As the EatingWell Test Kitchen manager, I've looked forward to our annual cookie contest for the past six years. Even though I was on maternity leave during most of this year's contest, overseeing the selection process was one part of my job that I just couldn't give up.
We asked our readers for the best recipes for healthy, festive holiday cookies and more than 300 recipes flooded my mailbox. The recipes were screened by our registered dietitian to cull those that were too high in saturated fat, sodium and/or calories.
In the end, we baked and sampled more than 60 recipes (over 1,500 cookies!) before narrowing them down to the 10 semifinalists that would advance to the final round of voting.
Related: Healthy Cookies, Bars and Brownies
Luckily, my daughter's arrival cooperated with our deadline, and I returned to the office just in time for the grand taste test. This year's Grand Prize-winning cookie, Nana's Creole Pecan Cake Bars (see the recipe below), packed with inherently healthy dates, pecans and just enough (but not too much) butter, is the perfect example of a truly delicious cookie that you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying during the holidays.
Related: 2010 Prize-Winning Cookies
Nana's Creole Pecan Cake Bars
Recipe by Jeanine Dinsmore Elk Grove, California
Makes: 4 dozen bars
Active time: 30 minutes | Total: 2 hours | To make ahead: Store airtight for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months. | Equipment: 17-by-12-inch baking sheet, parchment paper
These decadent pecan date bars are a bite-size alternative to holiday pecan pie.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature (see Tip)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 cups chopped pecans
1 cup raisins, preferably golden
1 cup finely chopped pitted dates
1. Preheat oven to 300°F. Coat the bottom and sides of a large (17-by-12-inch) baking sheet with cooking spray, then line with parchment paper.
2. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
3. Cream butter and sugar in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed. Add eggs one at a time and beat until creamy. Add vanilla and beat until combined.
4. Add half the flour mixture to the creamed mixture and stir until well combined. Add cinnamon and nutmeg; stir until blended into the mixture completely. Add pecans, raisins and dates to the rest of the flour mixture. (Coating the dried fruit and nuts helps distribute them in the mix.) Stir the flour-coated fruit and nuts into the batter. Do not overstir. Evenly spread the batter into the prepared baking pan with a spatula. (Coat the spatula with cooking spray, if necessary, to make spreading easier.)
5. Bake for 45 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the sides. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 45 minutes. Invert onto a large cutting board and remove the parchment. Cut into 48 squares.
Per bar: 132 calories; 7 g fat (2 g sat, 3 g mono); 18 mg cholesterol; 17 g carbohydrate; 9 g added sugars; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber; 43 mg sodium; 90 mg potassium.
Tip: To bring an egg to room temperature, set it on the counter for 15 minutes or submerge it (in the shell) in a bowl of lukewarm (not hot) water for 5 minutes.
What are your favorite holiday cookie recipes? Tell us what you think below.