Gluten free? How hard can that be?
I come from a long line of bread lovers. Dinner rolls, biscuits, pancakes, muffins, and big, fluffy, freshly baked loaves of bread slathered in honey and butter--I love them all. I also love to bake (my maiden name is Baker after all) and breads are one of my specialties.
Still, I didn't panic when Ariel's recent blood tests came back showing a high sensitivity to gluten. Sure, it'd be a challenge to go gluten-free. But the main thing was, we'd finally discovered the cause of all her tummy pains.
"Just think of all the new foods we can try!" I told my eight-year-old, assuring her that this culinary adventure would lead us to all sorts of new and delicious discoveries. "And we're in this as a family," I promised. "If there's something you can't eat, none of us will eat it."
But it didn't take long for all of us to feel frustrated. The first thing I learned was that the gluten protein sticks around, getting into every nook and cranny in the kitchen. That meant things like the toaster would have to go. And, of course, all the flours, cereals, pastas, condiments and other gluten-contaminated foods in our cupboards and fridge, which would also have to be washed out before I could restock with gluten-free foods. With our son's 3rd birthday party only two days away, we worked like mad to purge and clean our kitchen from top to bottom, while I tried not to worry about how I was going to make the birthday cake.
Now take away eggs, cane sugar, mushrooms and whey...
To complicate matters, eggs, cane sugar, mushrooms and whey protein showed up as other culprits on Ariel's test. It didn't take me long to discover that many gluten-free foods contain at least one other ingredient Ariel can't have. My first shopping trip took ages. I'd take down a product, scan the ingredients list, and have to put it back on the shelf. Suddenly, I had a very keen sympathy for all the millions of other folks with dietary restrictions. This was going to be really hard!
Over the next few days, we realized that salad dressings, ketchup, chocolate, and a multitude of other foods were now off limit. "I can't eat anything anymore!" Ariel wailed when she realized she couldn't finish her Easter chocolates, enjoy her favourite creamy cucumber salad dressing, have regular ice cream in a cone, or roast marshmallows over the fire this summer. "When it gets to the point where I can't even play with my Play-doh, that's just ridiculous!" she sobbed.
Secretly, I began to despair a little too. There's gluten in EVERYTHING! But I determined not to let it get the better of us. After all, most of the foods we were giving up weren't that great for us anyway, or I could simply make my own version. Besides, our new diet would reward us all with better health. Millions of other people have given up these foods; we could do it too.
This calls for some culinary creativity!
As it turned out, our first gluten, egg, whey, mushroom and cane sugar-free feast at Graham's birthday party was a smashing success. The chocolate birthday cake was delicious and nutritious--moist, rich and dense like a brownie, with cooked beets for added sweetness. Luckily we can still have dairy in moderation, so I made the vanilla frosting out of cream cheese and whipped cream sweetened with Xylitol (a fruit sugar that's also good for your teeth). The icing was delicious, held its shape at room temperature, and was ridiculously easy to work with.
Riding on the success of our first attempts at the new diet, we've adopted the motto: "It's not a matter of giving up foods, merely of substituting with a healthier version."
I admit that so far, the gluten-free breads we've tried are dry, crumbly and not very tasty. My gluten-free pancakes were an expensive disaster that remained gooey inside no matter how long I cooked them. I still have no idea how we'll ever enjoy hot dogs or hamburgers again in a lovely, soft bun. Sandwiches just aren't the same on rice cakes, and I don't even want to think about life without the occasional trip to Dairy Queen. And yes, chocolate is a major problem--the only kind I've found with no cane sugar costs $5 for a teeny, tiny bar and doesn't come in any flavours.
But the benefits? Ariel's horrible, constant tummy pains disappeared within a couple of days on the new diet, along with her sudden bouts of fatigue and crankiness. Graham's mysterious eczema-like rash that he's had since birth is gone. My own stomach pains are gone too. And we all feel energetic and just plain clean inside.
And I'm having a ball experimenting in the kitchen. It's fun making things like ketchup, salad dressings and crackers that we used to buy ready-made. I'm discovering all sorts of wonderful grains like amaranth and teff, and we are so in love with creamy, cold-pressed coconut oil it's not even funny (ever tried a little spoonful with a drop of honey? So decadent it's impossible to believe it's good for you!). I never would have discovered the wonders of guar gum without these dietary challenges (just toss a bit in runny salad dressings or fruit sauces and voila! Thick and creamy.). And almost everything we buy now is organic, whole and additive-free.
And the chocolate problem? Today, I whipped coconut oil, raw cacao, vanilla, coconut sugar, maple syrup and natural peanut butter into melt-in-your mouth chocolate morsels that the kids declared better than anything we can buy in a store. See recipe below. Sinfully delicious, yet packed with nutrients. (Did you know raw cacao is loaded with zinc, protein, iron and magnesium? Maple syrup is nutrient rich too.) I can't wait to play around with variations. I plan to buy some fun chocolate molds and experiment with melted unsweetened chocolate, too.
And so, dear friends, the moral of the story:
When life gives you lemons, make organic, freshly squeezed lemon-aid sweetened with unpasteurized local honey. You'll be shocked at how much better it tastes. And best of all, you'll be rewarded with increased health and happiness--the value of which cannot be measured.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Morsels
1/2 Cup organic, cold-pressed coconut oil, slightly softened
1/2 Crunchy natural peanut butter (or any other nut butter)
1/3 Cup coconut sugar
1 Tsp. vanilla
3 Tblsp. raw cacao (or cocoa powder)
Maple Syrup (sweeten to taste)
Whip all ingredients in a bowl until thoroughly blended. Sweeten to taste with maple syrup and mix well. Drop into small balls onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment, silicone or waxed paper (or refrigerate until dough is slightly firm, then shape into balls. You can also flatten with a fork for a pretty appearance). Refrigerate until firm and enjoy!
Variations: Add coconut, dried cranberries, nuts or extracts like mint or rum. Experiment with different nut butters, or omit nut butter altogether. Try sprinkling with maple sugar, sea salt or pressing a whole nut into the centre of each ball when soft. You can use regular sugar, or any sugar substitute like Xylitol or date sugar.