Sunday, March 17, 2013

Food For Thought ~ The Bread of Life That's Gluten Free

We all know the saying 'a man cannot live on bread alone'. With as true as this adage is to those of us who know its source, there are many in this beautiful world of ours who are denied the enjoyment of bread every day. I speak of those who suffer from Celiac disease or who are gluten intolerant. For them, bread is like poison, and it begins to work its evil mischief within minutes of consumption.

Now one might ask why a writer would be blogging about something like Celiac disease. I could respond by saying I just felt like it, but in truth, this blog is a promise kept to a lovely young woman I had the joy of meeting through twitter. This young woman suffers from Celiac disease, and though I do not bear the burden of the affliction myself, I have a deep love for a sister who does. When I made the connection with this young woman on twitter and discovered she longed for yummy, squishy bread that was safe to eat, I knew I had to share a few of my secrets I had uncovered over the years.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a love affair with cooking. I used to sit and watch cooking shows on PBS (mainly Julia Child) before there was anything called cable TV. For me, there was something magical about taking a host of ingredients, putting them together in a bowl, mixing them up, and turning them into something completely unique and delicious. I savored every culinary victory, and I learned from every mishap or mistake. In my family, bread has always been an integral part of every meal. There was hardly ever a meal without it. For me, making something delectable for my family was the greatest way for me to say 'I love you', so with bread being our favorite side dish, I was determined to be its master.

I pulled out all the stops and purchased a master baker's instruction book. I learned about texture and how to impact the crumb. I studied sour doughs and sponges, and the chemistry behind the breads of the world. I was elated with my artisan breads, paninis, baguettes, and sweet rolls, but just as I was ready to crown myself an amateur master, I began to notice something. Every time my sister ate one of my creations, within 15 minutes or so of consumption, she would be racing to the bathroom with horrible, gut wrenching pain. It never failed.

She had never had a problem with bread before when we were growing up, but in her adult years, my sister became gluten intolerant. It was rare for it to strike in later years, but strike it did. She could no longer eat the foods that had been her favorites. They were now a poison to her system. We bought her all of the gluten free foods we could find here in the mountains, and with their high prices came the let down and disappointment that comes with eating hardtack and cardboard. The gluten free bread we could find was awful and hard as a stone. I think she cried the first time she ate it.

I laid my bread books aside, and took on a new mission of love. I would learn everything I could about baking gluten free and give my beloved sister bouncy safe bread she could love again. It wasn't enough for it to be safe. It had to be fun to eat with a yummy fun texture. Oh the failures I went through and the thousands of hours of reading I did to find out where I went wrong. I cried and prayed and tried again so many times, I lost count. I thought I would never get it, until one day......SUCCESS!!!!

It has been many years since I first began my journey down the gluten free baking road. My failures have helped others I have met along the way, and I hope to eventually write a cookbook of some of my best recipes......the ones that have passed the test of tricking others who have no idea they are eating gluten free breads. In honor of my twitter friend, I am sharing two of my gluten free recipes - my squishy buns recipe and my pumpkin gingerbread muffins. Enjoy!

For sources on some of the hard to find or specialty items, I am providing source links for convenience. I always comparison shop so feel free to do the same. The links just make it easier to identify products and places to find them.


Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees
Prepare a regular large cookie sheet by placing a sheet of parchment paper over the entire length of it. ** Don't use air bake cookie sheets. Don't even go there. Smack your hand away and just say no. If you use them, you will end up with gummy buns. Been there. Done that. Mistake 358. Don't cover the cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Mistake 273. Don't use Pam cooking spray. Mistake 194. The best buns cook on a plain sheet of parchment on a plain Jane cookie sheet.

3 Slightly rounded cups of Featherlight Rice Flour Mix (Authentic Foods)
2 teaspoons xanthum gum
1/4 teaspoon ascorbic acid (Excalibur Foods) - This doesn't go bad and a little goes a long way.
1/4 teaspoon ginger
   NOTE: The ginger and the ascorbic acid replace dough enhancer and are more effective. They also don't contain hidden soy, which dough enhancer does.
2 envelopes of Knox unflavored gelatin (or 2 teaspoons) (Amazon)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
7 Tablespoons white sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons Rapid Rise yeast granules
2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups warm water (Should be the temperature required by the brand of yeast you are using)
(Makes about 12 buns give or take)

In a large mixer, combine together all dry ingredients including yeast. With the mixer on low, add the eggs and oil. Slowly add the warm water to the flour/oil/egg mixture. At first, the flour mixture will form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl. As you continue to add water, the mixture will once again begin to stick to the sides of the bowl. You want this to happen. Once the water has been added completely to the mixture, stop the mixer, scrape the bowl, and then turn the mixer on high and mix for 3 minutes straight. Don't skimp on the time. This three minutes does a few things. It adds air to the dough, which adds fluffiness. It also ensures the xanthum gum is well distributed throughout the dough which is important since the xanthum gum acts as a substitute for the gluten in making a tender piece of bread.

Check the consistency of the dough. The batter will be sticky. Remember, this is nothing like making regular bread dough. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you too will reach success. The batter/dough should be like a thick, heavy cake batter. If it is watery or runny in any way, add an 1/8 of cup of the Featherlight flour at a time to the mixture and beat it until the proper consistency is reached. Wet a scraper with warm water and scrape the sides of the bowl. The batter should look like the batter in the photo below.

Once the batter is the right consistency, you are ready to form the buns. I have tried every way to form this dough, and so far, the following method is the best and easiest way to go. Its messy but effective. Any other way, and you will wear the sticky dough from head to toe. Turn on the hot water to a trickle. You will need it while you are forming the buns. Wet your hands completely, front and back. Grab a handful of dough and form a ball, using the moisture in your hands to smooth the lumps. Try not to make the balls too big. They will rise in the oven. Trust me on this. The size in the picture below is a great size for sandwich buns or hamburger buns. I have small hands so you get an idea of the size.

Place the completed ball of bun on the parchment and completely rinse any remnant of dough from your hands. This is important. Otherwise the next bun will stick to your hands. If it starts to stick, rinse your hand under the water. Form another bun, and repeat. Try to keep your hands as clean as possible in between buns by rinsing off residue of the dough of the previous bun. You can make sandwich buns, hoagie rolls, or hot dog buns with this batter. It just depends on the shape. When the last bun is formed, scramble an egg in a bowl and brush the egg gently over the buns.

This egg wash will help provide a beautiful golden brown color on the finished buns. Let the buns rise for 20 - 25 minutes on the counter before baking. Place the buns in the oven and bake for 18 - 20 minutes or until a nice golden brown. Remove the buns and allow them to cool completely on a rack before trying to cut into them.

Variations: It can be fun to liven up this bread by adding herbs and spices to the dry ingredients. A few tablespoons of Parmesans cheese with Italian herbs can be a great addition to spaghetti night. Just decrease the sugar to 3 Tablespoons. Otherwise the sweetness will overpower the savory. Experiment with other herb blends at leisure.

One of the great things about both these buns and the following muffins is that they both can be frozen successfully for long periods. To process, Cool completely, then simply wrap each bun/muffin in Glad Press and Seal and place the wrapped items in a Ziploc freezer bag. Put the bag in the freezer and remove the contents at will. By wrapping each one individually and then bagging them, you prevent them from getting frostbite in the freezer. To warm them up, take them out of the freezer, wrap them in a paper towel, and pop them in the microwave for 10 - 15 second intervals until they are warm and soft. Then enjoy. It is that easy.

Heavenly Pumpkin Gingerbread Muffins

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
Butter the cups of two regular size muffin tins
(makes 24 muffins)

2 Cups canned pumpkin
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
8 Tablespoons butter, softened (real stuff no imitations - you sacrifice enough already)
1 Tablespoon Vanilla (real stuff no imitations - you sacrifice enough already)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon xanthum gum
3 1/3 cups Featherlight Rice Flour Mix
2/3 cup of water

In a large mixer, combine the first 13 ingredients (up to the xanthum gum) and mix well. With the mixer on the lowest speed, begin adding flour 1/2 cup at a time. Do this very slowly. Flour will fly everywhere if you don't. Between each addition of flour, add a little bit of the water. Again, do this slowly or you will wear it. Allow it to mix thoroughly between each submission. Once all of the flour and water has been added, turn off the mixer, scrape the sides, turn the mixer on high, and mix for 3 minutes. At the end of those three minutes, the batter should look like thick, fluffy cake batter like the photo below.

Pour the batter into the prepared muffin tins. Place the tins in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for a few minutes before removing them to a cooling rack.
Now you are ready to munch away on muffins that are as fluffy as they are flavorful. Just prepare yourself, however. You might not be able to eat just one! Bon appetite!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life Lessons From My Dog ~ Simple Kindnesses Go a Long Way

Sometimes the simplest gestures make the most profound impacts......

Somehow we have developed this misconception in our society that in order for something to order for it to 'count' has to come in some grandiose package. Whether it is buying a gift for someone we know, making plans for that special night out, or making the right first impression, we think bigger is always better. We tend to apply the same mode of thinking when doing things for others, and unfortunately, our grand schemes tend to trip us up. Before we have a chance to be a blessing to someone else, we have talked ourselves out of whatever it was we were planning because it just got too hard. I am just as guilty as the next person for wanting to do too much and finding it impossible to live up to my own expectations. I have learned from watching my little Peanut, however, that simple kindnesses can go a long way in blessing the lives of those around me.

I know what you are thinking. How can a dog show kindness, much less teach others how to show it? I am reminded of a story about a man named Lazarus who sat by a city gate every day. He was ignored by all who passed him because he was disabled and riddled with sores. The only souls who showed him any compassion were the little dogs, who took pity upon him and licked his sores. I know. Gross, right? It was a simple kindness that was profound enough to be recorded in the pages of the Bible. Pretty impressive when you think about it, and pretty humbling when you remember what a simple gesture it was to give poor Lazarus comfort in his suffering.

My little Peanut is an amazing little girl, and yes as her mommy, I am extremely partial to her in every way imaginable. She marvels me every day, however, in the way she is with people. I learn from her so often by observing her and how other people respond to her. When I fell in love with Peanut as a puppy, it wasn't because she was the most playful, licky puppy in the bunch. She actually was the most quiet, thoughtful one. In fact, as I sat there on the floor amongst her yappy little brothers and sister, Peanut sat there on the floor watching me, as though she was deciding something about me. When she had made up her mind, she walked over to me, through the throng of siblings. She put her two tiny paws on my knee, never once taking her eyes off of mine. It was as if she was asking me to bring her closer. I of course obeyed the silent command, and brought her near. I could smell the sweetness of her puppy breath as she sat there regarding me. She sat there silently, staring into my eyes, as though she sought the very center of my soul. She put her little muzzle to my lips and bumped me, and I knew she had chosen me at that moment. I knew I couldn't live without this incredible little girl. Peanut was four weeks old, yet I felt the magic in her even then.

So what does all of this have to do with simple kindnesses? Everything! What makes dogs so special.....what makes my Peanut so special is the fact that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, you are never invisible. Peanut acknowledges everyone around her. When I take her out shopping, she greets the world with her eyes and her cheery face. Every person is worth her glance and acknowledgement. You can see it in their faces as Peanut rolls by, flashing her sweet little toothy smile - each person feels special. Now admittedly, from time to time, there are people who have triggered the growl in Peanut. (I call it her inner bicious. It's vicious...only grittier.) It doesn't happen often, but I usually trust her instincts....that she is detecting something about a person I can't detect myself. When these moments occur, she still is acknowledging the person, even if she is not welcoming them to come say hello.

Acknowledgement is important. We all crave it. We need it as validation of our existence in this world. It hurts when we feel invisible. It is so easy to lift the cloak of invisibility for another person simply by saying hello or offering a smile as you pass by. Think about it. How often do you greet the greeter at the local big box store? How often do you smile at or say hello to the person cleaning the bathroom at your office building? Do you even know their name? Have you ever said hello to the Salvation Army bell ringer at Christmas when you didn't have any change? It is a simple kindness to do these things, to acknowledge the hidden masses of people around you and let them know they aren't invisible. It takes no effort at all.

Many times when I shop with Peanut, it is like running the gauntlet. I cannot take very many steps without someone coming up and asking to pet her. I love it because it is one of the ways I can show kindness to others by allowing them to share some of the magic of my little girl. Peanut is always so gracious and gentle too. She responds to others' gentleness as well, and will often lick the hand of those who treat her with a soft touch. It is her way of saying 'thank you'. It is a simple kindness, and its effect on people is as extraordinary as if she gave them the key to the city. Better even, because I don't think the city could hold the same appeal. We have lost the habit of saying 'thank you' to each other. We tend to take things for granted. We expect things from people because it is their job....because they are supposed to do whatever it is we think they are supposed to do. Serve us, give to us, entertain us, clean up after us. There is magic however in those two simple little words when said with a sincere heart. Thank you. Thank you for putting this report together. Thank you for making my stay so pleasant. Thank you for standing out in the cold and pumping my gas. Thank you for your service. Thank you for doing what I could not or did not do for myself. Thank you just because. You can transform a person's day with a simple thank you. It is the simplest kindness imaginable and perhaps one of the most powerful.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point is made. A simple kindness is something anyone can do. It takes so little effort but can have a huge impact on those around you. It is so easy, a sweet little dog can do it. What holds us back so often is our fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of making a fool of ourselves. Fear of making a mistake or getting it wrong. There is always a chance our kindness will be rejected. It is the risk we take in life every time we step outside our door, but we lose nothing when we reach out to our fellow man and acknowledge in some small way that he or she matters. It is a cup of water to a parched soul. If my little Peanut can boldly approach each day showing simple kindnesses to everyone she meets, the least I can do is try and live by her example. Thank you friends for reading to the end!