As I mentioned in my cut-out sugar cookie recipe post, making cookies at Christmas is a tradition my step-mom started and one that I hope to continue for years to come.
She always made sugar cookies, but there was one year where I bravely stepped out of my comfort zone and made candy cane cookies.
I only made them that one year, but EVERY single Christmas since then my daughter has asked me if we could make them again!
I’ve said no in years past for various reasons, but mostly because the recipe we used called for a lot of sugar.
But we also made a commitment a few years ago to quit processed sugar, so that means we eat natural sugars whenever possible, and in moderation.
In years past, I wasn’t quite ready to tackle the science and work behind making classic recipes healthier.
This year though, I spent several nights working on making a healthy sugar cookie recipe. Those efforts paid off, because the whole family LOVES those cookies and there’s not one ounce of guilt for making them (or eating them!).
I must have been on the cookie train, because as soon as I finalized that recipe, I started digging up that old candy cane cookie recipe we used years ago.
I read through the recipe a few times, feeling like I was having a bit of déjà vu when it hit me – that candy cane recipe is the EXACT same recipe as the classic sugar cookie, with the exception of one additional teaspoon of extract!!
This is a HUGE win for me because it means I can make the cookies my daughter has been begging me for YEARS to make, but I don’t have to start all over to make them healthier. I can start with my own healthy sugar cookie recipe!
Now, the question that’s probably burning a hole in your mind right now is, why would you make a SEPARATE type of cookie using the exact same dough?
Oh friends – these cookies look like candy canes!
First, half of the dough is tinted red. Then you roll scoops of dough into ropes, twist them together and bake them into one amazingly delicious cookie!
Healthier Candy Cane Cookies
As always, there are a lot of variations on this classic recipe. Let’s talk about them so you know what kind of options you have.
Flour / Sugar
After several test batches of cookies using all purpose and whole wheat (and nearly every combination between the two), I settled on using 100% all purpose flour for these cookies.
If you’re wondering if you can use whole wheat, honey or maple syrup, or even how to make royal icing without egg whites, I encourage you to go check out my cut out sugar cookie post.
Then come back to this one to make candy cane cookies!
The only time we use food coloring is when I’m decorating birthday cakes or making these cookies. Because of that AND because we follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to real food (i.e. 80% of your food is healthy and 20% of your food can be less than healthy), I used this food coloring. It’s the kind I used growing up and it’s the typical food dye you can buy at the grocery store.
I’ve heard great things about gel food coloring – and it does make for some amazingly rich colors – but I didn’t have red on hand. Besides, there’s no need for the red in these cookies to be a rich deep red. Sure, those would look gorgeous, but it’s not necessary.
If your family has sensitivities to food dye, I found a few articles on how to make your own red food dye: this one uses beets, and this article suggests pomegranate juice, cranberries and even hibiscus flowers!
If you want to buy a healthier option, these food colors are made from plants, vegetables and seeds.
Of course, do what’s best for your own family!
You have a lot of wiggle room in the extract department.
Traditionally, this candy cane cookie recipe calls for both vanilla extract and peppermint extract. I’ve made batches this way, and also testing substituting almond extract and vanilla extract for the peppermint extract. For me, peppermint extract is where it’s at.
(Make your own vanilla extract HERE!)
I have a hunch that this might be a very personal thing, but as I was digging up old candy cane cookie recipes I saw LOTS of people complain that they didn’t like the peppermint extract. Maybe it was the brand? I don’t know. But these cookies are SUPPOSED to be a teensy weensy minty, and you need the peppermint extract to pull that off. The toppings alone (see below) don’t cut it.
Cut-out sugar cookies are typically iced, but candy cane cookies are not. Instead, they’re sprinkled with a mixture of crushed peppermint candies and sugar.
I took 6 mini candy canes and 2 tablespoons of Turbinado sugar and pulsed them together in my blender. I ended up using only half of the mixture, so I wrote the recipe below using less.
If you don’t have mini candy canes, substitute with half of one regular candy cane or 2 starlight mints.
I also don’t recommend whizzing these into oblivion. That makes a super fine powder that isn’t as pretty looking on the cookies and doesn’t carry quite enough mint for my tastes.
Of course, don’t start over if you hit go and walk away. Just use what you have.
Next time though, don’t leave!
One last tip for these cookies: be sure to read the entire recipe through all the way. There’s no hoops to jump through or anything tricky, but there are a few moving parts when you’re rolling and twisting and I want your cookies to be amazing!
Here are the tools I used for these cookies:
- KitchenAid Mixer (check out 30+ Creative Ways to Use a KitchenAid Mixer)
- Parchment Paper (buy what you need now, then watch for sales after the holidays and stock up for the year!)
- Silpat Mats (great for rolling out dough and keeping the counters clean)
- Large Cookie Sheet (I used to have several smaller ones, but have invested in a few larger ones over the years instead.)
- Cooling Rack (I use these for cooling cookies of course, but also when flash freezing foods and need to stack cookie sheets on top of each other!)
- Kitchen Scale (I use this to make sure that I start with two equal pieces of dough)
- Cookie Scoop (to make sure that each color rope is the same size!)
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ cup granulated sugar (I used Turbinado)
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla (how to make homemade vanilla)
- 1 tsp peppermint extract (or almond extract or vanilla extract)
- 1½ cups all purpose flour
- ⅛ tsp salt
- ½ tsp + ⅛ tsp baking powder
- 8 drops red food coloring
3 mini candy canes (or equivalent in hard mints)
- 1 Tbsp granulated sugar (I used Turbinado)
- Make the Cookies: In a bowl of a stand mixer OR using a large bowl with a hand mixer, cream the sugar and butter until it is very light in color, about 5-10 minutes.
- Add the egg and extract(s) and mix until well combined.
- Add 1 cup of the flour, the salt and baking powder and turn on low. Add the remaining flour and mix until the dough is no longer crumbly and starts to stick together, possibly cleaning the sides of the bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 375F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
- Divide the dough into two equal pieces.
- On a silpat mat OR on a counter lined with parchment paper, add 8 drops of food coloring to one piece of dough and knead until the color is evenly distributed, about 5 minutes.
- Using a cookie dough, or eyeballing it, divide each color of dough into 16 pieces.
- Take one piece of white dough and roll it into a rope about 5 inches long. Repeat with a piece of red dough.
- Wrap the two rope together around each other and place on the prepared cookie sheet in the shape of a candy cane.
- Repeat this process with the remaining pieces of dough.
- Bake in the oven for 7 minutes, and then rotate the pan. Bake for another 2-3 minutes, just until the edges start to turn brown. Remove the pan and place on a cooling rack.
- While the cookies are baking, prepare the topping.
- Make the ToppingPlace candy canes and sugar in a food processor or blender and pulse until the candy is broken into small pieces.
- Pinch the topping with your fingers and sprinkle on the cookies immediately after you pull them from the oven.
- Let the cookies cool at room temperate for at least 2 hours before stacking.
- Store cookies in a container with a lid for up to one week.
What’s your favorite holiday cookie to make?