Friday, January 3, 2014

Eating Omily: Resolve to Make Better Cookies, and Love Yourself Along the Way

When it comes to Christmas baking, I'm perpetually a bit behind. Getting our shit together for the annual Christmas (T)Exodus (and ExOHdus?), and choosing, buying, shipping, and wrapping lots of presents doesn't leave me a lot of free afternoons to bake. Plus, for those big projects, like several dozen cookies individually frosted (or a couple dozen quart jars of whole tomatoes...) I'm a social baker! All that means that this is the time of year when I break out the rolling pin and the royal icing and make Christmas cookies, gingerbread people topping the list.

I've got the ingredients lined up on my counter, and a cookie-decorating date all set for tomorrow...how could these facts not inspire a cookie-centered blogpost?? I know, I know. You've probably shifted from holiday sweetness-overload mode to New Year's Resolution Repentance, and are hoping to avoid cookies for the next six months, but hear me out:

1. I'll be focusing on ways to make your favourite cookie treats a little bit friendlier toward your body.

2. Six months without cookies is just sad. I won't allow it.

3. Indulging responsibly (ie, eating two cookies instead of two dozen) is a skill. If you binge on cookies when you eat them, and then respond by not allowing them anywhere near you, you're only setting yourself up for a sad cycle of self-recrimination.

4. Instead of making self-deprivation your New Year's Resolution, let's focus on loving ourselves, body mind and soul this year! Make the best cookies you can make, build up the self-awareness to know when to put the rest away, and you'll be happier, and healthier all year long!

5. If, along the way, you do find yourself surrounded by crumbs and guilt, instead of a beautiful batch of cookies, remember: It's already happened. It's in the past. Let it go. Try again next time. No shaming, no punishment (nope, not even an extra hour at the gym. Do NOT go down that road).

So, that said, here's the recipe for gingerbread cookies I'll be using. It makes cookies that are chewy, rich, and spicy, and you can throw the dough together in just a few minutes if you have a food processor! It takes a bit longer with an electric or standing mixer, but still not a major commitment. Below are my own substitutions and recommendations.

This is the single most important tip I can give you: Choose your ingredients with care! You are putting this stuff in your body!  No bleached bromated flour, I beg of you.

Ok: unbleached all-purpose flour

Good: whole wheat flour

Better!: whole wheat flour from wheat ground recently and grown locally

Gold Star!: sprouted whole wheat flour from wheat ground recently and grown locally

Flour is the basis for any cookie, so why not get some fiber and b-vitamins out of it? Why not slow down the absorption of the sugar you'll soon be adding? Don't worry about texture. Cookies don't need to rise much at all, so using whole wheat flour doesn't change either taste or texture in any substantial way.

No factory-farmed eggs. Take better care of yourself than that.

Ok: "cage-free" or "free-range" organic eggs from your grocer

Good: Eggs that bear the "certified humane" label from your grocer

Better!: Truly pastured, local eggs bought directly from a farmer. My parents are even doing this in Mansfield, Ohio! They may not be available around you, and you should not beat yourself up over it if this is the case, but take a little time, and look around! I'll bet you'll be surprised how easy they are to find.

That goes double for dairy!

Ok: Organic dairy from your grocer (just barely ok! "organic" only means the cows are fed organic corn and soy, which does decrease the demand for pesticides, and does mean less pesticide residue for you, but remember: cows eat grass. To feed a cow corn and soy is to slowly poison that animal to death. No exaggeration. 100% of factory-farmed cows suffer from ulcers and other conditions, and 100% of cows will die of their diets if not slaughtered before that happens. Do you want to eat meat or dairy from an animal that is being poisoned? Does that sound like a nutritious addition to your diet? Didn't think so.

Good: dairy from grass-fed/pastured cows, preferably from your region.

Better!: Dairy from truly pastured (as in 100% of the time, weather permitting), bought directly from a local farmer, non-homogonized, and pasteurized at the lowest legal temperature (or better yet, if your immune system is healthy, not pasteurized at all; say yes to enzymes!)

Got that? Choose the best ingredients, get the best cookies, period. Not sure how much of a difference this can make? Read this blog post for crucial info about butter, and this blog post for the breakdown on raw milk: why the government tells us it's bad news, and why for most of us, it's not.

We're all a little skittish around sugar these days, aren't we? I like to use grade B maple syrup when I can, and organic sugar when I can't.

Ok: Organic sugar; it's non-GMO, grown without pesticides, and generally a bit less refined than the conventional stuff

Good: Fair-trade organic sugar; it's got all the same benefits, PLUS, it provides a fair wage to the farmers who grew and harvested the stuff, helping to end poverty.

Better!: Organic, fair-trade, unrefined evaporated cane juice! If you get the real deal, instead of looking sparkly, it will look like a cross between sand, and dried yeast, but trust me, it tastes just like brown sugar, and it will work fine in all your cookie recipes, except for the parts that are visual, like rolling the balls in sugar for a pretty sparkly coating and crackled top. Because of all the awesome minerals and trace elements, it's also less stable, so it doesn't work well for cooking into caramels, browning on creme brulee, or making sweet-and-salty popcorn.

It is still sugar, and it's never good to go overboard on sugar because that stresses a few important organs, and creates the most bad-for-your-heart kind of saturated fat.

For the royal icing, I'll be using three egg whites, one pound (four cups) of powdered sugar, a couple teaspoons of lemon juice, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, plus a couple drops of food coloring in various colors. Easy-peasy: Use an electric mixer if you can get your hands on one. It takes a few minutes to get the powdered sugar and egg whites incorporated, and then you have to beat for a couple more minutes to get the vanilla and lemon juice incorporated.

For this one, you will need to use pretty refined powdered sugar, but you can find fair-trade organic powdered sugar!

This is my go-to brand for all sweeteners that I can't get from my Farmers' Market: they have every thing you can think of from totally natural, to super refined, and it's ALL organic and fair-trade!

If your recipe calls for baking powder, choose a kind that's aluminum-free. It can add a metallic taste to your cookies, and heavy metals aren't very cool in your diet anyway. Keep an eye out for organic fair trade vanilla extract, and molasses, too!

This might sound like a lot to take in, but don't panic! Each time you run out of a cookie-making staple, refer back to this post, and make the best purchase available to you. You'll have a revamped pantry in no time, and you'll know what to buy, and where to buy it from now on, making it easy to maintain your good habits.

One last tip for you cookie-lovers: this used to happen to me every time. I would mix up a delicious batch of cookie dough, taking nibbles, and licking bowls and beaters every step of the way, and then be unable to resist a few cookies hot and fresh from the oven. I knew I was overindulging, but it seemed unnecessarily cruel to give up either the cookie dough, or the fresh-baked cookies themselves.

Answer: make cookie dough one day, bake the cookies the next day! They come out better after a thorough chill in the fridge anyway, and that way you're splitting up the treats with a day of healthy eating in between! This one has served me well for a couple years now. I enjoy nibbles of cookie dough through the dough-making process, then, depending on the plan, I'll either roll the dough into balls, and freeze them on baking trays overnight before throwing them all into a freezer bag, so I can pull out a couple at a time whenever I want, or I'll just chill the dough in a big lump if I plan on rolling and cutting out cookies in the next couple days. Obviously you can also refrigerate balls of dough  or rolled and cut out cookies if you have more time to work that night, and want the baking to go really quick the next day.
 Yes, I know, the dough looks a bit...unappetizing, but that dark rich color is due to black strap molasses: an unrefined sweetener packed with things like iron, and calcium...and a truly addictive flavor, trust me!
 This recipe doesn't seem to yield cookies that hold their shape well in the oven. We didn't mind working with ameoba-shaped cookies: we just used the different colors of icing to decorate the cookies with abstract, psychedelic combinations of colors and patterns: beautiful, and delicious!
Also we had sprinkles. Yay Sprinkles!!!

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