Eighteen years ago, I met my future mother-in-law in a Grand Rapids, Mich., hospital room shortly after she had received a diagnosis of celiac sprue, then a little-known autoimmune condition. No one seemed to have heard of celiac, or gluten intolerance, or even gluten, and each time she visited a restaurant, she had to carry a card explaining what she couldn’t eat. Even so, she never knew when she would find herself in serious trouble thanks to an undisclosed ingredient.
How things have changed for the gluten-sensitive since then. Gluten-free products fill the supermarket aisles. Mainstream restaurants offer reliably gluten-free options. Gluten-free bakeries and gluten-free cookbooks pop up with frequency. And gluten-free bloggers have risen to national prominence.
Perhaps the best known of those is Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, whose accessible blog, flavor-forward recipes and three cookbooks (written with her husband-chef Danny Ahern) have firmly established her as an authority for those eating their way through the gluten-free life. In their newest, “Gluten-Free Girl: American Classics Reinvented,” the Aherns look at favorites — the thickened, the battered, the crusty — that typically are off-limits to gluten avoiders.
London’s Susanna Booth writes the “Free From” column for the Guardian, focusing on special diets. Would “Gloriously Gluten-Free,” her first foray into cookbooks, give its transatlantic counterparts a run for their money? Would it survive the conversion from metric?
In testing, neither book was glitch-free. All sorts of issues can cause any home baker to stumble, such as varying measuring techniques and humidity levels in the kitchen; I wondered whether those might be exacerbated further with the use of gluten-free blends, in which three or four types of wheat-free flours might be pressed into service. A few of the recipes in these two cookbooks were solid hits. As for the rest, I suppose there is a certain comfort in knowing that none of them will send your gluten-free loved ones racing to the hospital.
The Aherns have different ways of thickening creamy soups. Their New England Clam Chowder, constructed on a fairly typical yet dairy-free flavor base, calls for the Aherns’ gluten-free flour mix — and you can read more about that in a bit. Bacon is rendered to kick-start the whole process, then is removed. (The recipe doesn’t say anything about what should happen to the bacon afterward, but I added it back in, anyway.)
The liquid-solid ratio seemed a little off in their Cream of Artichoke Soup: Two pounds of artichoke hearts, a single potato and just three cups of stock almost overwhelmed my standard-size blender, which produced a very thick puree. There was no question of reducing the liquid “by one-third its volume” over 45 minutes; any more reduced and a spoon would have stood up in it. But that simply meant it was done faster, and it still tasted good.
Tamari is a godsend for those who need to eat gluten-free; it provides all the umami and salt of soy without the wheat. A mirin, tamari and pineapple marinade provides a fast infusion of flavor for grilled “teriyaki” chicken, giving good results in even just an hour’s soaking time.
If you’re thinking of experimentally reducing the marinade and trying it out as a glaze on the chicken for extra flavor: Don’t. There are so many sugars in the marinade that the glaze carbonized in the oven in no time.
A quick broiled salmon relies on a similar tamari-based marinade. There’s no indication of how thick the fillet should be or how far from the broiler it should sit (which has an impact on the cooking time), but it’s an effective weeknight preparation.
Every gluten-free book has a substitute for all-purpose flour, and the Aherns’ is no exception. Theirs is a blend of millet flour, sweet rice flour and potato starch (though Shauna provides alternatives, and a formula). I tried it in a recipe for rosemary-thyme crackers that involved about as much fuss as any wheat-based bread recipe I’ve ever made: a sponge, kneading, several hours of rising time plus rolling between layers of parchment paper. The dough wanted to crumble rather than “slump” off the mixer paddle; the crackers were a bit thick and pliable, not brittle and thin. I found myself wondering how long I would have had to go without wheaten crackers to find these GF versions attractive. Crisped up in a toaster and paired with some brie, they were palatable. Still, the usual rampant cracker thievery in our house came to a temporary halt.
Hazelnut banana bread, by contrast, rocked the house. It called for the Aherns’ grain-free flour mix (buckwheat-almond-flaxseed), and though the rise was ominously low, the loaf was tender, moist and just cohesive enough.
Soaked dried dates and shredded coconut made for a surprisingly effective crust in the Key lime pie. The mixture didn’t “form a large ball” around the blade of the food processor, but the clumpy masses pressed into the pan cooperatively enough. Egg yolks and condensed milk made for an easy weeknight lime curd, mild and fragrant from Key limes.
Gingersnaps behaved a little strangely. Rather than a dough that was “a little sticky,” the recipe yielded a super-gluey blob I could deal with only by using a wet bench scraper rather than my hands. An hour in the refrigerator wasn’t long enough to make the dough cooperative, but the next day it was easy to shape into balls. Those baked up into little domes — not the flat, waferlike gingersnaps I’d expected, but reasonably crisp, and spiced in the usual manner.
Tapioca flour, olive oil and grated Parmesan are the secrets behind Booth’s garlicky, light and brittle flatbread in “Gloriously Gluten Free.” It didn’t get “puffed up and browned” exactly, even after five extra minutes in the oven, but the crisp texture was reminiscent of pita chips. Serves four? Not exactly, unless a single, index-card-size chip would be enough for you.
What’s not to love about shrimp tempura you can make easily at home? Don’t be fooled: It’s not the pale, crunchy, batter-draped behemoth you get at your local sushi joint. But the gluey rice-flour batter, flavored with chives and ginger, does transform into a gilded uniform coat over pre-cooked shrimp. Ten ounces among four people will disappear in an instant.
The short pastry crust for a tomato-goat-cheese tart caused no end of trouble. It started out dry and crumbly rather than “sticky,” as prescribed. I added half again the quantity of water and eventually ended up with something that could be described as a dough. After 30 minutes of chilling, I was able to roll it out, barely. I had to piece it together from shards, patchwork fashion. The crust baked up okay, and the filling of eggs, goat cheese and tomatoes was good enough to mitigate the ordeal of the pastry, but I won’t be doing it again soon.
The prime directive of stir-frying — don’t crowd the pan! — is ignored completely in a sweet-and-sour-pork dish. (It calls for preserved ginger, but because I couldn’t find that ingredient, I used fresh.) A pan full of vegetables and pineapple with a ketchup-vinegar “sauce” brings back memories of an age when chop suey ruled the menus of Chinese restaurants. Will it be entering my weekly repertoire? Not likely.
A coconut-and-lime chicken curry has a slightly more refined appeal: It’s fast work on a weekday. Without ginger or shallots or lemon grass, it was really just a quick sketch of more-authentic curries you have known and loved.
Booth’s biggest hit was a coffee and walnut cake, with a liquid batter that made the directive to “smooth the top” in the pan a puzzler. It was a very low cake, barely filling half of the pan when finished, but a coffee buttercream and coffee icing made it moist and memorable. (There’s not enough water to dissolve the confectioners’ sugar for the icing, though, so you’ll have to use your judgment there.)
Orange Poppy Seed Muffins looked like a disaster in the making. The runny batter overflowed the muffin cups as it expanded in the oven, and there was no “slightly golden” color after 20 minutes, or 25 minutes, in the oven. The confectioners’ sugar icing again needed more than twice the quantity of liquid. (A conversion issue? Mistaking tablespoons for teaspoons?) Despite such mishaps, the muffins truly were light, sweet and cloudlike with orange zest, and I’d make them again in a heartbeat. With tweaks.
I felt sure something was horribly wrong with the divine-looking and -sounding Salted Caramel Millionaire’s Shortbread. My caramel seized utterly, even though it was just an easy-looking blend of butter and condensed milk. Long before it got “golden brown,” it separated into clots and pools of butter. I used it anyway and spread melted chocolate across it as best I could. The result was a far cry from the soigné little squares pictured, and the layers separated as we ate them, but eat them we did, with gusto.
Chang, who lives in New England, regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for the Boston Globe and NPR. She is the author of “A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes From a Well-Tempered Table” (Lyons Press, 2011). She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.
More from Food:
American Classics Reinvented
By Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99
Fresh & Simple Gluten-Free Recipes for Healthy Eating Every Day
By Susanna Booth