Hello, friends. Heidi here.
Have you ever heard that there are dozens of Eskimo words for snow?
When I walk outside in February and find frosty, white stuff falling from the sky, I have a very limited vocabulary for describing it: snow, sleet, flurries. Sometimes, it’s powdery stuff that barely sticks together. Other times, it’s the wet heavy stuff that is oh-so-good for building snowmen and oh-so-terrible for shoveling the driveway. Either way, it’s snow to me—and it sounds pretty good in the middle of July.
Until last November, that’s how I talked about flour. Flour is flour is flour. And flour is wheat. Sometimes, it’s white flour or all-purpose baking flour. Other times, it’s whole wheat flour. At the end of the day, though, it’s all flour. My dream in college was that someday, I’d have my own kitchen with large containers for holding flour and sugar for baking. Eventually, I was going to be the neighborhood grandma who baked cookies for all the children.
And then suddenly flour couldn’t be wheat anymore, but as far as I could tell, everyone else was still piling their grocery carts full of the stuff. Warning! Danger! Wheat is poison! It will destroy your digestive system! Oh, wait. It doesn’t. That’s just me. Oh, and maybe you too. (Let’s shop together—we all need a buddy to get through the grocery store sometimes.) Instead of stocking up on holiday baking products last November, I found myself staring at a tiny bag of gluten-free flour with a scary big price tag of over $2.00/lb.
My dreams of being the neighborhood cookie-baking grandma were crumbling—can I even afford to make cookies for my own little family?
I believe that many a gluten-free newbie has left the grocery store with an empty cart. Practice runs are OK. After all, we’re shopping in foreign territory. When I looked at gluten-free flour for the first time, I felt like I’d gone to bed in Guatemala and woken up in Alaska. What is this snow? Or, what is this flour?! Why does it have so many names? What do you do with it?
It turns out there are dozens of words for flour in the gluten-free language: white rice, brown rice, coconut, almond, teff, millet… All different kinds. With all different purposes. It also turns out, a single gluten-free flour can rarely replace wheat flour, meaning my vision of a single flour container morphed into a jumble of bags and boxes in various stages of use. Usually, you need a blend of several flours, including starches, such as potato starch or tapioca starch. And then sometimes you need gums, such as xanthan gum or guar gum, to help hold baked products together.
Confusing. Complicated. Expensive. Scary. Have I mentioned that we had—and sometimes still have—a lot of pep talks about baking, not just grocery shopping?
“Will I ever bake again?” Yes, yes you will.
We’re still figuring out the mysteries of gluten-free baking. A few things have helped us along the way.
- Realize that taking a week—or longer—off baking doesn’t mean you’ll never bake again. This would be Taft’s wisdom, which I totally believe now but had a really hard time coming to terms with in the beginning. Your first priority is to make sure you’re getting regular meals (aka, breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, afters… we’re all hobbits here). If you can make a perfect batch of gluten-free cinnamon rolls your second day gluten free, kudos to you (and please invite us over!). For me, there was so much to learn—starting with finding safe brands for cooking staples like canned beans—that I needed a break from baking for those first few days. Ice cream did the trick!
- Consider starting with pre-made 1-to-1 gluten-free flour mixes or baking mixes. They may never taste quite as good as a homemade blend (one that requires buying several separate ingredients and possibly grinding your own flour, whether with a grain mill or a simple blender), but they are a quick-fix, and they can be pretty decent. Don’t buy too much of any one brand at first. You may discover that your gluten-free baking palate changes rapidly as you experiment with different ingredients and flavors. For example, Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 flour blend tasted great the first times I baked with it, probably because I was so thrilled that I could actually make a family recipe again. Pretty quickly though, I realized that it has a chalky texture that I dislike. So I’ve moved on.
- If you can, find a grocery outlet and search for gluten-free items there. When you’re trying lots of new products, some are bound to turn out… blah. It’s easier to try lots of new things when the financial risk is lower.
- When you’re ready to try baking from scratch, choose a flour blend that works for several recipes you’d like to try. Bake a few times with that before branching out and trying another. For me at least, there were WAY too many gluten-free flour ingredients to juggle lots of different flour combinations at once in the beginning.
Marjorie Pay Hinckley once said, “The only way to get through life is to laugh your way through it. You either have to laugh or cry. I prefer to laugh. Crying gives me a headache” (Marjorie Pay Hinckley, Small and Simple Things [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003], 126).
I love that. Better yet, she also said, “I tried to laugh instead of cry when [I] felt like crying. It was always better to laugh, [like] the day I took a beautiful casserole from the oven and my six-year-old boy said, ‘Mom, how come you baked the garbage?’ Children are like that. There are days when it is hard to laugh” (Marjorie Pay Hinckley, BYU Women’s Conference, 2 May 1996).
I’m pretty sure I baked that casserole three weeks ago—except it was a failed oven pancake attempt. We ate part of it and then “accidentally” forgot about it until the rest had grown mold and had to be thrown away. I’m sure that I’ve cried more than my fair share, but we’re learning to laugh more.
I can’t remember everything we baked, but I went through our pictures and discovered a few treasures from our first few months of experimentation.
These brownies were made with a Pamela’s gluten-free brownie mix (with added peanut butter and chocolate chips) just over a month after my celiac diagnosis. They tasted like fudge—oh yum!
This is our very sentimental, ugly-but-delicious loaf of gluten-free bread, which you may recognize from Taft’s post Gluten, Gluten Everywhere, and Not a Bite to Eat (in which he gives a great taste of our first two months).
And these are some pretty fantastic muffins that we made at just under three months of gluten-free living, using Grandpa’s Kitchen Flour Blend, a slightly pricey but very tasty flour blend.
So, baking really does happen—with time. And it can taste really, really good. Maybe I’ll be a cookie-baking neighborhood grandma after all.