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Dessert together: Bar treats perfect for holiday events

Chocolate Mint Brownies and Cranberry Bliss Bars are homemade holiday cookies that are easy, delicious and fun to share with friends and family during the holiday season. (Lorie Hutson)
Chocolate Mint Brownies and Cranberry Bliss Bars are homemade holiday cookies that are easy, delicious and fun to share with friends and family during the holiday season. (Lorie Hutson)

It can be hard to keep up during the busy holiday season.

There are presents to buy and wrap, big meals to cook and guests to entertain, so it can be tempting to succumb to all the shortcuts that surround. Holiday treats are easily purchased, but it’s not worth it if you can make them so quickly at home.

When you’re in charge of the ingredients, you can lighten the calorie load with a few tweaks to the recipes. The best part is that you’ll delight your family with homemade goodies, and you can share them with others, too.

Don’t feel like you have to spend hours in the kitchen carefully cutting out and decorating cookies. Bar cookies are quick, forgiving and feed a crowd. We’ll still make our regular cut-out cookies for decorating, but my family had fun sprinkling the toppings and drizzling chocolates as these bar cookies came together.

The holiday season is full of opportunities to indulge, so I went searching through my favorite books, blogs and websites for recipes that had been lightened a bit.

I tried making cranberry bliss bars a few years back, but I wasn’t happy with the results. Perfectionists might not consider the lightened version from the Skinny Taste blog a perfect match to the Starbucks treat that inspired them, but they’re a gorgeous and delicious treat. The glistening cranberries make them look like festive jeweled delicacies.

Since my two boys love chocolate and mints, I searched for cookies or brownies that might fit the bill. These triple-layer brownies look like they took a long time to make, but they’re easy. They remind me of a (much more indulgent) dessert that we would serve to visiting families when I worked in the kitchen of a ranch near Yellowstone National Park. They were always a hit then, too.

Another easy way to cut calories is to offer them in smaller serving sizes. They’re sweet and indulgent enough and guests will want to have a bite of each one anyway. Pop the pan into the freezer for a few minutes before you cut them to make it easier. Use a warm knife cut to them into bars, squares or bite-sized shapes with a warm knife, wiping off the knife between each pass.

Chocolate Mint Brownies

From Cooking Light. Dietitians slashed more than 100 calories per brownie and cut the fat in half for this recipe makeover last updated in 2012.

For the bottom layer:

1 cup all-purpose flour (about 4 1/2 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 cup egg substitute

1 (16-ounce) can chocolate syrup

For the mint layer:

2 cups powdered sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons milk

1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

2 drops green food coloring


3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

3 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare bottom layer, lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour and salt; stir with a whisk. Combine granulated sugar, 1/4 cup melted butter, 2 tablespoons water, vanilla, eggs and chocolate syrup in a medium bowl; stir until smooth. Add flour mixture to chocolate mixture, stirring until blended. Batter will be thin.

Pour batter into a 13-by-9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350 degrees for 23 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out almost clean. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack.

To prepare mint layer, combine powdered sugar, ¼ cup melted butter, and next three ingredients (through food coloring) in a medium bowl; beat with a mixer until smooth. Spread mint mixture over cooled cake.

To prepare the glaze, combine the chocolate chips and 3 tablespoons butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at high 1 minute or until melted, stirring after 30 seconds. Let stand 2 minutes. Spread chocolate mixture evenly over top. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Cut into 20 pieces.

Approximate nutrition per serving (from the magazine): 264 calories, 8.7 grams fat (5.2 grams saturated), 2.8 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrate, 38 milligrams cholesterol, 0.5 grams dietary fiber, 139 milligrams sodium.

Skinny Cranberry Bliss Bars

From They have half the fat and calories of the original bars.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup brown sugar, unpacked

1/4 cup melted unsalted butter

2 large egg whites

1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2/3 cup white chocolate chips or chopped white chocolate

1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped

For the frosting:

8 ounces 1/3 -less fat cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ounces white baking chocolate, melted

1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray a 9-by-13-inch nonstick baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon and stir to blend.

In another bowl, whisk the sugars with the butter, egg whites, applesauce and vanilla until light and fluffy.

Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients in two additions until the batter is very well blended. If the batter looks more “crumbly” than smooth, add just a drop of water at a time (only if needed) until it smooths out.

Fold in white chocolate chips and 1/3 cup cranberries. Spread batter onto the baking pan using the back of a measuring cup to smooth evenly.

Bake 10 to 14 minutes, until the edges are light brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Don’t over-bake or your bars will be dry. Let it cool completely on wire rack. Meanwhile, prepare the frosting; in a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla until well-blended. Frost bars and sprinkle with remaining cranberries. Drizzle with the melted white chocolate.

To melt the chocolate, place in a microwave safe cup and heat 15 seconds; stir. Another 15 seconds; stir until the chocolate is melted.

When the chocolate sets, cut into 15 large squares (5 cuts by 3 cuts with the knife). Then cut each square in half diagonally to create triangles. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Yield: 30 triangles.

Approximate nutrition per serving: 149 calories, 5 grams fat, 2 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrate, 17 grams sugar, 5 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 47 milligrams sodium.