Holiday Treats Without the Sugar

strawberries. | Alyssa Ganong

My grandmother baked dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies for the holidays. Each tin had an array of home-baked yumminess. Once in her kitchen, I was enveloped with the aroma of chocolate, spices and pure sweetness. The peppery scent of ginger cookies, the nuttiness of Russian teacakes and the baking of chocolate-chip cookies were only a few of the Christmas smells I recall. My brother and I devoured each cookie with great enthusiasm.

The ingredients my grandmother used in her baking and cooking were mainly refined sugar, bleached white flour and other processed foods. Times have changed and options are now available for a more health-conscious diet with unbleached and organic alternatives.

The holidays can bring out the best and worst in us when it comes to food and drink. We tend to overindulge; we eat too much, drink too much and ingest a lot of sugary foods. It can be challenging with holiday parties and an abundance of delicious sweets.

While too much refined sugar can wreak havoc on your system, deprivation is no fun either. Creating new twists on dessert favorites sans the refined sugar is my passion.

There are many ways to make delicious and tasty desserts that don’t require refined sugar, gluten or dairy. Fruit pies, cobblers and crisps are easy to make using natural alternative sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. Apples, pears and dates are an excellent way to sweeten desserts, as well.

Chocolate is my weakness and creating new and inventive ways to get a chocolate fix without sugar or dairy is an incentive. At a recent party, I prepared three desserts without sugar that were lauded by colleagues and friends. I made cacao-chocolate peanut-butter cups, mint chocolate stars and cacao-dipped strawberries. They were easy to make, were rich in flavor and delicious. The desserts used a base of ground cacao, coconut oil and maple syrup.

Avocado chocolate mousse is another healthy dessert that’s fabulous for entertaining. Cacao coconut and almond fudge is creamy and loaded with coconut and walnuts — I love creating variations with this recipe.

Anything with coconut is my jam. Cacao-covered coconut is akin to a Mounds Bar, but not nearly as sweet and sugary. Add some almonds and it’s a novel rendition of an Almond Joy. A friend who lives in Bridgeport brought me some Coconut Haystacks from a local bakery. They were divine but made with sugar. I recreated them using dates and honey as sweeteners. They are the perfect addition to any holiday dessert tray.

Many of us have personal reasons for not eating sugar or looking for alternatives. We also differ on which natural sweeteners to use as a substitute. Monk Fruit, xylitol and erythritol are the rage with people following a ketogenic diet (a low-carb, high-fat diet). These substitutes are low in carbohydrates and sugar. Stevia, a plant-based sweetener, is also often used in place of refined sugar. Agave is great in tequila but not a great substitute due to its processing and high-fructose content.

I tend to stick with maple syrup, honey and dates in my recipes. Let me know what desserts rock your holiday this season and share your recipes with me.

Priya Hutner holding a tray of holiday treats. | Alyssa Ganong

CACAO PEANUT-BUTTER CUPS
From the kitchen of Priya Hutner
½ C of coconut oil
¼ C of raw cacao powder
1½ T pure maple syrup (more to sweeten, if needed)
3 t peanut butter
Chocolate mold or mini-muffin liners

 Melt coconut oil and pour into a mixing bowl. Add cacao and maple syrup and mix well. Fill half of mold or liner with a spoonful of mixture and place in refrigerator for 5 to 10 minutes or until solid.

Add peanut butter on top of the hardened mixture and top with the cacao mixture. Refrigerate until hardened and enjoy.