Diet: How to Bake Healthier Holiday Goodies

'Tis the season to eat, drink—and gain weight? Not necessarily. True, a measly tablespoon of cream contains 52 calories and six grams of fat. But it is possible to bake some low-cal, low-fat desserts. Even dietitians say it's OK not to be puritanical, though. Don't mess with grandma's recipe if it's filled with special meaning, and don't do anything drastic, says registered dietitian Bethany Thayer. "You don't have to make every possible change you can possibly make to a recipe. You don't have to change everything to whole wheat flour and use only egg whites." Cut back on the marshmallows and sweet potatoes in that sweet-potato recipe. But don't eliminate them. "There'd be anarchy in the family," says Thayer. "Evaluate on a case-by-case basis." Think baby steps, too: the National Dairy Council suggests substituting yogurt for some of that sour cream. To get more tips on low-cal, low-fat holiday baking, NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talked to dessert expert Jenny McCoy, who has been a pastry chef at places like Charlie Trotter's and Bittersweet Bakery in Chicago and at Emeril's in New Orleans. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What's your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?
Jenny McCoy: Definitely pumpkin pie.

Do you make a full-fat version of it?
I make it from scratch with whole eggs, heavy cream, milk. I take fresh pumpkin and roast it myself. The pie dough I use is all butter. I like to go all the way. It's the one time of year where I completely lose all inhibitions.

What would happen to it if you substituted, say, Egg Beaters in your pumpkin pie?
If it's an egg product that can substitute for a whole egg, you could do it. You couldn't substitute something that calls for a whole egg with an egg white. The yolk is the part of the egg that's going to coagulate and hold all the custard ingredients together. When you think about it, you're only using a handful of eggs. Mine uses three eggs. If you cut that in eight pieces, it's not much. You think, "Wow, this has half a pound of butter and a cup of cream," but you're not eating the whole pie. You could maybe substitute half the amount of heavy cream and half whole milk. Your pie is not going to be as thick and rich of a texture, but it should still work. If you don't want to use straight white sugar, you could substitute a portion of it, maybe a quarter of it, with maple sugar or honey. But you would have to increase your amount of eggs because your egg is the ingredient that binds all those liquid and dry ingredients together.

We all go to the grocery and see nonfat everything. What about nonfat sour cream?
It's a matter of preference. If you're really concerned about the fat content in the things you're eating, and you have a recipe that calls for regular sour cream, you can go ahead and use the low-fat sour cream or skim milk. But usually because there is less fat, whatever you're making is going to have a less rich texture. The custard should still come together, but it might feel not as thick and creamy as a crème brûlée—maybe more like a flan. Flan tends to have more milk in it. It's still going to taste delicious, and the recipe will work, but it won't be as rich. If the focal point in the dessert is heavy cream, that's when you'll notice a difference.

What about substituting margarine for butter?
That will definitely work. Again, there may be a slight textural change. Perhaps in a pie crust, it might not be as rich tasting or as flaky, but it will still work.

Should home bakers think about the trans fats in margarine—and just go with the butter?
The more manipulated a product is from its original state, the chances are it's going to be unhealthier. Butter is cream that's churned. There's not a whole lot of steps in the process. They milk the cow, they pasteurize the cream. At the end of the day, butter probably is healthier because it's a real ingredient—and it tastes better.

What about nonfat cream cheese?
They've made it so the texture of it is very similar to regular cream cheese. If you were making a carrot cake, and it had cream cheese frosting, and you wanted to feel a little bit better, go ahead and use it.

What about fake sugar?
For me, quite honestly, I have never baked with any of those items, and I don't foresee myself ever doing it. Perhaps if someone had an allergy or was diabetic or had some special need, using something like that can serve a purpose. But they interrupt the flavors of what you're baking. The consistency and the way that regular granulated sugar reacts to the ingredients in a cake batter or pie crust is going to be very different from Splenda or Equal.

So splurge on real sugar?
Try to substitute elsewhere. When it comes down to it, stick to the granulated sugar and the brown sugar. I tend to make desserts that aren't cloyingly sweet.

So just cut back on sugar?
I always cut back on sugar. If a recipe calls for a cup, I put in six ounces.

Do you reduce something else?
Not really. I would just add your sugar where the recipe instructs you to do so and cut back and taste it. Finish the product and taste it, and if it's not quite sweet enough, add more sugar. Another thing you can do is if you're pulling back on sugar, if the recipe doesn't call for a pinch of salt, throw in a pinch of salt. That will help intensify all the flavors. If you throw in a pinch of salt, it might make the carrots in the carrot cake pull out a little. Always throw in a pinch of salt, and it will help bring the flavors out.

Do you use the baking sprays instead of greasing and flouring pans?
I always use baking sprays, not because I am particularly interested in cutting back in calories. It's just easier. When you're making something in high volume in a restaurant, those pan sprays save a good amount of time.

Pecan pie and other holiday dishes are full of nuts. Is there any low-cal, low-fat substitute for nuts?
If you're making a pie that's apple walnut, you could try throwing in dried cranberries. They have less fat, but they have more sugar. You might be looking at the lesser of two evils. Or if you're really concerned about the nuts, and you're not sure you want to put them in, just don't. You can make a lovely apple crisp with oats for the topping. If you're making something like a pecan pie, then no. You've got to be committed to eating nuts. If you want a chocolate pecan pie, and you're not sure about the nuts, make a chocolate pie. Look at the recipe and determine are the nuts just kind of addition to what the main dessert is. If it is just a side note, take them out. A lot of times, especially people who don't professionally cook, they look at a recipe and think it's a list of rules that they have to follow from start to finish, and there's no breaking them. People need to remember that recipes are a guide. If it calls for walnuts and you don't like walnuts, take them out. If you want to substitute them with something else, you can. Sometimes baking needs to be more precise, but there is still room to manipulate a recipe. If it doesn't turn out, it's a learning process.

What about substituting applesauce for fat?
A lot of people are starting to do that. With the emergence of vegans and vegan-baked goods, there are lots of ways you can substitute so you're not using any dairy or any eggs. I've had plenty of vegan pastries. Because I eat desserts every day, I can taste it and say, I know they didn't use real butter, there's vegetable oil in there. For the average consumer who tends to eat things purchased in grocery stores, making these substitutions is not going to send up red flags on their palate. People are willing to sacrifice a little bit of that richness. They don't mind if their cake has a slightly different texture.

Does everything taste better homemade?
I think so. Even if it doesn't necessarily taste better, the fact that someone made it by hand and baked it, people will be more forgiving. You took the time to make the thing. If it's for Thanksgiving to share with friends and families, if it's not too perfect, it's like Julia Child said, just don't admit your errors.

Even with sugar and fat, is home-baked food healthier than preservative-laden products?
Absolutely. The less manipulated all of the ingredients are, the better for you. That's pretty much what studies are saying across the board. Over time, people are starting to return to the idea that real butter is healthier than substitute butter. The way to eat all of these items that do seem decadent is to remember just eat a little bit. If you're trying to cut back on calories, and you know the holidays are these endless parties, and you're just eating and eating, go out and do those things, but just take half a slice of pie. To make sure I don't overindulge in large meals like this, before the meal, have a little snack so you don't go to the table staving. Load up on celery or carrot sticks. So many people, after eating such a huge meal, plop down on the coach and fall asleep. Why not sit down, enjoy company for a little while, and go on a nice 20-minute walk and move in the direction of burning some of those calories—or at least distract yourself from the guilt.

Any other tips for reducing guilt?
The most underappreciated dessert is panna cotta, an Italian dessert. It means cooked cream. What it is is a really light custard. A lot of times it's flavored with vanilla and made with yogurt. It's bound by gelatin. It's almost like creamy Jell-O. It's richer and more flavorful than Jell-O because it's got some milk in it, or I usually make it with nonfat yogurt. If you do a Google search, you can find a million and one recipes for it. It's light but filling. With some nice fresh fruit, it's healthy.

What about just eating fruit for dessert?
People tend to remember the most simple desserts I've made, like poached pears with a little dollop of whipped cream.

Where should people go to find good holiday recipes?
I usually visit a couple of Web sites— is great. I particularly like it because I know everyone who works in the test kitchen. Another Web site I like to look at is Martha Stewart's Web site. When her recipe is posted, you know it will work. Then I might just do a basic Google search and print out recipes and compare them. I kind of pick the middle of the road when I'm first trying something I've never made.

You run, swim and ride a bike. Do you have any other secrets for not gaining weight on baked goods over the holidays?
I always keep a bar of dark chocolate in my fridge or in my cabinet. I keep things that are the items that a lot of people are like: oh my God, I can't eat that. You can't eat a whole bar of dark chocolate, but when I have a sweet tooth, I can break off a little piece, and I'm content. It's definitely important to indulge, but in a small amount and not all the time. In my mind, a meal is not completely without dessert. For someone like me, who wants dessert seven nights a week, things like dark chocolate or a small biscotti is plenty. It doesn't need to be a whole slice of cake.