Savoring Gluten-Free Holidays
You don’t have to feel deprived during this festive season.
By Linda Melone
A gluten-free diet presents challenges year-round, but never more so than around the holidays. Seasonal specialties, edible gifts and party fare make it difficult to find gluten-free options or to know when something truly is gluten-free.
Gluten triggers symptoms in sensitive people in different ways. For a person with celiac disease, the body produces an immune response (as determined by a blood test) when gluten is ingested, resulting in cramping and other, often serious, unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. On a less severe level, those with gluten sensitivity typically experience abdominal pain and headaches from gluten but without the same immune system response.
In either case, the key to avoiding a flare-up lies in avoiding all forms of gluten. As the “glue” that holds together baked goods such as bread and pastries, it’s easy enough to spot and avoid these holiday treats. But often gluten lies hidden in condiments and other foods you would not suspect.
For someone with celiac disease, even a small amount of gluten can trigger symptoms. “Often the biggest danger isn’t the food itself but the utensils,” says Carol Fenster, founder of Savory Palate, a company that provides information on the gluten-free lifestyle, and author of 11 gluten-free cookbooks, including 100 Best Gluten-Free Recipes (John Wiley & Sons). “Cross-contamination from shared utensils, such as using the same serving spoon, can spread gluten to otherwise safe foods.”
Toasting a slice of gluten-free bread in the same toaster used for wheat bread can also cause a reaction in gluten-sensitive people. What’s more, guests often bring dishes they may believe are gluten-free but they may not understand what gluten-free truly means. “It can be the difference between safety and a minefield,” says Fenster. “And it’s hard to turn down a dish someone made just for you, when you know you’ll get sick if you eat it.”
In general, avoid gluten by eating foods in their natural state. Nuts, fruit, vegetables and meats without sauce are naturally gluten-free, says Lauren Graf, MS, RD, nutritionist for the Montefiore-Einstein Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. “Condiments such as sauces and gravies can contain gluten as it is often added as a stabilizer in these foods,” she says.
If you’re hosting a holiday party you can accommodate gluten-free guests by keeping sauces separate from a gluten-free entrée, which gives guests the option of skipping the sauce. “Green salads, vegetables, sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes instead of a grain or bread, raw veggies with guacamole or hummus are fine and gluten-free,” says Graf. “But watch for appetizers wrapped in phyllo dough or a pastry crust.” Aside from the pie crust, most pie fillings are gluten-free, but you can’t really be sure unless you prepare them yourself, says Graf. Store-bought cake frostings may also contain gluten, so make your own.
Tell the host ahead of time if you’re on a gluten-free diet and ask if you can bring a gluten-free dish everyone will enjoy. If you’re not sure what will be served grab a healthy snack ahead of time in case you’re unable to eat the full meal. For dessert, ice cream and truffles made from ingredients such as almond flour and coconut usually do not contain gluten (but it always pays to check).
Baking Without Gluten
Traditional wheat baking uses a single flour, while the gluten-free cook will need to use a blend of flours, says Fenster, either ready-made (available in natural food stores) or one you put together. Fenster uses a blend of sorghum or brown rice flour, potato starch and tapioca flour (see the recipe below).
In a gluten-free kitchen, basic flours to have on hand include brown rice, sorghum, potato starch, cornstarch, tapioca and arrowroot. “Xanthan gum or guar gum is essential because it helps bind baked goods and promotes rising and a pleasing texture,” says Fenster. “Without it, baked goods crumble.” Other items to have for the holidays include gluten-free white sandwich bread for stuffing and casserole toppings as well as gluten-free soy sauce for making sauces, dips and marinades. “If the label lists wheat, barley, rye or spelt, don’t use it,” warns Fenster.
Dough and batters using gluten-free ingredients will look different from those produced by traditional recipes, says Chef Richard Coppedge, Jr., professor of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America and author of Gluten-Free Baking with the Culinary Institute of America (Adams Media). Gluten-free bread preparations are “more like a very thick cake batter,” says Coppedge.
While traditional rolls are typically freeform and stand up on their own on a baking sheet, gluten-free rolls require a muffin pan to help them keep their shape, notes Coppedge, who adds, “You can also buy gluten-free bread pans with taller side walls that accommodate the wetter dough.”
Due to the wetter, denser batter, gluten-free breads generally take a little longer to bake. “Use a digital instant-read thermometer, preferably heat-resistant, and bake breads to an internal temperature of 210°F, which ensures a stable bread,” Coppedge says.
Tips for Special Treats
Keep in mind you’re bound to make mistakes when baking gluten-free baked goods, says Debbie Adler, owner of Sweet Debbie’s Organic Cupcakes and author of Sweet Debbie’s Organic Treats: Allergy-free & Vegan Recipes from the Famous Los Angeles Bakery (Harlequin). “Don’t put your mistakes in the trash. Crumble them up and make them into streusels or crumb toppings,” she suggests.
Start by experimenting with mini baked goods, especially if you’re a beginner, as there’s less chance they’ll fall apart. Adler says, “As a general rule, add 25% more baking powder and baking soda to your gluten-free recipes than you would a conventional recipe to make sure they rise.”
Adler offers the following tips for preparing gluten-free crusts for apple and pumpkin pies:
• Freeze any gluten-free flours you will use to make the crust.
• Freeze the fat (whether you use butter, margarine, coconut oil or shortening).
• For more even distribution of the fat, use a mandolin or grater to get thin, small slices or chunks of the frozen fat into the gluten-free flour rather than using big cubes.
• Use cold water when adding to the gluten-free flour.
• If you’re using a food processor and not kneading by hand, freeze the blade of the food processor you’ll use to cut the frozen fat into the dough.
For gluten-free streusel, she recommends that you:
• Substitute gluten-free flour for traditional flour in any conventional recipe.
• Do not overmix the batter when combining the ingredients; clumps in streusel are a good thing.
• Use larger blobs of fat to make streusel instead of tiny pieces.
In a season where good food is at the forefront you don’t have to fade into the background. Learning how to make your own treats can help you celebrate the holidays happily gluten-free.