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Eating Wisely

Healthy Home-Baked Treats

Nicola Aquino
Antigonish NS Canada
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 1, January-February 2008, pp. 30-31

I have a confession to make: my sons eat muffins and cookies regularly for snacks. The baked goods that my children eat, however, are homemade. With healthy eating now on the agenda for many mainstream publications, I find that muffins and cookies are frequently relegated to the "treat" list, something to be eaten occasionally. While manufactured cookies and such may well have unacceptable quantities of fat or sugar in them, when we bake at home we can control the ingredients. How can parents make home-baked goods a healthier option? By choosing the ingredients carefully.

Flour: Whole wheat flour contains the germ and the bran of the original grain of wheat. This means that, compared to white flour (which has the bran and germ removed), it has higher levels of many nutrients and is higher in fiber. I occasionally get complaints from my family when I use whole wheat flour, especially in foods that are traditionally made with white flour, like pizza crusts. In these cases, I either use only 50 percent whole wheat or fortify white flour by adding one tablespoon each of wheat germ, soy flour, and milk powder. For things that contain chocolate, bran, or spices, I always use 100 percent whole wheat and nobody is the wiser. You can also now purchase whole grain flours from other grains, such as oats and barley.

Sweeteners: Sugar, honey, and molasses are natural ingredients and I prefer to adjust amounts rather than to substitute artificial sweeteners. White sugar is more highly processed than brown sugar, and fancy molasses is more processed than blackstrap molasses, but all have a place in my cupboard. Some families use stevia, another natural sweetener, in place of sugar. In many recipes, the different sweeteners can be used interchangeably with acceptable results. In others, changing the sweetener can affect both taste and texture. This is also true for simply reducing the amount of sweetener or substituting artificial sweeteners. However, I find I can often reduce the amount of sugar by up to half without noticeable effect.

Fats: Fats are an essential part of most baked goods, contributing to both flavor and texture. However, not all fats are created equal. There have been debates over butter versus margarine; non-hydrogenated margarine versus hydrogenated margarine; solid fat versus liquid fat (oil); and concerns over trans-fats. Current opinion suggests that trans-fats, which are formed when oils are hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature, are unhealthy. However, there are non-hydrogenated "soft" (or spreadable) margarines available that can be used instead of solid margarines in many recipes. Some recipes do need the harder fat to cook properly (most rolled cookies, for example, which should be cooled prior to baking to harden the fat in the dough) so butter can be used instead of hard margarine. In many muffin recipes, up to half the fat can be replaced by apple, or other fruit, sauce.

Healthy additions: There are many ingredients that can be added to muffins and cookies, which improve their nutrition. For example, ground flax seed (a source of Omega-3 fatty acids), wheat germ, dried fruit, and nuts (see allergy note) can all be added into the batter with little effect on flavor or texture. Muffins and cookies can also be made using fruit, either chopped or pureed. In some cases, vegetables can also be incorporated, such as in carrot cake or chocolate zucchini cake, without anybody knowing if you grate them small enough.

Allergies: The reason I started home baking extensively was because of food allergies and intolerances. Between family and friends, over the years, I have had to cope with avoiding nuts, peanuts, eggs, milk, and wheat. Until recently, when manufacturers started using "peanut free" as a marketing tool, the only safe cookies were the ones that I baked at home. Many recipes can be modified to account for family allergies. For example, oat flour and potato starch can be substituted for wheat flour (note that this only makes it wheat free, not gluten free); soy nut butter can be used instead of peanut butter; eggs can be replaced by a substitute (see note at end of article); or a recipe that does not contain eggs can be used (e.g. granola bars rather than oatmeal cookies); and almond, rice, or soy milk alternatives can be found in most grocery stores. For recipes that contain nuts, they can either be omitted or substituted with a "safe" alternative (e.g. a tree nut for a peanut allergy sufferer or sunflower seeds). If you are baking for a non-family member, it is always wise to discuss your recipe with the allergy sufferer's primary food preparer; there may be an issue with the ingredients of which you are not aware (a certain brand may have something unsafe in it or, as I discovered when visiting England, even the same brand name made in a different country can have different ingredients).

The end result is that a home baked product reflects your family's choices for healthy eating in addition to being safe for those who may have food sensitivities. When eaten with a piece of fruit and a glass of milk or water, home baked cookies and muffins can be part of a healthy snack.

Note about egg substitutes: there are commercially available powdered egg replacers, or you can try a home made option such as: one tablespoon of ground flax seed with three tablespoons of water; fruit purees in muffins; or two tablespoons of flour, half teaspoon of oil, half teaspoon of baking powder, and two tablespoons of liquid.

Recipes

Fruity Oatmeal Muffins
(wheat free)

3/4 cup oat flour (run old fashioned oats through the blender until fine)
2 Tbsp potato starch (not flour)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 Tbsp baking powder
11/4 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup chopped prunes (or use raisins)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 cup applesauce (unsweetened)

Combine dry ingredients in bowl. Beat oil and egg together. Add applesauce. Pour into dry mixture. Stir to blend. Fill muffin cups and bake at 400°F (200°C) for 20 minutes. If you are not avoiding wheat, use 3/4 cup whole wheat flour and omit oat flour and potato starch. Modified from Muffins: A Cookbook by Joan Bidinosti and Marilyn Wearring.

Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup oil
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup water
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup dry milk powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup bran (optional)
1/2 cup dried fruit, seeds, nuts or chocolate chips (optional)

Beat oil, brown sugar, egg, water, and vanilla in bowl until smooth. Add flour, dry milk powder, salt, soda and cinnamon; mix well. Mix in oats, wheat germ, and optional ingredients. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for 10 to 12 minutes or until light brown. May substitute 3/4 cup honey for brown sugar, butter for oil, and juice or milk for water. May omit salt and cinnamon. Yield: 48 servings. From LLLI cookbook Whole Foods for the Whole Family.

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