Photo by: T. Susan Chang — For The Washington Post
Eighteen years ago, I met my future mother-in-law in a Grand Rapids, Mich., hospital room shortly after she had received a diagnosis of celiac sprue, then a little-known autoimmune condition. No one seemed to have heard of celiac, or gluten intolerance, or even gluten, and each time she visited a restaurant, she had to carry a card explaining what she couldn't eat. Even so, she never knew when she would find herself in serious trouble thanks to an undisclosed ingredient.
How things have changed for the gluten-sensitive since then. Gluten-free products fill the supermarket aisles. Mainstream restaurants offer reliably gluten-free options. Gluten-free bakeries and gluten-free cookbooks pop up with frequency. And gluten-free bloggers have risen to national prominence.
Perhaps the best known of those is Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, whose accessible blog, flavor-forward recipes and three cookbooks (written with her husband-chef Danny Ahern) have firmly established her as an authority for those eating their way through the gluten-free life. In their newest, "Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented," the Aherns look at favorites - the thickened, the battered, the crusty - that typically are off-limits to gluten avoiders.
London's Susanna Booth writes the "Free From" column for the Guardian, focusing on special diets. Would "Gloriously Gluten-Free," her first foray into cookbooks, give its transatlantic counterparts a run for their money? Would it survive the conversion from metric?
In testing, neither book was glitch-free. All sorts of issues can cause any home baker to stumble, such as varying measuring techniques and humidity levels in the kitchen; I wondered whether those might be exacerbated further with the use of gluten-free blends, in which three or four types of wheat-free flours might be pressed into service. A few of the recipes in these two cookbooks were solid hits. As for the rest, I suppose there is a certain comfort in knowing that none of them will send your gluten-free loved ones racing to the hospital.
The Aherns have different ways of thickening creamy soups. Their New England Clam Chowder, constructed on a fairly typical yet dairy-free flavor base, calls for the Aherns' gluten-free flour mix - and you can read more about that in a bit. Bacon is rendered to kick-start the whole process, then is removed. (The recipe doesn't say anything about what should happen to the bacon afterward, but I added it back in, anyway.)
The liquid-solid ratio seemed a little off in their Cream of Artichoke Soup: Two pounds of artichoke hearts, a single potato and just three cups of stock almost overwhelmed my standard-size blender, which produced a very thick puree. There was no question of reducing the liquid "by one-third its volume" over 45 minutes; any more reduced and a spoon would have stood up in it. But that simply meant it was done faster, and it still tasted good.
Tamari is a godsend for those who need to eat gluten-free; it provides all the umami and salt of soy without the wheat. A mirin, tamari and pineapple marinade provides a fast infusion of flavor for grilled "teriyaki" chicken, giving good results in even just an hour's soaking time.
If you're thinking of experimentally reducing the marinade and trying it out as a glaze on the chicken for extra flavor: Don't. There are so many sugars in the marinade that the glaze carbonized in the oven in no time.
A quick broiled salmon relies on a similar tamari-based marinade. There's no indication of how thick the fillet should be or how far from the broiler it should sit (which has an impact on the cooking time), but it's an effective weeknight preparation.
Every gluten-free book has a substitute for all-purpose flour, and the Aherns' is no exception. Theirs is a blend of millet flour, sweet rice flour and potato starch (though Shauna provides alternatives, and a formula). I tried it in a recipe for rosemary-thyme crackers that involved about as much fuss as any wheat-based bread recipe I've ever made: a sponge, kneading, several hours of rising time plus rolling between layers of parchment paper. The dough wanted to crumble rather than "slump" off the mixer paddle; the crackers were a bit thick and pliable, not brittle and thin. I found myself wondering how long I would have had to go without wheaten crackers to find these GF versions attractive. Crisped up in a toaster and paired with some brie, they were palatable. Still, the usual rampant cracker thievery in our house came to a temporary halt.
Hazelnut banana bread, by contrast, rocked the house. It called for the Aherns' grain-free flour mix (buckwheat-almond-flaxseed), and though the rise was ominously low, the loaf was tender, moist and just cohesive enough.
Soaked dried dates and shredded coconut made for a surprisingly effective crust in the Key lime pie. The mixture didn't "form a large ball" around the blade of the food processor, but the clumpy masses pressed into the pan cooperatively enough. Egg yolks and condensed milk made for an easy weeknight lime curd, mild and fragrant from Key limes.
Gingersnaps behaved a little strangely. Rather than a dough that was "a little sticky," the recipe yielded a super-gluey blob I could deal with only by using a wet bench scraper rather than my hands. An hour in the refrigerator wasn't long enough to make the dough cooperative, but the next day it was easy to shape into balls. Those baked up into little domes - not the flat, waferlike gingersnaps I'd expected, but reasonably crisp, and spiced in the usual manner.
Tapioca flour, olive oil and grated Parmesan are the secrets behind Booth's garlicky, light and brittle flatbread in "Gloriously Gluten Free." It didn't get "puffed up and browned" exactly, even after five extra minutes in the oven, but the crisp texture was reminiscent of pita chips. Serves four? Not exactly, unless a single, index-card-size chip would be enough for you.
What's not to love about shrimp tempura you can make easily at home? Don't be fooled: It's not the pale, crunchy, batter-draped behemoth you get at your local sushi joint. But the gluey rice-flour batter, flavored with chives and ginger, does transform into a gilded uniform coat over pre-cooked shrimp. Ten ounces among four people will disappear in an instant.
The short pastry crust for a tomato-goat-cheese tart caused no end of trouble. It started out dry and crumbly rather than "sticky," as prescribed. I added half again the quantity of water and eventually ended up with something that could be described as a dough. After 30 minutes of chilling, I was able to roll it out, barely. I had to piece it together from shards, patchwork fashion. The crust baked up okay, and the filling of eggs, goat cheese and tomatoes was good enough to mitigate the ordeal of the pastry, but I won't be doing it again soon.
The prime directive of stir-frying - don't crowd the pan! - is ignored completely in a sweet-and-sour-pork dish. (It calls for preserved ginger, but because I couldn't find that ingredient, I used fresh.) A pan full of vegetables and pineapple with a ketchup-vinegar "sauce" brings back memories of an age when chop suey ruled the menus of Chinese restaurants. Will it be entering my weekly repertoire? Not likely.
A coconut-and-lime chicken curry has a slightly more refined appeal: It's fast work on a weekday. Without ginger or shallots or lemon grass, it was really just a quick sketch of more-authentic curries you have known and loved.
Booth's biggest hit was a coffee and walnut cake, with a liquid batter that made the directive to "smooth the top" in the pan a puzzler. It was a very low cake, barely filling half of the pan when finished, but a coffee buttercream and coffee icing made it moist and memorable. (There's not enough water to dissolve the confectioners' sugar for the icing, though, so you'll have to use your judgment there.)
Orange Poppy Seed Muffins looked like a disaster in the making. The runny batter overflowed the muffin cups as it expanded in the oven, and there was no "slightly golden" color after 20 minutes, or 25 minutes, in the oven. The confectioners' sugar icing again needed more than twice the quantity of liquid. (A conversion issue? Mistaking tablespoons for teaspoons?) Despite such mishaps, the muffins truly were light, sweet and cloudlike with orange zest, and I'd make them again in a heartbeat. With tweaks.
I felt sure something was horribly wrong with the divine-looking and -sounding Salted Caramel Millionaire's Shortbread. My caramel seized utterly, even though it was just an easy-looking blend of butter and condensed milk. Long before it got "golden brown," it separated into clots and pools of butter. I used it anyway and spread melted chocolate across it as best I could. The result was a far cry from the soigne little squares pictured, and the layers separated as we ate them, but eat them we did, with gusto.Shrimp in Spicy Tempura
Who can resist fried and battered seafood, so often a danger zone for the gluten-sensitive? This rice batter brings that indulgence back into circulation, and it delivers a welcome jolt of chive and ginger flavor along the way.
You'll need a thermometer for monitoring the frying oil.
Serve with sweet chili sauce or garlic mayonnaise.
Adapted from "Gloriously Gluten Free: Fresh & Simple Gluten-Free Recipes for Healthy Eating Every Day," by Susanna Booth.
Sunflower oil for shallow-frying
10 ounces cooked peeled medium shrimp (defrosted if frozen)
rinsed and drained 1/3 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 teaspoons chili oil
2 large egg whites
Pour the sunflower oil into a wok or large saucepan to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Heat to 340 degrees over medium-high heat. Line a large plate with paper towels.
Meanwhile, pat the shrimp dry with paper towels.
Stir together the brown rice flour, water, chives, ginger, chili oil and salt in a mixing bowl.
Whisk the egg whites in a separate mixing bowl (that is totally grease-free) until frothy, stopping before they get to the soft-peak stage. Whisk in the rice flour mixture just until no dry spots remain. Stir the shrimp into the batter.
Test the oil by dropping in a bit of batter, which should sizzle. Use tongs or chopsticks to gently lower about 8 shrimp into the hot oil; fry on one side for about 1 minute, until golden, then turn them over and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown all over. (The shrimp should bubble gently with a constant sound of gentle sizzling and without violent spitting.)
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to the paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining shrimp. Discard any remaining batter.
Serve right away.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.
8 servings Photo by: T. Susan Chang — For The Washington Post
Hazelnut Banana Bread
Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, is adamant about using weight rather than volume when measuring flour in baking recipes, for precision's sake. So it's smart to have a kitchen scale on hand for this recipe.
Don't be worried by the low rise of the loaf; that's how it's supposed to be. And it's a little on the crumbly side (thanks to the absence of gluten), but none the worse for it.
MAKE AHEAD: The bread can be stored, well wrapped, at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Adapted from "Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented," by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern.
For the grain-free
flour mix 2 1/2 cups (300 grams)
raw buckwheat flour Generous 2 cups (200 grams)
almond flour 9 3/4 tablespoons (100 grams)
finely ground flaxseed meal 1 1/4 cups (200 grams)
potato starch 1 1/2 cups (200 grams)
For the banana bread
Vegetable oil, coconut oil or butter for greasing the pan
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1/2 cup maple syrup
About 1/3 cup (80 grams) coconut oil, liquefied
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ripe bananas, mashed
About 1 cup chopped, skinned hazelnuts
For the grain-free flour mix:
Combine the buckwheat flour, almond flour, flaxseed meal, potato starch and arrowroot flour in the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer. Whirl them together until the mixture is uniform in color. The yield is 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram). Reserve 210 grams (1 3/4 cups) for this recipe; store the rest in a large jar or container at room temperature for up to 3 months.
For the banana bread:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with a little oil or butter.
Whisk together the reserved grain-free flour mix, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a mixing bowl.
Stir together the eggs, maple syrup, coconut oil and vanilla extract in a separate bowl.
Add the mashed bananas, whisking until everything is combined well. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time, stirring as you go, to the egg mixture. Once all the flour has disappeared into the batter and you can't find any more hiding at the bottom of the bowl, stir in the hazelnuts. Pour the batter into the loaf pan; bake until the banana bread is springy to the touch, the edges are pulling away from the pan and the top is browned, 45 to 60 minutes.
Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then run a round-edged knife around the edges to dislodge and release the banana bread. Transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely, inverted, so the bottom of the loaf doesn't collect too much moisture.
Nutrition | Per serving: 410 calories, 7 g protein, 45 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 21 g sugar
Key Lime Pie
8 to 10 servings (makes one 9-inch pie)
This is shockingly easy to throw together, so long as you can plan in advance for the chilling time. Key limes give the filling a milder, more aromatic sweetness than conventional "Persian" limes.
Serve with coconut whipped cream, whipped cream or sour cream.
MAKE AHEAD: The date-coconut crust can be made and refrigerated a day in advance (covered). The pie needs to cool for at least 2 hours, then needs to be refrigerated overnight.
Adapted from "Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented," by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
1 1/2 cups pitted dried dates
2 cups shredded unsweetened coconut
4 large egg yolks
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup fresh lime juice, preferably from Key limes
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the dates in a bowl; cover with warm water and let them soak for 20 minutes. Drain, squeezing them as dry as you can, then transfer to a food processor, along with the coconut. Pulse until finely chopped; they may form a large ball around the blade.
Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan, making sure to distribute it evenly on the bottom and up the sides. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Whisk together the egg yolks and condensed milk in a mixing bowl, then stir in the lime juice and salt, to form a thick and smooth filling. Pour into the chilled crust.
Put the pie on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven. Bake until the top is just starting to set, about 15 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack, at least 2 hours. Refrigerate the pie overnight.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 300 calories, 5 g protein, 50 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 44 g sugar
Photo by: T. Susan Chang — For The Washington Post
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