published Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Tweak your sweets for better nutrition, fewer calories

A healthy twist on holiday treats made by Life reporter Holly Leber.
A healthy twist on holiday treats made by Life reporter Holly Leber.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

It is also, perhaps, the most fattening.

"It's amazing how quickly [calories] can add up, especially with party food," said Patricia Partain, a registered dietitian with Erlanger Health Center.

When holiday parties and office treats abound, it's not hard to pack on some extra weight over the holidays.

Fortunately, by making small tweaks to recipes, it is still possible to indulge a Christmas sweet tooth without having to dig the fat clothes out of the back of the closet come January.

The simplest method is to simply partake of smaller portions. A pecan pie, typically sliced into eight pieces, averages about 520 calories a slice, said Robin Darling, registered dietitian at Memorial Hospital. A pie sliced into 10 pieces, however, averages 416 calories per slice.

"You just saved 100 calories and about 8 grams of fat," Darling said.

Both fat and sugar can easily be reduced in recipes. Cut down both by a quarter or a third of what the recipe calls for. At minimum, use one or two tablespoons of fat (oil or butter) per cup of flour and one tablespoon of sugar.

Adding more vanilla or cinnamon can also enhance sweetness without adding more sugar.

Replacing white flour with whole wheat can increase the nutrient density of a product, but be prepared for the consistency of the dessert to be slightly more dense as well. Smaller pieces will be enough to satisfy guests.

Cutting down the fat, Darling said, is more effective with cookies, muffins and breads, less effective with cakes.

Fat content in some baked goods also can be drastically reduced by replacing butter or oil with applesauce or with fruit or vegetable purees, including prune, pumpkin, butternut squash and, for chocolate products, beets.

Adding applesauce or fruit purees can increase the sugar content of a dish, so diabetics should take note, Darling said. Opt for unsweetened applesauce or try a vegetable puree instead.

Cholesterol and saturated fats are easily decreased by using egg substitutes or egg whites. All of the saturated fat contained in an egg is found in the yolk. Use two egg whites for each egg.

Several vegetarian websites, including Vegan Coach and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, suggest blending ground flax seed meal with water to create an egg replacer that contains half the amount of fat than a whole egg and has 2 grams of fiber. An egg does not contain fiber.

For recipes that call for cream cheese, use a reduced-fat cream cheese, Darling said, but steer clear of fat-free cream cheese.

"If you go fat-free, you're not going to have the same consistency," she said. "Same thing goes with sour cream."

According to Partain, however, one place it is acceptable to go fat-free is in recipes that call for condensed, sweetened milk. She also suggested increasing the nutrient content of cookies or sweetbreads by adding nuts or oats.

"Cookies are cookies," she said, "but you can make them healthier by adding oatmeal, dates or nuts. All these foods are touted to be healthier and have a little more nutrient value added to them."

While touted for their healthy fat content, nuts still add fat content to recipes, so reducing the number of nuts can cut out some fat. Partain recommends toasting the nuts first to enhance their flavor. She also suggested using mini chocolate chips in recipes, cutting the portion in half. This will provide the same number of chips with half the amount of chip-related calories.

Incorporating fruit into desserts can help cut back on calories as well. Partain suggests creating a trifle with layers of berries, angel food cake, fat-free whipped topping and sugar-free pudding made with skim milk, or serving fruit alongside a chocolate dipping sauce.

"That's kind of different for people," she said, "they're not used to that. Chocoholics will love you for that one."

For those who can survive without gingerbread, pies and puddings, opt for fruit and cheese in lieu of a sweet dessert, perhaps accompanied by a flavored coffee and a few seasonally flavored mini muffins.

At a more intimate gathering, a European-style end to a meal can include a few morsels of fine, rich chocolate and a cup of good coffee, served with a side of good conversation.

"The French do that," Partain said. "They get high-quality chocolate in small chunks and serve it with a really good, rich coffee. It's more about conversation than calories and consumption of sweet desserts."

The coffee and chocolate may be accompanied by fruit, cheese and nuts, such as walnuts, which contain healthy omega-3 fats. Fruit, such as a traditional Christmas tangerine, is a healthy, bright accompaniment to any small portion of cake or cookie as well.

"The key is moderation, just like everything else," Darling said, "and that's why it's so hard during the holiday, especially when people are bringing things in to the office. The important part is to indulge but to be careful with how much."

RECIPES (AND TWEAKS)

Here are several sweets recipes for holiday entertaining, along with the substitutions and reductions that will make them more nutritious.

Betty Crocker Gingerbread Muffins

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup molasses

1/3 cup milk (may substitute skim milk, soy milk or 1/3 cup milk plus 2 tablespoons prune juice)

1/3 cup vegetable oil (may substitute 1/3 cup pumpkin)

1 egg (may substitute 1 flax egg, which is 1 tablespoon ground flax meal plus 3 tablespoons water)

2 cups all-purpose flour (may substitute whole-wheat flour)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Decorator sugar crystals, if desired (see note)

1/2 cup white vanilla baking chips, melted, if desired (see note)

Heat oven to 400 F. Grease bottoms only of 12 regular-size muffin cups with shortening, or place paper baking cup in each muffin cup.

In large bowl, beat brown sugar, molasses, milk, oil and egg with spoon. Stir in remaining ingredients, except decorator sugar crystals and melted baking chips, just until flour is moistened. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Sprinkle with sugar crystals, if desired.

Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Immediately remove from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Drizzle with melted baking chips, if desired.

Makes 12 muffins.

Note: In our test kitchen, we eliminated the sugar crystals and baking chips in the gingerbread muffins and topped them with the following frosting recipe from Weight Watchers instead.

-- www.bettycrocker.com

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

4 ounces low-fat (Neufchatel) cream cheese

1/4 cup powdered sugar (sugar may be reduced by half)

1 tablespoon maple syrup

Beat the ingredients together until smooth. Use to top Betty Crocker Gingerbread Muffins.

-- www.weight watchers.com

Satsuma and Pomegranate Pavlovas

Named for the light-as-a-feather ballerina Anna Pavlova, these sweet meringues are the perfect base for a light and seasonal dessert. The tang of unsweetened whipped cream and yogurt balances out the sweetness of the meringue and bright flavor of satsumas.

3/4 cup sugar (may be reduced to 1/2 cup)

11/2 teaspoons cornstarch

3 large egg whites

1 teaspoon lemon juice

6 satsumas

1 cup heavy cream (may be eliminated)

1/3 cup nonfat Greek yogurt (we eliminated the heavy cream and increased Greek yogurt to 1 cup mixed with 1 tablespoon honey)

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Heat oven to 325 F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Whisk together sugar and cornstarch and set aside. Whip egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. Continue to whip, gradually adding sugar mixture, a tablespoon at a time, until stiff peaks form. Beat in lemon juice.

Spoon egg whites into six (3-inch) circles on prepared baking sheet. Using the back of a spoon dipped in water, spread circles evenly and flatten in the center, making a hollow to hold cream. Place in oven and reduce temperature to 225 F. Bake 1 hour. Turn oven off and prop door open with a wooden spoon. Let meringues cool completely in the oven.

Meanwhile, peel satsumas. Cut on either side of membranes to remove segments, and place in a small bowl. Set aside. When ready to serve, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Fold in yogurt. Spread cream mixture in hollow of meringues. Top with satsumas and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.

-- www.wholefoods.com

Butternut Blondies

Grated butternut squash and fresh nutmeg add earthy notes to these addictive sweets. To grate the squash, use a box grater or food processor. Make up to two days ahead, and cut them just before serving.

4 tablespoons melted butter (may substitute 4 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce), plus more for the pan

11/2 cups peeled and grated butternut squash

11/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

1 cup white chocolate chunks (may substitute 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips, 1/3 cup chopped walnuts and 1/3 cup dried cranberries)

1 teaspoon baking powder

11/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup light brown sugar (may be reduced to 2/3 cup)

2 eggs (may substitute 4 egg whites)

1 tablespoon organic vanilla extract

Heat oven to 350 F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan with butter; set aside. In a medium bowl, toss together squash, flour, chocolate (or substitutions), baking powder, nutmeg and salt. In a large bowl, whisk sugar and eggs together until pale and thickened, 1 to 2 minutes.

Whisk in butter and vanilla, then add flour mixture and stir together just until combined. Transfer to prepared pan, and bake until just set in the middle and golden brown around the edges, about 30 minutes. Set aside to let cool, then cut into 24 squares and serve. Makes 2 dozen.

-- www.wholefoods.com

Peppermint Frosted Brownies

Don't be afraid to tweak boxed recipes. The No Pudge brand of no-fat fudge brownies calls for 2/3 cup yogurt to be added to the mix. We added 2/3 cup unsweetened canned pumpkin instead, increasing the fiber content. Add 1 tablespoon peppermint extract to create a more seasonal flavor. Top with Chocolate Mousse Frosting.

Chocolate Mousse Frosting

1 package extra-firm tofu

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup sugar

Combine in a food processor until smooth. Chill. Can be used to frost cakes or brownies, as a dip for fruit, or eaten alone.

Shelly's Strawberry Cannoli

12 large, ripe strawberries, washed and cored

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1 tablespoon sugar-free torani syrup

Dash of cinnamon

Optional toppings:

Unsweetened coconut

Grated sugar-free chocolate

Chopped nuts (chopped pistachios, pecans or hazelnuts are great)

Wash and core strawberries, leaving a hollow in the berry. Set aside. Mix ricotta, syrup and cinnamon together till well combined. Spoon mixture into a snack-size zipper-lock bag. Seal. Cut off a corner and pipe mixture into hollowed strawberries. Dip into optional toppings.

-- From "The World According to Eggface," a food and recipe blog by a California-based woman who had gastric bypass surgery

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/holly leber. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/leber.holly.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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