- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Consider, for a minute, the idea of a healthy treat, one that really hits the spot (baked and containing butter and sugar) and not some place-holder that is good for us but leaves us feeling empty and deprived (an apple or banana or, horrors, tofu-based ice cream substitute).

How can we reconcile scrumptious with nutritionally respectable? Do people in other cultures ever think about these things, or is it a uniquely American phenomenon? I suspect the latter.

Ours is the cult of chocolate chip cookies washed down with nonfat milk. We buy fat-free cookies and then polish off 2,000 calories worth.

It’s a challenge to figure out how much to indulge, and in what form, when we are trying to be slim and healthy. Most of us need a treat once or twice in a while, and we want it to be respectable without being ridiculous.

Yes, in a perfect world, desserts would occupy the bottom rung of the food pyramid, but, alas, that is not reality. One approach is to add high-quality, good tasting components to our cakes or cookies and bring them a little closer to nutritious.

Nuts work perfectly in this scenario, and I am here to dispel a common misconception about them.

We tend to think of nuts as a dietary no-no, too caloric and high in fat to be ingested without guilt. But nuts are a good choice for snacks and desserts, since they are filled with healthful monounsaturated oils, as well as significant amounts of protein and vitamins.

My favorite way to load nuts into a dessert is to pack a classic shortbread dough with cashews. The nuts toast as the cookies bake, and the result is a terrific, deep flavor and crunchiness.

These cookies are dense enough to fill you up and nutritionally sound enough to qualify as a healthy snack, especially when consumed with milk and fresh fruit. And they keep for months in the freezer, if packed airtight.

Cashew shortbread

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

cup (packed) light brown sugar

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 cup finely minced cashews

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for handling the dough

teaspoon salt

teaspoon baking powder

Place butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat at high speed with an electric mixer for about 3 minutes. Stir in cashews. Sift flour, salt and baking powder directly into the bowl. Use your hands to mix the dough as quickly and efficiently as possible, until it holds together. Form it into a rough ball.

Lightly flour a clean, dry work surface. Add ball of dough and roll it out until it is about 1/4-inch thick. Cut into simple shapes and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom. Cool for at least 10 minutes before eating. Makes 4 dozen small cookies.

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