How a Gluten-Free Diet Made Me a Cook Geek

From left to right: Soya milk, honey, blossom orange water, chestnut flour, rice flour, spices, sodium bicarbonate, brown sugar (photo: DI)

Despite being French, I had never been much of a Cook Geek. A few crumbles and pies were all I managed to bake. My Geek Love is much more of a cook than I am.

Then, a few years ago, I fell under a gluten-free, lactose-free, diet. That made home-cooking a necessity. But what’s better is that it made cooking an adventure. Funny. Creative. New continents’ discovery.

I had to explore websites, cook books, bio and organic shops. To uncover and experiment products I never heard about. And that’s still going on.

Gluten-free have become somewhat of a community. They share moods, disappointments, enthusiasm and, of course, recipes. As you probably know most of the English-speaking websites, I’ll give you some french ones.
One of my favorite is the blog of “la Belle au Blé Dormant”, a wonderful and poetic name I fail to translate. Let’s say that Sleeping Beauty’s French name is “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, and the blogger replaced Bois (Wood) by Blé (Wheat). So the Beauty is Sleeping in a world far from every gluten’s suspicion, with her gluten-free Charming Prince and two little Princelings. Therefore many of her recipes are meant to please little boys’ tastes as well as their parents’.

I also read from time to time  “On mange sans gluten by Perrine” with the most beautiful pictures (the best of appetizer) and La Faim des Delices… a play of words, again, since faim (hunger) and fin (end) are homophonous in French. Gluten-free diet isn’t the end of cooking delight!

One of my favourite french books is actually translated into English :Gluten-Free Gourmet Desserts and Baked Goods.

See how they added "French" in red letters on the cover? I suppose that's quite flattering...

So, now we have resources,  let’s go to actual cooking.

And let’s be clear: for a gluten-free mom, the challenge is to entrance everyone, even the not-gluten-free family members. We all eat the same dishes.

One of the greatest gluten-free ingredient is chestnut flour. That’s tasty, original and easy to cook. You can use it to prepare gluten free apple crumble (apples, chestnut flour, butter or margarine, brown sugar, cinnamon.)

I also use it in the following recipe of French Pain d’epices, adapted and translated from Miss Diane’s Carnets.

This one is really, really easy. I swear it. That’s french pain d’epices (spice bread, literally), which is different from English gingerbread and even more from German Lebkuchen or Swiss Leckerli.

It looks (and tastes) like a soft cake rather than a biscuit. You’ll need:

  • 1 cup rice flour (150 g)
  • 1 cup chestnut flour (100 g)
  • 1/4 cup (30 g) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (actually I use MUCH more, but that’s up to your tastes) of spices. In France, we find a “special mix for pain d’epices” but you might prepare your own by mixing cinnamon, ginger, cloves, green anise
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 cup (250 ml) milk (lactose free for me, such as soya milk or rice milk. Almond milk is a bit too flavored for this recipe, it tends to cover the other tastes)
  • 250 g (about 8,8 oz) honey
  • 1 teaspoon sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water

Set the oven to 325°F (165°C).
Prepare your loaf pan(s). I use greaseproof paper.

flours, sugar, spices and salt in a large saucepan
Photo: Marc Sutter

Mix the dry ingredients (both flours, sugar, spices and salt) in a large saucepan.

Pour the milk in a large micro-wave-friendly cup. I use a measuring cup. Heat it until it’s boiling (be extra-careful, a few seconds and it’s overflowing, as you probably all know). Then add the honey and stir until it’s completely dissolved.
Let it cool down a little, then add the sodium bicarbonate and stir again.

Add the liquid mix to the dry mix and stir till you get something homogeneous. Then add the orange blossom water and stir again.

Pour into the loaf pan and bake it for 45 minutes to 1 hour (It depends of your oven… you know it better than me. You might of course test it with the blade of a knife.)

2 spicebreads in their pans
You can bake more that one at a time... Photo: Marc Sutter

So, your main reason to bake this cake is probably you (or your spouse or kid) are under a gluten free diet.

But let’s find 10 more (geeky) reasons to bake this cake

  • That’s quite healthy, actually. Not low sugar (check the amount of honey) but low fat (no butter, no egg).
  • That’s medieval so you’ll be allowed to take it to a Ren Fair or a LARP
  • You might use it to various other recipes such as coated dishes (instead of breadcrumbs) or stuffing for baked apples (such as Nigel Slater’s in The Observer)
  • That’s so easily and quickly made you’ll manage even with a baby…
  • And if you’re geeklings are older than mine ? Pain d’epices is a fairytale dish. Read them Hansel & Gretel and if they’re even older, make them read about Hansel, Gretel and the Witch in Bill Willingham’s Fables series… they’ll never see them as before again…
  • You might use the Sodium Bicarbonate to do chemical experiences, most of them harmless.
  • You might do a bit of physics, by noticing that the cups of rice flour and chestnut flour have the same volume but different weight. You might do international mathematics with the conversions (that’s why I leaved the French units after the Imperial ones).
  • You might use it as a pretext for History and Geography lessons, such as Spice bread comes from… A. Egyptians – B. Greeks (Aristophanes wrote about it)- C. Romans (they called it panus mellitus) – D. Chinese (they called it mi-kong) – E. Gengis Khan’s riders (they used to take some with them on horseback) – F. Arabians (Europeans discovered it during the Crusades)
    All answers are true… in a way. Imagine the historic and geographic possibilities of enlightenment!
    You might also use the mixing of spices for an imaginary travel along the Silk Road… and immerse into Kathy Ceceri’s The Silk Road: 20 Projects Explore the World’s Most Famous Trade Route.
  • Okay, there’s only 8 reasons, but why should we stick up with the decimal system? There are so many others? Let’s be geek and stop thinking in base 10.

If you find another reason, let me know anyway…

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy the cake.

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The GeekMom blog is captained by Jenny Bristol and Corrina Lawson, and supported by a brilliant team of writers. Since launching in 2010, we’ve created a robust community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.