I’ve had a serious love affair with sweets for as long as I can remember.
This risqué affair, though, has caused a lifelong internal battle between my sweet tooth and my passion for healthy, whole-foods, plant-based eating. For those of you who understand my daily struggle, here is a comprehensive go-to guide for creating your own healthy, whole-foods, plant-based desserts. These morsels are vegan, gluten-free, and mostly raw. While many creations will truly be healthy for you, some are more for those times where you really just need a sweet treat and should be eaten in moderation. Regardless, these little delights are healthier than your average cookie; that much is for sure. Plus, not only are these types of treats so much healthier for you, they are ridiculously easy to make. There is no baking or cooking involved unless you are melting chocolate (more on that later!). The only special kitchen equipment you might need is a food processor, though a blender would probably do in a pinch. So let’s get to it!
The four components you will need are a base, a binder, a sweetener, and a flavor. Sometimes your binder is also your sweetener or flavor. All you have to do is put all four components into a bowl and mix! If you use nuts as your base or dates as your binder, you will need to mix in a food processor or blender to grind those ingredients up to allow them to congeal properly together.
1. Base – This is typically a flour or nut. You could also give grains like gluten-free oats, quinoa, or amaranth a try — or even crushed gluten-free pretzels or flax meal. Though you may be tempted to soak your nuts to ease the blending process, don’t. You aren’t trying to make a sauce or soup. It’s okay to have chunks of nut in your cookies and brownies and you don’t want your creation to be soggy or too soft. That said, this is totally your creation so give soaking the nuts a try if you want a super smooth treat with no nutty chunks in it. For the most part, you only need one type of base per recipe, but feel free to experiment with two or three together. I love testing out different flours and nuts, but the ones I find that work best are:
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans
- Flour: really any gluten-free flour should work. I always just use whatever I happen to have at the time, which is usually an all-purpose flour. I recently bought brown rice flour because a dinner recipe I found called for it, so I have been using that a lot in my creations lately and really love it.
One batch of cookies, brownies, or bars needs about 1 cup of a base, though you might not need a full cup of flour, add a little at a time and stop before your creation starts to look dried out. I actually have a chocolate peanut butter fudge recipe that only needs 2 tablespoons of flour. A little goes a long way with flour.
2. Binder – This is what holds your dessert together. My favorite binder to use is dates because they perfectly clump your recipe ingredients together and double as a sweetener. Other good binders include butters (primarily nut butters) and oils (primarily coconut oil). You need about 1 cup of halved dates or ½ cup of butters and oils for one batch.
3. Sweetener – As I stated before, dates often double as the sweetener, so no additional sweetness is needed. If you have a sweet tooth like mine, though, you are going to want a little extra something. My absolute favorite sweetener is maple syrup. I use pure maple syrup in almost all my dessert recipes. Once in a while I’ll use evaporated cane juice, also called raw sugar, in cookie recipes. You need about 1 to 3 tablespoons of sweetener for one batch. Honestly, the only sweeteners I ever use are dates, maple syrup, and evaporated cane juice, but if you’re itching to experiment with others, here are some more to choose from: agave nectar, brown rice syrup, maple sugar, date sugar, molasses.
4. Flavor – This is the fun part, let your imagination run wild! This is the component that makes your dessert what it is. Are you making peanut butter cookies? Lemon bars? Chocolate brownies? The amount of flavor you add to your recipe really varies depending on how strong you want the flavor to be. If you are going for mint bars, I wouldn’t use more than ½ tablespoon peppermint extract. On the other hand, if you are making raw brownies, I would use about ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder. Be sure to experiment with adding more than one flavor to a recipe. Orange Chocolate Truffles anyone? Here are some examples of flavors to try and how much I would use for one batch:
- Peanut Butter – ½ cup
- Coconut, shredded or flakes – ½ cup
- Cocoa or Cacao, unsweetened – ¼ cup
- Chocolate Chips – ½ cup – 1 cup
- Mint – ½ tbsp peppermint extract
- Lemon – zest of 1 lemon and/or juice of ½ a lemon
- Carrot – 2 carrots shredded
- Vanilla – 2 tsp vanilla extract
- Lavender, dried (now were getting really fancy) – 1-2 tsp
- Orange – zest and/or juice of 1 orange
So again, all you have to remember is base + binder + sweetener + flavor. Here are some examples of no-bake recipe ideas:
- Pecans + dates + unsweetened cocoa powder = amazing raw brownies
- Flour + peanut butter + maple syrup + vanilla extract + chocolate chips = chocolate peanut butter fudge
- Almonds + dates + maple syrup + lemon zest and juice = lemon bars
- Flour + coconut oil + maple syrup + peppermint extract = mint cookies
- Almonds + dates + maple syrup + peanut butter + vanilla extract = peanut butter cookies
- Flour + dates + maple syrup + shredded carrot = carrot cake bars
Get Fancy! – Once you have the hang of creating basic healthy cookies and bars, try taking your creations to the next level. How about…
- Frosting your cookies with healthy frosting made by blending cashews (one of those times where you will need to soak the nuts first), maple syrup, coconut oil, plus a little vanilla extract and lemon, and a small amount of water as needed for the right consistency.
- Pressing the middle of your cookies in with your thumb and filling with a dollop of fruit jam, or sandwich jam between two cookies.
- Dipping your mint or peanut butter cookies in chocolate. Either mix 2 tablespoons of cocoa/cacao with 2 tablespoons coconut oil and 2 tablespoons maple syrup, or the less healthy version would be to melt a ½ cup of chocolate chips with a double boiler or a microwave.
- Mixing dried fruit like cranberries and raisins into your creations
- Dusting your cookies with powdered sugar (okay this isn’t exactly healthy) or cinnamon.
By The Way… This method also works with making recipes other than desserts, such as bean burgers (though you do need to bake these in the oven):
1 cup crushed tortilla chips + one 15 oz. can mashed pinto beans + diced ½ onion + ½ cup salsa = most incredible bean burger you will ever eat in your life! Bake at 350 for 12 minutes, flip, and bake for 10 more minutes.
Now get your behind in the kitchen and start creating. Have fun!
Lindsay Greenfield, VLCE, is a certified Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator through the Main Street Vegan Academy and has a certificate in Plant-based Nutrition through the T. Colin Campbell Foundation and e-Cornell. She works for a large animal rights organization in animal cruelty investigations and spends her free time blogging on her website www.vegan101girl.com. When she isn’t creating healthy recipes and taking a ridiculous number of food pictures, she can be found doing yoga and Pilates, or reading a good book. You can find her on her website, or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.