Holiday baking doesn’t have to be a thing of the past for the health conscious, vegans, and those with other dietary concerns. As natural, organic, and plant-derived products become more mainstream, it’s getting easier and easier to cut down on undesirable ingredients without sacrificing flavor.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the evils of hydrogenated oils, refined sugars, and refined flours. It’s no secret that these ingredients aren’t going to help anyone achieve optimal health. But you can still have your cookies and eat them, too, even if you wish to abstain from these processed ingredients.
Some cookie recipes call for shortening. This can be a twofold problem, especially if you’re vegan. Some shortenings still contain animal ingredients, and most contain hydrogenated oils, which have been linked to high cholesterol and heart disease. However, a quick trip to the natural section of your local grocery can yield a non-hydrogenated shortening such as Spectrum. This shortening can be used anywhere you would use traditional shortening with the same results.
Organic alternatives to refined sugar are also available. Some people prefer to use agave nectar or maple syrup, but since these are liquids, they can’t be substituted cup-for-cup with table sugar and require experimentation when used as an alternative. For a quicker, easier replacement, unrefined organic cane sugars are available from brands like Wholesome Sweetener and Tropical Traditions.
If you wish to completely eliminate refined ingredients, consider substituting whole wheat pastry flour for traditional white flour. If you’ve used whole wheat flour in the past and gotten less-than-desirable results, don’t worry; whole wheat pastry flour is lighter and designed for baking. It can be substituted cup-for-cup wherever all-purpose flour is called for, and may even improve the texture of your baked goods.
Natural Food Coloring
It’s not necessary to resort to artificial means to achieve brightly-colored frostings or cookie dough. Plant-based natural coloring has been used throughout history to dye fibers, so why not Christmas cookies? Several natural food brands offer colorings derived from things like red cabbage and turmeric rather than chemicals, allowing you to color your food with food.
If these seem too expensive, consider making your own. Websites like eHow, WikiHow, and Mahalo offer tutorials and suggestions on how to get beautiful colors from common food ingredients. You might be surprised at how common and readily available these food-based colorings are! Berries, avocado, and even certain spices can all be used to color your Christmas goodies.
Many Christmas cookies, especially those that are rolled out and cut into shapes, contain a large amount of non-vegan ingredients. However, there are many easy ways to make substitutions.
When a recipe calls for butter, there’s Earth Balance non-hydrogenated, non-dairy margarine. Earth Balance comes in several varieties, including a stick form, soy-free spread, and spread made with olive oil. Many vegan bakers swear by the sticks, but any Earth Balance will do.
If your cookie recipe requires milk, there are multiple vegan options to choose from. Though soy milk is the most recognized non-dairy milk, you can also use almond milk, rice milk, or hemp milk. Each of these has a slightly different flavor and viscosity, and you may want to experiment to find which one you like best for baking.
Replacing eggs is also easier than it sounds. The quickest way is to use Ener-G Egg Replacer, available at specialty food stores. This mix of starches can be combined with water to replace eggs in most recipes. Ground flax seed is also a good egg replacement, especially in cookie recipes as it helps to lend a chewy texture.
Christmas Baking, Veganized
New vegans and seasoned vegans in a hurry may not have the resources or the time to sit down and veganize all their holiday favorites. Fortunately, there is a growing collection of vegan cookie recipes available in cookbooks and on the Internet. The popular vegan website VegWeb posts pertinent recipes in a dedicated holiday section for just about every special day throughout the year. Many user-submitted cookie recipes are also available.
Books like Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar and The Joy of Vegan Baking offer whole collections of delicious vegan baked goods ready and waiting to be whipped up for Christmas or any time. These recipes are also great for gift-giving. Friends and family won’t believe that such decadent treats can be vegan or healthier than traditional holiday baking.
So whether you’re vegan or just keeping an eye on your health, decorative and delicious Christmas cookies can still have a place on your plate this holiday season. Keep in mind that, although making mindful substitutions can cut down on harmful ingredients, calorie and fat content still need to be taken into consideration. As long as you view dessert as a treat, you can incorporate it into your healthy diet at Christmas or any time.