One of my fondest memories of growing up was helping my Mom with Christmas baking. Every year the menu was the same; fruitcake (which I didn't really like), shortbread, almond rolls, cranberry loaf and my favourite, mexican wedding cake. Despite the name, it wasn't cake at all, but a wonderfully tender, rich shortbread-like cookie full of butter and pecans. Heaven in every bite. When I was really young, my job was to take the baked cookies off the tray and drop them into a bowl of sieved icing sugar, coating both sides before carefully placing them on waxed paper to finish cooling. My job also involved keeping Dad from eating too many before they were put away for another day. As I grew older, I took over baking them from start to finish. Once I had my own kitchen, the smells of buttery cookies filled the air every year, and my daughters took over the role of sugaring. It was a wonderful tradition.
Our first few gluten-free Christmas's were sadly missing these sweet treats. Two years ago I decided to try converting this recipe. I still remember how excited I was when I took a bite of the first one out of the oven. It was perfect! When my celiac daughter tasted it, her smile was radiant, full of excitement at having these cookies back in her life.
A conversation yesterday with a new celiac acquaintance reminded me that it has been too long since I posted on this blog, and that I want to share these amazing cookies with
others who can't handle wheat. A word of caution though... these cookies are incredibly crumbly when they come out of the oven, so give them a minute to cool, and then very carefully lay them in the icing sugar. But of course, if they break, it means you can eat the damages instead of having to wait for a special occasion! DO NOT double this recipe. It doesn't work. And do not press them too flat before baking - they will spread out to paper thin size and be ruined. I just barely touch the top with the palm of my hand to take them out of the ball state.
As fussy as they are to make, the results are so delicious, you will quickly forget the pain and begin a second batch. Trust me. They are heavenly. And your kitchen will smell divine.
For those of you who do eat wheat, use regular flour and leave out the guar/xantham gum. Enjoy!
GLUTEN-FREE MEXICAN WEDDING CAKE
1 cup butter (1/2 lb), at room temperature
1 cup brown rice flour
1½ cup certified wheat-free oat flour
4 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. guar gum or xanthan gum
4 oz. (112 g) very finely chopped pecans (may use food processor but be careful not to over-process)
2 tsp. GF pure vanilla extract
Mix dry ingredients in bowl of electric mixer, then add butter in large chunks. Using kneading hook, mix at medium speed until dough pulls away from sides of bowl. Add vanilla and mix until thoroughly incorporated into dough. If you don't have an electric mixer, cut the butter in with a pastry blender and then knead by hand as you would shortbread.
Put small teaspoon-size balls of dough on parchment-lined cookie sheet and slightly flatten the top with palm of hand.
Bake in 325° oven for 30 minutes, until slightly browned. Let cool slightly, remove from tray and dip in sieved icing sugar and place on rack lined with waxed paper. Turn over once during cooling process.
Handle these gently, especially when still warm, as they are crumbly by nature, even in the regular recipe.
Store between sheets of waxed paper, and keep refrigerated for maximum freshness. Makes about 54 cookies.
When a knitter visits an island known for pastoral settings with contented wandering sheep, it is a logical assumption that there may be a run-in with wool. Last weekend we spent an idyllic extra long weekend on Salt Spring Island. Our main reason for the visit had nothing to do with yarn, but it was certainly in the back of my mind that I might find some unique hand-spun and hand-dyed skeins. Pottery and art were also a possibility, as Salt Spring is full of accomplished artists and artisans.
As the door to my favorite island gallery closed behind us, my eyes were already scanning the walls to see if I was going to be inspired by what hung there. I charged ahead of Jon, eager to do a quick once-around before I got down to the business of serious inspection. I noticed a young boy sitting with some crayons and paper on the floor, waiting for a parent I guessed. He seemed very content. As I passed by, I heard him greet Jon with a polite but determined "Hello". Jon can never resist a child and he slowed at the invitation.
"Hello to you", I heard him reply. "How are you doing"?
"Fine, thank you", the boy replied, and then, sensing that Jon was moving on, "You know, my art is for sale".
I remember wondering if he felt some childish sense of ownership of all the paintings in the gallery. Strange. I carried on into the gallery, but the conversation I could hear soon compelled me to circle back to where Jon was crouched down.
The boy of 5 or 6 years was tucked against a wall, with a small platform of an upside down box in front of him. On this platform were scattered four or five drawings, clearly done by a young person. At the end of the platform was a box of coins. Looking back at the "art", I saw that each piece had a price tag carefully placed in the corner. One dollar, fifty cents, twenty-five cents. All in childish numerals, dollar sign askew. Cute.
"This young fellow was just explaining that he is sailing away from a volcano in this picture", Jon explained to me. I was being drawn into the game. "And this is me and my cat in front of my house" the boy pointed at another image. His hand then dived into the Tupperware of blueberries in his lap, and he absentmindedly tried to stuff three at once into his mouth. One almost went up his nose. Was he a little bit nervous, I wondered? The artist's insecurity welling up inside? I fished around in my bag for my wallet. I was fascinated by his determination. I palmed some quarters, still unsure which picture would be the one.
"Tell me about this one". I pointed to the blue and red drawing of a happy stick man. "Is this you?"
"It's me with a ball of yarn" he replied. " I am in my boat".
Hmm, yes, I could see it was a boat, but a ball of yarn? "Why do you have a ball of yarn?", I puzzled out loud.
He looked at me with a bit of childish impatience. "It is for my cat of course", as if it should have been obvious. "My cat is in the boat".
I held out my hand with the two quarters, smiling. "Perfect. I'll take it. I have been looking for some yarn".
As I watched him sign the corner of the picture for me, I felt a wave of nostalgia for all the kids' pictures I have stored away at home. All the magnet-mounted memories on a crowded fridge door. I had found my ball of yarn in the unlikeliest of places. My weekend was complete.
One of the toughest aspects of going gluten-free is finding recipes for quality baked goods. Nowhere is gluten more critical than when attempting to make a fluffy cake or tender but giant muffins. The first batch of GF muffins I made were so hard that they clogged the garburator when I realized they were inedible. To add to the challenge, I can't eat eggs, which are an important part of my baking past. I have spent countless hours searching the web for good recipes, and bought way too many GF cookbooks. It has paid off, though, and I have a small cache of tasty and reliable recipes for sweets, when the mood strikes. I have also started converting some of my old family favourites and those recipes will make their way to this blog at some point.
This banana bread recipe is a winner. It is low in oil, has no eggs, and with the addition of chocolate chips, makes grown men cry. Well, not quite, but definitely beg for seconds. Speaking of grown men, Jon turned this bread into a spectacular dessert with a few simple steps. Lay a thick piece of banana bread in a non-stick pan and heat over medium-high heat until the chocolate chips start to melt, flipping so both sides are slightly crusty and lightly browned. Slide onto a plate and top with dairy-free Coconut Bliss "Naked Coconut" ice cream and devour. Absolute heaven.
A final word on gluten-free baking. I discovered a series of cookbooks by Donna Washburn & Heather Butt that are loaded with very good recipes. The secret they share is that the old methods of telling when a cake or loaf are done baking don't work with gluten-free recipes. You have to buy a small cooking thermometer, and when the centre of your loaf or muffin registers 200 degrees, it is done. If not, you run the risk of a gluey, sticky heavy loaf once it has cooled. This method works.
zed handmade banana bread
The chocolate chips are an optional addition to this great recipe, but I personally never make it without them!
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8”x4”loaf pan and dust with rice flour.
combine in a large bowl:
3 medium/large bananas, mashed
1/3 cup Safflo or light olive oil
1 cup organic light brown sugar (can use golden or dark brown sugar as well)
2 tsp GF vanilla extract
whisk together in a separate bowl:
1 ½ cups gluten-free flour mix (see below)
1 tsp baking soda
2 ½ tsp GF baking powder
¼ tsp salt
2 tbsp arrowroot starch
½ tsp xanthan gum
Add the dry ingredients into the banana mixture and stir until smooth. If the batter looks too thin and wet, add more gluten-free flour, a tablespoon at a time, to thicken the batter.
½ cup chocolate chips (I use Enjoy Life brand for non-dairy option)
½ cup chopped pecans
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the center of a preheated oven for 60 minutes, until the loaf is firm, a bit crusty, and a food thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 200°
gluten-free flour mix
For 3 cups of GF Flour mix:
2 cups Brown rice flour*
2/3 cup potato starch
1/3 cup tapioca flour (starch)
Mix well and keep extra in freezer. Always bring to room temperature before using in baking. Also, this flour settles so stir it up and lightly spoon into measuring cups for the best results.
Gluten is a word seen often in the media these days. It is usually attached to free, as in gluten-free. Four years ago, when I made the decision to take it out of my diet, most people asked me what in the heck gluten was, anyway? Is it in meat? In rice? What does it do? Friends were afraid to cook for me. Today, most people have a rudimentary knowledge of what gluten is and where it can be found.
I didn't make the decision lightly. I had been making bread for over 25 years, from cinnamon buns to heavy healthy seedy loaves. And everything in between. I also had a deep love of pasta, soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, pizza, healthy boxed cereals, Lesley Stowe's amazing crackers, french fries, fish and chips, micro brewed beer, liquorice, smarties and pretzels. And yes, you guessed it.... these all contain gluten. Usually in the form of wheat flour, but gluten is also found in barley, rye, semolina, farina, matzo meal, graham flour, bulgar, durham, kamut, kasha, spelt and triticale. Though oats do not contain gluten, they are usually grown in proximity to and processed with wheat and are considered contaminated with gluten. Scratch my homemade granola. It is also hidden in a ka-zillion other places where you would never think to look, like those french fries (often coated with flour to keep them hot longer) and smarties.
I had been having stomach problems for several years and was on medication that didn't help much. After the medical profession shrugged their collective shoulders, I went for a food panel test administered by a local naturopath. Bingo. Gluten reaction was off the end of the chart, along with a few other foods I had suspected I shouldn't eat. I threw away my stomach medicine, removed every possible source of gluten from my diet and before long found energy I hadn't had for years. When my oldest daughter was also diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, and then my youngest daughter was diagnosed as celiac, my resolve to never go back to eating gluten was set in stone. In fact gluten issues, from intolerance to the more serious celiac disease usually run in families. When I think back to my father, I am sure he probably was at least gluten intolerant, if not celiac.
The proliferation of gluten-free products showing up on grocery shelves lately does not necessarily mean there are now healthy choices. In fact, many gluten-free recipes and products rely too heavily on white rice flour (the nutritional equivalent of processed white flour, or maybe even worse) and a lot of white sugar and fat to make them taste like something palatable. I discovered there are many ancient grains and flours that are preferable, like quinoa, amaranth, flax, sorghum, millet, buckwheat, chickpea, bean, and teff. With practice, they make tasty and healthy gluten-free dishes.
One of the first websites I stumbled on was 101cookbooks.com. Heidi Swanson is an amazing woman, and though her main focus isn't gluten-free food, she does have a section that contains some of my favourite recipes. In the early days of my new diet I was constantly starved. One of Heidi's recipes that saved me was her wonderful Big Sur Power Bars. I wasted no time converting it to gluten-free, changed a few things to suit my taste buds, and never looked back.
in this, the first of my blogs dealing with GF food, I would like to give you my version of Heidi's power bars. They are incredibly good, easy to personalize and change, and loved by all who try them. I have several versions with various fruit, spices and nuts, which I will cover in a later blog. I won't say they are calorie-free, but they are healthy, and better than grabbing a bag of potato chips when hunger strikes.
Future blogs will also feature recipes for granola, banana bread, peanut-butter cookies, cranberry bread and more.... all gluten-free.
zed handmade gluten-free power bars
Preheat oven to 375°.
1 cup pecans, chopped
1 cup sunflower or pumpkin seeds
1 ½ cups wheat-free rolled oats
¼ cup whole flax seed
1 ½ cups unsweetened crisp brown rice cereal (Nature’s
Path brand is best)
¼ cup cacao nibs
½ cup craisins, raisins, chopped figs, chopped prunes,
chopped apricots, dried chopped cherries, dried
blueberries – your choice!
1 cup brown rice syrup
½ tsp fine-grain sea salt
2 tbsp high-quality cocoa powder
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
On a rimmed baking sheet toast the pecans, oatmeal, and sunflower seeds for about 7 minutes, or until golden. Toss once or twice along the way. You can also omit this step if you would rather eat "raw". Mix the oats, toasted nuts, flax seeds, dried fruit, cacao nibs and the cereal together in a large bowl and set aside.
Grease a baking pan or line with parchment paper. If you like thick power bars opt for an 8x8-inch pan; for thinner bars, use a 10x13-inch pan.
Combine the rice syrup, salt, cocoa, and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and stir constantly as it comes to a boil and thickens just a bit, about 4 minutes. If you undercook this mixture, the bars will not “set” and will fall apart. If you overcook, the bars will be quite hard.
Pour the syrup mixture over the oat mixture and stir until it is evenly mixed.
Spread into the prepared pan and cool to room temperature before cutting into whatever size bars you desire.
Makes 16 to 24 bars. Keep refrigerated for maximum freshness, if they last that long......
You might ask what a photo-shopped picture of a cardoon has to do with my brain. The answer, of course, is everything.
This cardoon, which grows every year in my garden, and beckons me with its marvellous structure and form, is analogous to what compels me to create new knit pieces. It is just so darned beautiful. So amazing. So perfect. And with a few adjustments the picture becomes a piece of art instead of an accurate record of a plant.
Every time I pick up a hank of yarn I begin to see form and texture and the possibility of perfection. The options are endless. Change the direction the yarn travels and you have a new stitch. Change how the stitches are combined and you have a new pattern. Decide on a colour and you have a statement of fashion and purpose. Knit outside the rules, and you have art.
Anyone who lives with a knitter knows the symptoms of getting lost in the yarn. The eyes glaze over, ever so slightly, a smile reaches the lips and the fingers work over the surface of the wool, imagining where it will travel. And before the last project is even finished, another is begun. There are always many projects on the go at once, boredom never an issue. New challenges, new frontiers. Eventually there will be a project involving strange fibers. In fact, anything that resembles string is fair game.
It all began with a spool of annealed wire from Home Depot. I had it in my brain that I wanted to make random wrapped balls of wire. I made small ones to add to a bracelet I was making at the time. Then I made a big one, shown on the right. That led me to finally try felting a bowl to hold the wire ball. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, and the rest is history.
But moving on, I wondered why I couldn't knit with the wire... hard on the fingers, to be sure, but possible? I bought some finer softer copper wire, and I was off and running. Who would have thought it was possible to knit with wire? It was, and I even liked the result until my mother-in-law told me it looked like a pot-scrubber! Minor detail. I would choose a different wire next time...
I discovered a whole new group of knitters who make knitted wire jewellery and other wonderful creations. Headed out to buy some more wire for another project.
But at the hardware store, I accidentally wandered down the rope aisle. Rope! I could knit with rope! I had no idea there were so many sizes and colours and kinds of rope. The fellow working the aisle finally gave up trying to help, and wandered off, muttering. I was paralyzed with the possibilities. Finally, bowing to the impossible logistics of wrapping giant rope around my needles, I settled on a wonderful rough sisal. The yardage was ample, the price was fair, and it seemed like a good place to start.
I decided to teach myself how to crochet on this project. The anatomy of the stitch seemed perfect, and I could achieve the straight sides I wanted, impossible with knitting. It was surprisingly simple, and as the basket started to take shape I grinned like a new mother, proud of my creation. But it needed something to finish it off. I remembered an old piece of metallic bronze fabric I had stashed away. I could cut it into strips and work it into the border! Perfect. Just what I had in mind. No matter that someone in a foreign country could make this for ten cents. I had made my own basket!
And there, you have it. Round and round in a crazy logic, I have moved from cardoons to sisal baskets. I makes sense to me. It is truly how my brain works, most of the time.
Oh, right. Cardoon. With all the rain, it has been growing to dizzying heights. I had better get out to the garden to tie it to a stake. Hmmm, I wonder if I can knit something with the green twine.......
As he walked home from the bus, a neighbour opened her door to call to him.
"Has the baby arrived, Jim"?
"Yes", he said, pausing for effect. "It's a female"..........
That was my introduction to the neighbourhood. He liked to repeat that short story over the years, grinning at the face I would make, knowing that he had redeemed himself many times since that first day in his role as my Dad. Perhaps he really did want a son, or maybe he just wanted to recreate the loving relationship he had with his father. But as years went by, he was the first to tell anyone who would listen how happy he was to have had a daughter as his first-born. Actually, he never did get that son, with another daughter arriving five years later. He seemed pretty darned happy about that too. An understatement. He was thrilled.
I grew up loving my Dad in so many ways. He was a kind, gentle father. He was always trying to tell me how to do stuff, better, as if he wanted to save me the frustration of doing it wrong. He would always listen, to anything I was willing to share. Then he would give me his opinion and advice. I rarely admitted I was listening, and I seldom followed his advice, unless it involved painting or fixing things or jazz. I think he knew I had to try everything my way. Dad was a curious man, and seemed to have a lot of knowledge tucked away, and even into his 90's we would all be amazed at what he knew and remembered.
Dad's goal was to teach me everything he would have taught a son. I painted walls and fences, from the age of about 5. I hammered, drilled, soldered, measured, refinished, and peered over his shoulder as he rewired some old lamp that refused to light. I often wondered about the chicken/egg aspect of my mechanical aptitude. We were both lucky, I think. To this day, as I try to fix something or paint the house I smile as I hear him telling me how to get it just right.
Dad loved to tell stories. Most famous in his arsenal were the army motorcycle stories. They were meant to entertain, shock, scare and otherwise warn his daughters away from ever riding one. Boyfriends, on the other hand, were told about the joy of riding fast down a highway on an old green Harley.
One story my dad would pull out to impress us was about the time he took a lesson in gliding - yes, in a plane with no motor. Surprising, for dad, because he really wasn't a daredevil or a risk taker (he wouldn't even try mustard because he thought it was hot). His happy memory of the lesson might just have had something to do with the infamous "Sunny" - the instructor shown in the inset photo. This must have been in the 60's. and I guess she was pretty... hot... as he used to tell the captive listeners. I found these pictures last year, in an album I must have missed all those years ago. I was surprised to see that she was indeed very lovely, and that the plane did exist. He wasn't above a bit of exaggeration when it suited him....
He was also famous for laughing at his own jokes - there was some rare Australian bird joke that would make him cry from laughing as he tried to get to the punch line, which never did happen. It was always the hit of every party - not the joke, just watching him laugh. He had a love of life that kept him young at heart in many ways. He loved to get goofy with his granddaughters, until they were too old to play along. He never completely lost the little boy inside.
Last week as I madly re-photographed all of my felt bowls in the glorious sunshine, I thought of him. Dad had an old Nikon and for many years he belonged to a camera club in Winnipeg. My sister and I were the grudging models for many of his assignments, ditto the dog and every still-life object in the house. It got him out into nature, and many of his best pictures were from that realm. Memories....the lower the f-stop number, the wider the aperture, the shorter the depth of field, he would say, as I tried to master the all-manual camera. I still find myself chanting this mantra as I fight with light. Think of it as a tunnel, long or short...narrow or wide. Memories.
As Father's Day approaches, I want to acknowledge the legacy of my Dad. Everyone had a Jimmy story, and everyone who met him in his later years, who didn't really know him at all, still commented on what a "gentleman" he was, how interested he was in what they had to say. He loved people, and people loved him. And of all the photos I have of Dad, this is what reminds me of him the most. Relaxing in the sun, letting the hustle of a busy world pass him by.
Happy Father's Day, Dad.
Rain and knitting are better partners than rain and peonies. Vancouver and the Lower Mainland has been deluged over the last few days with winter-like rains. Cold temperatures too. Makes me want to pick up wool and needles and get busy, which is good.... However, my peonies are falling down like tired soldiers, legs too weak to hold up their heavy, rain-sodden heads. I feel the need to rescue them to a vase where I can revel in the fragrance and colour. Lose/win.
Yesterday I was working on a photo shoot of some newly completed felted bowls (a few posted on the felt page). The perfume of this beauty found its way across the room, begging me to record its short but stunning life before it began to wilt. I think this was the best photo of the day, hands down. Wool can't compete with the colour, subtle shading and velvet-soft petals of a peony. Growing up in Winnipeg, this was one of the first summer blooms to arrive, just after the spring lilacs. After the long winter, the peonies would reclaim their dominance over the garden, an amazing feat, in my mind. How could any plant come back year after year, braving the harsh climate? I remember my grandma arriving for Sunday dinner, bouquet of peonies in hand. They would be draped over the edge of the kitchen sink, waiting for the last of the tiny ants to exit their blossom home. I later found out that without ants, peony blossoms won't open. Is that why the small buds on a clipped stem don't change? Fascinating.
Amy dropped by as I was taking pictures. She was pretty impressed with Jon's light-box creation. She snapped this picture with her iPhone.
I think I am a better knitter than photographer. That being said, I have never been one to shy away from a challenge, and I am determined to make my product photos look as good as the real thing. So far, I have mastered peonies. Still working on bowls....
I hope to guilt Jill into helping me.
We are off to see Steve Earle tonight, so in preparation for the evening, he will be blasting out of the stereo all day today. He has a memorable stage presence... unimpressed with our ardour, honest in his stories about his life, talented beyond belief... like a favourite pair of boots. Toes a bit worn from kicking too many curbs, lots of creases and scuffs, but better with age than any new pair could ever be. Sorry Steve! Can't wait to see you!
Diane Zwickel lives and knits in South Surrey, B.C. Canada