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.**


  1. Hmmm, no xanthan gum? Interesting? What's the scoop?

  2. Hi Ellen,

    The shortbread works without it partly because it is meant to be so flaky, and is pressed into a tin rather than rolled like pie crust, and partly depends on the pectin.

    I've pretty much given up xanthan gum in favour of alternative binding agents...mostly a combination of pectin and psyllium seed powder for bread, though I sometimes use guar gum in other things too. Those ingredients (which are carbohydrate polymers, just like xanthan) have more highly branched structures than xanthan gum, meaning they are better at holding things in a 3-D network, rather than being "glue-y."

  3. Its healthy as well as so tasty.