Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to fix holiday gluten-free cookie mishaps

We have lived in the same house for twenty years. So have three other sets of neighbors who have become like family. None of us have relatives in town so we long ago started a tradition of spending the holidays together. One neighbor always does Christmas Eve, another New Year's Eve. Our family and the family next door alternate having dinner and dessert in our homes on Christmas Day. Then if Penn State is in a bowl game on New Year's Day, we host a bowl game brunch back at our house.
This year, I'm having Christmas Day dessert so my daughter, Amanda, who has celiac disease and I are baking lots of cookies. In past years I've always served a combination of cookies made with wheat flour and gluten-free cookies. All my recipes are marked with little scribbles about how much of the "wet ingredients" I have to mix up and add to the smaller amounts of gluten-free dry ingredients. I let each of my children pick their favorite recipe and then make two versions of each. My son's peppermint candy candy cookies have always been the biggest challenge. You have to roll the dough, half of which is red and half of which is white, into two long strips and twist them together to form the candy cane. You can imagine what this is like using stretch-less gluten-free dough. Still, somehow I manage to make about a half a dozen for Amanda.
But with all the improvements in gluten-free flours over the years, I decided it was time to change to all gluten-free cookies. I reasoned this would make everything much easier and the cookies would taste just as good.
Over the weekend Amanda and I set out to make eight to ten different kinds. We started with a new recipe I found for gingerbread cookies. I was a little worried because the dough did not look like it was going to form the nice ball the recipe called for. But I've been baking gluten-free for almost as long as we have lived in our house so I told Amanda, whose help in baking is a newer phenomenon, not to panic. Some time in the refrigerator would surely firm it up.
It worked and I was able to roll out the dough into a nice flat circle.
We pressed our cute new cookie cutters into it, leaving scraps like a dress maker who has snipped a pattern from a swath of cloth. But we found it nearly impossible to get the cut shapes onto the cookie sheet intact.
Still not to worry. I lifted each carefully with my flattest edged metal spatula, which worked until the dough started to warm up a tiny bit and stuck to the parchment paper. Amanda suggested leaving the dough in the cookie cutter, lifting it and gently tapping it out onto the cookie sheet. You can always learn from the young and this worked. We triumphantly slid the sheet in the oven and peered through the door only to watch our reindeer and Santas spread into amorphous blobs. After repeating this several times, we decided that since everything was coming out as a big circle anyway we would stop trying to make cut-out cookies, just rolled the rest of the dough into circles and baked it that way. They taste great. They just don't look like much.
Next we decided to make a tried-and-true favorite, peanut butter kiss cookies. I've made these gluten-free for many years and never had any problems. But as soon as we put the round, sugar coated balls of dough in the oven, they flatten and spread like pancakes. What was going on here?
I have a new oven. Could that be it? I was using a new pre-made flour mix instead of my old one. Was that the culprit? But wait, there is no flour in the kiss cookie recipe. I switched from margarine to butter (said to be better for baking and your health). Was that a mistake?
I don't really know the answer. I suspect it was the flour mix with the gingerbread cookies because I did a search through the wonderful gluten-free baking blogs and found others had had the same problem with this mix when baking cookies.
The more important point in all this for me was that these cooking "challenges" reminded me what it's like when you are new to the gluten-free diet and you are trying so hard and everything is going wrong. I don't often get that feeling anymore. But I realized my daughter who was soldiering on with me in the kitchen will as she takes over more and more responsibility for her food. I know those new to the gluten-free diet this holiday season may be ready to weep over their flops. All that time, effort and money and nothing to show for it.
In a strange way, I like reconnecting with all of you who are new to the gluten-free diet through my own cookie mishaps. After many years it's easy to start thinking the gluten-free diet is no big deal. But at the beginning it is.
My advice is don't give up. Take advantage of all the experience of really good gluten-free chefs (myself not included) who blog for the love of gluten-free cooking. Their recipes are imaginative and beautifully photographed on their blogs. They have often worked out all the bugs and if you follow their recipes precisely you might avoid the problem I ran into by using a recipe from a general cooking site instead of a specifically gluten-free source. In comments section you can sometimes find someone else has already asked for the solution to the exact problem you are having as I did when I typed "Why are my gluten-free cut out cookies spreading too thin?" into one search section. Karina Allrich, Shauna James Ahern , and Kate Chan are good places to start.
And don't forget the avalance of gluten-free cook books now readily available in your bookstore or through amazon.com. These authors are using new flours and techniques to make better-than-ever gluten free baked goods. I love anything by Carol Fenster and Elizabeth Barbone has 15 holiday cookies in her book Easy Gluten -Free Baking.
Amanda and I have taken a few days off from cooking to shop and to wrap presents. But we'll be back in the kitchen later today to finish off the rest of our recipes. We might not have gingerbread reindeer and Santas, but we were able to fix the kiss cookies in our second try. And we'll make adjustments and teach each other a few things whenever we run into hiccups. I love being in the kitchen with my now nearly grown daughter more than any cookie.
Whatever you end up with as a result of your holiday baking this year, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and are blessed with good health and happiness in the New Year.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Gluten-Free Living Holiday Gift Guide

When it hits me that December is really here, I know it’s time to get serious about finding gifts for family and friends.
In our house there are special challenges because we celebrate both Chanukah for my husband and children and Christmas for me. On top of that, my husband’s birthday is December 21. He says he never minded his yuletide birthday because it falls in a time of year when everyone is full of good cheer. (That might mean everyone but me as I struggle to find two of his biggest gifts of the year within four days!)
Whatever your reason for looking for that perfect gift, here are some of the most interesting treats, tools, and treasurers for the gluten-free recipients on your list. I combed catalogues, stores, websites, magazines and blogs to find unique items with price tags of all sizes.
Even in this tough economy, I was drawn to gifts that are somehow out-of-the-ordinary and a little bit of a splurge. But this was true whether the gift was an inexpensive stocking stuffer or for a bigger package under the tree.

Fancy Food
When you follow the gluten-free diet, food is a natural gift and there are many beautifully packaged gluten-free goodies out there, from gift baskets, to boxes of biscotti , to cookies that “do good.”

I Can Have That fills a holiday tin to overflowing with dark chocolate, orange cranberries, smoked salmon, Parmesan chips, cookies and pumpkin seed brittle for about $55.

Gluten Smart packs everything from margarita mix, to gourmet cheese crackers to chocolate bars in its snack pack for about $50.

Gifts Gone Gourmet, which emphasizes artisan made products from California, stuffs cookies, kettle corn, pretzels, dried fruit olives and nuts into a pretty white box decorated with gold stars and ribbon for about $37.

Gluten-free Gifts “You Take the Cake” prettily packages Betty Crocker yellow or devils food cake mix with two round cake pans, a stainless steel cake server and platter for about $25.

Curious Cookie adds a fun logo to each of its gift packages. For Christmas you can choose from the Holly Jolly or Christmas Cookie Tree baskets and tins. “Have a jolly with a cookie and holly” or “Have yourself a merry little cookie.” Price range from about $27 to $40

Vanilla Spoons doesn’t have a specific holiday gift basket, but you can find themed packages that might be perfect for that special someone. “Mrs. Doubt That’s Not Gluten” includes treats that no one will notice are gluten free for $105. Other gifts include “Movie Mania” and “Mix in the City,” a collection of gluten-free mixes.

Mariposa, one of our favorite gluten-free bakeries, offers biscotti, brownie and combination gifts packaged in a homey kraft box tied with satin ribbon or raffia. Prices range from about $21 to $38.

Frontier Soups has a slightly different spin on the gift basket, filling theirs with hearty soup mixes. The company makes 27 gluten-free varieties. You can build your own soup basket with five to ten soup mixes. A sale going on now offers the basket, crinkle filler and wrapper for $1. Soups cost from $5.50 to $9.95 each.

Two smaller food gifts also caught my eye. Do Goodies gluten-free cookies come in a six-cookie gift pack in two varieties for about $10. All the profits from the sale of these cookies goes to the Greyston Foundation, which provide jobs, affordable housing and health care to the underprivileged. You can give a nice gift and feel good about it.

I also like Crate&Barrel's holiday star syrup, a 6.75 ounce star-shaped bottle of pure grade A maple syrup for about $14. While the price might seem a little steep, the bottle is festive and unexpectedly in the holiday spirit. It's also glass and reusable so that justifies this little extravagance a bit.
Gift baskets and gluten-free foods make great useful gifts, but keep mind that you need to order early and that postage will add to the cost.

While most holiday gift baskets have a Christmas theme, we found a few gluten-free Hanukkah treasures.
The cutest comes from L.A. Burdick Chocolates, a gourmet artisan chocolate company whose products are handmade. You can order a box of nine chocolate Hanukkah mice in a wooden box with a blue ribbon with a silver wax menorah seal for $32. Or you can get 16 pieces of chocolate and one chocolate mouse in the same packaging for $20. Burdick’s website cautions those with allergies, but Carolyn Kohler a sales and customer service representative assured me all the companies chocolates are gluten free.

Curious cookie sells both a Hanukkah cookie basket and tin with a label that says, “Cookie, cookie, cookie, I made you out of dough. Cookie, cookie, cookie, I ate them all – Oh No.” The basket has two pounds of cookies for about $40 and one pound for about $27. With Hanukkah so close, you have to order these right away to meet the company’s shipping cut off.

A little help in the kitchen
With all the time spent in the kitchen, any who is gluten free or anyone who cooks for someone who is deserves kitchen gadgets that work well, look nice and last a long time. And it’s even better to find some that are all three.

Although I know you might only use this for special occasions, I love Williams Sonoma’s Oreo Cookie cake pan. It’s actually two pans, top and bottom, that create a cake that looks like an Oreo cookie when you put white icing between the layers. Made with a gluten-free cake mix, I could see this as a big party hit. Williams- Sonoma’s website has a recipe for a chocolate cake that could easily be made gluten free by substituting gluten-free flour for the one cup of wheat flour it calls for.

At Target stores, you’ll find sweet, colorful cookie cutters shaped like Santa, a reindeer and a Christmas present. They seemed a size that would work well with tricky gluten-free cut-out cookie dough. For Hanukkah, you might like the snow flake shapes. All are made by Wilton. At about $4 for a set of three they would make a great stocking stuffer or simple gift for one night of Hanukkah.

I noticed the Animal House kitchen tools at Target a few months ago and thought they would also make great stocking stuffer especially for gluten-free college kids with their first apartment. The design of each tool incorporates an animal, the piranha pizza cutter for example. You’ll find everything from a Veg Hog veggie brush to a monkey peeler at Target and amazon. Prices range from about $8 t0 $10. I’ve since learned these were featured in O magazine, but I found them on my own first!

In keeping with the animal theme, but with a more refined touch, Anthropologie has a charming rooster kitchen timer for $10 that would make keeping track of when those gluten-free cookies are done a pleasure.
I also like the retro double kitchen timer that was sold at Anthropologie until it was mentioned in a New York Times gift guide. But not to worry, I found the same timer at amazon for about $10 less at $14.57.

One of my favorite gift finds is Anthropologie’s florist bloom measuring cups. For $36, the set included four stoneware cups (1, 1/2, 1/3 and ¼) to pretty to hide away in a drawer and perfect for keeping on the counter within easy reach.

A good knife and cutting board are invaluable in a gluten-free kitchen. These two simple, low tech tools can make preparing gluten-free bread so much easier. When I went in search of the best knife, Wusthof is the name that came up most often. Williams-Sonoma pairs an 8 inch Wusthof bread knife with a teak bread board for about $70.
I was also interested in Williams-Sonoma’s Kuhn Rikon bread knife, a less expensive choice at about $20. The knife’s 7-inch blade has a non-stick color coating said to cleanly slice fresh-baked bread. Sound perfect for gluten-free loaves. The handle is ergonomically designed and the knife comes with a red safety sheath to protect the blade.
When it comes to cutting boards, John Boos is the name on everyone’s lips. A 10 by 10 reversible solid hard rock maple board is one of those gifts that seem to meet my criteria of looking nice, working well and lasting long. The smaller board is about $19 or you can buy up for the larger 16 by 10 board for about $26, both at Cutlery and More.

Two things I honestly could not live without in my gluten-free kitchen are my Kitchen Aid mixer, now nearly 20 years old, and my bread machine, a recent replacement for one I had had for nearly as long as my mixer. These are bigger gifts, but you can be sure they will be used again and again for many years. Kitchen Aid is available in many discount and department stores, as well as on amazon for $200 and up depending on the model you buy.
Three bread machines seem to work best with gluten free bread, the Zojirushi – the tried and true brand, the Cuisinart, which now has two machines that can be programmed to make gluten-free bread, and the Breadman, which has expanded to three gluten-free programmable machines. They range from $100 to $200 and are available in stores and at amazon and other web sites. I’ve used all three brands and had success with each.

For the young and young at heart
It’s likely your gluten-free child has some high tech gift at the top of his or her list, but I found a few low-tech but fun and useful items you might want to wrap and give.
For all those times when your child has to tote gluten-free cupcakes to parties and school, Go Go cupcake has cute individual plastic cupcake carriers that look just like, well, a cupcake. A set of two, one “vanilla” with white “icing” and one “chocolate” with pink icing, are about $7 at amazon.

For some laughs mixed with learning, you don’t want to miss the new and likely first, gluten-free comic book. Drawn by the nationally known artist who has done Spiderman and other comics, Amy Goes Gluten Free, is the story of a redhead with ponytails, who is learning to adjust to her new gluten free diet. It’s expected to be available from the Celiac Disease Center at Children’s Hospital of Boston this month.

If your gluten-free daughter likes to help in the kitchen, Anthropologie has an adorable apron that will make her feel like a better cook the minute she ties it up. Special touches include starry sequins and crocheted snowflakes. Perfect for holiday cookie making, $24. Your gluten-free son might like his own apron from dandy lion designs. You can pick from a variety of fabrics, including airplanes, pirates, tools and trucks. Each apron, which fits children 3-7, can be ordered with cooking utensils, $30. A child’s apron illustrated by the Gluten-Free Illustrator, Erin Rogers Pickering, is also available at zazzle for about $16.

A simple T-shirt can also make a nice gift for any gluten-free kid. I am not a fan of the more negative slogans you find on some gluten-free shirts, but I do like the Gluten-Free Kid dinosaur T-shirt in bright blue from café press, $19. This web site has about 900 gluten-free items, ranging from shirts to underwear, to bags and stickers.

For little ones new to a gluten-free family, Celiac Chicks has a sweet Onesie with the hip chicks’ logo in soft pink or blue for about $14. For teen girls, try the chick junior ringer T-shirt in three great colors for about $22. Celiac Chicks donates 5 percent of its proceeds to celiac charities.

Although I don’t have a photo to show you of the very cool GF Keds offered by ZellaDesigns on zazzle, make sure you check them out for your tween or teen. The body of the slip-on shoe is a bold black and white polka dot with a hot pink GF symbol on each side. You can customize the toe cap and inside, choosing from a tiny floral pattern or red, yellow or green dots or strips. You have to see these shoes to appreciate how different they are. About $60.
For girls of all ages who would rather show celiac support on their wrists, Vael Designs, offers an awareness bracelet made with light green Swarovski crystals and an awareness ribbon form $25, with a portion of the proceeds going to celiac research.

In addition to these gifts, Gluten Smart and I Can Have That sell gifts baskets made for gluten-free kids.

For GF Guys

It's not easy to find gifts for our favorite gluten-free guys, but if you know one who loves barbecue, this gifts set from Denny Mike's might be just what you are looking for. It includes one rub - you can choose from flavors that include Chick Magnet and Cow Bell Hell - and one sauce for about $10. Denny Mike's is based in Maine, where it's native son owner has a goal of spreading the gospel of Texas BBQ from Maine to Florida.

For something a little more unusual, try Black Forest Bison's summer sausage gift set, which includes original and garlic summer sausage tied with a raffia bow on a bamboo cutting board for $39. The company is a family operated ranch in Colorado where the animals roam free in the pasture and are grass fed. No hormones, steroids or antibiotics are used. The American Heart Association recommends bison because it is low in fat and cholestrol.

The cost of gluten-free beer can make it seem like a luxury, so gluten-free guys of legal drinking age (and perhaps some girls, too) might appreciate of few six pack of Bard's Tale beer or Redbridge, both of which are increasingly available in beer stores across the country. Heck, you probably don't even have to wrap it. Just tie a bow on and it's ready for gift giving.

If you still need a gift idea
When nothing else seems right, you can always give a gift card. Kinnikinnick sells them in $5 denominations. Although the website seems to indicate you will be charged $10 for postage, that charge is eliminated when you get to check out. Postage for is actually $1.
Whole Bakers, a gluten-free cookie company, also offers gift cards from $10 to $250. You can order a card that will be sent to the recipient in the mail or a virtual card that will be sent by email.
Wegman’s, Whole Foods and many mainstream supermarkets now carry gluten-free items and sell gift cards, as do many restaurants with gluten-free menus, including Outback and P.F. Changs.

In some ways, this gift list involved much more heavy lifting than a trip to the local shopping mall. But I hope it helps you find something special for someone you care about.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Our biggest and "best" Gluten-Free Living

You won't want to miss the new Gluten-Free Living. With every magazine we publish, we get bigger and better.
This is our first "Best Of" issue and includes updates of our most popular stories. Here's a sample:
Questions Linger about McDonald's Fries
By Amy Ratner
"If you are on the gluten-free diet and ordering at McDonald's, what do you say to the automatic question, "Do you want fries with that?" The answer is not as simple as it seems. There are some facts you should take into consideration when deciding whether you can include the fries in your diet..."

The Last Word on Vinegar
By Ann Whelan
"In late 1999, I decided to take the plunge and begin an investigation of the question, "Does vinegar contain gluten?" Five minutes after I started I realized the question should not have been asked in the first place..."

Feeling Your GF Oats
By Amy Ratner
"Oats can be confusing for those who follow the gluten-free diet. On the one hand you can't just walk into the supermarket and buy well-known brands of oats for breakfast. On the other, you can find oats that are labeled gluten free. So what is the story on oats?..."

It's Easy to Love Cheese
By Ann Whelan
"The answers to questions about safety of cheese are relatively simple once you understand the differences between the two main categories of cheese: real cheese and processed cheese. There are significant differences between the two…"

And you'll find lots more, including updates on ingredient questions that never seem to go away and enriched gluten-free food. There's also a collection of favorite recipes. Plus we revisit some of our most popular On Your Plate and medical questions and answers.

For these stories and more, go to http://www.glutenfreeliving.com to subscribe. The new issue starts shipping today. It will also be available in Barnes & Noble, Borders, Whole Foods, Wegman's and other health food stores around the country. See our homepage for a full list.

Also on our website, you'll find our free Holiday Guide, with lots of tips for fast-approaching Chanukah and Christmas celebrations, including recipes.Check back here later this week for our Gluten-Free Living Gift Guide. You can also follow us on Twitter as gfliving.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Making Good Food Choices

The Sunday edition of the New York Times had a fascinating article on health care and the unique approach taken by major corporations, where healthy living was rewarded in their health care benefits. I included the article, it’s a good read and interestingly the focus was the relationship between food and health.

(Do Health Care Savings Start in the Cafeteria? NYT, Sunday November 29, 2009)

To a celiac, that’s a big “duh.” The food we eat has a significant link to our overall health. But to the vast majority of folks, they don’t make the link. Food is a root cause of obesity and the many health problems that go along with obesity. Food is related to diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, cavities and on and on. Of course there are other issues like genetics and smoking and sedentary ways, but food is a major player in every aspect of our health.

Food with gluten is responsible for the health trauma related to celiac disease. We all know we can’t eat food with gluten to be healthy. I think that’s a lesson that should carry over to the general population.

One of the “fixes” to the health crisis in America is better eating. The article alluded to the fact that quinoa and kale have to become as enticing as potato chips and cookies. Green tea and water have to replace sugary sodas and posting calorie content on fast food menus is not the way to do it.

Is it going to take more companies like Safeway or IBM or Pitney Bowes (companies highlighted in the article) who incentivize their employees to lose weight and exercise for reduced employee participation costs for health benefits? Healthier employees cost those companies a lot less. This is either draconian or brilliant, depending on how you look at it. Sometimes the carrot/stick approach is more effective than allowing people to make healthy choices on their own. Here’s another “duh” factor, if we have an obesity epidemic most people aren’t making the right dietary decisions.

I know that from a gluten perspective, I don’t cheat. No food is worth it to me to have that gurgling gut and wave of nausea hit me. If I was asymptomatic, would my feeling on cheating be different? I don’t know. I know a woman who indulges in one piece of real NYC pizza every week because she doesn’t have symptoms and justifies it as ok for her.

But if I did cheat, I would most likely be setting myself up to be a greater burden on to my health insurer because of the ensuing health complications that would probably follow a continual intake of gluten. Am I doing my part to keep health care costs down by eating a gluten free diet? Should I be penalized from a cost perspective by the company benefit plan for celiac disease? Would my employee costs go down with good blood tests indicating that I’m sticking to my gluten-free diet? Interesting to ponder!

In the meantime, I try to model the strict gluten-free diet, exercising, good eating habits, reading versus screen time, etc…potato chips and my blackberry remain my major vices. As a mother, I try to steer my kids to daily exercise and five servings of fruit or vegetables. I don’t eliminate the “garbage” choices because it’s important to learn to eat that stuff in moderation.

Only time will tell on which lessons stick and what eating habits they will have as adults. I just hope they relate good health with good food choices and that by the time they are off our insurance plan, there is a solution in place for reasonable, cost efficient health insurance options for them.

Kendall Egan