Warming Herb Cookies for Cool Weather

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… At the Avena Botanicals herb shop in Rockport, Maine, last December.  Their herb gardens are beautiful inspirations even in their sleeping winter state.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been studying Chinese medicine for a year now.  As final exams draw to a frenzied close this week and the holidays approach, I recall this time last year, when I was saying goodbye to my patients in New Mexico and embarking on this exciting adventure that I hoped would give me new ways to understand the body and new options for healing.

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Chinese medicine understands the relationships in the body very differently than Western medicine.  I think they both have a place in keeping us healthy.

And … it has!  The study of acupuncture, herbal medicine and bodywork is incredibly gratifying for me as a primary care physician.  I am overjoyed to be learning these ancient, gentle healing techniques.  I’ll be sharing a lot of what I’m learning right here, but for now, finals are looming, and I have to get back to the books!  But this time of year, studies or no, my mind always turns to cookies. These days I try to make healthier versions of a lot of the old favorites with the idea that occasional sweets can be nourishing if made with healthy ingredients.

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‘Tis the season to remember that simple gifts of love are the ones we actually recall most fondly … like an afternoon making cookies with your kids — and then bringing some to a neighbor …

I developed this cookie as a final project for my herbal formulas lab.  In Chinese Medicine, herbs are almost always used in combination, rather than as single herbs.  The plants work together to create effects in the body that they do not have when taken individually.  Each of these formulas (many are very ancient) was developed with careful attention to the flavors and properties of the herbs so that the entire combination is perfectly balanced to help the body address its own imbalance.  Some herbs are warming, some cooling, bitter, sweet, salty, and so on.  Traditionally, the dried herbs were (and still are) simmered in water into a decoction — which is like a strong tea.  The strained liquid is drunk several times a day as medicine.

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Let’s open the spice cabinet as often as possible … Science is discovering what Chinese medicine has always known — that most of our common spices turn out to have healing properties as well as being tasty!

According to Chinese medical theory, foods, like herbs, can all be classified by flavors and other properties, and combined to support health.  My herbs lab assignment was to create a dish, keeping in mind the ideas of flavor balance in the ancient medical texts we study.  One of the very commonly used herbal formulas at this time of year and throughout the winter is “Cinnamon Twig Decoction” for the onset of the common cold.  Four of the five herbs in the formula — cinnamon, ginger, licorice, and jujubes (a type of date) — lend themselves well to just the kind of gently sweet, warming spice cookie that’s perfect for cold winter days.  (I’ve used regular dates and ground fennel or anise in the recipe here as they are much easier to find than jujubes or licorice powder.  If you can’t find the ground spices, you can buy the seeds and whiz them in your coffee grinder.)

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A fruit and nut bazaar in Afghanistan.  The red fruits in the front are Chinese dates or Jujubes.

The fifth herb,  peony root, is bitter & sour, and not something I would put in a cookie!  Peony root is nourishing to the blood.  After thinking about what I could add to a cookie to capture its essence, I decided on the sour zing of citrus peel and the strengthening properties of the goji berry, an herb in the Chinese materia medica that has become well-known as a “superfood” and is available in any health food store.   These berries do grow wild in parts of this country as well, where they are called Wolf Berries.  Finally, I added walnuts for their slightly bitter flavor — as well as a little protein boost.

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Stirring in Goji Berries — they are a beautiful orange-red color that perfectly reflects their flavor.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 inch chunk fresh ginger, grated or finely ground in a food processor
  • ½ cup each, dates & crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons cardamom
  • 2 teaspoons ground anise or fennel seed
  • 2 teaspoons dried orange peel
  • 1 tablespoon fresh grated orange or lemon peel
  • ½ cup goji berries (or raisins or dried cranberries)
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 1/3 cups flour (I used a gluten-free blend that includes sorghum, almond, rice and arrowroot.)  In a future post I’ll discuss making your own blend.  Whole wheat pastry flour will also work well here.)
  • 1 cup butter or coconut oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ cup barley malt syrup (or blackstrap molasses)
  • ¼ cup date sugar (dried, powdered dates — you can also use coconut sugar)

Using an electric mixer (or your own power and a big wooden spoon) cream butter (or coconut oil) with sweeteners.  Beat in eggs.  Add flour, salt, baking soda and spices.  Mix until smooth.  Finally, mix in goji berries, dates, crystallized & fresh ginger, and fresh citrus peel.  Cover your mixing bowl, and let dough chill in the fridge overnight.  You can also freeze the dough, wrapped in plastic wrap or in a tupperware container, to have on hand for a quick batch of cookies any time during the holiday season.

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Cookies before baking.  While in the oven, these will fill your kitchen with the most heavenly fragrance!

When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 325 degrees.  Shape dough into walnut-sized balls with your fingers, and place several inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.  Flatten the balls slightly with the palm of your hand.  Bake for about ten minutes.  Cookies should be firm but still a bit soft in the center.

You can vary the spices used and amounts in these cookies considerably, according to your own taste.  I added cardamom to the formula herbs because to me it has a dark, sharp “bite” that balances the sweetness of anise or fennel.  Other good warming spices to use are cloves and allspice.  You could even add a dash of chili!  Experiment.  Add little bits at a time, and see what you like.  The warming spices, especially the triple dose of ginger, are good for the digestion, making these a lovely after dinner treat.  Or enjoy these cookies with a nice hot pot of tea after coming in from an invigorating walk in the chilly air, the snow — or — for us here in the Pacific Northwest — the rain!

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Three more days of final exams left to go!
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