Sunday, October 31, 2010

GF: Pass The Monocalcium Phosphate Please

As gluten free consumers we have a lot of choices these days when it comes to baked goods, pastas, mixes, and prepared dinner entrees. That is quite an improvement over just five years ago—new products are entering the marketplace nearly every day, produced by both small suppliers and mainstream food giants. And every day, these new products are reviewed by hundreds of celiac sites and food bloggers. Of course, there is no accounting for differences in taste, but the most useful reviews I’ve seen lately are blind taste tests. A great example is “Gluten Free Pancake Mixes: A Blind Review,” on the Breaking Bread Blog

This is not some sort of paid review, inside deal, or infomercial. This is a thorough and thoughtful review of nine different mixes (plus a homemade version.) I wouldn’t call it a scientific study, but it was comprehensive with a taster panel of eight adults and ten kids ranging from ages 3-8. Sad thing is, I pretty much knew what the results would be before I read it. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed it, but when it comes to these types of line-ups, products made by the industrial food giants always seem to win (Bisquick was the winner, in case you were wondering.) That makes me wonder whether we, as consumers of prepackaged and processed goods, have developed a taste for industrialized food, and the “real” thing now tastes less authentic or tasty to us. Compare, for instance, the ingredients of Bisquick and Pamela’s Ultimate Baking and Pancake Mix:

Bisquick: Rice Flour, Sugar, Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Modified Potato Starch, Salt, Xanthan Gum.

Pamela’s: Brown Rice Flour, White Rice Flour, Cultured Buttermilk, Natural Almond Meal, Tapioca Starch, Sweet Rice Flour, Potato Starch, Grainless and Aluminum-free Baking Powder, Baking Soda, Sea Salt, Xanthan Gum.

Not only does the Bisquick contain modified flours, sugar is the second ingredient. Want to know where the fluffiness in the pancakes comes from? It is the monocalcium phosphate, and one of the major users of this chemical is McDonald’s for their Big Mac hamburger buns. Sodium aluminum phosphate is a chemical leavener and acts as a buffering agent in flour mixes. Similarly, in some mass-produced gluten free sandwich breads these days, enzymes and “natural” mold inhibitors are used to the same effect. The result in all these cases is better texture, and according to a myriad of taste-testers, better taste. Make no mistake, though, these are industrialized ingredients that you won’t find in your health food store or coop’s bulk ingredient bins.

Another case in point: Recently, a reviewer of our new gluten free Three-Cheese Pizza commented that the sauce tasted too sweet to her. That blew me away and really got me wondering what we have inadvertently trained our taste buds to expect. Our tomato sauce is nothing but vine-ripened fresh tomatoes and naturally-derived citric acid. To some, the sauce may seem “sweet” because there is no added salt, no added sugar, no calcium chloride, no chemical citric acid, and no spices. We don’t use inferior tomatoes, and we went to great lengths to find the cleanest, premium, full-bodied flavored tomatoes.

There is no question that taste is just about as individual as fingerprints. One of the hardest things when first going gluten free is that non-wheat-based food just doesn’t seem to taste as good. Or is it that it tastes different? Kind of like natural peanut butter is an acquired taste. After years or a life-time of eating wheat (and often processed foods,) your palate has come to expect certain taste sensations. Industrialized food giants know all about this, and food chemists have developed an arsenal of ingredients to tickle every pallet. Now they are adding them to gluten free foods. They’ve even created taste sensations not found in nature. In the words of one of my co-workers when discussing Halloween candy, “My favorite flavor is purple.” For many on a gluten free diet, changing habits means conscious eating and eating healthier foods. For many, it means getting used to the taste of “real” food again.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween at Against The Grain Gourmet

Did you know that your favorite gluten free products are made by the neatest, most caring, and intelligent staff one could assemble? It is absolutely a joy to come into work everyday and bag, bake, or mix alongside such an interesting group of people. Every year at Halloween, we let our silly sides hang out.

The challenge is to come to work in a costume that is still production-floor legal, meaning we have to wear head covering, no jewelry or bangles are allowed, and we still have to wear protective clothing. Well, in truth sometimes some of us have to jettison part of our costumes to work on the production floor all day. This is our third costume Halloween, and it is still as entertaining as ever.

This morning, a cowboy was already on the floor when one guy came in wearing a black satin slip over his apron, with a black skullcap, carrying a fake cigar. Deadpan, he says:

“Guess what I’m sexed, I mean dressed, as?
“I’m a Freudian dick, I mean slip.”

It was only after I got over the shock of his costume and was practically falling on the floor in laughter that I noticed the name-tag affixed to his slip, which said “Sigmund.” And he thought we wouldn’t “get” it when he delivered that monologue? What a hoot! Over the years, we’ve had some pretty funny costumes, including Santa Claus, a pumpkin, a graduate, Michael Jackson, the Witch of the West, a winged monkey, a golfer, a yachty, a surfer dude, and a safari adventurer. No one yet has attempted to be a bagel, a baguette, a roll, or a pizza. I’m sure that day will come, though.

Work is work, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun. Happy Halloween from all the ghouls, goblins, and assorted miscreants from Against The Grain Gourmet!

Some of the brave ones at Against The Grain

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sonnet For the Gluten Free

Some GF breads even contain lupin flour. These were blooming last summer
at Exit 3 of I-91 in Brattleboro

Okay, since National Celiac Awareness month is almost over, I've decided it is the right time for a silly-yak post. So, here's my sonnet for the gluten free.

Oh chewy, crusty, yeasty loaf of bread
Kneaded flour, webbed proteins, sheared off villi
Glutenous fingers that clasp, rise up high
How could they destroy colons, scramble heads?

The smell of comfort, grandma’s apron... dread?
A world without wheat, barley, oats, and rye.
For celiacs, new and ancient grains to try
Hearty loaves of buckwheat and millet bread.

Nut flours and root flours, and even sunflowers
Bloom in baguettes baked with wheat-free grains.
Ingredients for baking gluten free
Include courage, vision, and extra hours,
A sprinkling of madness, some honesty--
To heal bloated bellies and foggy brains.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Peas Let Me Carry on My Gluten Free Food

October is an important month in the gluten free food business. Not only does it herald the beginning of “food season,” which lasts from about October 1 through January, but it is also National Celiac Awareness Month. Our business goes crazy, and at the same time we find ourselves traveling to lots of vendor fairs, as well as sampling our products at many in-store gluten free tasting events.

Over the past couple of years, more and more local support groups have been organizing gluten free vendor fairs, and the number of attendees is skyrocketing. For us, it has become increasingly more challenging to take enough frozen product with us on a plane to sample for crowds of 800-1000 attendees or more. You know the airline checked bag regulations—a 50-pound limit, two bags, and the length, width, and height must measure 62 inches or less. Pack in 12-18 of our new 24-ounce pizzas, and there is not a lot of room left over.

A couple of weeks ago, I was planning my trip to the Wisconsin Gluten Free Vendor Fair, and I was shopping for a plane-worthy wheeled cooler ( past experience told me that I had better get another one before the winter set in—here in New England, coolers in the winter are about as scarce as batteries in a power outage.) I spied a squarish, wheeled cooler that looked like it would pass the size requirements of a carry-on. Even better, it was the perfect size to fit a dozen pizzas (minus the box) on their side.

So now I had a plan. I would check through a 50-pound cooler of bread, and carry-on a dozen pizzas. The only problem I had was that it would take me over seven hours of travel time to get to the Central Wisconsin Airport, assuming no delays or missed connections. If I put ice packs in the cooler, they would bust me at the Hartford Airport security screening gates, and I would be ice-less for the remainder of the trip. Asking for a soda with ten pounds of ice just wasn’t going to work, and besides it would melt and get very messy.

And then it occurred to me: frozen peas. Ice packs are potential explosives, but food is food. I bought five packages of frozen peas (petite ones in case I ended up eating some of them,) packed my carry-on, cued up to the screening gates, and held my breath. The peas didn’t even get a side-ways glance or a pause at the x-ray machine. The pizzas and I traveled together in the cabin, and I checked through the bread. So, the next time you need to travel with some have-to-have frozen gluten free goodies (e.g., Against The Grain’s awesome Rosemary baguettes,) pack them with frozen peas. And the next time you get impatient with the lady in front of you on the plane struggling to get her overhead baggage down, have heart. It just may be me with a dozen of the world’s best gluten free pizzas.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Yummy GF Crystallized Ginger Carrot Cupcakes

A relaxed mind is a creative mind
-Yogi Tea bag

I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, I start creating new baked goods in my head. It was wakefulness that had me up at 5AM a recent Sunday morning to try out a carrot cupcake recipe I had been mulling over. Several weeks ago, we harvested the carrots—an entire row of them—which yielded over 30 pounds of carrots (as an aside, don’t listen to them when they tell you to thin the rows since we didn’t, and our carrots were massive.) Ever since then, I have been mining carrot recipes. We’ve had roasted carrots, steamed carrots with rosemary, carrots and summer squash, and sherried carrot sauce. Chester, our Golden, has eaten his share of them, and Alex has taken them to horseback riding lessons for his pal, Norfy. I still have about 20 pounds left!
Something sweet and carrot-y was in order, and I decided to work on a muffin-like variation on a carrot cake. Carrot cake seems to me like it has the potential for the perfect marriage of sweet and healthy. I even remember the first carrot cake I ever ate. It was sent to me for my first birthday away from home in college by my sister, who was also in college. Although it was scrumptious, I think she was more interested in mailing a cake using a newfound packing method—the cake was sitting in a box totally surrounded by popping corn (popped, of course!) I remember opening the package to what looked like a massive popcorn ball. But was easy to brush the popcorn from the cream cheese icing, and by that time, my room mate was drooling and oohing and awwing “Oh, yummy, a carrot cake!” It was then that I had my first bite of carrot cake, and it has been a favorite ever since.

So here is the product of my early-morning musings, and it is actually reasonably healthy as baked goods go. The recipe produces 24 standard-size cupcakes. The recipe contains far less fat than most carrot cakes, with the fat coming from only ½ C canola oil and 4 large eggs. Of course, frosting changes all that, but you certainly don’t need to frost them. The twist in this recipe is the use of crystallized ginger and orange juice, which results in kind of taste bursts of ginger against a carrot-orange backdrop. I’ve been doing my best these days to avoid corn, so I used a gluten free flour base of 1/3 rice flour, 1/3 tapioca flour, and 1/3 arrowroot starch, as well as tapioca-based powdered sugar (by Wholesome Sweetener.)

Crystallized Ginger Carrot Cupcakes (makes 24)

3 C GF flour blend (I used 1 C rice flour, 1 C tapioca starch, 1 C arrowroot starch)
¾ C sugar
¾ C powdered sugar
1 C finely shredded carrots (about 4 medium ones)
1/3 C finely chopped crystallized ginger
½ C canola oil
¾ C orange juice
4 large eggs (room temperature)
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp fresh nutmeg

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Blend all dry ingredients together, except baking soda.
3. Add in wet ingredients, as well as carrots, and mix on high for 2 minutes.
4. Mix in baking soda, and spoon/ladle into cupcake pans.
5. Bake approximately 28 min @350 degrees.

Ice with vanilla or cream cheese icing (I used vanilla icing with crushed pineapple.)