Wednesday 22 December 2010

We wish you a GF Christmas...

I found out I was gluten-intolerant the day after Christmas. My mother and I had baked so many cookies - as we did every year, to give as gifts. Of course, I'd planned on taking some for myself as well when I went back to my dormitory after Christmas. Instead, I added them to the treats I had already planned to give to all my friends. My stomach was no longer miserable, at least. However, I felt horribly deprived. And after tasting some packaged sponges Tapioca Bread, I remember wondering whether I'd ever be able to eat anything good again. (I guess I was a little melodramatic...)

That was three years ago. Oh, how things have changed!

If this is your first Christmas without gluten, be assured that you don't have to go without delicious holiday treats. And even if you have been gluten-free for years, it can still be helpful to keep some things in mind as you spend the holidays with family and friends who may or may not understand your dietary needs. These are some things I've learned - I hope you'll find them useful too.

1: Baking. There are an amazing number of recipes on the internet - not to mention in cookbooks - for pies, cookies, and so on. Some gluten-free bloggers have even put together collections of holiday recipes (here and here are two great places to start). You can also find flour blends that can be substituted cup-for-cup to convert favourite recipes. If someone else in your family usually bakes the traditional treats, ask if they would try using one of these blends in a recipe or two! My mother converted all our traditional recipes - quite successfully - using a blend of sorghum flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch.

2: Parties. If you are going to a party where you know the hosts personally, make sure to talk to them ahead of time. This way, you can find out if they will be able to accommodate you - and your hosts will be spared the awkwardness of not knowing about your restrictions until you show up, and finding they have nothing you can eat. If you are going to a larger party or potluck, stick to things that are almost certainly safe: fruit & veg trays and things in packages with the label on it are good places to start. Nut mixes and cold-cuts of meat can be iffy. In any case, offer to bring something to the party; this way you know there will be something safe. (Few things are worse than being hungry and surrounded by food you cannot eat!)

3: Alcohol. This is something you may frequently encounter at parties and other gatherings. With eggnog, ask to see the ingredients list - be wary of unidentified "modified food starch" and flavourings. If you are at a bar, stick to fruit-based things (sherry, wine, vermouth, cider) and distilled things (gin, vodka, etc.). Neat fact: distilled liquor, like distilled vinegar, is free of gluten even if it is grain-based. Beware anything with added colours or flavours, though: caramel colour and French vanilla flavouring are just two examples that may be grain-based, and alcohol is not required to show an ingredients list.

4: Travel. It may seem obvious, but bring food with you when you are travelling! Airport restaurants operate with a very small food prep area, so cross-contamination is likely. In-flight snacks usually consist of pretzels or crackers, and even when peanuts are available I have found that the seasoning often includes wheat flour. (True story: on a flight last year, I asked the flight attendant if any of the available snacks were gluten free. She looked puzzled, then responded, "Gluten? Is that, like,...fat-free?" Needless to say, I stuck to my own food!)

Some good, compact GF travel foods: crackers or cookies (homemade or packaged); cereal bars like Enviro-Kids, or energy bars (make sure the label says GF); dried fruit; nuts; cheese; corn tortillas; dry GF cereal/granola. I recently took a whole loaf of homemade bread through airport security with no problem. Also, if you want to bake, make sure to bring some flours with you if you will be staying with relatives.

5: Family. This is probably the hardest one.  I really think the holidays are the most difficult time for many gluten-intolerant people, with everyone sharing baked things that are a part of family traditions. I know it will be hard to explain to your grandmothers that you cannot try their Christmas cookies, not even "just a bite."

Many people have still never heard of celiac disease, and those that have may not understand cross-contamination or even what "gluten-free diet" really means. (Someone once asked me if I could eat things made with white flour, because it wasn't "whole" wheat!)

Explain to your friends and family, if you haven't already, why you must stick to a GF diet. Though a number of people do eat gluten-free by choice, for most of us it is non-negotiable. And lastly: please, please do not "cheat" by eating gluten if you know it makes you sick. Your long-term health is more important than a cookie.

Speaking of...

Here is the recipe! Measurements are given in volume rather than weight, because the original wheat recipe gives volume measurements.

Buttery Almond Biscuits

Makes 30 pressed biscuits

1 1/4 C unsalted butter, softened (2 1/2 sticks)
scant 3/4 C granulated sugar

1 cage-free egg

scant 1 C almond flour (or grind almonds in food processor)
5/8 C (1/2 C + 2 T) tapioca starch
3/8 C (6 T) sweet rice flour
2 1/2 T Expandex modified tapioca starch
1/2 C potato starch
1/4 C millet flour
3/4 tsp fruit pectin
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
raw sugar, reserved for decoration (optional)


Combine all dry ingredients (except sugar) in a bowl. In another bowl, cream together the butter and sugar, then stir in the egg. Gradually add the flour blend, making sure there are no lumps of butter or almond in the dough. The mixture will now be very soft and sticky - it is half butter, after all - so it will work best if you chill it for at least 20 minutes before pressing it into pan.

Heat the oven to 175º C / 350º F. There is no need to grease the pans; the butter in the dough is enough to keep them from sticking. When dough is chilled, dip your fingers in tapioca starch and press it into pans, allowing about 1/2 cm for rising. You may use decorative ones, as above, or simply use round or square tins for sliced shortbread. (The results of the latter actually taste more like shortbread in my opinion...though they're not as pretty.) Prick the tops with a skewer and, if making sliced shortbread, score the dough with a knife.

Bake until edges have turned golden: 13 mins. if using dark pan with individual wells, large tins may take 20 mins. or more. Turn shaped biscuits out whilst warm and sprinkle tops with reserved sugar, or if slicing, sprinkle with sugar and carefully cut slices immediately after removing from oven (do not remove biscuits from tin until cool).

**Note: for best taste and texture - wait several hours before eating.**

Sunday 5 December 2010

The Scientific Method

I admit it: I am a science geek. Although, most people who know me well are already quite aware of this - and have put up with listened to my ramblings about polymer synthesis or the elegance of a Diels-Alder reaction or the role of proteases in the autoimmune pathogenesis of celiac disease. (There I go again. Oh dear.)

That's why I'm surprised that until recently, I had never heard of the "foodie" movement called molecular gastronomy**. Or, for that matter, even given much thought to molecules when I was in the kitchen. Despite building an academic foundation in chemistry, I kept cooking the way I always had done: by look, taste, and feel, with a generous spoonful of convention. (Convention also frequently borders on superstition; how many of you were taught that salting a pot of water would make it boil at a hotter temperature? Turns out that for this to be true, you would need to add an incredible amount of salt - nowhere near what is used in cooking!)

I just finished my first quarter of formally studying food chemistry, though, and had some revelations about baking. Suddenly understanding why some breads turn out well when just minor changes can make them fail. Realising that I can figure out how to deliberately plan the chemical properties of dough. It's so exciting to come up with a completely new recipe, without figuratively crossing my fingers as I decide how much of each flour to add to the bowl. 

Unfortunately I haven't had nearly as many opportunities to apply these things as I would have liked, not to mention time to post any of the things I have made... 
I'm one quarter away from finishing college, and I'm interning as a chemistry tutor as well. It's a rigorous combination! 

I have had time for a few "science experiments" in the kitchen, though. The stuff in that picture up there, for instance: malted buckwheat. The process of malting activates the seeds' own enzymes to break down large molecules - like starches and proteins - into small ones, including an array of sugars and aromatic compounds. It adds a really wonderful flavour to bread! Very nutty and, well, malty. The process is a bit fussy, but actually it's not difficult. You can find detailed instructions on many home-brewing websites, but the basics are:

- soak the grains for about 36 hours, rinsing and replacing the water every 8 hours or so
- drain them into a strainer / mesh colander
- put them in a cool dark place for a couple of days, again rinsing every 8 hours - until the little rootlike sprouts are about double the length of a grain, and then
- spread them out on a baking sheet and dry them in a low oven. 

That's it! Once the grains are dry you can raise the temperature to roast them (just don't put them in a hot oven without drying them first, you don't want to steam/boil them). Now you can grind them up and add to flour! 

It's not much of a recipe, but now I have a month-long break before next quarter begins, so I'll post some "real" recipes very soon, I promise. Including a recipe for kneadable bread, with no xanthan or guar gum. I'm serious. Yay science!

**This term has accumulated many meanings in recent years. The original intent, though, is just what the words imply: studying food molecules and their interactions, and applying that knowledge to the way we cook and adjust recipes. A great book is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. The author's website has some neat information too.