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Naturally sweetened pine nut cookies are a treat worth smiling about

(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/Food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)
Pignoli Cookies
Active time:30 mins
Total time:2 hours 30 mins
Servings:16 to 20 (makes 32 to 40 cookies)
Active time:30 mins
Total time:2 hours 30 mins
Servings:16 to 20 (makes 32 to 40 cookies)

I only recently got to know Brian Levy, yet he is already my hero. A classically trained pastry chef, Levy wrote a cookbook that brims with tempting baked goods without using any added sugar — no white, brown, raw or coconut sugars — not even a drop of molasses, honey or maple syrup.

Instead, he infuses his desserts with inherently sweet whole-food ingredients, mainly fresh and dried fruits. Yes, fruit contains sugars, which are concentrated when the fruit is dried, but because that sugar is “packaged” by nature with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, using fruit in its unrefined form is a more nutritious way to achieve a sweet taste, with a gentler effect on blood sugar.

I know firsthand how challenging it can be to create fruit-sweetened recipes, which is why I award Levy the hero’s cape. You have to abandon the time-tested formulas for the usual baked goods and basically start from scratch, testing and retesting recipes to get the texture and flavor just right. He clearly did the work, because every recipe I tried in his book, Good & Sweet: A New Way to Bake with Naturally Sweet Ingredients,” worked seamlessly.

These easy-to-make treats are proof. Made with almond flour, and sweetened with a combination of dates, apricots and raisins, they are chewy and delicately sweet, with a crunchy, buttery coating of toasted pine nuts. Levy calls them cookies, as they are inspired by his favorite Italian pignoli cookies from then-legendary Manhattan bakery Veniero’s, but to me, because they are so subtly sweet and fruit-flavored, they read more like an extra-special “energy bite.” Whatever you call them, they are a smile-inducing treat to enjoy with an afternoon cup of tea or espresso, and a batch of them, wrapped in a ribbon-tied box, would surely delight a Valentine who is already sweet enough without added sugar.

Note: For more on baking without added sugar, listen to my interview with Brian Levy on my podcast “One Real Good Thing.”

Pignoli Cookies

Make Ahead: The cookie paste can be prepared and refrigerated for 1 to 2 hours for easier rolling of the cookies.

Storage: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

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  • 1 cup (104 grams) almond flour
  • Pinch fine salt
  • 1/2 cup (75 grams) pitted and halved Medjool dates
  • 1/2 cup (75 grams) halved unsulfured dried Turkish apricots
  • 1/2 cup (75 grams) golden raisins, preferably Hunza
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups (215 grams) raw, unsalted pine nuts

Step 1

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Step 2

In a food processor, combine the flour, salt, dates, apricots and raisins and pulse until the fruit is broken down and the mixture resembles moist breadcrumbs. Add the egg white and almond extract and process until the mixture turns into a very smooth, homogeneous and sticky paste, about 2 minutes.

Step 3

Transfer the paste to a bowl. You can proceed immediately to the next step or, for easier shaping with a less sticky paste, cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

Step 4

Place the pine nuts in a small bowl. Set a bowl filled with cold water near your workspace. Dip your fingers in the water before shaping the cookies; it will help prevent the paste from sticking to your hands. Using a 1-teaspoon measure, shape the mixture into small balls (8 to 9 grams each), then roll each ball in the pine nuts, pressing each ball firmly into the nuts to ensure they adhere to every bit of the paste. (If there is any paste surface bigger than a pine nut left bare, plug it with a pine nut.) Repeat with the remaining paste and pine nuts.

Step 5

Set the cookies on the prepared baking sheet and press on them with your finger to flatten slightly (you should be able to fit all the cookies on a single sheet) and bake for 20 to 30 minutes (start checking at the 20-minute mark), or until the pine nuts are starting to turn slightly golden brown. Turn the oven off, prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon, and let the cookies dry out in the oven for 1 1/2 hours before taking them out to cool completely. Serve right away or transfer to an airtight container and store until needed.

Nutrition Information

Per serving (2 cookies), based on 20

Calories: 137; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 18 mg; Carbohydrates: 11 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 7 g; Protein: 3 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

Adapted by cookbook author and registered dietitian nutritionist Ellie Krieger from “Good & Sweet,” by Brian Levy (Avery, 2022).

Tested by Anna Rodriguez; email questions to

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An earlier version of this recipe used an incorrect weight for the almond flour. This version has been corrected.