December can be a diet disaster, with cookies, eggnog, latkes and homemade fudge seeming to take up every flat surface in many homes and offices.
For many of us, the holidays mean happy times in the kitchen making treats for family and friends, but while we’re spreading holiday cheer, we might be sowing the seeds of post-holiday regrets.
Lighter versions of everyone’s favorite cookies and candy can be a good compromise, keeping the “from the heart” specialness of a home-baked gift without the “on the hips” aftermath.
While some desserts defy makeovers, healthy-eating
experts such as Weight Watchers and Lisa Lillien, known to millions of nutrition-savvy readers and viewers as Hungry Girl, have lightened many of the classics.
Lillien’s fudge gets its dense chocolate substance from brownie mix but substitutes pumpkin purée for the butter and marshmallow crème at the core of many fudge recipes. Hungry Girl fudge began as a year-round basic, and Lillien later devised the Christmas version, which combines the tastes of perennially popular fudge with a layer of one of the season’s signature sweets, peppermint bark.
The best versions of lightened-up Christmas treats still have the sumptuous ingredients that make them such a welcome gift. They still use butter and real sugar, just not in overwhelming amounts. Some desserts can be trimmed of half their calories without a noticeable difference in taste or texture.
Making lighter gift goodies isn’t just for the recipient — it’s better for the baker, too. All that sampling to adjust the taste to perfection and the quality-control task of eating the cookies that are lopsided or broken adds up during the course of a few sessions in the kitchen.
When the nutritional stats can’t be cut, the package size can be. According to Weight Watchers, sometimes the biggest improvement to a gift of cookies or candy is simply to give less of it. A big box of treats may mean weeks of temptation, and a much smaller package of the same goodies may be even more appreciated than a big one.
Bakers accustomed to gifting a big platter of cookies may find that editing down their usual gift to a dozen or fewer will still convey their warm holiday wishes without overloading the recipient’s will power.
If giving smaller plates of cookies or candy just makes the baker feel like Scrooge, the transition step is to pair a smaller amount of edible treats with something else, like an ornament or a box of tea or coffee.
Not all holiday cookies need to be trimmed. Meringue cookies, also known as overnight cookies or forget-me-nots, are already nonfat treats. Their base of egg whites and sugar can be varied with cocoa, fruit peel or crushed candy canes. The add-ins increase the calorie count a bit, but most meringue cookies weigh in at under 30 calories each.
The cocoa version has only 11 calories per cookie and keeps well in a gift tin. Helping friends and family make healthier nutritional choices may be one of the best gifts of all.
- 2⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1⁄3 cup animal cracker crumbs or vanilla wafer crumbs
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine, melted
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg whites
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 1⁄2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 4 lemons)
Place the oven rack in the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Line an 8-inch square baking pan with heavy-duty foil, extending 2 inches beyond the sides. This creates a handle so the bars can be easily lifted out of the pan. Spray the bottom and sides of the foil with nonstick spray.
Stir together 2⁄3 cup of flour, the animal cracker or vanilla wafer crumbs, 2 tablespoons sugar and the butter in a medium bowl until mixture is the consistency of wet sand.
Pat the mixture evenly into the pan to form a crust. Bake until firm, about 12 minutes.
Whisk together 1 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of flour in a medium bowl. Add the eggs, egg whites, lemon zest and lemon juice.
Pour the filling over the hot crust, return to oven and bake until golden and set in the center, about 30 minutes.
Cool completely on a rack. Lift out the bars, holding on to the foil ends, and place on a cutting board.
Cut the bars into 2-inch squares.
NUTRITIONAL INFO: 119 calories each
SOURCE: Recipe from “The Weight Watchers 50th Anniversary Cookbook”
Peppermint Bark Fudge
- 1 18.3-ounce box fudge brownie mix
- 2 cups canned pumpkin — not pumpkin pie filling
- 3 tablespoons white chocolate chips, roughly chopped
- 1 candy cane or 5 mini-canes, lightly crushed
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking pan with nonstick spray.
In a large bowl, mix the brownie mix with pumpkin until completely smooth and uniform. The batter will be thick. Spread the mixture into the baking pan, smoothing top.
Bake until edges are slightly firm and top center is dry to the touch, about 35 minutes.
Sprinkle with chopped chocolate chips and crushed candy cane. Using a spatula, press down on toppings to help them adhere.
Let the fudge cool. Cover the pan with foil and refrigerate until completely chilled, at least 2 hours.
Cut into 11⁄2-inch squares.
NUTRITIONAL INFO: 67 calories each
SOURCE: Recipe from “Hungry Girl to the Max,” by Lisa Lillien
Chocolate Meringue Cookies
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 6 egg whites, room temperature
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Line nonstick baking sheets with parchment paper or use the Silpat sheets to prevent the cookies from sticking.
In a small bowl, combine the 1/4 cup cocoa and sugar together; set aside.
In a large bowl using your electric mixer, beat the egg whites until foamy.
While beating, add the salt, cream of tartar and vanilla extract.
Add the cocoa/sugar mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time until the egg whites are stiff and glossy.
Drop batter by tablespoonfuls onto nonstick baking sheets.
In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1 teaspoon of cocoa and cinnamon.
Using a sieve or a sifter, sprinkle the mixture over the non-baked cookies.
Bake 90 minutes; turn off the oven, open the door slightly (secure with a wooden spoon), and allow cookies to cool in the oven.
Remove the cookies from the oven and store in a tightly covered, airtight container.
NUTRITIONAL INFO: 11 calories each
(SOURCE: Recipe adapted from Bittersweet, by Alice Medrich)