Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Don't let the wheat get you down

What are you giving up for lent?
I was chatting with my mother the other day, updating her on all the happenings of my life in the UK when she suddenly did a complete redirect and changed the topic of conversation to gluten. Now, for those of you who know or have ever met my mother, you know she's cute. Like, adorably cute.

My mother is what we like to call (and forgive me if I offend anyone) a "reformed Catholic".  As she puts it, "we go to church once a year whether we need it or not"; like it's a shower or something. I guess in a way it is if all that prayer and fasting cleanses the soul and inner body. Besides her annual trip to church (or as we called it when I was a child, our "weekly candy bar" - after church we would make a beeline for the general store to pick out our favorite candy bar*), she observes lent and swears that angels do exist.

There's more, but the point is it's Lent. And, because it's lent, it's that time of year when so many of us start thinking about giving up something. It's sort of a second chance for those of you who botched the new year's resolution. You don't have to have any religious affiliation any longer to be a part of the trend. You can just do it on your own. As a friend of mine points out in her 7-day quit challenge, quitters are winners. If you give up something long enough, chances are you won't want to go back to it. At least that's the theory.

Somewhere during the conversation, I jumped on the bandwagon. And so for lent, my mother and I are giving up gluten.

Do you know what gluten is? 

In it's most simplest definition, gluten is the protein found in some grass-related grains, predominantly wheat, rye and barley. It is the gluten in flour that helps retain the gas bubbles produced by a leavening agent which in turn assists the product in rising. High gluten (protein) flours produce excellent breads and low gluten flours (cake flours) are softer, lending themselves better for producing light, tender cakes.

The thing about gluten is, there are many people who are either intolerant or allergic to it (or the wheat from which it is derived) or who have celiac disease. Celiac (coeliac) disease effects at least 1% of the population in the US and UK. It is a condition of the small intestine that causes it to react to gluten - preventing food to be effectively digested and the nutrients in food to be readily absorbed. It can be quite serious.

Can you survive on a gluten -free diet?**

Albeit, difficult to manage in some ways, surviving on a gluten-free diet is possible. It used to be that a gluten-free diet meant a loss in the quality of life through the denial of many delicious foods. What, no cake?! Turning away the bread basket?! Tired of saying no to Spaghetti Wednesday? What about all of those ketchup brands using gluten as a thickening agent (what happened to using tomato paste)? Or ice creams that use gluten as a stabilizing agent? I imagine the first time ice cream was made with gluten marked the beginning of a global breakdown in our food quality. Not that gluten is bad. Being the happy baker that I am, I happen to love gluten - when baking bread. When making ice cream, not so much.

Although reading food labels is a requirement for so many of us, whether we have coeliac disease or are observing lent, the good news is, as long as we have our reading glasses, we can! Just don't judge the product by its label. Neither the US nor the UK require foods to include gluten as an ingredient in all products. The Food and Drug Administration considers gluten to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and in the UK only cereals are required to be labeled, all other products are voluntary. Oh, and if you are preparing food on your own premise in the UK, you receive guidance from the Food Standards Agency and so are not required to meet any labeling requirements. This can be frustrating and down right scary depending on how your body reacts to gluten.

Let us eat cake!

The good news is, there are many alternative options to flours and foods containing gluten. Whether you are craving a thick slice of freshly baked bread or are dreaming of a summer fruit tart, there is a flour that can be substituted for all of those wheat flours on which we have become so dependent. The fact of the matter is, you don't have to deny yourself. I for one have never believed in denial anyway. Some of these flour alternatives include, but are not limited to:
  • Amaranth
  • Arrowroot
  • Buckwheat (not a wheat at all, this plant is related to rhubarb)
  • Gram (chickpea or garbanzo bean)
  • Corn
  • Potato
  • Quinoa
  • Rice (brown and white)
  • Soya
  • Tapioca
Here's the deal. 
Find a flour that works for you. It might be a blend of gluten free flours. Blends are good because they can mimic the result of a good wheat flour fairly well. When making something for someone who is on a gluten-free diet, consider these points.
  • Be careful. If you know of someone who truly has celiac disease, you must be aware that oat flour is questionable and other flours produced in the same facility that process wheat, may become contaminated with gluten. It doesn't take much.
  • Don't take a chance. Make certain your cooking/baking equipment is free of any gluten. This is not something to be worried about, but if you are making something for someone who cannot have wheat or gluten, it's not worth taking a chance. Right?
  • Know your product. What are you making? Do you have the right substitute flour? If you're baking bread, chances are you need an alternative flour that has a higher protein content. If you're baking a pastry or cake, choose a flour that is lower in protein. Dove's Farm produces a variety of amazing gluten-free flours appropriate for breads, pastries and cakes.
Remember, all things made with gluten can be made just as delicious without gluten. You can do it. And if you can't, you can find someone else who does. The Flour Garden produces some pretty amazing cakes made with Dove's gluten-free flour (if I may say so myself!).

In addition to enjoying gluten-free cakes and pastries, we also bake bread, eat pasta and enjoy a delicious, gluten-free diet every day. Starting today. And ending after 40 days.

*by the way, my favorite candy bar was and still is Snickers! ;)
** I apologize for my amateurish attempts at humor and understand that they are likely to disturb, offend, or worse, disappoint some of my readers. For this, I humbly request your forgiveness. 


  1. Having family and friends who are all celiacs here are some of our favorite things.

    Breads:Glutino Corn Flour Bread is a great everyday toasting bread.
    Against the Grain makes wonderful GF baguettes, bagels and pizza dough. (I use the baguettes all the time, no one would ever know they're GF).

    Pastas: Bio Nature Potato Soy pastas and Ancient Harvest Quinoa pastas are excellent. Be sure to check the lables as they also make regular pastas as well. Tinkyada Brown Rice Lagsane is another favorite.

    Crackers: Mary's Gone Crackers make wonderful artisinal type crackers, which are also nut free.

    Mixes: We've had the best luck with the Gluten-Free pantry mixes for breads, cakes etc. I've also had reports that the GF Betty Crocker cake & brownie mixes are very good (And available in your average grocery stores!)

    General Products: An italian company Schar makes nice pastas, bread sticks and crispy lady fingers. (Fun fact: celiac disease is so prevalant in Italy that children are tested for it at age 5).

    Beers: Redbrige (put out by Busch co) is pretty available in most supermarkets. Woodchuch hard ciders are also a decent equalivant.

    Those are just a few of our favorite products.

  2. Thanks Corgyncottage! I had no idea how prevalent celiacs disease in Italay. I guess 1% is nothing compared to over there.

    All of these products sound amazing and I know I will be on the lookout for them over here in the UK!



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