One of my favorite parts about the holidays as a child was how the entire house would smell of fir and baked goodies. Every year my sisters and I would get to work making cookies and sweets to give as gifts to our neighbors and family friends...well, whatever was left after we got our baker’s commission, that is.
My swift reaction to sugar has left me with very few holiday indulgences (and yes, a lot less holiday regrets too). Nowadays it’s not too difficult to find tasty plant-based cookies and treats, but they’re usually either packed with loads of sugar, and/or some form of refined sweetener (like stevia and xylitol). Not to worry folks, I’ve done it again, creating a delectable soft baked cookie that’s naturally sweetened with whole dates and copious amounts of cacao, and bedazzled with toasted millet to give it that perfect little pepperminty crunch. You just might not even notice the missing sugar as they disappear from the plate!
The scientific name, theobroma cacao literally translates to “Food of the Gods” in Greek. And thanks to curious scientists, we now understand more about how this heavenly food works it’s miracles on our health. Although instead of "Food of the Gods", I suggest it should be retitled to, “Food for Your Blood”, for its impacts on the blood and circulatory system is striking. The cocoa bean (which is actually a seed) is an extremely rich source of several important essential minerals for blood health, including magnesium, copper, potassium and iron. Although we are beginning to understand that many of the health benefits of cocoa are mediated by it’s phytochemicals: procyanidins, theobromine, epicatechin, catechins, and caffeine, in addition to the plethora of their valuable minerals.
Research is finding positive impacts on all sorts of blood and circulation-health indicators for cacao, such as blood pressure, blood vessel function and flow-mediated dilation, red blood cell, platelet and plasma functions, and insulin sensitivity and resistance (among others). It seems like there are a few components that contribute to these wonderful effects, but several studies highlight the flavanol, epicatechin, as a major magic maker for your vessels.
And it doesn’t stop there, the improvements to your circulation appears to even reach all the way to your skin, which is why you sometimes find cacao in anti-aging beauty products. These bitty beans deliver a one-two punch because they contain epicatechin which improves cutaneous blood flow, as well being rich in a variety of polyphenols, some particular to cocoa, that protect the skin from the inside by greatly reducing oxidative stress, a major factor of skin deterioration and aging.
Now before you go digging into the 20-pound box of Belgian chocolates, there is a considerable difference between the amount of polyphenols (including epicatechin) found in cacao powder as compared to milk chocolate. The more the beans are processed and mixed with other ingredients, the less available the cacao goodness becomes, so by the time it’s made into milk chocolate it’s doing more for your taste buds than for your health. One study went as far as to lay it all out nicely in a chart for us!
Like cacao, dates are also rich in flavonoids, and other phytochemicals such as carotenoids, tannins and anthocyanins (read more about the curative powers of carotenoids or vibrant anthocyanins). What I find cool is they aren’t just Nature’s candy, they're one of Nature’s multi-vitamins, throwing down a combination of at least 15 different minerals, most of which show some sweetness to your bones, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, copper, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, sulfur, fluorine, and manganese.
Since dates are my go-to sugar substitute, I thought it would be good to go over the sugar component of dates. Although dates are rich in carbohydrates, they impact your health very differently than refined and processed sugars do, and are actually considered a “low glycemic index” food. How can this be, you ask? Because not all carbohydrates affect your body in the same way. When sugar is saddled up with fiber (as in fruit), your body can’t absorb the sugar rapidly, preventing insulin spikes and resistance. Fructose in concentrated amounts (such as in high-fructose corn syrup) can be damaging to your health (especially your liver and blood vessels). Although it would be quite difficult to eat the amount of fruit necessary to cause those issues, you would get much too full from eating all of the fiber first. A small, but well designed study was even able to demonstrate that the participants with type 2 diabetes had the same low glycemic response to eating dates as healthy individuals, giving us extra reassurance that we aren’t asking for trouble with this natural confection.
And dates aren’t just a high fiber food, which has its own slew of benefits, dates also get to tout carrying a very special type of fiber, a polysaccharide that goes by the name, beta glucan. In the Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies article, we learned that beta glucan helps curb appetite and keeps things happy in our digestive tract, but this time we have some serious bragging rites around cancer and organ health. Several animal studies have tested dates against induced cancer in certain targeted organs, one study on hepatocellular carcinoma (a nasty cancer of the liver), gave convincing results led them to argue that dates didn’t just fight the cancer, but actually seemed to be able to reverse the liver damage, returning cell health, enzymes and inflammatory markers back to normal in addition to inhibiting the cancer growth! As far as I know, that’s something refined sugar definitely can’t boast.
So this year you don’t have to pass on indulging in all of the holiday treats, just whip up some of these bad boys, so you can have yourself a merry little nibble. Your sweet tooth will be satisfied, and your insides can be too!
This cookies make great holiday gifts for recipients with sensitivities!
PEPPERMINT CHOCOLATE COOKIES
24+ 3" Cookies
Gluten Free, Added Sugar Free
Prep: 20-25 mins, Bake Time: 12 mins
⅓ cup millet (or about 6+ crushed candy canes if you aren't entirely avoiding sugar)
¾ cup gluten free flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp ground flax seed
2 cups pitted dates (or 11+ oz)
2 ½ tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp peppermint extract
½ cup nut or seed butter (peanut butter isn’t recommended)
2 Tbsp + 1 tsp plant-based butter
5 Tbsp non-dairy milk
Get ready for some hot dates:
Heat enough water to submerge dates completely in a heat safe bowl, 2-3 cups depending on your bowl size. Soak dates for a minimum of 6-7+ minutes until you are ready to blend. (Pro tip, splitting dates open with you fingers will shorten to soak time)
Prepare “flax eggs” by combining 2 Tbsp ground flax seeds and 3 Tbsp non-dairy milk, mixing well. Stirring at least once while toasting the millet.
Make “Peppermint Crunch” (*skip this step is using crushed candy canes) by heating the millet on the stove, dry toasting for about 4-6 mins, moving around the pan frequently.
Once toasted carefully transfer to a small bowl and add 1 tsp of plant based butter, mixing to coat, then add ½ tsp peppermint extract (don’t be surprised if it sizzles a little). Mix well and set aside.
It’s Goo Time!:
Using a slotted spoon, carefully drain dates and add to the processor (remember the bowl will be hot). Add ½ cup nut butter, flax egg, 3 Tbsp non-dairy milk, 2 Tbsp plant-based butter, 2 ½ tsp vanilla extract, 2 tsp almond extract, and ½ tsp peppermint extract, and process well, 2-3 mins, scraping down sides if needed, until date goo forms.
Add 2 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp baking soda, and ¾ cup cacao, again scraping and mixing until chocolate goo forms.
If you processor or blender (Vitamix perhaps) is powerful enough, slowly add ¾ cup flour to the goo mixture ¼ cup at a time, and pulse minimally until a stiff dough forms. If your’s is not powerful enough (like mine), use a spatula to transfer batter to a medium bowl and mix in flour manually until a thick and sticky dough forms (I usually hand knead at the very end).
Let sit for 5-10 mins to set while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Let the Baking Begin!
Dough will lose it’s stickiness while resting, and will easily roll into dough balls. Form into 1-1 ½ inch balls, then roll dough balls in the Peppermint Crunch to coat (if using candy canes, you may want to only coat the top side).
Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and flatten and shape as desired. These cookies won’t spread during baking, so it’s ok to place them close together.
Bake for 11-13 minutes, allow to cool on the sheet for several minutes before moving to rack or plate.