When we first became familiar with gluten, the protein in wheat, we considered
it the best part of the grain, and it has become a staple in our kitchen. Wheat
gluten, sometimes referred to as seitan, a Japanese-derived term that originated
in macrobiotic cooking, is widely used by vegetarians as a protein
source. In Chinese vegetarian cooking, wheat gluten is used as a
substitute for meat, and a grand variety of faux-meats like veggie chicken,
veggie beef and veggie duck often have gluten as their major
Gluten is what makes wheat flour so useful for making breads,
cakes and pastries. In baking classes, we learned that gluten helps to give
breads and cakes good structure so they don’t become too crumbly or fall apart
when sliced. The gluten content of flour is especially important for
yeast-leavened baked goods, for which the dough has to stretch as it rises;
bread flour is known as high-protein or high-gluten flour. Lack of gluten
is why cakes made with potato starch often have a dry, crumbly
We became aware of gluten’s downside when a friend of ours asked
for advice on what to prepare for her mother, who needed to avoid gluten. At the
time, about 12 years ago, there was little information, and few good products
were readily available.
How things have changed. When we attended the
Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, in March, gluten-free foods
were very prominent. We sampled gluten-free stuffed pasta shells with ricotta
cheese and marinara sauce from Caesar’s Pasta, blueberry waffles from Van’s
Natural Foods made with brown rice flour, French Meadow Bakery’s cinnamon raisin
bread made with corn starch and tapioca starch, and ginger cookies and chocolate
chip cookies from Pamela’s Products. Amy’s Kitchen rice pizza was so
popular that it was hard to get into the booth. There were gluten-free cake
mixes and baking ingredients like Kinnikinnick Foods graham-style cracker crumbs
for making pie crusts, made with pea starch, potato starch and rice flour,
sweetened with brown sugar, molasses and honey.
We were struck by the
centrality of gluten-free dishes in Levana Kirschenbaum’s book The Whole Foods
, in which recipes have two kinds of labels: whether they are
kosher for Passover, and whether they are gluten-free.
Why is there so
much fuss about gluten? In recent years, more and more people have been
diagnosed with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition that makes it
necessary to avoid wheat and other grains containing gluten. According to Carol
Fenster, author of 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes
, “this condition affects
one percent, or about 3 million Americans.”
Some find that the hype
surrounding gluten-free foods is overblown, given the relatively small percentage
of people affected by celiac disease.
Yet there is an additional category
of glutenintolerant or gluten-sensitive people who have not been diagnosed with
the disease but simply feel much better when they avoid gluten. Fenster
is one of them and notes that experts believe this condition “may be six or
seven times more prevalent than celiac disease.”
According to renowned
nutrition expert Dr. Andrew Weil, “it is possible that a range of gluten
sensitivity exists, with classic celiac disease at one extreme. There are good
tests for gluten sensitivity... if you have it... a glutenfree diet may improve
your health; otherwise, there is no reason to avoid gluten.”
Keeping to a
no-gluten diet is not so simple. It’s not just wheat flour that needs to
“People suffering from celiac disease can’t have gluten in
any amount, even minute,” wrote Kirschenbaum. “In addition to wheat flour, this
also includes bulgur, farina, spelt and others; oats must be labeled gluten-free
to make sure they weren’t processed in a machine used for
Preparing gluten-free meals is like following the custom of
(no moistened matza or matza meal) observed by some during Passover,
leaving only potato starch for baking and cooking. This may be okay for a week,
but it’s not easy for a lifetime.
Cooks who have experimented with
glutenfree baking have discovered that a combination of flours gives baked goods
finer flavor and texture.
“Gluten-free baking usually requires a blend of
flours,” wrote Fenster. She makes a sorghum flour blend and keeps it on hand to
use as her all-purpose flour: 11⁄2 cups sorghum flour mixed with 11⁄2 cups
potato starch or cornstarch and 1 cup tapioca flour. Instead of blending your
own, you can buy gluten-free flour at the supermarket. Fenster notes that a
special ingredient, xanthan gum, is “critical for baking; it performs the
function of gluten by keeping baked goods from crumbling. Don’t forget it or
you’ll be sorry.” Guar gum is another ingredient used the same way.
blame the rise in the number of gluten-sensitive people on the hybridized wheat
grown in America, which is much different from original forms of wheat. Spelt, an
ancient species of wheat, can be tolerated by some people who are sensitive to
Others theorize that the problem lies in the excessive amount of
gluten in the Western diet due to the large number of processed foods that
people eat today, many of which contain gluten. According to Kirschenbaum,
gluten is hidden in some condiments and prepared sauces, as well as some drinks
(beer, bourbon, cider, vodka), and might be found in barbecue sauce, ketchup,
mustard, prepared dressings, soy sauce and other prepared foods.
parts of the world, gluten is not a problem. It occurred to us that the world’s
cuisines can be divided into those that use wheat, rye and barley, which contain
gluten, and those that are gluten-free. The traditional rice-based cuisines of
much of Southeast Asia, parts of China and parts of India are largely
gluten-free. In East Asia, there are noodles made from rice, mung beans, yam
starch and buckwheat. Buckwheat, which is gluten-free, was long a staple in
Russia and other parts of northern Europe. In Mexico and other parts of Latin
America, much of the food is corn-based and therefore gluten-free. Wheat is the
major grain of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as Western Europe
and North America.
Some recommend that people eat less gluten because too
much of anything in the diet is not good. Kirschenbaum’s flour of choice in all
her baked goods is spelt: “I find that the idea of lowering gluten in our diet
makes us not only explore the whole gamut of good grains but optimizes our
nutrition: My tagline is ‘Enjoy spelt – less gluten, more protein, more fiber,
A good thing about the gluten-free trend is the increased
availability of different kinds of flour and products made with them. In fact,
wrote Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern in Gluten-free Girl and the Chef
“There are more gluten-free flours in the world than there are flours with
For gluten-free baking the Aherns usually mix three kinds of
flour. “One of the three should be a whole-grain, a solid base: sorghum flour,
brown rice flour, garfava flour [garbanzo, or chickpea, flour mixed with fava
bean flour].The next should be a starch, to lighten up the mixture,
since gluten-free baked goods tend to be dense: potato starch, tapioca starch
(also known as tapioca flour), cornstarch or arrowroot powder. The third flour
should have a particular personality you want to add to your baked goods.
Amaranth flour has a soft texture and slight malt flavor. We like it in cookies
and cinnamon rolls. Almond flour adds protein and a bit of fat for flavor...
Quinoa flour is savory and great in quiches. Teff flour is the finest-textured
flour in the world, so during baking it almost melts, which helps to bind
together muffins and quick breads.”
The Aherns caution that gluten-free
baking is not as easy as traditional baking and sometimes requires changing
expectations regarding taste and texture. Still, “some of those treats might
taste better to you than those with gluten flours, like banana bread with
teff.” They find that pie dough is actually easier to make without
gluten, because you can’t overwork the crust. For their fruit tarts, they make a
buttery, slightly sweetened cinnamon-flavored pastry made with equal amounts
sorghum flour, tapioca flour, potato starch and sweet rice flour.
agree that bread is the hardest food to make gluten-free. Fenster makes several
kinds of bread, including French baguettes, using her flour blend with
additional potato starch and cornstarch. For making gluten-free bread or pizza
dough, Kirschenbaum advocates combining tapioca flour, “which adds a very
pleasing chewiness and lightness to baked goods,” with any gluten-free flour you
like, such as teff, rice, millet or buckwheat.
For breakfast, Fenster
recommends a variety of whole grains, including brown rice, buckwheat, millet,
quinoa, sorghum, teff and wild rice, as well as traditional oatmeal. “Whole
grains play a critical role in the gluten-free diet, since they are required to
supply important nutrients we no longer get when we avoid wheat.”
breakfast porridge Fenster makes from amaranth, “a primary food for the ancient
Aztecs” that is “known as one of the most nutritious grains on earth,” is
flavored with maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg and enhanced with a little
butter, coconut flakes and chopped walnuts. You can make porridge with these
flavors from any whole grain you like. It’s definitely a delicious way to start
the day.Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Classic
This recipe is from 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes
Amaranth and other whole grains can be found at natural
foods stores. Instead of using amaranth, you can make this porridge with brown
rice; use a total of 3 cups water and cook the rice for 30 to 45
3 cups water
1 cup whole amaranth grain
1 tsp. butter or buttery
1⁄4 tsp. sea salt, or to taste
3 Tbsp. pure maple syrup 1 tsp. ground
1⁄4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1⁄4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Bring the water to a boil in a
medium saucepan. Add the amaranth, butter and salt, and bring to a boil again.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the
Stir in the maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg until smooth. Serve in
4 cereal bowls, each garnished with 2 Tbsp. coconut flakes (if using) and 1
Makes 4 servings (3 cups) CHOCOLATE ALMOND CAKE
delicious cake has long been a favorite of ours. It happens to be
You can keep the cake, covered, up to four days in the
refrigerator; or you can freeze it.
110 gr. (4 oz.) semisweet chocolate,
2 Tbsp. water
1⁄2 tsp. instant coffee powder
1⁄4 cup (55 gr. or 2 oz.)
1⁄2 cup blanched almonds
2⁄3 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. cornstarch
Butter a 23-cm. (9-in.) round cake pan, about 4 cm. (11⁄2
in.) deep. Preheat the oven to 175ºC (350ºF).
Melt the chocolate with the
water, coffee and butter in a large heatproof bowl set in a pan of hot water
over low heat. Stir until smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan of water. Let the
mixture cool but do not let it harden.
In a food processor, grind the
almonds with 3 Tbsp. sugar to a fine powder. Transfer to a medium
bowl. Add the cornstarch and 4 Tbsp. sugar and mix well. Stir the
almond mixture into the melted chocolate.
Add the egg yolks and beat the
mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until smooth.
Whip the egg whites
until stiff. Gradually add the remaining sugar and continue beating at high
speed until the whites are very stiff and shiny but not dry, about 1⁄2 minute.
Fold about 1⁄4 of the whites into the chocolate mixture. Spoon this mixture over
remaining whites and fold all together lightly but quickly, just until there are
no white streaks in batter.
Transfer immediately to the prepared pan.
Bake about 25 minutes or until a cake tester or pick inserted in the center
comes out dry.
Slide a thin knife carefully around the sides of the cake.
Turn the cake out onto a rack and let cool.
Makes 8 servings