Goji berries used to be one the best-kept secrets in Chinese herbal medicine. Oddly enough, they’re usually used in savory dishes; my mom drops a handful into chicken or abalone soup. You can also make fruit “tea” by steeping dried gojis, Asian red dates, and logans in hot water. As the fruits reconstitute, they also infuse the water with their sweetness.
Now that gojis have gone mainstream in energy bars, chocolate, and cereal, I look at them not so much as medicine, but as dessert. Since they’re like a cross between raisins and cranberries (but with a slight medicinal aftertaste), why not put them in oatmeal cookies? And while I’m on that route, why not replace cinnamon with Chinese five-spice powder (a mixture of star anise, fennel, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and cloves)?
Since I’m not fond of fennel and anise, I made a back-up batch of six-spice cookies (with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cayenne), just in case I couldn’t stomach the five-spice powder.
For the base cookie dough, I used a recipe from Nick Malgieri’s Perfect Light Desserts (thanks to David Lebovitz for the find). As promised, they were chewy but not tough, cakey, or soggy (things that characterize most low-fat cookies). They obviously don’t taste as buttery as traditional cookies, but no one will know they’re “healthy.” BTW, my favorite low-fat oatmeal cookies are the florentines from Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich, but that’s another post. Now those taste buttery.
In the end, the six-spice cookies were good, but the five-spice ones were better. The latter reminded me of my childhood: dim sum with my grandparents and my mom’s home cooking. They had an earthy taste, and five-spice powder works so well in desserts that I’m going to keep substituting it for cinnamon. It’s really good in coffee fruitcake, for example. Next experiment? My morning oatmeal.
The six-spice cookies had a little bit of heat, and I like that concept too. The point isn’t to make dessert taste like hot sauce, but to give your mouth a little sensation. I have an idea for another cayenne pepper dessert (not with chocolate though; that combination’s been played out enough). Stay tuned for that, if I get a chance to bake more.
Asian Oatmeal Cookies
If the Chinese made oatmeal raisin cookies, these would be it. Goji berries have a sweet-tart flavor akin to raisins and cranberries, and they call out for Asian spices—in this case, Chinese five-spice powder.
For the best results, buy gojis from a reputable natural-foods store. They can cost $20/lb, which is sticker shock compared to the $6-lb bag in Chinese supermarkets, but we know better than to trust Chinese ingredients. I’ve heard horror stories of Chinese gojis that were dyed red. Besides, the better the berries, the more sweet (and less medicinal) they will taste. If you can’t find gojis, raisins or cranberries will work fine.
About 24 cookies
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s Perfect Light Desserts: Fabulous Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and More Made with Real Butter, Sugar, Flour, and Eggs
1 cup flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1/2 cup goji berries
2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper, greased foil, or silicone mats
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set the rack on the lower and upper thirds of the oven.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and five-spice powder.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and granulated sugar until smooth. Mix in the brown sugar, then the egg, applesauce, and vanilla.
4. Stir in the dry ingredients, then the oats and raisins.
5. Drop the batter by rounded teaspoons 2-inches apart on the baking sheets and use a fork to gently flatten the dough.
6. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they “look dull on the surface but are moist and soft.” Rotate baking sheets during baking for even heating.
Storage: Once cool, store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.
Six-Spice Variation: Substitute the five-spice powder with 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves, plus a big pinch of cloves and cayenne pepper.
Tip: Dough can be refrigerated for several hours before baking, which should make the cookies even better.