she wanted them to be chocolate chip.  What was a mother to do?  I bit the bullet and worked out a recipe for my daughter.  Because that’s what a good mommy does, right?

So, below is a recipe that my daughter and I concocted for chocolate chip cookies which are dairy free, soy free, nut/peanut free, gluten free, and made with a heart healthy fat and little refined sugar.  We decided we wanted them to be like the bigger, chunkier cookies you buy fresh from the bakery, and I have to tell you that the group we served them to the evening we baked couldn’t believe they had none of the above ingredients.  I hope you enjoy them, too.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies


3 1/2 cups gluten free whole grain oats (quick cooking or regular, either is fine)

2 cups gluten free flour blend (we used Bob Red Mill’s which was garbanzo bean flour and brown rice flour mixed)

1 cup coconut sugar (we used the Madhava brand found at the grocery store)

1/2 cup gluten free ground flaxseed meal

1/2 cup tapioca starch

1 tbsp xanthan gum

2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp sea salt

2 to 3 cups Enjoy Life allergen free mini chocolate chips*

1 1/2 cup safflower oil

3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/2 cup Agave

1 tbsp gluten free vanilla

Baking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and prepare your cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2.  Grind the oats in a food processor to make 3 cups of oatmeal flour.   Measure the 3 cups into a large bowl.

3.  Add the gluten free flour blend, coconut sugar, flaxseed meal, tapioca starch, xanthan gum, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.

4.  Stir in the mini chocolate chips.  Set aside.

5.  Blend together the oil, applesauce, agave and vanilla.

6.  Make a hole in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients.  Mix the batter until all ingredients are well mixed together.  (Note:  With gluten free batter, the chips will seem like they aren’t incorporating well.  When you form the cookies, you can just use your fingers to make sure the chips are in the dough.)

7.  To form the cookies, take two level tablespoons of cookie batter and roll them with clean hands into balls.  Place them on a cookie sheet with enough space to flatten the cookie with a fork in a crisscross pattern.

8.  When your cookie sheet is full, bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 8 minutes.  Turn the cookie sheet around and bake for another 8 minutes.  The cookies will be nicely browned.

9.  Cool on the cookie sheet for at least two minutes before moving the cookies to a wire cooling rack.  Cool completely.

10.  Enjoy!  Makes 36 large cookies.  You can always choose to make one tablespoon sized cookies, but you should then reduce the cooking time by a couple of minutes or so.  (Note:  We discovered that these were absolutely great for making a homemade nondairy frozen dessert “ice cream” and chocolate chip cookie sandwich!)

*My son likes a “more cookie to chips” ratio, so 2 cups of chocolate chips is good for his batter, but my daughters prefer a “more chips to cookie” ratio, so they put 3 cups in their batter.

Sugar-Coated: Substituting for Sugar

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“Zer,zer, zer, erk, I’m out of gas.”

My son stopped directly in front of me, his arms extended, a big smile on his face. This was my cue to give him a big hug – the “gas” he needed to continue with his playing.  At eight, though, he actually requires very little “gas” to make him go.  His energy is unbounded, and I very often wish I could bottle it and put it aside for those days when my own energy levels are low.

Unfortunately for many of us, long days and too much on our plates lend themselves too easily to being sapped of our “get up and go” just when we need it the most.  And it’s in those moments when we’re most likely to reach for that five letter word – sugar.  Most of us know enough these days to avoid the Snickers bar for our “quick pick me up”, but the abundance of “healthy” power bars on the market belies just how bad even those are for you.

The dangers of sugar

My husband is a history teacher, and he tells me that the new colonists were quick to realize the benefits of growing the four most addictive crops at the time:  tobacco, sugar, coffee, and chocolate.   When we think about refined sugar, we think about its taste and the quick burst of energy it provides us.  We don’t often think about the fact that sugar,  in many ways, is a poison that our bodies react to unfavorably.  It provides nothing our bodies need, and in fact, it depletes our bodies of necessary nutrients as our bodies work to eliminate the refined sugar from our systems.  Studies link refined sugar to the rise in diabetes, the increase in heart attacks, and even to thyroid problems.

What sugar does

In baked goods, though, sugar is priceless.  It controls the temperature of our ingredients for timely baking; it causes fermentation so our desserts can rise properly; it helps with the “browning” necessary for tasty baked goods; it absorbs liquid to keep our cakes moist; and it even breaks up gluten to yield those tender, flaky desserts we crave.  To think of replacing sugar with something else can seem almost like a sin to many people, and I know folks who won’t even try a dessert made without sugar, because they’re convinced  the dessert simply can’t be as good.

I can tell you, though, that cooking without sugar is not as difficult as it seems, and the desserts are definitely worth trying.

Replacing sugar with fruit

There are many, many different substitutes on the market which people can try, but I confess that I prefer to use one of three options:  Ripe, sweet fruit or vegetables; Agave; and Truvia (Stevia).  Whenever possible, it really is best to simply use fruit.  With fruit, you can get all of the nutrients and fiber that your body needs, along with the sweetness derived naturally.  When baking, simply replace half of the sugar called for with a fruit puree of your choice.  Milder purees like applesauce work well in just about anything.  Pureed bananas, peaches, mangos, prunes, pumpkin, figs, etc… work well in recipes which require stronger or similar flavors.

Replacing sugar with Agave or Honey or Truvia

If you want to eliminate the sugar altogether from a recipe, though, I like to use Agave or Honey or Truvia.  Don’t be fooled, though – simply because they’re less refined than sugar does not make them absolutely better.  What they do have going for them, though, is that you can use substantially less of them than sugar, reducing how much “sugar” you’re putting into your body.  For most recipes replacing the total amount of sugar with half the quantity of Agave or Honey or Truvia is a good place to begin.  For many recipes, you may even find that you can reduce by even more, depending on how sweet your sweet tooth is.

Tips for Agave or Honey

Here are the tips you need:  Because Agave or Honey is liquid, you need to make sure you’ve balanced your wet to dry ratio.  For baked goods like cakes and breads which use a lot of sugar, two options work best:  Either increase your flour amount by ½ cup or decrease your liquids by ½ cup.  If you’re making something like muffins or pancakes, though, where the sugar amounts are actually quite small, you don’t need to make any adjustments at all.

Tips for Truvia

Working with Truvia is a little bit trickier.  Most folks like to simply use the stevia/sugar blends because you can just substitute a one to one ratio for the full sugar, which reduces how much sugar you’re putting into your baked product.  If you want to completely eliminate the sugar, though, you can use half the amount of Truvia as the sugar called for, but you’ll need to increase your dry ingredients (usually the flour amount) to compensate for the missing sugar.  This isn’t necessarily a straight ratio, though.  Usually, you’ll only need to replace about half of the missing sugar to compensate.

A trick I like to use:  Use identical bowls of the same shape and size, one for your dry ingredients, and one for your wet.  If you’re making cakes or cupcakes, you’ll find that the two amounts will normally match in depth and amount.  If you’re making muffins, cookies, or breads, the dry ingredients will usually be slightly more than the wet.  After you’ve experimented a few times, you’ll become quite adept at “eyeballing” and knowing whether you need to add or subtract from one bowl or the other before mixing them together.

If you’re cooking with Agave or Truvia or Honey, it’s always best to start with a small amount and add as necessary.  For example, my children like their Brussels sprouts to have a little sweetness to them.  Simply adding half a teaspoon of Agave to an herbed olive oil marinade is more than enough to satisfy them.  The mantra to remember is:  Less is best.

Replacing sugar with Coconut Sugar

On the market these days is coconut sugar which has a low glycemic index because it’s from coconuts. What’s nice about coconut sugar, if you’re not allergic to it, is that it works the same as brown sugar in a recipe so you can simply substitute one for one. I often will decrease the amount because I don’t like things overly sweet but you can experiment and see what taste preferences you have.

Chocolate Cranberry Cookies


10 oz Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips (or another type if you prefer)

1/2 cup Agave

2 cups 100% whole wheat flour or favorite gluten free flour blend

6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp coarse salt

1 cup soy free vegan butter, at room temperature (or another type if you want)

1/3 cup Truvia 

4 eggs, at room temperature or egg white equivalent or fruit puree equivalent 

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup chopped Craisins (if you have a food processor, use it to chop the craisins; you can also just add them as is but the cookie will be “chunkier”)

1 cup Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips (or another type if you prefer)

Baking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare your cookie pans.  (I would use “If You Care” parchment paper, but you can Pam spray or coat the pans with oil or butter.)

2.  Melt the mini chips with the Agave over a pan of simmering water.  (I put a small pan of water on the burner and place a large pan with a handle on top with the chocolate in it.  Works well.)  Set aside.

3.  Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

4.  Beat the “butter’ until light and fluffy (if you have a mixer, use it).  Slowly add in the Truvia, mixing well an using a rubber spatula to scrape the sides as necessary.  Add the eggs, one at a time (or whites or puree) and blend well.

5.  Slowly add the melted chocolate and vanilla, scraping the sides with a rubber spatula as necessary.

6.  Add the flour mixture, and mix just until the dry ingredients are moist.  Fold in the chocolate chips and craisins.

7.  Drop the cookie dough by 1/4 cupfuls, leaving about 2 inches of space in between.  Bake for about 15 minutes, rotating your cookie sheet halfway through.  The edges will be slightly dry and the tops cracked a little.

8.  Cool for a couple of minutes on the sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.