Once upon a time there was a girl who had a heartfelt desire to share her cooking adventures with anyone who might be interested. She had suffered a health wake-up call once in her past that had sparked a reawakening of her life-long interest in nutrition, and so began the ongoing (and thoroughly enjoyable) journey to better health, through better eating. Now, over the years, this girl began tweaking recipes, trying to come up with healthy alternatives to 'regular' recipes, adding whole wheat flour here, taking out butter there, but she was never willing to sacrifice flavor in the name of sanctimonious deprivation because she knew there were no 'bad' foods, just bad amounts. She read and read and read about nutrition, the Mediterranean way of eating, and whatever current nutrition information she could get her hands on. So, after years of cranking out a few losers and even more ("thank goodness" her family says) winners in the 'healthified' recipe department, said girl decided to share what she had learned over the years, and started a blog.
OK, enough of this third person stuff!
I feel very strongly that food needs to be, first, delicious, and then secondly healthy (or healthier), in that order. It is all about the balance, don't you think? If we eat things only because they are good for us, and if friends and family run the other way when you smilingly offer up a plate of something, what's the point, really? Hence, an uncomplicated yet tasty cookie recipe to provide something simple yet special to tuck into your kids' lunches, as an afternoon snack with a cuppa', or just to share with friends, family or neighbors, for no reason at all, except to send some love their way via your hands, mixing bowl and cookie sheets. And, this post is a way for me to share some of my thoughts on how I cook and bake in what I feel is a healthier fashion...what I like to call stealthy healthy. You might have a different opinion or way of cooking healthy which you and your family like, which is great. These are, however, my thoughts on providing a balanced and joyful way of cooking (and eating) that have been tried and tested over the years. Sweet and simple, just like this cookie.
The first thing I do when I look at a recipe (often something baked) is to see what kind of flour substitutions I can make. I've had great success with switching out at least half of the all purpose flour called for in a traditional recipe with white whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour. I've also recently began experimenting with spelt and other flours like buckwheat and barley flour. The tastes are amazing, and it so nice to have some variety rather than boring same old same old. If you are new to using whole wheat flours, begin by only substituting half of the all purpose flour with whole wheat. And, you might prefer using whole wheat pastry flour as it is ground finer than traditional whole wheat. But, that being said, you might actually end up with something you like better by using the sturdier traditional whole wheat flour. Enjoy the experimentation, learn from your 'failures' and rejoice in your kitchen victories!
I also use whole wheat pasta, couscous and rice whenever possible. Tucking as much whole grain into your day is a tasty and healthy way to eat, and provides so much more energy. I think by now we all understand how eating too many white carbs usually leads to problems of some sort. I certainly don't have a carb phobia and actually feel that the no-carb diets can be dangerous, but I do try to use whole grain carbohydrates whenever I can and I do try to limit our consumption of white carbs (white flour, white sugar, including corn syrup, and white rice). Once I started eating more whole grains, I actually came to prefer the more complex flavors that they provide. The added fiber and nutrients are an added benefit as well. Some of my favorite whole grain cookbooks are The New Whole Grains Cookbook by Robin Asbell, Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce, and King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. These are great places to find wonderful recipe inspiration.
For this recipe, the original list of ingredients called for all purpose flour. By using a combination of all purpose, white whole wheat, and whole wheat pastry flour, the texture is preserved while sneaking in some subtle flavor boosts and healthy whole grains. I admit to getting some sort of twisted satisfaction out of sneaking a serving of whole grain goodness into the most unlikely of places, especially dessert! If my kids ask me to make 'those cookies' again, then I know I have succeeded and it warms my heart to know I've made something they love that is good for them too. They get the joy of the cookie while I get the joy of knowing I slipped some 'healthy' into their day. I gave up trying to force feed unpalatable cardboard posing as granola or cereal bars long ago (and besides my kids have nut issues), so I've taken matters into my own hands and given them a treat that I don't have to feel guilty about but can actually feel good about.
I experimented with sprinkling some left over demerara sugar on top of some of the cookies, but actually preferred the plain ones as the delicate flavor of the spices was the star, rather than the deep flavor of the demerara sugar, but both were delicious. Another way I try to make recipes healthier is by using agave syrup in place of some of the sugar as it provides a more powerful 'sweet' flavor, ounce for ounce, and it has a lower glycemic index so you get less of an insulin reaction from your body. I also usually am able to reduce the sugar quite a bit out of many recipes as I think many dessert recipes can be overwhelmingly sweet. When you use quality ingredients and complex flavor boosters, you just don't need as much sugar. Natural or turbinado sugar actually has fewer carbs than traditional white sugar, and it has a warmer, more interesting flavor.
The original recipe called for one-half cup of butter. Now, I'm not a butter phobe, and there are actually some nutrients and fats in butter that are good for you, in reasonable quantities. I know butter is a saturated fat, and I usually try to cut back where I can, but a little bit isn't going to kill you, and you simply can get away with only so much butter-slashing from your recipes before things start tasting decidedly 'off' and weird. So, again, getting back to one of my favorite words: balance. I substituted out half of the butter and used low fat plain yogurt instead. Believe me when I say that after having made these the first time as written without any substitutions, and having experimented a little bit with that luv'n spoonful touch many times over, the resulting texture of these cookies is amazing--a crunchy, crackly exterior surrounding a soft and chewy interior. What's not to love about subbing out half of the saturated fat if the end result is scrumptious?
I often use nut oils, olive oil, yogurt or nut butter in place of as much saturated fat as I can when I start tweaking a recipe. I think current research is pretty plain in showing that there are fats that are actually good for us (heart healthy Omega-3's), so just because something has oil or a little butter in it doesn't make it unhealthy. I will use Sophie Loren as Exhibit A--gorgeous curves, glowing skin, and shiny hair. And, guess what? She uses olive oil on a daily basis. Ever read The French Paradox? A great book that goes into detail about how the French stay healthy while still ingesting what many Americans would call a shocking amount of fat....all about balance, once again. Also, did you know that if you totally starve your body of fat, that it will try to compensate by making triglycerides, a particularly nasty kind of triglyceride? For more reading try Low Fat Lies High Fat Frauds and The Healthiest Diet in the World. Great reading if you are trying to adopt a healthier and happier way of eating. That is where I started, and it helped me lower my cholesterol 30 points in 14 weeks, all by eating better and exercising....and did I mention I was happier and had more energy, and lost a total of 20 pounds in the process?
I am also a fan of boosting flavors whenever I can, with the help of spices or nut oils, nuts and homemade fruit syrups...anything that naturally helps add a punch of flavor. I recently purchased some vanilla paste after reading about it on a few other food blogs. Always a sucker for anything spice related, I ordered it tout (de) suite, and have been so pleased with the results. You can use it in the same quantities that you would vanilla extract, but it is a little more complex and also provides those nice little flecks of vanilla like you get when you scrape a pod (something I'm not sure I'd want to sacrifice while making simple, everyday cookies). I also added some cinnamon and a little bit of ground coriander to this cookie dough, which wasn't in the original recipe. More and more research is telling us that cinnamon and other spices including coriander and vanilla help even out our body's response to sugar, which is great. But I add them because I love the flavor. Food should be interesting and excite as many senses as possible, don't you think? When we eat something and are satisfied, then it makes it easier to stick to our health goals. When we constantly deprive ourselves of certain kinds of foods, then we are bound to fall off the wagon, usually with a rather large and painful thud (speaking from personal experience). I try to add a little something special to each and every recipe that I make, even if it just a couple small scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg or some freshly zested lemon. You might not be able to specifically identify the flavor, but it usually adds that little extra sumpin' sumpin', and heck, if it's good for you too, what's not to love?
So, if you've made it this far in my little Luv'n Spoonfuls 101, well done. I think you deserve something...like, say a little something soft and chewy, slightly sweet, with a hint of cinnamon, vanilla and some other spice you can't really put your finger on, but that tastes and smells so alluring. Yes, 'healthy' and 'cookie' can be said in the same sentence, and can definitely share the same plate space. I'm curious too...if you try to make things a little healthier for you and your family, what little tricks do you have up your sleeve, or on that spoonful? I'd love to know...
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup natural sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, just softened but still cool
1/4 cup plain low fat yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
2 large eggs (preferably free range organic)
4 tablespoons natural sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Sift all the dry ingredients (the flours, leaveners, salt and spices) over a piece of wax paper or into a large bowl.
Beat the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl at medium speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Add the yogurt and vanilla and mix well. Add the eggs, one by one, mixing well after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the bowl and paddle. On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture until there are no more dry lumps. The batter will be thick. Place the dough in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes until chilled, or have a plate or pie pan with flour handy to lightly flour your hands in before rolling the dough balls.
Mix together the cinnamon/sugar mixture in a small bowl and set aside.
Using a teaspoon, gently scoop out about a ping pong sized ball of dough and roll it into a ball with the palms of your hands, handling the dough as little as possible. Place the ball into the cinnamon/sugar mixture and press gently down, forming a thick disc, making sure to only get the mixture on one side and the edges of the dough ball/disc. Place the cookie, plain side down, on the parchment paper and very gently pat flat if necessary (see the photos above). Evenly space one dozen cookies per sheet. Repeat the process of dipping, flattening and placing on the cookie sheets until you have two dozen cookies on two cookie sheets or pan. Remember to handle the dough as little as possible and press very gently; this helps preserve the soft texture of the dough. Overhandling will result in a tougher cookie.
If desired, sprinkle with demerara sugar before baking, very gently pressing into each cookie. Place both cookie sheets in the oven. Bake for five minutes, then turn and rotate the pan positions, and bake another five minutes for a total of no more than 10 minutes baking time. Do not over bake; the cookies may look a little underdone in the center and in the cracks but this is alright. Remove the pans from the oven and cool for two minutes before removing the cookies to cooling racks to cool completely. Once cooled, store in an air-tight container. Makes approximately four and one-half dozen cookies.