This time of year – between Thanksgiving and Christmas – is always one of my favorite times of the year for cooking and baking. I love to bake. I am certain that my love for baking comes from my dad and watching him turn simple ingredients into delicious masterpieces. I have many fond memories of him making different types of breads like white, pumpernickel, and banana-nut, pizza crusts, bagels, pies, and biscuits. He is like a magician as he measures ingredients with his eyes and hands, not measuring spoons and cups. He is especially crafty and brilliant at making biscuits – plain, cheddar, and cinnamon raisin are some of his best! If you know anything about biscuits, you know it takes a great recipe and a skilled hand to make them light, fluffy, and tasty. My dad certainly has biscuit making down to an art.
When Caroline was little, she loved watching her Paw Paw (my dad) make biscuits. He made special ones that she could easily hold in her small hands (stick-shaped, rather than the traditional round-shaped biscuits). She even had her own name for them – stick biscuits. She loved my dad’s biscuits and always looked forward to him making them for breakfast during our visits together. I did, too.
In 2009, when Caroline was five years old, she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder whereby a person’s immune system inappropriately responds by attacking and destroying the lining of the small intestines when the person ingests gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye). Left untreated, Celiac Disease wreaks havoc on the gastrointestinal tract. In Caroline’s case, it was severe abdominal pain during and following eating, diarrhea, weight loss, and neurological issues due to malabsorption of important nutrients. The only way to treat Celiac Disease is by not eating anything with, or cross-contaminated with, gluten. Over time, once a person maintains a strict gluten-free diet, and the gut has had time to heal, the damage to the small intestines reverses and heals itself. There are no medications or cures. Maintaining a strict gluten-free diet is the only way to manage this autoimmune condition.
Before Caroline’s diagnosis, I only knew of two types of flour… self-rising and all-purpose. For the first 35 years of my life, I had baked with flour and never once considered or appreciated its source… wheat. Guess what mainstream breads, cakes, pies, bagels, biscuits, and a gazillion other things are made with? Flour. Guess what type of flour? Wheat. Guess what is in wheat? Gluten.
Caroline took the diagnosis like a champ. I, on the other hand, did not. I cried as I walked the aisles of the health food store for the first time, looking bewildered for things such as brown rice flour, white rice flour, fava bean flour, guar gum, and xanthan gum. I had no idea that flour could be made from rice, beans, almonds, pecans, and other grains and nuts. And what in the world was xanthan gum?! I also quickly discovered that when you slap gluten-free on a product label, the cost of the item skyrockets to triple and quadruple the price of its gluten-containing counterpart. It’s expensive.
The Celiac diagnosis drastically changed the way I baked everything. It is a bit of art and science when you use gluten-free flour for baked items. It usually takes a combination of two to three different types of gluten-free flours and xanthan (or guar) gum for baked goods. For example, the combination of gluten-free flours you would use for a cake is different than, say, the combination of flours you would use for making bread. You also have to be mindful of the types of flour you use. You do not want your vanilla cake to have a hint of bean flavor because you used a bean flour in your gluten-free flour mixture. Yuck!
For the first couple of years post-diagnosis, I mourned the way I used to bake. As silly as this may sound, I missed wheat flour. Many of my attempts at delicious, gluten-free baked goods ended up in the trash can. I spent a lot of time, and wasted a lot of money, trying to create a tasty flour combination for different breads, cakes, pies, and muffins. Fortunately, the gluten-free revolution took off a few years ago. As a result, better gluten-free options and varieties were developed and began popping up in grocery stores around town. It really was a beautiful and much welcomed change.
Over the years, Caroline and I have tried many of the commercial gluten-free flour combinations, mixes, breads, cookies, crackers, and pre-packaged gluten-free items. We had to kiss several frogs, too, before finding some real gems and our “go to” gluten-free staples. Some of Caroline’s (and my) favorite gluten-free baked goods come from using the King Arthur line of gluten-free all-purpose flour and baking mixes. It has given me back some of the joy I feel when I bake cakes, chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin bread, banana-nut bread, and pies. I don’t feel like Caroline is missing out because I think the gluten-free versions taste the same, if not better, than their gluten counterparts. The real test though is when my son, Landon, can’t tell the difference and asks for more. This makes me a very happy momma.
Eight years ago, the Celiac diagnosis felt big and life-changing, and it was at the time. Thankfully, however, time and perspective have helped us adjust. It’s simply a way of life now. If I could go back in time and talk to that overwhelmed mother crying in the grocery store, I would give her a big hug, look compassionately into her eyes, smile, and say this to her:
- It is going to be okay. I promise.
- Have fun experimenting with recipes.
- If at first you don’t succeed, throw it in the trash and pat yourself on the back for trying.
- If a fancy, gluten-free dessert recipe calls for almost $75 worth of ingredients that you’ve never seen or heard of before, can barely pronounce, and takes a whole day to prepare, please step away from the recipe and, I repeat, do not attempt to make it. It most certainly will end in a disaster and tears. This may or may not have happened to me. 🙂
- You will figure this out.
I am still searching for a great gluten-free biscuit recipe. After all, my dad set the bar high so I am very picky when it comes to biscuits, but I am confident that I will find it one day. Until then, I am going to enjoy my gluten-free baking successes like these gluten-free banana, chocolate chip, pecan muffins that just came out of the oven. Yum!