Archive for Light Delights

Better Breakfast Cookies

breakfast cookies

Vegan. Gluten free. No added fat. No added sugar. Sounds like a recipe for disaster…or the holy grail. I’ve tried many variations of nutritious cookies, and they’re either gummy door stops or no healthier than regular cookies. For a while, I thought these cookies were the best I could do. Then I found a much better recipe on Watching What I Eat, which I prefer over many traditional cookies. The ingredients don’t sound special, but give these a try, okay?

You may find that they replace your muffins, protein bars, and granola bars. These cookies have been lifesavers when I rush out the door in the morning. I time my commute by the minute; if I’m not at the train station by 9:06, there’s a good chance I’ll be late to work. So thank you, Cookies, for being my meal in my hand!

Feel free to make these cookies your own. I love coconut oil (it’s not as unhealthy as previously thought and may even be a superfood), and it gives a toasty texture and flavor. Keep in mind that they’re faintly sweet, so do adjust your tastebuds. While traditional cookies should come out of the oven just when the edges set, I bake these to the upper limit so the edges are crisp and insides aren’t gummy. Be sure to try them fresh from the oven!

Better Breakfast Cookies

Rating: 41

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 16 cookies

Better Breakfast Cookies

These cookies are endlessly customizable and can take your favorite ingredients and spices. To make these gluten free, use oats that are certified gluten free (regular oats are cross-bread with wheat or may be contaminated through handling).


2 dark, speckled bananas, mashed until smooth and creamy
1/3 cup peanut butter (chunky, creamy, or natural)
1 Tbsp virgin coconut oil (optional)
2/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups rolled or quick-cooking oats
1/8 tsp fine salt
1/4 cup dried coconut or nuts
1/3 cup chocolate chips, dried fruit, or any combination


  1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or greased foil. Preheat oven to 350° F with the racks in the upper and lower thirds.
  2. In a large bowl, thoroughly mix the mashed banana, peanut butter, and coconut oil (if using) with a wooden spoon. Then incorporate the applesauce and vanilla.
  3. Stir in the remaining ingredients: the oats, salt, coconut/nuts, and chocolate chips/dried fruit.
  4. Let dough rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Drop the dough by hockey puck–sized spoonfuls and flatten to 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick.
  6. Bake for 20-30 min. (rotate cookie sheets after 10 min.), until golden brown on the edges. When completely cool, store in a cookie tin. The cookies attract moisture; you may need to store in the fridge after the second day.


Adapted from Watching What I Eat

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Pumpkin-Spice Granola

pumpkin-spice granola recipe

When I was little, my brother used to joke that a box of Christmas candy would probably go through so many regiftings that it’d make its way back to its original owner. I don’t think the candy was junk per se, but it carried an air of fatigue, that it was the 124th instance of unbridled sugar. Even when I give gifts, I wonder if the other person begrudgingly eats my stuff.

So this year, I decided to give something healthy yet festive. It also has a long shelf life, so you don’t have to eat it all now, though I hope you do. The idea came to me when I made a care package for a friend who’s spending the holidays abroad. If she couldn’t come here, I’d bring the holidays to her. This is my condensed version of Thanksgiving and Christmas: granola with spices, cranberries, and pecans.

The basic granola recipe is from Alton Brown; I’ve dialed down the sugar and oil for my tastes, and you can create endless variations by adding your favorites fruits, nuts, and spices. For example, Alton’s original recipe calls for coconut, but I like to substitute flax seed or toasted okara (leftover soy bean pulp from homemade soy milk).

Related Link: more edible holiday gifts

Pumpkin-Spice Granola

Rating: 41

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Serving Size: 1/2 cup granola

Pumpkin-Spice Granola

Inspired by Good Eats


1 cup raw pecans
3 cups oats, rolled or quick cooking
3/4 cup ground flax seed
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried cranberries


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Toast pecans for about 10 min., or until lightly colored and fragrant. Chop coarsely. Lower oven temperature to 250° F.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pecans, flax seed, spices, and brown sugar.
  3. In a small bowl, combine maple syrup, oil, and salt.
  4. Add maple syrup mixture to the oats, stir, and spread on two sheet pans. Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes for even browning.
  5. Remove from oven and mix dried cranberries till distributed evenly.

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Greek-Yogurt Cheesecake with Pomegranate Molasses

Greek yogurt cheesecake
Please excuse picture quality. It was taken with a camera phone.

It was near midnight when a friend ushered me into his kitchen and whipped out some tasting spoons. “I have some thing to show you,” he said. So I gathered round, and my friend poured a ruby-red liquid into my spoon. I was hypnotized: this syrup had the richness of cherries and tartness of raspberries. It was pomegranate molasses.

Made from the boiled-down juice of pomegranates, this ingredient is common in Middle Eastern foods, pairing with lentils, lamb, and red pepper (in muhammara). It has applications for dessert as well, cutting through richness and sweetness. For example, it pairs beautifully with frozen yogurt and buttermilk pancakes. The good brands also don’t add sugar, which is ideal if you’re trying to limit processed foods. You can also make your own, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort.

I thought pomegranate molasses would go well with cheesecake, so I took my favorite low-fat cheesecake recipe and substituted Greek yogurt for the puréed cottage cheese. It was even easier than the original, since you didn’t have to blend the cottage cheese in a food processor. The cheesecake was silky smooth, and everyone clamored for seconds.

Greek-Yogurt Cheesecake with Pomegranate Molasses

Cheesecake base adapted from Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich; crust adapted from The 1997 Joy of Cooking; topping adapted from Three Cities of Spain

For graham cracker crust
1 1/4 cup fine graham cracker crumbs (recommended brand: Midel)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar

For cheesecake base
2 cups 2% Greek yogurt (recommended brand: Fage)
8 ounces reduced-fat Neufchâtel cream cheese, at room temperature
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons strained lemon juice
1/4 teaspoons salt

For sour cream topping
16 ounces sour cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For garnish
1/2 cup pomegranate molasses

Make crust:

  • Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 350° F. Fit a round piece of parchment paper in the bottom of an 8-inch round springform pan and grease the sides. Line the outside of the pan with plenty of foil. Boil a kettle of water.
  • Mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter with a fork until all ingredients are moistened. Spread the mixture evenly in the pan. Using your fingertips or the flat bottom of a glass cup, press the mixture firmly over the bottom of the pan.
  • Bake until the crust’s lightly browned and firm, 10 to 15 minutes.

Make filling and bake cake:

  • Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy. On low speed, add Greek yogurt and eggs, one at a time; then sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, and salt, scraping down bowl between each addition. Pour the filling into the crust.
  • Place the cheesecake pan in large baking dish set on an oven rack. Carefully pour boiling water around the pan to a depth of about 1 inch. Gently slide the oven rack in to avoid splashing water. Bake until cheesecake has puffed and risen slightly and is just beginning to pull away from the edges of the pan, about 40 to 45 minutes. Leave the oven on.

Make topping:

  • Stir together sour cream, sugar, and vanilla. Drop by spoonfuls around the edge of the cake and spread gently over the center, smoothing evenly. Bake for 10 minutes.
  • Remove cheesecake from water bath and set on rack to cool. Run knife around the edge of the cake to loosen. When cool, cover and chill for at least 12 hours or up to 2 days.

Unmold and serve:

  • Remove side from the pan and transfer to a plate. Cut with a sharp thin knife, dipping in hot water and wiping dry between each cut. Drizzle pomegranate molasses on top of each slice.

Low-fat variation:

  • Bake in an 8-inch springform pan. Omit the sour cream topping and substitute the crust with 3-4 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs. After unmolding, press the crumbs around the side of the cake.

Related links:
L.A. Times‘ pomegranate molasses taste test
NY Times: How to cook with pomegranate molasses

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Homemade Bubble Tea

bubble tea
Photo: maaco/Flickr

As we all gorge on cupcakes, frozen yogurt, or whatever the latest fad is, I’d like to make a case for bubble tea. In the 1980s, some genius in Taiwan discovered that you can add cooked tapioca pearls (aka boba) to beverages, allowing you to eat and drink at the same time. It hit its peak in the U.S. in the early 2000s, until those Betty Crocker knockoffs took its place.

To me though, bubble tea is timeless because I drank it when I was young, and we tend to idolize our childhood treats. The quintessential bubble tea has bouncy, sweet pearls (otherwise you’re eating soggy, flavorless starch); tea so strong it could pass for coffee; and sweetened condensed milk (just like my grandfather took his tea). I submitted my version for publication at in 2001, and over the course of six years, followed up three times. I gave up after that and remembered that I’ve been sitting on a recipe for a decade now.

I’ve seen other methods and recipes, but they vaguely tell you to brew a cup of tea. That’s not going to work; you need far more tea than you think. And here is the method for chewy pearls.

Bubble Tea

Serves 10

2 1/2 slabs peen tang (Chinese brown sugar), or 3/4 cup tightly packed brown sugar
1 (16 oz.) package large tapioca pearls
20-40 black tea bags or loose equivalent
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk

Prepare the sugar syrup: (You can do this while the tapioca cooks, if you want.) In a small saucepan, combine sugar with half a cup of water. Heat on medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves.

Prepare the pearls: Fill a large stockpot with 14 cups water (about half way) and bring to a boil.

Pour the tapioca pearls in the water. Bring back to a boil. Turn the the heat to low and boil, covered. Cook for 30 min., stirring occasionally to prevent the tapioca from sticking. At this point, they should be halfway done.

Turn off the heat and let the tapioca sit for another 30 min., covered. They’re done when they expand and are translucent, except for a pinhead-sized dot in the center.

Drain the tapioca through a colander and soak them in cold water to prevent further cooking. After a couple minutes, the tapioca should be completely cool. Drain again into a large container. Coat the tapioca with sugar syrup. Although they’re best the day they’re made, they can be refrigerated for a couple days or frozen indefinitely, laid flat in a zip-top bag. To use frozen tapioca, break off a chunk and boil in water till they’re chewy again.

Prepare the tea: For each serving, boil 1 cup water and steep with 2 bags for hot tea, or 4 for iced, for 10 minutes. Tea should look very dark.

For iced tea, refrigerate for several hours before adding the rest of the ingredients. Prior to serving, stir 1 1/2 tbsp of sugar syrup and 1 tsp-1 tbsp sweetened condensed milk (depending on your taste) in each cup. Add 1/4 cup pearl tapioca. Drink through fat straws.

Notes about ingredients/supplies (you can find them online or at a Chinese supermarket)

Chinese brown sugar: Peen tang, or Chinese brown candy, is less processed than regular sugar and has a rich, caramel taste. It can’t be used in traditional pastry though: it must be dissolved in water.

Tapioca pearls: these are larger than the kind you use in pudding; when cooked, they’ll expand to the size of marbles. Bubble tea houses use the black variety, which has brown sugar added during manufacturing. White tapioca is fine too. Be sure to read your package; some are quick cooking and only take about 15 minutes. I haven’t used this kind because it’s par-cooked. It’s like substituting minute rice for the real thing.

Fat straws: these are wide enough to accommodate the pearls

Related Links:
Cold-brew iced coffee
Char siu bao (Chinese roast pork buns) from scratch
Tea-poached prunes
Japanese green tea cheesecake
Green tea biscotti

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Breakfast Cookies

breakfast cookies

I’ve always been enamored with eating cookies for breakfast. After all, muffins aren’t much better; they’re basically cake without the frosting. If people can make healthy muffins, could a cookie be far?

The trouble is, most breakfast cookies have all the butter and sugar, but the whole grains are an afterthought. And then healthy cookies are disappointingly doughy.

When I saw this recipe on 101 Cookbooks, it sounded too good to be true. No added sugar? Vegan? 100% whole grain? No copout substitutes (like vegan buttery spread or Ener-G Egg Replacer)? It’s rare that a recipe with one of these attributes is delicious.

I’m happy to report that you can feel good eating these cookies for breakfast. Each cookie is crazy high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. There’s a macaroon-esque chewiness, crisp edges, and cakey interior. The heartiness of the oats, richness of the coconut, and brightness of the fruit play well off of each other. My only complaint is that these crumble easily. Oh well, just think of it as soft granola.

The recipe is also highly customizable. Feel free to clean out your cupboard. You can use raisins (because you went on a healthy shopping spree and to your dismay, they became hard pellets), flaxseed meal (because there’s only so much you can sprinkle on oatmeal every morning), and applesauce (because the jar’s starting to look lonely after you dabbled in low-fat baking a while ago), but feel free to use any dried fruit (or chocolate chips), nut meal, and puréed fruit (even mix in a little nut/seed butter, such as tahini).

Breakfast Cookies
Adapted from Nikki’s Healthy Cookie recipe on 101 Cookbooks

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups rolled oats
2/3 cup flaxseed meal
1/3 cup coconut, finely shredded and unsweetened
heaping 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup raisins

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, racks in the lower and top thirds. Line two baking sheets with foil and grease with oil.
  2. In a large bowl combine the applesauce, vanilla extract, and olive oil. Set aside. In another bowl whisk together the oats, flaxseed meal, coconut, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until combined. Fold in the raisins.The dough is a bit looser than a standard cookie dough.
  3. Drop firmly packed dollops of the dough, each about 2 teaspoons in size, an inch apart, onto the baking sheet. Bake for 12 – 14 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown.

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Banana Upside-Down Brownies

banana brownies

I have a confession. I really like bananas (they’re a healthy, portable snack and I go crazy over banana-chocolate cake), but I feel guilty about the environmental and social impacts.

Bananas are grown with some of the highest pesticide levels of any tropical crop. Normally we don’t worry about it because we don’t eat the contaminated peel, but the pesticides leach into soil and kill surrounding wildlife. Also, bananas are grown in Latin America (imagine the fuel costs and how unripe they have to be to ship properly), where workers are denied fair wages and health care. Before you throw your hands up in frustration, please buy organic and fair-trade bananas (sparingly). Yes they’re more expensive, but that’s how much they’re supposed to cost. And then go ahead and make these banana brownies.

I first got this idea when I went to a demo and ate brownies with grilled bananas. So gooey and good. I decided to make it a one-pan affair by baking the bananas and brownies together. The brownies are an old standby. They’re like the box-mix kind, with their chewy bite and crackly, paper-thin crust, but better. They also happen to be low-fat. The only brownie I like more has three sticks of butter and 3/4 pound of chocolate, so you can’t really compare. The topping has a couple tablespoons of butter or optionally none at all, making the whole thing healthier than expected.

Personally I think these need nuts to break up the gooey texture, but a lot of people who like fudgy brownies liked these as is. If you’re not a fudgy fan, I suggest adding a handful of toasted walnuts or cocoa nibs (toss with a teaspoon of flour, so they don’t sink to the bottom) during the last stage of mixing.

Banana Upside-Down Brownies

Topping recipe adapted from David Lebovitz; brownies adapted from Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts by Alice Medrich
16 servings

For the topping:
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons (100 g) packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons water or butter; cubed, at room temperature
3-4 ripe medium bananas (organic and fair-trade please)
A few drops of lemon juice

For the brownies:
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour (112 g)
1/2 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon unsweetened dutch process cocoa
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso or coffee powder, dissolved in 1 teaspoon hot water
Optional: 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts or 1/4 cup cocoa nibs, tossed with a teaspoon or two of flour

  1. Make the Topping: place the brown sugar and water or butter in an 8×8″ metal cake pan. Place the pan directly on the stove and warm over low heat, stirring until the sugar is the texture of wet sand. If using water, simmer for about 45 seconds. If using butter, stir just until the sugar is moist and bubbling, then remove from heat. (It won’t be completely smooth, and there may be a few bare spots.) Let cool to room temperature.
  2. Peel and slice the bananas in 1/4-inch (1 cm) slices. Arrange them, slightly overlapping, over the melted brown sugar. Sprinkle with a few drops of lemon juice.
  3. Make the Brownies: place the rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350°F.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.
  5. Over medium heat, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Turn off the heat and stir in the sugar until combined (texture will remain gritty). Add the eggs, vanilla, and dissolved espresso powder. Beat with a wooden spoon about 40 strokes, scraping the sides of the pan as necessary. Add the dry ingredients and the walnuts/nibs (if using) and beat for another 40 strokes, or just until completely combined.
  6. Scrape the mixture into the pan and spread evenly. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out a little gooey. Note: the brownie recipe calls for 20-25 minutes, but mine were nowhere near done then. I have a temperamental oven, so check the brownies at 20 minutes and every 5 minutes after that, and be prepared to bake for up to 40.
  7. Cool for about 20 minutes, then run a knife along the edges of the brownies to help it release from the pan. Invert the brownies onto a serving platter. When completely cool, cut into 16 pieces. If keeping for more than one day, store in the fridge.

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Red Velvet Cake with Beets

red velvet cake with beets

Sorry to invoke wrath of Southerners, but red velvet is not a cake flavor. It’s a fancy name for a neon novelty. According to legend, the color comes from the chemical reaction of cocoa powder and acid (nowadays, we enhance it with food coloring). That doesn’t sound right, because most recipes only have two tablespoons of cocoa, which isn’t enough to cause a huge change in hue, much less chocolatiness.

Even though the FDA says that food coloring is nontoxic, I have second thoughts when I have to dump a whole bottle of red #40, ground beetles, or whatever into a cake. I’d rather use non-lab produced ingredients, like beets. And seriously, why so stingy with the cocoa? The cake has to taste like chocolate.

I found a recipe that satisfies both criteria: it’s from the American Cancer Society’s Taste More Birthdays Cake Contest. As the name suggests, it’s semi healthy with less sugar and fat but plenty of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. The ingredients sound strange, but the earthiness of the beets goes well with the chocolate, and the fruits add tartness. Just tell your friends that you made chocolate-raspberry cake, and they won’t have to know your secret. It’s so moist and rich that I don’t think it needs frosting. My only complaint is that it loses its bright red color after it comes out of the oven.

I adapted the recipe so the prep time’s cut in half (using canned beets saves more than two hours). I also changed the dried fruits so it’s less expensive.

New Red Velvet Cake

Adapted from Alexandra Mudry
(Makes one 9”x14” cake, two 8” round cakes or 24 cupcakes)

1 1/2 15-oz. cans unseasoned beets (to make 2 c. purée)
1/2 c. dried dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 c. prunes, coarsely chopped
1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. expeller-pressed canola oil
3 large cage-free eggs
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 tsp. instant espresso powder or instant coffee
1/2 c. unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
1 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Place beets in a blender or food processor with 2-3 tbsp. water. Purée beets until smooth. Blend in the dates and prunes. Set aside. (Can be made several days ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)

Preheat oven to 375° F. Spray baking pan(s) with oil and dust with flour. Discard the excess flour (if making cupcakes, just line the tins with paper wrappers).

Combine the oil, eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric beater on medium speed until smooth and light colored.

Add the espresso powder to the melted chocolate and stir until combined.

Turning the speed down to low, slowly drizzle the melted chocolate into the mixture. Once the chocolate has been added, turn off the machine and scrape the sides of the bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine the cocoa powder, applesauce and beet purée. Add this mixture to the egg mixture. Beat on medium speed to incorporate.

Sift the remaining dry ingredients together and then gently fold into the mixture (don’t overmix or the cake will become tough).

Pour batter into the pan(s) and bake for 40-45 minutes (or 20-25 for cupcakes), or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool and remove from pan(s). If not using immediately, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Cake can be made a day in advance. (The cake is delicate and crumbly so it’s much easier to work with once chilled. )

Cream Cheese Frosting (optional):
24 oz. (3 pkgs) reduced fat cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 c. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Lightly beat the cream cheese and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

Scrape down sides of bowl then add confectioners’ sugar. Cream together until smooth. Don’t overmix or the frosting will become too soft and difficult to spread.

If using a 9” x 14” pan, cut the cake lengthwise down the middle so you have two layers.

Cover with cream cheese frosting.

Serves 10-12 generously.

Vegetables in Dessert:
Heirloom Tomato Cake, Chocolate-Potato Cake, Bean Brownies, Classic Carrot Cake, Potato-Chip Cookies, and more

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Blueberry “Cream Cheese” Bread Pudding

No matter how many times I make bread pudding (it’s so easy you can do it every day), I’ll never get tired of it. The crusty edges, the oozing center. And you don’t have to be ashamed about eating it for breakfast.

Here’s a simple bread pudding with summer blueberries. I thought cream cheese would go well in it, but I wanted to keep it healthy and substituted Greek yogurt. It’s a lazy person’s cheesecake, but in no way does it taste like a slacker’s dessert.

blueberry bread pudding

Blueberry “Cream Cheese” Bread Pudding

Inspired by Emeril Lagasse

Oil, for greasing pan
8 slices day-old crusty bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
4 large eggs
1 cup Greek yogurt* (recommended brand: Fage)
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups milk
2 cups blueberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease an 8×8-inch pan with oil.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, yogurt, sugar and vanilla until very smooth. Stir in milk and add the bread and blueberries. Let sit for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake until the pudding is set in the center, about 55 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes. Bread pudding is best hot out of the oven, or refrigerated after a day.

*To make Greek-style yogurt, put 2 cups of plain yogurt in a strainer lined with cheesecloth, a coffee filter, or a paper towel (made without bleach). Place the strainer over a large bowl and drain in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or until the yogurt is as thick as sour cream. Makes 1 cup.

Related links:
Nutella bread pudding recipe

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Asian Oatmeal Cookies

five-spice-oatmeal cookies

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. 🙂

P.S. I’m on Twitter. Come find me at It is Ruth Reichl‘s fault. I saw her there and realized how fun it is.

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.

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Lazy Banana Pudding

banana pudding

Just because it’s hot and sticky outside, it doesn’t mean you can’t make dessert. Especially one that doesn’t require the oven or stove.

This dish is as much a function of the weather as it is the economy. Sure, stone fruits and berries are in season, but my local supermarket was selling cherries for $6.99 per quarter pound. So I’ve been buying bananas instead. When I found free organic vanilla wafers at a street fair, I immediately thought of banana pudding. Instead of making custard though, why not use yogurt?

The result was a little tangy, but it was entirely worth the two-minute effort. You really don’t need a recipe (Layer yogurt with cookies and sliced bananas. Refrigerate. Eat.), but here’s approximate amounts.

Effortless Banana Pudding

4 cups plain or vanilla yogurt (see note)
60 to 70 vanilla wafers
4 to 5 organic bananas, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Line the bottom and sides of a 10-inch pie pan or a wide 1 1/2- to 2-quart dish with wafers.

Layer with half the yogurt and bananas. Put another layer of wafers on top, and repeat with the yogurt and bananas. Save a little yogurt and cover the top of the bananas completely, to prevent browning.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

Note: Because the bananas and wafers are sweet, you don’t want the yogurt to be loaded with sugar. I prefer plain yogurt and flavor it to taste (1-2 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract). Seek out a high-quality plain yogurt, or else it will be grainy and very sour. I don’t like Dannon, Axelrod, La Yogurt, Stonyfield (the low-fat variety), and Trader Joe’s. Wallaby and Brown Cow are more mild.

Although conventional bananas are safe to eat, they contain far more pesticides than American-grown fruit, and are possibly killing off songbirds.

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