Paleo Treats: Essential Ingredients and 6 Amazing Desserts from a Baking Expert (and Cancer Survivor)
From soft molasses cookies to gooey lemon bars and a dense spice cake, these delicious new Paleo recipes are proof that a healthier, less sweet approach can be super delicious.
Food photos by Olga Ivanova
Three years ago, Caroline Wright ate white sugar and white flour pretty much all day, everyday. The author of Cake Magic! and other cookbooks, as well as a baking expert for food magazines, her life was a steady stream of creating and sampling desserts. Then her world turned upside-down.
At 32 years old, the mother of two young boys was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and given one year to live.
“I was given totally hopeless odds. That’s why I went home and said I am going to do everything I possibly can,” Caroline remembers.
Doing everything involved taking a hard look at the stresses in her life, including those from her diet. “Going through radiation and chemo, I was trying to be very gentle to my body,” says Caroline. “Gluten and sugar jolt your body from one extreme to the other, and I didn’t have that to spare.”
After consulting with her doctor and homeopath and doing a lot of research, she decided to change her diet to a modified version of Paleo. “The pillars of my diet are to be alkaline [which involves emphasizing fruits and vegetables while avoiding foods considered acid-forming], anti-inflammatory, gentle, and nutrient-dense. My homeopath explained that cancer patients — and people who eat a lot of sugar — tend to run acidic. I remembered my days of eating sugar all day and feeling lousy. Paleo just happens to be a helpful diet that’s already out there that encompasses a lot of my choices.”
As part of her healing process, Caroline began experimenting with Paleo baking, learning to use alternative, gluten-free ingredients like almond flour and coconut flour instead of all-purpose flour, and sweeteners such as fruit that have a lower glycemic index than refined sugar, “meaning they don’t make your blood sugar spike as much.”
Caroline found plenty of challenges as she learned to make do without the structural benefits of gluten, and made some happy discoveries, too. “With Paleo, when you sweeten with maple syrup or coconut, you get subtle depth of flavor; it isn’t just ‘sweet.’ The flours give you another opportunity for flavor, and a new texture. I feel it tastes better, honestly,” she says.
Fast-forward to the present. Caroline’s scans are clear and she’s considered cancer-free. “I’m not out of the woods, but my doctors toss around ‘miracle,’ and talk now in terms of decades.” Of course following a Paleo diet comes with no health guarantees, but Caroline feels it’s been an important part of her healing process.
Talking with Caroline on the phone, life seems a wonderful “normal” as she chats enthusiastically about Paleo baking while her Jack Russell barks in the background and her youngest son, Theodore, now 4, whispers to her about his brachiosaurus.
“It’s all about moderation. Even with a balanced lifestyle, Paleo desserts are still very much a treat. It’s making better choices, and giving your body something that isn’t totally empty calories.”
Whatever your reasons for trying Paleo recipes, Caroline’s six original Yummly recipes give you a delicious place to get started.
Essential Paleo baking ingredients
Once you've gathered some pantry staples, it’s easy to make Caroline’s recipes. She shops for ingredients in the baking aisle and bulk aisle of her supermarket, at natural food stores, online, and at Costco for big bags of almond flour.
Since the Paleo diet is gluten-free and grain-free, creating the right crumb in baked goods is a balancing act. For best results, Caroline says it’s best not to make flour substitutions in her recipes.
Almond flour is a backbone of Paleo baking. Sweet-flavored and low-carb, it creates tender baked goods. Hazelnut flour is another great nut flour choice, with a deeper flavor.
Coconut flour, another Paleo staple, can be trickier to work with, as too much tends to dry things out. The right amount, and desserts come out beautifully dense and toothsome.
Arrowroot flour, similar to cornstarch (which isn’t Paleo), is a binder that gives a crisp texture to cookies and edges of muffins, and lift to a cake.
Xanthan gum, a binding agent rather than a flour, can be helpful in Paleo baking for holding things together as all-purpose flour would do. (Ground dried fruit like dates in the Paleo Citrus and Spice Coffee Cake recipe can work in a similar way.)
While not a sugar-free diet, Paleo aims to make more healthy choices for satisfying sweet tooths. Though there are additional Paleo-approved sweeteners, Caroline’s favorites include these.
Maple syrup, honey, and molasses sweeten without being too sweet. Maple syrup and honey can be swapped for each other, but molasses can’t be, as it needs to be balanced with baking soda for leavening purposes.
Fruits such as Medjool dates, bananas, applesauce, blueberries, and unsweetened coconut are all useful, tasty choices for Paleo baking.
The original idea of the Paleo diet may have been to mimic the ingredients that early humans could access, but today’s followers have varying thoughts about what’s okay to include.
Butter is okay in Caroline’s book. Some Paleo cooks prefer to use ghee (clarified butter), while strict Paleo folks go dairy-free.
Coconut oil is swappable for butter in Caroline’s recipes as well as useful on its own. In recipes that call for softened butter to be beaten with other ingredients, work the coconut oil first with a paddle beater to aerate it and soften it.
While baking soda is allowed on the Paleo diet, strict followers may not allow certain kinds of baking powder (though Caroline is okay with using it). As a substitute for baking powder, she recommends combining 1 part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tartar.
Eggs create loft in certain recipes and also create a strong web-like structure that's useful in this gluten-free baking.
Paleo dessert recipes
Satisfying your sweet tooth is easier than you might think with Caroline's healthy recipes. Her collection of classic sweet treats includes bar cookies, a soft molasses cookie, muffins, a cross between Paleo brownies and chocolate cake, and a beautiful coffee cake that we daresay could stand in for a birthday cake. These also work for anyone who's looking for gluten-free recipes.
Paleo Lemon Bars
Delightfully custardy and citrusy, Paleo Lemon Bars taste close to the classic, but aren’t overly sweet the way the non-Paleo kind can be. A mix of flours creates just the right texture in the shortbread crust. For topping, a sprinkle of unsweetened shredded coconut mimics the look of the usual powdered sugar and makes them even tastier.
Paleo Pecan Pie Squares
Don't be surprised if you hear tasters saying, “I can’t believe it’s Paleo” when they try these rich but not too-sweet Paleo Pecan Pie Squares. A combination of maple syrup and molasses instead of the typical corn syrup creates a surprising depth of flavor.
Paleo Blueberry Muffins
Very tender, with a hint of cinnamon, these Paleo Blueberry Muffins are sure to go in a hurry! Unlike traditional muffins, they don’t have the supporting structure of gluten, so you need to let them cool completely before serving, or they’ll fall apart.
Paleo Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie Cake
Just as the name promises, the Paleo Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie Cake is a delectable cross between a dense Paleo brownie and a moist chocolate cake, with no frosting needed! Bar chocolate (even dark chocolate, which some diets tout as healthy) and chocolate chips aren't typically used in Paleo cooking; this recipe relies on unsweetened cocoa powder instead for its deep flavor that hints at fudge.
Paleo Soft Molasses Spice Cookies
Perfectly spiced cookies always hit the spot, and when they’re sweetened with a combination of coconut sugar in addition to the usual molasses, as these Paleo Soft Molasses Spice Cookies are, they take on an additional caramel note that’s totally craveable.
Paleo Citrus and Spice Coffee Cake
In this gluten-free Paleo Citrus and Spice Coffee Cake, a sticky date puree cleverly mimics the binding effect you would get from all-purpose flour in a traditional cake. Dense with almond flour and sweetly flavored with orange and honey, it’s sure to become a favorite recipe for family celebrations as well as afternoon snacks.