Healthy Cookies

<strong>Make your favorite holiday cookies healthier.</strong><br>istockphoto.com

We owe Ruth Wakefield. Big time. Legend has it in the early 1930s, Wakefield, then owner of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, was baking a batch of her popular chocolate cookies. When she ran out of cocoa, she decided to use broken pieces of chocolate instead. And America's favorite cookie was born.

Unfortunately those melt-in-your-mouth goodies aren't often good for your heart or hips. By the time you mix in the butter, sugar, chocolate and white flour, the calories have added up faster than snowflakes in a blizzard.

But don't despair. With the help of Marjorie Livingston, a dietitian and assistant professor with The Culinary Institute of America, and Alina Eisenhauer, a pastry chef and owner of Sturbridge Baking Company in Massachusetts, we've given a few traditional cookies a makeover, cutting fat--not taste. Here's how to indulge without the bulge.

Cookie Makeover

Most cookies contain similar nutritional bad guys. Follow these tips to replace the gut-busters with healthy substitutes.

Butter 

As a significant source of saturated fat, butter should be reduced in cookie recipes. The best way to do this, says Livingston, is to replace half the butter with equal amounts of nutrient-rich pureed fruit such as applesauce, apple butter, prunes, apricots or pears. "A bonus is that you have a cookie with more soluble fiber, which can reduce cholesterol levels," she says.

To make your own fruit puree, cut one cup of dried fruit, add to one cup of water and cook over medium-low heat until the fruit is soft. Then puree the fruit in a food processor until smooth. "Baby food fruit works well too," says Eisenhauer.

Low-fat plain yogurt holds moisture and can be a suitable fat substitute, as can grated vegetables such as carrots, beets or zucchini. But remember: "Keep at least 25 to 50 percent of the fat such as butter or margarine for flavor, volume and texture," says Livingston.

Sugar 

Devoid of nutrients, sugar is a big nutritional dud. Livingston says you can cut the sugar in most traditional recipes by one third without a noticeable effect. And the fruit you use to sack the fat adds desirable sweetness. "Consider using turbinado sugar instead of granulated sugar. It's less processed with no chemical bleaching," says Livingston.

Egg

To further slash fat, two egg whites can be used for every one egg. But Livingston recommends using at least one whole egg so the dough binds better and the cookies hold their form.

Flour

"Although you will end up with a heavier cookie, you can replace half the white flour with whole wheat flour," says Livingston. Also, "try subbing a quarter of the total flour with ground flaxseed. Doing this will boost fiber and heart-healthy omega-3 levels." Healthy oats can also replace a fourth of the flour, but be sure to use the quick-cooking or old-fashioned versions. Instant oats tend to make the batter sticky. Keep in mind, tweaking a cookie recipe can be hit-or-miss at first. "If you try a recipe and it doesn't work, give it a shot again with different combinations," says Eisenhauer.

Chocolate

If cookies could speak, they would say, "Chocolate chips, you complete me." But consider cutting the amount of these fat-loaded treats, and opt for lower-sugar dark chocolate. "(Dark) chips have more flavonoids, which can reduce blood pressure levels," says Livingston. Borrow from Ruth Wakefield and swap a tablespoon or two of lower-fat cocoa powder with chocolate chips, and you'll end up with richly flavored chocolate/chocolate chip cookies.

Salt

Skip it. Cookies don't require salt, says Livingston.

Add-ons

Don't be shy, toss in some cargo with nutritional guts. Walnuts, macadamia nuts and pecans work superbly in all sorts of cookies and impart good-for-you fat along with a host of vitamins and minerals. Why not add a dollop or two of your favorite nut butter? Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg add calorie-free gusto. "Mix in dried cranberries and you end up with a cookie that is more antioxidant-rich," recommends Livingston. Raisins, dried blueberries or cherries also add flavor, texture and nutritional zing.

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