Posts Tagged 'food'

My First Gluten Free Birthday

Want to know how shallow I can be? Well, when I should have been excited/relieved to find out I had Celiac Disease, the answer to my fatigue and frequent migraines, I was instead heartbroken. I admit one of my first thoughts was “oh no! What about my birthday cake?” All year, I looked so forward to the chocolate cake with chocolate frosting that Mom always made from scratch. My only exposure to gluten free products had been several years ago at my aunt’s house where I tried a gluten free muffin and it was pretty dense and dry, not what I wanted my birthday cakes to be for the rest of my life.

     “Never fear!” said my mom. I was diagnosed in July and my birthday wasn’t until March, plenty of time to experiment in the kitchen with all kinds of flour substitutes and perfect a gluten free birthday cake. Well, Mom was right. I celebrated my birthday a couple days ago and it was a delicious success!

     Before my birthday, my family celebrated three other birthdays with gluten free cake. Just to get her feet wet, about a month before Dad’s birthday, Mom made a basic single layer chocolate cake using a gluten free Betty Crocker cake mix. The gluten free brownie mix from Betty Crocker is so fudgy and spectacular you wouldn’t know it was gluten free unless I told you. But the cake? Not so much. It tasted good, but it was dense and dry as I feared. We all came to the consensus that maybe it just needed some kind of filling like custard or something to moisten it. So in a Betty Crocker cookbook, Mom found a recipe for a yellow cake with a lemon filling. My dad loves the flavor of lemon, especially the Glutino lemon cookies, so we thought this cake would be right up his alley for his birthday. We all agreed it was a recipe worth bookmarking because it was very moist and flavorful, but I’m not as crazy about lemon, so that cake wasn’t going to work for my birthday.

     A few weeks later, we celebrated Mom’s birthday with another Betty Crocker recipe, this one a chocolate cake where you poke holes in the cake while it is still hot and pour a caramel sauce through these holes in to the inner layer of the cake. Unfortunately, the caramel didn’t infuse itself in to the whole cake like Mom had hoped. Some bites would have a wonderful caramel flavor, but others wouldn’t. In the future, Mom wants to try just cutting the cake in half and filling it with caramel rather than the hole method. Despite the uneven distribution of caramel, it was still a good cake, but I’m not as passionate about caramel either. For my birthday, I wanted pure, unaltered chocolate cake!

     Shortly before Mom’s birthday, she had received in the mail a course catalog from a local technical college, in which she happened to spot a class on flourless baking! It was billed as a class to learn how to bake in a healthier way, but it occurred to us that it would be very useful for our newly gluten free household too, so Mom signed up. The class met for two Thursday night sessions and to my delight, after every session she was able to bring home samples of the items she and the other people in her class had baked. Some of the recipes have become family favorites and are now part of our repertoire. Just a couple weeks ago, Mom made another batch of muffins that include pineapple and coconut flour, and we recently made chocolate chip cookies using almond butter too. But my absolute favorite recipe that I have requested the most is this flourless bourbon chocolate cake topped with orange marmalade. Basically I think you just boil bittersweet baking chocolate, butter, sugar and just a tablespoon of bourbon and then bake it in a cake pan. Man, is it melt in your mouth delicious! I am not kidding! It was light and moist in the mouth and really hit the chocolate tooth because it is dark, rich chocolate. I didn’t think I would like the orange marmalade on top because I usually don’t like stuff like that, but it was the perfect flavor complement. Eating this cake, Mom and I realized that maybe the problem with traditional cakes is the idea of trying to modify something designed to be made with wheat flour, whereas this flourless bourbon cake was naturally gluten free.

     Then about a week and a half before my birthday, we celebrated my brother’s birthday. Here I want to pause for a moment and complement my brother. He hasn’t been wild about any of our gluten free recipes, and adamantly refuses to get tested for Celiac Disease, so I told myself not to be surprised if he insisted on a gluten cake. I would have been fine with that. On your birthday, you should get to have what you like, so I would have been happy to just eat the ice cream or something if he wanted a gluten cake, but he said he would be willing to eat a gluten free cake! Like all brothers, he gives me a hard time sometimes, but in this act, I realized that he really does love me and empathize with me.

     Mom couldn’t find any ideas for jazzing up white cake in our gluten free cook books. (I guess they were all written by chocohalics like me because all she could find were chocolate cake recipes. But she found a mix and just cut the cake in half and filled it with extra frosting to moisten it. It was pretty good, but still not up to the birthday cake standards of the old days, so after that party, I officially declared that for my birthday, I would have to go with the flourless bourbon chocolate cake. The only problem was that the way this cake is made, the consistency is really more like that of a thick cookie, which would have made birthday candles difficult if not unfeasible. But I decided I was willing to sacrifice this tradition for a better cake. I am no longer a little kid who needs to make a wish anymore, and besides, since I have always had a fear of bringing my face too close to the candles and catching my hair on fire or something, blowing out my candles in past years has been a comical endeavor that took forever it seemed. I think when I turned twenty, I was having such a hard time that the family started a tradition of assisting me and blowing out a few for me that I just couldn’t reach. So maybe I was getting too old to continue this tradition anyway, I reasoned. But deep down, I kind of still wanted to be a little kid and try to blow out candles again, and Mom hated to end this tradition too. So Sunday morning, she said, “Let’s sit down and look at cake recipes.” It actually didn’t take long to find the perfect recipe. Rather than a box mix, it called for three separate kinds of flour; rice flour, tapioca flour and potato starch. It was also different from our previous cakes because in addition to the typical cake batter ingredients like flour, oil, eggs and sugar, this recipe had you melt chocolate chips and milk on the stove and stir this mixture in to the batter. The introduction to the recipe said it would be moist, and any remaining apprehension about my first gluten free birthday cake melted away with the first bite. It was fantastic!

     Two days after I was officially diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I had an appointment with a job coach and my Celiac Disease came up in conversation as I waited for Mom to pick me up. As is common unfortunately with a large segment of the public, she was ignorant about Celiac Disease, so I explained to her that it meant I had to follow a strict gluten free diet. Mom arrived just in time to hear the job coach say, “well, on your birthday, have all the cake you want.” What she didn’t realize was that on my birthday, I would, and did, have all the cake I wanted. It was just made with gluten free flour. It wasn’t healthy by any means, another misconception people have about gluten free food. In fact if anything, it was even more unhealthy than gluten cake because it called for more sugar than Mom’s old cake recipes. But with all that sugar, chocolate and milk to moisten the batter, I doubt the average person would have even realized it was gluten free. Even if we hadn’t found a cake that was just as fabulous as the old days, it would have been worth the sacrifice knowing that even if it wasn’t as good, at least it wouldn’t damage my insides and plague me with migraines and fatigue later. But in addition to everything else–the happy conversation with family, the gifts, the fantastic gluten free lasagna (with extra cheese and sauce to compensate for the heavier gluten free pasta),– the fact that we found such a fabulous cake, one that I asked Mom to mark as a keeper for my birthday next year, was the icing on the cake of an all-around happy birthday!

River Gets Rough Already

Well readers, just one week after college graduation, a time when I saw no hints of storms on the horizon, the river called life hit an unexpected rough patch.

     My master plan had gone off perfectly so far. The graduation festivities were beautiful. The delicious leftovers were almost gone and Mom and I had driven Granny safely back home to Indiana. All that was left was some blood tests ordered by my primary physician and my pediatric endocrinologist. The plan was that the doctors would quickly glance over my blood tests and then send me on my merry way in to the adult world with a clean bill of health. My pituitary problems that resulted from my brain tumor were well-managed, and although I hadn’t been making the healthiest eating choices amidst the stress of finishing college, I was still thin and even amidst stress, made far healthier choices than I did in high school. Given that, and just the fact that every other facet of my master plan had gone off without a hitch, I just didn’t expect this plan to go off script. But it did.

     So on Wednesday May 23, just as I was finishing my breakfast and settling in to another lazy worry-free day, the phone rang. It was my physician who noticed that my liver enzymes were slightly elevated, and that I was anemic. I wasn’t surprised or concerned about the anemia. The summer after second grade when I had a big growth spurt and basically wouldn’t eat anything healthy, I became severely anemic to the point where I could barely function. I was sleepy all the time, had no appetite and when I started third grade, I was so skinny it frightened the teachers. With some medication adjustments and force-feeding, I returned to a healthy weight and felt well again. I don’t remember hearing anything more about my iron levels for years. Maybe it wasn’t tested or maybe it was tested and reported on my medical charts, but since I felt well and was gradually eating a much more balanced diet by middle school, nobody felt it was worth mentioning to me. Then in the fall of my sophomore year of college, the glands in my neck swelled up and got really painful seemingly overnight which had never happened to me before, so my parents wanted to get me to the doctor right away. But my primary physician wasn’t available, so the receptionist set me up with a different doctor in the same building. This doctor was amazingly thorough. In addition to the usual look at my throat and feeling of my glands, he also ordered a blood test to check for Mono, and iron I guess too, because he called me personally later that afternoon and told me I was mildly anemic. Like I said, by then I was feeling great and eating a very healthy diet, so I just made an effort to eat more high-iron foods like beef and spinach and didn’t think anything of it. Maybe I was just prone to being a little anemic.

     But elevated liver enzymes? That was a new one. How could I have liver problems? I tried one sip of whine, at my brother’s insistence shortly after my 21st birthday, but it was so disgusting I spit most of it out. I don’t abuse painkillers either. Those were the only things I knew of that can cause liver problems. In a panic, Mom and I consulted the internet, but couldn’t find anything reliable or applicable to me so we decided it would be better to wait for the results of some more detailed bloodwork and a liver ultrasound ordered by the doctor. So Mom immediately scheduled an ultrasound for June 6, and took me in for the additional tests.

     Then like clockwork on June 5, just after finishing breakfast, the phone rang again.

     “Your blood results show indications of Celiac disease,” the doctor said, “It is a disease where your body cannot tolerate gluten, which just means you will have to give up wheat.”

     She is a young and very compassionate doctor, and perhaps in an effort to soften the blow, she said “There are lots of foods that are gluten-free. I think even Snickers bars are gluten-free.” I laughed politely, because I do love snickers bars, but still my heart sank, and I apologize if it sounds overly dramatic, but I will be honest and say I felt my gluten abundant life flash before my eyes. What would become of our Christmas cookies, my dad’s quiche, my mom’s family-famous fluffy waffles, my double-layer chocolate birthday cake I look forward to all year, our Friday night pizzas, our comforting lunches of grilled cheese sandwiches or macaroni and cheese?

     Mom and I had decided to have this conversation on speaker phone, and I will always carry with me the image of us sitting side by side on the couch with the phone between us. When she saw my expression fall, she tapped me on the shoulder and whispered enthusiastically “that’ll be so easy!”

     “Yeah right,” I wanted to say, “don’t you realize how central a role bread products play in our family?”

     “I worked with a lady who was gluten-free, and she brought the most fabulous cakes to work,” Mom said when she got off the phone.

     “That’s great. But I cannot live on Snickers bars and cake. What are we going to do for actual meals?”

     “There are all kinds of gluten-free breads and pastas made with other kinds of flour like rice and corn. And, some of your favorite meals like steak and baked potatoes? Naturally gluten-free!”

     This is true. In my shock and panic, I overreacted and interpreted the diagnosis to mean I would never be able to eat anything delicious again, but when I found out I could still eat steak, a baked potato loaded with butter, sour cream, salt and pepper or even my dad’s amazing spicy spaghetti sauce over gluten-free noodles, I started to feel better. Maybe Mom was right and it would be easy.

     And then I found some more information on websites for Mayo Clinic and the Celiac Foundation that had my heart sinking again. To start with, going gluten-free wasn’t as simple as just giving up the obvious wheat products like bread and pasta. Other grains like barley and rye also contain gluten, and products like sauces and salad dressings that don’t taste as if they would have gluten in them could be thickened with wheat. Some companies are transparent about gluten in their products, but others disguise it. In a Betty Crocker book on how to get started with a gluten-free diet, there is a huge list of unpronounceable additives that contain gluten. But the real kicker was when I learned that even trace amounts of gluten can be harmful, so people with Celiac even have to watch out for cross-contamination, meaning that if even a crumb of wheat touches a gluten-free item, it is no longer safe for people with Celiac to eat. In practical terms, this means that those warnings on food packages for items which seem like they would be gluten-free like Quaker oats which say “processed in a facility that also processes wheat,” must also be avoided by people with Celiac. And gone would be the days when I could just walk in to a restaurant and order anything I wanted. Fortunately, more and more restaurants offer gluten-free options these days, but people with Celiac are advised not to blindly trust even these items, because if the staff in the kitchen handles your chicken with the same gloves used to prepare bread items, your gluten-free meal has now been contaminated. And let’s say a restaurant says their caesar salad is gluten-free so long as you order it with no croutons. If the restaurant makes a mistake and brings your salad with croutons on top, people with Celiac cannot just pick off the croutons because it is impossible to remove every last trace of crouton crumbs. People with Celiac are supposed to send the salad back and ask for a fresh salad without croutons. Since customers aren’t allowed back in the kitchen to oversee preparation, people with Celiac are supposed to ask to speak with the manager or chef, inform them that they have Celiac and explain how food must be prepared. Actually, the most polite thing to do is plan ahead and call the restaurant to give them a heads up and find out if they can accommodate you, and try to go to the restaurant at a slower time of day.

     I wanted to cry as it occurred to me that (a) our family, especially my dad and grandma, loves to go out to eat on weekends, the busiest time; (b) sometimes we plan ahead, but other times, my parents like to just drive around and pick new places to try spur of the moment; (c) most of our family  likes to keep our order simple, and we get all embarrassed just when my sister with no dietary restrictions makes a complicated order with substitutes and everything. Dietary restrictions which would require the manager coming out to talk to me would be far worse. And (d), we have all watched too many of those “dirty secrets of restaurants” shows where waiters admit spitting in people’s food when they send it back, and as a result, we never, ever, send food back. Well, my dad has once or twice, but when he did, I remember us all getting nervous and giving him a “what are you thinking?” lecture. And let’s say I ever got in a situation where a restaurant doesn’t like dogs but has to grudgingly serve Gilbert and me because of the ADA laws, AND at the same restaurant I also have to send back a contaminated salad. That could be the perfect recipe for spit (or worse) in my food.

     Did I also mention that this disease is about more than just a little stomach upset (which I never had by the way)? I had more subtle symptoms like frequent headaches and fatigue which I always overlooked. In people with Celiac, gluten destroys the villi which are the carpet-like fibers in the small intestine that absorb nutrients from the food we eat. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet for life. Left untreated, Celiac can lead to liver damage (which I was just beginning to have), and scarier stuff like cancer. If you follow a strict gluten-free diet for life, all sources said the small intestine would heal, but if you stray, even on Christmas, your birthday, your wedding day, damage begins again. I have even heard that after being gluten-free, the body overreacts to gluten, so one speck of gluten can set the healing back three months or more. I remember logging off the internet and coming out of my room somberly for a drink of water, sure that the carefree life I had been so looking forward to after graduation would be hellish now.

     But unbeknownst to me, while I was upstairs researching with my computer, Mom was downstairs doing research of her own. That’s when she found out that Celiac runs in families! I won’t get in to the details, but she said that her and Dad, my siblings and two of my aunts had the classic symptoms. Even if they got tested and didn’t officially have Celiac, my parents both promised they would go gluten-free with me because even if gluten hasn’t caused damage for them, they are definitely sensitive to it. And there was a high probability that other members of the family would test positive for Celiac as well, so by us going gluten-free, we could be a positive influence for the rest of the family. Even if they weren’t sensitive, it warmed my heart when they said they would go gluten-free anyway because we are a family and families suffer together. But since they are sensitive, that was a moot point. Although it didn’t eliminate my anxiety about future social situations, not by a long shot, you cannot imagine the euphoria of finding out you won’t be navigating these rough uncharted waters alone.

     Even so, I wasn’t eager to go gluten-free immediately. The good news was the doctor said I should still enjoy my glorious gluten (well, those weren’t her exact words but that’s how I interpreted them), until I saw a gastroenterologist who knew more about celiac and could do a more definitive test, a biopsy of my small intestine, the only way to diagnose Celiac with absolute certainty.

     The soonest my mom could get me in to a specialist was July 18, but I thought I might still be able to eat gluten even after that because the biopsy is a procedure that involves sedation, not like a blood test that can be done same-day. (If I had been allowed to schedule the appointment, I would have gone with the doctor who couldn’t see me until September). But instead of the carefree blogging I had intended to do, I found myself spending the next six weeks obsessively reading up on Celiac disease, perusing blogs and Facebook pages for information and coping advice, and of course saying yes to gluten every chance I got. I am sure I gained weight those six weeks as I loaded up on ice cream cones, ravioli, Papa Murphy’s pizza (at my insistence even when it was way too hot to be using the oven), as well as items I loved but wasn’t sure about like my favorite caesar salad dressing and store bought guacamole. In my paranoia, I was sure I would find out that everything I loved had gluten lurking in it.

     All too soon, it was July 18, and I had a foreboding feeling that I was sitting down to my last piece of peanut butter toast made with oat nut bread, and I was right.

     The doctor’s first words when she entered the exam room were “you definitely have Celiac. We looked at your blood tests and there is no question.” I guess there is some antibody that my physician didn’t know as much about that confirms Celiac if it is elevated and my levels were off the charts. She still wanted to do a biopsy to see how much damage had been done, but when we asked if we should wait and have the biopsy before going gluten-free, she basically said “are you crazy? No, you should start going gluten-free now.”

     At my insistence, Mom and I went to Chipotle after the doctor’s appointment where for my last gluten meal, I ordered one of their amazing burritos, made on a flour tortilla of course. It was the one thing I hadn’t had the chance to get one more time in that six-week period. When we got home, I savored a Blue Bunny ice cream cone, and dug out one more of my sister’s fantastic chocolate chip cookies which she made for my graduation. And then it was time to resign myself to the necessity of leaving the familiar river I loved and accept the newer, healthier route.

Food Memories

“I’ll never forget our very first Thanksgiving turkey after we were married,” Mom said through tears of hysterical laughter. “The turkey was beautiful and ready to come out of the oven, but somehow when we lifted it up, it fell off the pan and bounced. There was a loud THUNK as it bounced off the door of the oven and rolled across the floor. Some of you in this room ate that turkey!”

     This topic reminded me of my sister’s bridal shower my parents hosted in 2008, the theme of which was “down home.” My mom thought it would be fun for all the women to take a fancy note card, write a recipe on one side and their worst/funniest cooking disaster on the other. Then we would go around a circle and share them. Thinking back on this shower it has occurred to me that while a delicious meal that goes off without a hitch is wonderful, the cooking disasters are where the memories are made.

     Like last Thanksgiving for example, when my brother who doesn’t like pumpkin pie decided to make a favorite dessert similar to rice krispy treats but with chocolate melted on top. We think he overcooked the rice krispy marshmallow mix because the bars came out so rock hard that we almost needed a saw to slice them and I, mean little sister that I am dubbed them cement krispies.

     Or the time Mom and I were baking oatmeal butterscotch cookies and my mom read the ingredients wrong and only put one cup of oats in when the recipe called for two. When they came out of the oven, we couldn’t figure out why they were so crumbly. That’s when Mom discovered the mistake. But hey, those crumbles made for a delicious ice cream topper and as much as we enjoy the many perfect batches of cookies that have come out of the oven since, one of us always laughs fondly and says, “remember when we made those oatmeal butterscotch cookies?”

     Or the time when Mom and Dad thought they had bought a pre-cooked ham one day last year, so they simply microwaved it a few minutes. It seemed a little tougher to all of us than ham usually is, but we thought nothing of it until Dad was putting the leftovers away and saw blood on the bone. We had basically eaten raw ham! What fun I had spreading the story to my siblings who had all moved away on Facebook and asking my sister’s husband a science guy if we were all going to die. (By the way in case you are wondering, he said that ham is so well cured that it is probably perfectly safe to eat raw, but he wouldn’t recommend risking it). When my grandma, the type of person who is so obsessed about meat being cooked thoroughly that she puts her Thanksgiving turkey in the night before, got wind of the story, she called to check on us every day for a week! But “Remember when we ate that raw ham?” we can say with a laugh now every time we have ham.

     Or my personal favorite catastrophe when a special teacher for the blind was giving me a cooking lesson. I had measured out chocolate and oil for some graham cracker bars and this teacher asked the kind of grumpy seventh grade math teacher if she could borrow the microwave in her classroom to melt the chocolate. Well the mixture burned, and when I went to math class in that room three hours later, it still smelled smoky. Instead of warm-up problems on the board that day, the teacher simply wrote “don’t mention the smell”, and banned us from using her microwave. But we still laugh about it to this day any time food enters a conversation.

     Now some of you are probably thinking, “how about sharing some cooking disasters that you are solely responsible for rather than ratting on your family and teacher.” The truth is, I am still at a phase of cooking where the prospect of my own cooking disaster scares me to death, so I only cook in the microwave, and I stay away from things that burn easily like chocolate and oil, cooking only things like frozen meals with simple goof-proof directions. Once, I almost had to clean up a baked potato explosion. I knew that you were supposed to poke holes in raw potatoes before putting them in the microwave, but when I heard a strange whistling from a potato I was reheating that had previously been cooked on the grill, I learned that grilled potatoes don’t need holes pricked in them. So I almost had a cooking disaster. I often leave the microwave unattended when I am cooking too, but fortunately that day, I was still in the kitchen, so I ran over and was able to stop the microwave before the disaster unfolded.

     So I can still brag that I have never had a cooking disaster. But eventually, I will want to graduate from microwave cooking, maybe even get married and host Thanksgiving dinner. Given that I am clumsy and kind of absent-minded, I have no doubt that this spotless record won’t last forever. But the day this record is tarnished, especially if it is a holiday, I hope I can live by the example of my parents and teacher and not think of it as a cooking disaster, but a funny memory made.