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Ode to Cranberries and Walnuts: Holiday Treats With a Chinese Medicine Twist

Michelle is a licensed herbalist and acupuncturist practicing in Chapel Hill, NC, at Chapel Hill Acupuncture.

Holiday Treats Featuring Cranberries and Walnuts

Do you want to celebrate healthy this year?

Using fresh ingredients is one way to usher in the new year with glee, and added confidence in the future. Cranberries and walnuts, two of my favorite holiday treats, are the stars of the proverbial show.

Two Recipes in This Article

  • Cranberry Walnut Muffins
  • Holiday Walnut Superfood Dip

I have gone into some detail about the nutritional value of cranberries and walnuts both from an eastern and western nutritional standpoint. Chinese medicine does consider food in terms of its inherent healing properties. And, in fact, all foods, including all varieties of fruits, nuts, and grains, and other food groups, confer specific healing benefits. There are also recommendations from western nutrition, including from one dietician as well as a medical writer, to ensure a balanced point of view.


Cranberries Look Like Christmas

Deep and red, I love the beauty of this little berry. Not to mention that the delightfully tart nature of cranberries makes them especially tasty in salads, baked goods, and main courses. With a bright red color and strong pungent taste, they are associated with the Fire element in Chinese Medicine (CM). They are the perfect complement to excessively sweet and/or heavy foods like meats, cheeses, and cakes.

Cranberries contain a potent antioxidant called proanthocyanidins or "PACs" that strengthen immunity. Like many other berries, cranberries are also a rich source of the bioactive source of vitamin C which supports the overall immune system. According to one dietician, cranberries contain a "myriad of antioxidants," unique to red and purple fruits and vegetables, that are quite valuable in protecting the gastrointestinal system as a whole ("The Real Health Benefits of Cranberries," 2019).

Christmas is the perfect time to add cranberries to your muffin recipes

Christmas is the perfect time to add cranberries to your muffin recipes

Cranberry Walnut Muffins

Adapted from Charity’s recipe on

If you are searching for some breakfast love over the holidays, consider the muffin. It is a round, warm, soft, and delicious morsel of perfection when baked correctly. Easy to warm up in the morning and definitely an "on-the-go" breakfast staple.

Moist Is a Taste and a Texture

One nutritionist of Asian medicine advises to start the day with moistening foods that remedy the dryness of the mouth and vacuity of the stomach in the morning after sleeping all night (Pitchford, 1993). Moistening foods include grains, juice, and honey. This muffin recipe satisfies that requirement quite nicely.

One or two of these mini-muffins in the morning is such a good thing. Cranberries and walnuts lend a bitter and anti-damp quality (damp is a characteristic of dairy and sugar that that can slow digestion and impede absorption of nutrients in CM) to assist with digestion.

Ricotta is moistening without a high fat content. There is only a small amount of butter, but you could also substitute coconut oil or a dairy-free margarine.

Adjust the Sweetness Factor

It's great how we can now decide how much sweet taste we want, and this is one of the biggest advantages to making your own recipes. For this muffin recipe, you can use applesauce with just a little added sugar, or add different types of sugar (maple syrup, brown sugar, refined sugar) to obtain a depth and layering of flavors.

Word of caution: too much sugar can ruin the taste of good food. It covers up everything else. Apple sauce combined with just a little additional sugar (apples provide quite a bit of sweetness) whether this be honey, brown sugar, agave, or maple syrup provides a nice balance.


  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons butter softened
  • 1/2 cup applesauce (provides sweetness)
  • 1/2 cup honey or maple syrup or agave syrup (optional addition)
  • ¼ cup regular sugar or brown sugar (optional if you like more sweetness)
  • 3/4 cup plain yogurt or ricotta
  • zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla (I like to use 2 tsp. Love vanilla)
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour (substitute with almond or rice flour)
  • 1 1/2 cup whole oats or cooked steel cut oats (don’t use raw if using steel cut)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • ½ cup (roasted) walnuts


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease muffin pans liberally.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, use a whisk or beaters to fluff up the eggs. Add the butter, applesauce, honey or syrup, sugar, yogurt, orange zest plus juice and vanilla. Mix up well. Add dry ingredients: flour, oats, baking powder, soda and salt. Stir until almost incorporated then add cranberries and walnuts, and mix until just blended.
  3. Pour into prepared muffin pans, almost to the top.
  4. Bake mini muffins for 15-17 minutes. Cool for about 3 minutes in pan, then turn out on a rack.

It helps when baking to remember to combine all of the wet ingredients first by whisking them all together, and then add in the dry. Wet ingredients include eggs, dairy (milk, cheese, or yogurt) and than anything else that is not bone dry (applesauce and orange juice in this case). Spices can go in with either wet or dry. Special ingredients (the bulky items, in this case, cranberries and walnuts) are added as the final step. I hope this “recipe within a recipe” helps expedite future kitchen adventures and will bring you one step closer to becoming an "intuitive baker."

Ricotta Substitution

My favorite alteration is to use ricotta in lieu of yogurt. Ricotta is an excellent substitute because it is very high in protein and contains all of the essential amino acids. It’s not as wet and bland as yogurt, and it has a good texture for baking that is not too creamy and also not too runny. Ricotta also has a slightly sweet and almost nutty flavor.

For food nerds, like myself, you might like to know that ricotta is a manufactured cheese made from the whey portion. Basically, ricotta is manufactured with the whey (dry protein) left over in normal cheese making by coagulating milk with whey to create what is known as a fresh-acid curd cheese (Cogan, et al., 2000).

Ricotta may also be easier to digest as it is less creamy and dense than brick cheese, and is not as fatty as some cheeses, such as brie or camembert. It has the advantages of a milk product, being high in calcium and selenium, without the high fat content and “damp-engendering” effects. Most cheeses can impede digestion because of their condensed fatty structure that provides a challenge for the stomach acids to break down. You can also find low-fat ricotta to cut down even more on the cholesterol and fat content.


Walnuts Add More Than Flavor

Yang Tonic

Walnuts are considered a kidney yang tonic in Chinese Medicine (CM), and as such, they may play a role in helping to strengthen resistance to illness.

Kidney yang tonics warm the muscles and the flesh, and may even strengthen internal organs, according to CM. There are many herbal formulas that treat yang deficiency, for conditions such as arthritis and poor circulation to the extremities. Once cold settles into the deeper layers of the body, it can impede circulation and lead to pain and slowed functioning. Arthritis that is worse in cold weather is an example of this phenomenon.

Walnuts and the Brain

Walnuts are shaped like a cerebrum, divided into two halves and separated by a distinctive groove. According to the ancient Doctrine of Signatures, an early work published in the time of Galen that correlated the use of plants and herbs with their appearance or physical form, walnuts are beneficial to the brain because of their shape and similarity in form to the actual brain.

Chinese Medicine Health Benefits of Walnuts

There is even a medicinal value to walnuts in CM in that they “moisten the lungs and intestines, and help relieve coughing and wheezing accompanied by signs of coldness (e.g., chills and watery mucus), and nourish the kidney-adrenals and brain" (Pitchford, 2004, p. 494). This makes them especially useful during the cold months of winter when muscles get tighter and circulation is slowed down.

The Nut that Needs Cracking

In my childhood, I used to watch my father enjoy a variety of nuts from a small wicker basket as he watched TV—deliberately choosing brazil, almond, walnut, pecan and cracking them open with a hand-held metal nutcracker. It seemed like too much work at the time for my small hands. I gaped at the amount of time it took just to eat one single nut.

But now I understand that in almost all scenarios, delayed gratification is on par with whole foods that take time in order to obtain their wonderful sensory rewards. Not only are whole nuts, or nuts in shells, better for us nutritionally, they also retain a fuller, more aromatic flavor.

Nuts in the Shell Are Far Superior to Shelled

There are multiple reasons to buy nuts in the shell. First, they contain vitamin E as well as fatty acids and oils. When they are shelled, nuts can rapidly lose their nutritional value as the oils and essential fatty acids contained within begin to degrade. Rancid oils are especially damaging to the lining of the stomach and intestines, and can even lead to poor immunity and chronic disease. One dietician specializing in the addition of nuts and seeds to the diet to improve health, with an emphasis on prevention of metabolic and cardiovascular problems, says that “the antioxidant components in nuts have been reported to reside mostly in the outer soft shell, and more than half are purported to be lost when the shell is removed" (Patel, 2016, p. 81).

One Oriental nutritionist cites that walnuts, when eaten fresh from the shell, can nourish the nerves and improve vitality even acting as a kidney tonic to “improve kidney/adrenals and brain" (Pitchford, 1993, p. 494).

Pitchford (1993) further advises to never store any nuts in plastic (forms plasticides) and to avoid heat or light that will speed oxidation. He recommends dark glass bottles and a cool, dry place of storage.

How to Roast and Toast Walnuts

Whether snacking on walnuts or adding them to recipes, some nutritionists advise roasting prior to consumption. There are some concerns that raw nuts may contain harmful bacteria, and even parasites. This may or may not be the case, but it is always best to err on the side of caution.

All that is needed is to spread them onto a flat pan in a toaster or regular oven and set at 300 degrees. Watch closely as it only takes 5-8 minutes to complete, and longer will result in burnt nuts, not a nice experience and I should know as I’ve done it several times. Toasting adds flavor to nuts, and the heat will eradicate parasites and/or bacteria.


Holiday Walnut Superfood Dip

Adapted from Susan Jane White’s recipe


  • 1½ cups walnuts
  • 1 tsp. garam masala (or substitute tahini)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • Sprinkle of sea salt
  • For dippers: cup-up carrots, celery, zucchini, or other veggies


  1. Break up the walnuts using a mortar and pestle (yeah, it’s old school). After about 3-4 minutes, you’ll get a nice consistency.
  2. Add the garlic, lemon juice, about 1 tsp. water, and garam masala. Pound until it turns to butter. If it’s too crunchy, keep going until you get the consistency you wish.

Nutty dips are big hits as an appetizer or pre-meal treat to go with a cocktail or mocktail. Because it's a simple recipe there is less worry about potential allergens. And it is dairy-free, so your guests won't fill up before the main course.

Creative Modifications

You can also create a lettuce wrap by putting one teaspoon of the walnut spread onto a leaf of butter or romaine lettuce. Top with a splash of tabasco sauce or a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese for a little "zing" of flavor.

This also makes a nice spread for a turkey or tuna sandwich. Combine with lettuce, grated carrots, and a dollop of mayonnaise or Vegenaise, which adds a crunch factor that is very satisfying.

Still More on Walnuts!

While walnuts are high in fats, they are not the "bad fats" that can lead to weight gain. On the contrary, walnuts contain omega-3 fats that actually improve metabolism to keep you slim, and also feed the brain (Patel, 2011).

Reverence for Food, and For All

In the not-so-distant past, this time of year was special because of the winter solstice, the time that the sun is the closest in distance from the earth. It is also the time when we experience the longest night of the year at the actual solstice (typically on or around December 21st). With more darkness, the inner light and magical spark of soul is called upon to recognize unity, peace, and to make preparations for the long months of winter ahead.

At this time of year, it was traditional that the wealthy would share in their riches and bounty with the poor or less fortunate, usually by offering gifts of rare fruits, nuts, and wine. These were symbols of the deeper reality that we are all connected, and unified in spirit.

I hope that you will feel this sense of connectedness in your immediate surroundings, and spread the gift of your wealth (we are all wealthy in spirit) with your family and friends, with food, with wine, with any symbol of your choosing!


CHARITYC. Low Sugar Cranberry Oat Muffins. (2013). Retrieved from

Cogan, T. M., Guinee, T. P., McSweeney, P. L. H., Fox, P. F. (2000). Fundamentals of cheese science. Netherlands: Springer US.

Cranberry. (2019). Retrieved from

London, J. (2019). The Real Health Benefits of Cranberries, according to a Registered Dietician. Retrieved from

Patel, V. B. (2011). Nuts and Seeds in Health and Disease Prevention. Netherlands: Elsevier Science.

Pitchford, Paul. (1993). Healing with whole foods: Oriental traditions and modern nutrition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

White, S. J. (2014). The Extra Virgin Kitchen – The No.1 Bestseller: Everyday Healthy Recipes Free From Wheat, Dairy and Refined Sugar. Ireland: Gill Books.