December has arrived. Just a few of the most stubborn leaves remain on their branches. The winter clothes have long been unpacked. The sun is setting hours before we are ready to say goodnight. In other words, it’s high time to get cozy.
In my house, most of the warmth-generating activities are happening in the kitchen. With the holiday season comes a permission to leave the stand mixer out permanently. For many, the holiday season and all its excess also usher in anxiety about weight gain around the holidays, and with good reason.
Here’s a fun fact: The human brain weighs about three pounds. Here’s a less-fun fact: That’s about as much sugar as the average American eats each week! I’m guessing that the sugar stats only increase around this time of year. Subsequently, we tend to gain weight between November and January. And chances are, we don’t lose those extra pounds.
There are actually many reasons to consider curtailing your sugar consumption. Sugar is a leading cause of chronic inflammation, which lies at the root of many chronic illnesses. Gluten, a protein in wheat that imbues flour with its mold-able stickiness, is included in many of the traditional holiday treats, but lots of folks are finding they feel better without it. For me, a fight with chronic Lyme disease was much improved once sugar and gluten were out of the picture.
While baking without these items seems daunting, it’s actually often easier to go entirely flour-free. That does not mean you can’t produce seductive desserts. You just have to re-think your approach. For me, extra fat is often the solution, as it translates to feeling happy and content after just a few bites.
Here are a few favorite holiday recipes that I have experimented with for this year’s celebrations. Overall, they are low in sugar, higher in fat and nutrients and (mostly) gluten-free. If you are hesitant to go down the healthier road for Christmas treats, I can assure you, these have been tested by both treat-loving adults and my own two kids, who both plan to be professional doughnut-eaters when they grow up.
Nutty pumpkin pie
This pumpkin pie filling gets a lot of its subtle sweetness and warm flavor from the pecan and date crust. The pie itself highlights pumpkin flavor in lieu of overwhelming sweetness. I choose to make a rich whipped cream with heavy cream and omit the extra sugar there altogether; you don’t need it!
- 1 16-ounce can organic pumpkin
- 2 fresh eggs from free-range chickens, plus one egg yolk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 4 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1/4 teaspoons fine-grain sea salt
- 1/2 cup medjool dates, pitted and chopped
- 1½ cups pecans
- 4 tablespoons grass-fed or high-quality butter, such as Kerrygold, melted
- 1⁄8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1⁄8 teaspoon fine sea salt
Whipped cream ingredients:
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
To prepare the crust:
Soak dates in boiling water for two minutes.
Pulse pecans in a food processor until fine.
Add dates, cinnamon, salt and melted butter.
Pulse again until the mixture is thoroughly combined.
Spread mixture in a pie plate that has been sprayed with nonstick spray.
Bake on a cookie sheet for approximately 12-15 minutes, until fragrant and browned.
To prepare the filling:
Beat the eggs for one minute and combine with remaining filling ingredients.
Pour the filling into the prepared crust.
Bake for approximately 40-45 minutes, being sure that the center has set. It can be checked with a light touch to the center or by using a cake tester.
To prepare the topping:
Whip the cream and extract by hand or with a stand mixer until soft peaks can be formed.
Chill and serve when the pie has cooled to desired temperature.
Matcha painted sugar cookies
This is a fun, low-mess cookie to make with and for kids. While we do use some confectioner’s sugar, it’s less than you will find in a typical sugar cookie. This recipe features einkorn flour that is made through a collaboration between Pawcatuck’s Jovial Foods and growers in Italy. Einkorn is an ancient, un-hybridized grain. In fact, it is the only wheat that has never been hybridized. The gluten in einkorn lacks the high molecular weight proteins that many people can’t digest, and it is rich in B vitamins. While baking with a higher-protein flour can be challenging, this dough should produce a buttery, crunchy bite. Matcha (the powdered green tea used for the food coloring) is jammed full of antioxidant power and produces a watercolor-like effect. Keep it on your pantry shelf for tea time; it has 17 times the antioxidants of blueberries!
- 8 tablespoons unsalted, grass-fed or high-quality butter, such as Kerrygold, softened
- Generous 1⁄3 cup confectioner’s sugar
- Grated peel of 1 small lemon
- 1 egg yolk
- 1½ cups all-purpose einkorn flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon powdered matcha
- 1 egg white
- 2 tablespoons sanding sugar
In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar and lemon rind together until pale and fluffy.
Beat in the egg yolk and vanilla.
Sift the flour and salt, add to the butter mixture in two batches.
Knead together and form a smooth ball.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes, covered in plastic.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Roll out half of the dough to 1/8-inch thick between two sheets of wax paper.
Cut cookies, adding excess dough back to the other half until you are ready to cut the remaining cookies.
Paint cookie shapes with egg/matcha mixture, refrigerate for five minutes, and bake for two minutes.
Sprinkle with a dusting of sugar and bake for 8-10 more minutes, until very lightly browned.
Cool on a wire rack.
Makes 16 cookies.
Choco-loco crunch squares
This dessert offers a union of nutritious food and overall deliciousness. My 4-year-old son, a connoisseur of chocolate who gets furious when known healthy ingredients tamper with his treats, gives this two big thumbs up. Pumpkin seeds, packed with zinc, help maintain optimal immune function. Coconut oil contains lauric acid (monolaurin), which is known to create a hostile environment for viruses, so it’s an especially great winter treat.
- 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
- 1⁄3 cup chia seeds
- 1⁄3 cup raw walnuts
- 1⁄3 cup raw cashews
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
- 1/2 cup coconut oil
- 1/4 cup raw cacao powder
- 1/4 cup raw honey
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 cup of shredded, unsweetened coconut
Chop the walnuts.
Add 2 cups boiling water and soak for one hour, or soak overnight in cold water with a squeeze of lemon. This will remove the bitterness and allow your body to absorb more nutrients.
Roast the nuts for 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees, stirring after five minutes.
Pulse all the seeds and nuts, plus cinnamon and salt, in a food processor.
In a small bowl, combine cacao, coconut oil and extract.
In a large bowl, combine nut mixture with oil mixture and shredded coconut.
Line the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking glass with parchment, spread the mixture and chill.
Chill, cut into 2-inch squares, and serve. Note that these are not stable at warm room temperature and should be stored in the fridge or freezer.
Makes 54 mini squares.
Chocolate peppermint truffles
Truffles are a classic and rich holiday goody. Made with cream and rolled in cacao, these are French in origin. I used food-grade peppermint essential oil, which is potent and can also be diffused, if you enjoy its energizing scent. Because peppermint oil is known to ease digestion, these make great after-dinner treats.
- 10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1/2 cup heavy cream or canned coconut cream
- 4 drops food-grade peppermint essential oil
- 3 tablespoons cacao powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Melt chocolate chips and coconut oil, stirring constantly.
In a separate pan, warm cream or coconut cream until near boil, add slowly to chocolate, stirring constantly.
Add essential oil and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Scoop out 1-inch balls of chocolate mixture and roll between cold hands.
Mix salt and cacao powder.
Roll truffles in cacao.
Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove 10 minutes before serving.
Store in refrigerator.
Makes approximately 30 truffles.
Apple cranberry chia gummy bites
If there’s anything that being a parent has taught me, it’s that if you call anything a gummy, kids will eat it. Actually, adults usually will, too. These gummies are actually a jazzed-up Knox Blox — a gelatin favorite from my own childhood. To make sour gummies, use cranberry and add honey to the hot juice, to taste. The chia adds a nice little crunch and are a rich source of Omega-3 antioxidants, to boot.
- 4 envelopes of Knox unflavored gelatin
- 4 cups apple cranberry juice
- generous 1⁄3 cup chia seeds
Boil one cup of juice.
Pour gelatin over remaining cool juice, and give it a little swirl.
Pour hot juice over softened gelatin.
Pour in a 9x11-inch glass pan.
Place in fridge and give it a quick stir with a whisk after 15 minutes.
Cool for 2 hours in the fridge.
Slice to desired size, remove with a large spatula, and serve.
Makes about 80 gummies, because some will inevitably break.