Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Cookies That May Be Better For You

Flourless choco-nut gems are not sugar-free but using a sugar substitute cuts the carbs and doesn't wreck the flavor.
This recipe came from the For the Love of Food blog.
I miss the carb-bomb labors of love Christmas treats my mom used to send every year all the way from South Dakota in TWO large batches: frosted melt-in-the-mouth sugar cookies in cut-out shapes; ginger and peanut butter cookies; Russian tea cakes; Chex mix, and the family favorite—Special K Bars which, in addition to the highly processed cereal, included peanut butter, a load of the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup, and a bag of chocolate chips melted on top.

Alas, over the past decade, I've become a serious carb-avoider. During my most dedicated periods, I try to limit myself to fewer than 30 unrefined carbs a day, which equals around two slices of bread. Notice I said "try." My intentions are noble but I often fail. Like at a party the other night. I won't go into details, but some failures are massive. Even a couple days of eating like a stereotypical overweight American makes me cringe at the scale, sending me straight into carb-correction mode.

I guess it's worked; I am not skinny, but my weight has fluctuated only a few pounds, up or down, from the day it dawned on me that refined carb reduction was my best bet for combatting creeping weight gain.

Still, I miss the cookies and went on a hunt for lower-carb alternatives. This post is sorta late to do any good for this holiday season, but I think these two recipes are transferrable to various celebrations throughout the year, and maybe even for lunchbox treats.
I have to admit I also reverting to one of my mom's type cookies, the nut-and-butter-rich Russian tea cakes, to bring to a post Christmas visit to our son and family. I know somebody there who loves them!

On to the goods!
As you can see, this oft-repeated recipe has gone through some revisions since my sister first sent it to me a few years ago.  These are really really good, even with substitutions.

Flourless Espresso Chocolate and Nut Gems
  • 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (or semisweet if you can't find bittersweet) chopped into medium chunks
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup sugar, Splenda, or another sugar substitute. I get 22 rather than 24 mini-cupcakes using Splenda.
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder (sub instant coffee if you must)
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup ground walnuts or other nuts. Optional.
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar. Optional.
Preheat oven to 375. Coat mini-muffin tin, or tins, with cooking spray. I used coconut spray, even though my 24-c tin is supposedly non stick. Combine the chopped chocolate and butter in a microwave-proof glass bowl and heat for two minutes, then one minute at a time, stirring after each minute until melted. Alternatively, use a double-boiler. Whisk in sugar or Splenda, vanilla and espresso powder, then whisk in eggs until well combined. Sift cocoa powder over the top and whisk until smooth. Stir in the ground nuts. Spoon mixture into mini-muffin tins, filling nearly to the top. Bake until cookies have risen, 8-10 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then carefully remove from tin to a cooling rack. Sift powdered sugar lightly over the "gems."

I was able to find a 24-mini muffin tin; two 12-ers will also do the trick. Note
 two empty spaces due to using Splenda.
Walnuts ground up in a food processor. Discovery! When processing walnuts
in my Cuisinart, most of the bitter membranes in the nuts ended up on the
sides of the bowl and were easy to wipe out. 
    Lemon coconut cookies are lemon heaven, according to, where this recipe originated.
Lemon Coconut Cookies
  • 1/3 cup coconut flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons lemon zest
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter or ghee, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup raw honey
Cool the dough for a half hour in the refrigerator. (My addition to the recipe!)
Preheat oven  to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (Do not skip this step!)
Mix all ingredients until well blended. Place one tablespoons of batter at a time on the baking sheet about two inches apart. Place another piece of parchment paper, or wax paper,  over each mound of batter in turn, pressing with the bottom of a glass to flatten to about 1/8 inch thickness. Bake for 12 minutes. Let cool for five minutes then transfer carefully to a cooling rack. Cookies that aren't immediately consumed should be stored in the freezer.

Note: These cookies are a bit fragile. Handle with care. They're great eaten right out of the freezer.

Other lower carb, may-be-better-for-you desserts

Berries Crisp - you'd have to use frozen this time of year, but still great!
Avocado, chocolate and peanut butter pudding or pie. Fantastic. You have to try to believe. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dialing Back Christmas

The swaddled trees symbolize, sorta, what I've done with Christmas; wrapped it up. But wait! There's hope.

Soon after the Halloween pumpkins disappear, the Thanksgiving turkeys have been devoured, and Black Friday has sucked in an army of discount-sock buyers, I curl into an inert lump with a sign on my butt saying, "Wake me when it's over."

I am so done with Christmas, which, of course, is an unacceptable noun in our Happy Holidays culture. This national vocabulary revision occurred over decades, during which I morphed from a child bedazzled by Santa, Jesus, Christmas trees, and sugar cookies, to a 30-something mother successfully replicating the elaborate Christmases provided by my cookie-baking, gift-making, party-giving, decorating-dervish mother, into an, ahem, older woman, adverse to most things Christmas.
It wasn't always thus.

For about a dozen years, PK and I hosted a Christmas Eve celebration with numerous local families whose close relatives lived far away, as did ours. Visits from Santa and the elves—who arrived atop the local fire department's truck—loud off-key carol singing, extra special recipes, outrageous feasting, funky family performances, and delighted young children, made Christmas eve a memory-making fun fest.

Then the kids grew up, and when teen eye-rolling occurred, it wasn't quite as much fun. Our tradition faded over a few transitional years, as things do, when their time passes. As our annual party gradually faded away, so did my enthusiasm for decorating, baking, hosting, and for damn sure, gift giving.

Decades ago, my one and only sibling and I agreed to a binding no-gift policy, although we fretted together annually over gift options to honor our parents, who never indicated they weren't interested. My mom decorated for Christmas, and she sent cards, with my help, through age 98. She died before she turned 99, but I'm sure, that had she lived, we would have continued to consult her ever-dwindling card list, write greetings,  and slap stamps onto festive envelopes.

As for gifts, I can't remember the last time PK and I exchanged them. We don't need or want anything except to travel, and to spend time with our grandchildren, so what's the point of buying something that the other person doesn't need and likely doesn't want, and can certainly do without? And forgets? Giving out of obligation isn't really "giving." What's the point?

Exactly. There is no point, except to buy into the crazy shopping culture built up around the season.
Over the past 30-some years, my attitude about the "season" has deteriorated to nearly complete rejection, especially for most of the trappings and expected behaviors. The season of obligation? Of credit-card maxing, terrible sweaters, sugar bombs, pajama overload, nauseating Muzak carols, and plastic toys? No, thank you! I know I'm not alone.

An aging relative said in a recent email:
Christmas is coming so fast and I am not ready and have no excuse. It is a lot of work for one day. I think we need to go back to the true meaning of Christmas instead of making it a season.   

A long-time friend announced:
We're getting out of town, out of the country, away from all this craziness.

Another, whose house is usually ablaze with lights:
I can't do it anymore. It's too much work and my electric bill goes way up.

On the other hand, I got a "holiday letter" this week from a longtime friend, JoAnne Heron, who said this:
It will take an extra dose of intention to make holiness a part of the season, knowing that there is so much desperation and environmental degradation in this world. One has to work hard to be positive and have perspective in this blessed time of year… diligent, to absorb and live the lessons of the Child for whom this season was named. And really, the only way I can deal with it is to take responsibility for myself, to love fully, to create beauty, tread lightly on the earth, and be as kind of possible to all. 

Her words gave me pause, and I reviewed the decades to see what Christmas behaviors/traditions I might resurrect, what made a difference to others and also made me feel good and right with the world. And, what I can once and for all shed.

What I'm Over 

Obligatory gift giving 
I make exception for the grandchildren, who have no unmet needs except, perhaps, the continuing adoration of their grandparents made manifest in wrapped packages. We must do our part. It is our privilege to spoil them.

Shopping of almost any kind, (except at local family businesses and for groceries and gas) between Black Friday and December 26 because the traffic is crazy, parking lots are ram fests, people are stressed and cranky, the piped in Christmas music is nauseating, and it's all so outside of what the pure Christmas spirit is all about.

Christmas trees.  No more for us. Our property is already festooned with at least 30 now-mature former live trees. We've never purchased a harvested tree, but applaud friends who've made hunting down their own tree in the forest a family tradition. The fake tree doesn't cut it, either.
We've taken the past couple years to decorating house foliage, this year, a snake plant.
A  house plant doubling as Christmas tree.

Christmas music.  I once loved traditional Christmas carols. Years ago I bought a used piano so I could play carols for our Christmas Eve party, but sold it about 10 years ago. Carols piped into nearly every shopping space has ruined them for me. Last year I attended a sing-along Handel's Messiah concert, and even that didn't induce the Christmas spirit, although I'll always love the Hallelujah chorus. In closing, I have one thing to say about commercial Christmas music: Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Go ahead and click. I dare you!

Christmas cards and letters. I gave up the card business years ago, although I assisted my elderly mother for the last seven Christmases of her life in writing notes on cards and addressing envelopes. She loved getting cards. I still love getting Christmas letters, even if they're smarmy or bragging. Every single one, whether emailed, snail-mailed, or delivered in person, is read and read again.

However, I may have written my last one. Here's the deal. I write this blog and also post umpteen photos of our travels on Facebook. I don't need to do any more communicating. Life has been good, and our sons and grandchildren are spectacular, and even though I don't mind if others boast, I need to get over it myself. My past holiday letters have too much family chest thumping, although innocent. If I were to write a letter this year, I'd mention that PK did require a hip replacement, but it went so well, it's hardly worth mentioning. Especially if your hip replacement wasn't the best, as his was. And if your children and grandchildren aren't as magnificent as ours are, well, what the hell's wrong with you? See what I mean?

What I'm Keeping

Charitable giving.  Non profits want to take advantage of the holiday spirit, plus tax time is coming up for those charitable gift deductions. Be generous. Local non profits desperately need your support.

Giving out of pocket to homeless and others.  Bedraggled people begging at freeway ramps or around shopping centers are people just like us, but whose stories we probably can't fathom or know. A woman near a shopping center last week displayed a sign saying something like, "I'm not trash. I am down on my luck." I rolled down the window and handed her a bill. She cried as she thanked me.

At any point in most of our lives, it could have been us not being "trash".  Give, give, give. Street corners, soup kitchens, school backpack drives, gift trees, toy drives, food collection points, gifts for nursing home residents, for housebound people, for families living in cars or people sleeping on cardboard over heating vents. At no time of the year is the disparity between what "we" have and what "they" have more apparent or sobering. Hand a $20 bill to a downtrodden somebody standing with a sign in the cold rain or snow and see how that makes you feel. You won't miss the $20, but you'll make his or her day and provide a meal or two. Or maybe a beer or two? Not for us to judge.

Baking - I made sugar cookies decorated with colored frosting for years. Baked Mexican wedding "cakes" and stirred up rich dark chocolate fudge. The grandchildren don't know this, but their parents do. And the parents say no to sweets. But I decided to defy them. My wonderful mother, every Christmas, sent boxes of homemade treats. I still have some of her packing tins. We're all trying to escape sugar and flour, but I'm going to search for healthier treats and our grandchildren may someday remember their Christmas treat-providing grandma!

Countering evil in the world. That's a formidable job, given the vitriol and fear that's surging in the global consciousness, but if millions take it on, maybe a vibe will gather in the ether and a giant tuning fork in the unending universe will vibrate waves of harmony toward earth. Part of contributing to this harmony is being a good friend, a loving partner, parent, and grand parent. It's also about being non judgmental, forgiving, generous and remembering, even if you are without religious faith, to love your neighbor as yourself, to be kind and tenderhearted. As John Lennon sang,  Imagine.  We can live as one.

Lights!  Nothing to argue with there. Put 'em up, even if you believe in nothing but the flickering human spirit. Light up the winter darkness, illuminate your living room or kitchen or bedroom or yard. Combat the gloom with brightness and color. If you admire Jesus, remember what he said about forgiveness and loving your enemies. Carry the light.

And hey, have yourself a merry little Christmas!

This is it! Christmas at our house 2015. One room decked out in lights. A houseplant serving as a "tree", a few candles, some incense, fresh greens, and blues, jazz and rock n' roll on the sound system.  And in our hearts, perhaps more kindness, more understanding, more forgiveness, more tuning into universal goodness because we know it exists, call it what you will.