I have always been a Jew with Christmas envy. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching my beautiful menorah all lit up. But 8 days of twinkling lights is not enough for me. I can’t help it; part of me has always wanted an excuse to fully decorate my apartment and for Hanukkah Harry to come put presents under a beautifully lit up tree. This year is no exception. I’ve spent the past month marveling at the light exhibits all over the city, ranging from the Under the Stars exhibit at Columbus Circle to the department store holiday windows.
Although I always feel left out on Christmas, there is one part of this holiday in which I could always participate. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, at this time of year, you are bound to have a Christmas cookie. But how many of those cookies are homemade? I grew up in a household where if you didn’t bake it, you didn’t eat it. A slice-and-bake cookie never graced my mom’s oven. Now as a dietitian, I know why.
Why have you done a good thing?
From bleached flour to mono-sodium what’s-that-you-say?, slice and bake cookies contain a whole host of unnatural chemicals, including a dietitian’s biggest enemy: trans fat. Commonly found in store bought cookie dough, frozen pizzas and dinners, hot chocolate and drink mixes, peanut butters, fried foods, prepared baked goods, puddings, pastries, margarines, candies, breads, and cereals, trans fat is a man-made fat that has been created through an industrial process of extreme heat and pressure, which makes an oil smooth like butter. Result: trans fat raises your LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) AND lowers your HDL (good cholesterol), making it the unhealthiest fat and completely unnecessary to the diet. Trans fats are linked with heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes.
**Note: you may have heard that there are naturally occurring trans fats in animal products. Studies have shown that these trans fats do not have the negative health effects like the unnatural sources.
Food manufacturers love trans fat because it preserves the shelf-life of foods (making them last forever) and they are cheap. But advocacy work and public outrage from the health effects of trans fats has forced food manufacturers to change their ways. Trans fats are now banned in NYC chain restaurants, which is a great step forward. But food manufacturers have found their way around this: the law states that labels can claim to have 0g trans fat in their product if it contains less than 0.5g per serving for packaged foods. What’s the problem with this? Well firstly, you have to actually be eating what they deem to be one serving, and we all know the truth about portion sizes… Secondly, even as little as 1g of trans fat per day can increase your risk of heart disease significantly. One study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (published in the American Journal of Epidemiology) found that trans fat intake increased risk of heart disease by 33%. (to view study: http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/161/7/672.abstract)
So make sure you are reading the nutrition label, specifically the ingredients list, for trans fat. Look for partially hydrogenated oil, fully hydrogenated oil, shortening, and margarine. Also try to avoid palm oil, as studies have shown that although this is technically a saturated fat, it acts in your body similarly to a trans fat, which is also why food manufacturers are switching to it.
Start a new tradition this holiday season to bake your own cookies; that way you control what goes into them. A baked good is culinary love, making baking a great way to show someone you care during the holiday season.
So get motivated and try these recipes on for size. You won’t regret it and your guests, friends and family won’t forget it!!
2 ½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp finely grated orange zest
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. Beat the butter and both sugars in another medium bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 30 seconds. Add the egg yolks, vanilla and orange zest missing until fully incorporated. Slowly add the flour mixture, and continue beating.
Roll about a tbsp of dough by hand into a ball. Dip 1 side of balls into some coarse sugar and place them sugar side up on an un-greased baking sheets, leaving 1 inch between cookies.
Bake cookies until bottoms are golden, about 10-15 minutes. Let cool and decorate as desired.
Here is my personal butter-cream frosting recipe to use instead of frosting in a tube:
1 cup butter, softened
8 cups confectioner’s sugar
½ cup half and half
2 tsp vanilla
Cream butter with 1 cup of sugar and vanilla using an electric mixture. Gradually add the rest of sugar, slowly so not to make a mess. Mix well until thick and creamy. If desired, add food colorings.
Vanilla Crescents (makes around 20 cookies)
This recipe was passed down to me from my Viennese grandmother, who truly appreciates the art of pastry. Originally from a cookbook entitled Viennese Cooking, my Omy used to make these cookies for Hanukkah celebrations. My mother kept this recipe alive, baking these delicate sugar cookies for my family and teaching me to continue the tradition.
1 ¼ cup flour
¾ cup butter, softened
1 ½ cup grated almonds
2 egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar (or vanilla sugar if you can find it)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Combine flour and granulated sugar. Do not use a blender or electric mixture for the next steps.
With a pastry blender (or fork) or food processor, using softened butter, cut the butter into flour mixture, combining gently (or pulsing gently if using a food processor). Mixture should not have come together yet; it will appear to be a crumble-like consistency. Gently add grated almonds. Add 2 egg yolks to form the dough. Do not overwork.
Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Using your hands, scoop out a ¾” diameter piece of dough. Take the ball and roll in your hands until it is 1/2” in diameter and 2” long (should look like a snake). On the parchment paper, form into a C shape. Continue this process until all cookies are formed.
Bake cookies for 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cookies cool slightly on baking sheets. Do not touch or cookies will fall apart. While still warm, dust with confectioner’s sugar. Serve cool.
**As an alternative, try dipping in melted chocolate as well.
For more holiday cookie ideas, check out the Food Networks 12 Days of Cookies at:
Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating! To all you other Jews out there, we hope you enjoy your Chinese and movie!! We know we will…
--Amy Santo, MS RD