Monday, September 14, 2009

Please Pass the Blog: Guest Post by Margo Anderson of "Off the Wheaten Path"

Way back in the day when I was a Food Editor for a community newspaper in Cache Valley Utah (holla!), I had a friend named Margo. Margo was a dancer; I was a dancer. Our classes, rehearsals and performances kept us in pretty tight proximity - there really wasn't a day that went by for several years when Margo and I weren't sharing significant portions of our lives within arms-length of each other (or literally in each other's arms, as the choreography would dictate!). Needless to say, much of my newspaper writing was done in the dance studio or dressing room - places more akin to home than where I lay my head at night - and all of my dance family members were recruited to help in some capacity or another. When it was her turn to rise to the occasion, Margo wound up being the model for a photo illustration to accompany one of my columns. I don't remember the column, but I do remember the picture: wide-eyed Margo, bundled in arctic-wear (apropos for Cache Valley winters), blowing the steam off of a hot mug-o-something (hot chocolate? soup? who knows). Super cute.

And then real life set in. At some point, Margo and I went our separate ways. We fell out of touch. But all these years later, through the marvel of this thing called the internet, we have reconnected. And wouldn't you know it? Margo has recently started a food blog! Seems as though we still have plenty of things in common.

Margo's blog, Off the Wheaten Path, is devoted to her quest for good eats on a gluten-free diet. Margo has Celiac's disease - rendering all things wheat, barley and rye strictly off limits. Far from a fad, gluten-free diets are garnering more and more attention from not only the media, but food manufacturers as well. I personally know more people than I can count who have banned gluten from their diet, and you can't even step foot in Trader Joe's without encountering new gluten-free products. So, Margo graciously agreed to write a guest blog post for Fare to Remember with some gluten-free tips to help enlighten us all.

The arrival of Margo's post happened to coincide nicely with a "Gluten-Free Extravaganza" hosted by my neighborhood Whole Foods market. I trotted my completely gluten-tolerable self down to have a look-see (samples were promised!), determined to learn a thing or two. Even though I'm familiar with the gluten-free diet, I am (was) a neophyte as to the differences between Celiac's disease (genetic auto-immune disorder) and gluten intolerance (broad term that defines sensitivity to gluten). I also wanted to discover if there were benefits to eating gluten-free, even if you don't suffer from either of those conditions (maybe no benefits per se, but certainly no harm in it, especially since it will get you away from eating most processed foods). From the lectures and demos given by local physicians and chefs, I did learn a lot - way too much for me to try and encapsulate here, especially since there's already a wealth of information available online. But I did load up on tasty samples in the name of research (my favorite being the Mary's Gone Crackers Sea Salt Sticks & Twigs - delicious!), and feel wiser for it.

But really - despite my long-winded introduction, this is Margo's post and she's got a lot of good info to share regarding gluten-free baking (perhaps the trickiest aspect of the diet). Take it away Margo....

The Rules Have Changed: Gluten Free Baking 101
By Margo Anderson, Off the Wheaten Path

Here’s the deal: baking is an exact science. You must measure. You must use a timer. You must have your eggs and butter at room temperature. And never, never jump up and down in front of the oven. However, when you add gluten-free flours into the mix, the rule book sort of gets up and walks away. In fact, it takes a shuttle bus to another state. Having been a gluten-free home cook for the last six years, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:
  • Expect the unexpected. There isn’t one single grain that has all the same properties as wheat, so you have to use several flours to replace the parts of flour that you are missing. This can mean several things: either your baked goods will taste mealy because other flours aren’t as finely milled, or they will taste different, because other grains are, well, other grains. Or it could mean your dough won’t be as elastic. Or it won’t be as thick. Or it won’t rise as much. What we’re going for here is an approximation of a wheat-filled baked good. Not an actual replica. Let’s face it, some things you just won’t get to eat again. So say goodbye to your Twinkies and look forward to a Gluten Free Sugar Cookie.
  • Be willing to try new ingredients. At this moment I have a Betty Crocker Gluten Free Devil’s Food Cake in the oven made with sour cream instead of butter. I don’t exactly know how it will turn out. But I really wanted some sour cream chocolate cake, so I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? It could be the best thing I’ve ever eaten and I just don’t know it yet.
  • Pay attention to texture. Think about the food you are making and how the gluten-filled one tasted. Was it chewy? Light and fluffy? Hearty? Dense? Dipped in chocolate sauce and dunked in coffee? Then you need to think about your available replacement flours and their properties before you substitute them. For example, teff flour is a very finely milled flour, but it doesn’t rise as well as wheat flour. So I add an extra teaspoon of baking soda to my batters that use teff. And it’s a darker flour, so I use it in brownies, because you can’t see any difference in the finished product. Buckwheat flour is also darker, but it is heartier, so it makes a good substitute for whole wheat flour, like in my Gluten Free Apple Pancakes. White rice flour is a little mealy in texture, so it’s fine to use in, say, a cornbread that is already mealy and crunchy. Do you see where I’m going with this? Use apples for apples, wherever possible.
  • Use the mix already! There’s no reason to be noble, here. Gluten free baking is tricky, and there’s ratios and scientific stuff that you and I will probably never understand. Let the pros do the work for you and use those gluten free mixes when you can. You don’t have to use them as a plain old mix, though. Feel free to jazz them up a bit with your own ingredients or substitutions. Just use the mix as a base for your own creativity. Check out my Gluten Free Carrot Cake Muffins, a perfect example of just making up a recipe because you had a Namaste spice cake mix laying around in your pantry.
  • Stay positive! It’s tough living with a chronic condition that you didn’t get to choose and you didn’t want to deal with in the first place. But do yourself a favor and try to look at the positive side of things. Now that there’s a low-carb craze going on, no one looks at you funny when you order a hamburger without the bun. You are always on the Zone diet. And to top it all off, you’ll feel better and be healthier by sticking to your diet instead of sticking to those sticky buns.
The Sour Cream Chocolate Cake with Mascarpone Frosting I mentioned above turned out to be so dreamy. Here's a quick recipe for it:
  1. Follow the instructions to make a Gluten Free Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake Mix, except omit butter and add 1/2 cup sour cream instead.
  2. Let cake cool on a wire rack until completely cooled.
  3. Take one 8-ounce package of Mascarpone cheese (Italian style cream cheese) and beat in a stand mixer with 1/2 tsp vanilla and 3-4 cups of powdered sugar added one cup at a time, depending on how sweet you like your frosting. Frost cooled cake.
I’ll take that over a Twinkie any day! Happy eating!

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