Thanksgiving tends to be all about the food! And by food, I mean the major stuff, side dishes and turkey, The Dinner. Sometimes appetizers might make an appearance but it’s all about the big stuff. This Thanksgiving was a bit different for us and you can read about what I learned this year here.
Christmas and the other “winter” holidays tend to be about the baked goods and candy. Yes we all still have big special dinners but that is not the big focus. It’s the sweets! There are cookie swaps and gift baskets given out to friends and family. People bake for days or weeks during the holidays. I sure did. I made a bunch of stuff this year! And some of it stayed put because I ended up not wanting to share! :p
This year, I took this baking season by the horns and challenged it head on. I don’t like things that are overly sweet. I like things that at least are half made with whole grains. I don’t think baked goods require cups of sugar, sticks of butter, and half a dozen eggs in order to taste good. I also think great baked goods do not and should not come from a box.
I stomped my foot and threw on my apron determined to make healthier baked goods and candies this year. Here are a few things I learned during my healthier baking challenge.
I found that using Whole Wheat Pastry flour works a little bit better than regular whole wheat flour. It’s a finer ground and for things like cookies, is less grainy and more palatable. Handy to know if you are presenting it to someone who might snub their nose at whole wheat anything. You know those people, if it’s healthy it must taste like crap. I proved that wrong with using whole wheat pastry flour.
For me the best combo was mixing whole wheat pastry flour with unbleached white flour. It just seemed to mix a little easier for me and provided a fluffier baked good. Straight up whole wheat pastry flour, while finer, can still result in a pretty dense cookie or dough. Whole wheat can also be touchy and easily over worked. Over worked dough can turn hard and chewy fast. Blending the two flours cut down on that a great deal.
I also discovered that whole wheat pastry flour (and whole wheat flour) tends to soak up liquids a lot more, so I had to increase the liquids or add in liquid to the recipes. Not a big deal at all and more liquid didn’t affect the result any. I added the liquid slowly and in small amounts until I got the consistency I was looking for.
While I did find that I had to use a bit more sugar than I would have liked, I did not have to use cups of sugar. When a recipe calls for cups of sugar, I instantly cringe. I understand it’s special and a treat but do we really need cups of sugar for one recipe? The answer is no, not at all. It takes a lot less sugar to make cookies and treats tasty and sweet, I can promise you.
Organic cane sugar tastes a heck of a lot better than regular white sugar. It works just as well in recipes and because it tastes better, I didn’t need to use as much sugar in the recipe.
Maple syrup for baking is a god send. This was a new experience for me this year and I started using more maple syrup in recipes when I got into vegan baking (more on that in another post). My first impression and the reason I avoided using it before was because I assumed it was going to make whatever I made taste like maple. I love maple but that doesn’t mean I want chocolate chips cookies to taste like maple. What I found is that maple syrup sweetens and that’s it. It doesn’t really give things a maple flavor. It is totally unnoticeable in baked goods and because it’s a liquid it combines well when mixed. It also helps add in moisture while also sweetening. Score!
My biggest challenge this year was to find a sub for shortening and butter. I don’t mind using butter because in my opinion butter is a real food. It’s made of milk, the ingredient list is pretty basic. Butter subs tend to have an ingredient list as long as my arm and that makes me nervous. It’s hard for me to accept that as a better option verses a smidge of real butter. That said, while I don’t mind butter, I don’t feel there is any need for sticks of it in baked goods. Honestly, why do I have to use 2-3 sticks of butter for some cookies? Yikes!
Shortening of course is just right out, I’m not using it. Do not even ask me. During my quest to find substitutions, I bought some vegan shortening because the ingredient list for that wasn’t horrible and was something like only four items. Compared to the butter sub list, it was a lot more acceptable to me. However I couldn’t bring myself to use it. I cut it open and it looked and smelled like wax. Okay, nope sorry. I tried though, so that counts. I can’t buy into the philosophy that something resembling and smelling like candle wax is going to be healthier for me.
For a butter and shortening sub, I turned to something that I bought a little bit ago but didn’t explore too much yet. Coconut oil. Organic virgin unrefined coconut oil. Say that five times fast. Why did I choose coconut oil? Because at room temperature, it’s a solid white oil. It looks similar to shortening actually but it’s easily spreadable in that solid state. It spreads and “creams” as well as room temperature butter. I made the sign of the wooden spoon, said a short prayer to the baking gods and used coconut oil instead of shortening in the dough of the Polish Nutrolls I made this year.
Making nutrolls is a labor of love because everything is made from scratch, including the dough. The dough is a dense and sweet. Typically made with all purpose flour, lots of sugar, milk, and shortening. Damn tasty and damn hard on the bod. I changed the nutrolls up completely this year but my best discovery was using the coconut oil!
It worked really well and I only needed a few tablespoons as opposed to a cup of shortening. It blends and bakes well. It also doesn’t leave the baked good tasting like a coconut. Coconut oil has a surprisingly mellow flavor and unless you want it to be the focus, it will hang out in the background unnoticed.
I’m not sure how well of a sub it would be in place of butter, I still have some experimenting to do on that front. But it makes a great sub for shortening and I will be turning to coconut oil from now on.
I used soymilk in place of regular milk this year. I used vanilla soymilk because everything I was making happened to be sweet things. Vanilla soymilk provided extra vanilla flavor along with some extra sugar, thus helping me to keep my added sugar amounts down. It worked just as well as regular milk.
I used egg whites instead of whole eggs when needed. I did find that because the yolk was missing, I had to add in one more egg white to get the balance right. For example, if the recipe called for 2 eggs, I used three egg whites.
I did use yolks for the nutrolls, only as a wash to help them get nice and brown while baking. As Guy Fieri likes to say, “Egg yolk is the suntan lotion for baking.” He’s right. Perhaps next year I’ll see if I can find a sub for that but this year I didn’t want to take on too much.
Whew that was a long post! I’m pleased to report that this year’s baked goods were a success and all of my modifications worked perfectly. I now have more experience, another notch on my apron strings and am totally ready for next year. Bring it!
Did you do anything different with your holiday baking this year? Let’s discuss!