When it Comes to Gluten-Free, Looks Don’t Matter

Growing up, my family was one of those rare types amongst my friends; we sat at the kitchen table for dinner and ate a meal that one or both of my parents had made from scratch. My parents are both wonderful cooks. My father’s Italian family always valued good food and sharing meals together. They also ran their own Italian restaurant for a period of time when my dad was in college. When they were short a cook, my dad would fill in.  My mom’s family had a slightly different food heritage, her father is German and her mother was a mix of Polish and Russian. But, with her mother sick and weak from MS, that left the process of making dinner up to my mom’s oldest sister. When she left for college, the duty fell upon my mom. She taught herself how to follow a recipe and use substitutions for ingredients she didn’t have. She never made anything fancy, but once she got the hang of cooking, she started to love it. I inherited my appreciation for food from my dad, but my mom is the one that imparted the love of cooking to me.

As a child, my mother would always allow me to be with her in the kitchen while she was cooking. She’d give me simple chores and watch to make sure I didn’t hurt myself. I especially loved helping her bake. She taught me how to crack an egg without getting shells in the dough or batter, how to use an electric mixer, and how to mix by hand. She shared with me her knowledge of substitutions; you could use applesauce instead of butter, honey instead of sugar, peanut or almond butter instead of flour.  She showed me the easiest way to grease and flour a cake pan, and how to roll dough without letting it get too soft. I can still remember being five years old, mixing cookie dough with my hands under her watchful eye. I can perfectly recall my twelve year old attempt at making brownies by myself. They came out of the oven in dark brown, fudge-like perfection. Hearing her compliment the moist, decadent flavor and praise my accomplishment was one of the proudest moments of my young life.

As she taught me how to cook and bake, she taught me a lot about life too. I learned how to be patient, to follow directions, and to wing it when the circumstances called for it. Even during my turbulent adolescence, when I was going through a lot and our relationship was severely strained, we always got along when we were baking together. It was one of the things that saved our relationship from completely falling apart. As far as parent/child similarities go, we have always been a lot alike, yet we are very different people. And looking back, it was one of the main ways that my mother and I were able to see past those differences and bond with one another.

This year, my mom and I teamed up to cook breakfast together on Easter. I was home from college that weekend, and one of my favorite ways to appreciate all the comforts of my parent’s house is to cook or bake in their well-stocked kitchen. So, after taking inventory of the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator, my mom and I sat down at the table to figure out the menu. Due to the abundance of frozen spinach, we decided on spinach quiche as the main meal item. Since it was Easter, and since I was in the mood to bake, I thought what better to eat with quiche and coffee than coffee cake?

Of course, there was a catch. This would be no ordinary spinach quiche or coffee cake. We would not be using wheat flour to make either. Allow me to elaborate. My mom was diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity about ten years ago. Whereas it used to be a struggle to find gluten-free alternatives in bread, pasta, or crackers, (particularly alternatives that were palatable) the food industry today has expanded enormously to accommodate a wide variety of food allergies and sensitivities. Even Betty Crocker has gluten-free baking mixes now. I admit, I’m not too crazy about making anything from a mix. It takes away the satisfaction of knowing you assembled the ingredients in the right sequence to create something delicious. But being able to bake with my mom again has been a blessing. One of the hardest parts about her gluten allergy has been the way it inhibited our ability to bake together. After searching around different grocery and health food stores, she finally found a mix that is a great substitute for wheat flour. It’s called Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix, and it’s the closest thing in taste and texture to actual wheat flour.

So, while I pulled out the Pamela’s to get started on the coffee cake, my mom was assembling bags of rice flour, amaranth flour, oat flour, and xanthan gum to whip up her own gluten-free flour for the quiche. Following a recipe from one of her food alternative cookbooks, she began making the crust in a process that seemed a lot less like baking, and a lot more like science. My mom knew how temperamental certain flours could be. Rice and corn flour had the tendency to be too thin, potato flour made baked items a goopy, odd texture, and many other alternative flours just tasted horrible. As is proven by Pamela’s technique, the best way to bake gluten-free is with a combination of alternative flours, and the trickiest part is getting it to be the right combination and consistency. Measuring cups flew, my mother’s brow furrowed. As I mixed the coffee cake batter in our Kitchen Aide, I silently wondered if our quiche crust would turn out to be a crumbly mess.

About a half hour later, my mom had molded the completed dough for the crust to the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Much to my surprise, it looked and felt almost exactly like wheat dough, except the color was a little too greyish to be wheat. She was mixing the rest of the ingredients for the quiche when I pulled my coffee cake out of the oven. I was crestfallen when I saw the decadent, cinnamon crumble had sunken into the cake part, giving it a disfigured, pitted appearance. I had chosen to use the Betty Crocker recipe for coffee cake, instead of the Pamela’s recipe from the back of the bag. I forgot that, for whatever reason, the Betty Crocker recipe with gluten-free flour didn’t quite rise the right way. More than slightly dismayed, I showed my mom the canyon mess I’d made of the coffee cake.

I don’t know if I’ve been blessed with an especially forgiving mother, or if being 52 makes a person more easygoing, but she didn’t seem concerned. Appearances are not something my mother has ever placed much importance on, including the appearance of food. My dad often pokes fun at her for eating produce that is badly bruised, cutting the moldy spots off of vegetables, and eating things past their expiration date. Whenever this happens, she laughs and shrugs, claiming, “It’s not all moldy. It won’t kill ya.” She asked me if I had remembered all the ingredients, I said I had. She reassured me that it would still taste good, even if it wasn’t pretty to look at. I nodded. I knew that the taste wouldn’t be affected, but I expected my dad would have a light-hearted joke to make about the misshapen breakfast cake I’d created.

When it was time to eat, my mom, dad, and I sat down at our chestnut dining table. All of us already had our mugs of coffee. In the Patt house, coffee is always the first order of business in the morning. My mom served us each a generous helping of quiche. I opted to wait until after I finished my piece before having a slice of coffee cake. As it turned out, the crust was perfect. The texture wasn’t doughy or crumbly. The taste wasn’t too salty; it had a pleasant, almost nutty flavor. There was proportional spinach to egg consistency. My dad and I praised my mom’s success. She beamed, pleased at the recognition of her creative baking endeavor.

She bit into her slice of coffee cake, chewing slowly and swallowing before telling me that it was absolutely delicious. I figured as much. My mom isn’t exactly a food critic, my dad’s the one that can be picky. So, when he cut himself a slice, I mentally crossed my fingers. He made no comment about how the crumble had sunken into the cake, just mindfully put a piece in his mouth. Almost immediately, an audible “mmmmm” happened. My dad nodded his head as he swallowed, before regarding me with a smile. “Mimi,” he said, using my family nickname, “this is, by far, one of the best coffee cakes I’ve ever tasted.” It was my turn to smile. I laughed to myself, musing over the fact that looks really don’t matter, especially when it comes to gluten-free baking.

by Amy Michelle Patt

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