- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

High-calorie indulgences with price tags to match were the hallmark of last year’s holiday gifts - the wicker basket from Uncle Cheesemonger packed with creamy Wisconsin blues and bandaged cheddars, the cult Napa cabernet from Traveling Neighbor and his well-fed Labrador.

In today’s tight economy, however, handing out high-dollar gifts doesn’t feel quite right when homemade sweets will do just fine. While you’re at it, cutting a few calories before the New Year rings in the rice cakes sounds equally prudent.

Trimming the bottom line along with the butter doesn’t have to mean sacrificing flavor. “You can’t have a take-everything-out approach and expect it to succeed,” says Dean Rucker, executive chef of the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, Calif., and author of “Golden Door Cooks at Home,” due next spring.

He spices up the dry-toast-and-cottage-cheese spa culture with satisfying, flavorful low-calorie dishes inspired by his triple-cream and foie-gras days in top fine-dining kitchens. With Mr. Rucker’s newfound emphasis on light fare, there’s no need to politely decline his vanilla-speckled banana ice cream and creamy Meyer lemon cheesecake.

Mr. Rucker’s low-calorie version of classic jam-filled cookies begins with ingredients that lend depth and character: pure maple syrup, freshly ground almonds and oats (puree both in the blender just before using for the best flavor), a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon.

A dollop of fig jam or a citrusy marmalade spooned on top of these satisfying dairy-free cookies adds a gift-worthy, jewel-toned crown.

You’ll need more than one low-calorie treat to fill a holiday basket. Artisan jams are handy post-holiday pantry staples for their ability to perk up anything fat-free, but with so many touting wine-worthy labels (single-vineyard, late-harvest) with prices to match, finding an affordable jar can be a challenge.

Making homemade jam is a noble alternative - until bubbling caldrons of sticky fruit potions dance in your head. Factor in the price of 30 pounds of post-season fruit, and suddenly, that $15 jar of estate-produced, lavender-scented Quivira fig preserves made from a 150-year-old black Mission tree sounds more reasonable.

For the penny-pitching gourmet, dried figs poached in red wine are a sensible solution. Start with a spicy, full-bodied wine - a $10 California zinfandel such as Blackstone or Ravenswood Vintners Blend is a good choice. Add a touch of sugar, lemon and orange zest and pour the marinade over the figs. (Order them from a dried-fruit purveyor for the best quality.)

Other than these treats, all that’s needed is a cocktail-worthy sweet that’s light on the waistline. Cranberries soaked in orange liqueur make a glistening holiday garnish for a rum-and-vermouth-spiked Manhattan or bubbly kir royale (Champagne and cassis liqueur). Spread the cranberries in a casserole dish, sprinkle with sugar and bake, then stir in the orange liqueur. (Italy’s version of Grand Marnier, known as Gran Gala, is half the price of its French cousin but just as luxurious.) Make plenty; you’ll want to store jars of the drunken berries in the refrigerator to spread on weekend waffles or hand out as last-minute gifts.

Drunken cranberries

12-ounce package of fresh cranberries

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup of orange liqueur, such as Gran Gala

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash and drain the cranberries. Spread into one layer in a large glass casserole dish. Sprinkle the sugar over the cranberries and cover tightly with foil. Bake for 1 hour, until soft and slightly shriveled.

Cool and stir in the orange liqueur. Store in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Jam-dot cookies

Adapted from Dean Rucker of the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, Calif.

Makes 30 cookies.

1 cup slivered almonds

1 cup oats (not quick-cooking)

1 cup flour, whole wheat or all-purpose, sifted

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Generous pinch of salt

1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (about 1 medium orange)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

About 1/4 cup of apricot, fig or raspberry preserves

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Puree the almonds and oats in a blender or food processor until finely ground.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the ground almonds and oats, flour, cinnamon and salt. Stir to combine.

In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine the vegetable oil, maple syrup, orange juice and vanilla extract. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix well.

Lightly grease two baking sheets (or use nonstick sheet pans). Scoop 1 tablespoon of the batter onto the baking sheets. Dip your finger lightly in flour and press down into the middle of each cookie to make a well. Fill with 1/4 teaspoon of preserves and repeat with the remaining batter.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown.

Zinfandel-poached figs

1 1/2 pounds dried, unsweetened black Mission figs

2 cups full-flavored zinfandel

1/2 cup sugar

2 3-inch strips fresh orange peel, pith removed

1 3-inch strip fresh lemon peel, pith removed

Optional: 1 sprig of fresh thyme, 2 cloves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a 2-quart oven-safe saucepan, bring the wine, sugar and zests to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the thyme and cloves, if desired. Stir in the figs and bake uncovered, stirring occasionally, until figs have absorbed at least half of the liquid and are very tender, about 1 hour.

Place a heavy bowl or saucepan on top of the figs to press them into the liquid. Let cool 1 hour. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks; bring to room temperature before serving.

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