Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cracking the German (chocolate) code

Several years ago, my aunt who doesn't really cook bought me a cookbook for Christmas. I love cookbooks. I have dozens, most of which I use for only one or two fantastic recipes -- but I love the sheer clutter and weight they bring to my kitchen. And the more dilapidated the better, as it suggests that I am such a good and prolific cook that I cannot be bothered with cleanliness.

Back to the book, Betty Crocker's Ultimate Cake Mix Cook Book. The premise is that it's possible to make a cake mix (good heavens) into a dessert that appears to require actual skill. Having it on my shelves is almost as humiliating as setting out a coffee table book of pornography.

But you cannot beat the German Chocolate Bars. Not only are they terrific, they're easy, successful every time, store well and almost never stick to the pan. They're my go-to dessert in a pinch, and only require chocolate cake mix, German chocolate frosting, chocolate chips, butter and milk.

Naturally, JFG loves them. But until Betty Crocker starting producing gluten-free mixes, it was impossible to get the algorithm right. It still takes some fiddling, as the gluten-free chocolate cake mix only makes an 8x8 inch (thick) or 9x9 inch (thin) cake. So, use the recipe at the link but make the following substitutions:

-- Use half a cup of butter instead of 2/3
-- Use 1/8 of a cup of milk
-- Use 3/4 of the container of coconut pecan frosting (and only use Betty Crocker frosting -- it's gluten-free)

And to spread the cake batter, do it with very wet hands. Keep a close eye on the pan in the oven and remove it as soon as the top is dry to the touch. Also note that, like most other gluten-free desserts, this needs to stay in the fridge.

But make sure you keep this our secret. I'd rather people think that the bars are some mysterious form of alchemy that only I know.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not quite egg-foo-young, but not far from it

Say what you will about Disneyland Chinese food, but you have to appreciate P.F. Chang's ubiquitous and reliable gluten-free menu. Eugene, Portland, Sacramento -- when in doubt and exhausted by the gluten negotiation we usually experience in other restaurant, P.F. Changs provides unimaginative and geographically non-specific but safe gluten-free food. And the serving staff is almost always reasonably knowledgeable about food preparation precautions, to the point of bringing a separate plate of sauces for the celiac at the table.

I must especially praise the flourless chocolate dome (or, as our most recent waiter termed it, the "big ball of chocolate"). Dense, deep and covered with berries, it was delicious. Yes, it was just about the only gluten-free dessert option, but it was really the only one we needed!

Adventurous? No. Sophisticated? Only to people who buy faux-aged Chinese statues at Pier One Imports. Comfortable? You bet.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chewing on disappointment just like it was chewy, chewy bread

Strangely, I'm disappointed. But I shouldn't be surprised.

The Great Harvest Bread Company near my office sent an email out on Monday announcing that it was now serving gluten-free white bread and gluten-free cheddar and garlic bread. I was thrilled. To date they've only made gluten-free versions of their really seedy breads like Dakota, which JFG will not eat. As a result, my family's one option for really good gluten-free bread vanished like, well, the loaf of Great Harvest Bread we donated to the women's softball team last year.

But white bread? And -- even better -- cheddar garlic bread? Now, I thought, we're in business. I had visions of sandwiches. And bread with salads. And toast. How beautiful.

Today, I returned to the email to find out the baking schedule for these luxuries, and happened to scroll to the bottom of the page. That's where I saw it.

"Please note that we are a whole wheat bakery, therefore; this product is not recommended for customers with the serious autoimmune disorder, Celiac Disease, as it may contain trace amounts of whole wheat flour."

I shouldn't be surprised. But I am. And disappointed -- this announcement, if it is true and justified, should be on all nutritional information, not at the end of an occasional email. Shame, Great Harvest.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gone fishin'

No, seriously, I would never go fishing. Why would I get up voluntarily at 4:00 a.m. to stand in rubber pants in a frozen lake, being eaten by mosquitoes, for the opportunity to injure and abandon fish when I can go to my local grocery store and buy Starfish Gluten Free Crispy Battered Cod?

JFG likes fish and chips, and while we can get great gluten-free versions at the Hawthorn Fish House in Portland (yum -- almost everything on the menu is gluten-free) it's a pain to have to drive 60 miles for fairly simple food.

And then a colleague told me about Starfish products -- namely the cod, although it comes in two other fish, like haddock as well -- which are stocked by my local grocery store. I finally talked JFG into frozen fish last night, namely by letting us run out of every other food except cereal and then discouraging his attempts to go out.

Admittedly my expectations were low. However, the fish was pretty good! We baked it for 13 minutes in the oven as recommended on the packaging, and then JFG ate it with about a cup of tarter sauce for garnish. You won't shut your eyes and imagine you're eating fish out of newspaper in the middle of a road at midnight in London, mind you, but I think we'd eat it again. And it would be great for fish tacos. If ONE of us ate fish tacos.

And so, three rice flours. Hawthorn's does better, but minus the sixty miles Starfish works in a pinch.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

If music be the food of love, leave off the rye chorus, would you?

Google "food" and "Shakespeare" and you get a lot of references to eggs, beer and bread. But, since my goal here is to talk about gluten-free options in Ashland, Oregon, where JFG and I attended the 75th annual Shakespeare Festival, let's use a more appropriate literary reference -- one that's actually from one of this season's productions.

"Do you think because you are virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Twelfth Night: act 2, scene 3

In fact, there shall be both cakes and ale in Ashland for celiac patients, even though many options do not surface in Google searches.

First, our lovely B & B, managed by a delightful Irish couple. Every morning, Mrs. Bayberry Inn explained to JFG what was for breakfast for everyone else and outlined what she had prepared for him. We had a little confusion -- "No, there's no flour in that, but there is a little milk" -- but in the end JFG had the best kind of breakfast for him -- fruit, bacon, sausage, eggs. In truth, he had a better breakfast than the gluten-tolerant among us, as Mr. and Mrs. Bayberry Inn were partial to eggy quiche-like dishes with no crust and no taste. Even the 15-year-old boy also staying there, clearly capable of consuming large pizzas between eye blinks, insisted to Mrs. BI that he never really ate much for breakfast. But the banana bread was fantastic.

Second, the Peerless Restaurant and Bar. We mentioned when we made reservations that we needed gluten-free food. When we arrived, the maitre d' confirmed with us that the server knew about JFG's dietary needs. She did -- and sat with us reviewing every item on the menu, clarifying the ways each item could be cooked safely. We had antipasta (JFG was basically on his own -- olives pervaded), lamb, sweet potatoes and yams, seasonal vegetables and duck confit. For dessert, Grand Marnier souffle (the "cake"). Not my favorite, but JFG loved it.

Third, and possibly best, Agave, a Mexican restaurant where all but two dishes on the entire menu were gluten-free. They served the best chips we've ever had (although not gratis), fantastic tilapia ceviche, beautiful tamales and, my favorite, fish tacos. No, we did not eat all that at one sitting. Yes, I gained three pounds in three days.

I won't mention the sushi place, because a) the service wasn't very good, b) the edamame was lukewarm and c) it doesn't take a genius to make sushi gluten-free. It just takes a run to the grocery store for wheat-free soy sauce and about $2.50. I will mention Zoey's Cafe and Natural Ice Cream, because even without cones JFG is an ice cream fiend. Can't comment on the cafe food (heavily, heavily glutenized) but try the Oregon Trail ice cream.

Oh, the ale. Okay, I misled you a bit. There was no ale -- at least, no gluten-free ale. What there was was a tall, cold pint of draft Strongbow cider, which we'd take over ale any day of the week. I should note that not all cider is gluten-free, so do your research.

In sum, here is my assessment. We -- and, indeed, Ashland -- are virtuous. And yet, cakes and ale can always be located, my friends.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Not as hard as it looks

I just received my new, glossy ULTA advertisement . . . er, I mean my semi-annual makeover edition of InStyle. Among the myriad "articles" (indeed, the stories in the magazine are "articles" in the same way all of the Cadillacs in the FX show Damages are just modes of transportation) is a column suggesting ways to jumpstart your diet, based on approaches celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow have used.

Naturally, most of the diets recommended require a lot of free time and access to complex food products -- raw "cleansing" soups, juices delivered by specialty companies, coconut water -- albeit apparently with successful if not sustainable outcomes.

All of that is to talk to you about Oprah's diet, which allows all foods as long as they're vegan and without sugar, alcohol, caffeine -- and gluten! In previous posts I've challenges the myth that gluten-free diets cause weight loss, but must admit that if you took out all of the other fun food ingredients it would probably work.

It's the one and only quote from the magazine's guinea pig that bothers me. "I read labels zealously and even bought gluten-free bread. But who cares? In just five days my stomach pooch deflated." YOU BOUGHT GLUTEN-FREE BREAD? Good for you. Wow. How did you survive? It must have been a struggle, since Safeway, Roth's, Target and Whole Foods all carry many, many varieties of gluten-free bread. Thousands of people -- even fat, ugly people wearing last year's lipstick -- each day figure this out. I'm glad that with the support of a multi-million dollar media conglomeration backing you, you managed this outrageous task.

A Thai-Turkish friend once clued me on that calling Gauguin's Polynesian paintings "exotic" effectively othered the non-white people he featured. Truthfully, by suggesting that gluten-free foods are part of strange and elite diets, that they require special resources and perform some kind of figure-fixing magic, actually others the millions of celiac patients in this country. Isn't it bad enough that celiacs have to question every item on menus, refuse birthday cake at office parties and wear buttons directing, "Please don't feed me unless you ask my mommy first"? Do skinny wealthy white women really have to pretend that this disease is harder than it actually is?

And, by the way, I'll believe that, ". . . in just five days my stomach pooch deflated" when my skinny jeans fit again.