Monday, February 15, 2010

Healthy Hearts


I love cookies. I really do. Especially sugar cookie cutouts, with all the different cookie cutters and colorful frosting, they are just so festive! We always make them for Christmas, and then I try to make them every few months for other things--so far I've made maize and blue block "M" cutout cookies for football weekends, pumpkins for Halloween, and I always like to make hearts for Valentine's Day. Earlier this month, I was having lunch at Panera Bread and I decided to try one of their adorable pink frosted shortbread heart shaped cookies. Just out of curiosity, I decided to check Panera's website for the nutrition facts of that cookie and I was surprised to find out that just one little cookie is a whopping 380 calories! Now not that there's anything wrong with having one occasionally, but in the spirit of the healthful lifestyle Cam and I are trying to pursue this year, I decided that I wanted to try to make a healthier version of the cutout...here are the changes I made and why:
  • Organic whole wheat pastry flour instead of enriched all-purpose flour: Grains contain 3 parts--the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. When white flour is produced, the bran and the germ are stripped away, removing much of the grain's fiber and nutrients, which is why I chose to use whole wheat pastry flour for the cookies. Whole wheat pastry flour is a little different than normal whole wheat flour because that is made from hard wheat, while the whole wheat pastry flour is made from soft wheat, making it a little lighter, perfect for cookies and pastries. The substitution of the whole wheat flour for enriched white flour gives the cookies more protein, fiber, as well as nutrients like selenium, potassium, and magnesium.
  • Organic natural cane sugar instead of granulated white sugar: Most white sugar that Americans use comes from beets, and has been completely processed and stripped, turning the plant material into pure sucrose. In addition, cane sugar crops that are not grown organically require a lot of pesticides and are extremely harmful for the Earth. The good news is that there is a wide array of natural sweeteners available that are both better for the environment and provide more complex flavors, as white sugar is fairly one-dimensional. For these cookies, I used a organic natural cane sugar that was a little more processed then say a turbinado sugar, aka it was lighter in color, but it seemed to work out perfectly for these cookies.
  • Coconut oil instead of butter: This swap probably had the biggest impact on the finished product...hear me out, I don't think that butter is bad for you, organic butter is very delicious and so much better for you than margarine and many other hydrogenated oils. However, I had heard that coconut oil had a great deal of health benefits, and it's naturally warm, sweet essence lends itself to baking, which is why I chose to use it in these cookies. At room temperature, coconut oil isn't a liquid like olive oil, instead it's a white solid with the consistency of shortening, another reason it's great for baking. When baking with coconut oil, you don't need as much as it has a lower water content than butter, so if you're swapping it in a recipe, you should reduce the amount of coconut oil you use by 25%. Using coconut oil imparts a definite coconut overtone to your finished product, but not so much so that it's overpowering, rather it will give your baked goods more of a warm sweetness. It's important to use unrefined coconut oil, as opposed to a processed, hydrogenated version. One of the greatest health benefits that coconut oil boasts over butter is that it has no cholesterol! In addition, it's very rich in lauric acid, which boosts both the immune system and brain function.
  • Agave nectar instead of corn syrup: For sugar cookie icings that I have made in the past, I have typically used corn syrup, however, Cameron and I are starting to try to eat a diet that is a natural as possible, meaning that the foods we consume are as close to their natural state as possible with minimal processing. When you look at corn syrup (which generally comes from genetically modified corn), the end result is a product that is vastly different from the crop from which it was derived. Corn syrup goes through extreme chemical processing, and we don't really know the effects of consuming the high amounts of corn syrup that we do in this country, as corn syrup is a main ingredient in a large majority of processed foods. Agave nectar, on the other hand, is a wonderful, natural sweeter. It's made from the leaves of the agave plant aka the plant used to make tequila! What's great is that it's very low on the glycemic index, meaning it doesn't cause your blood sugar to spike like regular sugar, so even diabetics can eat it. Also, it's actually 1 1/2 times sweeter than normal sugar, so you're definitely not sacrificing any of the sweetness you would want in a frosting.
In the end, the cookies were delicious, a huge hit over Valentine's Day weekend!! And the great thing is, each cookie only had 160 calories vs. the 380 cals per cookie at Panera, making them that much sweeter :)

***Part of my inspiration for baking these cookies, as well as the information for this post, came from a great book that my sister-in-law gave to me called Super Natural Cooking. Written by Heidi Swanson, the book encourages you to step outside your comfort zone when cooking and choose natural ingredients that you might not have tried before. It also explains the benefits of using ingredients that are as minimally processed as possible. Not only does using a wider variety of grains, sweeteners, fats, spices, fruits and veggies give you more health benefits, but it also makes your cooking much more interesting and flavorful. The book is beautifully done, and contains a lot of great information, so if you're looking to make some healthy changes in your pantry, this book is a great place to start!

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