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For Heidi Eklund, the winter holidays begin with pumpkin pie. One taste of the creamy, sweet center and perfectly baked crust fills the Poughkeepsie, New York, hatha yoga teacher with childhood memories of her grandmother serving thick slices following Thanksgiving dinners. It’s a tradition that Eklund plans to carry on by making the pie for her husband and family when they celebrate the season. “Not only am I fond of old memories,” she says, “but I want to create new meaningful memories for those around me by sharing the pleasure of good, healthy food.” With that in mind, Eklund got out the recipe her grandmother used, only to see that her childhood favorite had a few unsavory ingredients, including large amounts of white sugar.
“I’m pretty sure Nana got the recipe off a can of pumpkin. She is a fabulous cook and taught me a lot,” Eklund says. “But my family was never super health conscious while I was growing up, so I’ve made it my mission to cook healthy food that I can share with them. It brings me joy.”
Nutrition probably isn’t the first thing you think of when imagining holiday desserts like pie, gingerbread cookies, or cinnamon rolls. They’re sweet, often rich, and would feel like an indulgence any other time of the year. But they’re also imbued with memories and warm feelings. And if baking for family and friends using treasured recipes is an act of love, shouldn’t it be one that honors their health, too?
In the case of Eklund’s pumpkin pie, the answer lies in substituting one ingredient—sugar—in the recipe her family has used for decades. Yours may be fat, refined flour, or chocolate. Whatever the substitution, says Carol Anne Wasserman, a holistic health counselor who teaches healthful-dessert classes in New York, swapping in a more nutritious alternative can give desserts a makeover without dramatically compromising flavor and tradition. “After they eat, I tell my family that what they had is actually healthy, and everyone always wants the recipe,” not realizing it is really a variation on a recipe they already have, she says. “That’s the goal: to get people to understand that eating healthfully is simple and delicious.”
The appeal of working from a treasured recipe is in the familiar steps, the smells, and those memorable first few bites. That’s why it’s a good idea to stick with just one substitution, so that you don’t alter the flavor too much and lose the joy of re-creating something you’ve loved making (or just eating!) for years. Besides, says Eklund, “Rules are made to be broken, and tradition can incorporate our new knowledge of health.”
One thing Eklund knows for sure is that all the sugar her original recipe calls for has no nutritional value. Even though sugarcane plants are naturally brimming with minerals—including magnesium, zinc, and chromium—the refining process strips these nutrients and adds chemicals like sulfur dioxide, lime, phosphoric acid, and bleaching agents to make the sugar white. “The real detriment in sugar lies in the fact that it leaches vitamins and minerals from the body,” Wasserman says. “In order for us to digest sugar, the body is forced to grab from its own nutritional storage in the blood, bones, and organs. So we crave sugar, looking for those nutrients. Then we eat sugar to satisfy the craving, but now we’re even more depleted, and the cravings arise again. If it’s tiring thinking about this, imagine how exhausting it is for your body.”
To cut down on the amount of refined white sugar in her pie, Eklund started by examining the natural sweetness of the recipe’s star ingredient: pumpkin. Out of a can, pumpkin purée can have a slightly bitter taste, which is why many recipes call for a lot of sugar—to mask that slightly tinny flavor. So a few years ago, when she was preparing to make pies for a Thanksgiving dinner, Eklund made her own purée by baking fresh pumpkins at home. By itself, the purée was sweet and quite rich. Without the bitterness of the canned variety, the pumpkin needed only half the sugar the recipe called for. To make up the missing volume, Eklund added a little extra pumpkin purée to the mix. The rest of the original recipe’s ingredients followed: nutmeg, clove, vanilla, evaporated milk, and eggs. She then poured the filling into the crusts, baked the pies as usual, and presented them to her unsuspecting loved ones. And the results?
“Oh my, did it taste better,” Eklund says. “The pies were devoured.”
One simple, and maybe obvious, change to an old family recipe is replacing refined white sugar with a liquid or granulated sweetener that’s more nutritious. Molasses is another natural sweetener that adds iron and calcium to your favorite goodie. A common ingredient in spiced treats like gingerbread, molasses can also take the place of refined sugar in muffins, cookies, and cakes. But swapping out white sugar isn’t the only way to boost the nutritional value of your holiday desserts. Using yogurt instead of cream cheese adds protein and calcium to frosting, says dietitian Anne VanBeber, chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Christian University. Place one to two cups of plain low-fat yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined colander. With the colander over the sink or a pot, cover the yogurt with another cheesecloth, and let it drip for a few hours. Then, lightly press down to remove more liquid, and you’ll have a thick cream cheese alternative.
And then there’s the flour that makes up so much of baked goods. White flour has little nutritional value, as the refining process strips away most vitamins and minerals in whole grains. VanBeber suggests substituting all-purpose white flour with other options such as whole-wheat flour, which adds proteins and fiber. Just don’t substitute any more than one-half of the white flour for the same amount of whole wheat. “More than that will make your dessert heavy and dense.”
Or try soy flour, which is also high in protein and has a nutty flavor; brown rice flour, which is rich in fiber; or amaranth, a flour that is high in protein and contains more calcium, fiber, and magnesium than flour from most other grains.
Once your healthful dessert is out of the oven, you might top it off with a sprinkling of toasted pecans, almonds, or walnuts. A bit of toasted wheat germ adds vitamin E, folate, phosphorous, thiamin, zinc, and magnesium. To decorate a cake without icing, lay a doily on top of the cooled cake, and sprinkle some cinnamon over it. Gently lift off the doily to reveal a beautiful pattern.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” advises Wasserman. “Be patient, and just have some fun in the kitchen. It may take a couple of tries to find a recipe that is comparable to your grandma’s, but eventually you should be able to find a version that is just as yummy.”
Once you’ve found a substitution that gives you results that are close to the original recipe, you may be surprised at how quickly your treats disappear from their tins. “When I get it right, people don’t actually know that what they’re eating is healthy,” Wasserman says. “There aren’t even crumbs left over.”
You might use such a moment to surprise your family and friends by revealing the healthful nature of what they just ate. Or you could invite family members who taught you the original recipe to take part in the experimenting so that together they can come up with a more healthful take on tradition. Around Christmas, VanBeber simply wraps up her famous zucchini bread with a ribbon, a note, and the recipe, hoping to inspire her friends, neighbors, and family. Eklund, on the other hand, reveals her secrets shortly after the many thank-yous she receives.
“I want people to understand that what’s going in their bodies is full of useful nutrients,” Eklund says. “Knowing that my loved ones are being nurtured by what I’m feeding them is the best gift of all.”
Start your recipe makeover with one of these simple switches; they’re perfect for cookies, pies, cakes, muffins, and breads.
Eggs: Replace each egg with one small potassium-rich banana or 2 tablespoons of heart-healthy ground flax seeds plus 2 tablespoons of water.
White Flour: Whole-wheat flour is a great option because it adds protein without weighing down delicate treats when replacing half of the white flour. You can do the same with almond meal, which will allow you to cut back a bit on other fats and sugar, as almonds are naturally sweet and rich in monounsaturated fat that can reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol.
White Sugar: Barley malt adds richness to gingerbread cookies, spice cake, and pumpkin breads (1 cup sugar equals 1 1/3 cups barley malt). You need only 1/3 cup agave nectar to replace 1 cup sugar. The liquid sweetener has a low glycemic index and lets you cut back a bit on any liquid oils used to wet the batter.
Oil: Many recipes call for fats and oils to bind dry ingredients together. Vitamin- and fiber-rich applesauce and fruit purées perform the same function. Plus, they’re naturally sweet. Use them to replace half the fat (and all the sugar if you’re feeling adventurous) your recipe calls for.
Gina Roberts-Grey lives in upstate New York with her family.