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Ever since going gluten free (GF) nearly a year ago, I have searched for and experimented with a multitude of GF alternatives for certain foods. Unfortunately, my efforts have largely been for naught. Don’t get me wrong, GF food isn’t all horrible; but, as a general rule, it is different than the “real” food it’s trying to replace. Different taste, different density, vastly different texture. Some GF foods are perfectly fine, but some just don’t work in translation.

For example, you can find GF bread fairly easily, but it’s really not “bread” as most of us know it. At least not the yummy, yeasty, warm, airy loaves of heavenly near-orgasm-inducing goodness available at your neighborhood bakery. Nope. Nothing like that at all. GF bread is an entirely different animal.

In all fairness, GF bread sort of looks like normal bread, and, yes, technically you can smear it with peanut butter and jelly or grill it into something that approximates a grilled cheese; the problem comes when you try to eat it. I have yet to be able to choke down more than four or five bites of any type of GF bread. That’s good and bad. The upside is you’re actually full–stuffed, really–after four or five bites. The downside is you feel like you’re eating a hunk of slightly damp drywall in the process. I suspect this paragraph is going to produce a flood of responses from my wonderfully supportive and compassionate readers with recipes attached for “gluten-free bread so good you’ll never know it’s not the real thing.” Fabulous! Send ’em on. I would love to be proved wrong. Oh, how I would love to be proved wrong. Until then, I’ll just wrap my ham and cheese or tuna salad in a lettuce leaf.

Even though I’ve pretty much given up hope of ever eating “real” bread again, I have discovered some very pleasant substitutes along the way for other foods I despaired of never being able to eat again, so I thought I’d take the time to share a couple of those recipes with those of you who have to eat GF,  who are thinking about experimenting with eating GF, or who would just love to bake some delectable goodies for me as a SURPRISE! Anyone? Anyone?

THE FIRST RECIPE

The first discovery I want to share with you is a cheesecake. For the last six months or so, I have experimented repeatedly with a crustless GF cheesecake recipe that a friend gave me years ago, but I have never managed to get it quite right. The finished cheesecake from this recipe usually tastes good–great, even–but the texture or some other aspect of the thing would be all wrong. Certainly not something I could serve to guests (other than my kids) or take to someone else’s home as my contribution to a meal. More importantly, it didn’t have a crust!

Enter Kinnikinnick Foods S’moreables Graham Style Crackers, graham crackers for the GF crowd. I had noticed these little gems in the health food section of my local store on several occasions, but I’d assumed–based on previous experiences with similar products–that they’d be a disappointment. Oh, ye of little faith. Last week, I finally picked up a package of the crackers, instead of just sneering at them as my gaze grazed the display, and noticed a recipe for Lemon Cheesecake on the back of the box using the crackers to make the cheesecake’s crust. Sold. Heck, what did I have to loose? The crustless version was going nowhere fast, so I gathered the ingredients and headed home to give it a whirl.

Oh, my gosh. Heaven! Crust! Creamy cheesy goodness and crust!

Gluten-Free Lemon Cheesecake

Crust:
1 package (8 oz.) of Kinnikinnick S’moreables Graham Style Crackers, crushed into crumbs
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter

Grease and line the base and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper.

Combine the crushed crackers, sugar, and butter. Mix well. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom and 2 inches up the sides of the prepared pan. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Filling:
2 (8 oz.) packages of cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons grated lemon peel
2/3 cup sour cream
1/2 ricotta cheese
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Using an electric mixer, beat the first three ingredients in a large bowl until smooth; do not over beat. Add the sour cream, ricotta, lemon juice, and vanilla. Beat until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined before adding the next egg. Pour the filling into the crust. Place the pan on a baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, in the preheated oven for about 1 hour or until the cheesecake is set. Cool. Cover the springform pan and refrigerate the cheesecake for 8 hours or overnight.

Serve with whipped cream and berries or drizzled with chocolate. Use your imagination.

THE SECOND RECIPE

The second recipe I want to share–the one I’m really excited about–is one I got this weekend when I attended a gluten-free desserts class at the Culinary Center of Kansas City. Before I go any further, if you live in the KC metro area (and love food) and have never visited or taken a class at the Culinary Center, I must insist that you remedy the situation immediately. Seriously. They offer so much: hands-on cooking classes, dinners on demand, bistro dinners, team builders, Tuesday staff lunches, private parties…the list is long and grows longer every year. I’ve never participated in any activity there that I didn’t enjoy. Plus most everything they do involves a glass of wine…or two. I’ve given you the link to their site. Check it out!

Anyway, the gluten-free desserts class was taught by Danica Pollard, the pastry chef at Lidia’s. Okay, I must pause again–briefly–if you live in the KC metro area and have never been to Lidia’s, a fabulous Italian restaurant located in the Freight House in the Crossroads District, get out of your chair right now and call for a reservation. Better yet, stay right where you are and click on either link I’ve provided and make your reservation online. You won’t be sorry…even if you’re GF. If  you’re not GF, I recommend the Pasta Tasting Trio. Man, I miss the Pasta Tasting Trio. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled post…

Danica made four incredibly delicious gluten-free desserts, and not one of them tasted–or had the mouth-feel–of your typical GF offering. My favorite was her GF Super Fudgey Brownies, which I share with you now (because I love you):

Danica Pollard’s Gluten-Free Super Fudgey Brownies

1 cup GF flour mixture (see below)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
8 oz. 60-72% chocolate, in small pieces
6 oz. butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon double strength vanilla

GF Flour Mixture (makes 9 cups):
6 cups white rice flour
2 cups potato starch (not potato flour)
1 cup tapioca flour
3 tablespoons xantham gum

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Sift together the flour, salt, and cocoa. Set aside.

Place the chocolate and the butter in a metal or heatproof bowl over simmering water or in a double-boiler. Allow the chocolate and butter to melt slowly, stirring frequently until they are completely melted. Turn off the heat.

With the bowl still over the water, whisk the sugars in until well mixed. Remove the bowl from the heat and fold in the eggs and vanilla. Gently fold in the dry ingredients. Do not over mix. The more you fold or stir the batter, the cakier and less fudge-like the brownies will be.

Pour the batter into a greased 9×13 glass baking dish (Danica recommends a glass baking dish if you want the brownies to be really fudgey–believe me, you want the brownies to be really fudgey). Bake for 25 minutes. Rotate and then bake for an additional 15-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs.

Taaaast-eeee!

So, what are you waiting for? Get going!

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I’ll admit that I’m quick to point out the missteps of others, including those of family and friends, so in the interest of fairness, I must reveal I’ve recently been victimized by my own lack of judgment. More specifically, the soles of my feet have been victimized…or brutalized. I share this with you as a warning.

Sunday’s paper contained an article about the growing number of runners who have discovered the joys–and benefits–of running barefoot. Although I typically don’t take the time to read articles about any form of strenuous exercise in which I have no intention of ever participating, I read this one just to satisfy myself that the folks involved were, in fact, the nut jobs I imagined them to be. To my shock, they weren’t. They were runners of all shapes, sizes, ages, and experience levels–not just 83-year-old ultra-marathoners who ingest nothing but vegetable smoothies and vitamins every day–so I pointed the article out to Tom, a runner, and asked what he thought. He didn’t have much to say, but instead tossed his January issue of Runner’s World my direction with the comment that it also had an article about running barefoot. I didn’t read the Runner’s World article because…well, because I was already way over my quota of exercise articles for the month. Instead, I made the assumption that RW was also promoting barefoot running and went on reading the rest of the Sunday paper.

Which brings me to yesterday. I’ve been wearing the same ol’ pair of nappy walking shoes for my daily walks on the treadmill now for more than two years. Weeeell, truthfully, I suppose it’s a bald-faced lie to call them “daily” walks, but still I have been walking on a fairly regular basis for about an hour most days of the week. If I’m lucky, I get on the treadmill when the Barefoot Contessa’s show starts at 4 p.m. on the Food Network and walk right through Jeopardy at 4:30. I’m so absorbed in what I’m watching, I’m done before I know it. Encumbered with insipid facts, inspired to cook something yummy for dinner, and feeling pretty cocky for having exercised at all.

Right after Christmas, Tom and I went shopping to find replacements for my beat-up old walking shoes. I couldn’t find any I liked, so yesterday as I got ready to walk…you see where this is going, don’t you…I decided to do my walk barefoot, figuring walking barefoot couldn’t be any worse that walking in those broken-down shoes. Besides, I figured if “research” has shown running barefoot is “safe,” barefoot walking should be too, especially indoors where there aren’t any rocks, glass, or well-hidden tree roots. (Gives you butt squench just to think about it, doesn’t it?) Anyway, I figured wrong. It probably didn’t help that I managed to get on the treadmill in time to catch the Contessa’s opening spiel and walked right through final Jeopardy. By the way, how could anyone not know F.Scott Fitzgerald had flappers in his novels? But I digress.

Just to clarify, my knees, ankles, legs, and hips all felt fine after my hour-long barefoot walk. They still feel fine today. The parts of my body screaming in agony are the soles of my feet. I might as well have walked on a belt sander for an hour. What a dumbass. Seriously. Consider yourself warned.

In my previous life, my to-do lists were generated by the demands of a busy family and exacerbated by my professional life: get the laundry done, finish the user documentation for Client X, shop for the ingredients for the taco casserole you’re taking to the soccer banquet, compile and distribute the meeting agenda for Organization Y, call and invite Prospective Customer Z to lunch next week to discuss possible projects. If I failed to check an item off the list, I ran the risk of causing a problem for a family member, a client, or my business. Now that my children are grown and gone and I no longer have a “professional life,” per se, the items on my list are all of my own creation and have little potential for impacting others negatively if I fail to get them done. So, why in the world am I stressing out over checking off the tasks? For that matter, why do I even bother to make lists in the first place? One word. Guilt.

I’m finding I feel just as much pressure to make my lists and be as “productive” now as I did when I was working. Actually, I feel more pressure to be productive, in large part–I suppose–because I’m not contributing financially to the household anymore. No paycheck, huh? No, but I’m baking homemade cookies and tackling home improvement projects and preparing yummy, nutritious meals every evening and writing every day and…and…  Ironically, no one around here but me cares that I’m not employed and adding to the family coffers at the moment. No one around here has ever complained about the lack of homemade goodies or the projects that have gone undone in the past. So why the guilt? Why can’t I sit down to read a book, stretch out on the couch for a hour-long afternoon nap, or watch the Barefoot Contessa make yummy chicken pot pies and enjoy myself? Actually, I would be lying if I said I never take an afternoon snooze or that I never watch my favorite cooking show. It’s just that I do those things sparingly and never do them without feeling guilty. I can never just “be” without guilt raising its ugly mug and ruining what, by all accounts, should be a pleasurable past time.

Strangely–and maybe fortunately–the guilt comes in multiple strengths. For example, I can sit down and read a book or magazine article without guilt if I’m reading the book as part of my research for a writing piece. That type of reading is productive, right? I can sit down and read a book with minimal guilt if I’m reading the book for my book club. Not income-producing maybe, but still productive. Read purely for pleasure? Now that is clearly non-productive. Guilty! I’ll give you another example. I feel guilty if I go out and play golf during the day without Tom. However, I can lessen the guilt if I walk instead of ride. Then the round can be considered exercise, and that’s productive, right? As for naps, I still haven’t figured out a way to rationalize those. No matter how good I feel physically after a nap, I always feel I need an excuse for having taken it even if no one asks for one. It’s goofy. I know it’s goofy, but I can’t seem to make it stop.

I suspect there are many like me. I know at least one, a dear friend who lost her job a couple of months ago. Before three weeks had passed, she had–among a number of other smaller projects–cleaned out every closet in her house, cleaned and re-organized her entire basement, and re-painted her living room and dining room. Now, with all of her home improvement projects completed, she’s offering to help me with mine. She’s nuts. We’re kindred spirits.

With the exception of vacation days, I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to fully enjoy “non-productive” days. Even though I love the feeling of accomplishment at the end of a particularly productive day, I can’t help but think I would be healthier and happier if I could occasionally embrace a day–or part of a day–in which all I’ve managed to do is enjoy the singing birds, the setting sun, the building storm clouds, the back of my eyelids, and/or the company of my favorite author. Without guilt.

Two weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with a nasty headache. Getting up in the middle of the night has become something of a routine in the last year or so–not because of headaches, but because of my middle-age hormones–all exacerbated in recent weeks by the jet lag from an overseas trip. The headache added a new twist to the whole business, but I have developed a routine for such occasions. Instead of flopping around in bed, becoming evermore agitated at my inability to fall back asleep, I’ve learned to just get up and do other things–read, surf the net, attempt to watch TV (although TV at that time of night is worse than awful), or noodle around in the kitchen. Seriously, several nights ago I was so wide awake, I made cookies. Anyway, after taking a couple of Excedrin that particular night, I carefully tip-toed out of the bedroom, being careful to avoid the squeaky spots in the floor so I didn’t wake Tom, and headed out to the living room and the pile of books and magazines stacked next to my chair.

While thumbing through one of the cooking magazines, I came across an interview with Elisabeth Hasselbeck in which she talked about being gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerant. Hmmmm. Interesting. Just a few weeks before when I was visiting my aunt, I learned that one of her sons (my cousin) is gluten intolerant. I’ve only known one other person my entire life (that I’m aware of anyway) who is gluten intolerant and that was when I was in grade school. I must admit, it’s not a topic I’ve given much thought to. The extent of my knowledge about gluten intolerance was that anyone who has it must avoid wheat products. That’s it. I knew nothing more. Having plenty of time on my hands and no inclination to go back to sleep, I headed into the office to do a little research on the subject.

I started at MayoClinic.com. Let’s see…not a food allergy, hmmm…abdominal pain and diarrhea, interesting…genetic, really?…linked to auto-immune disorders, what!?…to say I was shocked by what I read would be a gross understatement. The list of symptoms of gluten intolerance reads like a checklist of my medical records and my maternal family’s health history. Not that any one of us has all the symptoms, but among the entire group of us, we’ve covered a scary percentage of them. If you–like me–are unfamiliar with gluten intolerance, here’s a quick overview from the site: “If you have Celiac disease and eat foods containing gluten [found in products containing wheat, barley, and rye], an immune reaction occurs in your small intestine, causing damage to the surface of your small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients.” Besides disrupting a person’s digestive system, gluten intolerance is linked to a number of conditions–particularly auto-immune conditions (my family’s specialty)–including, but not limited to, thyroid disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, alopecia (hair loss), rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, skin rash (particularly on the elbows, knees, and buttocks), mouth sores, dental disorders, neuropathy, general weakness and fatigue, infertility, and liver disease. Holy cow! Until learning recently about my cousin’s diagnosis, I’ve never heard anyone in my family mention the possibility of gluten intolerance.

About then, Tom woke up and wandered into the office in a sleepy fog, blinking and scratching, “What are you doing?”

When I explained about my research and what I’d learned, the first words out of his mouth were, “Maybe that explains why you felt so good when you did Atkins.” Out of the mouths of the comatose.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. I love to eat it, but hate how it makes me feel and look. And for most of my adult life, my digestive system has been wacky, something I chalked it up to my latest diet du jour and/or stress. And there were plenty of diet du jours–and stress (but then, who isn’t stressed?). Over the years, I’ve tried just about every diet out there. Some worked, some didn’t, and with the exception of Atkins, they’d all made me feel lousy–or at minimum–no better than my normal diet (of mostly processed foods) made me feel. Atkins was different. I felt great on Atkins. My energy level soared. My digestive troubles went away as did my rashes and indigestion. I remember telling people I felt like I was twenty again. But Atkins was also a diet that made others nervous. “You shouldn’t eat like that!’ my friends would say, and truthfully, based on my knowledge of nutrition at the time, it made me nervous, too. So after six or seven months, I gave it up and went back watching the numbers on my bathroom scales yo-yo up and down.

Then a couple of years ago, my attitude about food and cooking changed–dramatically. Up to that point, cooking was something I did to feed my family. Providing sustenance. Just one more chore. One that I tried to do as quickly and easily as possible. Although my family didn’t eat a lot of take-out, fast food, I did prepare a lot of meals using pre-packaged, highly processed ingredients. Food itself fell into two basic categories: healthy and time-consuming-to-prepare or yummy, quick, easy, and fattening. What a choice, and what an incredible amount of time I wasted wringing my hands over the whole mess. But then, as I said, things changed.

Over the last two years–because of events I won’t go into now–I have fallen in love with cooking. Along the way have learned a great deal about food and nutrition. Not the misguided, pyramid-shaped gospel of nutrition preached by the government, but the common sense version practiced by our ancestors until the middle of the last century when food became industrialized. No more fake, manufactured foods, no more packaged foods with lists of ingredients I don’t recognize or can’t spell or pronounce, just whole real food. Again, this is a topic I can write hundreds of posts on, so I’ll move on and get to my point. Finally.

I no longer eat the things that I had previously blamed my digestive problems on, and for the last several months have had virtually no stress in my life. In many ways, I feel much better, but my digestive system is still buggered up. Which brings me back to gluten intolerance. If improving my diet and reducing stress hasn’t clear up the problem, could I possibly be gluten intolerant? And if I am, could changing my diet now save me from some of the nastier auto-immune issues others in my family have faced? Under the circumstances, it seemed perfectly reasonable to find out, so I made an appointment with my doctor and had the blood test a few days later. I learned earlier this week that the test came back negative, meaning I’m not gluten intolerant. However, the very next day, I shared the story with a friend who just laughed and told me her sister had the same experience. Eventually, the sister was diagnosed with Celiac disease and felt better within a week or two of starting a gluten-free diet. Last night, I met another woman who relayed a similar story, so I’ve decided to go gluten free just to see what happens. I know for sure I felt better when I wasn’t eating bread, cookies, pizza, etc. on Atkins, and my gut instinct tells me it’s a good plan.

So, why am I telling you all this? Because the more people I talk to and the more I learn about Celiac disease and its symptoms, the more I’m convinced that there are others out there like me who are totally unaware of the problems gluten may be causing. If not with you, maybe someone you love. Not that I want anyone to be gluten intolerant, but if someone is, it seems much easier to make a few changes in diet now rather than to have to deal with the damage later. Moreover, I’m learning there are lots of people in the world who eat gluten free just because it makes them feel good. I’m also discovering yummy, healthy ingredients like arrowroot, quinoa, and millet that I’ve never considered using before. At this point, I feel overwhelmed by it all, but grateful to finally feel like I might be on to something that will change my health for the better. I’ll keep you posted.