Originally created 04/12/06

Newly 'healthy,' old-fashioned comfort-food desserts

WASHINGTON - The phrase "comfort food" gets a new layer of meaning when it's allied with eating a favorite homey dessert, and knowing it's not as bad for your health as it might have been. That's sweet comfort indeed.

Accepting that desserts are a fixture of most people's diets and hard to do without, the American Institute for Cancer Research reckons that if a dessert delivers nutritional and health-protective benefits, it has some redeeming value - as well as giving pleasure.

To help improve the health profile of some favorite American desserts, the institute revamped a few classics, including a childhood favorite that's usually bought rather than made at home. They include an old-fashioned oatmeal cookie, a chocolate cake with boomer-age origins, and two types of fig cookies inspired by a popular commercial version.

Among ingredients adjusted in the new versions are fats. Although some bakers believe that desserts containing butter or other saturated fats have better flavor, mouth feel and texture, AICR specialists believe you can get a flavorful dessert without using saturated fats.

"With some adjustments to certain recipes, saturated fats, like butter, can be replaced with unsaturated fats, like canola oil, without sacrificing desirable features," says Karen Collins, AICR's nutrition adviser. This also increases health benefits.

A small proportion of the more healthful whole-grain flour can replace some of the white flour used without sacrificing texture or flavor, also. Sugar and other sweeteners are another area of concern in considering whether a dessert is "healthful," according to Collins. Commercial desserts are generally high in sweeteners, which make the total calorie count beyond recommended levels.

All the revamped dessert recipes use canola oil, some whole-wheat flour in place of a small portion of white flour, and a scaled-back amount of sugar that provides an acceptable level of sweetness.


These oatmeal cookies keep the chewy, old-fashioned flavor and texture of the classic version, but feature health benefits including canola oil, whole-wheat flour and walnuts, which add extra omega-3 fatty acids.

Oatmeal Cookies

2/3 cup canola oil

2/3 cup granulated white sugar

1/3 cup light or dark brown sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons apple juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4cup finely crushed walnuts (optional)

Canola oil spray

In a large bowl, beat together oil and sugars until well combined and smooth. Beat in the egg, apple juice and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix together the rolled oats, flours, soda, cinnamon and nuts (if using), then transfer to the wet mixture and stir until well blended.

Transfer the dough to a large sheet of waxed paper, wrap and chill in refrigerator 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place walnut-sized pieces of the chilled dough on a cookie sheet that has been lightly coated with canola oil spray. Spray a small glass with a flat bottom with the canola oil spray. Use the bottom of the glass to flatten each piece, respraying the bottom of the glass as necessary to prevent sticking. Bake cookies 10 minutes or until lightly browned.

Makes about 45 cookies.

Nutrition information per cookie: 74 cal., 4 g total fat (less than 1 g saturated), 9 g carbo., 1 g pro., less than 1 g dietary fiber, 31 mg sodium.


Many versions of the following chocolate cake have been around for almost 50 years. The simple instructions sound like a recipe for making a child's mud pies and many adults have happy memories of making the batter when they were children.

Although this recipe does not call for butter, milk or eggs, it produces a rich-tasting, light-textured dessert. The flavor is satisfying enough for it to be eaten plain or with a light dusting of confectioners' sugar. For a more festive look, the cake can be glazed with a fruit spread and decorated with fresh berries.

The recipe can be made as one 9-inch-square cake or as cupcakes.

Crazy Chocolate Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2cup whole-wheat flour

3 tablespoons cocoa

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon plain (unflavored) distilled vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup cold water

Confectioners' sugar or fruit spread and berries for topping (optional, see note)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat a square 9-by-9-inch pan with canola oil spray. Or, if cupcakes are desired instead of a cake, spray interior of a muffin pan with the spray, set it aside and continue with the recipe using a lightly oil-sprayed pan or bowl to mix the batter.

In the center of the pan, gently pour in the flours, cocoa, baking soda, sugar and salt to make a large mound. With the back of a tablespoon, make 3 hollows in the mound. Pour the oil into one, vinegar into another and vanilla into the third. Pour the cold water over all. Mix well with a spoon until the flour cannot be seen and the mixture is almost smooth. (Do not overbeat.)

If making cupcakes, transfer batter to the muffin pan, filling each cup 2/3 full. Bake the cake for about 30 minutes and cupcakes for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of individual cupcakes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Cool the cake on a rack for about 10 minutes, and for cupcakes, about 5 minutes, before turning out of the pan and onto the rack to finish cooling. Cupcakes should easily drop out of the pan and onto the rack. For the cake, slip a thin-bladed knife between the cake and sides of the pan to help loosen it. Place the rack on top of the cake so that the legs are facing up. Holding the rack firmly against the pan, invert the pan and gently shake the cake out and onto the rack. Cool the cake completely before serving.

Makes 9 servings of cake or 12 cupcakes.

Note: If desired, dust the top of the cake or cupcakes with confectioners' sugar. For a more decorative look, glaze top with a melted fruit jelly or marmalade, or decorate the cake with fresh berries.

Nutrition information per serving of cake: 211 cal., 8 g total fat (less than 1 g saturated), 33 g carbo., 3 g pro., 2 g dietary fiber, 270 mg sodium.

Nutrition information per cupcake: 158 cal., 6 g total fat (less than 1 g saturated), 25 g carbo., 2 g pro., 1 g dietary fiber, 202 mg sodium.


Fig Newtons were one of the first commercially baked products in America, and are one of the most popular cookies in the country.

For its more healthful version, AICR developed two recipes. The first, Back-to-the-Future Figgies, takes more preparation time but makes a cookie that mimics the rolled shape of the commercial product and is 100 percent whole wheat. The Fig Bars are easier and quicker to make, but equally delicious.

Back-to-the-Future Figgies

2 cups chopped (see note) dried Mission figs

1 cup unsweetened apple juice

1 tablespoon quick cooking or instant rolled oats

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons dark corn syrup

6 tablespoons canola oil

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour (see note)

Place figs, apple juice, oats, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure the mixture does not stick. If needed, add a tablespoon or two of apple juice or water. Stir in the cinnamon. Transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree until a paste forms. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the remaining brown sugar, corn syrup, canola oil and eggs until completely blended. Add the baking powder and remaining salt. Gradually stir in the flour, blending to make dough. Gather the dough together into a long rectangle shape and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours.

When ready to make the fig bars, preheat oven to 350 F.

Cut the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter out into a 10-by-5-inch rectangle. Place one quarter of the filling down the middle of each rectangle. Using wet fingers, mold the filling until it measures about 2 inches in width and about 9 inches in length. Lift one of the long sides of the dough up and over to the middle of the filling. Wet the edge of the other long side of the dough and fold it over the filling so the two edges of dough touch.

Gently press down with your palm along the length of the log-like bar to secure the edges. Don't be concerned if some of the dough cracks a little or some of the filling shows. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

Cover a large cookie sheet with parchment paper and coat it lightly with cooking spray. Carefully transfer the rolled logs to the cookie sheet, seam side down. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes on the sheet. Transfer the logs to a rack and cool completely. Cut each cooled log into 8 bars.

Makes 32 bars.

Note: Kitchen scissors are more convenient than a knife to cut the figs into quarters. White whole-wheat flour can also be used.

Nutrition information per bar: 105 cal., 3 g total fat (less than 1 g saturated), 18 g carbo., 2 g pro., 2 g dietary fiber, 39 mg sodium.


Fig Bars

3/4 cup quick-cooking or old-fashioned rolled oats

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour (see note)

1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/3 cup canola oil

2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened apple juice

2 cups chopped (see note) dried Mission figs

1 cup unsweetened apple juice

1 tablespoon quick-cooking or instant rolled oats

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Make the crust by blending ¾ cup oats in a large mixing bowl with flour, ¼ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together the canola oil and 2½ tablespoons apple juice, then add to the dry ingredients, stirring to blend completely. Reserve ¾ cup and press remainder into the bottom of an 8-by-8-inch square baking dish and set aside.

To make the filling, place the figs in a saucepan. Add the remaining apple juice, oats, salt and brown sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Check periodically to make sure the mixture does not stick. If needed, add a spoonful or two of apple juice or water. Add cinnamon. Transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree until a well-blended paste is formed.

Spoon the fig filling over the layer of crust in the baking dish. Using wet fingers, evenly spread the filling over the entire crust. Sprinkle the remaining crust mixture evenly over the filling. Press down slightly with fingertips.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cool in the pan before cutting into bars.

Makes 16 fig bars.

Note: Kitchen scissors are more convenient than a knife to cut the figs into quarters. White whole-wheat flour can also be used.

Nutrition information per bar: 174 cal., 6 g total fat (less than 1 g saturated), 30 g carbo., 2 g pro., 4 g dietary fiber, 66 mg sodium.


AICR's Nutrition Hotline is a free service that allows you to ask a registered dietitian questions about diet, nutrition and cancer. It may be reached by phone (800) 843-8114, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT Monday-Friday, or online at:



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