A few days ago, when getting ready to relaunch this blog–by simply writing again after almost a year’s absence–I decided to read through my old posts and check them for typos and grammatical errors, and what I realized in doing this is that many of those posts had to do with my failures as a baker, and my attempts to break through my own reticences and insecurities and develop some skills in that arena. But at some point last year, this journey came to a sudden end when I decided to stop eating wheat. Or so I thought.
It was sometime last summer that a friend of mine told me she had gone gluten-free. She had done so in an attempt to combat the symptoms of eczema, but had found that as a secondary result, she felt absolutely great overall. Another friend had given up gluten years earlier when she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. But that was a different story: Celiacs cannot tolerate any amount of gluten in their diets, and so must avoid ingredients that most of us do not even realize we are consuming; things like maltodextrin, which is pretty much ubiquitous in processed foods, and is used as a sweetener in a plethora of things that should rightly be wheat-free such as honey-roasted peanuts and Miss Vickie’s Jalapeno potato chips. In fact, for those whose health depends on the complete exclusion of wheat from their diet, even face creams and lip balms must be heavily scrutinized.
But mine would be a voluntary decision, based solely on my curiosity about what the body actually needs to be healthy, and a desire to combat the low energy that my acupuncturist diagnosed every time I stopped in for a tune-up. What most surprised me, and has become a kind of defense in the face of those who would accuse me of trendiness or gullibility, is how easy it has been to forgo my native grain, and how much better I feel as a result of doing so. Instead of my customary breakfast of toast and cheese, there are porridges sweet and savory, and an abundance of fruits and nuts. For lunches and snacks, instead of my favorite old standby of toast and cheese–you can see a pattern developing–there are fresh and roasted vegetables and beans and grains. Sure, there are days when cravings become so intense that I give in to them–something I am able to do without major consequence, though the longer one goes without wheat, the harder it is for the body to relearn how to process it–but for the most part, I have quite happily arrived in a wheat-free place, and am learning how to cook and bake anew, which has proved to be a bit of a cake walk.
What I have discovered is that time and time again, what tripped me up when baking was the wheat. Without wheat, simple baking–the kind that you don’t fuss over, but can still feel comfortable serving to guests–is an absolute breeze. Add a few more eggs to most basic recipes and there is little to fear. Instead of wheat (kamut, spelt or barley flour), add ground almonds or walnuts, or cooked or blended quinoa. It might be chewier than what is normally indicated, or denser than you might expect, but it will still be sweet and delicious. It has butter and sugar in it, so there is very little way to go completely wrong. And once you have divorced yourself from what the cake or cookie was originally intended to taste like, you can easily replace the eggs with ground flaxseed and water (as I did with great success when cooking for a friend with both gluten and egg allergies).
My first experiment was with Coconut Macaroons, which can be made gluten-free (and without the oven, if one is so inclined). With surprising ease, I re-adapted Popcorn Plays’ adaptation of Lulu’s Walnut Cake by replacing the 2/3 cups all-purpose flour with ground quinoa (and, while health food stores will charge scads of money for “quinoa flour,” it is much cheaper to buy a giant bag of whole quinoa at Costco and blend it yourself). I also adapted a recipe from Mission Street Food called Brown Butter Financier. And though their recipe was a little bit more complicated, and included 1/3 of a cup of pastry flour, this one is, in my humble opinion, as light and delicious, and can be made in four simple steps:
1) Add 1 cup ground almonds and 1 cup icing sugar to a bowl.
2) Add 4 egg whites (or 1 whole egg and 3 whites) to the bowl and stir.
3) Add 1 stick of browned butter and stir.
4) Pour into parchment paper lined pan and baked at 350 for 12 or so minutes.
As I said earlier, giving up bread has been the easiest part of the process–though I recently broke down when confronted by a tray of crustless egg salad sandwiches on white bread, giving in to a craving so intense that it seemed a fool’s game to try and outrun it–but giving up pizza has been harder to come to terms with. And so, in an effort to satisfy this longing, knowing full well that the perfect chewiness of a pizza crust is impossible to replicate without gluten, I began to search for something that might sate my hunger without trying too hard to be something it could never be.
This, I think, is the key for anyone trying to cope with a restricted diet, whether these restrictions are self-imposed or externally-enforced. When I was a kid, we often ate at the house of family friends who were both thrifty and extremely conscious about their weight. Instead of butter, there was margarine, and yoghurt replaced sour cream. This was the late 70s mind you, when olive oil was basically unheard of in suburban kitchens, but my point is this: yoghurt is delicious, but it isn’t sour cream. If you can’t eat tuna fish, don’t make yourself a mock-tuna casserole; pasta with cashew cream sauce is wonderful, but it isn’t Mac and Cheese. Forget about substitutions and start thinking about what you are eating as something entirely new and different, something that makes you forget that a meal used to feel incomplete if half of it wasn’t pasta or bread.
The brown rice crust that I started with was a surprising success, coming as it did with little preparation and almost no forethought. I used this recipe for Wild Rice Pizza as a guide, but replaced the wild rice with brown and skipped the Italian seasoning and garlic powder in favour of fresh herbs and spices. The key to making a crust like this work is timing and materials. I baked it in a cast iron pan until it was brown and crisp, and then added the sauce and toppings, which had been cooked in advance to avoid unnecessary sogging of the crust. In the end, it was only the edges that could be picked up and eaten by hand, but the whole thing was incredibly good, and having to eat the center with a fork seemed a small sacrifice.
Last night, I modified a recipe for Socca by adding a half cup of cooked wild rice for texture and crunch, and a beaten egg, because I had strong doubts that I would be able to get the Socca out of the pan. According to David Lebovitz, whose recipe I adapted, Socca is “basically street food, intended to be eaten off napkins to blot up all the excess olive oil, with plastic cups of frosty-cool rosé.” But it is also delicious cooked a little thicker, and topped with roasted vegetables, tomatoes tossed with basil, olive oil and sherry vinegar, and spiced feta.
The recipe, which in turn was adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris, calls for 1 cup of chickpea flour, 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of water, a healthy pinch of salt, some ground cumin to taste, and 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil. You mix this together and let it sit for about 2 hours, though as I mentioned above, because of its watery consistency, I became anxious about it working out, and so added the egg at the last minute. I poured the entire lot into a well-oiled and very hot cast iron pan–rather than pouring it thin, and creating multiple pancakes–and put it under the broiler for about 10 minutes until it was brown and crisp. You have to preheat the pan until it is smoking hot so that the bottom cooks evenly.
Tonight, I reheated the leftovers in the cast iron pan, and topped them with an abundance of sauteed chicory, bacon, tomatoes and sweet peppers. A highly recommended treat.