Monday, December 27, 2010

The Holidays- You can make your sweets and eat them too!

Yes, it's true. If you eat only whole grains and very little sugar like me, you can still enjoy some treats during the holidays. My cookie tray this year consisted of both my family's favorites and variations that are healthier yet still delicious.

My first challenge was to come up with a cookie that was similar to the date filled cookies that my father's family has made for years. The dough has an anise flavoring and the filling is dates, raisins, orange juice and some kind of alcohol, usually whiskey. They are rolled into logs, sliced and baked and then drizzled with a sugar icing. They are my husband's absolute favorite. However, this would be Tim's first year without these little morsels, as he has been eating the way I do since last March and has lost well over 70 lbs. The man deserved his favorite cookies during the holidays! But he is committed to this way of eating now, and insisted he would live through it.

So my challenge, as I said, was to come up with something with similar flavors but using whole grain flour and natural sugars. As usual, I found a recipe that I could start with and then modify to make it work for me. The original recipe came from cd kitchen online and was called Anise-Scented Fig And Date Swirls. A few changes, and it became a delicious cookie that will now be on my cookie tray every year. In fact, they were gone way too quickly, so next year I will need to make a double batch. On Christmas Eve, my mother was getting together a plate of cookies to take to her neighbors and when my father saw her doing this, he removed each of the fig and date swirtls one at a time and put them back on his own tray. "You aren't giving THESE to the neighbors," he said, which is quite a compliment since it is my dad who makes the traditional date filled cookies that inspired these every year.

Another addition to my cookie tray is dark chocolate bark. This is about the easiest and most versatile sweet you can make for the holidays. Just melt a package of 60% chocolate chips in the microwave, pour the melted chocolate onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and top with anything your heart desires! I topped half of mine with pecans, cinnamon, and dried cranberries and the other half with macadamia nuts, natural coconut, and sea salt. Just press the toppings down a bit and let it dry for about an hour and a half or so. If it doesn't harden up nicely for you, stick the cookie sheet in the freezer for a short time. When hardened, break it all up into random pieces. How easy (and delicious) is that?

The last healthy treat on my tray was honey bunches. I've made and shared these little nuggets many times and I am constantly asked for the recipe. I can't take credit for these- they come from Just get yourself on that site and have a ball. There are some great recipes there. The honey bunches are little mini muffins of pecan-coconut-honey goodness! Other than substituting agave nectar for the honey and raw sugar for the brown sugar, I make these exactly as written. These are certain crowd pleasers!

And one more recipe I must share with you- a blueberry coconut macadamia nut muffin that is totally healthy and you would never know it! We had these on Christmas morning and they are very special. The original recipe came from Eating Well Magazine but of course I've made my own modifications.

So as you can see, it is true what they say- you CAN have your cake and eat it too (and cookies, and candy, and muffins, etc.) during the holidays and beyond!

Maria's Fig & Date Pinwheels
Dough: Wisk together 1 ¾ cup plus 1 T whole wheat pastry flour, 1 T ground anise seed, ¼ tsp. each baking soda, salt, baking powder. In mixer, beat 2 sticks unsalted butter, 4 oz. cream cheese, ¼ cup agave nectar. Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 large egg yolk. Beat until creamy. Add flour mixture gradually. Shape into a disk and refrigerate at least an hour.
Filling: In food processor combine 1 pkg Mission figs, 1 cup dates, juice and grated rind of 1 orange, ¼ cup wine or whiskey, 2 T water, ¼ cup agave nectar. Process until smooth. If not getting a smooth consistency, can be cooked on the stove until it is spreadable. Add ½ chopped pecans.
Roll dough out to a 13 by 10 inch rectangle about 1/3 inch thick. Spread filling evenly over dough. Roll up, jelly roll fashion. Roll entire roll in raw (turbinado) sugar. Refrigerate overnight. When ready to bake, Cut roll into 1/3 inch thick slices. Bake at 350 degrees on lightly buttered cookie sheets.
Cream cheese icing: Beat together 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 1/4 cup agave nectar and 1 tsp. vanilla. Add water or milk if necessary. Drizzle over cooled cookies.

Blueberry Coconut Macadamia Nut Muffins
1/4 cup natural coconut
2 tablespoons plus 13/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour, divided
2 tablespoons natural brown sugar
5 tablespoons chopped macadamia nuts, divided
2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup agave nectar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
3/4 cup nonfat buttermilk (or 3/4 cup whole milk plus 2 tsp lemon juice)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon coconut or vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries


Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray or line with paper liners.
Combine coconut, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 2 tablespoons macadamia nuts in a small bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil; stir to combine. Set aside.
Whisk the remaining flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Whisk the agave nectar, the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, egg, egg white, buttermilk, butter and coconut (or vanilla) extract in a medium bowl until well combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients; stir until just combined. Add blueberries and the remaining 3 tablespoons nuts; stir just to combine (I toss the blueberries in some whole wheat pastry flour first so they don't burst in the oven). Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle with the reserved coconut topping and gently press into the batter.
Bake the muffins until golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and let cool on a wire rack at least 5 minutes more before serving.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Gift of Food

It is my niece and goddaughter Jamie's first Christmas as a mom. And to say that she has embraced motherhood is an understatement. Her little nugget Claire is obviously thriving from the love and attention she receives. I love to watch them together, their bond so perfect and sweet. I must confess that I watched her pull into my driveway the other night and stood there in the window as she gently unhooked Claire's car seat, talking and smiling at her the whole time. She was late arriving to our house, yet Claire never would have sensed it, as her mother's primary focus was not on the mad rush of the holidays. It was, as always, on HER. I'm some years away from being a grandmother myself, but this has to be similar to how it feels when you watch your own children as parents. Pure joy and pride.

On Thanksgiving, a few of us were having a conversation about cooking, and Jamie expressed that she doesn't do much cooking in her small kitchen. As a working mother, she would rather spend time playing with Claire than in the kitchen preparing a meal. Claire's dad Jason will often barbeque or one of them will bring something home that is easy to throw together. So that's where the gift of food idea was born! Tim and I decided to do some make-ahead dinners that we could freeze and give to Jamie and her family for Christmas. We decided to give them to her early so it would make this hectic time a little easier for them.

Our idea took on a second life and when we were finished we had: Italian meatloaf, turkey chili, turkey soup, penne and meatballs, beef stew, and chicken noodle casserole- all in freezable containers, some that could go right in the oven. The card included the names of the dishes and the cooking directions for each. What a fun project!

I'm including here the recipes for Italian meatloaf (which is Michael Chiarello's) and the chicken noodle casserole (which is based on a recipe from an old family friend). I highly recommend the meatloaf as it tastes like a giant meatball and is the only meatloaf my family wants to eat. I've passed this recipe along before and it is much loved. My friend Stacey triples the recipe when she makes it and freezes two.

Here is the link for the meatloaf:

Mrs. Shaw's Crockpot Chicken (modified)
(can be mixed with noodles and baked in the oven as a casserole)
6-8 chicken breast halves
salt and pepper
Italian seasoning (or a mix of Italian dried herbs)
1/2 cup sherry or Marsala
1 can cream of chicken soup
6 oz. cream cheese
1 Tablespoon minced onion
Place chicken in crockpot. Brush with butter, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning. Mix thoroughly. Cover crockpot. Cook on low 5-6 hours. About 3/4 hour before serving, mix soup, cream cheese, onion and sherry together in pan. Cook until smooth. Pour over chicken in crockpot. Cover and cook 30 minutes more. Break chicken up with a spoon or fork until shredded. Serve over noodles or rice
*We serve this over brown rice but for Jamie's family mixed it with egg noodles for a casserole.