food : thank goodness for nuts

Cooking has been a bit challenging around here, once we add the sprout’s dairy and gluten intolerances to our other health requirements of no soy, shellfish, or animal fats. My 15 years of a vegetarian have left me with a habit of hardly ever eating pork, never cooking red meat at home, and not eating chicken and fish every day either. (This last issue has more to do with mercury and PCPs, though.) We do go out for burgers about once a week to keep the sprout’s iron boosted, but protein was becoming a bit of a challenge. Thank goodness for nuts! After slowly introducing almonds, walnuts, and coconut to the sprout with no reaction, we took the plunge and started letting him eat small amounts of peanut butter. It turns out that he isn’t sensitive to them at all, which opens up a whole new avenue of gluten-free eating, freeing us from the tyranny of rice. In addition to being more nutritious, it’s much easier to find organic nut products than it is to find organic gluten-free rice-based foods, so my discomfort in that area has been somewhat relieved.

Our big success has been Quinoa Peanut Butter Cookies. I make them without chocolate and with quick cooking oats, because that’s what we have on hand; they are a bit goopy/crumbly and I imagine the chocolate adds quite a bit more flavor. After taking a couple of days to warm up to them (while also getting over a cold), the sprout will now put away 4 or 5 for a snack and I have absolutely no qualms about him doing so. They sure beat crackers or toast which were his previous mainstays, and given that I stir maple syrup into his oatmeal every morning, I’m not concerned about the small amount of honey they contain.

These cookies have supplanted date bars as his favorite snack, even the spicy ginger ones I make at home. Speaking of the homemade date bars, they’re incredibly simple. Get about 1.2 pounds of pitted dates (that’s two pre-packed containers at our market) and about an equal weight of nuts (I use 2/3 almonds and 1/3 pecans). The trick to getting them to blend together well, I have discovered, is toasting the nuts: cook them over medium heat in a dry frying pan (not non-stick) until you can smell them, which is when you know they’re done (just like a pie). Grind them fairly finely in a food processor and then add the dates and process until they start to clump together; you might need to intermix them in a couple of batches until the dates compress. You can add spices with the dates or process in later: I use 3 tsp. ground ginger, 2 tsp. ground cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp. ground cloves. Toasting the nuts makes them soft and brings out the oils, both of which help the bar stay together. If I’ve overdone the nuts, though, I cheat at the end and mix in some date syrup to help it all glom together. Press it into a ceramic baking dish, put it in the fridge until cool, then slice into bars and transfer to a tupperware container. They stay good for at least a week and keeping them in the fridge keeps them from getting too sticky, and they make tasty snacks for adults, too.

Next up on the gluten-free-baking-with-nuts train are the apple muffins (with coconut flour) that our friend makes and the sprout gobbles down and pumpkin spice cookies (made with almond meal) which should use up some of our autumn squash bounty. I can’t say I’m glad that so many people struggle with celiac disease, wheat allergies, and gluten-intolerance, but I am definitely grateful for the tested recipes now available. I can only imagine the briquets we would (not) be eating if I had to come up with this food on my own!

food : thank goodness for nuts

food : Daddy Happy Birthday Cake!

Now that the sprout is nearly two, we are starting to get invited to birthday parties. He has no concept of time or numbers as related to age, but he’s all over making cards for people, going to parties, and belting out “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” In this light, I decided to go the whole nine yards for my partner’s birthday, with frosted layer cake, candles, and singing, instead of just the basic dinner plus presents that we’ve done in the past. The only and biggest catch is the need for the cake to be dairy- and gluten-free, since just not giving any to the sprout is no longer an option as he demands to try any and all food he sees and doesn’t recognize. (We tried to put him off by telling him the cookie was yucky, which just made him request to “eat yucky cookie, please.”) Since his own birthday is coming up next month, I thought this was a good opportunity to figure out if gluten-free dairy-free cake is even edible before foisting it on a passel of toddlers and their unsuspecting parents.

First up: decide which flavor I’m making. Red velvet would have been my first choice, except that my partner doesn’t love it (and it is his birthday), it’s full of cocoa and therefore caffeine (making it not terribly kid friendly), and I’m pretty doubtful that my beet-based food dye is going to be able to achieve anything like the ideal. So that’s out. Chocolate is out for reasons of caffeine, and yellow cake with vanilla frosting is just too white cake for me, despite being my partner’s first choice and totally fine for a toddler. Also, I was a bit concerned about the overly ricey flavor of white cake based on my experience with the pie crust and wanted a stronger flavor to mask it. So, yellow cake with chocolate frosting it was. (Recipe from The Allergen-Free Baker’s Handbook, of course.)

Yellow cake in the pan.

First layer frosted.

Baking the cake was a bit nerve-wracking since I don’t typically bake cakes. I don’t typically bake cakes because they make me nervous, all the possibility for not rising and sticking and cracking and whatever else cakes do that they’re not supposed to. However, I can either pay approximately a million dollars for a gluten/dairy/soy/dye-free birthday cake or I can make one, so I did.

Once the cakes were baked, removed from the pan, and cooled without a hitch, I was facing the frosting part. Frosting is another thing I don’t do, mostly because I didn’t own a mixer of any kind until I acquired a hand mixer a few years ago. Making frosting without a mixer is a miserable experience that I suffered through once a year for the sake of holiday roll cookies, but not something I’d ever voluntarily undertake. Yet here we are! Frosting mixed up well and after a quick consult with the “how to frost a cake” section in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything I was ready to go. And, it went surprisingly well. Except for the part about how I didn’t trim the cakes to make the flat (Less cake? No way!) so the whole thing was a little like the leaning tower of cake. Not enough to matter, though, and I’m sure other people didn’t even notice.

Slightly tilting layer cake successfully frosted.

Last but definitely not least was the matter of taste. We had two friends on hand to give us the brutal truth about taste. Clearly the birthday boy, the baker, and the toddler were going to eat the cake no matter what, so we needed to consult impartial judges. My partner and I both agreed that it tasted a little ricey, but not impossibly so and the chocolate went a long way to cut that. Our friend asserted that it tasted “like cake” which was a completely acceptable response. Friends who were offered Round 2 of the cake the next day did think it tasted a little “malty,” which was probably the rice plus vanilla plus soy yogurt; next time I’ll use vanilla yogurt or just try the sheep’s milk yogurt and see how the sprout reacts. This time, though, it was pronounced good enough for next month’s toddler party. Success!

First piece to the birthday boy.

food : Daddy Happy Birthday Cake!

food : gluten-free peach-blueberry crisp

Gluten-free peach-blueberry crisp.

Yesterday we went up to visit friends outside of Frederick, to take a walk through the woods and enjoy their kitchen garden. Usually I bring a pie, but in the new world of gluten-free dairy-free living I wanted to try something simpler. Peaches from our CSA, blueberries from the freezer, and a pretty nice crumb considering it was made with vegetable shortening were just right. I’m pretty sure the sprout had more sugar in one sitting than he’s probably had in his entire life up until now (“Nummy! More peaches!”) so I’d call that a success. Recipe from The Allergen-Free Baker’s Handbook.


Tossed with blueberries and sugar.

Covered in crumb and ready to go.

food : gluten-free peach-blueberry crisp

food : zucchini!

In a moment of enthusiasm or weakness, I accepted hand-me-down enormo-zucchinis from a neighbor’s friend’s garden. Thankfully, it coincided with a zucchini-free week in the CSA and I was able to make it all go away with a little bit of concerted effort. First, I made stuffed zucchini from one of the squashes, using ground pork and ratatouille from the freezer, plus some rice. The result was edible but suffered typical mistakes: didn’t precook the rice and left the walls of the zucchini boat too thick so it was all a bit undercooked. But we still ate it for two days.

Another batch of zucchini muffins.

Next up: some of our favorite Moosewood muffins. With the ability to stock them in the freezer I can make as many batches as I like without feeling compelled to just eat them all at once. Each batch takes two cups of shredded zucchini, so I just shredded the entire second squash and dove in. Three dozen muffins later, I’d passed them along to friends, had a freezer full, and had used half the squash. It was a start.

Zucchini brownies.

A few years ago I tried to make zucchini brownies from the recipe in Simply In Season and failed miserably. Failed to actually follow the recipe, that is, which resulted in a hot mess. This time around I used properly shredded zucchini and yogurt, which turns out to be key to making the brownies rise rather than remaining a dish of flat goopy gunk. The chocolate chips on top made the whole thing much more brownie-like; without them the dish is more like chocolate zucchini cake (still good). Out of deference to the sprout’s ongoing dairy intolerance, I did use sheep milk’s yogurt and figure this will be a good way to test the assertion that it’s easier to digest.

Gluten-free zucchini fritters.

Finally, I used the last four cups (!) of shredded zucchini to make fritters, which are tasty but soft and not really ery fritter-ish at all. Zucchini and minced garlic or onion, 1/3 cup of flour (or gluten-free pancake mix as the case might be), and two eggs makes it a super easy addition to dinner. Which I’m sure we’ll revisit the next time we have cups and cups of zucchini to eat.

food : zucchini!

food : exciting blueberry pie

The finished product straight from the oven.

A couple of weeks ago, upon our return from vacation in the Great White North, I made a blueberry pie. The pie was exciting for a few reasons: it had a gluten-free crust (I’d say the best one so far, but the most recent always seems like the best); it was made with blueberries both from the ancestral homestead and from our CSA; and it used lemon verbena from our garden (the first use I’ve found for it, since “muddle it into a fruity drink containing hard alcohol” is great advice but only works when you are actually consuming fruity drinks containing hard alcohol). I combined the filling from this recipe with the gluten-free crust from The Allergen-Free Baker’s Handbook that I’ve previously used for apple pies, and it was not a bad pie at all. (I don’t even feel the need to qualify that with “for a dairy-free gluten-free one.”)

The assembly of the pie was pretty standard, now that I’m used to working with the sticky tart-like dough that results when you are using starches held together by egg to make a crust. The filling smelled very lemony, as I just tossed the berries with the juice and zest, not seeing any instructions otherwise in the recipe. I remembered the shortening inside the pie (which I often don’t) but did forget the rice milk wash for the top. That turned out to be a lucky mistake, as I preferred the flakier drier crust and it didn’t have the overly-ricey taste that some of the other versions have had. When I took the pie out of the oven curiosity got the better of me and I spooned up a taste of the filling that had overflowed onto the cookie sheet. I then became very nervous as the filling tasted like nothing more than a blueberry Lemon Drop, a “martini” that I hadn’t had in years because of the cloying sweetness. In the end—where the end is the next day after the pie had cooled completely overnight—the lemon was not overbearing and the pie was quite good. I will definitely chop the verbena more finely next time, but I’d make it again. Blueberry is a good combination with the gluten-free crust, too, as the color and flavor permeate the lower crust and the tart berries stand out against the bland backdrop.

The filled shell. Mmm, blueberries.

After blueberry, the next seasonal pie is usually sour cherry. Well, sour cherry is usually first (here in DC) and blueberry usually follows (after we return from our summer trip in early August). This year we missed sour cherry season entirely and the blueberries were a few weeks early so we had barely cleared Canada Day when we had blueberry pie. Which means that next up is most likely peach, as those are already rolling in to our CSA. After a banner year of plums two summers ago I suspect that the one little bag I have in the fridge might be all I have to work with, so a peach-plum (dairy-free gluten-free) crisp might be in the making. What could possibly go wrong?

food : exciting blueberry pie