Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dye-Free Christmas Cookies

Many moons ago when food dyes
 roamed free in our house
No holiday is complete without Christmas cookies. My children devotedly subscribe to this theory. Last year, somehow amongst the guests, gifts, and chaos of Christmas, we never got around to making Christmas cookies. You know the kind- cut in to bells and reindeers and stars and loaded with icing and sprinkles and candies. The store-bought decorations were so chock full of artificial ingredients, food dyes, and preservatives they last for centuries (I know this is true because we still have a container of silver ‘bullet’ candies that I purchased before I had kids).  

Early last January, my youngest child pointed out the travesty and accused me of depriving them of Christmas cookies! You’d have thought I’d sold off his legos and barbequed the cat. As soon as Thanksgiving concluded this year, maybe before the pumpkin pie even, he began his lament, “Last year we didn’t even make Christmas cookies!”    

This year we’re going to make Christmas cookies, I promised. We aren’t going to forget. But there is this part of me that doesn’t want to make them. I don’t want to watch as my children load up their delicious homemade whole-wheat sugar cookies with artificially colored and sweetened candies. I’m not that naïve. I do realize the toppings are the whole point of Christmas cookies. The cookies themselves are simply a conveyor for the forbidden candies that I never buy for my children the rest of the year. They revel in the colored sprinkles, M&M’s, and jimmies strewn atop dye-laden brightly colored icing.

So what’s a mother to do? I’ve made organic pop-tarts, cheezits, and chocolate chip cookies. I would find a suitable alternative. Chocolate chips, yogurt covered raisins, chocolate covered pretzels, and organic candy coated sunflower seeds are all well and good, but the real problem, the sticking point in all of this is the food dyes necessary to color the icing. My spoiled children are accustomed to having five or six different brightly colored frostings to choose from. How would I do this? It’s not like Easter when you can use onion skins for pink and yellow. Somehow I suspect they might complain if I dyed their frosting with onion juice. 

But what about cherry juice? Or apple juice? Grape juice? Blueberry juice? I turned to the internet and discovered there is a whole plethora of suggestions out there. So I commenced experimenting. I whipped up a huge batch of homemade buttercream frosting and I started coloring.  

We had cherries, strawberries, and blue berries in the freezer, so that was an easy start. I thawed them out and drained the juice. Pink! Lighter pink! Purple! But no red! The blogs on the internet claimed you could make red from beet juice. No beets in the cupboard. And really how red are beets? They’re really more a chartreuse. Cranberries crossed my mind, but it was time to move on to another palate.  

From top clockwise- strawberry, cherry,
spinach, blueberry, and carrot/orange (yes that
speck in the green might be an errant piece of spinach!)
Next I shredded carrots in my food processor and dumped them in a colander with some sugar (to draw out the juice) to drain. Orange was a big disappointment. I added real orange juice squeezed from an orange I found in the very back of the fridge. It was hard on one side, but it did have juice. The icing turned only a faint shade of peach which didn’t look orange at all unless you put something stark white next to it. The bloggers claimed that if you drained the juice from golden beets, you could get a bright yellow-orange. No beets here. They also suggested saffron. What?  

Green was the big challenge. I have a friend who makes smoothies with spinach and swears you can’t taste the spinach if you mask it with enough fruit. Would spinach juice work? I retrieved a bag of frozen spinach, thawed it and chopped it to oblivion in the food processor. Then I drained juice from the spinach and added it to the frosting. It created a lovely muted shade of puke green. One of the kids wandered through the kitchen during my spinach activity and passed the word. No one would try the green frosting besides my husband, who did so under duress. He declared it “tastes like frosting.” 

My colors do seem more appropriate for Easter, but at least we now have options beyond white without the help of artificial food dyes. My colors were pretty, if muted. And the bonus is that the icing is even yummier with strawberry juice! A note to anyone thinking of trying this at home – you’ll need to add more confectioners sugar when you add the ‘dyes’ or the icing becomes too runny. One more note – if you purchase juice for your dyes, be sure to check the labels because many commercially processed juices add food dye to achieve the optimum color. 

The success of my icing inspired me to make colored sugar. I had on my shelf some coconut and raspberry sugars I purchased from a local shop, so I figured I could mix any of my ‘dyes’ above with white sugar and make some of my own. I made some blueberry sugar, but decided against spinach sugar or carrot sugar. 

The real test will come this weekend when we apply my concoctions to our Christmas cookies. Personally, I think these will be the yummiest ones yet, but my children are skeptical. Sugar has the power to win over even the stubbornest child, so I’m taking bets on whether this year’s cookies will be decorated or not. To be continued….

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