Sylvia Meo, R.D.
My Healthy Swaps and Add-Ins for Delicious and Nutritious Holiday (and Every Day) Baking
Updated: Jul 11, 2020
Whether it’s the trimming of the tree, sending out holiday cards, watching the animated Christmas classics that we religiously watched as kids, cooking a special meal meant only for that holiday, like the seven fish course we always had on Christmas Eve, or my mom’s amazing lamb that she serves only twice a year, on Christmas and Easter day, baking holiday cookies; we all have a holiday tradition we cherish and repeat every year. Not only are they specific to the holidays, but also immersed in tradition and customs passed down from generations to generations. In my case, besides the actual holiday meals I mentioned above, the trimming of the tree with my sister while listening to Christmas carols, as well as baking Christmas cookies with my mom and then going to grandma’s house (her mother) to help her bake hers, are some of my most cherished childhood memories. Not only are they specific to the holidays, but to our family and our Italian heritage. In fact, now that grandma is no longer with us, my mom still continues to bake some of the special Italian cookies which growing up were only made by our nonna. Each year as the December approaches, I look forward to my mom baking hers and nonna’s holiday cookies, and lately have been thinking about passing down these customs one day soon to my sweet Trinity, and maybe even starting a few of my own. I have yet to begin my own holiday traditions with my baby girl as she was too young until now, but I am definitely thinking about it a lot these days. She is finally at an age where she can take part in the experiences and has been in the kitchen with me since she was a little newborn, sitting at my feet in her little swinging chair that I would rock with one foot while I cooked. Today, she is still there by my side, although now she is standing in her toddler kitchen helper stool and cooking with me!
Food is such an important part of my life, I LOVE food and I LOVE to eat! My Italian heritage is also very important to me, but name me one Italian who doesn’t feel like I do…it’s like the love of food and being Italian is one, and simply an integrative part of who we are, our genetics! Nothing makes me more excited and proud than passing on both these passions to my daughter, and what better way than through teaching her how to cook and bake. What would the holiday season be without our traditional cookie selection for us to snack on or to end the meal on a sweet note with? I can’t imagine Trinity not having it be an important part of her holiday experience throughout her life. This holiday season I feel may just be the year I introduce her to our holiday baking tradition, and start passing down some of the customs that have been passed down from my grandparents, to my parents, to us and now to my sweet girl! Of course, knowing me, I may put a twist to certain recipes; revamp them a little with a boost of better-for-you ingredients, so that she can indulge a little and I can feel guilt-free and good about it! And because I love sharing all my "foodful” and nutritious tips and tricks, what better time than the holidays for me to share my healthy baking tips with you!
Rarely do we find a baking recipe that doesn’t call for flour, and usually white bleached flour is what we use. White flour, just like white sugar, is considered a refined, processed food. What that means is that it has been stripped down of its outer layer, the part where all the fiber, wheat germ and some nutritious vitamins and minerals are located (hence why “enriched” flour exists, synthetic vitamins and minerals have been added back to the flour). In other words, white flour is not a healthy, foodful choice; it is void of many nutrients and is much less satisfying.
When I started baking, some 35 years ago...this is where you can hear me sob a little, I remember always trying to replace at least a third to half of the recipe's suggested flour quantity with whole wheat flour. My flour swap has been one of the secrets behind my famous carrot cake which I have been making since I was maybe 14 years old. It was already a great recipe, but even back then I felt there was too much sugar and oil and that I could do something about the white flour it called for. And so instead of only using white flour I have been using a combination of white flour, whole wheat flour and oats ever since, and now the secret is officially out!!
In general, for a simple healthy boost, just swap 7/8 cup of whole wheat flour for each cup of white flour. Although, nowadays there are so many other nutritious and delicious flours out there! In fact, most whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.) can be ground into flour and used for baking, but they are not all interchangeable as their different characteristics may yield different baking results. Here are a few of my baking staples, all of which are also a good alternative if you are following a wheat-free or gluten-free lifestyle.
Almond Flour (almonds without the skin, blanched and ground) or almond meal (almonds with the skin and ground, the result is a coarser flour) is great for cookies, muffins and cakes. It is a highly nutritious choice, particularly high in vitamin E, magnesium, healthy fats and fiber, as well as a great source of protein. The natural fats from the almonds give baked good a moist and soft texture. You can use it to completely replace regular flour in most recipes, just keep in mind it will result in a denser and flatter (less volume) baked good. Simply replace one cup of white flour with one cup of almond flour or start slowly with ¼ almond flour plus ¾ whole wheat flour.
Corn Flour (less processed and more roughly ground than cornmeal, still contains the bran and germ) is great for making biscotti, muffins, biscuits and scones (or polenta!). It contains lots of fiber and a good amount of protein, it is antioxidant-rich and easy to digest. It also adds a touch of sweetness and texture to the recipe. I recommend mixing it with another flour or regular white flour instead of replacing it entirely.
Oats and Oat Flour is one of my all-time go-to grain for baking. I add it to cookies, cakes, muffins, pie crusts or fillings (to absorb the extra moisture and thicken it up nicely). It also contains antioxidants and adds extra fiber and chewiness to the recipe. It is a low or gluten-free flour depending on the brand you use and how it has been processed. It is also a grain that has been shown to help reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and heart disease risk, as well as help control blood sugar levels.
Quinoa Flour is another great flour for baking. Most of us think quinoa is a grain, but it is actually a seed. It is also a complete protein, so although you are eating a food that is typically considered a carbohydrate, you are getting valuable protein. It is loaded with fiber as well as a number of important minerals (iron, manganese, phosphorus, copper, calcium), and is high in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. You can replace 100% of the amount of flour in a cookie, cake or muffin recipe with quinoa flour, but it can have a strong flavor, so I would recommend to substitute at most half of the total amount of flour called for in a recipe.
Chickpea Flour may have more fat than regular flour, but it also has less calories and carbohydrates, and more protein. It is naturally dense and a great binder, which makes it ideal for baking or for dishes like veggie burgers or meatballs (think falafel). You can substitute 3/4 cup of chickpea flour for each cup of regular flour. You can easily make your own chickpea flour with dried chickpeas and a high powered blender and then sieve the resulting flour to remove any bigger pieces left behind. Easy and much cheaper than buying it! You can actually do this with most grains, nuts and legumes.
In general, I have always automatically cut the amount of sugar in a recipe, sometimes even by half, and honestly I can’t say it has ever really affected the taste or texture of the end product. If you are skeptical, start off by cutting down the sugar by a quarter cup at a time until you find what best works for your taste buds. It’s impossible to remove it entirely form a recipe because baking is a science and sugar plays an important role in the whole chemical process of baking, it stabilizes egg whites, gives your cakes, muffins, pie crusts and cookies a beautiful golden color, it keeps baked goods fresh longer, etc. Another thing to consider when it comes to sweeteners is to use less refined sugars like maple sugar, date sugar, coconut sugar or even raw honey or maple syrup when possible. These natural ingredients add sweetness to your recipes while boosting it with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, something that plain white or even brown sugar (which is essentially white sugar mixed with some molasses), organic or not, could never do!
Pureed Fruits: Besides cutting the amount of sugar called for in a recipe, you can easily replace up to half the amount of sugar you plan to add to your recipe with pureed fruit. You can basically use any pureed fruit, personally I often use pureed bananas or homemade apple or pear sauce. If the recipe also has some sort of liquid as an ingredient, because the fruit purees contain water and therefore will release moisture into the recipe, you should consider reducing the amount of liquid in the recipe by a quarter cup. With this swap, you have easily reduced the total amount of sugar in the recipe, made it more natural and less refined, plus added in extra fiber, vitamins, minerals and other good stuff! And as I mention below in the Fats section, you will also be able to bake with less fat than the recipe calls for. Raw dates are great blended up and used as a sweetener and binder in cookies and bars, plus they give off a nice caramel flavor. If that sounds like too much work for you and you’re always looking for an extra easy, yet healthy "foodful-approved" shortcut, Madame Labriski is a local company that simplified the task by making deliciously natural, no sugar added date purees ready to use, and besides offering plain date purees, they also come in vanilla, chocolate and caramel flavor!
Avocado: Did you know you can trade butter for avocado? I already use it to replace my butter or mayonnaise on toasts or in a sandwich, but it also works wonders in baked goods and it takes half the amount of butter that the recipe calls for. For every tablespoon of butter, swap in half a tablespoon of avocado. Not only does that mean less fat and calories, but you’ve just boosted the recipe with heart-healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber! Just keep in mind that although the texture of your final product won’t negatively be affected by this change, the avocado may impart a slight flavor, sweetness and perhaps even a change in color to your baked good. My advice would be to choose this healthy ingredient in recipes that contain cacao powder or chocolate, like brownies or chocolate frosting.
Coconut Oil: Substitute it one-for-one in recipes that call for shortening. Pies, chocolate candy (trufles, bark, peanut butter cups), chocolate frosting or chocolate cookie recipes work best with this swap just don’t forget it will add a coconut flavor to the final product, but it does marry incredibly well with chocolate.
Nut and Seed Butters: Another amazing and healthy ingredient is nut and seed butters, the creamy kind, they do an incredible job in replacing the butter or margarine in a recipe. Almond and peanut butters are particularly great for this, they have a naturally sweet flavor that compliments most baked good recipes, consequently you can also reduce the amount of the sweetener in the recipe! Tahini (ground sesame seeds) is another interesting choice, it can be added to cookies and cakes or used to make a healthy caramel sauce. The fat content may not change much with these swaps, but the quality of the fats are healthier and they are chock full of nutrients (magnesium, calcium, iron, protein, fiber, vitamins E, B, etc.). And please don’t buy the heavily processed kind that is full of hydrogenated fats, sugar and salt, stick to the natural kind in which all you are getting is the actual nut or seed and that’s it! If you choose the heavily processed ones you might as well not replace the butter in the recipe.
Applesauce: When a baking recipe calls for a liquid fat like oil, this substitution works much better than avocado or coconut oil. The substitution ratio is typically one-to-one, but you can also start experimenting with just half the fat and then tweak it more next time you make the recipe. This trick helps you not only remove much of the fat in the recipe, but adds moisture, a better flavor, fiber and lots of nutrients back into your baked goods, especially if you are making your own applesauce or even pear sauce. If not, then make sure to choose the organic and unsweetened kind. When I make banana bread, I use pureed ripe bananas instead of applesauce; so moist and it perfectly intensifies the banana flavor. Fig, date and prune purees also work incredibly well to replace oil, margarine or butter. And the great thing about fruit purees is that they kick up the fiber and nutrient content of the recipes, all while helping us reduce the sugar content. Fruit purees can all be substituted in equal parts for butter or margarine or oil.
Egg Whites, Flax or Chia Eggs: Each whole egg in a recipe adds an extra 5 grams of fat, and some recipes do ask for more than just 2 or 3 eggs, that’s 15 grams of fat right there. In those cases, I usually replace some of the whole eggs with just egg whites or “flax eggs”. Not only will you reduce the fat and calorie content in your recipe, but you will also increase its protein content and its fiber content when you use the flax or chia eggs. Give it a try! Use 2 egg whites instead of one whole egg or mix 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds (or flaxseed meal) or ground chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water and let it rest about 10 minutes or until the mixture thickens before adding it to the recipe. The flax or chia egg is also a great option for those of you who want to “veganize” your baking recipes!
Extra Nutritious Upgrades
Dark Chocolate: When a recipe calls for chocolate try to always use a darker chocolate with 70% or more cocoa content to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. The higher cocoa content also means it has a higher flavanol content, an antioxidant whose benefits are well documented and your gut’s good bacteria loves to feed off of. If your recipe calls for chocolate chips and you have a hard time finding them in 70% dark chocolate, just buy a bar instead and chop it up! I recently was introduced to a sweet yet wholesome treat made with 62% cocoa (pretty close) and various combinations of seeds, nuts and grains, the PRANA Organic Chocolate Barks. These also work really well in baking recipes and have more than one nutritious ingredient all-in-one dark chocolate product. Some even contain "superfoods" such as maca powder, matcha powder or chia seeds.
Nuts and Seeds: Chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, are all a great way to add crunch and texture to a recipe, but also to boost its nutritional value. Sure they contain fats, but these are heart-healthy fats and come along with extra protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. I've been using ground seeds daily for the past 15 years, chia seeds I have been adding in more regularly since I had a baby, nothing beats having a jar of chia seed pudding waiting for you in the fridge when baby ate all the leftovers for lunch and you're lef with nothing, but hemp seeds are a recent addition. I particulalry love the Canadian brand Planet Hemp superfood hemp hearts and their super-seeds, a blend of hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, the first and only of its kind on the market, that you can simply snack on or add to pretty much any recipe, cookies and cakes included!
Dried Fruits: Besides in puree form, you can also add fresh or dried fruits to your baked goods. Dried fruits such as raisins and cranberries, but also blueberries, tart cherries, apricots, goji berries, work particularly well for baking. They add natural sweetness, chew and color, and lots of other healthy extras! And when combined with dark chocolate, the fruits increase the health benefits associated with the flavanols in the chocolate. Need I say more? Just make sure to buy dried fruits that don’t contain any sulfur dioxide (sulfite free) or added sugars (or at most are naturally sweetened with the use of apple juice) like the organic additive free, sulfite free, gently sweetened mainly with apple juice cranberries, blueberries and fruit blends from Patience Fruits & Co another company from Quebec. PRANA also has a great selection of dried fruits that are organic, sulfite free and with no added sugars.
Grated or Pureed Vegetables: One of the best chocolate desserts my mom ever made, one which my sister and I, as well as my cousins, absolutely go nuts for, is her zucchini chocolate chunk cookies. Don’t worry I may actually share the recipe soon and I promise these will be your new go-to chocolate chip cookies. Essentially, she simply grates some zucchini and mixes it right into the batter. Try also adding one cup of grated zucchini to your favorite brownie recipe for an extra decadent and fudgy texture, without the extra guilt and full of added nutrients! I also recall her incredibly moist and chocolatey cake she used to make when we were kids that had pureed beets in them, she was making red velvet cake the natural way before the artificial kind became mainstream…I guess the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Thanks mom for inspiring my food journey from a very young age! Anyhow, we all know how amazingly popular and delicious carrot cake is, well adding in other vegetables to our baked good recipes should be a no brainer. So next time you have some roasted or steamed beets in your fridge, get pureeing and mix it with some dark chocolate and add this mixture to a cake, cupcake, muffin or even pancake recipe. They’re loaded with fiber, vitamin C, antioxidants and other amazing nutrients, plus they contain a lot of moisture and natural sweetness which means you can also dial down the sugar and the butter/oil in the recipe. Sweet potatoes are a vegetable I keep in my pantry all year round. I love to make them into my amazingly crispy “unfried” fries! But did you know that their creaminess and natural sweetness makes them a perfect ingredient for baking? They lend a creamy and moist texture which makes them a great ingredient to help replace some of the fat in a recipe, all while boosting it with vitamin A, C, fiber, potassium and of course antioxidants thanks to their vibrant orange color. Planning on frosting a Christmas log or cupcakes? Two ingredients: mashed baked sweet potatoes pureed and blended with dark chocolate and you have an incredibly luscious, super creamy chocolate frosting and noone would know its main ingredient is a vegetable. Less sugar, less fat, more vegetable goodness and chocolatey too…I think this might be where the saying “you can have your cake and eat it too” comes from!! Finally cauliflower, is there anything this vegetable can’t do? You can make pizza crusts, gnocchi, and general Tso with it, but who thought it could replace sour cream and cream cheese in desserts? Well it can! Add about 3 tablespoons of lemon juice to one cup of pureed cauliflower and you have a healthy swap for one cup of sour cream for your favorite coffee cake recipe!
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