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My mission for this holiday season is to find a clean (well, cleaner) version of gingerbread cookies: one that's not dripping in oil and sugar but still has that distinct molasses-and-spices flavor I love so much. I decided to play around with a few variations, the results of which I'll share here, and then I'm going to play around a little more and share a second round of results in a few days.
The recipe I used as the base for my adaptations is this Gingerbread Cut-Out Cookies recipe from VEGAN COOKIES INVADE YOUR COOKIE JAR by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. I am a huge fan of these ladies and their vegan cookbooks despite the fact that I am not vegan. (Fun fact: I once spent 40 weeks making every cupcake recipe in their book VEGAN CUPCAKES TAKE OVER THE WORLD. It was bliss.) I wanted to use this recipe because a.) I've had it in its original form, know that it's delicious, and know the flavor profile I'm comparing my adapted cookies to, b.) I think making a baking recipe vegan is a quick and simple way to cut down on heavier ingredients like butter, and c.) I wanted to start with a no-fuss recipe because I'm going to be fussing around enough already with all the substitutions.
The main ingredients I wanted to change in this recipe were canola oil and white sugar. I decided not to touch the molasses because hello, what's a gingerbread cookie without molasses? A gingerbread cookie IS molasses, so the molasses had to stay. By finding replacements for the oil and sugar, though, I was convinced I could come up with a more wholesome (but hopefully still delicious) cookie. I should also note that a cookie like gingerbread, with its inherent spiciness, is a fun one to experiment with in terms of replacing sugar because it's not a cookie that relies on a ton of sweetness in the first place. Were we making sugar cookies or something similar, the results would likely be wildly different.
Here's the first variation I tried. I replaced the canola oil with Greek yogurt and the sugar with unsweetened applesauce. Simple enough, right?
Next up: my second variation. For this one I replaced the oil with mashed avocado and the sugar with mashed banana. (In hindsight, I should have added a teaspoon of vanilla to pep up the sweet factor a bit.)
I added molasses to both varieties but I only added milk to the avocado/ banana mixture. The applesauce added enough of its own liquid in the other version.
Here's what the two batters looked like with all their wet ingredients mixed together.
After the dried ingredients were added, here's what the avocado-banana dough looked like.
And here's what the Greek yogurt-applesauce version looked like.
Crap! I forgot the spice mixture! I whipped it up, added it to the two different batches, and let the doughs set in the fridge for an hour.
Once the cookies came out of the oven, I could no longer tell which was which by just looking. Here's what one looked like.
Here's what the other looked like.
Next up: a blind taste test. It was truly blind, even for me, because I could no longer tell which was which by sight. Even when eating them, the flavor differences were subtle -- I could only tell by noting a hint of banana in one.
Here's we came to a standstill: my husband preferred the Greek yogurt / applesauce version and I liked the avocado / banana. Both versions passed for a real gingerbread cookie, though with a notably less sweet and more wholesome flavor. My husband and I have both been practicing fairly clean diets for long enough that I'm guessing our tastebuds have adapted to less sugar. The true test will come next week when my niece and nephew are in town.
Since there wasn't a clear winner (though luckily there wasn't a clear loser either) I decided I'll keep experimenting. What about avocado with applesauce? How about Greek yogurt with banana? And what if I got a little crazy and tried a black bean purée instead of whole wheat flour? Will it work? Can I pull off a super healthy cookie that still tastes like Christmas?
We will find out after my next round of experiments. I will also be experimenting with a few healthier frostings, though my caveat there is that if I can't find a really good one, I'm just going to make a super-healthy cookie and then load it up with a super-unhealthy icing and be totally okay with that because it's the holidays and I love gingerbread. Stay tuned.