If you think the words healthy and dessert simply don’t go together, prepare to be delighted and surprised. In these light, easy-to-make desserts, rich-tasting, wholesome ingredients combine wonderfully to please any sweet tooth, without the sugar or fat overload found in many holiday treats. Using luscious but healthy foods such as fresh fruits, inviting spices, rich nuts, subtle sugars, and smart fats, each recipe packs a powerful nutrient punch and satiates sweet cravings—plus they’re all gluten- and dairy-free! Enjoy a guilt-free holiday season with these deliciously different desserts.
Green Apple Tart with Vanilla Pecan Crust
Serves 8 / This scrumptious tart strikes a rare balance between rich and not-too-sweet. Prep tips: Fresh vanilla bean adds a decadent element, but you can substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in a pinch. A mandoline makes it easy to slice apples uniformly, but a good sharp knife works too. view recipe
Cinnamon Walnut Cookies
Makes 10 / Hurrying for a holiday treat? Throw all of the ingredients into the food processor and bake up a batch of these amazing little cookies for your next party. Full of fiber-rich dates, walnuts with omega-3s, and delightfully powerful cinnamon, they offer a clean, satisfying taste, sans a post-dessert hangover. view recipe
Rosemary Pecan Cookies
Makes 24 / Rosemary adds a surprisingly sumptuous flavor to these button cookies, while almond flour provides protein and nutrients. They are less sweet than a typical cookie, but highly addictive. Ingredient tip: Grapeseed oil lends a buttery taste. view recipe
Lemon Thyme Mini Muffins
Makes 16 / A sweet and unexpected take on their lemon poppy-seed cousins, these are fabulous with a post-dinner cup of tea. Ingredient tips: When baking, I prefer grapeseed oil for its buttery flavor. If you haven’t used coconut flour before, you’ll be surprised at how little is called for in this recipe. It’s an economical, fiber-rich, and gluten-free flour that yields fluffy baked goods. Look for Bob’s Red Mill coconut flour in the baking aisle or gluten-free section of your natural market. view recipe
Creamy Cinnamon Pumpkin Pudding
Serves 6 / This rich and creamy vegan treat goes together in minutes and melts in your mouth. Ingredient tips: Cooking with agar, a vegan jelling agent derived from red algae, creates an almost instant pudding that will wow your holiday guests—food restrictions or none. Yacon, a thick syrup made from the yacon root, is a lower-calorie sweetener that helps with digestion; I use it in recipes as a substitute for molasses. Serving tip: This pudding is great warmed, with a dollop of whipped cream if you’re not vegan.
Cranberry Pear Crisp
Serves 8 / Using almond flour—a superfood in disguise—sneaks protein into your favorite treats, while cooking condenses the fruit to create a burst of sweet pear flavor that complements tart cranberry. This colorful crisp is rich, warm, and soothing on a chilly day and is a truly healthy modern classic … though if you’re not vegan you may want to add a dollop of cream, vanilla yogurt, or warm coconut milk. Ingredient tip: I use grapeseed oil for its nice, buttery flavor, but another mild oil such as safflower would also work. view recipe
5 tips for lighter desserts
1. Use vanilla yogurt instead of whipped cream on pies, crisps, and cobblers.
2. Serve in-season fruit (apples, pears, persimmons) with a little high-quality goat cheese instead of something heavy and complicated.
3. Bake or poach seasonal fruit in sweet wine or fruit juice, rather than topping with a sugary crust or crumble.
4. Indulge in all-fruit sorbet instead of ice cream for a fraction of the fat and calories.
5. Serve desserts on very small plates or in ramekins; even an overflowing amount will be less than usual.
Elana Amsterdam is the founder of elanaspantry.com, where she shares weekly recipes and meal-planning tips. She is the author of The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook (Celestial Arts, 2009).