Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gluten-Free Buttermilk Pancake mix

Pancakes are tricky in the gluten-free world.  There are a few mixes that make whole-grain flavored pancakes, heavy on the sorghum flour.  I really missed that perfect buttermilk pancake taste, and the gluten-free bisquick was expensive enough to make pancakes an occasional treat.  I'm very picky about "substitutes" actually having the same taste and texture as the thing they're substituting for.  I don't want an unsatisfying "something vaguely like what I'm craving."  I want the real thing. 

So JD set out on a mission to find the perfect from-scratch gluten-free buttermilk pancake mix.  He's finally calling it good and letting me post the recipe.

He starts out with our gluten-free flour mix, which he measures by volume by pouring the flour into the measuring cup.  Since different flours compact differently, you should never scoop it: you'll end up with a slightly different amount of flour every time. 

4 parts white rice flour

3 parts potato starch
2 parts sweet white sorghum flour

Whisk these together thoroughly, then place in an air-tight container and shake well.  We use a glass container with a stopper, and it keeps just fine on the shelf for months. 

From that, he makes up a batch of pancake mix he can store in the cupboard for weeks and make into pancakes whenever he'd like.  For 6 cups of dry pancake mix, you'll need:
3 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour (recipe above, or your own)

1-1/2 cups buttermilk powder  (NOW brand is gluten-free and available on Amazon if you can't find it locally)
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup shortening

Mix all the dry ingredients, then cut in the shortening with a pastry cutter, pair of knives, or food processor until it's crumbly and evenly distributed.  This will store on the shelf for at least two weeks. 

To make the mix into pancakes:

1 cup dry pancake mix

1 egg
1/4 cup milk

This makes plenty for two people.  JD does silver-dollar size pancakes by dropping the batter by tablespoons onto a buttered nonstick pan.  They can be made with water if you have a casein allergy, but they won't be as fluffy.  I'm assuming that since the proteins in the milk are responsible for the fluffing (they form a surface to trap air bubbles in the batter) that you could use any protein-containing milk substitute.  If you use a sweetened milk substitute (like vanilla soymilk) you may want to adjust the sugar in the mix. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Taking Pickles Off the Back Burner

So this weekend I caught up on a lot of things, like cleaning and packing five whole boxes of clutter for a giant garage sale next spring.  I felt like I should reward myself by tackling one of the "unnecessary" creative projects I've had sitting in my inspiration box for nearly five years now: homemade pickles.

Every single year when the world is inundated with so many cucumbers that people leave baskets of them in the office break room with a "free" sign, I sigh and say, "I should make pickles this year."  It never actually happens.  The reason it never actually happens is that I always assumed that pickling involved a huge, expensive, messy and complicated process. 

Then I found a recipe for cold-pack pickles on Dave's Cupboard.  It couldn't possibly be that easy...could it?  If the recipe was correct, the only thing I needed that I didn't already have was pickling salt, cucumbers and a few spices. 

So I grabbed some off-season cucumbers, dried spices (the grocery store didn't have fresh dill) and gave it a whirl.  I re-used some plastic yogurt containers to hold everything, sliced the big cucumbers into spears, and after about an hour's work I have four 1 quart containers of pickles brewing in the back of our fridge, each one with slight variations on the base recipe (extra spicy, extra garlic, extra dill). 

I love cold pack pickles:  They're much fresher tasting and crunchier than cooked ones.  The downside is that they do have to be stored in the fridge and are only good for about three months.  But I can make small batches at a time.  It opens up all kinds of possibilities (pickled peppers, anyone?).  The cost would, of course, be much lower if I grew my own herbs. 

After a semester of constant running around on "necessary" tasks, it felt really good to do something entirely for the sake of tasty, creative fun.  It shows that I don't actually have to slow down to take a break.  I won't know for sure if it worked until December 8th when I crack open the pickles, but I love being able to say I make them.  It has to do with the kind of person I want to be.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gluten-Free Turkey Day Review

The great gluten-free post-Thanksgiving dinner was a mixed bag, but the good more than made up for the bad!   With a nine pound turkey breast and plenty of extras, we still have a week of leftovers and some good memories.

I did the turkey in what I call the "Scarborough Fair" style (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) with the herbs pureed and spread under the skin of the turkey breast to flavor the meat.  Herbs on the surface of the skin don't penetrate; the skin is designed to keep things out.  I nearly burned the turkey when I turned it up to 400 to brown, but caught it just in time. The drippings were pretty brown, but when I poured a few cups of water in the pan and let it sit, it made gorgeous, dark, flavorful gravy. The Honeysuckle White brand frozen turkey breast did come with a gravy packet, but I prefer to make my own.  I did look at the ingredients to see if the website had accurately listed the entire turkey as gluten-free.  The gravy packet used white rice flour, corn starch, and guar gum as thickeners instead of wheat flour! It was good to see that the company was making an honest effort to make their product safe for more people.

I cheated a bit on the cereal-based stuffing.  For lack of time and money to hit a specialty store for gluten-free corn flakes, I used corn chex instead.  The result was a gooey, nasty tasting mess and went straight into the trash.  I've no idea if the flavor of flakes differs so much from chex that it would vastly improve the dish, but I can't imagine it being enough to be edible.  I want to be fair to the recipe in that I did change the cereal, but I don't feel inclined to waste time and money on a re-try when it came out so terrible.  It would be different if it were just slightly off. 

The crustless strawberry cheesecake with fresh vanilla whipped cream was perfect, even if I did feel ready to explode by that point! 

It felt a little odd having Thanksgiving dinner with just the two of us instead of the big family crowd I'm used to associating with holidays.  I think I have some work to do in redefining what it means to be a family. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Very Gluten-Free Thanksgiving

The last-minute hunt is on for a Gluten-Free Thanksgiving dinner!  Our plans are still a little up in the air for Turkey Day itself, and if plans do happen then we'll have our meal on Sunday instead of tomorrow.  The problem is that Thanksgiving is a minefield of gluteny traditions.

The first and least obvious hurdle is the turkey itself.  Of course turkeys don't normally contain gluten, but manufacturers quite commonly baste, inject, fill and marinate their meat for sale.  This accomplishes a few things for them: it adds weight to products sold by the pound, and they're hoping that they can trick cooks into thinking their product just naturally cooks up all juicy and flavorful.  Unfortunately, they almost never reveal the ingredients of their "secret sauce" injections on the packaging, nor do they list allergens. 

Butterball's website says they're moving away from gluten ingredients in their turkies and gravy packets, but you have to call their customer service hotline with a lot number to verify that the turkey you're buying is a safe one.  My local butcher shop sells plain turkeys, but they're enormous and we have limited freezer space.  Ideally I wanted to buy just a turkey breast to roast, since I'm not a fan of dark meat anyway.  I found what I was looking for on the Honeysuckle White website, where they list their bone-in fresh or frozen turkey breast as gluten-free.  Their whole turkeys, however, are NOT labeled gluten-free (probably because of a gravy packet).  I also know that the local big box stores carry them, which means they're perfect for last-minute plans. 

The next hurdle is the stuffing.  I had originally planned to make the cornbread stuffing recipe from the last "Better Homes and Gardens" (don't ask, the connards cancelled "Ready-Made" and sold my subscription to BHG).  It seemed ideal because the corn bread recipe they used didn't include wheat flour.  Luckily I made a test batch and found out that it comes out eggy tasting and dry.  I ended up tossing the whole batch (and the recipe). 

Then I was listening to NPR on the way to work this morning and heard a piece with Chris Kimball of America's Test Kitchen.   He gave a fantastic sounding recipe for turkey stuffing made from corn flakes.  It sounds pretty flakey (bah dum dum *ting*) but it's Chris Kimball.  I can't believe he would offer up his reputation on a less than fabulous recipe.  So I'm going to take a leap of faith, grab some gluten-free cornflakes, and give it a whirl.  The recipe and other delicious-sounding goodness from the piece can be found at the NPR website.  It includes a honey-herb brie appetizer and a pumpkin spice cheesecake that would be gluten-free without the crust.  You could find a gluten-free graham cracker to substitute for the crust, but I haven't found one yet that didn't taste awful.  He also gives some tips on how to flavor the turkey with fresh herbs.

Mashed potatoes are easy; I would just use leftover chicken broth and herbs from the other recipes.  For cranberry sauce, I have a particular nostalgic fondness for the Ocean Spray canned cranberry sauce, complete with little jellied can ridges molded into the cylindrical lump, carved into slices.  I think it's all about what you grew up with.  The fancy homemades just don't hit the craving the same way.  Luckily, Ocean Spray's website says that all their sauces and juices are gluten-free.

Going Caffeine-Free

I know, right?  But while most people do just fine on caffeine, I found myself in a cycle of insomnia, leading to extra caffeine the next day, leading to worse insomnia.  I wasn't even that heavy of a caffeine drinker.  I would generally have one or two 16 oz cup of ice tea in the morning, then a 16 oz coffee.  After a sleepless night, I would sometimes add another 16 oz coffee or coffee drink from McDonalds before noon, plus one or more 32 oz ice teas (There's a McDonald's across from my office, which makes it an easy money-sink for drinks). 

First I just cut out the coffee, under the mistaken impression that iced tea had so little caffeine that it wouldn't make a difference.  When there was no difference in my insomnia levels, I did a little research.  According to Energy Fiend's caffeine database, 8 ounces of brewed ice tea contains 47 mg of caffeine, while a 16 ounce cup of brewed coffee from McDonalds has 145 mg caffeine.  So if I had two cups of ice tea in the morning plus a 32 ounce ice tea at lunch, I was at about 188 mg of caffeine, and might as well have had a large coffee. 

Further research found studies that suggested caffeine has a significant effect on blood sugar levels.  I have PCOS, and take Metformin to help control blood sugar.  Studies from 2004 and 2008 claim that caffeine has detrimental effect on blood sugar equal to the positive effect of blood sugar medication, in that it causes spikes after meals.  So my caffeine intake may have been cancelling out any benefit I was getting from taking Metformin.  I have to take this with a grain of salt because there are a lot of studies with exaggerated or correlational effects mis-reported in the news when it comes to pop medicine topics like diabetes.  But while the blood sugar theories did not make or break the decision, it was one more piece of the puzzle. 

So I first cut down to one 16oz ice tea in the morning, then stopped altogether.  I chose a long weekend with no plans so that I could sleep off whatever headache came up (only a mild one, nothing like when I quit smoking!).  We both missed ice tea with breakfast, so we looked for alternatives.  After trying a few herbal combinations, we finally settled on regular decaf tea.  As we did with the caffeinated tea, we put six teabags in the coffee pot and brewed hot water through the coffeemaker.  We let it steep a few minutes, then pour it off into a pitcher for the fridge.  It's massively cheaper than buying bottled tea or mixes, and I think it tastes better.

What's interesting is that I have a certain conditioned reaction to the tea.  I feel more awake after I've had a cup, even though it's decaf.  I believe that the flavor of the ice tea is the conditioned stimulus for my brain to feel energized, because I don't have the same effect from drinking juice or water.  Blessings upon the placebo effect, and may it last forever!

One surprise is that I'm not any more tired than I was.  I expected to be a zombie for at least a month once I quit caffeine.  There was a drop for a few weeks, but then I re-adjusted to what feels like the same level of alertness I had when I was chugging the caf. I've also seen a significant reduction in my anxiety levels. The brain has to adjust to different levels of blood flow and pressure, plus learn to work without the stimulation provided by the caffeine.  What I don't have is the crazy zen-like boundless energy some anti-caffeine proselytizers claim.  Perhaps that's really the experience for some. 

The lack of difference in my energy tell me that caffeine wasn't accomplishing anything for me, besides interrupting my sleep, costing me money, spiking my anxiety, messing with my blood sugar levels, and giving me occasional withdrawal headaches on weekends.

That's good enough for me!