Health & Nutrition with Chef Hanna: Trail Mix Cookies

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” – James Beard

There is debate as to how and when the Pittsburgh cookie table came to be, but there is no question that it’s a Pittsburgh tradition. Some say the tradition came about during the Great Depression. It’s said that wedding guests would bring their favorite cookie to the table to lessen the financial burden of the evening for the newlywed couple. In this sense, families and communities came together to support the couple as they embark on their new lives together.

Family and friends start planning cookie tables just about as soon as the wedding planning starts. Everyone seems to have their own specialty cookie that they’re sure to bring. Each step of a cookie table involves community – from planning, to preparing, storing, and finally displaying at the event. Folks start baking cookies months before the wedding, storing them in every inch of freezer space available before the big day. Even after the wedding, cookies are enjoyed and given away for weeks following the big day. Visits to Grandma usually involve a sendoff of a Ziploc bag of the cookie spread (Grandma being sure that you don’t go home empty-handed while also trying to reclaim an inch of freezer space). Platters and trays will be filled up with cookies at every get-together for months to come. It’s always a good reminder of who made what cookie and the love that went into preparing each and every one.

The first time I brought my Californian husband to a Pittsburgh wedding, he couldn’t wrap his head around not the one, but the two cookie tables that flanked the reception hall. The first dessert plate he grabbed had just a couple of cookies, followed by a second plate, and then a third. As wedding photos started to take longer than expected, he realized that the cookies on the opposite table held different options than the first and had to start the sampling process all over again. By the time dinner was served, he had enjoyed so many cookies he turned his head up at the steak tips, which was unheard of for my meat-loving fella. Later, when he proposed to me, the first question was if I would marry him, quickly followed by the question of which cookies would be on our cookie table.

Weddings are already a community event, but Pittsburghers add another layer of community with the love that comes along with preparing and presenting a cookie table. While working at a resort in California, I came across an order for a wedding that included the cake I would be preparing, as well as a note about the hundreds of cookies being shipped in that would need to be stored before the reception. I knew immediately that at least one of the families involved in the wedding was from Pittsburgh and had an instant connection to these folks who I hadn’t even met. Cookie tables are a great way to bring people together while creating a sense of community.

My favorite cookie is a gooey chocolate chip cookie, but being high in carbs, sugar, and fat, they aren’t necessarily the best cookie for you. Chocolate chip cookies are great as a decadent treat, but a more health-friendly cookie is my very own “Trail Cookie.” They are gluten-free, high in protein (thanks to peanut butter), and contain multiple fruits. These cookies are still considered a treat, but are a better balanced option. Enoy!

Hanna’s Trail Mix Cookies

  • ½ Cup Apple Sauce
  • 1 Cup Sugar
  • ½ Cup Peanut Butter
  • 2 Cups Oats
  • 1 Cup Coconut
  • ½ Cup Raisins or Craisins
  • 1 Tsp Cinnamon
  • ½ tsp Baking Soda
  • ½ Cup Chocolate Chips

Preheat oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Mix apple sauce, sugar, and peanut butter together, and then stir in the remaining ingredients. Scoop dough using a small cookie scoop (1 tablespoon scoop) or a tablespoon, and drop onto the prepared cookie sheet. Bake cookies for 11 to 12 minutes, just until set.

Written by Hanna McCollum, Iris Respite House Chef & Innkeeper

Health & Nutrition with Chef Hanna: September 2023

“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” – Irish Proverb

We use food not only to nourish our bodies, but to share and connect with those around us. One of my earliest memories is laughing with my sister while we each wore slices of swiss cheese on our faces and looked through the holes at each other like we were wearing fancy glasses.

I have come to find that preparing and sharing food with others is my love language. Even if the food isn’t the best, good company can make food taste even better. Heck, laughing together over how bad some food turns out can make it taste a little better, too!

Thinking back on other laughing moments throughout my life, I’m reminded of my mom. My mom has always listened to music in the kitchen while cooking. She’ll grab whoever is in close range to whirl them around to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” or to give them a dip to Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House.” These dance moves are always full of laughter as you (gracefully) try to avoid bumping into the kitchen island or a hot pot on the stove.

One of my favorite foods that my mom makes while dancing through the kitchen is macaroni and cheese. It’s been one of my favorites since I was a kid, and always reminds me of those entertaining, laughing moments in my mom’s kitchen. As comforting as her classic mac and cheese is, it’s not the healthiest. The following options can be subbed to up the nutritional value of this cozy dish:

Lower Calorie, Higher Nutrition
Subbing pureed roasted butternut squash for some of the advised cheese amount to lower the fat and caloric density of mac and cheese is a great way to add nutritional value, as well as a lovely silky-smooth texture to the sauce.

Butternut squash can be halved, rubbed in olive oil, and roasted cut side down until tender. The skin can then be peeled off, or the flesh can be scooped out. Alternatively, pre-cut butternut squash is available in most grocery store freezer sections. Frozen butternut squash can be roasted on an olive oil greased sheet pan.

Once the butternut squash is roasted, mash using a potato masher and stir into prepared macaroni and cheese sauce while holding back some of the usual cheese amount.

Traditional pasta can be replaced with a legume pasta. Aside from the gluten-free benefit, this option is higher in both protein and fiber value as well. My favorite brand of gluten-free pasta is Banza. Banza pasta is made using garbanzo beans and packed with twice the amount of protein and three times as much fiber as traditional pasta. Gluten-free pastas can be prone to breaking down quickly, as it does not have the gluten structure to hold it together. A good way to avoid this is to give the dish just a few good stirs once adding the pasta to the sauce, and serving immediately.

Vegan mac and cheese can be made by soaking 1.5 cups cashews (for every 12 oz of pasta) in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then drain and blend with 1 cup of fresh water, 8 oz of vegan shredded cheese, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a sprinkle of the following: nutritional yeast, turmeric, garlic powder, and salt. A good vegan shredded cheddar is Violife Cheese Alternative, Just Like Cheddar Shreds.

Try mixing any or all of the above options for a nutrient-packed bowl of mac and cheese and grab an unsuspecting loved one for a do-si-do around the kitchen while you cook…inciting laughter and creating great memories with those around you.

Written by Hanna McCollum, Iris Respite House Chef & Innkeeper